Hands wet, Suzanne “Zanna” Hager settles a 1-pound ball of high-fire white clay on her potter’s wheel and then presses on the accelerator to set the electric-powered metal disk spinning at 240 rpms. She keeps up the speed as she centers the gray mass with her hands, turning the haphazard glob into a short cylinder.
As she begins to open the middle with her thumbs and pull up the sides with her fingers, she slows the wheel to about half-speed. That’s when she decides what to do next.
“A few things determine the shape of what I’m making, like the stiffness or softness of the clay,” Hager said. “As you pull it up, stuff just happens. You see stuff in the clay.”
Hager’s craft studio, dubbed Pebble Path Pottery, resides in a fully heated and air-conditioned attached garage at her Kingsland home. Using an antique kiln and two potter’s wheels, she creates one-of-a-kind coffee mugs that she sells at Numinous Coffee Roasters in Marble Falls. She also has a variety of clay creations at the Ritzy Texan in Burnet.
“Most of it’s functional,” said Hager, listing coasters, plates, canisters, berry bowls, nesting bowls, pitchers, and chip-and-dip plates. “Some are decorative.”
Actually, all are decorative. Each piece has its own aesthetic, including the shape, handle, markings, and glazes. No two coffee mugs are ever the same — on purpose.
Just as the feel and amount of clay on the wheel determines the shape of the item, the shape determines the glaze.
“I look at the shape of the mug and what might look good with that particular shape,” Hager said. “Each one of the mugs is different, even if they are kind of alike.”
Each mug at Numinous includes a stamp that marks it as one of the coffee shop’s exclusives. Many also include her own imprint, an “H” in an imperfect circle that looks as much like a Roman numeral as it does the letter representing the potter’s last name. The marks add even more personality to the pieces, some of which have etched or stamped textures in the clay.
“I really like texture,” said Hager, pointing out marks made with her fingers when pulling up the walls of a piece. “I want to make it aesthetically appealing. I want to draw somebody toward it.”
Beauty does not rule out functionality, however.
“Everything is user-friendly,” she assured. “You can put anything I make in the dishwasher or in the microwave.”
Maintenance of a completed Pebble Path Pottery piece might be easy, but creating it is not. It takes days from start to finish, whether she is working on a few pieces or a full kiln’s worth.
Once formed, the clay has to dry to a certain stage before any decorative marks or handles are added and then dried even more before the first firing.
Glazes go on between the two firings. Times and temperature, which can go as high as 2,000 degrees, differ depending on the size and number of pieces in the kiln. What happens inside the round, electric-powered kiln is sometimes a mystery. Pieces crack, break, and even explode. As a final step, this part can be heartbreaking.
“My favorite part is the wheel,” Hager said. “I really like working the clay. It is such an amazing substance. And, it’s very forgiving. If you mess up, you can scrunch it up and start over. If it dries out, add water and it’s workable again. I like the tactile part. It’s fun.”
Of all the steps in making a piece of pottery, the shaping on the wheel takes the least amount of time and the most skill. For Hager, 15 minutes is the longest she usually spends with a piece of clay on the wheel because she has long mastered the skill of centering and coning, the act of forming it into a cylinder before opening it up.
“Centering is like learning how to play an instrument,” she said. “It takes a lot of practice. It’s a skill you are not going to learn right away.”
Her experience stretches over 25 years of teaching art, including pottery. She spent her last nine years as an art teacher at Marble Falls High School. As she was getting ready to retire, she inherited a potter’s wheel from an aunt and audited a few pottery classes at a junior college.
“I got the fever again,” she said.
It is now part of her retirement plan in action.
“I don’t ever want it to be a job, but it’s not a hobby either. I have an art degree; I am an artist,” she said. “I want it to be something I’m not stressed about. This is something I love. I want it to be fun.”
To own your own Pebble Path Pottery piece, check out the mugs at Numinous Coffee Roasters, 715 RR 1431 in Marble Falls, or Hager’s work at the Ritzy Texan, 103 W. Polk St. in Burnet. For more information, visit Hager’s Facebook page at @zannahager.