Studio tour roots go back more than 30 years to six island potters

In 1980, six potters created the first Potter’s Tour. Left to right they are Larry Watson, Greg McElroy, Irene Otis, John Sage, Janice Mallman and Patricia Cummings.  - Paul Macapia Photo
In 1980, six potters created the first Potter’s Tour. Left to right they are Larry Watson, Greg McElroy, Irene Otis, John Sage, Janice Mallman and Patricia Cummings.
— image credit: Paul Macapia Photo


This year, the Vashon Island Art Studio Tour, taking place the first two weekends in December, features 45 artists, including jewelers, ceramicists, sculptors, photographers, painters, glass artists, print makers and more.

This twice-annual event (the other tour occurs in the spring) had its beginning more than 30 years ago as the Vashon Potter’s Tour and was originated by six island potters.

In 1979, the six potters organized a holiday pottery sale in each of their studios, and each potter advertised separately to his or her customers. During the next year, they decided to combine mailing lists and created a postcard (shown at right) to advertise their sale. John Sage, one of the potters, worked with the others to put their mailing lists on his Apple II computer, sort them into one mailing list and print labels. It took more than two days for the computer to sort the files and print the labels.

When Sage discovered the 1980 photograph earlier this year, it struck us as a great opportunity to get the group back together, recreate the photograph and collect their memories of the first Potter’s Tour. The group met with Terry Donnelly and me on a cool, windy November Saturday. We took photographs, learned how the Potter’s Tour helped create an amazing connection among these artists and learned what led them to create the original Potter’s Tour all those years ago.

As they reminisced about their experiences, the stories flowed freely. Pat Cummings remembered that when they mailed their first postcard in 1980, she had over 1,000 messages left on her home answering machine. Greg McElroy reflected on the year the ice storm was so severe that many island roads were closed because of black ice, and still folks came to their studios. Sage recalled that the potters all had identical white and blue signs painted by Kaj Berry that they put up out on the main highway, directing people to their studios. Rosalie Sage, John and Janice Mallman’s  daughter, remarked when she was 5 years old that she liked the tour because “Mom will be making Christmas tree cookies with green stuff on them.”

For Mallman, though, the day was about considerably more than cookies.

“The big thing was the idea that we could all be selling our pottery at the same time and we didn’t feel a sense of competition,” she said. “We never felt like rivals, just comrades sharing an intense love of clay.”

Cummings captured the special bond between these potters.

“During the year we socialized, helped deliver pots to our off-island galleries, did fairs together, bought supplies together and in general offered support. I look at that picture from 1980 in front of the Blue Heron and feel like I am looking at a family photo because that is how it felt.”

The Potters Tour continued to flourish through the 1980s and 1990s. In the mid-1980s, the potters began to hand out Barnworks brochures to help publicize the Barnworks exhibits too. Other potters soon joined the Potter’s Tour: Jeff and Donna Tousley, Liz Lewis, Tom and Julie Koster and Kim Newall. By the late 1990s, other artists joined as well, and the Potter’s Tour morphed into what it is today, the Art Studio Tour.

Of the six original Potter’s Tour potters, only Irene Otis is still an active potter. As she puts it, “Amazing to still be glazing after all these years.”

Larry Watson moved to North Bend, Ore., in 1982, where he still works as an artist. McElroy changed careers in 1995 and began teaching at Vashon High School. Cummings went on to earn a master’s degree in Applied Behavioral Science and moved to Port Townsend in 2007, where she is a therapist at Dove House Advocacy Services. Sage began working for King County in 1988 and stopped producing pottery. Mallman began working for Vashon Allied Arts and also stopped making pottery.

McElroy, who recently retired from teaching, has begun to clean out his old studio to start working with clay again. Cummings, now Patricia Bolen, still has all her equipment and plans to return to pottery at some time in the future. Sage has become a well-known island photographer, and  Janice Mallman has continued to work for Vashon Allied Arts for the last 28 years, currently as the gallery curator. In her off time, she creates original collages and monotypes for lamps, cards and framed works.

As people make their plans for the 2013 Art Studio Tour, they may wish to take a moment to think about where they were in 1980 and send a quiet thanks to the six innovative and creative ceramicists who got this all started with the first Potter’s Tour.

— Bruce Haulman is an island historian, and Terry Donnelly is a photographer.

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