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Final Exam: Meet Duke's senior pottery artist

Salazar has made a wide variety of pottery pieces in his spare time.
Salazar has made a wide variety of pottery pieces in his spare time.

Senior Julian Salazar has one of the rarer hobbies found at Duke—throwing, firing and glazing pieces of pottery in his spare time between majoring in mathematics and art history. The Chronicle's Georgia Parke sat down with Salazar to discuss making pottery and the role it has had in his life since high school.

The Chronicle: How did you first get into pottery?

Julian Salazar: My high school offered an intro to pottery class and then an AP Studio Art course. So I took the intro class my senior year and totally fell in love with it. I caught the pottery bug. I spend all my free time in there. But in order to graduate I had to do a senior project. For my senior project I decided to go downtown to talk to my art teacher’s husband, who owned a pottery studio. It was really only supposed to be for a couple days or one week, but I extended it to two weeks. I had to have a week of making everything and then I had to have a week of firing everything, getting things ready for glazing and putting the final touches on everything. I spent two weeks working in the studio in downtown Augusta and when my project was over, the [owner] said, ‘Do you want to come and work in the studio and help us out?’ I was like ‘Absolutely. This is the coolest thing ever. I would totally do that.’

I spent a summer working with them…. I mainly focused on functional pottery, the kind of stuff you see in a kitchen or out in a garden… pitchers, vases, mugs, bowls, plates, cups and then a few more decorative things. I spent the following three summers working there. I didn’t get to go this past summer. I have my wheel here in Durham and I have some clay, but I don’t always have time to throw because it’s a big time commitment.

TC: What’s the most complicated piece you’ve made?

JS: I’m always trying to push my boundaries. Obviously it’s easier to move smaller amounts of clay. The larger the block of clay, the more force you need from your wheel. You need to have the strength and the know-how to move the clay, to center it properly and get it set up. So it’s tough to say what the most difficult piece I’ve worked on is. The ones that are larger tend to be more difficult. It’s also very time consuming. You have to let a piece sit for a bit so you can add to it. There’s a lot of waiting and timing is super important. Some glazes work better if I dunk it and let it dry for two seconds and then dunk it in another glaze. But if I let it sit for too long… bad news.

TC: How do you create pottery and fire things while you are at Duke?

JS: It’s tricky. There’s a ceramics studio on Foster Street [called Claymakers]. They have a great space—a gallery up front and in the back about eight or so wheels on the ground floor and a studio space for you to come in and rent the wheels for however long you want to throw. On the second floor they have studio rental space where you can rent square footage. But I looked into it and decided it wasn’t for me. I would rather bring my wheel and work out of my own space and I would take my stuff there to fire it.

TC: How frequently during the year are you able to throw?

JS: I try to throw at least once a month. Right now my wheel is sitting really sad in the corner of the room. It’s a little neglected. I’m thinking about moving it outside because it’s a messy process. The clay, if it’s not cleaned up immediately, it will dry into a dust which in high quantities can be pretty dangerous to live in. Clay is made up of alumina and silica and if you breathe it in it will react with the oxygen in your lungs and it will form glass… but it takes years and years of exposure.

TC: Do you sell the pieces that you make or give them away?

JS: I worked at [Tire City Potters] as an apprentice. Sometimes I would get my meals provided, sometimes I make a cut of what I make for the store. But often what I put in and the money that is generated by the work I do goes right back into the studio so that they can buy the supplies they need.

TC: Do you plan to continue working in pottery after graduation?

JS: I would love to continue having pottery in my life, whether it’s a hobby or if I pursue it as a career. At the moment I probably wouldn’t pursue it professionally. I feel like I do have a lot of knowledge about pottery but I’m nowhere close to being able to open my own studio and have my own business. I could continue working as an apprentice but it’s difficult to make a living. The art business is tough because people would rather spend the money on the essentials. They don’t really have the money or the desire to buy pottery, which is unfortunate but it’s the reality.

TC: Do you think that Duke has enough resources for people interested in pottery?

JS: Yes and no. When I came to Duke as a freshman there used to be a room under Southgate that was a pottery studio where students could go in if they wanted to throw. They got rid of it at some point. When I got to Duke I was really into [pottery]... and I emailed a couple people and I didn’t really get much of a response. They mostly pointed me toward Claymakers. I wasn’t really feeling it my freshman year so I left it and that was kind of the situation for the following three years.

Then the year before last, the Arts Annex got its big hurrah and last year they added a pottery studio… They have three really nice wheels, top of the line for a hobby or professional [use]. I trained the staff that gives the rundown of safety and the basic things that anyone in the studio needs to know. I gave a couple demos last year, which is a lot of fun. I’ve had a couple people approach me saying they would be interested in taking a lesson or two. The Arts Annex would be a great place to do that. It’s the perfect environment and everything’s free for students. It’s a fantastic setup if you have done it before or just trying to start.