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Mark Issenberg throws a pot in his ceramics-crowded – but extremely tidy – Lookout Mountain studio.
 

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

There’s a certain magic about Mark Issenberg’s pottery studio. 

To get there, you pull off Plum Nelly at the Lookout Mountain Pottery sign, wander through the woods for a bit, lost, then come across a building surrounded by accoutrements both practical and im- – firewood stacked with stern precision, a porch swing, a birdcage large enough to keep a person in. Then the door swings open and reveals –

Well, magic. Colors both primary and muted, simple devices like potter’s wheel and old-fashioned woodstove alongside wonderful bewildering machines whose functions can only be guessed; shelves of bowls and amphorae and trays and cups; jars and jars of mysterious powders, each labeled with scientific names; all of this arranged with the same unyielding tidiness as the square stacks of firewood outside. It is like stumbling upon the enchanted lair of some neatnik wizard.

It’s not OCD, explains Issenberg, a blue-jeaned, gray-bearded, practical variety of wizard; it’s just that the nature of pottery is such that if the practitioner doesn’t exercise some degree of diligence he won’t be able to find his way to the kiln. “Everything would be covered in dust,” he said.

Issenberg is in no danger of being thus subsumed. The order and beauty manifest in the studio are multiplied exponentially in his gallery next door, a light, airy space in which his finished work adorns gleaming shelves, and in the graceful, ceramic-laden house a little further through the woods he shares with wife Nona. His gardens are laid out in tidy squares, fenced individually against wildlife; his greenhouse is a miracle of rare device; and even his chicken coop looks like a fairy tale cottage with, no joke, a stained-glass window.   

Issenberg, who moved to the mountain in 1997 from Miami, where he was a career firefighter, built all this and he’s proud of what he has wrought, and not averse to giving visitors the grand tour; but there is no ambiguity about what the main attraction here is: The process. Issenberg takes his place at the wheel with the admonition: “You’ll love it. It’s really cool. Watch.”

He starts by extracting a blob of clay from one of the mystifying machines. This is a “pug mill,” designed not to mix clay powder with water – that’s another machine, Issenberg explains, that he keeps outside – but to extract air from the clay and make it more flexible.    

This blob, called a “pug plug,” Issenberg places on his potter’s wheel with hands he keeps wet with water buckets on either side. The wheel, operated electrically with a foot pedal, spins around and around with a whirring noise and the blob morphs first into a cone and then a sphere and then, with the insertion of one of Issenberg’s fingers –

Pretty much anything. Issenberg says he has a general idea what he wants to make when he sits down at the wheel, but once it starts spinning things assume lives of their own, so that each pot comes out an individual different from its brothers. Magic? “There’s no question,” says Issenberg.

Issenberg was struck by the magic when he was in the ninth grade, and it’s how he became acquainted with Dade County: He met iconic Lookout Mountain potter Charles Counts when Counts was in Miami for a show and workshop. A few years later, in 1968, Issenberg followed Counts here to take a pottery class he offered.

But back to the demonstration: Today Issenberg makes two drinking cups and a small bowl, but it could just as easily have been a plate or serving bowl or one of the bonsai planters he has begun specializing in, combining his twin passions of pottery and plants. Issenberg, who grows orchids among other exotics in his greenhouse, has earned his Master Gardener’s certification, though horticulturally he bows to wife Nona who, he says, gardens more or less full-time.

The smooth insides of his vessels Issenberg finishes with a sponge, and he uses various wire instruments to add texture or patterns to the outsides. Finally he detaches each pot from the wheel with a deft slice of a wire between two corks, then sets them on a shelf to air-dry for a day before they are glazed and fired.

Glazing is what the jars of mysterious powders are for. “It’s not chemicals,” says Issenberg. “Most all this stuff is ground-up rocks.” Kaolin, talc, feldspar, silica, dolomite – it’s a cobalt glaze that gives a jug its deep blue color, he points out later, in the gallery.

But just as often Issenberg prefers a simpler, more natural-looking ash finish he gets using his wood kiln. A kiln is a special potting oven that sustains temperatures so high – 2000 F and upwards – they are measured not by thermometers but by observation of pyrometric cones, small porcelain objects that melt at different heats. Besides the wood kiln, Issenberg has three gas and three electric models, all used to achieve different effects.

The finished wares Issenberg displays in his gallery include objects large and small with price tags ranging from $20 to $200-plus. Some are “just for pretty” but most have practical applications, and Issenberg encourages purchasers to use them to eat off, drink from and serve on. Don’t be afraid, he says: “If somebody breaks a pot that’s good, because it keeps the potters in business.”

Each year around Christmas, Issenberg hosts a public kiln-opening event at Lookout Mountain Pottery. “It’s brand-new pots that I haven’t even seen. It’s fun,” he says. He hasn’t scheduled the 2013 version yet.

But for those who’d like to see Issenberg’s pottery sooner – and possibly a demonstration of the process – he will be one of the exhibitors at this weekend’s Mountain Arts and Crafts Celebration at Cloudland Canyon State Park (see related article). The festival, a free event, will take place both Saturday and Sunday in the park’s group shelter and on an adjoining field.

Also, some of Issenberg’s wares can be seen and purchased at Cloudland Canyon year-round. They are sold in the camp store, with the park receiving 50 percent of the sale price. Issenberg, an enthusiastic member of the park’s nonprofit Friends group, loves to hike in Cloudland Canyon and maintains one of the trails as part of his volunteer work there.    

Additionally, Issenberg keeps his Plum Nelly gallery open for drop-in visitors almost all the time. He has become something of a tourist attraction, drawing some traffic from Cloudland Canyon and some from further afield: Three collectors arrived from their Mentone vacation site during the pottery demonstration.

All left the gallery with Issenberg-ware in hand, which the potter used as answer to the question: Are you making a living with this? 

Issenberg prefers to keep the business end of his pottery ambiguous – he uses an honor-system, leave-money-in-jar system for gallery sales when he’s not present, for example – and says in any case that’s not the point.  

“All these people who want to become potters, I tell them to get a real job and make pottery because you want to make pottery,” he says.

If money is not the point, what is?

Probably, it is safe to venture, it has something to do with magic.

 

 


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