The following was published in the Spring/Summer issue of The Compass, a Floyd visitor’s guide.
“In Floyd the anachronism of buying things locally is not some progressive trend but rather the continuation of rural tradition.” ~ Haden Polseno-Hensley, Vennue magazine
Red balloons marked the dirt driveway from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the pottery studios of Donna Polseno and Rick Hensley for the 10th annual 16 Hands Fall Studio Tour. Polseno and Hensley, both members of the 16 Hands collective, were some of the earliest pioneers in a new wave of artists coming to Floyd County during the back-to the-land movement of the 1970’s.
Looking for a place to live and make pottery, the couple found Floyd while on their honeymoon in 1974. Polseno remembers being impressed by the rolling mountain views of the Parkway overlooks, but it was the country hospitality that convinced her to settle down in the county. “The people here were so friendly,” she said.
Standing next to one of her unglazed ceramic sculptures – a shapely feminine form with raised arms balancing a clay basket on her head – Polseno explained that the 16 Hands Tour was loosely modeled after a larger pottery tour in Minnesota. When the group of close-knit friends who represent 16 Hands realized they were doing separate local shows at the same time of year, they decided to pool their efforts. Each renowned as an individual artist, the members drew up a self-guided map brochure and opened their collective studios to the public for a weekend tour in November and another in May. Later, the three Floyd studios – along with one at a Blacksburg location – began hosting visiting artists, some of whom have come from as far away as Mexico and Italy to participate in the tours.
A mix of old friends, a couple of pottery collectors, and some new tour goers sipped hot herb tea and mingled in Polesno’s old barn studio during the Thanksgiving weekend tour. Guest potter Josh Copus finished wrapping one of his wild clay pots for a customer. Copus, founder of Clayspace Coop in the River Arts district of Asheville, grew up in Floyd. For him being invited to show work with the Sixteen Hands artists was an honor and a homecoming. “Rick was my little league coach,” he said with a broad grin.
Gazing into one of Rick Hensely’s porcelain bowls or platters is like looking into an oracle where images of painted leaves seem to spin like pinwheels telling mythical stories. Hensley’s work was on display in the Hensely-Polseno Pottery Showroom, which at one time was a General Store, complete with gas pumps out front. Hensley himself was taking a break to make some quick cleaning adjustments to the family’s farmhouse chimney. It had backed up and pushed smoke into the house earlier in the morning, his apprentice’s girlfriend reported. Such is the nature of a country tour.
On the Route 8 side of town, Silvie Granatelli’s home and pottery studio sits on a hill overlooking the Little River. Her showroom full of porcelain tableware elicits a sense of delight that makes one want to throw a dinner or tea party. Granatelli, who went to school with Polseno, first became interested in Floyd when she visited to buy a pug mill (a machine that removes air from clay) from Hensley.
Developing an artistic skill that will warrant acclaim and building a studio business to the point of it becoming a destination, as the members of 16 Hands have done, is hard work. Granatelli attributes some of the success of the 16 Hands members to starting out in a rural place where it was affordable to live. “I don’t think we could have accomplished what we have without that,” she said. She spoke of the members’ friendships, saying “We grew up professionally together.” Over the years the group has bought clay together, accessed craft shows, and generally supported and inspired each other, Granatelli said.
Three miles past Granatelli’s place, beyond the river frontage and an uphill winding road, more red balloons hung from trees, marking the half-mile state maintained road that dead-ends onto the homestead and studios of Ellen Shankin and Brad Warstler. Shankin, a potter, and Warstler, a woodworker, came to Floyd in 1976 with a friend whose boyfriend lived in the county. That relationship didn’t last but Shankin’s and Warstler’s affection for Floyd did. “It was late spring and the rhododendrons were in bloom,” Shankin wistfully remembered.
Floyd’s Old Mill Coop, which would later become The Harvest Moon Food Store, was also a draw for Shankin. It represented “people with interests like mine,” she said. Her earth-toned stoneware conjures scenes of warm hearth, filled cupboards, and families gathered around kitchen tables. Her work compliments her husband’s fine wood pieces; lamps, mirrors, clocks, tables, and even kitchen rolling pins.
The mastery of the 16 Hands artists has earned them the dedication of collectors and repeat customers, along with about 70 new names for their mailing list from each tour, Shankin said. Floyd Countian Annie Guppy, who takes the 16 Hands Tour each fall, greeted Shankin with a hug. Shopping for Christmas gifts, she said, “Every one in my family has a piece. Each year they look forward to more.”
The combined degrees, published works, awards, and teaching experiences of the artists are impressive, but equally impressive is their community of friendship and the sustainable lifestyles they have chosen, the signs of which can been spotted on the tour in the form of raised bed gardens, honey houses, a hand water pump, a vineyard. There are also signs of the children they raised together that are now grown or gone off to college.
The home studio lifestyle is one that redefines, or reclaims, “making a living” in such a way that home-life, art, and work converge. Most of the 16 Hands members don’t travel to craft shows like they did when their families were young, focusing their energies on studio sales, the tours, and part time teaching. Their current activities reflect the continuation and evolution of a model that has served them well for over twenty-five years. It’s a model that has the potential to sustain them for many more years to come. ~ Colleen Redman
Post Notes: The 16 Hands Spring Tour is scheduled for Saturday, May 2nd from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, May 3rd from 1 – 5 p.m. Visitors can pick up brochures around town or go to the 16 Hands website, www.16hands.com, for details. More photos of the tour are HERE.