Veblen throws a bowl in her studio.
Cathy Veblen's hand-painted stoneware.
Veblen's Corrales studio Anthropottery (anthropottery.com) on Loma Larga at Camino sin Pasada. She also shows the work of other artists at the studio.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
To say that potters are “down to earth” communicates more than empty humor. Cathy Veblen exemplifies the deeper implications of being rooted, physically and socially, in one’s soil, and manifesting like nature the marriage of passion and practicality.
The centered magnetism of the potter’s wheel might help explain why her clay studio, Anthropottery, drew a steady crowd during the 2009 Corrales Studio Tour, when most other artists in the village sat cursing the rain.
Veblen wasn’t focused on selling pots that day, as most days. Just as she had done the year before, she set up a table in her studio where visitors could try their hand at a quick art project, so that the invitation was to buy into the rewards of art-making itself, rather than its products—which nonetheless profited from the association.
“I think people are starving for art whether they know it or not,” she explains. “There should be more opportunities for creative encounters in our lives, communities, public spaces, and events.”
Potters are practical, Veblen likes to declare. But they are also devotees of the sublime in everyday life. More than most artists, the successful potter has to be both solitary artist and outgoing salesperson, purposeful and impulsive, always riding the wave of the yin and the yang.
“It has to do with the art of living,” she says of her rugged stoneware bowls, mugs, vases, and plates, which are churned out production-style but nonetheless bear the fetching marks of the quirky and handmade. “If you grow your own food and make it, you can’t eat it out of a plastic bowl.
“A lot of people like to argue about whether pottery is art or craft,” she adds, always in motion around her large, light-filled studio. “I have to keep working.”
Indeed, the art of living—making a life of art—appears to have been the great creative project of her life. Drawn to clay from her days as a Campfire Girl in southern California, she took clay classes all through high school and college, then ended up majoring in anthropology at Fort Lewis College in Durango (“lured into it because of the pot shards,” she quips).
A last-minute trip to China in place of her ailing grandmother had a decisive influence, as “there’s a little pottery in China.” Yet everyone advised her against trying to make a living as a potter. Veblen persisted with characteristic practicality. Enrolling in college business classes, “I thought if I was brave enough to visualize giving one hundred and ten percent of myself to this instead of the status quo… That opened my mind to the possibilities.”
That attitude served her well some fifteen years later, when she found herself divorced and on her own, flush with the proceeds from their home and studio near Seattle, but minus a spouse’s steady job and health benefits.
She was drawn eventually to Corrales, where she bought an old foreclosed home on Loma Larga Road and prepared to erect a metal shop building. But then a leisurely chat with a neighbor—the type for which Veblen is known—convinced her to erect a stick-and-stucco building instead. Together, she and the neighbor builder, Doug Wils, designed a large studio and rental unit heated with radiant flooring powered by solar collectors, which appeared on the Green Built Tour the next year. Veblen did the finishing work, which took her the better part of a year.
She received help along the way through another life-changing encounter, this time at Home Depot. She kept running into another neighbor named Paul Tenoso, a Sioux from South Dakota, who eventually presented her with a necklace bearing an arrowhead he had shaped himself.
“Then he gave me a great deal on manure,” Veblen notes, “which to a middle-aged woman is like a diamond ring—especially if you live on an acre of sand. I was completely taken.”
It wasn’t long before the two developed a rhythm, with him flint-knapping outside while she threw pots. In 2007, they chased a tip about the economic boom in Hobbs and Eunice, where she instantly bought a fixer-upper to rent. A month later she bought another, and for two years they would make the five-hour drive south for one week a month of exhausting home remodeling, learning as they went.
The rental units now support the two artists, along with their art sales and Veblen’s part-time job with Arts-in-Medicine at UNM. All of these ventures, to her, constitute a single creative whole. “Even fixing houses is fun and creative, because it’s problem-solving,” she says. The pace is hectic—they make and sell furiously toward year’s end, then shift to “damage control” on their houses and yards with the new year.
“A lot of days are ‘I can’t go to bed until…’ which is why people see the lights on (in the studio) late at night,” she says. Veblen and Tenoso sell regularly at Corrales’s Art in the Park, Old Church craft fairs, annual festivals, Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, and a few others, which involves so much loading and unloading of heavy boxes that they often leave their vehicles packed.
When time permits, Veblen collects ideas for Arts-in-Medicine projects and reference material for projects of her own, which fill a half dozen notebooks and two large card files. “But everybody works really hard,” she says in defense of a pace that might seem to leave little room for creative inspiration.
“The authority and autonomy we have in our lives—working all the time is all right when you have that, and know your own self-worth,” she muses. “And it’s very nice. We’re in here working, watching TV or listening to music, and to not have to go anywhere for three days is a great luxury.”
Veblen digs up a favorite quote from the great experimental musician John Cage, on the subject of inspiration: “I think people who are not artists often feel that artists are inspired. But if you work at your art you don’t have time to be inspired. Out of the work comes the work.”
Life itself is the work, as the potter knows. And as the connoisseur reads in her carefully considered yet breezily executed brush lines, true art is defined not by craftsmanship or inspiration, but in communicating the humor, spirit, and practical pleasure in every moment.