Painting a cup

Supplies and instructions are thoughtfully thorough. Guidance is available, but artists are given "space" to contact their Muse.

The paint supply area

A wide array of paints is provided to inspire SouthMowing's visiting artists.

SouthMowing Studio: Paint Unfinished Pottery
or Decorate Your Own Ceramics

As a little girl growing up in north-central Ohio, I spent many quiet, rainy days with my grandmother, painting kitschy ceramic figurines as presents for my friends and family. I loved the different smells of the different colors of paint. I took pleasure in choosing the right brushes and learning to use them for precision work. Sometimes I could leave my favorite pieces to dry, and my grandma would put clear glaze over the paint and fire them in her kiln in the basement. Next time I came to visit, I would see them anew in all their glossy glory, hardly believing I had done it myself.

I freely admit that it wasn't great art. But it was great fun.

An array of unfinished pottery

SouthMowing offers an impressive range of both practical pottery and keepsake items for adults and children to customize.

Since not everybody has a grandmother who pours her own slip-cast ceramics and has a kiln in her basement, it was no surprise to me a few years ago when paint-your-own pottery studios started popping up -- places for children and adults alike to decorate a mug, vase or figurine in their own way to create a gift or keepsake they had designed themselves. This spring, the phenomenon arrived in Brattleboro, at SouthMowing Studio on Putney Road. What, you haven't seen the sign? Well, you're not going to (long story involving zoning ordinances), but SouthMowing Studio is an entirely too-well-kept secret behind D'Angelo's and Unique Auto Wholesalers. The studio is open seven days a week, some days until 10 p.m. You won't need an appointment, unless you want to have a party, but it's helpful to call ahead -- (802) 246-1150 -- for hours and directions.

Though secluded in a back parking lot, the studio itself is inviting. The brightly colored walls and the homey kitchen tables give a pleasant, breezy atmosphere. When you arrive, you select and purchase the unfinished pieces you want to paint -- anything from a single wall tile to an entire self-styled table setting -- and pay a studio fee of $8 that covers all the time you care to spend painting that day. (These paints have no discernible odor.) SouthMowing owner Sandra Faley even has some customers who make sculptures out of porcelain clay at the studio; she is also willing to fire pieces people have made at home. When she shows me her kiln, she says, "This is the dream-come-true part of it," and explains how much trouble she had in the past trying to get her hand-built work fired in other people's kilns.

Children will enjoy SouthMowing Studio particularly. While adults are likely to choose a mug or maybe a switchplate that they can use as a tabula rasa for their own designs -- and many kids like this as well -- Faley also offers a few shelves of figurines like the ones I remember from my grandmother's basement. They appeal to a variety of tastes: a dragon, a kitten, a piggy bank -- even a Hummer. The studio also offers birthday parties that include a mug or plate for each child to paint, and pizza to eat. You can bring your own cake, or SouthMowing can order a cake from A Tasteful Affair if you don't have time to bake -- "or if you bake like I do," Faley adds.

Faley's love of children is touching. She tells me the story of a four-year-old who chose to paint a keepsake box in the shape of a coiled snake. When he came with his mom to pick it up (there is a wait time between painting and firing), Faley could see that the boy was amazed at how well it had come out. His mom noticed too, and warned him that if he dropped it, it would break. Faley didn't think he would drop it, though: "He was holding that like it was gold." The boy's snake box probably won't be purchased by the MoMA anytime soon. But you don't have to be a museum curator to see the beauty in a child's joy.

Copyright 2007, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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