WATER AND CLAYSkilled potter and painter Amy Pickens finds inspiration for her pieces by the lake.
By Emily Sparacino
Photos by Dawn Harrison
Amy Pickens couldn’t stand it. She had to know what was going on in the Shelby County Arts Council’s back room.
“I was a volunteer at the Arts Council, and I could hear the pottery class going on in the back room,” Pickens says. “They were laughing and had so much fun. When I got my work done, I went back there and asked if I could try. I had to quit my volunteer job because I was taking too many pottery classes.”
This happened years ago, and Pickens’s love for making pottery has grown stronger ever since. She teaches intermediate and advanced pottery technique classes at the Arts Council now, and she makes and sells pottery, ornaments and other gifts through her business, Willow Island Artist.
But Pickens, 57, initially wasn’t drawn to pottery as a career. “I didn’t want to do bowls and platters. I got bored with that.”
She started making functional pieces like vases, often featuring her free-hand drawings of birds or fish, noting she’s inspired by the lake––not a surprise considering she lives on Lay Lake with her husband, Terry. Nowadays, she’s exploring figure sculpture, a new outlet she’s learning about and enjoying with each class she takes.
But Amy’s artistic endeavors started with a medium unlike pottery and figure sculpture––and at a time, she says, when career opportunities for female artists were less prevalent than they are today. “I was in college in the late ’70s … not what I call a friendly environment for the local shy female artist.” She earned a fine arts degree with a minor in crafts from Virginia Commonwealth University, and started working in the jewelry design industry right after she graduated. “I started in a small, family-owned jewelry store where the customers would bring me their gold and stones, and we would work together, starting with drawings, to come up with the design of a piece.”
Then, she worked for a woman to make charms for charm bracelets in the days before 3D printers drove production. For the last two years, she has worked with the Connie Bennett Collection as an assistant on kiln-fired art glass jewelry. One of the best parts of her job, Amy says, is she can work from home. “I get to work in my pajamas.”
She didn’t get back into other art until nearly 10 years ago, when she started volunteering at the Arts Council and taking painting and pottery classes, eventually becoming a pottery instructor. A year ago, she started facilitating a class on Thursday nights called Creating in Community for young adults and adults with some pottery experience who want to try new techniques.
“We share ideas and information and techniques with one another,” Amy says. “This class is to promote the sharing of techniques and ideas. It’s a lot of fun.”
She also helps set up gallery openings and receptions for the Arts Council’s musical performers as a Partners for the Arts volunteer. She is one of the founders of the Arts Council’s Pottery Collective, which brings various artists together and allows them to showcase as many pieces as they want to in the same gallery.
“My main thing is pottery. I get to incorporate my painting into the pottery,” she says. Her late mother, Sara Bell, made pottery to abate the effects of severe arthritis. “We always say pottery is good therapy, and it’s much cheaper than going to a therapist.”
Amy’s involvement with figure sculpture began in a class at the Arts Council taught by award-winning artist Nelson Grice.
“He was my inspiration, I guess,” she says of Grice. “I love the hand-building, especially the sculpture. It opened my eyes to the fact pottery could be sculpture. He taught the techniques that I needed to get started building figures.”
Some of Amy’s sculpture figures are now in the Arts Council gallery. She also makes and sells hand-painted ornaments.
At the end of the day, Amy is thankful the arts have more community support than they did decades ago. People are bringing local art into their homes, and attending classes and events focused on artists and their work.
“People support their local artists now, where they didn’t before. The small galleries have become social hubs in the little communities,” she says. “Everyone should support their local artists.”