Interview by Juanita Canzoneri
Deb Hager joined Commonwheel about the same time as the floods hit Manitou Springs in 2013. She had been in Green Horse Gallery in Manitou Springs prior to applying to the co-op.
As a child Deb was always playing in the dirt around her home. The neighborhood of Penn Hills outside Pittsburgh, PA was under construction so there were dirt piles everywhere. “I had the most gracious mom. I’d be out playing in the dirt, making swimming pools for my Barbies. And when it was time to come in for lunch, she’d just hose us off, we’d eat lunch, and then we’d go back out to the dirt piles.”
Deb attended Indiana University in Pennsylvania as an art major. Her passions were for drawing and painting. When she had to take a 3-D class she took a clay class and wasn’t very happy about it. “I kept practicing and practicing, and I was the worst one in my class,” Deb says. “Everyone else was centering (their wheel-thrown pots), but me.”
One day she was so frustrated with her progress the professor found her crying in her clay. He was able to show her where she had been getting stuck and, with that guidance, she just took off. “Because it didn’t come easy to me, because I had to work so hard at it” she says, “I kind of fell in love with it.” Once she learned wheel throwing, she became mesmerized by the whole process. “You have this nothing lump and then you make this something that people are using.”
Deb’s husband, Denver, was in the military and wherever they were stationed she would teach classes in ceramic shops and teach art lessons just to keep her hand in it. When they moved to Colorado in 1995, she became a wheel-throwing potter at Van Briggle. That’s where she began developing her own style of work. Until then her pots were plain and undecorated.
In 2007 their youngest child was a senior in high school. Denver mentioned to Deb that she had money from the military to use to go back to school herself. While looking for schools she attended the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) convention for the first time. At that convention she fell in love with soda firing and knew at that point she needed leave Van Briggle and go back to school.
While she was training her replacement at Van Briggle, she learned about the ceramic program at Colorado State University in Pueblo. One of the courses of study they teach is soda fired ceramics. So that was where she decided to go.
But her fear of the computer hindered her from enrolling. So, Denver called the college and had one of the professors talk her through the enrollment process. Denver then helped her with her military paperwork and financial forms while her children taught Deb basic computer skills. So just getting her into college was a family affair. And they did it all in less than 6 months. “It was one of the greatest gifts of my life. It did things for me that I would never have believed It could do for me.”
While working with the other students she realized what she wanted to do was draw and paint on her pots. She enjoyed drawing and painting for years and wanted to add that to her pottery. And she noticed another student scratching into his pots, and she added sgrafitto (incised or scratched lines) to her designs.
One of Deb’s long-standing designs is her dragonfly pottery. She adds the dragonflies, always in pairs, to the raw pottery pieces before they are bisque fired using black underglaze and a bamboo brush. She has the design down to 7 strokes per dragonfly—the 4 wings, the body, and the 2 eyes. She hasn’t varied her technique because it takes her back to her early love of calligraphy.
Once the piece is bisque fired, she puts a wax resist on the dragonflies and glazes the piece. In the final firing the wax resist burns off and the dragonfly texture stands in contrast to the gloss of the glazed surface.
Deb makes her own glazes and enjoys the excitement and mystery of mixing the tactile ingredients that will become colors and textures on her finished work. “There are so many talented potters in this area. I realized I needed to make glazes that are different from everyone else’s.” She’s worked hard to steer her color palette so that it is unique to her work.