December 13, 2017
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Wayne potter experiments with Maine clay, reviving a tradition

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff
Updated:

Slicing through the clay with a shovel, Jon Lamarche carved a thin slab of the smooth, dense earth from the pile. Brown with a tinge of blue-gray, the clay sheet fell to the ground to land on dead oak leaves and muddy boot prints.

Located in a field in Wayne, the clay pile would last Lamarche, a local potter, several years. And when the pile was depleted, he’d simply dig for more. The area was packed with clay.

“There are very few places that use local clay,” said Lamarche on Nov. 14, as he carted clay across Main Street in a wheelbarrow. “A lot of potters don’t even think you can use it.”

For the past four years, Lamarche has been working with Wayne Village Pottery, owned by the Saunders family. He digs the clay from their property, processes it through a pug mill, then takes some of it home to craft into utilitarian pottery. He leaves the rest of the clay with the Saunders, who use it to made a variety of handpainted ornaments and sculptures. Working together, they’re keeping a tradition alive.

“It used to be normal that there was a potter in almost every town,” Lamarche said. “And they’d have a clay pit and use local clay, but now in New England, I only know of maybe two [other] places that use local clay.”

With his wife and two young children, Lamarche moved to Wayne in 2010, leasing an old, beautiful house on Main Street known as Old Firehouse Farm. In their backyard, is the town’s old, red firehouse building, now used as storage space beside the family’s vegetable garden and chicken coupe.

A personal health and wellness coach and a teacher of Brazilian jiu jitsu, Lamarche picked up pottery-making in high school as a form of stress relief. In his 20s, he purchased a potter’s wheel on a whim, then placed it in storage.

“I don’t know if I would have jumped into pottery the way I did if I didn’t find this local source of clay,” he said. “It just sort of speaks to me, finding something from the ground, pulling it out of the ground and then making with it.”

He remembers the day the idea dawned on him. He was at a local beach at nearby Androscoggin Lake, a spot where many Wayne residents picnic and swim, and he noticed clay protruding from the sand.

“The next day, I went down there in the morning with the kids, and we’re like — let’s get this in the bucket,” he said. “We came home, screened it, processed it, and then I was just so excited to use clay from the ground on the wheel.”

In a small town like Wayne, it wasn’t long before Lamarche made friends with his neighbors, the Saunders, who have been harvesting local clay from their property for over 30 years. Under the guidance of Molly Saunders, he learned more about throwing the local clay on a potter’s wheel, which requires a bit of patience. Similar to porcelain, the clay abundant in the ground of Wayne is fairly fragile.

“When you’re making bigger pots and bigger items, it can sometimes clump over on itself,” Lamarche said. “You have to be a lot more patient with this clay. But if you can throw this clay, you can throw any clay.”

In addition to being delicate when wet, Lamarche has noticed that Maine clay tends to respond to his manipulations a bit slower than other clays he’s worked with. In other words, it’s stubborn.

“You can’t force it to do what you want it to, but it will come along,” he said.

Back in his at-home studio on Nov. 14, Lamarche divided the clay with a simple but time-saving tool — a wooden frame divided by taut wire that cuts through the clay easily, creating even chunks to work with. He used to weigh the clay over and over again to create chunks of uniform size. The simple wooden and wire device, which he read about in a book, saves him a lot of time. One of Lamarche’s goals is to become a more efficient potter so he can offer his products at lower prices. As it stands, his glazed cups, plates, vases and bowls range from $18 to more than $200.

To learn tricks of the trade, he reads books about traditional pottery, and conducts research online, where he comes across inspirational material such as old films of Isaac Button, an English country potter who passed away in 1969.

“It’s incredible to see his pace,” Lamarche said as he switched on his electrically-powered potter’s wheel.

Controlled by foot pedal, the wheel spins at different speeds and is surrounded by a bin that collects excess clay and water. Lamarche keeps the foot pedal on his work table, opting to adjust it with his hand rather than his foot. It’s a more comfortable way for him to work, he explained, especially because he stands at the wheel and produces many items at a time. It’s not uncommon for him throw clay for hours, especially during holiday season, when business really picks up.

In 2014, the Lamarche family opened up a gift shop in a corner of Old Firehouse Farm to sell his finished products and other locally-made crafts. And the following summer, the family started offering Maine-made coffee, tea and baked goods, Wednesday through Saturday, with seating on the house’s spacious, covered porch. This summer, that expanded to a full breakfast and lunch menu.

“I’m busier than I’ve ever been in other parts of my career in my life,” Lamarche said. “But I see my kids a lot. I see my family a lot, even if I work more hours.”

Throughout the month of November and December he is especially busy stocking up the gift shop with fresh pottery, finished with glazes that he mixes himself in the house’s basement. Blue, green, brown and gray — the glazes Lamarche mixes tend to be subdued, earthy colors, many of which resemble the hue and shine of Maine sea glass. Each glaze not only makes the pottery that much more beautiful, it makes the pieces stronger and capable of holding liquids.

To Lamarche, it’s important that his clay wares — his wine cups, pie plates and soup bowls — will actually be used by customers, not just set on a shelf. For that reason, he’s continuously experimenting to make the pottery stronger. For example, he’s learned that he can fire the clay up to about 1,100 degrees Celsius, and this causes it to harden until it’s almost like stoneware.

“The problem is, if you go any further, it could turn into liquid and melt,” Lamarche said with a grin. “You have a lot of happy accidents that happen in pottery. It’s almost like you open the kiln and it’s like a Christmas gift. It’s exciting. But for every one of those, you go through having a lot of big mishap — like full kiln-loads of stuff melted.”

As the holidays draw near, Lamarche won’t be experimenting, he’ll just be busily and efficiently creating pottery, completing an order for 130 steins for L-A Harley-Davidson in Lewiston, and preparing for the Wayne Village Holiday Stroll, an annual event that encourages local shopping scheduled for Dec. 2 and 3, throughout Wayne. The gift shop at Old Firehouse Farm is just one of the many stops on the stroll, open for visitors throughout the weekend.

Once the Lamarche family gets through the busy holiday season, they plan to start up monthly winter “soup and sips” on Friday night, a casual social event they hosted last winter to bring locals together and potentially sell some more pottery. And this summer, Lamarche aims to set up some outdoor pottery workshops. He’s already purchased four motorless kick wheels for students to use. They’re stored in the old firehouse, just waiting to be used to throw some Maine clay.

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