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Hands On Art in Santa Fe: Learning pottery with artist Heidi Loewen

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Santa Fe is a city made with glaze, oil, pastel, and southwest flair. The historic terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe has a long mercantile history, but it is also one of the most art-filled cities in the country, with perhaps more artists per capita than anywhere else. Its Canyon Road is legendary and justifiably so.

But Santa Fe is also home to one of the most unusual porcelain ceramic artists in the country. Heidi Loewen plays with clay. She is ever fascinated with it, creates specially commissioned works of art to order for her clients world-wide, and bubbles with enthusiasm when introducing her students to its joys. You can purchase her enormous art platters and vases, and you can learn her remarkable technique for throwing dry on the wheel. And, if you’re a collector, Heidi offers a gift back to her collectors – a gratis clay class when they purchase one of her pieces. All in one space on Johnson Street.

What makes Heidi so unusual besides her warm laugh and exceptional kindness is the techniques she has developed over the years.

Her love of clay started with a fascination with mud as a toddler. “Instead of playing with dolls, I’d play in the mud – I’d build cities,” remembers Heidi. By 10 she was using a kick wheel, powered by the potter’s foot rather than electricity. But eventually she turned from the wheel to working at Sotheby’s art auction house in New York. in the Chinese and Japanese divisions. “I especially loved the ceramics and porcelain,” says Heidi. Still in the field, she started to help to manage and curate the art collection and art foundation of a prominent family in Boston. “I had access to some of the most amazing art in the world.”

But the itch to create her own art never really left and eventually she started attending classes at Harvard, while still working during the week. “The ceramic department at Harvard was fabulous,” she remembers. “It was well-funded, and they invited amazing ceramic artists from around the world to come and demonstrate and teach.”

Eventually Heidi Loewen moved to Santa Fe, opening her own teaching school. Shortly thereafter, she took over a friend’s gallery space “and never looked back.”

There are artists who work in clay – their bowls, vases, plates are both gorgeous and functional. But what sets Heidi apart is her artistry. I can’t ever imagine serving food on one of her huge gorgeous platters. They should really be hung on a wall rather than placed on a table.

Although Heidi is likely the most expensive pottery teacher in Santa Fe she is very generous with her teaching techniques, often developed as a result of the accidents and setbacks that devil all artists. Her gorgeous smoke-fired works are an example. As Heidi recalls, about 18 years ago it was about 6 days before a big show and her kiln malfunctioned. So, instead Heidi experimented with the ancient technique of smoke firing.

She’s been developing her own techniques ever since. Once a clay body was a bit too dry while she was trimming. Instead of smoothly removing the clay to shape the platter, the tool bounced along creating an unusual textured “chatter”. A crack in the top of a vase resulted in Heidi slicing it open, curling and sides, and creating another creative style.

All these lessons and more Heidi shares with students who come to her gallery, studio, and classroom on Johnson Street in Santa Fe. She’s a serious teacher with an extraordinary light touch.

Her philosophy in working with students can be summed up as “have a good time and relax and let your fingers flow in the squish of the porcelain.” She believes that the most important thing to bring to her studio is a sense of humor, and a sense of kindness for your own efforts. In fact, her students are only allowed say kind words about their work. She tells them “you can only complain after you’ve made 500 vessels.“

She charges $175/hour per person. What students get in exchange is enormous. Centering the clay on the wheel is perhaps the trickiest part of throwing anything. Students come in to find all the clay centered and ready to go. Heidi and her staff do all the prep and cleanup and everything a student makes is glazed and fired with food safe and waterproof glazes. Sometimes to get a gorgeous glass effect she’ll even double fire a piece. Students can choose the colors of the glazes for their pots, bowls, and platters before they leave.

The class is a combination of demonstration, and quite literally hands-on actions where the hands of students rest on Heidi’s hands as she works the clay. She gradually shifts more and more of the movement to the student, until they are working the clay totally on their own on their own pottery wheel.

A range of shapes begin to form under their hands from an open dish to a closed dish like a fish bowl, and then on to all the variations. Pull up the sides, curve them in, curve them out, all the permutations you can imagine.

And students walk out having made several creations. If your style is to throw and move on, you’ll make more pots, perhaps three or four. If you want to perfect a form you’ll make fewer vessels. Either way is fine with Heidi. Have fun and enjoy yourself would seem to be her mantra.

To add another layer of fun, if you’re 21 and over, Heidi offers champagne, wine, or beer on hand. Of course, iced tea and juices are available as well. And at the end, everyone gets a delicious bar of European chocolate.

And if you think you made a mistake, think again. Because, says Heidi “when we glaze it, it will be beautiful.”

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