Shari’s delicate birch pots appear wrapped in a layer
of bark; her sea urchins sparkle with shimmery glazes.
A life takes shape, not so differently from a pot on a potter’s wheel. Maybe the sides rise up evenly for a while—you grow up in Stoughton, Massachusetts, spend summers on Cape Cod, go to college at Boston University—but there are subtle fluctuations, possibly happy accidents along the way, too.
“If I’m going to give proper credit to finding my way in clay, it really started with my mom,” says Shari Zabriskie, top right, sitting at her potter’s wheel at Brattleboro Clayworks, Vermont’s oldest clay cooperative, where her delicate woodland pottery, seemingly spun out of birch, lies interspersed with glazed sea creatures—urchins and octopuses—animating the retail-gallery shelves.
“She had a wheel in our kitchen when I was a kid,” she explains, “although I never really had any pottery experience on it. And my great-uncle, Boris Lovet–Lorski, was a famous sculptor—he bought my mother her first set of paintbrushes. So I was raised in an artistic family, where everything we did was a lesson in design, whether it was my mother painting on the back porch, or throwing pots in the kitchen, or making our Halloween costumes, or setting the table, or baking a gorgeous challah and braiding it.”
The “sides” of Shari’s life flared out after she left B.U.: “I jumped in a VW bus and headed to New Mexico.” Her laugh is throaty. New Mexico was where she really discovered clay, digging it from the river-bank, lining it up on logs to dry, and sieving it until she had a beautiful, fine powder—her first elemental connection to the medium. “But instead of re-hydrating it to make pinch pots, I ended up using it as a clay bath, letting it dry on my arms and legs and jumping into the river,” she laughs. “And I loved it.”
There, too, in New Mexico, she discovered nature in a way she never had before, and moved back East to Vermont to study medicinal herbs at the now-defunct Northeast College of Healing Arts and Sciences. Botany, herbology, botanical illustration: “I was head over heels with learning,” she recalls. “Living in a tepee, gardening, learning my herbs. I was on track to becoming an herbalist. And clay sort of sidetracked me.”
In 1997, midway through herb classes, she spotted a sign for a pottery class at the Putney Clay School, and signed up. Shortly after, she learned of Brattleboro Clayworks, where, as she says, “I found my own voice in clay. This place is very special. It was my incubator, and I never looked back. It’s been a constant evolution, particularly with these birch pots—they’ve made it possible to live off my craft.”
The high-fire stoneware pieces—mugs that seem wrapped in birch bark, plates rimmed with it, vases like slender tree trunks, pitchers and honeypots—have become wildly popular since Shari began making them five years ago. “I was playing around with the white clay, incising and carving it,” she recalls, “and I kind of stumbled on it. I think it was a direct result of being in the woods every single morning, walking with my dog.” Even so, it took another nine months of playing with different stains and pot shapes, fire after fire, tweaking the process to create the texture of bark, until birches emerged.
If the birch pots came from wandering in the woods, then the glazed sea urchins are “my soul aching for the sea. I grew up spending summers on the Cape, and I miss it—the urchins, those are for me!”
As are the 15 to 17 craft shows that Shari attends every year, all around New England. It’s her favorite way to sell pots, actively engaging with customers. The goal: for her work to speak for itself; for the pots to call out to the individual in such a way that they feel a connection to her, the maker, as well as to the woods or the sea, the places from which she draws her inspiration.
“When I meet a customer who says, ‘I set my Thanksgiving table with all your birch pots this year, and it was the most beautiful-looking Thanksgiving meal,’ then I feel like I’m doing something good,” Shari says, surrounded by her beautiful flotsam and jetsam, or, as she laughingly calls her pottery, “surf and turf.”
“I get to say ‘thank you,’” she says, more seriously. “Because I love what I’m doing. I sat here all morning, carving into clay mugs, and to me that’s jazz and that’s joy, and it feeds my spirit.”