Still trying to do my teacher proud

By Lisa Britton September 01, 2008 01:00 am

I’ve been making my own bread lately, in an effort to do more cooking from scratch. Bread, however, requires kneading — a skill many don’t need anymore thanks to the bread aisle.

The other day I was making dough, and dumped the gloopy mess on the counter to “knead until elastic, about 10 minutes.”

I set to it, molding the dough into a ball and then kneading with a motion of fold, push, fold, push, then add more flour to keep it from sticking.

My mind wanders during repetitive tasks such as this, and I remembered something from about five years ago when I took my first pottery class at Crossroads Art Center.

Pottery instructor LaVonne Kasper had brought a notice into the newspaper to announce a beginning class, and I’d always wanted to learn — I can’t paint, so I thought I’d try playing with clay.

I signed up.

The class met for a month during January, a time when any pastime is welcome to fill those long, dark hours.

I was intimidated, to say the least, because I’ve never considered myself an artist in any sense of the word. (My sixth grade art pieces, however, are still favorites thanks to my teachers, Terri Axness and Brenda Johnson, two wonderful artists.)

But back to that pottery class.

We learned the basics about clay and made a little pinch pot by starting with a ball of clay we “pinched” into the shape of a bowl.

I still have that piece, and during the month discovered the wonderful way that working with clay can take all your cares away for a few hours.

Two months later I signed up for LaVonne’s beginning wheel class and set about learning to use the potter’s wheel.

But before throwing a pot, your clay must be of the right moisture level, which requires an action called wedging.

LaVonne taught us two techniques: one is a circular motion that creates a form resembling a sort of braid, and the other works the clay just like kneading bread dough and results in a form resembling the head of a mountain goat.

I never could master the braid motion, so instead settled into kneading the clay. (This is also a great stress reliever.)

Now, whenever I tackle a mass of bread dough and work it into the condition I need, I can’t help but think back to that dark pottery studio where the scent of clay dust always tickled your nostrils.

Over the years I spent more time with LaVonne during open studio hours, and even joined a raku class at her home (this style involves a lot of fire and heat to create very cool metallic pieces).

My time with her was full of laughter, and she always asked about work and seemed truly interested in the stories I wrote.

Then the pottery studio closed due to a lack of fire exits, and my life got more complicated with getting married and then having a baby.

I saw LaVonne every once in a while, and last fall visited her home to do a story about her as a featured artist at Crossroads. It was my first day back to work after two months on maternity leave, and I brought my infant daughter along at LaVonne’s request.

Two-month-olds are not known for patience, but I did my best to write as I rocked her infant seat.

LaVonne, with a smile, swooped my baby up in a maternal cuddle while never missing a beat in her story.

And that was LaVonne — a nurturing woman who cared so much about her family and friends.

(In the past 25 years, LaVonne and her husband, Aaron, have provided a home for 11 foster children, in addition to their own.)

And her art — in addition to working in her own studio, she taught classes at Crossroads and also spent more than 10 years with the artist-in-residence program to work in schools all around Eastern Oregon.

LaVonne died July 2 of a heart attack caused by a blood clot. She was 51.

In the past few years she and Terri Axness worked many hours to design the new pottery studio at Crossroads Carnegie Art Center — a space filled with light and new wheels, two kilns and a special glazing space.

The studio will be dedicated as the “LaVonne Kasper Memorial Studio” on Friday during the 10th annual Art at the Crossroads show.

As for me? I yearn to get back to pottery.

And, though I can’t speak for all of her students, I know that whenever I sit down at a potter’s wheel and begin modeling a ball of slick clay, I will think of LaVonne and hope my clay creations do my teacher proud.

Lisa Britton is a reporter for the Baker City Herald.