May 2011

MAY 2011: Our Town - Pottery with a Purpose: Artisnas at PEP show off their talent at the kiln

Author: David Gignilliat

“Each piece is different, one-of-a-kind, unique and has its own personality,” said Harold Watson, executive director of Hilton Head Island’s Programs for Exceptional People and founder of the non-profit’s novel pottery program. He’s referring to the organization’s unique ceramics, but he could just as easily be describing the talented group of local potters that make the clay-formed wares.

Programs for Exceptional People (PEP) started on Hilton Head Island in 1995. It is a non-profit organization with a mission of empowering adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities through promoting independence, inclusion and social growth and maturity. Watson started the pottery program last year through a seed grant from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. The initial funding helped to secure the kiln, glazes and raw materials that are used to make the pottery.

“We try to help our members blend in and be a part of the community, just like you and me,” said Watson, who ran a similar program at a non-profit in North Carolina.

The potters set up shop every Tuesday and Thursday morning, with activities varying from sanding and firing to re-glazing pieces or rolling out clay to form new keepsakes. The program is run by Watson, pottery instructor Wanda Eastham, and a group of arts-inclined volunteers. The pottery program currently employs six potters (five women, one man), who have been selected among PEP’s 40 students for their ability to focus and complete tasks. Just like in any business, the market demand for the product dictates production, both in style and quantity. There are periodic business meetings where the potters and the program’s board convene to discuss ideas, new venues and, most importantly, to receive paychecks split from the profits.

Pieces range from plain, textured to unique underglazed pieces that incorporate a decorative flourish (a leaf or a fern, for example) before they are kiln-fired. Sizes and shapes vary, from platter-style trays to bowls and curvy-edged dishes in a variety of colors and are available year-round at PEP’s offices. When a customer purchases a piece, he or she receives a business card that tells the potter’s story, whose initials are formed into the bottom of the piece.

“They make great gifts, and it’s truly a gift with a purpose,” Watson said.

The pottery program has been wildly successful, and Lowcountry shoppers can find their wares periodically at local festivals and at the Bluffton Farmers Market, on Calhoun Street. The group’s next big pottery showing will be May 7 at the 33rd Annual Bluffton Village Festival.

Being out in the local community and having to compete with other talented vendors for a customer’s discretionary income has had unexpected benefits.

“Our members are no different from you or me in terms of wanting to have a job and earn money. It’s been a thrill seeing how our [members’] communication and social skills have improved,” said Watson, who hopes to add local art galleries and shops to the program’s growing base. “When we’re at a show, they’ve learned how to call people over, engage them in conversation and tell them about the pottery.”

The program’s original grant will expire in June, and Watson hopes to find corporate sponsors, volunteers and individual donors to help sustain the group’s pottery factory indefinitely.

“If you can see that smile on their face and that lift in their step when they get a sale, it’s truly amazing, said Watson, who admits to being a novice potter but owns many of the program’s pieces himself. “They really pour their heart into making these pieces.”

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PROGRAMS FOR EXCEPTIONAL PEOPLE (PEP) is located at 10 Oak Park Drive on Hilton Head Island, just off Matthews Drive near the Port Royal Plaza. For more information, please call PEP at (843) 681-8413 or visit online at pephhi.org.

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