The colorful work of Cape Cod potter Tessa Morgan.Photo Credit : Elizabeth Cecil
Potters’ arms are like works of art. Ropey and strong, they reflect years of pulling pots out of thick lumps of earth, their muscles habituated to lifting up and pressing down, shaping and flattening.
Below ground, where clay has its origins, seems like the perfect place for a potter’s studio. For Tessa Morgan, a cool work space in a former cellar doubles as her studio and retail shop for Flying Pig Pottery in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Slender and wiry, she hovers over her wheel at the far end of the room, all concentrated energy, blond hair caught back in a variety of clips. Today she’s a study in nautical blue and white stripes that hint at the ocean all around this Cape Cod town. Best known for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (locals call it WHOI, pronounced “hoo-ee”), this is Ocean Central. Out here, the sea is everything.
It certainly figures in Morgan’s work. Lining the walls where visitors enter are display shelves weighted down with strongly graphic decorated pieces—platters, lamps, mugs—all steeped in the ocean essence of Woods Hole, whose downtown is only two minutes away. Here, in the studio, black-and-white fish encircle the rim of a bowl, squid drift over a sea-blue plate, mermaids ease across platters, and turtles float around a lamp base.
The decorative technique she uses is called sgraffito, from the Italian graffito, meaning “to scratch.” “It’s like doing a linoleum cut, taking away the negative space,” she explains.
In other words, throwing the pot is just the beginning. With unfired, leather-hard pot in hand, Morgan paints a coat of “slip” (a mix of water and clay from the wheel, plus metal oxide) where the design is going to be. Once the slip dries, she draws the design, leaving a border to define where to glaze, then cuts away the space around the illustration and does the bisque fire. Finally, she glazes the pot, fires the piece again, and waits for the magic, the unveiling of color and image.
But hers was an unlikely road to potterdom, and, as so often happens, serendipity played a role. Morgan was 15 when her family moved from Washington, D.C., to a Maryland farm that was, she recalls, “in the middle of nowhere.” Her mother tried to find something that would appeal to the self-described “grumpy, artistic teen”—and pottery did. The seed was further nurtured at Connecticut College, where she kept changing majors and ended up in ceramics. After three years, she moved to Woods Hole with a group of friends. “It was a crazy scene here in the 1980s,” she says with a grin. “Very appealing.”
Years of experience as an illustrator also served her well, giving her a steady hand with pottery. “Drawing was always my first love,” says Morgan, whose portfolio is filled with beautiful watercolors from her book projects with marine biologists. Check out the details (and veracity) in her illustrations for Beachcomber’s Companion and the children’s series that includes Do Sharks Ever…? “The illustration work really helped,” she acknowledges. “You cannot correct a mistake [in sgraffito], so you have to be really confident.”
Each pottery illustration is hand-drawn, and “I literally have no idea what I’m going to do,” she says, although whales are her most popular design. “I like mermaids, too, because they can be doing something. Crows are relatively new, but they’ve been one of my most successful designs. Like mermaids, they’re very expressive.”
There is, of course, the matter of her studio’s namesake. “When I’m doing a show, if I don’t have any flying pigs, people always ask for them.” This naming, too, was a matter of serendipity.
“I was sitting around with my girlfriends, drinking a glass of wine. They were saying, ‘What are we going to call Tessa’s pottery?’ At the time, I put a lot of flying pigs on my pottery—things that made me laugh. It seemed perfect.”
For more information, call 508-548-7482 or go to flyingpigpottery.biz.