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Sgraffito artist


Stay-at-home mom uses her garage studio to make ceramics

While in the back of her four-car garage that her husband transformed into a studio, Emily MacFarland is a ceramic artist. She made her first piece of pottery while taking a class at the Art Center when she was 5 years old.

Shorty after ancient nomads discovered fire, historians suspect mankind began using clay to form water-carrying vessels. As such, pottery is millions of years old, and it is one of the oldest decorative arts known to man. Pottery is also known as ceramics, which is defined as anything that is made of clay and hardened by heat.

The advent of the potter’s wheel, probably around 3000 BC, made it possible to create a perfectly round base, a task that is otherwise nearly impossible. Using a wheel to form clay objects appears easy on TV, but it’s an acquired skill, and it’s one that Emily MacFarland accomplishes with relative ease.

“I started throwing in high school,” she says about her work at the spinning wheel. “And I really liked throwing.”

Even before taking her first turn at the potter’s wheel, MacFarland made her first piece of pottery during a class at the Art Center at the age of 5. She loved the craft from the beginning and pursued her passion in college — she studied art and ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute, University of Wisconsin-River Falls and at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. And when the MacFarland family moved back to Des Moines, she restarted classes at the Art Center, 20 years after her first.

Prep Iowa

“I do functional pottery,” she says. “Everything is functional, but it is also artistic.”

Her functional porcelain pottery is described as elegant with bright patterns, and it’s handmade, hand decorated and hand painted.

Creation takes place in the back of the four-car garage that her husband transformed into a studio. The space allows her to work on her passion while being available for her three teenage kids — she is a stay-at-home mom.

On average, a finished piece takes her three to six hours of hands-on diligence, and in her 35 years of pottery making, she has made thousands of pieces.

She prides herself on making useful and attractive ceramics that are fun to use. She calls herself a Sgraffito artist, which is Italian and means “to scratch.” The decorating technique uses color layering on hard pottery, and parts are later scratched off to create contrasting images, textures and patterns. The process is time consuming and has many steps. She paints the underglazing on with bright colors while the clay is still wet but no longer pliable. Usually this is done by hand, but she occasionally makes paper cutouts for tracing.

“I make a lot of serving bowls and plates,” she says. “These are things that people can use every day.”

Potting clay is different than clay from the ground, it is mixed with additives and a mixture of other materials to allow it to be molded, shaped and fired. MacFarland’s pieces require a slow-drying process in order to avoid cracks on the handles. The process takes time, but she’s been waiting on her passion for pottery her entire life, and she doesn’t mind.

After 13 years as a stay-at-home mom, practicing as time allowed, MacFarland started posting her work in her Etsy shop. You can find her work at ♦

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