In the west central part of Pennsylvania, Indiana County is an enclave for potters. Dotted throughout the rural area are numerous potters’ studios set in renovated barns and cabins and homes, tucked into the rolling foothills of the Allegheny Mountains rising to the east. A traveler in the area on the third weekend of October will meander down winding country roads curtained in the reds, oranges, and golds of autumn and catch a whiff of wood smoke from a kiln. Since 2008, the area potters have joined together to promote the annual Potters Tour, a weekend event in which visitors can observe, browse, and purchase works at over ten member studios. Debra and Birch Frew, of Stoke Hole Pottery, are founding members of the tour and have welcomed thousands of visitors to their studio and gallery on their farm outside of the town of Indiana. Last June, in a move planned for and dreamed about, the couple “came into town”, launching Stoke Hole Pottery Downtown in a storefront in Indiana’s business district.
Indiana is the home of Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), part of the state system of higher education, and provides a regular influx of students and faculty for the town’s economy. The home of a well-regarded Ceramics department, IUP recently underwent a major re-organization of the state universities which may shift certain departments to different universities within the system. Stoke Hole’s expansion to the urban studio was largely driven by what Birch and Debra saw as an increasing interest and need for art instruction in the community. Birch says, “People were always saying, ‘When are you going to offer something in town?’” With the uncertainty surrounding the future of IUP’s ceramics program, Debra felt an even greater need. “The thought of people going into a museum with no education and not knowing what they are seeing,” she says, “is unacceptable. We have to keep art alive in our communities and culture.”
Birch is an Indiana native who has fond memories of tagging along with his father to ceramics classes at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s continuing education program for adults. He says he always painted and drew but by the time he learned to throw in college, he knew clay would be his medium. Debra is from Canada and studied at Red Deer College (now Red Deer Polytechnic) north of Calgary, Alberta, and went on to earn her B.F.A. at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “When I got to college,” she remarks, “I didn’t even know what clay was!” She embraced it and earned an M.F.A. at Ohio University. She worked at The International Ceramic Center in Skaelskor, Denmark and built kilns with noted Danish artist and sculptor, Nina Hole. She has taught at many institutions of higher education, including IUP. The couple married in 2006. Debra quips, “Birch said he’d never leave Indiana, so we settled here.” They have two teenage daughters.
Birch set up his studio on his farm and added a gallery in 2005. He and Debra eventually cultivated a community of students. He says, “You have to have a certain amount of passion. Our team shares that passion.” Both Debra and Birch make functional pottery. Debra says that she encourages students and customers to enjoy it and use it. “I let the students help load and unload the kiln,” she explains, “and to look, feel, and notice the details of others’ work.” Birch says that functional pottery is “all I know,” and tells of many customers cherishing and protecting their “Birch Cup.” “I don’t want people to be afraid to use it,” he says. “I used to purposely drop a cup at the beginning of a class, to show how durable ceramic is. That is, until a cup broke one day!”
Birch and Debra’s hopes for the new location downtown are the same as for the farm location, which is still fully operational. Now, with both locations, Birch has been able to quit his work in the gas industry and commit himself fully to the studios. He says, “We are still at the early stage where we are seeing who is a serious student, who might be a good candidate for membership. We hope to build a strong community, just as we have on the farm.” Members have full access to the studio and benefit from monthly meetings that may feature a specific artist or technique. The downtown location already has four members, with a goal of five more.
The downtown location is a converted building that housed an insurance company. The façade required a major rebuild. “There was virtually no storefront,” Birch says. “The new design is very inviting, to make people glad to come in.” The space is divided for wheel throwing and hand building, with two electric kilns, wheels, tools, and equipment.
The summer opening allowed for a busy camp season for children. The Frew’s daughters, who have job assignments with the business, were a big help with the campers. The fall and winter class seasons include multi-week wheel throwing and hand building classes, along with a big selection of one-evening or one-afternoon project classes. “We’ve found these to be very popular,” Debra says, “especially with the bad economy. It gives people a chance to try it without committing to a longer, more expensive class. The projects are not easy, but they are set up to encourage success.” The studio employs two retired high school art teachers, Cathy Paterson and Arlene Miller, each with extensive clay experience. Debra shuttles between the farm and town, about ten miles, teaching three classes a week in the country and teaching every weekday afternoon in town. Birch says he is “half-day happy,” and that the new venture is coming along well. “I’m just glad to be doing something that helps people,” he concludes.
Although Stoke Hole Pottery Downtown has been operating since June, there has been no official Open House. The Frews look forward to this year’s Pottery Tour to fill that need. Both locations are featured in the tour and Birch and Debra hope to see you there.
For more information, visit www.stokeholepottery.com
For information about the fall Pottery Tour, visit www.potterytour.com