Give a kid a shovel and he will dig – and dig, and dig, and dig.
Joseph Pelka, a local ceramicist, connected with the earth (mud specifically) at an early age when he asked his mom for permission to dig a fishpond in his backyard. Assuming the summer vacation daze had begun to dim her son’s creative brain, Pelka’s mom sanctioned the project.
“It was huge,” he recounts, emphasizing the word, huge with a tinge of fading Californian accent. “My mom had no idea I would actually do it. We filled it with koi fish when they were just starting to get popular.”
While he didn’t realize it at the time, the pond served as a research lab filling his mind with enough creative seeds to inspire a prolific career as an artist devoted to mud spinning on a pottery wheel.
Pelka’s strong connection to nature is reflected in his creative endeavors. He remembers the stream patterns carved by the fish as they swam in his pond and references the flowing yet fleeting lines in his designs. Salamanders, frogs, and snakes – “everything that kinda crawled around, I started putting them on my artwork right away,” Pelka explained, his eyes alive and gleaming with childhood nostalgia. His vessels are often set on stilted legs and dressed in textures resembling stones, sea plants and assorted hairless creatures. He is currently building an army of turtles that can be purchased as single units or small platoons at the Barr Street Market where the artist can be found most Saturday mornings.
A California native, Pelka was drawn to the Midwest by the lucrative summer art shows that cycle through the area.
“Midwest art shows were crankin’,” he explains.
As a successful potter in California, Pelka found himself traveling east every year to shows in Chicago and other surrounding cities. He and his wife, Kathy, who keeps the business side of selling art moving forward, surveyed the area and decided to pack up and move to centrally located Fort Wayne. The accessibility to larger art markets may have attracted them to the city, but even after living in the area for 10 years, Pelka shows vibrant enthusiasm toward his not-so-new home base.
“I love having space around me. I can see across the field from my studio. Deer run around here all the time. California is way built up – feels like you are caged in.” He also comments on the quirky tradition of travelers receiving a plastic wrapped cookie upon landing at the Fort Wayne International Airport.
“I love that!” he says, with sincere enthusiasm emphasized by bright eyes and a quick, upright jolt in posture.
Pelka’s studio is located in Huntertown, in an aged but interesting strip mall that most people zip right past. Upon entering his store visitors are greeted by colorful, mural-sized paintings that serve as the foundation for assemblages of bright and whimsical clay fish. The fish pop out from the paintings at various levels, resulting in an irresistible attraction to step forward and touch the work.
At this point, Pelka has most likely greeted his visitor with a warm “hello,” taking just a moment to look up from his work, before returning his hands to the spinning clay. A few more minutes of gazing around the shop and visitors notice the bright glazes that Pelka is known for. Look inside any of his vessels and the discovery of a coating of bright, turquoise sends a cheerful greeting from the artist.
At this point, a person may start to notice the details in the work. Pelka takes pride in the fact that he creates each piece by hand and has never used mass production techniques of slip-cast molds.
“I keep integrity in my work,” he says. “I want quality to be there no matter what the price.”
The quiet hum of the rotating pottery wheel often lures curious patrons to sit down and observe Pelka as his slip-coated hands transform a blob of mud into a work of art. Ask him questions and he is happy to answer.
When did he start making pottery?
“I’ve been a potter since high school. I’m a product of community college,” says Pelka. “I really like industrial arts and art, but I was turned off by school. I loved working with my hands. I knew it in fourth grade.”
After being disenchanted by working in a mass-production pottery factory, Pelka joined a potter’s guild.
“I got a job glazing awful pottery,” says Pelka. “Clay is such a noble substance. I couldn’t understand why anyone would abuse it like that.”
The decision to network with other artists changed the course of his career. He worked closely with some famous potters, including Beatrix Wood who, according to Pelka, “was about 105 years old at the time.” Wood suggested a visit to some high-end art shows, and Pelka took her instruction.
He was inspired by the work he saw and noted the success of other potters working around him. After much experimentation and practice, Pelka found a personal style that connected with the public.
He started to get accepted by the high-end shows and – with the diligence of his wife who sought out more opportunities and balanced the financial side of things – grew the business to the point where he could finally take the leap to live life as a full-time artist.
This summer Pelka plans to try a new strategy and skip the summer art tour. He wants to spend his time close to home where he will be a frequent seller at local markets, including the Barr Street Market.
He has developed a collaborative relationship with Hedgehog Press and hopes to continue to work with owner Julie Wall-Toles again this summer. He also leans on his wife who has set up an effective social media outlet where Pelka’s work sells well via Etsy, the online market (search pelkaclayart.etsy). He also develops longstanding relationships with clients who like to keep in touch with his progress through Facebook.
As business partners, Mr. and Mrs. Pelka are constantly strategizing and looking ahead for new and out-of-the box opportunities.
“You have to be willing to change in order to survive,” he explains. “If I can set up my life to stay creative in this economy, it’s awesome.”
With plans to increase his studio hours, Pelka hopes he can generate more traffic from people who want to watch him throw on the wheel. It is, after all, a fascinating process, especially when executed by a vibrant artist.
