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The potter of Wakerobin

By Belinda Anderson

A bell rings in greeting at the door to Wakerobin Gallery. The interior replicates the feel of a pleasant day, creamy walls reflecting the sunshine easing through the large windows. Sky blue paint covers the trimwork and shelves loaded with pottery, baskets, candles, glassware, wooden utensils, jams, relishes and more.

Behind the sales counter, a black lab named Zach barks enthusiastically, summoning the proprietor from her pottery studio in the back of the building. She's a friendly soul, dressed neatly but casually in jeans, her smooth brown hair just brushing the collar of her red knit polo shirt. She obligingly converses about her own work and leads the way into another room, where a blue braided rug covers the hardwood floors. Once a post office, the area features Appalachian crafts, from woven placemats to wooden baskets that would be perfect for stowing napkins or compact discs. From Berea College Crafts in Kentucky, there are brooms and iron candleholders.

Wakerobin Gallery is the kind of place you'd expect to find in a town like Berea, where the streets are packed with fine crafts shops. Instead, it stands in isolation on a quiet two- lane road in Forest Hill, at the border of Summers and Monroe counties. The nearest neighbor is the cemetery of the Forest Hill United Methodist Church.

Here, between Hinton and Peterstown, Marcia Springston creates and sells her handthrown pottery and the work of other artisans. "As far as traffic, it probably wasn't the best decision," she says and laughs. "We mostly thought of it as a good place to work and a good place to live."

Her work - call it fine functional pottery - beckons to be held and used. One's fingers rest comfortably between the ridges of her squared-off coffee mugs. The batter bowls and colanders settle into pleasing curves. Her glazes are soothing renditions of nature - celadon shades and cool blues blended with stone tones. The motto on her business card seems exactly right: " Pleasing to the hand, as well as the eye."

Marcia Springston throwing pots in Great Hall of Cultural Center
Marcia throwing at the recent Accessibility Conference at the Cultural Center

The circuitous route that led Springston to Forest Hill tells the story of her path to becoming a potter and sculptor. It is the journey of an artist continually encountering and surmounting challenges.

Springston's roots are in West Virginia, but she detoured through Ohio and Pennsylvania before arriving in Forest Hill. Her parents were born and raised in northern West Virginia, "but we moved to Ohio when my sister and I were quite young because education for blind children in West Virginia was not good in the fifties." Springston's father found a public school system in Ohio willing to enroll blind students.

"I always enjoyed clay as a youngster in art class," Springston says. "They tried to get me to sketch just by feel. Oh, I hated that: 'Show me what you think a mountain looks like.' I liked to sculpt horses. My dad would buy me a bag of powdered clay. He'd help me mix it up and I would sculpt horses. I'd just put them in the sun to dry."

As a high school senior, Springston had the opportunity in independent studies to spend half the day on her own projects. She was fascinated by a potter from Kent State who demonstrated on the treadle wheel in the school's art room. Springston couldn't see what he was doing and she was too shy to ask if she could approach the wheel, but she was nonetheless captivated. "I didn't even touch the work," she says. "He was talking and throwing and I was sitting probably ten feet away, but just from what he said, I was intrigued." She started spending a portion of each day learning on the wheel. "I really loved it. Never envisioned it as anything I could do as a job."

Instead, she got a bachelor's degree in special education and a minor in social psychology. She did attempt a sculpture course in college, but dropped it after continually struggling to work her way through a maze of easels and chair legs to reach the model. "It wasn't just embarrassment, some of it was just energy, to get to the model to feel her head and her face and to get back to my work. It was just exhausting. I couldn't focus on the sculpture."

Years later, Springston reflects that she could have completed the course "if I could have explained to the instructor, or heaven forbid the instructor had seen the problem and made a suggestion that I sit right next to the model." Instead, "I was very disappointed in myself that I couldn't stick with this sculpture course. Stumbling across the studio in this big echoing room, oh, it was just awful. I was just so mad at myself that I couldn't overcome my discomfort."

Springston became a rehab counselor for the state of Ohio, working with newly blinded adults. "I liked the work," she said, but she quit that job to return to study adaptive physical education. "I wanted to work with blind children in swimming and horseback riding." Then she discovered that she was unlikely to find work as a one-on-one provider in a field where employers wanted people who could visually supervise a group of children.

She was working part-time as a tour guide at a restored colonial village in Ohio when she rediscovered pottery at the shop there. "I got interested again and started taking night classes at a community art center." The instructor had "a wonderful personality, insisted that I touch the work as he was throwing. He wasn't the least bit concerned that I might harm it. I was just enthralled by it all."

When the instructor left to pursue a master's degree in Pennsylvania, Springston followed, but again found the academic environment repressive. "The professor there wasn't suited to my needs. He was frustrated with my limitations. It's amazing I got anything out of it." She did complete a sculpture class, working one-on-one with a model. She tried to return to her girlhood dream of sculpting horses, and did one piece in bronze before her adviser told her, "It's little girls that sculpt horses. You need to think more of abstract work."

