Potter Karen LeBlond of Westcliffe

Article by Leah Lahtinen

Local Artists – August 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

To study the history of Karen LeBlond, a Westcliffe potter, is to study the history of pottery in Colorado. She learned her craft here, and grew as an artist even as her art grew and stretched.

When Karen studied at the Chicago Art Institute, she found the pottery program there “meager,” she says. Everything she learned about contemporary pottery was in Boulder at the University of Colorado and Boulder Parks and Recreation, under world-renowned teacher Betty Woodman, who was trying to assemble a coterie of potters at the Parks and Rec.

In the mid-1960s, Karen started taking classes on a continuing basis, working at the Boulder Firehouse, a pottery studio which offered classes at reasonable rates. The Firehouse was so successful, and many of its potters became so prolific, organizers had to limit the students to three beginning classes and four advanced classes — then they were pushed out of the nest to fly or fail on their own. “We were all making a living out of there,” remembers Karen.

Some of the potters out of the Boulder Firehouse started the Boulder Potters Guild; Karen joined it three years later. It was a requirement of the Potters Guild that members be able to mix glazes, mix clay, and fire a gas kiln for high-fire reduction in the Oriental style of firing.

In 1971, when Karen became a member of the Guild, there were 26 members. There were so many artists throwing pots at the Guild that they took turns, working in shifts, so everyone who wanted to could have a chance. Anybody who had equipment was asked to donate it so that the Guild could teach classes. When the Guild bought its own equipment, the donors could have their kilns and wheels back.

The Guild became another venue for teaching pottery in Boulder, which was a Mecca for potters. To keep their non-profit status, the Boulder Potters Guild would bring in famous teachers from as far as Japan and England — teachers like Michael Cardew, Paul Soldner, and Daniel Rhodes.

Many of the members of the Guild were hobbyists. Karen says she was one of the first ones who was “bound and determined to make a living at it.” “Once they accepted me, they opened up to the idea,” she adds.

Karen produced so much that she needed her own studio. She moved to nearby Longmont, where she bought a home and created a studio to further her work. At one time, Karen’s porcelain was so popular that she was showing it in 12 different galleries, in 20 different styles, and in 10 different colors. “It wasn’t fun,” she says.

Karen turned to Raku “because the time demand on being a functional potter is so great,” requiring making many multiples of things. The greatest difference between Raku, a contemporary Japanese discipline, and other types of pottery is in the way in which the glaze on the pot is fired. Raku offered her the opportunity of creating unique items. She had done Raku before as a hobby, and had taught Raku as a relaxation.

In the spring of 1984, Karen stopped making functional porcelain altogether to concentrate on Raku. By June, she was entering shows, and winning every award there was to win. “It was the encouragement I needed to get out of functional pottery.”

She added her own twist, using brighter, crisper colors in a discipline which had traditionally tended toward black and gray. She developed ideas which had not been seen much before. She continued to do workshops with other people. By 1989, she was giving workshops, and doing things in her area of specialty that no one else was doing.

In 1992, she moved to Westcliffe, where she had a studio in the Wet Mountain Trading Company, which showcased her work and helped her develop a sizable local following. She continued working and developing professionally. She spent much time perfecting her own mixtures of clay, and her own formulas for glazes.

When she moved to Custer County, Karen expected that she would have to travel, but as it turned out, she has a continuous flow of people into the Wet Mountain Valley, and she hasn’t had to travel since she moved to Westcliffe. For the past several years, Karen has had her studio and shown her work at The Emporium in Westcliffe.

According to Karen, the most important and sometimes most difficult step in pottery is centering the clay. If a potter is throwing on a wheel, he can’t achieve success unless the clay is centered. Centering requires “an ability to concentrate on your own energy, the clay, which is a mass, and the wheel, which should be doing the work,” explains Karen. “The clay must be coaxed on center — it can’t be forced.”

After being formed by the revolutions of the wheel and the hands of the potter, the clay is dried, then fired, making it acceptable for the glaze. A glaze is a combination of clays and minerals such as ball clay, feldspar and silica, which form glass on the clay in a shiny, matte or satin finish. Because of the components of the glaze, it is not just an overlay but becomes part of the pot.

Pottery is “humbling, a trial by fire,” says Karen. “You never have complete control.” She feels the nature of their art makes potters less egocentric, more down to earth and realistic. Potters love to share with novices and peers alike. “There isn’t a potter that’s incapable of teaching,” Karen says.

To allow her to share her knowledge with a wider audience, Karen has recently completed a pair of videotapes, suitable for beginning and intermediate potters. Both her pottery and her videos are available at The Emporium, 405 Main Street in Westcliffe. She can be reached at 7197832146.

Leah Lahtinen lives in Gardner and does most of her writing for the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe.