Ceramic fever

Artful evenings unfold at Nikiski Senior Center

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2000

Above a table filled with half-finished projects is a sign that reads: "Warning, ceramic fever, very contagious, no known cure."

Young and old, beginners to advanced, sit under that sign every week to create ceramic mementos under the instruction of Kathleen Meeks and Barbara DeShong, owners of Mud Slingers, a ceramics business in Nikiski.

DeShong, with 18 years of ceramic experience, took Meeks under her wing more than one and a half years ago.

Meeks started the hobby as a child but gave it up. Everything she knows today is because of DeShong, she said.

"She taught me all the techniques," Meeks said.

Both instructors offer helpful hints and advice to each student during the class. The number of students vary, but in all, the class consists of more than 13.


This Indian head totem was made by Kathleen Meeks.

The class started in March of 1999 and is open to the public. Students choose their projects from a large book or off the shelf and pay for the "greenware" -- cast, but not glazed ceramics -- and the cost of the class, $2.50 for seniors and $3.50 for nonseniors. The paints are donated by the center.

"They catch on pretty fast," DeShong said of her students.

The process all begins with a dry powdered substance that is mixed with water and three chemicals to create the right consistency.

The mixture is then poured into various plaster molds and left until the substance is the right thickness. The excess is then poured out. DeShong and Meeks together own approximately 1,400 molds, ranging from small chess pieces and magnets to large animals and standing Indian statues. A mold's weight can reach as high as 150 pounds, empty, DeShong said.


Christine Druesedow coats the rim of a ceramic plate with paint in a technique called "antiquing." She late wiped off much of the paint, leaving it only in the depressions in the design. The trio of diving dolphins is another project she is working on.

The molds are made of a porous material that allows the moisture to evaporate from the ceramic material from the outside in.

"It's quite fun, but it's a lot of work," DeShong said.

DeShong said she doesn't pour the mixture much any more because of its weight. Instead, she said Meeks, or her son, who she describes as being "built like an ox," pours for her.

After the ceramic pieces are dried, they are called greenware. The greenware is taken to the class, where students clean the pieces with scrapers, abrasive pads and brushes. At this point, the items may be painted or left as is, depending on the technique the student is using.

Thus begins the artistic process.

When cleaned, the items are then fired, or baked, in a kiln to give them strength.

The senior center has two small kilns, or brick-lined ovens, but most large items must be fired in the large kilns at Mud Slingers.

After the items are fired, they are then referred to as "bisque." At either stage, students can paint, antique and glaze the items.


This pitcher and bowl wree painted and glazed by Denise Anderson.

Those wishing to add decals, mother of pearl or gold accents, fire the pieces again. This process is called luster.

Many projects, each in various stages of creation, line the shelves.

Candlesticks, piggy banks and small trinket holders are painted pastel shades, while Indian figures and elves stand out with shades of brown, red and blue.

Techniques of antiquing are used on plates, while mother-of-pearl accents decorate pitchers and vases.


Hand-painted ceramic pieces can become either refrigerator magnets or jewelry.

Each piece beams with the creator's individuality and creativity.

Students take immense pride in the work created during the classes.

Janet Varvais is working four sets of bowls. She devotes about 80 hours to each set of five bowls. She has attended the class since it began.

Though Varvais said she has made many ceramic pieces for family and friends for special occasions, the bowl sets will be donated to the senior center for a upcoming auction to raise money for the Thelma McConnell Scholarship.

Varvais said she appreciates the patience of Meeks' instruction.

"She's the kind of teacher that when you do something wrong, she never yells," said Varvais, who entered some of her projects in a competition at the Kenai Peninsula State Fair and won three blue ribbons.

In another area of the center, Christina Druesdow sits with four pieces around her. Though she is a newer student, beginning in July, she is not afraid to tackle multiple projects.

"If you get tired of one thing, move on," she said.

Druesdow said the class is sort of a girl's night for her family because she, her mother, aunt and grandmother all attend.

Since beginning, she said, she has made smaller items, including vases and planters, and is currently working on more advanced items with more detail.

"You have to have a lot of practice for the bigger projects," Druesdow said.

Sherry Collinsworth enjoys the projects but said her classmates add a lot of fun to the class.

Collinsworth, who also has been with the class since its beginning, said she has made several bowl sets, birdhouses, pitchers and bowls. She gives the special handmade items away as gifts.

Collinsworth gives her instructor credit for work she has created.

"Kathryn is a excellent teacher, we are so fortunate to have her," she said.

Apparently, the students have found the warning sign to hold true.

"Once you get hooked, you can't let go," said Varvais.

The class meets every Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Nikiski Senior Center.

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