Gary Andersen knows he has made a good life out of clay.
Nearly two decades after retiring as an art teacher from Peninsula High School, Andersen continues to mold and clip clay into pottery many on the Key Peninsula and beyond have in their homes.
“It’s a pretty good life,” said the 76-year-old with short-cropped hair and a gray beard. “If I dropped dead with a piece of wet pottery, don’t ever feel sorry for me.”
He mostly does pottery these days as a hobby — taking pottery orders from friends and people who have heard about him or have seen his sign along the Key Peninsula Highway.
He opens his shop for six hours every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m..
Andersen also gives private lessons for $20 an hour — the clay is included and so is the firing.
This passion burns just as hot today as his glaze fire kiln.
Thinking back, Andersen said, he almost never got the chance to throw clay on a potter’s wheel.
The way he tells it, a lot of things in his life seem to just happen.
Andersen earned an art degree from the University of Puget Sound in 1961, but could not find a job as an artist.
A friend, who just happened to work at a commercial printing business, told him they needed a printer’s apprentice.
He took the job shortly after graduation. But he also promptly went back to school to earn an education degree.
In 1976, the high school in Purdy just happened to be looking for a teacher who knew printing and art.
This was right up his wheel house. He knew printing and he had an art degree.
He applied and got the job.
“Oh, ‘and you’ll be teaching a wheel class as well’,” he said they told him.
The problem was he knew little to nothing about pottery.
So, back to UPS he went to learn how to work clay.
A passion for pottery was born.
A LOVE AFFAIR
Andersen’s love of the fine-grain soil we know as clay has been an affair that has survived 10 U.S. Presidents.
As longevity goes, even his marriage to his wife Michael Ann — that has endured for more than half a century — cannot beat that.
The jovial and well-spoken couple met in the mid 1960s while both worked in a Bon Marche store in Northgate, a few miles north of Seattle.
He was a floor manager and she just happened to be there for the summer while on break from Western Washington College.
“He was on an escalator going up and he asked me if I wanted to go out,” said his wife, who he calls Mikie.
A bit forward, to be sure, both agreed laughing.
“I was the boss,” he said.
“How unique was that,” was her response, tinged with irony.
Andersen grew up in Tacoma and has never lived outside of Pierce County. She was born in Fort Collins, Colo., and moved to Seattle with her family.
He was an art teacher, while she raised their four boys — Chris, Greg, Matthew and Eric.
The Andersens live on 17-acres just up Whiteman Road from Joemma Beach State Park. The cozy house that Michael Ann calls “a vacation cabin” was built from lumber that Andersen cut himself. Their home was completed in late 1974.
“There was nothing here but woods,” Andersen said.
According to Michael Ann they moved to the Key Peninsula because they could afford it.
“We paid $829 an acre, and we thought that was too much,” she said laughing.
Beside the economy of their move, she said, moving to the southern end of the Key Peninsula gave them the opportunity to raise their four boys the way they wanted to.
“You have so much freedom (out here) with the kids to teach them how to have fun and how to work,” Michael Ann said.
Since Andersen’s retirement from the classroom in 1995, they have both kept themselves busy with his pottery and their family.
“It keeps me moving,” he said.
“It gets him out of my hair,” she said.
JOY OF POTTERY
It all begins with clay.
Andersen buys his clay — white and brown — by the box. Each box contains two 25-pound bags of clay.
Although he cannot remember how much clay he has used through the years, “I can tell you I’ve used a lot,” he said.
A mug, for example, begins its existence as a three-pound piece of clay. He weighs the lump of clay just to be sure.
“It is incredible how close you can come (to the weight you need) when you’ve been doing this for a while,” he said.
The clay is thrown on the potter’s wheel and he kicks the motor to life.
Andersen first centers the lump of white clay and feels it for air bubbles. He flattens the clay and then lifts the lump using a move he calls the “karate chop”.
Then he opens up the wet lump — his fingers gracefully caressing the wet clay — and it begins to take shape.
He said “it takes three pulls” before a mug really takes shape.
He kills the motor momentarily and checks the dimensions of the mug.
“It is suppose to be 4 (inches) wide and 5 (inches) tall,” he said.
A clay-stained tape measure confirms it.
A weathered clipboard has a record of it.
The shapes, sizes and dimensions of nearly all of his pieces are recorded on that yellow-lined notepad that has since turned gray after 45 years. It is a helpful reference, he said.
After he is satisfied with the shape, he finds space on one of his crowded shelves to set the piece down. He then makes a handle and attaches it to the mug.
Next a design will be stamped on the piece and stains applied.
Then the base of the mug is trimmed — a process that smooths out the rough edges. It is left on the self overnight to dry.
The next two steps involve kilns to finish the piece.
First is the bisque fire, then the piece is glazed.
The glaze fire can run more than 12 hours, he said. It is a patient process that slowly, consistently and gradually raises the temperature of the fire until the desired heat is reached.
Most of Andersen’s work happen inside his pottery studio in the back of his house.
The flickering light of six fluorescent tubes give a greenish glow to the small room lined with shelves and benches. Jars of tools stake out every corner of the tight room. A square window allows in a bit of natural light while a portable heater keeps the space toasty.
The room feels messy. But as Andersen puts on an apron and sits in front of the potter’s wheel, he brings everything into focus.
This is his life. His art. His love.
“It is so therapeutic and at my age my doctor says I have the best looking arthritic hands he has ever seen,” he said with a smile. “If I won the lottery I would make pottery and give it away. I enjoy it so much.”