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.