Carla O’Brien is a gifted clay artist. She creates lovely utilitarian pottery—bowls casseroles, goblets and the like. She also creates whimsical, sculptural forms— pieces that bring a smile to one’s face.
Besides throwing, firing and glazing her own beautiful work, she is a master teacher, conducting classes for all ages at her Sarasota shop, a busy place called Carla’s Clay.
Born Carla Schaefer, she was born and raised in Lowville, New York, where she grew up in a Mennonite family, one of seven children: four girls and three boys. Lowville was a dairy community, a town that had more cows than people.
“My eldest sister, Gail, helped raise us all,” says Carla. “That‘s what you do when you’re the eldest girl. We went to church every Sunday, plus meetings during the week. Men sat on one side and the women on the other.
“All of us kids had chores from feeding baby calves to feeding the cats and dogs. We had a huge garden, and helped pull weeds. We had chickens, we had pigs. We raised, froze and canned everything. Mom was an excellent cook, of course. She still is. She’s 89 now, and still making raspberry jelly and homemade donuts. She still lives in Lowville.
“My folks and grandparents came to Sarasota to vacation in the winter months. My dad was an excellent dairy farmer, always learning cutting edge techniques to increase efficiency. He was one of the first in the area to utilize the “milking parlor” system. Cows were brought in on an upper level, while milkers stood on a lower level, and udders could be easily reached. It was a free-stall barn situation: cows were not tied in, but able to move around the barn.
“The clay studio is like a farm, almost. During the season, kilns have to run practically every day. We are always busy loading or unloading the kilns. There are supplies to be ordered, pots to be inventoried and shipped, glazes to be mixed, and clay to be recycled.
“Carla’s Clay sounds like a little hobby shop. But when people walk in, they go WHOA! This is a big operation. We run classes for all ages five days a week. Clay is a commitment, you know. It’s a process. You make it one time, let it dry, and fire it to 1800 degrees. Then it gets glazed, and fired again to the appropriate temperature.”
Carla got into clay when she was a junior in high school. Her choice for an art class was ceramics. “Thea Wolfe, my instructor, reminded me of Sophia Loren. When I tried the wheel, I was automatically good at it. Of course when you’re good at something, you can’t get enough of it. I became Mrs. Wolfe’s assistant. Every year we’d do a little field trip to Munson-Williams, an art school in Utica. There a man named Vincent Clemente did a demo for us. He showed us the workings of a real clay studio, complete with gas Kilns. I was hooked.”
At first Carla looked for a more practical way to earn a living. “I went to college at Agricultural and Technical School at Canton, NY, and received an Associate Degree in medical lab technology. I got a medical job in Utica, and then started taking classes at Munson-Williams. Clay became my after-hours passion.
“My husband and I grew up together. We were buddies, friends and classmates. His name is Tim O’Brien. We married and moved to Sarasota in 1981. I worked as a medical lab technician, while Tim was in Commercial construction – a field he still follows. “
Meghan, their daughter was born in 1985. (She’s now a licensed massage therapist and aroma therapist working here in Sarasota.) While Meghan watched from the play pen, Carla studied with ceramicist Frank Colson, working with him on a series of clay Chinese horses. As Meghan grew more active, however, Carla shifted her focus to raising her child.
When Meghan was about ten, Carla returned to clay. She started taking classes at Adult Community Ed at SCTI campus. Two years later they asked her to teach. She also started teaching clay at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts. Between those two part time jobs, Carla was at last making a living working with clay.
In October of 2002, she started Carla’s Clay, and her husband, Tim, was completely supportive. In 2005, they bought a warehouse in Northgate. In true barn-raising style, family and friends rallied to help renovate the building and turn it into the 5,000 square foot pottery studio that exists today.
Says Carla: “I love the business part – my dad instilled great business ethic in us all. My siblings are all successful business people. We learned early that working hard pays off. That part of me, I don’t want to give it up, but the creative still has got to come out. If it doesn’t, it’s simply not good for your soul.”
By this time, Carla had developed a devoted following of students and collectors. “I’ve always done the utilitarian stuff—casseroles, bowls, goblets and the like. Soon, however, I began doing those crazy little jars. Movement has become important to me. Whimsy has become important to me. It was nice to do something a little bit more complex – something that requires thought.
“I’ve always loved doing boxes. Lidded forms in all kinds of colors. Many are organically fumed— wrapped with organic materials—a banana peel perhaps, or a copper scrubby. The organic material leaves behind unexpected but beautiful colors and patterns. With clay, success is 2-stage process. A beautiful form with an unsuccessful glaze simply does not work. A weak form with a glorious glaze might be attractive, but it’s not a winner. “
At Carla’s Clay, LEGALIZED POT is the annual student show and sale. This year it will be held on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21-22. The opening reception is Friday night, and that’s the night of the party!
Carla’s Clay is located at 1733 Northgate Blvd, SRQ, 34234. Phone: 941.359.2773. www.carlasclay.com