At the time Springston was struggling in graduate school, her parents had found the retirement home of their dreams in Forest Hill. "I was kind of at loose ends, so I came to West Virginia, too. It was supposed to be such a wonderful craft area," she says and delivers another of her ready laughs. "People doing crafts, but not maybe selling them so much." She rented studio and gallery space in Raleigh County. She met her husband at a craft fair and they moved to Hinton, where she had a basement studio.

"I needed more studio space, a place where I could work and have a sales room. Plus, we really didn't want to live in a city or a town." So they moved to Forest Hill in 1984. They converted a former general store/post office into Wakerobin, named after the three-petaled trillium flower.

Over the years, Springston has built a customer base from both locals and tourists. Every year, Greenbrier River campers and Pipestem resort visitors stop to shop. In the winter months, folks from Hinton, Lewisburg, Princeton and Beckley come to buy Christmas gifts. She also draws customers through rack cards at visitors' centers.

"Pottery is something I love to do, but I'm not fired up with all kinds of good business sense. I have to admit that," Springston says. "I really have to remind myself, now there's other stock in the store that needs attention. I have to repurchase things." She smiles. "It's just so foreign to me to spend large amounts of money in the hope that it will generate more. I would rather just focus on the pots. I'd be pleased to have just some rough-cut lumber out there with pots on them. I do know they sell better when people can envision how they're going to look in their homes, and other things that go with them. They do help showcase each other."

At first, Springston displayed her mother's weaving and her father's paintings. Then she began taking work on consignment. Now she mostly purchases her stock, representing 15 to 20 artists at any given time. She receives display advice, as well as technical and artistic help, from such friends as potter Jeff Diehl and his wife, Donna, of Lockbridge in Raleigh County. Friend Nancy O'Farrell glazes for her. "I use a minimum of colors. It doesn't interest me that much except that customers want it. I''ve fantasized about picking a cream-colored glaze and just doing everything that way. But that doesn't fit into the look of people's homes. That would be one thing I would be liberated from if I went into more one-of-a-kind pieces."

Sometimes, especially since her recent divorce, she considers selling the shop and working strictly as a wholesaler herself. "I could work in the evenings, turn the music up loud, and ride my horse during the day." But there would be disadvantages, too. "I would have to go to more production to make up the difference from not retailing other people's work. It would be more a factory job in terms of quantity."

As a wholesaler, she could escape the distractions of a retail business. "One of the things that happens when you have a showroom, you can really be on to something with your work, really have gotten charged up, things are moving well, and someone comes in and wants to browse and wants to talk. It can be very interesting, but your clay's drying out, you're losing your momentum. I do find many days are really fragmented. I'm up and down and back and forth. Sometimes I've thought of letting the answering machine get the phones but it could be somebody saying, 'Are you open today?'"

On the other hand, sometimes a walk-in customer's order will send Springston in a direction she otherwise wouldn't have considered. "An example of that is the chili bowls I make. Years and years ago a woman wanted to order a dish. She said her husband was on a schedule where he would always be coming home later because of work and he would take his dinner in front of the TV. She said if she could have a dish that would hold the crackers and the soup and the stew and the cornbread together, that would be nice, one solid piece. I started making these things called chili bowls. It's a bowl with an attached saucer. I cannot make enough of those."

Those functional pieces help Springston's business survive. " If it was a gallery in the more traditional sense it would have a much harder time of success out here in the boondocks," she says. "The fact that I do have some lower-priced, kitchen-useable kind Of items does make it a little more successful."

Another special order gave her the opportunity to translate her love of horses into pottery. "A guy with a store in northern Virginia wanted to order things to look like old milk pitchers and have horses coming out of them, which I thought was kind of an odd presentation. But he'll buy the horse pots any way I make them. He said up in the horse country people come in and just love 'em." Living in a rural area also has given her the chance to revisit that desire to work in adaptive physical education. This fall, she is hosting a national clinic for blind riders.

"I am still continually weighing it out, which way I want to go," Springston says. "I'm trying to be listening carefully, to really have all my antennas out. Do I have it in me to do a lot of one-of-a-kind pots? Do I have the artistic ability? Or am I just a crafts person? And I don't mean that as a bad thing. I don''t think it's menial to repetitiously make fine pots. Will I be too frustrated if I'm trying to make more art pieces? Or will it be gratifying? I'm really at an intersection here."

As she wrestles with decisions about her career, the potter's wheel continues to nourish her. "My hands remember how the pots grew," says her artist's statement, "and my heart is gratified." She elaborates: "I'm still satisfied with a well-thrown piece. Just putting in a good londay, a lot of production with a lot of good shapes. Smooth, wet forms. There's just something about them lined up waiting to be trimmed the next day. That's a real gratifying feeling, going out the door, saying, 'Ah, got some good ones today.'"

Wakerobin Gallery, at Route 12 and Seminole Road, is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Appointments for Wednesdays and Sundays are available by calling 466-2227.