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BACK TO THE GRIND | Movers and Makers: Adirondack Rockware's Peter Shrope

BACK TO THE GRIND | Movers and Makers: Adirondack Rockware's Peter Shrope

Adirondack Rockware's Peter Shrope throwing a large pot.

“Remember this is not machine shop. You’re not cutting something on a lathe. It’s plastic when you’re working on the wheel. . . It’s more ballet than brute force. You have to control it. But you have to coax it.” When he taught pottery, this is what Peter Shrope would tell his students. You have to coax it.

Peter was born in New Hampshire but he grew up primarily outside of Albany, New York. He moved to New Jersey for high school and then returned to New Hampshire to study  engineering at college. During his sophomore year, he had to take an art elective. He chose to take a pottery class. It was a good one. “That one class of pottery, it completely changed my direction of study and changed my life,” he says. He ended up leaving college with an education in ceramics, not engineering.

He went on to get his master’s degree in Sculpture from Pennsylvania State University. During his time there he worked as a designer and builder for the University’s museum, now called the Palmer Museum of Art. After his time in Pennsylvania, Peter moved around working for many different museums. He designed and built exhibits for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, among others. In 2002 he decided to get away from busy cities and settled in the Adirondack Mountains. He chose to live with his wife in a converted inn located 10 miles from Saranac Lake and 60 miles from the Canadian border, surrounded by the inspiring landscape of upstate New York. This is where he has his studio and makes his pottery.

Adirondack Mountains

Peter describes artists as “philosophical alchemists”. He says they are “not trying to change lead into gold, but instead taking raw, almost worthless or inexpensive material such as clay or metal or stones . . . and through the process of their art and their craft, turning those things symbolically into gold.” This is what Peter does. “Clay is basically nothing, it’s completely malleable, you can make it whatever you want it to be.” He takes this formless dirt and mud from the ground and with his hands he coaxes it into something of value. This process of taking a rough ball of clay and shaping it while it sits on a spinning table is known as “throwing.”

The class that changed his life was taught by Vivika Heino. At that time, Vivika and her husband, Otto, the American masters of modern ceramics, had moved back to New Hampshire. In between periods of studio work with her husband, Vivika, would take short-term teaching jobs around New Hampshire. Little did Peter know, as he was taking his introductory pottery classes, that he was learning his craft from one of the living greats.

He became their apprentice for a time, even helping them move back to California in 1974. However, after only six weeks in the interminable Los Angeles sun, Peter decided he needed the trees and snow of the East Coast, and moved back. But he held onto Vivika and Otto’s teachings. They were known for their clean-lined, almost simple pottery, unadorned but for the rare and wondrous glazes they used to coat them.

Peter’s glazes are more than rare. They are unique to him and to the rock of the Adirondack Mountains where he lives. To make his glazes, Peter goes to the local quarry. Having mined the granite, gneiss, or anorthosite rock from the mountains, they crush the stone in order to make the aggregate in asphalt roads. This process creates a lot of dust and they frequently hose off their machines and collect the dust in ponds before depositing this waste to the side of the quarry.

Having asked for a chemical analysis of the mined rock, Peter realised that this rock dust had all the necessary qualities required to make ceramic glazes. After years of experimentation, Peter learned how to turn this quarry waste into pottery glaze. The process is not simple. He first lays the silt on a tarp to dry in the sun. Once it’s dry, he pounds the larger chunks with a sledgehammer before filtering all of it through different sized screens, in order to make the particulates very fine.

From here the chemistry happens. While the rock dust he takes from the quarry has all the basic elements needed to make a ceramic glaze, they are not in the right proportions. He must add materials such as silicas, powdered clays and things that are similar to talcum powder and limestone to the mixture to get a substance that reacts in the fire of the kiln as glazes do. The rock dust he takes from the mountains has its own color. Due to the iron in it, the glaze will naturally turn a tan color. He will also add different elements to create colors that do not occur naturally from the rock dust, like cobalt to get blues and coppers to get greens.

Peter Shrope glazing tiles.

After he has shaped a pot on his wheel, Peter puts it into the kiln for its first firing, known as the “bisque.” He heats the kiln to 1750°F to burn off all the physical and chemical water. The clay comes out hard but it’s porous, ready to be glazed. When the pot is cool, he brings over big buckets of glazes. The glazes are a thick goop, the consistency of heavy cream. As an unheated fluid, the glazes are murky green and grays. They give away no hint of the colors they will become in the fire.

He applies the glazes very actively. He will paint the pot with a brush, spray the pot, even dip and dunk it. Peter likens applying glazes to the action painting style that Jackson Pollock practised. With a swipe of the arm, Peter can leave an indelible, glassy line of blood red, or turquoise blue on the pot.

Peter Shrope glazing pots. Photo Credit: Phil Gallos

Once the pot is completely covered, he takes it for the second firing. This time he heats it to 2250°F. “Everything happens in the final firing, when the glazes get molten, and the elements and minerals melt, that’s when all your colors come out.” Firing glazes is never exact, though. The final color or texture of the glaze is never assured so Peter is always a little bit nervous taking his pots out of the kiln. “No matter how old you get, it’s always a little bit like Christmas.” These are the glazes Peter creates, these are what he calls his Adirondack Rockware.

Peter Shrope’s New York State of Mind is “perspective”. He says it’s important to always have perspective.


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