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As she closes her shop, Charlottesville potter Nan Rothwell prepares to glaze a new trail

After five decades of transforming clay into functional stoneware, Charlottesville potter Nan Rothwell will be closing her shop in the city’s Locust Grove neighborhood by the end of the year. Her love story with clay, however, is nowhere near over.

Once the handmade inventory of vases, lamps, trays, pitchers, bowls and other items at Nan Rothwell Pottery and her online store is gone, Rothwell plans to say goodbye to the business she first opened in 1973, but not to the art form she loves. Just as clay has changed into endless shapes and textures under her fingers, her creativity will be taking on new forms.

“I love making pots. That’s what I do,” Rothwell told The Daily Progress. “The main thing is I’m not going to be running a business. I’m not going to be making them for sale.”

Without “the pressures and schedules of being a working potter,” Rothwell said she expects to find more time to play with clay, as she did when it all began. She’ll have more time to explore challenging techniques and appealing new textures to see where they might lead. She may get back into the teaching she loves so she can watch students become enchanted by the ancient, earthy medium that captured her own heart when she was 19.

Without the grind, Rothwell will have time to reflect, and to see where the muse beckons her next.

“Fifty years is a long time,” Rothwell said. “I’ve been in business since 1973, and I’ve been making [functional items] since 1969.”

“I don’t quite know what it’ll be like,” she added with a gentle laugh. “It’s a little hard to know, because I’ve never retired before. I’ve done this my whole adult life, and now I’m asking, ‘Who am I now?’”

Rothwell fell under the thrall of clay at 19, while she was visiting friends in England. Making her first pot sent her life in a new direction, and she enrolled in the intensive Harrow Studio Pottery Course near London to learn how to make functional stoneware.

The unlimited possibilities of the medium called to her. The alchemy of functional stoneware yielded a world in which even the simplest objects of everyday life could be beautiful. Whether Rothwell was creating mugs for morning coffee, plates and bowls for family meals, vases for floral arrangements or her whimsical elephants and frogs, she marveled at the power of clay to transcend time.

“People have been doing it since prehistoric times,” she said. “It’s an ancient and venerable tradition, and I like being part of that.”

Rothwell worked in other potteries in England and Ireland when she wasn’t in school, and once she returned to the United States in 1972, she started her own studio in the village of Crozet in Albemarle County just west of Charlottesville. Before long, she was teaching pottery at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Rothwell moved to Nelson County with her husband, Carter Smith, after they married. That’s where they lived and worked — she in pottery, he in cabinetmaking — from 1978 to 2016.

“I taught at my studio in Nelson County for many years,” Rothwell said. “It has always been such a significant pleasure for me.” She also introduced many students to the wonders of creating vessels and other objects and enjoyed watching them savor their own moments of discovery.

Rothwell paused her teaching career when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and she is considering the possibility of resuming some workshops.

“That’s lovely contact with people,” she said of the workshop format.

Smith started pitching in to help run Rothwell’s pottery business after he retired, and together they moved to Charlottesville a decade ago, setting down roots in a 1950s-era home that Smith restored and setting up a kiln shed and basement studio.

They are parents to Alan and Rachel, now adults, and son Alan has produced instructional videos with his mother; “Throwing” and “Glazing” were published by the Ceramic Arts Network.

“I’ve been so fortunate to make a living at it,” Rothwell said. “So far, I feel very energized by it.”

She also is energized by the idea of finding new directions, not only for her artistic life with clay but also for the remaining creations that are waiting for new homes. Donating her work to auctions and other events could help people far beyond her loyal customer base.

“It is tricky. I don’t know what form it is going to take,” Rothwell said. “I’ve been thinking about ways to put them out into the world without selling them.”

Clearing out studio shelves might seem intimidating to some artists and business owners, but to Rothwell, the empty spaces are like blank canvases just waiting for new inspirations.

Rothwell has been grateful to work with her marketing manager, Lauren Pack, and “what has been lovely about working with Lauren is she comes and takes them away,” Rothwell said of her pots. “If she takes them away and I see blank shelves, I have more room for creativity.”

The potter won’t miss the business side, however.

“I don’t want that anymore. I don’t want to make things I have no interest in selling,” Rothwell said. “With no time clock, I’m going to try to learn some new techniques.”

Rothwell looks forward to going back to where it all started, with a lump of clay, and seeing where it will lead her next. In the meantime, when she does glance back at her career, it’s with gratitude and joy.

“Working with clay is a pleasure,” she said. “It has been a second income for my family. I taught classes for years and years and years. I got very lucky. I found it really young, and it has been a lovely thing to do.”

Rothwell has three more shows scheduled this year, so fans can find her at the RVAClay tour in Richmond on June 1 and 2, the Virginia Clay Festival in Stanardsville on Sept. 21 and 22 and the Artisans Studio Tour in Charlottesville on Nov. 9 and 10.

In the meantime, her pots are available at Crozet Artisan Depot in Crozet, C’ville Arts on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, Noon Whistle Pottery in Stanardsville and Alderson Artisans Gallery in Alderson, West Virginia, and she has plenty of inventory in her online store.


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