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UGA Student’s Works of Clay Earn Distinction

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Ceramics major, Valerie LaPlaca, examines her Halloween-styled mugs after being polished and fired inside of a kiln.

From her studio in Athens, GA, artist Valerie LaPlaca has amassed a local following after launching her small business outside of her teaching fellowship at the Georgia Museum of Art. She began by setting up mini shops at local farmers’ markets, but as word of her talent spread throughout town, commissions began to pile.

In some circles, the double-major has been dubbed “the Fairy Potter,” for her mystical clay urns, pots, and skull earrings that have found new homes around the area. She isn’t shy and clarifies, the more bizarre the request, the better.

“Usually I’ll make mugs, planters, and jewelry. There was one request where someone asked me to paint a pet portrait of their dog, wearing a suit, on a mug. It wasn’t the wildest but by far the cutest. I love when people ask me to make a gift for someone because it’s thoughtful,” LaPlaca said.

I visited the budding ceramist at the start of October to catch up on how she’s found time to seemingly be in two places at once.

LaPlaca is preparing for her exit show, a final expo in her career as a UGA art pupil, to be critiqued by world-renowned professors, Sunkoo Yuh, whose personal works are valued in the thousands and often reflect sociopolitical themes, as well as Ted Saupe, a champion of fine arts.

“They are beautiful, aren’t they? [Their works] just evoke so much. I draw most of my inspiration from the artists in this building and the natural world,” LaPlaca said, as she showed me around the Lamar Dodd art building.

LaPlaca is old school in that she prefers a manual kick wheel to an electrical one, which requires a constant pedaling of the foot.

“Throwing [a term used to describe the act of molding clay from a spin wheel] is best on a manual wheel. It’s more intuitive, you can really determine how fast it goes based on your physical effort, making the work more intimate,” LaPlaca said.

In her final semester, LaPlaca admits that she prefers to be “guided by the clay” and not brainstorm on paper before starting a project. Instead, she’d rather let her emotions drive her process.

“My method is pretty cathartic – I find when I don’t plan things out, I create some of my best. I don’t like to throw on the wheel anymore because it’s too perfect for me. I typically coil build with my hands. Basically, you roll the clay into long coils onto a table, and you just layer it and build upwards,” LaPlaca said.

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LaPlaca’s corner studio is packed with works inspired by the natural world. Often they capture life’s imperfect, transitional stations.

This form of sculpting can go haywire minutes into a build. It’s described as an impromptu style in which beginner sculptors could encounter trouble if they fail to properly distribute weight or gauge where the foundation requires more support early on.

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But with ten years of experience, the UGA senior is far from being considered a novice.

LaPlaca makes seasonal jack-o’-lanterns about the diameter of a softball in roughly 12 minutes at a time. For shaping, there is an array of sponges and scalpels to choose from, a smoothing tool called a “potter’s rib,” and a specialized kiln that serves as a furnace to harden intricate works that could take weeks to finish.

It’s grueling. Students often skip meals or stay for extended hours overnight, just to make sure their builds are going as planned. Sculpting takes its toll on the body, but LaPlaca is at a stage in her artistry where she almost welcomes the aches that come with her craft.

But her time in the studio isn’t all taxing. It’s been known around campus that ceramic majors tend to have a good sense of humor: the kilns also act as ovens for baked, homemade pizza to replenish the overworked.

“I love our little community. This whole studio gets snacky, you know? We made pizza in the kilns a few days ago. Luka and Hewie do a good job making them, their baker names are ‘Pepe’ and ‘Luigi.’” LaPlaca said.

LaPlaca’s closest member of her cohort, Luka Carter, says there’s a lot of love in what they do and a shared camaraderie between the two that he’ll cherish for a long time.

Clay is a cohesive property after all.

“We’re going to be sharing a booth at the Athens Farmer’s Market on November 27th. Other than being able to watch over my pieces if I have to run to the bathroom, we’ve really learned to look out for each other,” Carter said.

After graduation, LaPlaca intends on teaching art at the high school level and aspires to open a studio someday. But for now, her focus is on her final presentation and remembering why she started in the first place.

“I look at ceramics as a portal to the past and the earth, starting from the minerals and creating something from that. Clay has taught me that life just moves. Art surrounds us. The need or want to express oneself is special and necessary to the human experience,” LaPlaca said.

You can follow her Instagram page for more info on where she’ll pop up next.

@vl.ceramics

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