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Potter shapes a new life in mountains

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Ann Childress continues to hone her craft after moving to the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has been teaching pottery at Chestnut Creek School of the Arts

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — The talent of “throwing pots” earned Ann Childress a career with the National Park Service, but the wheels continue to turn into her retirement.
The Childresses lived in a lot of different places when she worked for the park service, but it wasn’t until they returned to the Blue Ridge to be close to her husband’s family that she had a studio dedicated to her craft.

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Her first impulse for a career involved art, but that didn’t turn out as she originally thought.
“I planned to be an art teacher. I went to Florida State and enrolled in the art education curriculum,” Childress explained. “So, I had to take a clay class as part of my ‘art ed’ education.
“I was really taken with fiber and clay — those things really spoke to me.”
Especially clay, which Childress found so inviting and immediate to create with. And if you don’t like what begins to emerge, you can squash it.
Potters can also quickly form a personal gift for friends and family and surprise them with, say, a mug the giftee can eat mac and cheese from.
To weave, on the other hand, a crafter first has to thread the loom.
Feeling the “arts” more than the “ed,” Childress changed her major to straight crafts major.
“I got my job with the park service because I knew how to spin and weave,” she said. “The Great Smokey Mountains National Park called me up and offered me a job, and I said, ‘wow.’”
That occurred because of the traditional crafts renaissance that occurred in the 1970s.
Childress worked at the Smokies during the summers as a living history demonstrator.
“I loved the mountains — the first time I went there, I said, ‘This is where I should be.’”
Moving to Tennessee opened up more opportunities in pottery when the University of Tennessee at Knoxville paid her to teach there.
For the park service, what followed were assignments on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where she first demonstrated at Mabry Mill and then became the interpretive site supervisor at the folk art center in Asheville, N.C.
The arts component came through a partnership with the Southern Highland Art Guild.
Childress found it helpful to have a background in art while working with the guild. “I felt like I could speak their language.
Stints at the Outer Banks in North Carolina and in Charleston, S.C., and having a family didn’t always leave time to make pots, though.
After combining her love of clay and fiber into a series of “bird’s eye view,” three-dimensional pieces, Childress decided there wasn’t time to weave and throw and play music, too.
When she could make pots, her crafts would have to take place on a back porch or in a basement with low ceilings.
Not so in Hillsville during her retirement. When the Childresses added an ancillary building at their home, a cozy place with good heat and light and space for the wheel and kiln became her studio.
Rather than having the pressure of needing to make a living from her art, Childress feels happy that she never had to dread going into her studio.
“I would have probably been a failure as a production potter in my 20s,” she said. “You’ve got to produce and you’ve got to sell.”
She’s never had to face the reality of needing to crank out 20 batter bowls in a day to make money.
“I have the utmost respect for production potters,” Childress said, adding, “I’m slow.”
Having tried her hands at many things, Childress said she’s in a green glaze phase; recently tried out mosaics, often out of shards of other cast-offs; has tried clocks and salt cellars; and finds making berry bowls fun and relaxing.
“I like making utilitarian items that serve as art for everyday use,” is her philosophy.
Weight should be proportional to the piece — it should weigh what it looks like and should feel good in the hand.
She makes the handles streamlined, so they don’t stick out too far. That way, they’re less vulnerable to being knocked off.
And though Childress changed from her art ed major years ago, she does enjoy teaching others pottery at the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in Galax.
“When I first moved up here, this building [and studio] did not exist, so I didn’t have a place to work,” she recalled. “So, I joined the Oldtown Pottery coop.”
The school asked her to demonstrate at a special event, and by the end of that day, they asked her to teach classes.
Chestnut Creek School of the Arts is a great benefit to people in the Twin Counties.
“There are not that many places when you start looking around where you can take pottery classes with wheels and kilns,” Childress said. “It’s unusual and wonderful.”
Childress doesn’t plan to give up her pottery pursuits any time soon.
“It’s my happy place,” she said.