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Clayfolk showcases the art of ceramics

Clay artist Cris Usher was in the midst of shaping more than 100 tiny pink toes for a mother possum and her eight babies when she began second-guessing her choice of subject matter.

"Once I began making the babies, I thought, 'Why did I decide to do this?'" Usher recalls.

But she pushed through, creating a clay sculpture of a dedicated mother with cuddly, bewhiskered youngsters clinging to her body.

Usher, who lives in the Applegate Valley countryside, said her dog once brought her a baby possum, which she took to the Wildlife Images sanctuary outside Grants Pass for nurturing. The possum family sculpture reminds her of that unexpected canine gift.

Along with other pieces by Usher, the sculpture will be on display during the 39th Annual Clayfolk Pottery Show at the Medford Armory, 1701 S. Pacific Highway, Medford. More than 60 artists will show decorative and functional pottery from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23. Admission is free.

Work includes dinnerware, jewelry, tiles, sculpture, garden art and more.

The South Medford High School Jazz ensemble will perform Friday night. Kids can play with clay and make their own creations from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

A guided tour at 1 p.m. Sunday will take participants to artists' booths to learn about glaze, surface and firing techniques that bring beauty and special effects to the surface of pottery.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, participants can join a guided tour of animal and garden art. Tour groups meet in the armory's front lobby.

Usher will be among the artists showing animals during the animal and garden art tour. Her other creations included a laughing rabbit riding a turtle's back. Usher says she wanted to turn the fable about the slow-and-steady tortoise beating the fast-but-lazy hare around and have the rabbit trick the turtle.

The Clayfolk Pottery Show may ignite a love for the art form among people who've never given it a try.

Born in Uruguay and later a resident of California — where she served as a translator at a children's hospital — Usher moved to Southern Oregon in 1996. A few years later, she saw a ceramic dog in a Grants Pass coffee shop and immediately decided she wanted to learn how to sculpt with clay.

"I fell in love with clay. I used to paint with oils and watercolors. Once I tried clay, I couldn't go back to painting," she recalls. "Working with clay is more therapeutic. I forget the world. I forget problems. It's like I'm in a different environment. It's my own little space."

Usher joined Clayfolk, a nonprofit group formed by potters in 1976 that now has members throughout Oregon and Northern California.

"It's a wonderful group of people. Everyone helps everyone. If you have a question, you can call anyone," she says.

That help and advice can prove invaluable, especially since the process of making pottery and ceramics can be fickle and sometimes downright cruel.

"You can work for months on a piece and put it in the kiln and it explodes or the glaze doesn't come out right," Usher says of the artistic disasters that can befall potters.

She says she is always inspired by what she sees at the annual Clayfolk shows.

Works on display will include Julia Janeway's colorful ceramics featuring Northwest animals done in a bold woodblock-print style, Jon King and Tea Duong's vessels done in glowing earthen hues and Dennis Meiners' elaborate teapots.

"People will see a variety of things. Everyone comes with something different every year," she says. "Everything is unique. If you make one mug and then make another mug, it will be different."

Visit www.clayfolk.org for information about Clayfolk and its members.

Chris Usher's 'Hitchhiker' features a turtle with a rabbit on its back. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell