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.
Click on the headings below for full calendars
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Art on Broadway — Tours of 5 downtown venues featuring art from Alexandra Hall, Julie Wall, Peter Lupkin, Daniel Dienelt, Knotodday, Kay Gregg, Terry Ratliff and St. Monci, 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Broadway Street, Fort Wayne, free, 417-5925
Beer, Bourbon, Bacon Festival — Unlimited beer sampling from national and regional craft breweries, fine bourbon sampling and bacon inspired treats, 6-9 p.m. Saturday, March 25 (5-9 p.m. VIP), Marquis and Three Rivers Ballrooms, Hotel Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, $35-$75, 484-0411
An Evening with Author Tom Frank — Author of What’s the Matter with Kansas talks about his new book; hors d’oeuvres, lecture and book signing included in admission, 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25, CS3 Hideaway, Fort Wayne, $15 plus donation, 602-1008
Puttin’ on the Ritz —Active 20-30 club fundraiser with live music from Chris Worth and Company, gourmet edibles, wine and beer, live and silent auctions; black tie optional, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, $50-$90, 450-2844
Shipshewana on the Road — Food, craft and primitives show and sale, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, March 25 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $4, 483-1111
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Click header for complete Music & Comedy calendar
Big Dick and the Penetrators — Classic rock at Navy Club, Ship 245, New Haven, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 493-4044
Brat Pack — Rat Pack/variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at Vinnie's Bar, Decatur, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 729-2225
Ellsworth Sharp — Neofolk at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 745-3369
FBC Band w/Sheba — Variety/Music and Memories benefit at C2G Music Hall, Fort Wayne , 8 p.m., $7-$15, 426-6434
Fireball Matinee — Rock at Hideaway Lounge, Bluffton, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 824-0455
Fleshwounds — Rock at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 488-3344
Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra — Funk at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., cover, 483-1311
Fu5ion — Variety at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $3, (260) 387-5063
The Illegals — Rock at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 422-5896
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 Alley Sports Bar, Pro Bowl West, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-4421
Johnny Freakin' Xcitor — Country rock at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
The Orange Opera w/Mickyle James — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., $5, 267-5303
Prime Suspects — Variety at American Legion Post 499, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 483-1368
Quincy and the Q-Tet feat. Phil Potts — Rock/variety at Downtown Eatery & Spirits, Warsaw, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, (574) 267-6000
Second Nature — Pop at Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Shannon Persinger Quartet — Jazz/variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at American Legion Post 148, Fort Wayne, 7 p.m., no cover, 423-4751
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Ambitious Blondes Karaoke — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Beat Karaoke & DJ — Variety at American Legion Post 296, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m. , no cover, 456-2988
Bucca Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Corner Pocket Tavern, Fremont, 10 p.m., no cover, 495-9255
Classic City Karaoke w/Tobin — Karaoke at Toad's Tavern, Monroeville, 10 p.m., no cover, 623-6226
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Karaoke at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., , 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 557-1563
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-4748
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 — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Live DJ — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Pike's Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-6200
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at Kville Pub, Kendallville, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 348-1677
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The Children’s Hour — Lillian Hellman’s seminal drama about bigotry perpetuated against the LGBT community and how easily a lie can spread, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
Getting Sara Married — Comedy about an unmarried lawyer in need of a husband (according to her aunt), 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Saturday, March 25, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
One Foot in the Gravy — Howard Kingkade’s comedy and winner of Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 422-4226
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Click header for complete Art calendar
22nd Annual Valentine’s Invitational — Works from local and national artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru March 31, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568
2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — Award-winning works from northern Indiana and northwest Ohio middle and high school students, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Afros: A Celebration of African Hair by Michael July — Contemporary photography exhibit by Brooklyn author/photographer, daily thru April 14, D’Agostino Art Gallery, Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne, 399-8626
An Artful Spring — Works by Gwen Gutwein, Patricia Weiss, Austin Cartwright and more, Tuesday-Saturday thru March 31, Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Decatur Sculpture Tour — 31 original sculptures and 15 permanent exhibits on display, walking tour maps available, thru April 1, Decatur, free, 724-2605
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Entropy — Daniel Swartz solo exhibition explores relationship between death and mourning through combinations of mythology, mathematics, multi-dimensional physics and pop culture, Monday-Saturday thru April 1, Jennifer Ford Art, Fort Wayne, 740-1309
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
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, $5-$7 (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
Garden Party — Garden-themed works in a variety of mediums from over 30 local artists, Monday-Saturday thru March 31, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Generations: A View of Who Was Who — Works by Romare Bearden, Kara Walker, Alma Thomas, Jacob Lawrence and other African-American artists, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
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
A Mary Poppins Garden Party — Child-oriented garden exhibit, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 1, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Moments in Time: Reflecting on the Human Spirit — Elizabeth Opalenik photographs from her recent Amish series A Journey Home and her Reflecting on the Edge exhibition, daily thru March 26, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
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
RAW. Untamed. Unashamed. Visions of Freedom. — Abstract romanticist works in acrylics and epoxy from Kristy Jahn, Fridays and Saturday-Thursday by appointment thru March 25, The Gallery at Pranayoga, Fort Wayne, 423-9642
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, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Wabash County Schools Exhibition — Works by high school art students, daily thru April 16, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102