2013 Henry Award Recipient

Before a ceramic bowl takes on the luster of colorful glaze, it's a lump of firm moist earthenware pounded into a primitive sphere and slapped onto a potter's wheel.

A potter places wet hands on the lump using steady pressure to guide it into a smooth symmetrical state. Too much pressure and the clay will lose its integrity, spinning out into a muddy mess. Too little pressure and the blob will remain unchanged, its inconsistencies persisting on its otherwise smooth surface.

When the sides of the clay feel smooth to the touch the potter plunges her thumbs into the center opening up the unformed blob and forming a functional vessel.


As she sits behind her wheel to create another one of her signature pieces, Dumas potter Gail Miller can identify with the need for just enough, but not too much pressure. When Miller was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, her art became her therapy. Though her body changed and her strength lessened, she found herself returning to the wheel to keep working with clay.

"Without the pottery to make me get up and worry about something else besides myself, I'm not sure I would have survived," Miller said.

Adding to the refining pressure of challenging change: a knee replacement surgery and the loss of her home in a tornado in February of 2007.

Miller has been showing at the War Eagle Farm Craft show for years. Through the years, she's developed a faithful following of craft-show junkies who purchase her signature projects and keep up with the changes that have challenged and shaped her.

"It's been a long battle," she said. "I'm amazed at how many people have been concerned."

Miller's experiences have shaped her art using vivid colors, sharp contrasts and unusual forms to set her work apart.

Miller's open-framed wood shelves sit on the banks at the festival, drawing crowds of people eager to interact with the tactile forms of her work. Her trademark mug is a smooth, symmetrical vessel offset with a primitive hand formed with a rough glob of clay fixed on the side.

It's beyond aesthetic. The handle comfortably fits a hand and forms a solid grip. Miller discovered it after countless conventional mugs slipped through her wet fingers and broke when she took sips from them during breaks on the wheel.

"I broke at least a coffee cup a day, " she said. "These fit your hand right off the bat. Everybody loves it, but especially men."

The work has helped her stay focused on the good in life, forming and shaping her, not unlike that lump of clay on that potter's wheel.

"Everyone should have a purpose or a passion," she said. "The 'what if' is why I do it."

By Evie Blad, NWA News