Most Wonderful Time of the Year

THE air is getting raw, the days are growing shorter and even the autumnal glow is starting to fade… but there’s still more to look forward to this season. The Covered Bridge Artisans will be holding its annual studio tour and sale Nov. 26 to 28 in five artists’ studios in the Lambertville, Stockton and Sergeantsville area. Seven guest artists will participate from a restored stone church in Locktown. And, yes, there’s even a covered bridge to visit. (Pictured: A painting by Ty Hodanish, whose Prallsville Mill Studio is a stop on the tour.)

Not only is this a chance to see locally produced art and crafts, and make purchases for holiday gift giving, but it’s an opportunity to go out into the country and see how artists live and work. With small farms, barns and chickens, the region is like the Vermont of New Jersey. Impressionist paintings, stained glass, hand-dyed and handspun yarn, ceramics, sculpture and metal fabrication, leather work and jewelry – you can watch it being produced, admire the craftsmanship and meet the makers.

Phoebe Wiley is one of the founding members of the Covered Bridge Artisans, and her Pottery at Long Lane Farm is a piece of paradise. To get there you drive through scenic countryside until you think you are lost, and then you take the long, long lane that lends its name. Chickens, cows and Jack Russell Terriers enjoy life on this 30-acre farm. With rambling barns and gardens, the artist’s source material is right here.

Asked about all the buildings on the property, Ms. Wiley says she and her husband, Joe, have “his and her buildings.” He has a machine shed for his blacksmith work, a skill he began developing about five years ago to make tools and hinges for barns. Mr. Wiley also raises grass-fed beef, when not working for an environmental engineering company.

As back-to-the-land types, “we’ve been in and out of fashion three times,” says Ms. Wiley, a public health nurse in Trenton who makes home visits to low-income, first-time pregnant women. “The 45-minute commute down Route 29 is beautiful and relaxing.”    Along with their two children – now 29 and 31 – the Wileys built the barns, house and studio on Long Lane Farm. The house, with a kitchen garden and wide plank floors, looks as if it could be 200 years old, but is a reproduction built from a kit, says Ms. Wiley. Her love for color is apparent in the house, where every door is painted a different shade of blue, green or blue-green. In addition to her paintings on the walls, the walls themselves are treated in a painterly way, and a coffee table in the living room is made from her ceramic fish tiles in brightly hued glazes.

Ms. Wiley says she was once a painter but after Mr. Wiley built her a painting studio, she became a potter. “I wanted to work in three dimensions and work in the round to make practical things that could be marketed to people,” she says. “People understand pottery better than painting – it is a work of art that can be used in daily life, that can be held in the hands or put to the lips to satisfy the eye and the hand and reused time and again. Through constant use it becomes even more appreciated.”

She started throwing 20 years ago and “I felt I was meant to be a potter.”

But spend some time with Ms. Wiley, and you learn the painter in her is still very much alive. Not only are there recent canvases hanging on her walls, but the maiolica pottery she creates are, essentially, canvases for her brush strokes in glaze.

She distinguishes maiolica from majolica in that the first is tin glazed, as faience, the English version, whereas majolica is more ornate with Victorian cabbages. Both have a white underglazing, and color painted over that melts in during the firing in an electric kiln. “I’m drawn to maiolica and faience because our grandmothers had china with designs on white – it makes you want to eat off of it,” she says. “You can also bake in it.”

The studio, lit by north light, has an enormous table at center, covered with her colorful pottery. The studio looks festive enough for a party, and Ms. Wiley admits that she and her family have held many a celebration here.

There are blue and white plates with portraits of the chickens the Wileys keep for the fresh eggs they love to eat. In the barn a rooster keeps company with a dozen chickens, both Rhode Island Reds and Araucanas that lay blue eggs.

Ms. Wiley, who studied languages and linguistics at Georgetown University, is mostly self-taught as an artist. Having lived in China and France as a child, she served in the Peace Corps in Peru where she designed woolskin products for an artisan cooperative. Along with several other potters – including Katherine Hackl and Sheila Coutin on the Covered Bridge Tour – she built “Bella,” a wood-fired kiln, over the course of a year. Using two cords of wood for each firing, and burning for a full day at 2,300 F with the help of three to four potters, the kiln is a labor of love – but worth it, says the Ms. Wiley, for the effects it produces in the glaze.

“It’s exciting when you open the kiln and aren’t sure what you’ll get,” she says. In homage to the Japanese, Chinese and Korean tradition, she makes tea bowls, as well as jars that can be used for honey or wine, cups and lidded herb pots. “Useful pots,” she quotes from Winnie the Pooh. Earth, air, wind and fire are the motifs she returns to.

Depending on where in the kiln it sits, the work gets unpredictable variations in tone, color and texture. The wood used for the kiln comes from the surrounding land and its ash lends its own qualities to produce a unique glaze. Ms. Wiley also digs clay from the land to create a slip glaze. “There’s a lot of science in pottery,” she adds.

The kiln is fired up twice a year, and for Ms. Wiley, the whole process is like a party. “You have to be crazy to do it,” she admits. “We do it because we love it and it’s beautiful – and the customer has no idea.”

  • The Covered Bridge Artisans Studio Tour will be held Nov. 26-28, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. There is no admission charge. A map of the studios can be found at www.coveredbridgeartisans.com. Among the studios on the tour are: Potter Katherine Hackl of Swan Street Studio in Lambertville; Karen and Geoff Caldwell of Sunflower Glass Studio outside Stockton; Moorland Studio in Stockton, the collaboration of Constance Bassett and David Cann, specializing in public art conservation, decorative metal fabrication, sculpture, furniture, necklaces and oil paintings; and the Art Colony at the Prallsville Mill in Stockton with impressionist painter Ty Hodanish. The guest artists showing at the Locktown Stone Church are: Sheila Coutin, sculptural pottery and functional ware; Susan Nadelson, hand-dyed and handspun yarn; Diana Contine of Dakota Moon, silver designed from natural themes combined with gems; Sy Mondshein and Lisa Martin of Maple leather bags; Fiona Scott, a potter; Martha Dreswick, wooden baskets; and Ron Dombrowski, wood carver of shorebirds and decorative fish.
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