Many artists know from a young age that they want to explore their artistic talent as a vocation. Others can pinpoint a defining moment later that changed the course of their lives forever. Travis Thomason is the latter — having had an epiphinal moment of discovery that has led him down the artistic path he still follows today.
“I was working in California in a town other than where I was living,” says Thomason. “I decided to take one night class in throwing pottery, hoping that it would pass the time away from home. It’s one of those things you can’t explain; I just fell in love with it. You hope everybody finds something in their life that they have that type of connection with.”
Shortly after the class, Thomason bought a potter’s wheel and started making pots. He would spend an hour every evening throwing, and his newfound interest started growing into the full-fledged career he has today.
Thomason and his family eventually moved to Colorado, and he began teaching private throwing lessons in Fort Collins. They soon relocated to Evergreen, and he opened a teaching studio called Stone Leaf Pottery.
“Eventually, I got tired from so much teaching. When you’re throwing all day long, particularly the very large pieces that I create, it can be physically demanding. I felt like I needed to get back to my own work for a while. So I closed the gallery and moved my work to my garage,” say Thomason.
After several years of experimenting with different forms and styles of pottery, Thomason discovered his talent for creating large-form driven pieces — pots and vessels that stand as high as 27 inches tall.
“Like many potters, I love ancient Greek and Roman pottery. Some of my favorite forms are a couple thousand years old. The challenge for me is to combine the subtle curves of ancient pottery with the finishes I prefer, horsehair and pit-fired,” says Thomason.
“You throw the best forms that you can and you try to find a finish that doesn’t take away from, but complements, and, if you’re lucky, makes it better.”
Thomason turned to several Native American styles of pottery for inspiration in firing and finishing his pieces. He uses a Native American finish called horsehair pottery. It is a 20-century technique that has been adopted by a small group of potters outside the Native American community as well.
Horsehair pottery is made from white stoneware clay that has been fired in the kiln to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. When the pot is removed, individual strands of horsehair, preferably from the tail, are laid against the hot surface. The hair attaches to the pot, shrivels up, and begins to burn. As the ash forms, a small deposit of carbon and smoke is absorbed into the clay surface, leaving a permanent trace of the horsehair. The ashes are washed away, and the piece is burnished to a high shine with a polishing cloth.
Thomason learned the technique from a friend who lives on a Navajo reservation in Cortez.
“I have friends and family with horses, so I get tail snippings from them. Part of my business has become creating gallery quality pieces with customers’ own horsehair on them. I did an urn for a cowboy’s ashes up in Wyoming last year. The family requested that the urn have the cowboy’s horsehair on the vessel. It was really a moving experience to be part of,” says Thomason.
Thomason’s other trademark finish is created with a process called pit firing. Pit firing is the oldest known method of firing clay. Unfired pots are nestled together in a pit in the ground and are then covered with burnable materials such as wood shavings, leaves, metal oxides, salts, sawdust and dried manure. The top of the pit may be protected with moist clay, shards or larger pieces of wood. The filled pit is then set on fire and carefully tended until most of the inner fuel has been consumed.
As the different elements burn, they oxidize to leave different colors on the pot. Powdered copper creates red highlights; pine needles soaked in salt can create yellows and oranges. The results are a beautiful and unpredictable marbelization of colors on the pot.
“Pit firing is a technique I’ve admired for years. I obviously can’t do it up here with all of the fire restrictions, but there is a group at the Washington Heights Rec Center that I work with,” says Thomason.
Thomason sells his large pieces in galleries throughout the United States. He also sells functional bowls and plates at Bear Creek Marketplace in Kittredge. For more information, or to see Thomason’s work, visit www.travisthomasonpottery.com.
Sara Miller, a freelance writer and a resident of Evergreen, lives with her husband, two children and a dog.