By Laura Smith/ Go Triad
Many mothers and their grown daughters share a phone call once a week or visit for dinner occasionally, but Pat Schurr and her daughter, Kelly Schurr Willard, spend time together in a different way.
They make pottery — hand-thrown, original, internationally sold bowls, vases, mugs and more.
Schurr, 68, and Willard, 48, say they spend as much time laughing with one another as they do creating the pottery.
“We really do have a lot of fun,” Schurr said. “It’s something I never anticipated, the fact that we would be working together.”
The mother and daughter create original pottery by using a kiln and making their own glazes. More than that, they use pottery as an outlet for getting through life’s challenges together.
“I don’t know how much either one of us would really do without the other one,” Schurr said. “I think we both motivate each other.”
Pottery has played an important healing role in the women’s lives. Schurr is a multiple cancer survivor who has been in remission for 15 years, and Willard is raising a special-needs child, Gabriel, 15, as well as an adopted child, Zeb, 13.
“None of us take life for granted,” Schurr said. “We are truly blessed.”
Cancer was, in fact, what sparked Schurr’s passion for pottery at the age of 39. The bladder, breast and ovarian cancers she developed brought emotional stress, too.
“That’s when I really, truly got serious (about pottery), not playing with it but (saying), ‘This is part of me, and I’m going to see where it takes me,’ ” Schurr said.
Schurr enrolled at UNCG in 1979 to take formal pottery classes, with some encouragement from her daughter. She says her daughter’s advice was the best she has ever gotten.
“It was never about what I was going to do with it,” Schurr said, “It was about the process of making it and doing it well.”
Since taking classes, Schurr has opened two other studios in the past 30 years. Now, she owns the Burned Earth Studio, which she opened in her home in Oak Ridge in 1992. Willard, who has always worked with some form of art, joined Schurr several years later.
“We’ve always been close &ellipses; but it put a whole new spin on life in general,” Willard said. “The pottery thing was another way to be closer together. It was like having another canvas to draw on.”
Both women encourage each other and positively critique each other’s work.
“The best thing Kelly and I do together is that we really collaborate on almost every piece with really a respect for what each other does,” Schurr said.
Willard feels the same.
“I don’t feel inhibited about being honest about anything,” she said. “I think I can say whatever I want to say and can critique her, and she can likewise.”
They use a technique called high-fire reduction in which the pottery is fired at 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit in a gas kiln where it is deprived of oxygen.
Schurr owns her own kiln and must stay with it for a minimum of 12 hours while the pottery is firing.
The mother and daughter order 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of clay at a time. They also make their own glazes.
“Commercial glazes are very stark,” Schurr said. “We really try to make individual pieces.”
Schurr and Willard strive to create pottery that is both visual and functional. They throw the clay on a wheel as well as hand mold it. Willard adds to the visual aspect by creating patterns and surface designs such as vines and leaves.
More important to the women, though, are their families and their value for one another, in and out of the studio.
“There has been the basis of a lot of respect for each other,” Schurr said. “Family is the most important thing &ellipses; people before pots.”
The women create their pottery as their main job, and although Schurr has taken up painting as an art form less stressful on her hands, both women say they have no thoughts of stopping.
“It’s really super important to me to get as much out of life as I can,” Schurr said. “The only way you’re going to do that is to live it.”