Potter Bryan Mattraw is Loudoun-raised and locally focused in creating the gorgeous mugs, bowls and other pieces that draw shoppers to his studio every spring and fall.
“It’s basically local dirt, ash from my woodstove and chicken eggs. … It’s hyper-local,” Mattraw said.
Mattraw, who owns Taylorstown Pottery near Lovettsville is one of 18 artists participating in the annual Catoctin Holiday Art Tour, which spotlights studios in and around the town of Lovettsville, with ceramics, painting, jewelry, fiber art, glassblowing and other media. 2021 marks the tour’s 10th anniversary and a return to welcoming shoppers after a break last year because of COVID. For Mattraw and his fellow local artists, this is the perfect year to shop local. Supply chain problems have changed the holiday shopping picture and many consumers have actively worked to support local artists and businesses throughout the pandemic. And Loudoun’s artists are ready and waiting.
“A lot of [artists] did OK last year in spite of all of the disruptions,” he said. “But thinking forward through [the tour], we were like, ‘Let’s lean in. Let’s do this and let’s try to make sure we’re prepped and we’re professional and ready to go—and make it comfortable for people as well.”
Mattraw runs his studio on his rural property near the village of Taylorstown east of Lovettsville, with a large wood-fired kiln he built from scratch. The tour offers a glimpse of both rural studios in picturesque locations on western Loudoun’s back roads and stops in downtown Lovettsville, including the home studio of noted ceramicist and longtime tour participant Kristen Swanson and a new stop at the town’s Blikken Hut event space featuring several artists new to the tour.
Mattraw, who grew up in Leesburg, was a painter when he went to Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, to study art education. He says he wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the required ceramics class that would change his life.
“I had to take a ceramics course—I was not looking forward to it,” he said. “I touched clay, and it was like, ‘I love this!’ I did as much as I could.”
Mattraw taught for three years right after college, but found that he missed having time to focus on his own art. He moved to Boston and took a job at the well-known ceramics studio and bookstore The Potter’s Shop, immersing himself in ceramics and reading through the shop’s book collection. That was when Mattraw found his ongoing passion for wood firing and salt glazing. He started looking for an apprenticeship to learn wood firing techniques and found a post with the noted potter Robert Compton in Vermont where he learned technique and gained inspiration for his own studio.
“My kiln is based on the kiln that I cut my teeth on at his studio,” Mattraw said.
Mattraw eventually missed teaching—and missed home. He moved back to Loudoun and worked as an art teacher before transitioning into his current role as a librarian with Loudoun County Public Schools. When Mattraw and his family were looking for a home in Loudoun, space for a kiln and outdoor workspace was high on the checklist. They found the perfect spot near Taylorstown nine years ago and immediately started building the kiln, based on Asian-inspired wood-firing techniques that go back centuries.
When Mattraw moved to Taylorstown, he quickly discovered the vibrant western Loudoun arts community.
“There’s a lot of great people and a great diversity. … Just having this number of people in Lovettsville is amazing, and everybody’s really great at supporting each other,” he said.
Mattraw does two large firings of around 400 pieces each year in the spring and fall, using old school wood firing and salt glazing techniques in a large two-chamber kiln built on a hillside. Firing is a two-day affair that takes constant stoking as the chambers gradually build to temperature of 2400 degrees. Last weekend was fall firing day at Taylorstown pottery, with Mattraw at the kiln all weekend, taking shifts with a friend to get a little rest and finding the zen he finds every year at firing time.
“It’s this window where my job for two days is basically to sit here and stoke the kiln, watch and listen,” he said. “That’s always a good reset”
Mattraw’s fans are drawn to the effects of wood firing and salt glazing on color and texture. His pieces have gorgeous natural color differences based on where the piece sat in relation to the fire. The second chamber of his kiln is dedicated to salt glazing—a technique that involves adding salt to the kiln during high-heat firing. The salt etches and melts the clay and affects the glaze, giving pieces an “orange peel” texture.
“The salt is a little bit more dramatic in a way but it can create subtlety if that makes sense. The salt creates textural changes, some more subtle and others more dramatic,” Mattraw said.
His pots are made from local clay, and he makes his own glazes made from ash from his kiln and woodstove and eggshells from local chickens.
Mattraw said he and his fellow artists are excited for the milestone anniversary of the tour and reopening their studios and safely interacting with shoppers. After a challenging two years, it’s a chance to refocus as artists and rebuild a sense of community.
“It still kind of feels like we’re all in a little bit of a COVID hangover,” Mattraw said. “To do this and have this to look forward to, it’s great. It’s like, ‘Here’s a purpose. Here’s something to move toward.’”
The Catoctin Holiday Art Tour takes place Saturday, Nov. 13 and Sunday, Nov. 14 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with 18 artists at eight studios in and around Lovettsville. For more information and a tour map, go to catoctinart.com