Into a building that has served as a doctor, lawyer, and dentist office enters a woman who has been a zookeeper, lifeguard, SCUBA instructor, dolphin trainer, super-mom of active teens and, now, established potter. For years, Debbie Walterhouse has had an eye out for the perfect space to hold the equipment she uses to wedge, throw, fire and glaze. After looking around the region for the perfect spot, she realized that, indeed, there is no place like home. Walterhouse is currently putting the finishing touches on her new studio that will open in downtown Kendallville. While balancing a family and the hectic schedules of track, cheerleading, volleyball and other teenage affairs, Walterhouse managed to carve out time to learn the skills needed to become a potter who has a stronger command of the medium than she will admit. So dedicated is she to learning the art, she once insisted, while in labor on the way to the hospital, that her husband stop at IPFW just so she could make sure her pieces made it into the kiln for the glaze firing.
Walterhouse took her first pottery class in 1996 from Jaleh Pessian Fazel. The class changed her life. She fell in love with clay and met a lifelong mentor and friend.
“Jaleh and I became friends,” says Walterhouse. “We had a connection. I would go to her house, and we would throw things. She would say things like, ‘Today we are going to make pitchers.’ She would turn on NPR, open a bottle of wine, and we would work.”
Walterhouse’s love for functional pottery came from Fazel who made pieces to serve specific functions.
“She had a bowl for olives and a separate bowl for pits. She made a dish for olive oil and plates for different types of bread,” she says.
Walterhouse carries on her early instructor’s creative process. As she moves through the world, she observes textures and wonders if she can mimic the effect in clay. She picks up pots and mugs in stores and at art fairs and quickly identifies what type of clay was used and what glazes were applied. She notices if the bottom of the piece is neatly tooled or simply pulled with a wire from the wheel.
“I always pick up pieces and look at the tooling. Tooling is important to me. I like things to look clean and finished,” she says. “Jaleh always said, ‘Would you want someone to see your dirty feet?’”
Her experience as a whale trainer and SCUBA diver, while long ago, continue to feed her process. She draws inspiration from the organic forms found underwater.
“I still have the image of a sea sponge in my mind. I have to figure out how to make that sea sponge with clay,” says Walterhouse.
While organic objects drive her pottery design, her studio setup revolves around an industrial vibe balanced with a collection of furniture and equipment that has been collected and passed down by family and friends through the generations. Walterhouse picked up a display case at auction when the Kendallville landmark store, Klinkenbergs, closed. She picked up an industrial sink sprayer from a salvage store with the enthusiasm only a fellow potter would recognize. The basement of the studio showcases furniture from her childhood that Walterhouse plans to use as display features for the jewelry that she makes.
The main floor is where the action will take place. Walterhouse has three pottery wheels, one being a particularly coveted and rare standing kick wheel that is no longer manufactured. “I’ll use that one for trimming and when I need to get out of a sitting position,” she says. “I’ll have another wheel facing the windows so I can look at the world, and the third will be a demo wheel that I can use to throw while I talk to customers.” She even plans to set up a side-by-side student wheel for very limited, private lessons.
Walterhouse is planning every detail to support her needs as a practicing artist. The walls of her studio are the same used to construct storage sheds and will serve to hold sturdy nails which will support displays of large pottery. She is putting in a room for glazing, complete with a high level counter for stand-up glazing and plans to mix her own glazes.
“My goal is to have glazes that are all original to me,” says Walterhouse. Another customized feature of her shop: she is not going to follow normal nine-to-five business hours but plans to display a flag that reads, “The Potter Is In” and open only when it fits her life and schedule.
Walterhouse didn’t get to this level of independence overnight. She spent years taking workshops and classes.
“I always wanted to learn more,” she says. “I took adult classes from Sherri Burholder at East Noble High School and workshops from Mark Oberholtzer who runs the art department at Garrett High School. “Potters are very giving and supportive,” says Walterhouse. “We truly want each other to do well.”
Walterhouse stepped into a larger potter’s community when she traded a pug mill to Justin Rothshank of Goshen in exchange for the chance to participate in his renowned wood kiln firings. She was assigned to wadding, the process of attaching small balls of clay to the bottoms of each clay piece to prevent the glaze from fusing to the kiln’s interior. She also supported the effort by splitting logs to feed the fire.
“A wood fire is a big deal. It takes an army of people to load, feed and watch the kiln,” says Walterhouse. “People come from all over the Midwest. They sleep in Justin’s basement and cook pizza in the custom built brick oven all while watching the kiln and feeding the fire in shifts all night long.”
Through her experience at the wood firing, Walterhouse met some of the “celebrities of the pottery world.” She got to know Moey Hart and Dick Lehman who recently invited Walterhouse to participate in the prestigious Michiana Pottery Tour which takes place near Goshen on the weekend of September 28.
The invitation to participate in the event isn’t surprising. Walterhouse’s pottery has an easily recognizable style. Her work is solid, comfortable to hold and tasteful. Her pieces are relaxed yet beautiful – a direct reflection of Walterhouse’s own personality.
Just as other potters have helped her along the way, Walterhouse is devoted to helping others learn the craft. She has a comfort level with children which is very rare. With no training in education, she easily captivates the attention and respect of young students. They are eager to learn from her because they sense her sincerity and quickly realize that this woman knows her stuff.
As a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters, Walterhouse supports her little sister’s interest in the arts and dreams of spending days throwing pots with her. “When she gets in there, I think she’ll bloom,” she says.
Walterhouse’s dynamic vision paired with the skill to produce pottery that reflects her warm and inviting personality seems to be the perfect formula for success. She is an artist devoted to her craft paired with a strong work ethic.
No doubt many good things are sure to spring out from the little brick building at 115 William Street in Kendallville that’s home to both Walterhouse and her Midtown Potter Studio.
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