Clay Artist Rarely Throws Pots



Clay artist Donna Rokoff's sense of humor shows in the whimsical clay creatures -- birds and javelina -- that patiently await the delicate stroke of her glaze brush then the fire of life in her kiln.

"One thing about a clay studio is that you are always reminded your material is dirt," Rokoff said as she entered her tidy home studio.


This little javelina won't greet you when you are out walking, but you might invite a friend in, and serve tea from his snout. Here, Donna Rokoff is painting the javelina's hair. It goes on charcoal, dries silver then fires black. Her next project may be a llama -- she has already sketched one on her desk calendar.

Finished iridescent Raku clay fish, and other unfinished treasures from her 15 years as a potter for Hallmark, hang on the walls opposite pictures of javelina.

"They are such weird little critters," she said. "When you start analyzing how they are put together it seems impossible that they don't fall forward. Why don't they fall forward?"

She was enchanted by real javelinas when she and her husband, Michael, first moved to Payson and the javelinas tried to invite themselves to lunch.

Her series of javelina teapots are fully functional works of art.

Rokoff still throws the occasional pot with high temperature clay on her wheel, but she loves being able to sculpt and the broader spectrum of color she can add to low temperature clay that wants to be animals and decorated bowls.

"I think I am the only potter in the world who works with two temperatures of clay," said the artist who sees "inspiration everywhere."

She was inspired by a former student's chicken plate to create her three dimensional chickens purely as decoration.

"Mine are hanging birds with really fun dangling feet," Rokoff said.

Mornings spent in her studio take Rokoff away from everyday concerns and she often loses herself in her art.

The clay figures one of Rokoff's nine grandchildren made nestle between her own unpainted creatures, waiting for little hands to be guided by grandma's.

Indeed, art has been Rokoff's passion since she was a child. She credits the astigmatism -- that was undiagnosed until she was 13 -- for her life path.

"I wasn't good at anything I had to look at the chalk board for," she said.

Instead, "I drew in the margins of all my schoolbooks which got me in trouble with the nuns and my mother, who then had to buy the books," she said with a merry laugh.

Yet her mother was supportive, taking her to visit a book illustrator who lived in town.

Rokoff majored in jewelry making at Southern Illinois University.

It was at SIU that she threw her first pot.

Pottery classes are usually taught by graduate students only concerned about controlling their own pieces in the kiln according to Rokoff.

"I think a lot of people who could become potters don't because of the college system," she said.

She married while in college and spent the next 15 or so years raising four children.

Then, while living in Santa Fe, N.M. she found a mentor.

"Priscilla had The Pot Shop. She gave me freshen up lessons and let me hang out," Rokoff said.

As her skill grew, Rokoff set up her own studio and began selling her work in galleries.

After her divorce, she fell in love with Michael Rokoff and followed him back to the Midwest -- when he went to work for Hallmark.

"We only had one car, so I went to work for Hallmark too," she said.

Hallmark potters taught her the chemistry of clay and glazes and in turn she taught greeting card artists to create art with clay.

These days when they aren't in their studios, the couple loves to travel for fun and research.

"Any (creative work) that goes through your brain and out your hand is going to be different when it gets out there because your own personality and experience will influence what your hands do, so research is important for any form of art," Rokoff said.

The resume

Donna Rokoff

Motto: I think I can.

Art award you are most proud: The first poster contest I won in eighth grade.

Favorite Place: Right here in Payson -- my home, my studio, my garden.

Fave Book: Pride and Prejudice

Fave Movie: The African Queen

Fave Song: Pity the Mother and Father When the Children Move Away

Points of contact: The Clay Pigeon (928) 282-2845, Adelante (480) 488-1285, Our House (928) 476-5800

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