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This Month's Feature.........

Swiss Potter, Ruth Hablützel

Walenstadtberg, Switzerland

In a small town fifty miles southeast of Zurich, potter Ruth Hablützel works in the cow shed of a 200-year-old farm. Nestled between the Churfirsten mountain range and Laken Walen, the town of 192 people offers a natural beauty that draws one into the inspirational power of land, of water, of air. Hablützel’s return to her family’s roots after almost four decades in Canada and the United States has proven an adjustment to her creative work with clay.

As a young woman, Hablützel had dreams of living in many different countries. In 1967, it was relatively easy for Swiss citizens to enter Canada and that is where she started. When she met an old beau in Montreal, her travels came to a halt, with marriage and children. Her passion for exploration was not daunted, however, as she turned to a more stationary and solitary frontier. She says that as a small child, she saw a potter at the wheel and always knew she would become one. With two small children and a colicky infant, she started her first pottery class for a bit of relief. She says, “I had to do it in the evening so my husband could babysit. It was hard to get out of the house, after a day with three small children, especially if you had to shovel your car free from snow first. But the moment I was there and touched that cool clay, I was in another world.”

In 1980, the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where Hablützel signed up for classes at the Abernathy Arts Center under potter Paul Armbruster. With her children growing more independent, she spent more time at the art center and soon took on the role of Studio Assistant. She recalls, “I mixed all the glazes. This was exciting, because there were so many different chemicals available. I used the opportunity to experiment with different glaze colors.” When the center added an updraft gas kiln, Hablützel did more experimenting with the glazing process. Eventually, she took on teaching responsibilities at Abernathy and eventually at the Spruill Center and the South Fulton Art Center, where she worked with at-risk teenagers in an Art-at-Work program. She says, “I discovered how much I love to teach!” In 2000, she converted the family garage into her own school, with ten wheels and a Bailey downdraft kiln.

Hablützel’s work is marked by intense and rich colors. She makes functional pieces that she says are inspired by the colors of air, water, and earth. Her smooth lines and forms highlight the functionality of her pieces. She incorporates elements from a variety of cultures, harkening back to the wanderlust that stirred her as a young woman. Her exploration of glazes defines her work. She explains, “I experimented for many years with glazes. There was once a time when Gerstly Borate, a very important ingredient in many glazes, was not available anymore. Everybody got frantic and tried to replace it with whatever got recommended and usually failed. At that time I had my own school and needed glazes, so I spent my Christmas break experimenting with glazes that did not need Gerstly Borate. I did about 250 samples and many nice glazes came from it.”

In 2005, Hablützel’s family made another move, this time to Naples, Florida. The new location opened up new possibilities for selling, especially through the many arts festivals and markets. Florida’s yellow soil replaced Georgia’s red to offer her new inspiration for color. But in 2013, Hablützel and her husband decided to return to their home country. She had inherited an old farm house and stable from her parents in the small town of Walenstadtberg and the couple packed their bags, including the Bailey downdraft kiln, to try life in a small mountain town. The first problem Hablützel encountered was the strict regulations regarding kiln use. She describes the additional structure she added to the cow shed as a “fireproof bunker.” Her biggest problem, however, was the availability of clays that gave her the results she sought. “There are two clay suppliers here in Switzerland and I tried them both. They have clay from all over Europe – Germany, England, Spain and France. Most clay has too much grog or is very coarse-grained and is not suitable for the wheel. Temperature is another problem. Most brown clays are made for a temperature lower than what I fire. I do not like white clay because my glazes look better on darker clay. In fact, for cone 10, I could only get white clay. I tried about 30 different clays. The ones that gave me colors I liked were so rough I could not use them on the wheel. The rest gave a color I did not like.” Unable to find a local solution, she returned to the clay she knows, ordering a large quantity from Standard Ceramic. The first shipment wound its way to her on the local route, traveling through Slovenia before it reached her! Standard’s staff is working with her to find a satisfactory shipping plan.

Hablützel’s potter’s life in Walenstadtberg is more solitary now. Her studio is too small for large classes, but she does still teach, offering more intensive weekend or weeklong workshops for a small number of students. She says, “I have had some students for years. I always try to teach them something new. This is a great tool to keep growing.” As far as her own creativity goes, she finds her new life quite enriching. She says, “In Florida, I was so successful in selling my pottery that I felt pressure to produce. This I don't want to do anymore. I still have orders here that I do fulfill, but I like to do things just for me.” She worked on a mural for the pool at the farmstead and is now doing one on the wall of the house.

Over forty years, three countries and two continents, Ruth Hablützel has touched the earth and made her mark on it. Just as her unique signature scores the bottom of each of her pieces, her creativity and vision have touched the material of the places where she has dwelled.

Visit Ruth Hablützel’s website, at www.ruthspottery.com
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