Clyde Tullis: Mudlarking in Salida

Article by Ed Quillen

Photos courtesy Clyde Tullis

Local artists – July 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine –

IF FIRST IMPRESSIONS MATTER, then “mudlark” isn’t quite the brand name that would emerge from a corporate marketing consultant. But it’s the name that potter Clyde Tullis uses for his Salida studio, and he has his reasons.

“Mudlark fits in a lot of ways,” he says. “We potters often call our clay ‘mud,’ and this whole business is a sort of ‘lark’ to avoid holding a day job, so the shop is indeed a ‘mud lark.'”

He also notes that in England, people who stroll along river banks looking for valuables are called mudlarks, “and that sort of fits with Salida — it’s along the banks of a river, and people are trying to get their livelihood in ways related to the river.”

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Perhaps most fitting is that a “mudlark” is another word for a meadow lark — that is, a bird, and birds are the mainstay of Tullis’s business. About half his income comes from his terra-cotta bird feeders, which range from teacup size to towers a yard tall.

They have an oriental shape, with the tops resembling Chinese coolie hats, but a southwestern deep red texture and color — generally unglazed. “I guess you could say my work is where Shanghai meets Santa Fé,” Tullis says with a chuckle.

The 50-year-old Tullis didn’t start out to be a potter when he grew up in Colorado Springs. When he was in junior high, his sister got a guitar, which he learned to play. After that, it was rock and roll through high school, in bands that played around the city.

“I sacrificed my grades to have fun,” he recalls, “and the only reason I got into college [University of Colorado at Boulder] was that both my parents were graduates, and they pulled some strings.”

There he took art classes, and became fascinated by ceramics. When he graduated in the early 1970s, he wanted to teach high-school art. “But the employment situation then was that somebody had to die before a position came open, so I went back home, more or less, and built myself a studio in Manitou Springs. I started selling my work right away, so I’ve never really had a day job.”

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Birdfeeders are the mainstay at Mudlark

IN WAYS, it seems a pity that Tullis never got a teaching job, for it appears he’d have been a good one. He knows his subject intimately — he mixes his own clays and glazes — and he’s very patient and careful when answering questions from a writer who needs to be told the difference between a glaze and a slip.

Along the way, he got into bird feeders. Most of his bird feeders are sold by catalog companies that cater to bird-watchers, and a few years ago, one of those companies was looking for someone to supply 2,500 ceramic bird feeders.

“I’d been looking for something I could do in a small space, and I got the bid.” Now the feeders are his own designs, but they remain a mass-production item; Tullis shows off his shaping jigs used on the wheel, and how he’s standardized certain parts.

You get the idea that figuring out the production is as enjoyable to him as making the pottery, and you’re right. “I like to tinker, to build things. That impulse is not confined to shaping clay.” Then he talks about building wood-fired kilns, and how he had to learn to weld to improve his clay mixer.

His shop building at 320 G Street in Salida was just a log shell with a leaky roof when he bought it in November of 1998: “For five months, I didn’t make or sell a single pot.” Instead, he was framing, wiring, plumbing, dry-walling, painting — whatever it took to get it open in time for Artwalk in 1999.

TULLIS’S MOVE TO SALIDA started with a divorce five years ago. He went to visit some friends in Howard who were holding a party to celebrate the opening of their veterinary clinic. “I took my fishing gear, which was a good thing, since my old pickup broke down somewhere around Coaldale. I ended up spending 10 days, mostly fishing, and when I wasn’t fishing, I found some studio space and a place to live in Howard. It was one of those things that I didn’t know that I had to do until I did it.”

He was there three years. “My business isn’t real dependent on location,” he notes, “since I can operate anywhere with a phone and United Parcel Service.” But then his landlord announced plans to sell, and Tullis started looking for a new home, and found his rustic-looking building near the Salida Safeway.

Tullis doesn’t just make bird feeders or related items like birdbaths. On display in the small gallery area at the pottery entry are some pieces that look like sculpture, and he has a full line of glazed dinnerware, decorated with either blueberries or fish.

“It’s usually open during normal business hours,” he says, “but it’s just me here, so sometimes I’m off running errands. Plus, there’s always the temptation to go fishing, and sometimes I can’t resist.”

Ed Quillen hasn’t had an art class since 1965, but the single pot he made then is still in use as a pencil-holder in his parents’ home. He keeps trying to learn the difference between a slip and a glaze.