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Out of the fire: The Pettyjohns — Molding beauty and function

FOR decades now, a couple of potters have been creating beautiful and distinctive works of functional — and not so functional — art in a workshop in Calamba, Laguna, where they continue to hone their skills. The artist couple, Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn, have been at the forefront of ceramic arts in the Philippines.

Jon Pettyjohn is known for his work on high-fire Asian-style ceramics. A pioneer of contemporary Philippine ceramics, he creates sculptural and functional pottery with clay, stone, and ash. Tessy Pettyjohn began her career as a potter in the late 1970s, having had shows both here and abroad. She continues to explore the use of indigenous Philippine clays, pigments, and minerals.

Mr. Pettyjohn explains that their work begins with a design or idea. It takes about a month for the design to be translated into clay and the finished item materializes out of the kiln.

“Pottery is all about anticipation because you will never see the final result until you unload the kiln,” Mr. Pettyjon said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

Throughout the process, a “beautiful mistake” or accident happens “all the time.”

“It’s often disappointing to see the final result but once in a while the work is blessed by the kiln fire and gives back more than we dreamed. [You] need to keep an open mind though to see that — sometimes expectations cloud the vision,” he said.

During the lockdown, Mr. Pettyjohn kept himself busy building a new kiln.

“I think this time has given me a better idea at what I’m good at [which is] important in pottery-making, because there’s just too much to master in one lifetime,” he said.

Mr. Pettyjohn said that through time, he and his wife have learned to be more gentle with criticism of each other’s work and focus on positive feedback.

“[It’s] not easy for a husband and wife to work together. I hope that after so many years we’ve learned to take advantage of each other’s strengths,” he said, noting that Ms. Pettyjohn’s process is “more intuitive.”

The two potters, as Pettyjohn Pottery, show their work in theHeart of the Fire” exhibit in this year’s Art in the Park Online. The objects range from decorative plates, tea sets, and jars, to decorative coral sculptures.

“We have fewer pieces this year, we’ve tried to make it more of an exhibit like what we might do in a gallery. This is only our second time showing works online, [and we are] still learning,” Mr. Pettyjohn said.

Art in the Park, the popular art fair held annually in the Jaime Velasquez Park in Salcedo Village, Makati, is currently being held online for the second time because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The fair, known for selling artworks with a P50,000 price ceiling, celebrates its 15th anniversary in this virtual setting. The fair is being held via www.artinthepark.ph, with new pieces uploaded on the site daily until Feb. 28.

The Pettyjohns, along with fellow potter Joey de Castro, are the focus of short documentaries on the Art in the Park site that highlight their work. These are part of the fair’s special collaboration with the Bank of the Philippine Islands, BPI Art Clips, which this year focuses on pottery, one of the best-selling categories of Art in the Park.

Mr. Pettyjohn recalled that the very first edition of Art in the Park Online in August last year introduced them to new buyers.

“We did a lot of the Manila deliveries ourselves. It was fun ‘wazing’ around, and we got to meet some of the buyers who were very appreciative. It seems people might be looking for more functional works in the online version [of the art fair],” Mr. Pettyjohn said. “This is good. Believe it or not, it’s sometimes more difficult to sell coffee cups than sculptures.

“We hope this trend continues! Pottery needs to be seen. We also hope to get back in the real park one day soon,” he added.

Art in the Park Online is ongoing until Feb 28 at www.artinthepark.ph. New pieces are uploaded daily at 10 a.m. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman

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