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FIRING UP AN INTEREST IN POTTERY

Larry Dildine finishes a vase on his pottery wheel at his workshop. ().
Larry Dildine finishes a vase on his pottery wheel at his workshop. ().

Pilot story and photos by Valliant Corley

GOLD BEACH – Whenever potter Larry Dildine fires his kiln, he invites other artists, his friends and patrons over to help carry his new cups, bowls, casseroles, butter dishes and other pottery into his home, where they are displayed on tables.

"I put some good food – smoked salmon, dips, finger food out – and we go out and unbrick the kiln," Dildine said. "We put the pottery on the dining table and then we just snack and look over the stuff."

Dildine, who has worked from his home on Brooks Road for 30 years, started what he calls his kiln openings in 1978, after friends asked to watch him remove the finished pottery from his kiln.

"I didn't start it for sales purposes, but it has supplemented my income," Dildine said. "It's a fun party. A lot of local artists come, a lot of local people."

Dildine didn't start out to be a potter. He went to college in Columbus, Ohio, majoring in advertising art, then switched to fine arts – painting and sculpting.

"I moved to Los Angeles and got married," he said. "I refinished boats and worked for a silk screen company, cutting and doing art for silk screen.

"We were living in Venice, Calif., a hippie heaven then," he said. "A good friend, Ned Sloane, owned a pottery shop. There were two apartments above this factory which they had turned into a pottery shop. We had a commune up there, 15 or 16 of us."

At the time, Dildine was working at a boat yard and didn't care for the job.

"Ned had the place up for sale, so I borrowed money from my folks and I bought the business," Dildine said. "I cleaned up, organized the place and mixed glazes, things that Ned didn't do."

The business, called a key shop because customers could come in 24 hours a day and use the wheels to make pots, blossomed.

"I was there all the time," Dildine said. "I kept getting questions and realized I didn't know much about throwing a pot. A nice young lady was teaching classes, so I told her 'I better take one of your classes.'

"As soon as I got on the wheel and started it, it just felt right," Dildine said.

He took a few lessons from that teacher.

"And I had some very good potters coming in, giving me tips," he said. "Business was really cooking, but I just wanted to throw pots."

After a while, his teacher got a job offer at a university and he asked her if she knew anyone who could teach classes. She suggested he do it himself.

"I ran it for about eight, nine, 10 years, and built it into a pretty good business," Dildine said. "That was the early '70s and Venice began to get very rough. I could see the writing on the wall.

"I had a 7-year-old son and I wasn't getting along with his mom and we divorced. I felt we had to get out of there," he said. "So I sold the business and started for Oregon."

He spent a year in Port Orford, but he didn't find anything he wanted there.

"I came down and looked at this place. It just looked right. I built a studio and started making pottery. I fired my first load in 1975. It will be 30 years in October."

It was slow at first. Dildine said he came to Oregon with a barrel of cups he had made, a potter's wheel and a box of hand tools.

"I had to buy the bricks and build the kiln," he said.

"I had to learn the tourist trade, which was feast or famine, about six good months and maybe Christmas," he said.

Dildine developed some regular customers, many of whom purchase his work for gifts. Cups and beads were a staple, but he now makes about anything he can shape into clay and fire.

"I make almost anything on special order," he said. "Basic cups, bowls, casseroles, fruit bowls, I do some art pieces. …

"But I like to see things used," Dildine said. "When I get bored, I make something different."

He's always experimenting with glazes

"I test them, have to adjust them. It keeps it exciting," he said.

"I've made some weird stuff. I've made burial urns. I've made a garlic roaster. I've made tiles. I make lamps."

Dildine sells his pottery in about 15 shops, everywhere from Eugene to Brookings, "usually anyplace I can travel in a day, I supply."

He also sells at craft shows.

"It gets me out of the house and I have to deal with people. It gives me feedback. An artist needs feedback."

"I sell some here," he said. "I have friends call me. They need a wedding gift or a birthday gift. I don't have a fancy showroom, but I'll sell here."

But first he has to make the pottery.

He buys clay a quarter ton at a time.

"I pick it up in Talent, just outside of Ashland," he said. "Ten 50-pound boxes will last me two and a half loads," he said.

He uses his pottery wheel to shape the clay, then comes the glazing and firing.

"I fire at 2,400 degrees," he said. "It takes me, depending on the weather, seven to 10 hours to fire. It takes 18 to 20 hours to cool enough to get into the kiln."

If he makes only cups, he can do 250 at a time. When he does big casseroles or large planters, it cuts down the number of pieces he can fire.

"It's a long process," he said. "You throw the piece on the wheel or make it by hand. It has to air dry. Then you clean it up and trim it. After further air drying, you put it in a bisque, which extracts moisture. You low fire at about 1,400 degrees so the glaze – which is not like paint – the pot sucks it in. The clay won't absorb that glaze unless it's bisqued."

That readies the pottery for the final 2,400 degree firing.

At his kiln opening, friends, customers and other artists arrive for the party.

"I have people here who have stuff from the early '70s I brought up in that barrel," he said. "They bought when I first came up here. I really have a lot of repeat customers."

One is Laura Stump.

"I've been coming since day one," she said at this week's kiln opening. "I met him when he first moved here and I became a fan of his work immediately. I love his work with colors."

Another fan is 81-year-old Ralph Smith, a well-known artist with myrtle and driftwood.

"I've got pieces I've had from Larry for 30 years," Smith said.

"We opened a gallery – my wife and I – the Silver Tree Gallery in Gold Beach and we handled Larry's pottery that long ago. I've got coffee pots. I bought a small decanter today. We've got six or seven pieces of his at home. They're coffee mugs, decanters, vases."

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