Back in High School Penny McClain painted on canvases. She would sell her pieces to pay for supplies. She now sells pottery—mugs, bowls, cake stands—as a hobby. It wasn’t until later in life that she discovered her passion for pottery.
It was by accident the discovery was made. McClain’s friend asked her to join a pottery class, and while not all that interested, she agreed. The friend ended up leaving the area before the class started. Already signed up for the class McClain decided to attend, and she instantly fell in love.
“I went ahead and took it anyway, because I was signed up. It was like love at first sight,” the 56-year-old said. “I was hooked. It was absolutely phenomenal to get on that wheel and produce something out of little lump of clay.”
McClain is the featured artist at Kaladi Brother’s Coffee in Soldotna off the Spur Highway now through the end of October.
Mugs and bowls hang on the walls of the coffee shop. The collection is not a body of work. Instead, the pieces were created at McClain’s leisure over the summer months.
Showcasing her “functional ware” at Kaladis can be difficult. The pottery is hard to hang, and small pieces like mugs tend to disappear on the coffee shop’s large walls. With these difficulties in mind McClain made sure to include larger pieces.
“I wanted some bigger pieces that would stick out,” she said. “But mainly because I do functional ware I’m always going to have big platters and bowls.”
Kneading the clay into different pieces is what intrigues McClain. Shaping the pieces on a wheel, referred to as throwing, can be messy and rewarding. She likens the process to children playing in mud puddles.
“It’s kind of like that except more productive,” she said.
The process doesn’t end there. To differentiate her pieces from other pottery artists in the area McClain uses dark body clays and covers the pieces with a white slip. This enables her to paint on the pottery.
She treats the pottery like a canvas, painting on them whatever she wants, she said.
“It gives me that release I need from painting,” she said. “It’s not just about throwing the pieces. I alter the surface in some manner (by kneading), but I also like painting.”
Mugs are McClain’s favorite pieces to create. Mugs can be art that people carry around and use, she said.
Numerous mugs line Kaladi’s walls; each has a unique design. A number of the mugs feature stylized male and female faces. About 10 years ago, McClain was painting mostly leaves and berries on her mugs. Then she began painting abstract faces, which eventually became more stylized.
McClain refers to them as male and female mugs, stating that the mug’s owner should ideally be of the opposite sex.
Another common theme on her pieces are the “bluebirds of happiness.” Light blue chicks inhabit her plates and mugs. The bluebirds also began as realistic. McClain has recently begun to paint them more abstract with large eyes and disproportionate bodies.
The pottery artist has spent her entire life on the Kenai Peninsula. She grew up in Soldotna and she now lives with her husband in Kasilof. The area offers everything she wants out of life; nature, shifting seasons and solitude.
She works at Soldotna Professional Pharmacy part time. The job is like an extended family, and the workplace offers the best people she has ever worked for, she said. Solitude is essential to her artistic process, but she needs a social aspect in her life as well.
“It gives me a social aspect to my life that I wasn’t getting in the pottery studio,” she said. “I need that in my life, but I don’t need it everyday. I need the solitude that I get with art.”
This is not the first time McClain has been featured at Kaladis, having worked in pottery for 25 years. She believes this is her fourth collaboration with the coffee shop.
Kaladi’s makes an effort to work with local artists, Soldotna store manager Amy White-Baxter said.
The coffee shop offers the opportunity to whoever is willing to try. Each of the Soldotna locations features separate artists.
“You don’t have to be a professional necessarily,” White-Baxter said. “We’ve had artists of all levels.”
Featuring artists has long been a mission of Kaladi Brother’s Coffee, an Alaska-based company. The company’s sees itself as a catalyst for community, a meeting place for members of the community to come together, share ideas and build relationships, according to their website.
People wanting to purchase McClain’s pieces can do so at Kaladis or Bunnell Street Gallery in Homer.
McClain sees herself working with Kaladi’s again in the future, but believes the focus will be more sculptural.
Regardless, she does not see herself quitting pottery any time soon.