Fire & Ash: Taylorstown Couple Shares Pottery Passion

When Debbie and Scott Williamson decided to take a pottery class to celebrate their anniversary a decade ago, they had no idea it would become a shared passion that would change their lives.

Since then, the couple has pursued their craft in tandem, with an enormous wood-fired kiln in the backyard and a shared studio, adding up to 10 years of joy, a little friendly competition and some knockout work from both.

The Williamsons open their studio, Butterfly Bend Pottery, joining 60 fellow artists on this year’s anticipated Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour, June 2 and 3.

For the Williamsons, the heart and soul of their work is the wood firing. They do one or two huge firings with  hundreds of pieces each year in their enormous three-chambered Japanese-style kiln, leading to gorgeous earth toned work with ash markings that don’t occur with gas or electric kilns. And every wood firing take several days to complete.

“It’s a slow heat—it’s an intimate time with the pots in the kiln.” Debbie said.

It all started with a 2007 pottery class with Maryland-based ceramics superstar Bill van Gilder. The couple was immediately hooked and began taking weekly classes with van Gilder and his team, along with Charlottesville-area potter Kevin Crowe.

But even though their teachers and mentors have been the same, Debbie’s and Scott’s approaches to the clay are distinct.

“We’re exposed to the same teachers, but my thumbprint is different than Scott’s,” Debbie said.

Scott describes his style as “fast and loose” and his pieces as “gnarly.” He leans toward larger pieces—plates, platters and tea bowls—and often leaves on the “dragon eyes” that form from accumulated ash even while many potters cut them off.

“I love the wood-fire experience. I want pots heavy enough to endure the long firing, yet light enough to use. I want the rugged look from the fire and ash, but refined enough for people to use with comfort,” Scott said.

Scott and Debbie Williamson can fire hundreds of pieces at once. Here, Debbie lays out dozens of ceramic pieces as they are taken out of the kiln. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]
            Debbie, whose work is smaller and more precise, loves mugs and miniature shot cups shaped like tiny urns. For Debbie, they’re perfect for whiskey but she laughs when she mentions that Scott’s late mother, a teetotaler, used her tiny cup for storing stamps.

And while most of both artists’ work is functional, Debbie also does decorative sculptures. Her current series, Portraits of Pain, is made up of expressive, abstract sculptures and is intended, in a sense, to give a voice to the clay. The series was inspired by a story she read about the process involved in building pianos—stressing and bending wood to make beautiful sounds.

“It made me think of what we do with the clay,” Debbie said. “We’re tearing our clay, we’re throwing our clay, we’re pressing it, we’re compressing, we’re adding water, we’re taking water away. We’re doing all these things to it to make this product.”

Scott, a Navy veteran who runs a Frederick, MD-based software company, takes a more analytical approach to the clay, but still gets very creative.

“I’m a technology guy. I used to talk about not having an artistic bone in my body. I still feel at some level that I’m more logical,” he said.

And Scott’s science skills definitely come into play in the firing process. He has even invented a “kiln dog” pyrometer to probe temperatures and feed them into a data collector to analyze firings.

Last week, in advance of the tour, the Williamsons unloaded a relatively small firing of around 500 pieces (when they have all three chambers going they often have close to 1,500) on their beautiful farm on a backroad east of Lovettsville. Inside their home studio, the couple has his and hers wheels in separate corners with a larger shared wheel for bigger pieces. In general, Scott works more quickly and Debbie tends to spend more time in the studio. Both Williamsons are avid cyclists, and this spring Scott is training for a 200-mile ride in Utah and Wyoming, so the latest firing is especially heavy on Debbie’s small treasures.

“The kiln loves small. They tuck in almost anywhere,” she said.

The couple met at Herndon-based tech company Network Solutions and moved to their home near Taylorstown in 1995 where they operated an organic strawberry farm before falling in love with ceramics. Debbie, 59 and Scott, 61, have four adult children and nine grandchildren—and with successful careers and an empty nest are enjoying pursuing both of their parallel passions: cycling and clay.

“I’m grateful for the privilege to do something I love to do,” Debbie said.

Scott and Debbie Williamson stand with one of their three kilns. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

The Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour takes place Saturday, June 2, and Sunday, June 3, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Butterfly Bend Pottery is located at 40625 Tankerville Road, Lovettsville. For a complete list of participating artists and a map, go to wlast.org.

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