In a small converted garage, roughly six miles southwest of Friday Harbor, you’ll often find Paula West covered in clay.
A Connecticut native, she came to San Juan Island in 1990 (by way of New Hampshire, California, Oregon, and Canada). It was here that she met her husband, Joe Cooper. And it was here she set up her studio in 1993.
Initially, she only potted part-time. But after laying the groundwork for a full-time business (by joining the Artist Studio Tour and making strong contacts among local residents), she went full-time in 2005.
“The local community has incredibly been supportive, both buying my work and cheering for me. I couldn’t have done it without them.” Today, you’ll find Paula’s plates in use at Friday Harbor House and Duck Soup. But for the full breadth of her work, peruse her website or visit her studio, which is open to the public.
Q: When did you first start throwing pots?
Paula: In high school. We were lucky enough to have a great art teacher who was also a potter and had a studio. He taught ceramics classes and he even took us to his studio. That was my first introduction to the idea that you could make a living doing this. And I just fell in love with it.
But I didn’t start really learning about pottery until college, where I earned my Bachelor of Art from the University of New Hampshire.
Q: Where does your inspiration come from?
Paula: I’m inspired by nature and the outdoors. Art is also a great source of inspiration for me. And I’m passionate about making things that can be used. I think that’s why I’m also drawn to Native American art. They made objects of beauty and used them.
I love that. I love making items that can be incorporated into your everyday life. I think that’s important, to live with things that inspire you. When a bowl can hold something, while also enhancing your surroundings, it can make your life better and help you feel more connected to people and things.
Q: What does it mean when you say you work with rolled slaps of porcelain and stoneware clay?
Paula: Working with slabs means I roll them out in my slab roller, which is like a big pasta maker. I roll the clay into slabs and then cut it into various shapes. I can then shape them in my plaster slump molds. Once the clay gets stiff in the mold, you can pop it out.
I like working in the mold format because the finished piece feels more organic. The clay slumps differently each time, creating a completely unique piece.
From the beginning of my career I’ve worked with porcelain clay. It’s a very fine, smooth, and white. It also translucent when rolled thinly. I love the whiteness and how it takes a glaze, but porcelain is very finicky and can crack easily. You have to learn how to work with it. And even still, you can get pieces that crack.
I just recently started working with stoneware again. It has more ‘grog’ or sand in it. This makes it much courser and easier to push around. It also has a little more integrity than porcelain, making it easier to join things together, like adding a handle to a mug.
Q: Do you have a favorite kind of piece to make?
Paula: That’s a hard question. Each form has its challenges and rewards, so I don’t have a specific piece. Mugs and cups sell well because people use them so much. They are such an intimate object — the way you touch them with your lips and the comfort they offer. That definitely makes them very satisfying to make, but I really love everything.
Special Note: All of Paula’s pieces are dishwasher and microwave safe. She accepts commissions, as long as they’re within her current wheelhouse.
Discover More Artists in the San Juans
Walking into Studio 45 Glass on Lopez Island is like falling down the rabbit hole with Alice. It’s a world of color, where possibilities are only the beginning and art feels like it is created from thin air.
Near the center of San Juan Island, in an area known to some as ‘Hippy Heights’, Dave Ber hand-crafts knives in his 200-square-foot shop.
Home-based in Friday Harbor, Kara Navradszky specializes in wearables— elegant jewelry featuring living florals. Her necklaces, bracelets and crowns are often commisioned to celebrate milestones like weddings and new babies.