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# D-05-13-05-09 Riffle shapes a large piece of pottery (c) Thomas R. FletcherWebster County Potter Larry Riffle

By

Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher

            The “Riffle Pottery” sign along Route 82 indicates the shop is near—though not visible from the highway.  It is located at the end of the wooded, graveled lane, through the gate and up the hill.  The pottery shop, situated on a hill overlooking Big Ditch Lake , has one of the best views around.

With a warm smile, owner and potter Larry Riffle greeted and motioned for us to come through the gallery, back behind the counter into his spacious work area—the “throwing room.”  The room features seven pottery wheels, an abundance of counter space, sinks, carts, a variety of pottery implements, and near the room’s center, a wood heating stove.  Larry was ready to give us a tour of his shop; to share a bit about pottery and the pottery process. 

What at first seems a fairly straightforward and simple process (molding, drying and baking clay) is found to be more complicated with each elemental step.  It’s more than turning a piece of clay on a potter’s wheel.  For Riffle, it starts well before that.  He mixes his own clay, which helps bring control and consistency to the final product. # D-05-0516 Potter Larry Riffle mixing his own glazes (c) Thomas R. Fletcher

“To make truly unique pottery, you must first learn to formulate your own clay and glazes,” Riffle paraphrases Charles Scott, a (now) retired pottery instructor under whom he studied at Glenville State College.  It’s an adage Riffle has taken to heart.  In addition to mixing his clay, he has formulated his own glazes that he mixes from raw materials.  His glazes were developed over twenty years of making pots; experimentation, development, and refinement.  The result is the product one sees today.  His work includes beautiful cobalt blue pieces, brilliant copper reds, a wood ash “tree glaze,” and his newest, a lovely purple.  The “tree glaze” is perhaps the most unique. # D-06-1480 Piece of pottery featuring Riffle's unique "tree glaze" made from wood ash (c) Thomas R. Fletcher

Riffle has formulated a glaze where “trees” result from wood ash.  Though wood ash is commonly used in ceramic glazes, Riffle has developed something quite different.  He screens the ashes from his wood heating stove, and then mixes a precise amount into his glaze mixture.  The ash acts as a flux, causing the glaze to run down the sides of a piece during the intense firing process. 

Ironically, the patterns created by the running glaze resemble trees—truly, beauty from ashes.  Sometimes brown flecks show up around the tree “limbs,” and resemble a tree in fall foliage; other times, it’s the stark trunks of a winter forest.  The glaze leaves patterned ridges on the finished piece.  Not only is this glaze visually appealing, each piece has a distinct feel.  Those tree-shaped ridges—on a tumbler for instance—have a textural feel not unlike taking hold of an oak limb.  The patterns, like snowflakes, are similar yet individual.  A variety of factors interact for a variety of results, making each piece unique. # D-05-1218 Potter Larry shaping one of his urns (c) Thomas R. Fletcher

Some glazes come out of the kiln in a variety of colors depending upon a variety of factors.  The beautiful purple glaze has to be placed just so in the kiln to develop the bursting brilliant color found in some pieces.  Placed lower in the kiln, the same glaze comes out a light, sea foam green color.  The final colors vary depending upon: whether or not the flame comes in contact with the piece during the firing process, placement within the kiln, air patterns within the kiln and the barometric pressure.  Some factors can be controlled by the potter, some can be managed, and some are whims of fate.

Each piece turned out by Riffle Pottery is hand-made, whether wheel-turned or slab constructed.  Each piece carries the marks of its making.  One can look at the turning rings on a particular piece and tell something about how fast the piece was pulled up from the wheel.  These marks represent a period of time out of the potter’s life; the time it took to form the piece.  In reality, those marks only represent a fraction of the time it takes to turn out a piece of useful pottery. # D-05-3807 Riffle's hand-built, propane-fueled kiln near the end of the firing process with temperatures reaching 2400 degrees F (c) Thomas R. Fletcher

Seeing Riffle’s single-handedly-built, gas-fired brick kiln near the end of the firing process is quite a sight.  The kiln bricks are glowing and fire shoots out two feet as Riffle pulls a brick to check progress.  Using welder’s glasses he looks in to check the pyrometric cones inside the kiln.  These cones, made of specific types of clay, melt at specific temperatures.  Looking into the kiln is not unlike looking into the sun—at close range.  The pots are so hot (around 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit—Cone 10, for those of you who know something about ceramics) they become translucent; one can see through the rows of glowing red pots.  These extreme temperatures explain why it takes nearly three days to cool enough to unload the kiln.  Exposed too quickly, cool air will cause the glaze to crack.

Riffle expresses a deep concern for his products.  It shows in the time he puts into each piece—and details such as sanding the bottom of each piece coming out of the kiln.  He doesn’t want a rough edge scratching a customer’s counter surface.  He insists his pots are utilitarian.  He wants folks to use them, not set them out for display.

Generous with his time, Riffle stops what he’s doing any time anyone drops by his shop.  Everyone is invited back for a tour of his facility.  Off the beaten path, Cowen, West Virginia isn’t being over run with tourists.  They’re few and far between.  The area is still off the radar for most tourists, so it’s often# D-06-1507 Riffle coffee mug featuring his red. copper glaze (c) Thomas R. Fletcher local people stopping by.  The coffee pot is usually going.  Folks grab a cup and a chair for a bit of conversation. 

Riffle stays busy filling orders for several outlets around West Virginia : Tamarack in Beckley , Mountain Made in Thomas, and Taylor Books in Charleston .  Tourist traffic being what it is, it’s a good thing Riffle has other outlets for his work.

Stock photography by Thomas R. Fletcher at Alamy

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If You Go:

# D-05-1320 The gallery at Riffle Pottery in Cowen, West Virginia (c) Thomas R. FletcherFrom I-79 take the Summersville/Beckley US 19 Exit (Exit 57). Follow US 19 south to Birch River . Turn left at Birch River on Route 82. Follow Route 82 sixteen miles, almost to Big Ditch Lake .  You’ll see the Riffle Pottery signs on the right along Route 82.  Take the gravel drive, just before Big Ditch Lake , to the top of the hill.  The Pottery shop is in a serene wooded location overlooking the lake.  Owner Larry Riffle , earned his Master of Arts from Marshall University .  A Webster County native, he returned to his roots after 25+ years away, opening "Rimfire Gallery" in 2000.  In addition to his pottery, the gallery features locally handcrafted items such as: candles, fine furniture, baskets, wooden spoons, woven rugs, and bath and body products.  Larry “turns and burns” the pottery, while overseeing the daily shop operations.  His wife Carolyn and son Jason help out when time permits from their busy schedules.

Riffle Pottery

HC 75 Box 7

Cowen, West Virginia 26206

Phone:  304-226-5586  

 

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