If you wander into the Creative Arts Center in Chatham to see the artwork, you might depart without ever realizing that below the multiple galleries on the first floor is what one student recently described as “the little gem in town.”
The basement is the place you will find award-winning potter Chelsie Starace teaching a pottery class in hand-building and wheel-throwing pots and other ceramic objects. On a recent Wednesday morning, eight students are seated on stools wearing aprons or smocks, surrounded by bags of clay and a host of glazes and paints. They are hunched over their wheels and their hands move quickly, frequently scooping and sprinkling water from nearby buckets.
Starace gives advice and encouragement as the students work at their own pace on their individual projects. It’s a “practice makes perfect” art and it teaches patience. Clay responds to the slightest touch, she said. “You have to be able to slow down and be in the moment. If not, the pottery will tell you right away!” she said. “It’s better than yoga,” she added. “At the end I can eat off it”
Born and raised on Cape Cod, Starace grew up in South Yarmouth. By sixth grade she had learned to work with clay but it was a pottery class at Dennis-Yarmouth High School that ignited her passion for the medium. “My interest turned into an obsession,” she wrote.
Her connection to the clay flowed naturally from growing up on Cape Cod. “I grew up playing in the sand on Chapin Beach every day,” she recalled. “Between that and swimming, boating and fishing, I was not afraid to get dirty!” While a sophomore at DY, she entered a hand-built parrot fish piece in a Boston Globe scholarship completion in the pottery category and earned an honorable mention.
She took as many art classes as possible in high school, including drawing and painting. Following graduation she studied at Cape Cod Community College and the Art Institute of Boston. She found her “home away from home” at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. In 2013 she graduated with a bachelors of fine arts degree in art education and a concentration in ceramics.
Making a living as an artist is tough; doing it on Cape Cod can be even tougher. After graduation she applied for teaching positions but those jobs were few and far between, and she wanted to stay on Cape Cod. To make ends meet she worked as an apprentice jeweler in Harwich while looking for ways to get back to making and teaching pottery.
While taking a pottery class with Nat Doane at Cape Cod Museum of Art, she learned that highly regarded Brewster potter Diane Heart was looking for an assistant at her Heart Pottery Studio on Route 6A. The position involved helping with studio work, loading and unloading clay, selling wares, cleaning the studio and more. In addition, she would have time to produce her own work. “We hit it off and I have been there ever since,” Starace said.
Initially she continued to also work as an apprentice jeweler but by 2014 she was ready to focus completely on her pottery. “I was terrified but I knew I needed to be all-in,” she recalled. In addition to her Heart Studio work, she began an association with the Chatham Creative Arts Center. She teaches several sold-out classes there, and she was also the festival coordinator for the 45th Festival of the Arts in August.
She knows all about art shows and participates in artisan craft shows herself once or twice a month from June through Christmas. In addition to the Chatham show, she shows her wares at Cranberry Festival in Harwich, the Seaside Festival in Yarmouth and the Brewster Ladies Library show, to name a few.
Starace has gradually developed her own voice and style, which she calls whimsical, nautical and a little free. “Pottery is an expression of who you are,” she added. It is also a physically demanding art involving lifting and interacting with heavy batches of clay. She works with English porcelain in her studio and always hand mixes her glazes, producing colors that are unique to her works.
Going from a lump of clay to a piece of art is a process that for Starace involves studying the shape of the clay. “I play with the shapes and look at what the function of the piece will be. Is it a bowl for soup, or maybe salad or pasta?”
An award-winning oyster plate she produces is not only attractive but functional. Her pieces are all microwave, dishwasher and oven safe. “I needed to make the plate’s oyster shell holders so that the oysters would be coddled to prevent liquid in the shell from spilling,” she said. “You can make and cook oysters Rockefeller in this dish and never have to move the oysters out.”
As a teacher, she has some tips for aspiring potters.
“Eat breakfast!” she says with a grin, adding if you are hungry you will have no creative juices and no patience.
“Let go of your daily issues.” A potter needs to be focused on the here and now. And “Don’t forget to breathe!” Concentration is important but relaxing into the moment is too.
“It’s great when it all comes together and I see the look on someone’s face that says ‘I got it!’” Starace said.