Just Clayin’ Around

Written by Sarah Naron

June 23, 2020

Story by Sarah Naron

EDOM – At an early age, Doug Brown – who was raised on the campus of Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA – developed a fascination with pottery.

“The potter’s studio at the school was about 500 yards away from my house, so I used to go there and watch the students make pottery,” he explained. “And then, when I went to college there, I took a class.”

In 1971, Doug relocated to East Texas and settled in Edom, a small town located 16 miles southeast of Canton and the third oldest city in Van Zandt County.

“The man that owned this building owned the building next door and the building next door,” Doug shared. “I rented that third building over for $25 a month because I had to spend at least a month or two working on it before I could even use it. The guy had a grocery store here, and he said, ‘Boy, you wanna buy this?’”

Although Doug did not possess the funds necessary for such a purchase, the seller was undeterred.

“He said, ‘I have these three buildings and 2.2 acres of land, and I will sell you all that for $8,000,’” Doug recalled. “He said, ‘I will carry the note myself, and you can pay me at the end of the year.’”

When Doug agreed to the terms and set out to transform the grocery store into a pottery studio, the man making the sale proved to be “very supportive.

“He loaned me his pipe cutting and threading tools so that I could run the gas to my kilns,” Doug said.

In 1991, the Edom Art Festival – started by Doug 19 years earlier – was attended by Beth, a Dallas resident who had spent 23 years making and selling leather handbags.

“Doug and I met and started dating and fell in love, so I moved down here,” Beth said. “He was about halfway through fixing up the building next door to live in, and downstairs was available. So, I moved my studio downstairs, and we started living upstairs.”

Beth began learning the ropes of pottery from Doug and quickly became interested in pursuing the new skill full time.

“I just thought, ‘Well, I’d much rather be a potter than make handbags,” she said. “So, I closed my business shortly thereafter, and here we are all these years later.”

All of the pottery available in the couple’s studio – dubbed Potters Brown – is made by them from “start to finish,” Beth shared.

“We make our own clay, which is compiled of about five different kinds of clay and our clay mixture, which we buy in a dry form,” she explained. “We mix it all together with water, among some other additions to the clay blend.”

Depending on their needs, she said, the couple makes anywhere from four to six batches of clay per year.

“We try to do it when it’s a temperate temperature in our clay room, because it’s not heated or air-conditioned,” she said. “The last warm spell we had, Doug made some clay, and it’s sitting in there waiting to go through the final process.”

All of the pottery produced by the couple is made either on a traditional potter’s wheel or through the use of a special table.

“We do what’s called slab-rolled work,” Beth explained. “We have a big slab-roll table – it looks like a giant pasta machine – and we just roll the clay through there to the desired thickness.”

Doug and Beth have also created special plaster forms to aid in the creation of platters and similar dishes and a “hump mold” which is used to drape clay over to expedite the process of making large bowls. 

“We have a great big handle bowl that’s fairly shallow; it’s like a turtle shell,” Beth said. “It is draped over that mold, and when it gets to a leather hardness, we take it off and add handles and do all kinds of finish work to it.”

Bowls made in this manner, Beth added, are very strong.

“When you roll the clay out, it compresses the clay molecules, and they adhere together really well,” she said. “And they’re all the same thickness, which is really nice. In a thrown pot, you don’t necessarily get something that’s perfectly all the same thickness.”

The couple also specializes in making their own glazes with which to decorate their products.

“That’s what we’re known for – our colors,” Beth said.

The stoneware produced at Potter’s Brown is created under extremely high temperatures; “hotter than most potters you will find,” Beth said.

“The reason we do that is because it creates a very strong pot,” she elaborated. “The kind of clay and the kind of glazes you use depend on the temperature that you fire. They’re all formulated for that temperature. So, we could not fire at a low temperature with the clay that we have, nor could we use a clay that is commercially sold. We formulate our clay blend so that it will go through the heat that we put it through.”

