By Allison Plitt
Liberty Valance, who creates pottery and teaches others how to at Long Island City’s Brickhouse Ceramic Art Center, also enjoys painting nature scenes from the environs around her.
She likes to depict animals from the Mill Creek Marsh near her home in Weehawken, N.J., like the many snowy owls she spotted this past spring.
Although she relishes painting these outdoor scenes as well as animated indoors scenes of cats knocking over furniture, Valance prefers to paint her creations on pottery.
“Painting on a canvas doesn’t work for me. I don’t feel right about it,” Valance said. “Painting the scenes on clay just unfolded. That’s the thing with art. It just happens.”
Valance’s own journey through life explains her road to success as an artist. Although she was born in Long Island, Liberty’s family moved to Greenwich Village before she was a year old. Her father was a musician and her mother is an artist. She attended Greenwich House Nursery School, where she was first introduced to pottery.
When Valance graduated from high school in 1966, a friend told her to take a pottery class at the Crafts Student League, which was under the umbrella of the YWCA/NYC. Valance took a class from a woman named Gertrude Englander, a well-known ceramicist, who encouraged her to experiment with the different techniques of making pottery.
While Valance enjoyed hand building in clay, Englander, insisted she go on the pottery wheel.
“I went on the wheel, and honest to God, flames were shooting out of the motor,” Valance said. “It’s just not for me, but different people are attracted to different things.”
When the YWCA/NYC decided to sell its building and change its focus, the Crafts Student League closed.
Ellen Day, who was the former director of the student program, purchased the equipment, and started to look for a new home. About 18 months later, Day opened the Brickhouse Ceramic Art Center in a 4,000-square-foot facility at 10-34 44th Drive in Long Island City.
Valance has been a fixture at Brickhouse since it opened in 2007.
“I’m a Capricorn which is an earth sign, so I like clay, working with my hands,” Valance said. “I started doing animal vases, tea pots, planters, things like that.”
All the plates and cups that Valance creates are completely functional and can be used daily.
Believing that pottery is a complex art medium because it involves many processes, Valance describes the technique in detail.
“First is to make the piece of pottery, either functional or a sculpture. Second, when the piece is finished and dry, it is then bisque fired — fired to a lower temperature like a flower pot. Third, the piece is glazed and put back into the kiln for the final firing at about 2,168 degrees Fahrenheit,” Valance said. “Glazing is always an exciting process. Sometimes there are surprises with the glaze. When the kiln is cool enough, it is unloaded and the pots are ready to take home.”
Valance teaches two pottery classes at Brickhouse, on Tuesday mornings and on Wednesday nights. Her classes are called, “Dream It. Make It.” Since her students are interested in creating different types of clay pieces, she allows them the freedom to pursue their own ideas. She is even teaching several students to paint on clay like herself.
With a few pieces for sale at the Brickhouse entrance, Valance says she can custom-make orders for people, which can take between six to eight weeks. Like most of the other artists at Brickhouse, she sells the majority of her pieces at Brickhouse’s holiday sale in December.
After more than 40 years of creating pottery, Valance gives valuable advice to those learning to work with clay.
“Just be patient and not have preconceived notions because clay has a way of coming out the way it’s supposed to be and not the way you want it,” Valance said. “You think you want to make this beautiful thing with this certain shape and the clay just doesn’t want to quite go that way and it comes out better than you think.”