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A knack for making Lilliputian-sized pottery

When Eileen Davis Vernon learned that her husband wanted her to decorate stoneware so tiny it would fit in the palm of her hands, she balked.

"You have to be kidding," Eileen said.

Sid Vernon, a master potter, wasn't fazed. He nurtured what turned out to be his wife's God-given talent to draw miniature designs on Lilliputian-sized pottery. He offered tips, do's and don'ts. She slowly mastered the art.

Eventually, Eileen took over every detail of Vernon Pottery, the business the two started in the mid-1980s, when Sid's health began to deteriorate.

But, this grand love story, built around miniature proportions, started long before that - all on a college girl's whim.

In the early 1970s, Eileen Davis had time to kill between semesters at Stratford College in Danville. Why not try something new?

She thought a pottery class would be a "fun thing to do" before her spring term began.

It didn't hurt that Stratford (which would close its doors in 1974) had one of America's most accomplished potters, Robert Eckels, on its faculty. Certainly, Eileen could learn a thing or two from the master.

When the short-term class began, Eileen met the professor and his assistant, Sid Vernon, who had been offered an apprenticeship to work under Eckels. Sid had discovered pottery - and what would become a lifelong passion of working with clay - while attending Western Carolina University in North Carolina.

"It was the first time he had ever done anything like that, and it just resonated," Eileen said.

The apprenticeship turned out to be Sid's lucky break, and he left his native North Carolina to move to Danville.

Eileen enjoyed the class, but she was truly smitten with the assistant.

"He was so, so different," said the woman who had grown up along the shores of Linkhorn Bay, attended the Quaker-run Friends School and learned business acumen at the knee of her father.

"He just wasn't like the others."

 

At the home that she and Sid shared in Princess Anne Plaza in Virginia Beach, Eileen grabs a Super Ball-sized glob of clay and makes sure that it's at the right moisture. If not, it's useless to a potter.

"Clay has all of these little, flat particles, almost like little pieces of mirror," she explains. "When water gets in between, they slide. Without water, they don't do anything."

From the ball of clay, Eileen pulls off a portion the size of a pea and puts it in the center of a bat - a round, plastic piece that attaches to her full-sized pottery wheel.

From this will emerge a vase, a quarter-inch high.

As she bends over a tad to look at the clay, Eileen realizes she doesn't have on the right glasses. She makes the switch to the pair that lets her see tiny things more clearly.

She uses her right foot to press down the pedal that causes the pottery wheel to rotate.

The speck of clay spins.

Eileen's diminutive hands start to grab the tools she's fashioned for her particular trade. Within seconds, the dot begins to resemble a tiny plate.

She uses a flat, thin steel measuring piece that acts as a template, then different-sized fettling knives and finally a sponge that's seen better days. The clay is now a vase.

But, wait, something has gone awry. Eileen spots a dark speck in her creation and wonders what it is. Somehow, a hair has gotten into the vessel. It's ruined.

Eileen repeats the process - starting with a small dab of clay. It spins. She shapes it. She concentrates.

While she works, she explains how various tools transform the interior of the vase or lift its lip. Her sponge - which she's had for 20 years - has a dent that fits perfectly over the vessel's edge. The sponge is special.

"If I lost it, I would lose my mind," Eileen says.

The vase spins and spins, and the artist works. Before you know it, the bottom has become thinner than the top, just as she planned. She smooths the sides with her hands and a fettling knife, with its tapered blade made for such details. She pauses and ponders. She decides that the vase is done.

"I need to stop when I'm ahead."

 

While clay brought Sid and Eileen together, fishing sealed the deal.

"He finally decided I wasn't going anywhere, and we became drinking buddies," she said.

Eileen learned that Sid liked to fish in his spare time, so she invited him - and his rod and reel - to Virginia Beach when her junior-year classes ended at Stratford.

They ended up at an Oceanfront pier. "It was bitterly cold," Eileen remembered. "We could not drink enough hot cocoa and hot coffee."

During their night of fishing, the pair caught 50 whiting, which they took to Eileen's parents' home to clean.

"I had never cleaned fish in my life," she said.

She wasn't even that keen on fishing, she said, but "you do what you got to do." Sid was hooked.

Within a few months, Sid took a job in New Mexico. He missed Eileen. They wrote letters, but it wasn't enough.

"He called boo-hooing and asked me to marry him over the phone," Eileen said.

Within days of graduating from college in 1974, Eileen tied the knot with Sid. They lived and worked in Danville for five years - she as an elementary school teacher, he as a potter helping mentally challenged residents work with their hands.

Soon Eileen's home beckoned, and the couple moved to Hampton Roads. To help jump-start their new life, Eileen sold stock she owned in U.S. Steel and bought the clay-crazy couple some necessities - a sofa, a pottery wheel and a kiln.

Sid went to work.

"He made planters, and we took them around to garden shops," Eileen said.

Sid also helped Eileen's father with the family business, Davis Grain, and took art classes at Old Dominion University. He decided neither was his cup of tea.

Eileen was working as a librarian at her alma mater, the Friends School off Laskin Road in Virginia Beach, which offered pottery classes taken by a handful of students. The school wanted a full-fledged program.