All of the pottery is dishwasher safe, and many pieces can also be place in a microwave.

“We don’t suggest putting the flatter pieces in the microwave, because a microwave gets so hot right in the center so quickly,” Beth said. “Clay doesn’t like to be shocked. It doesn’t want to go into an oven that’s already 350 or 400 degrees. It likes to be brought up slowly with the temperature of the oven. So, if you’re baking in a piece, you need to put it in a cold oven and bring it up slowly to the temperature that you want.”

Each item is put through two firing processes, Beth said.

“The first time we fire it, it’s called a bisque fire,” she said. “That’s fired to about 1,800 degrees. It comes out sort of chalky, and it’s still relatively fragile – but not nearly as fragile as green ware, before it gets fired at all.”

Next, the pottery is taken through the hand-painted glazing process.

“First, we dip it in one color of glaze, and then, we come back and put wax on top of it,” Beth said. “We paint colors on top of the base glaze, and it resists the wax marks that are on there. The wax burns off in the fire, and we’re left with all those little areas of base glaze. It creates a really nice effect. Every piece comes out a little bit different.”

After glazing, the potter is fired to 2,400 degrees, a process which lasts for 18-20 hours.

“Doug usually starts the kiln at about 10 p.m. and brings it up very slowly,” Beth divulged. “By the time he gets up in the morning, it’s about 1,800 degrees. Then, we started something called reduction.”

During reduction, the level of oxygen inside the kiln is decreased, while the level of natural gas is increased. 

“That’s how we get the color on our glazes,” Beth said. “That only lasts for about 30 minutes, and then, it’s taken back to an even gas and oxygen mixture throughout the rest of the cycle.”

Doug explained that the color of the glaze is created by the ration between the air and the gas in the kiln.

“It’s not a real exact science, but after 50 years, I kind of have some idea,” he said. “They don’t always come out the way that I want them to, but it’s a lot better than it was 50 years ago.”

According to Beth, the most difficult color to work with when creating glazes is red, because “it’s the most temperamental.”

Beth added that sometimes, glazes which have previously been uncomplicated to handle stop working for no obvious reason.

“We have two glazes like that right now,” she said. “One is a beautiful eggplant color; we call it grape. It just quit working, so Doug is trying to find the reason for that. The other one is a sort of pearl color. So, he’s patiently working on those.”

Each time the kiln is fired, glaze tests are inside.

“That’s the only time you know if you’re getting anywhere,” Beth said. “Every time we fire the kiln, Doug probably has at least two or three dozes glaze tests in there.”

According to Beth, each glaze begins with a base glaze, which she described as typically being “kind of a milky color.” Minerals and oxides are then added to produce the desired color.

In addition to being passionate about creating pottery, Doug also holds a great interest in the development of new glaze colors, which he said is a challenging process that many potters forego due to the large amounts of time and trial-and-error required.

“I probably spend about 90 percent of my time making things that don’t work,” Doug said. “But the 10 percent of the time that things do work gives me the colors that I have that are very unusual. We are known for our colors; that’s what people come in here for.”

Although being a potter is a challenging line of work – as Doug pointed out, one is also required to be a plumber and an electrician and a carpenter along the way – it is also one in which the couple has found great reward.

“I think one of the most rewarding parts of what we do is our customers,” Beth said. “We wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for our customers, and to be in business doing what we do for 50 years is quite an accomplishment. Our customers are just awesome people, and I just get kind of choked up talking about it.”

According to Doug, the couple has met “people who say, ‘I’ve been drinking out of the same coffee cup for 30 years—’”

“’And you’ve had coffee with me every morning,’” Beth finished. “And it’s just the sweetest thing. It’s just incredible to have such a loyal customer base. And I know it’s because we care about them and they care about us.”

Potters Brown is located at 8287 FM 279 in Edom. For more information, call (903)-852-6473 or visit www.pottersbrown.com.

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