Fired Up

Words by Jennifer Jory

Photos by Gino De Grandis

Words by Jennifer Jory

Gently grasping a vase from a 1,200-degree kiln, Ann Wagenhals begins a process that’s part ritual and part art. “I am dancing around the pot with horse hair as it singes and makes these beautiful lines,” the ceramacist describes as she applies the final design to a pot’s surface. “This is a time I feel really alive.” A longtime Palo Alto resident and prolific artist, Ann employs the centuries-old technique called horse hair raku along with other traditional firing methods. “I really like the freedom and joy I feel when I am creating,” she says enthusiastically. “Things are always moving and I try to capture it in my work.”

It all started when a teenaged Ann attended a ceramics course with her father as a bonding activity in Boulder, Colorado. “At one point, the studio director let me fire and run a gas kiln by myself,” she recalls. “It was a really valuable experience for me and it empowered me to believe that if I can do that, there must be a lot of things I can do.”

Ann first came to the Peninsula to study art history and political science at Stanford University, but her interest in ceramics was always in the back of her mind—and even the subject of her college entrance essay. Little did she know her passion for the craft would become a lifelong endeavor.

After working as a lawyer, then as an English teacher at Castilleja School in Palo Alto for many years, Ann decided to take a year off while raising her three children. It was then she rediscovered her zeal for pottery at the Palo Alto Art Center. There, she refined her skills under the guidance of Gary Clarien and Pixie Couch. Pixie introduced her to horse hair raku, a decorative technique to create designs from burning strands of horse hairs on the surface of a still-hot ceramic piece. “She also instructed me in throwing vase forms,” Ann says. She cites the Palo Alto Art Center as an invaluable resource and says she looks forward to the ACGA Clay and Glass Festival it hosts every July. Visitors to the center will find a totem pole in the courtyard, the result of collaborative efforts by Ann and several other artists.

Eventually, as her kids grew up and left home, Ann decided to immerse herself deeply in her craft. “I realized I don’t have infinite time and now was the time to create,” declares Ann. “For me, I am most in the moment when I am throwing pots. The music is playing, windows are open and the wind is blowing.”

Ann describes her process as taking advantage of the symmetry of a thrown form by adding negative space to introduce a sense of movement, while altering the lip and rim to communicate undulation. “What I am trying to convey is a sense of motion,” she adds. She finds inspiration in nature—hiking Windy Hill in Portola Valley or walking the beaches in Pescadero.

While many ceramicists primarily use an electric or gas kiln to fire their work, Ann prefers an ancient, traditional method called pit firing, where all of the finished piece’s colors and patterns are derived in the fire. She belongs to a group that gathers on a fellow artist’s land in the hills above Milpitas to fire their work in a wood-fueled metal pit. “We place the pots in the pit, flames rise high and then we cover the pit overnight. We return in the morning and form a line of people to empty the kiln, and everyone touches every pot.” She describes the immediacy of the results as a highlight of this process, along with the community spirit and camaraderie it creates.

Recently, Ann’s lifelong passion for ceramic art came to fruition when her vases were featured at an international exhibit in Paris. The 1000 Vases show featured a curated group of 57 artists from 25 countries who designed a wide range of ceramic pieces running the gamut from tribal to pop-inspired. “It was quite an honor to be selected,” Ann notes. “It was such an incredible experience to have my work included with all of these other vases. Every time I work in my studio, I know a lifelong dream has come true. And exhibiting in Paris was the icing on the cake.”

While Ann’s creative drive often keeps her at the pottery wheel late into the night, she is even busier lately, making 100 vases for her daughter’s upcoming wedding. “I was so honored and touched that they asked me to make pottery for their wedding,” she smiles. “I want them all to be different. It is a lot of play and experimentation.”

Generous by nature, Ann feels fortunate to donate many of her works’ proceeds to nonprofits and charities. “I hope people sense my happiness when I am making a vase,” she reflects. “I am trying to make something that will enhance someone’s life.” She also enjoys the sense of connection with her clients. “Part of me is all around the world with people who own my work,” she beams. “That is an amazing feeling.”

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