Sid was hired, and he set out to raise funds to buy needed equipment. He made ceramic birdhouses and sold them for $10 a pop until one student's father signed a check big enough to get the program off the ground.

For three years, things went well. Sid taught pottery and, in that role, prepped the clay for his young students. It had to be the right consistency, which required kneading. It was difficult work and impossible for some of the young kids.

As he worked with the heavy balls of clay, tendonitis in both wrists began to flare up.

Something had to give.

 

In her garage-turned-studio, Eileen looks at the eight miniature pieces of pottery she's made in the past 30 minutes.

A little clay in this type of work goes a long way. A pound of clay when creating normal-size pottery will make a good-sized mug.

Out of the same amount, Eileen can fashion 100 pieces when working in 1-inch scale, which translates into 1 inch per foot of life-sized pottery. Even more when the scale is smaller.

Eileen pulls out the cobalt blue color and dots the edges of a quarter-inch plate, smaller than a dime. That process needs to be done while the piece is still moist. Drying will take only five to 10 minutes.

She carefully marks her work by carving her initials in the bottom of each piece. Then they are loaded into a kiln to be bisque-fired, which changes them from clay to a semi-hard but still porous ceramic.

After the initial firing, Eileen glazes each piece under its rim with a clear glaze she applies with a syringe-type instrument. Then the pots are hand-painted, then glazed a second time in a spray booth with a clear coating.

Time for trip No. 2 to the kiln, where the pottery is fired at 2,100 degrees.

What comes out are intricately decorated plates and vases and vessels ready for use or for display. What comes out is art.

 

After tendonitis attacked Sid's wrists, he started looking for less painful ways to continue his passion.

"We're going to do these little pots," he told his wife.

Sid was intent on creating salt-glazed pottery, a technique popular in the 19th century that uses salt during the firing process to form a glassy coating on the finished work.

Eileen thought he was nuts, but she researched the process and studied different companies that made such stoneware in the 1800s. She looked into the designs that were prevalent and the methods used to paint them, called "slip-trailing."

That's when Sid broke the news to Eileen: He'd throw the pots if she decorated them.

"For this venture to really work, I need you on board," he said.

She tried applying glaze with a calligraphy pen, but that didn't work, so Sid helped her find another tool. It happened to be a nasal bulb, the kind used to clear out a baby's sinuses, attached to a hypodermic needle. The device gave her the precision to decorate her husband's miniature pots.

With practice, Eileen found she was "pretty good at copying things." She started with normal-sized designs and made them smaller. Eventually, she learned how to replicate 100 different historical slip-trail designs.

"OK, this just might work," she thought.

The pair formed Vernon Pottery and put together a catalog that they mailed to 500 businesses across the country that sold miniatures. Quickly, 20 percent placed orders, enough to give their fledging business back orders for a year.

They joined the National Association of Miniature Artisans and attended trade shows throughout the country. At their first convention in Cleveland in the mid-1980s, they sold all of their inventory within three hours and spent the rest of the three-day event taking orders.

Maybe, Eileen thought, her husband's idea wasn't so crazy after all.

 

For more than a decade, Sid created the tiny pieces, and Eileen painted them.

Eileen became expert at decorating the miniature stoneware - with fish, ships, flowers, houses or other designs. Eventually the couple expanded their line to include miniature dinnerware, which Eileen made and hand-painted. At restaurants or yard sales, she began buying plates with designs she could reproduce on a smaller scale; stacks still sit on a shelf in her home office.

She handled the business side of things as well, filling and mailing orders and keeping the books. Sid did all the stoneware throwing.

It's what he wanted to do.

The couple found giant success in miniatures. Their wares were sold all over the world, in museum gift shops and to miniature dollhouse collectors. Their work was featured in Country Living magazine and in the Smithsonian Institution's retail catalog. Don and Carol Raycraft, experts in antiques and salt-glazed stoneware, wrote about Sid and Eileen in their "Book of Country: Volume II."

But Sid's health kept spiraling downward. When he was 39, he had a heart attack; bad tickers run in his family. By 2002, he had his first stroke. He worked hard to regain his strength and to make pottery again, but by the time that happened, the seizures kicked in.

When he could no longer work, Sid would sit in their studio, in that former garage, and watch Eileen throw as classic music played and the couple's African gray parrots chirped. She fashioned pottery, but hers wasn't as good as Sid's.

Not being able to work with clay was hard for her husband, Eileen said. "He was a potter - that's all he'd ever been."

But, she said, "he took a lot of pleasure guiding me, showing me tricks."

In 2008, Sid's body was worn out, and he died at the age of 59.

 

Across from the stack of dinner plates in Eileen's office stands a selection of the stoneware the couple made together. Most of it was thrown by Sid.

Eileen continues to run the business, but she says she hasn't had the time she would like to make the itsy-bitsy pieces. She's trying to reincorporate that routine into her life.

"I actually love decorating and throwing, and I actually love this other community of people," she says. "I have friends all over the United States who I really count on being there for me; it's amazing."

Eileen finds something else amazing - that her college decision to take a pottery class brought Sid into her life.

"What a wonderful gift he left me."

 

Toni Guagenti, tguagenti@cox.net

 

Posted to: Arts Home Life Spotlight Virginia Beach

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petite pottery

There was nothing Lilliputian about the size of this article however.

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