Art therapy distinguishes Valley ceramics shop

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2002

When Suzanne and Richard Dutson assumed ownership of Sir Ram Ceramics on Jan. 1, they put their mark on the business by changing its name to Wildflower Ceramics.

But they had no intention of changing what worked for Sir Ram's previous owner, Diane Biggness: Art therapy. Clients from local therapeutic programs come to the studio to pursue personal projects.

"My main emphasis was to get these clients knowledgeable of neat techniques that can produce things you can be very proud of," Bigness said. "We had one gal who started with 3-inch angels, and a year later she was doing 18-inch angels and selling them for $100. That was the ultimate. But most who stayed with it, liked it, and it was a reward in their treatment programs to be able to attend."

"They - not me - met the standards and produced things that were wonderful," Bigness said.

Clients range from the physically disabled to the emotionally disturbed, from autistic to deaf or hyperactive. They come from programs including REACH Inc., JAMHI, BASE and DREAMS. REACH serves people with long-term disabilities, helping them master independence, thrive in assisted-living residences and learn work skills. JAMHI serves people with mental illness. Behavioral and Academic Success in Education, or BASE, located at Juneau-Douglas High School, serves at-risk youths of all ages who are in need of special services. DREAMS serves teens and youth who have mental health challenges, said Executive Director Paula Sumdum.

"The ceramic classes are invaluable," Sumdum said. "They give them an exploration of their abilities and talents in a real positive, goal-oriented setting."

Bigness and her husband Walton are in the process of moving to Vancouver, Wash., where they will manage apartments. Speaking from her office there, Bigness said the therapy sessions began about seven years ago.

"The program originally started because of a very caring facilitator with the mental health department," Bigness added. "She arranged things with me, and we had really good success with many people who had been housebound. It gave them self-esteem as they learned what they could do with it."

"It has been a true blessing for both our staff and our clients," said REACH adult care coordinator Kari Onstott. "It has helped with everything from fine motor skills to dexterity to social skills. We are very honored and very glad that they continue to work with us. It is a real joy for all of us."

Located at the same location in the Airport Mall where it has been for about 30 years, Sir Ram was purchased about 12 years ago by Biggness and Dee Davis.

Wildflower Ceramics sells green ware - raw clay forms that need finishing - and instruction. The studio has about 1,500 "molds" on display with storage for about another 500. The molds range from knights in armor, to 3-foot-tall vases, cookie jars shaped like Mother Goose and bucking broncos. Customers may select a set of mugs bearing relief designs of seals, Eskimos, log cabins, moose and bears, and finish them in colors to match their homes. There are tea pots, fountains, picture frames, pitchers, platters, figurines of dragons and unicorns, pierced castles that allow the glow of tea lights to shine through, relief plaques with thermometers set into them, goblets, and napkin rings shaped like Christmas trees.

Customers pick the designs that appeal to them, and Richard Dutson pours semi-liquid clay into molds to fire as many as needed.

To finish green ware, clients choose among paints that are dull, shiny, or glittery. Glazes brushed over the painted colors can add a whole different look, especially a new glaze containing exploding crystals or components that produce a design resembling blueberries.

Glazes go on just before green ware is "fired" - baked in a kiln to a permanent finish. Some give an antique or crackled look. "We have an ultra-metallic silver that looks like steel on swords," Dutson said.

Clients pay for green ware and firing. They can furnish their own paints, brushes and sanding tools, or use the studio's for a daily rate of $5.

"It's really relaxing," Dutson said. "People live busy, hectic lives, and I think a lot of our customers are looking for something to take their mind off the fervor of the work day." She picked up a set of children's cups on which the tails of elephants or lions formed handles, and matching cereal bowls. "A lot of people make Christmas and birthday gifts here," she noted.

The process is made more relaxing by the fact that it expresses personality and has no set rules. "When people ask me, 'Is this right?' I always tell them, 'You are expressing yourself, and you'll know when you are done.' It's hard to express yourself in mass society. Some people are really into their projects and are here two or three times a week," Dutson said, pointing to a project safe on a high shelf, a set of kitchen canisters on which a client is carving relief oak leaves.

Suzanne Dutson learned ceramics from Diane Biggness. Dutson previously managed a local restaurant and has 15 years experience in food service.

Running a special-needs day care facility for four and a half years gave Dutson the experience needed for encouraging disadvantaged clients.

"I am comfortable with them," Dutson said. "I just really click with DREAMS. The playing field is really level here for people who have disabilities. We have some incredibly talented clients who cannot participate in mainstream society but thrive here. Even day when I open a kiln, it's like Christmas. I am floored by the pieces they create."

Hours at Wildflower Ceramics changed Feb. 1 to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. On Thursday and Friday, the hours are 9 to 9. Thursday and Friday evenings, 6 to 9 p.m., are for adults only. Families are welcome Saturdays. For details, call 789-1733.

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