Punch the address 14529 Lima Road into your GPS and follow the blinking dot to his shop. Sit, stay, watch, talk, and enjoy the energy and art of Joseph Pelka.
Friday, April 28
Click on the headings below for full calendars
Click header for complete Things To Do calendar
Concordia Comedy Festival — Concordia Lutheran High School presents a showing of comedy films from middle and high school students, 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, Room 101, Neff Hall, IPFW, Fort Wayne, free, 483-1102
Tapestry: A Day for You — Day of inspiration, renewal and education for women in all stages of life with keynote speaker Ann Curry, 7:30 a.m. Friday, April 28, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $75, 483-1111
Click header for complete On the Road calendar
Click header for complete Music & Comedy calendar
Blooze Faktor — Blues at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., cover, 483-1311
Chris Worth & Company — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 557-1563
Classic Voice — Variety at The Venice Restaurant, Fort Wayne, 7-10 p.m., no cover, (260) 482-1618
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at The Venue, Angola, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 665-3922
Expanding Man — Variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
G-Money Band — Blues at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Hubie Ashcraft & Travis Gow — Country at Billy's Downtown Zulu, Monroeville, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 623-3583
The Illegals — Rock at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., no cover, 483-5526
IPFW Bands & Choirs w/Fort Wayne Children's Choir — Classical at Auer Performance Hall, Rhinehart Music Center, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., $4-$7, 481-6555
Joe Stabelli — Jazz at Don Hall's Gas House, Fort Wayne, 5:45-9 p.m., no cover, 426-3411
John Curran & Renegade — Country at American Legion Post 241, Waynedale, 8:30-11:30 p.m., no cover, 747-7851
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
Rebecca Rego — Americana/country at Two-EE's Winery, Huntington, 7:30-9:30 p.m., no cover, 672-2000
Secret Mezzanine — Variety at Deer Park Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 432-8966
String Theory — Acoustic variety at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 260-745-3369
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 422-5896
Trichotomous Hippopotamus w/Trackless, John Fishell — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., cover, 267-5303
The Why Store — Rock at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, (260) 387-5063
Click header for complete Karaoke & DJs calendar
Big Dawg Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Bucca Karaoke w/Ashley — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Dance Party w/DJ Rich — Variety at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., cover, 422-5055
DJ dance party — at Rum Runners, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., ,
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Variety at Tap Haus, New Haven, 9 p.m., no cover, 493-6622
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Jay — Variety at Coconutz @ Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Scott — Variety at JR's Pub, Leo, 9 p.m., no cover, 627-2500
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., ,
House DJ — Variety at Early Bird's Ultra Lounge, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 483-1979
House DJ — Variety at Flashback on the Landing, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 422-5292
Karaoke w/DJ Chuck — Variety at DW Bar & Grill, Churubusco, 10 p.m., no cover, 693-8172
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at Portside Pizza, Columbia City, 9 p.m., no cover, 691-3333
Karaoke — Variety at Coconutz @ Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 9-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Karaoke — Variety at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m., no cover, 488-3344
Karaoke — Variety at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Karaoke — Karaoke at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Rockstar Karaoke & DJ w/Scotty — Karaoke at Backway Lounge, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 665-5081
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at 4 Crowns, Auburn, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., no cover, 925-9805
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ w/Kevin — Variety at Danny's Italian Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 484-4444
SureShot Karaoke w/David — Variety at The Green Frog Inn, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 426-1088
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Bottle and Bottega, Fort Wayne, 8:30-10:30 p.m., no cover, 494-1020
Click header for complete Stage & Dance calendar
Funny Little Thing Called Love — Romantic comedy by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Home and Jamie Wooten, 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Friday-Saturday, April 28-29 and May 5-6 and May 12-13, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
The Little Mermaid — Fort Wayne Civic Theatre musical based on the Disney movie, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 8 p.m. Friday, May 5; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, May 6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $17-$29, 424-5220
Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
Next to Normal — Tony Award- and Pulitzer-winning musical about coping with mental illness, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 4-6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Three Rivers Music Theatre, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 498-2270
The Taming of the Shrew — William Shakespeare’s now somewhat controversial comedy about the battle between the sexes, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29 and Friday-Saturday, May 5-6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 12-13, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
A Wrinkle in Time — all for One productions’ adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult science fiction novel, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 5-6; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 7, PPG ArtsLab, Auer Center for Arts & Culture, Fort Wayne, $11-20, 422-4226
Click header for complete Movie times
Click header for complete Art calendar
37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Juxtapoz Magazine: 25 Years Under the Influence — A chronicle of the iconic magazine’s evolution into one of the most influential magazines of art of the counterculture, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Norman Bradley and Friends — Exhibition of works by friends and colleagues of the late Fort Wayne artist, Tuesday-Saturday thru May 20 , Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Perspectives Live Butterfly Display — Up close and personal perspectives of the Conservatory’s newest collection of live butterflies, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 25, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Robert Williams: SLANG Aesthetics! — An exhibition of new work by the artist considered the godfather of the lowbrow, pop surrealist and colloquial realism art movements, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 23, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3, Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru May 20 (Cinco de Mayo Fiesta featuring mariachi music by Mark Meussling 6-10 p.m. Friday, May 5), Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568