Orcas Island Pottery artisans pass their expertise and wisdom down from one generation to the next, creating enduring art that continues to inspire.
The Potters of Orcas Island
Orcas Island Pottery is the oldest pottery in the Pacific Northwest and one of the best places to visit on Orcas Island. The pottery opened in 1945, when Joe and Marclay Sherman dug their first clay out of the island banks and created the studio and store that visitors have come to know as an island institution.
Knowledge passed across generations is intrinsic to the Orcas Island Pottery story. In 1953, Julia Crandall bought the pottery from the Shermans, who taught Julia and her daughter Trudy all that they knew. In 1989, Trudy’s daughter, Syd Exton, became the manager and lead potter. She inherited the pottery from her grandmother in 1993.
Now some fifteen potters make and display their works at the store. Much of the pottery is displayed outdoors, and the view across President’s Channel to Waldron Island and beyond is magnificent.
The Pottery isn't all pitchers and pots, either - you'll also find a whimsical pottery garden, complete with fountains, a swing, and a large tree-house for the kids (and kids at heart!).
The Drive to Create
Some years ago, I had the privilege of visiting theat the Shanghai Museum in China. I remember standing just feet from pottery that dated back thousands of years, separated from each piece by only a thin, transparent wall.
As I peered through the glass, all I could think about was the long-forgotten hands that created those beautiful pieces; and more broadly, about the inborn and seemingly essential human desire to create.
I find that last aspect infinitely intriguing; nearly mystical. It feeds a question that percolates in my brain often: What role does art, and particularly the creation of art, play in our survival, both as individuals and as cultures?
I didn’t set out to get all existential on you, but our visit to Orcas Island Pottery caused me to ponder this question once again.
Art & Artifact
We tend to think of such things – the creation of cultural art and artifacts – in terms of ancient history, as in the Shanghai relics or (more close to home) Pacific Northwest Native American/First Nations artifacts.
In the case of Orcas Island Pottery, however, that tradition of artisans passing on their skill and wisdom from one generation to the next burns as bright as ever - in present day.
So, why do humans make art? Certainly, in the case of pottery, it is both functional and beautiful, but a plain clay pitcher holds water as well as one with a tricolor glaze. What makes us strive to transcend functionality and reach for something more?
I believe that we have an instinctive need to create beauty. In my experience, the need for art is one of the strongest connections humans have, both with the past and with one another. We strive to make, and therein endure through our making.
Our art communicates who we are and what is important to us. It tells our story. In this way, it is as necessary to the endurance of humanity as water.
How to Get to Orcas Island Pottery
Despite warnings to the contrary, once you are on the island, Orcas Island Pottery isn’t difficult to find – just follow the signs.
When you come to the last turn, you will find yourself on unpaved road. Drive down that road (you can't get lost) until you get to the parking lot, and then take the foot path down through the rough garden arbor. Step into the yard and you will immediately find yourself surrounded by some of the most unique and beautiful pottery in the region.
Orcas Island Travel
NOTE: This post was originally written Spring 2016. Some of the businesses mentioned here may be temporarily or permanently closed due to the COVID pandemic, so be sure to call ahead first!
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