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Ceramics resident artist takes on 200-bowl challenge

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

Success in pottery requires time, patience and skill. And, as CJ Niehaus knows, a good washer and drier can't hurt.

For Niehaus, a resident artist and adjunct professor with the Paducah School of Art & Design, getting a little dirty is par for the course when working with clay. But her most recent project has her - and her washing machine - working overtime.

The Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center commissioned Niehaus to make 200 small bowls to distribute as keepsakes to premium ticket holders at the nonprofit's annual wine tasting and auction.

"One of the reasons I said I would do this was because I wanted the challenge," Niehaus said Thursday at the school's ceramic studio in Madison Hall, where she was gearing up for another day at the pottery wheel.

Niehaus has been working in ceramics for more than 20 years, so using a pottery wheel to throw bowls is nothing new. The challenge is making so many bowls of the same size, she said. Because of the many variables involved in throwing, firing and glazing pottery, Niehaus will make about 230 pieces to ensure a good-looking batch.

"There's a philosophy that if you want to get really good at something, you do a hundred of it. So I thought, 'I'll give 200 a shot,'" she said. "It'll be kind of fun to see the evolution from the first (bowl) to the 230th."

To make each piece, Niehaus takes an eight- to 10-pound lump of clay and centers it on the pottery wheel. She shapes several small bowls off the top of the single clay mound - a technique called "working off the hump" - rather than directly on the wheel. The oddly named process saves some time, Niehaus said, but it still takes her about an hour to throw 10 bowls.

Niehaus, 49, competed her MFA at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale last year. She had earned her undergraduate degree in art therapy and expected to return to school so she could become a therapist. She also considered going into occupational therapy - a practical job that would pay the bills - but clay called to her.

"My heart really pulled me into ceramics. As impractical as it is, as crazy as it may seem to a rational person, it seemed to be the one area that I would get really excited about," she said.

Niehaus will officially end her residency this May, but will stay in Paducah to teach summer classes and workshops. From there, she hopes to secure a teaching job - possibly in Chicago, in order to be close to her two children, Dani, 27, and Josh, 25.

In the meantime, Niehaus still has about 100 bowls to make in time for the May event.

The Carson Center has made a point to incorporate local artists into its fundraising efforts, according to Debbie Wattier, the center's director of development.

"As a performing arts center, we like to involve and celebrate the talents of locally-based artists," she said, adding that Lower Town-based artist Bill Renzulli created the artwork featured on this year's invitations and marketing products. The painting is one of about 125 items that will be auctioned at the fundraiser.

The Wine Tasting and Auction will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 15 at the Carson Center, 100 Kentucky Ave. Tickets and tables may be purchased online at thecarsoncenter.org or by calling 270-443-9932. Reservations are required.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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