Artist Profile: Paula West, San Juan Island

Left: a carved plate.  Right: flared bowl. Above: Paula at work in her studio on San Juan Island -
Left: a carved plate. Right: flared bowl. Above: Paula at work in her studio on San Juan Island
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As with many people, Paula West's career as a ceramic artist began with the help of a talented and passionate teacher.

She remembers taking class field trips to his ceramic studio where she and her class learned the ins and outs of ceramics and pottery. That's where her love for art began. "It just struck me as a really great place to work," she said.

Since those early high school days, "I've just kept my hands in it," West said of her craft. She went on to study art in college, where she received a general art degree. However, during her time there she focused on ceramics.

West, who is originally from New Hampshire, came west to see what it was like. She traveled around California and then headed north, finally ending up on San Juan Island in 1990. "I never wanted to go back," said West. "The pace and the beauty has pretty much kept me out here."

Settling in the San Juans allowed West to do something she hadn't had the chance to do in the past -- set up a permanent studio. In 1993, her space was finished and she was ready to delve into her craft with even more enthusiasm. In the beginning she attended several regional shows, such as Bumbershoot and Folklife, where she would set up a booth to sell her ceramics and pottery. However, with a studio, West found she had a new and meaningful way to share her craft with the public. She allowed people to watch her work. "It's so much more meaningful for people to see how things are made," said West, adding that the face-to-face contact with her patrons is invaluable. "It's sort of a way of connecting with people." Not only that, she found people valued her work more when they saw the energy that went into creating it.

With her studio, which is located at her home, West found she had the ability to really concentrate on her work and with that, she decided to go back to basics. "I wanted to simplify," she said. Her ceramics are made using porcelain clay, which when fired in her 2150 degree electric kiln turn a distinct white color. With that base, she decided to use black. "I think focusing on that one specific thing helped me develop my style," said West.

She decorates her ceramics using a wax resist process that when applied resists other colors. She paints the opposite of the image she wants and then when colors are applied they only adhere to the areas that weren't treated with the wax resist.

Her favorite projects, though, are throwing mugs on the potter's wheel. "I really enjoy making them," said West, adding that she believes they are very personal items, with each and every person liking theirs a specific way. "It makes it a little more meaningful," she said.

Not only that, but those who pick up a piece of her art have an idea of the energy and determination that goes into each piece. "There's this romance to it," West said of working with pottery. "But to make it work it takes a lot of commitment and end work."

Even though she has a very specific style, West likes to mix it up every now and then. "I really need to move around to keep myself interested," she said. She creates a whole variety of functional art such a bowls, covered storage jars, platters, vases, teapots, pitchers, tumblers, and candle sticks.

And it's not just the shape that she changes; she often will try new techniques such as slab work, where she rolls out the clay and cuts shapes or, lately, she's been doing a lot of stamping. West makes her own stamps and then applies them to the pottery while it's still wet.

"I just love having my hands on the wheel and creating functional art," she said.

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