Reeds Springs, Mo. — The earth-brown clay spins under Tom Hess' practiced hands, quickly becoming a perfect cylinder. Hess applies firm pressure to the center, pressing it down nearly to the spinning surface of his potter's wheel.
He pulls out the sides of the clay shape and reveals the shape of a plate. It is a task repeated many times, but only one step in a process perfected by Hess in producing his terra sigillata pottery. The process is thousands of years old, but Hess' design of clean lines and satin-smooth texture are decidedly contemporary.
So simple and utilitarian to use, but elegant to touch and view.
Terra sigillata, meaning "earth-sealed" in Latin, is a process dating back to the Roman Empire. It allows pottery to be sealed with a smooth surface without chemical glazes. While the end result is a simple product, that simplicity is deceiving.
Nature and simplicity
Tom Hess' pottery and wife Lory Brown's pine-needle baskets are made in their studio/shop a mile north of Reeds Spring on Missouri Highway 13. A structure as unique as their work, the couple's studio/shop is a Mongolian yurt.
While sounding exotic, the yurt looks as if it could have sprouted there in the Ozarks hills of Stone County. The symmetrical 12-sided structure offers a 360-degree view of nature surrounding it. Lory and Tom work in the center of the large open room, displaying their work on tables around them.
In a central upper level, a kiln room can be vented through a center skylight. It is a theme of nature and simplicity. It may have been the yurt that brought Tom and Lory together more than 20 years ago.
"My sister introduced us," Lory says. A nurse from New York who had worked in England and Africa, Lory was visiting her sister in Stone County.
"She wanted to show me someone who was building this real weird building," she says.
Lory continued in obstetrics nursing for a number of years after moving to the Ozarks, but was eventually drawn to making pine-needle baskets using the coil method. With foot-long needles from Florida yellow pine and raffia of natural and dyed colors, Lory makes baskets, frames, ornaments that sometimes are combined with Tom's pottery.
"It's a lot like sewing and I've always done a lot of sewing," Lory says. "There are a lot of different versions, but the story I've gotten is that pine needle baskets became popular during the Civil War ... but people have old Indian baskets that prove they have been around a long time."
Placed somewhere on each of Lory's creations and serving as her signature is a small terra cotta bead.
Form and function
Tom never considered making pots until, as a student at Saint Louis University in 1969, he answered an ad for a bicycle and found the owner in the school pottery studio throwing pots.
"I'd never seen anybody throw on a wheel before," he recalls. "I was trying to figure out where this clay was coming from. She was working it back and forth, and I thought there must be some kind of a pump. I signed up for a summer class and got hooked.
"I've never regretted it; I still love to do it. I do it seven days a week. Some people say, 'Gosh, you should take a few days off and do something you like.' What would I do? I'd rather do this than go fishing."
Hess finished his studies at Saint Louis University in 1971 and taught for a while with the Jesuits on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. But the lure of making pottery of his own creation brought the Wisconsin native back to Milwaukee, where he met and worked with mentor Abe Cohn.
A few year later, Hess would follow to the Ozarks fellow potter Mark Oehler, owner of Omega Pottery in Reeds Spring. Hess built the Mongolian-style yurt with the help of friends in 1979.
Hess' pottery is made with natural red clay. It is formed on a wheel, smoothed by hand and then given a coating of very fine clay in a water solution (sigillata) before firing. Clay particles as small as one micron are suspended in water with a special agent.
The dried clay objects are dipped in the solution before firing. The result is a silk-smooth finish and luster that can be used in an oven, dishwasher or microwave.