In the days before tax extensions, Sandy Schulz was a tax season widow. Her husband, Gary, was an accountant and virtually non-existent to his family during those four months prior to April 15, and to pass the time, she began taking night classes, anything and everything, including pottery. “I became a potter because of tax season,” Sandy says, and after taxes were in, the night classes provided a way, by her absence, for her kids to get to know their father again.
This Chesterfield artist was never allowed to take art classes as a child. “Crazy” artist relatives didn’t provide an acceptable role model. So she became an English teacher instead and taught in public schools for 15 years. It’s been about 10 years since pit firing took hold of Sandy’s imagination, and for her, the craft has been as much about experimentation as it has been about creation. In her pottery classes, no one taught her how to pit fire. Through exposure to artists from Florida and Germany, American Indian culture and techniques, and books, Sandy has honed her skill.
The pottery she creates has the warm, familiar personality of its creator. “I don’t do functional,” she says. To do that, glaze must be used, which gives the piece a cold, hard finish. Sandy’s pots still feel of the earth, which is exactly what she wants them to do. In colors ranging from white to black and every earthy brown and red in between, her pots do not have the glossy finish associated with other types of pottery, probably because Sandy doesn’t use the same Crayolas. Beginning with a three-foot deep hole in the ground, she fills the pit with “stuff.”
“Cow pies make a great mark,” Sandy says.
She also uses coffee grounds, copper wire, copper carbonate, salt, sawdust, banana peels, and onion. She’s even tried dog food but didn’t get any color. She then arranges her thrown pottery in the pit with the compost, covers it with both large and small pieces of wood, and lights the fire. By burning the pit from the top down, the pots heat gradually, burn all night, and cool slowly, which is the best way to prevent thermal shock and breakage.
"It speaks to me because it allows me to put a design on my pieces and allows Mother Nature and fire to do their work,” Sandy says. “I just get out of the way.”
Once the pit has cooled, Sandy digs in to discover what she and nature have created. Vivid colors emerge from the ash, but Sandy has the last say. If she doesn’t like a piece, it goes back in the pit, and she tries again. “That’s one reason why I love it so much,” Sandy says, “the unexpected result. Everything plays into it: weather, compost, temperature. It allows nature to come into how the pieces are going to turn out.”
Sandy relates this second-chance ability to her life, too. Now that the kids are grown, she says, “It’s my turn. Let’s see what I can do!” She still lets the teacher in her come out occasionally to pass on her hard-learned techniques. In fact, “The biggest joy I have is when I do a demonstration,” she says. “It’s the whole giving-back process of sharing what I do.”