A Potter Shares His Story
Thomas Perry is comfortable with the simplicity of being called a potter. “I’m interested in being a potter. I like the idea of people using my pieces, getting joy out of using them and occasionally admiring them as objects.”
When he drinks tea from one of the numerous tea bowls in his collection, he offers his respects to the makers he knows and to unsung potters across many cultures who created a rich tradition of vessels used for everyday and spiritual functions. His own creations are often inspired by those works: “I admire other people’s pots, going back through history, particularly to early Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Middle Eastern.”
Perry has been focused on making pottery full time since he retired from Shell Oil in 1999 and says he’s “gotten pretty good.” The modesty of this statement belies the many shows he’s been invited to, awards earned and other accolades he has received. He was also artist-in-residence at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCCC) in 2004.
Perry came to his craft gradually. In the late 1960s when he was starting his 31-year career with Shell Oil, he and his wife, artist Carolyn Dahl, were living in Berkeley, California. “I never really thought about pottery until in Berkeley we encountered local artisans and their handmade pottery. We both were stimulated by the tactile nature of the clay, the glazes and the forms, plus the fact that you could use them.”
He works in his garage studio with an electric wheel, an electric kiln, a slab roller, white clays and glazes in a range of colors he develops himself.
“I almost always start with white clay. I like the response to color it provides. I buy my clays in bags at the Ceramic Store in The Heights.” Perry’s studio contains clays in shades from whites to light grays and greens ready for use and pieces in those colors in various stages of firing. While centering a lump of clay on the wheel, he feels a deeper sense of meaning.
“I really like the idea of centering on the potter’s wheel. You can’t help but feel centered yourself,” he says. Though things may occasionally go wrong in the firing or glazing, he’s intrigued by the challenges. He mostly makes functional wares and occasionally more decorative projects, such as his large ceramic bells and tall urns that were originally inspired by Japanese bronze bells from almost 2,000 years ago.
During his HCCC residency Perry began hand-building, which he feels takes a more intuitive approach than making forms on the wheel. He built something else besides pottery while at HCCC: While there, he learned about Empty Bowls events in other major cities. He pursued the idea of starting one in Houston. “Things began to fall into place with support from HCCC and the Houston Food Bank. The first event was in 2005, and it has grown every year.” Last year’s event raised more than $100,000 for the food bank.
After 10 years he has stepped back from his duties but still stays involved in this meaningful event. “People who have attended Empty Bowls Houston tell me they like the idea of having a handmade bowl,” he said. “Then later they take it out to use it, and they remember what it’s for—to feed the hungry in our community.”
> Perry’s work (thomasperrypottery.com) can be found locally at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Art + Tea, Path of Tea and Lucia’s Garden, and in Round Top at the Copper Shade Tree Gallery. He created the 2016 Local Hero Award plates for Edible Houston.