Duality: An Appreciation of the Ceramics of Donna Polseno and Richard Hensley

David W Romtvedt Ceramics Art + Perception 106 2017 Art + Perception Home

Sitting on my desk are two ceramic pieces that I’ve been looking at off and on for several months. Prior to sitting on the desk the same two pots sat for many earlier months on the mantle in my office, and as I worked I’d regularly stop and look at them. One, made by Richard Hensley, is a rather pointed symmetrical oval form twenty inches long by twelve inches wide at the midpoint by an inch and three-quarters deep. It could be used as a serving dish or as a stunningly elegant swimming pool designed for a miniature world. The piece is glazed in a range of beige tones going from matte mustard yellow through a very delicate almost rose color. Two plants with grayish white leaves and seedpods heading toward blue decorate the bottom of the dish. Flowers but I don’t know their names. The seedpods are about to explode sending their seeds everywhere.

The second piece, made by Donna, is a ten-inch tall matte black vessel. Maybe it’s a pitcher for an exotic drink—something taken in small doses—or maybe it’s a cruet to hold olive oil. As Richard Hensley’s serving dish was, this pitcher form is decorated with images of a flowering plant—delicate salmon tone stems with only a few leaves of the same color and, at the ends of the stems, globelike blossoms that are slightly more yellowish than the leaves. These globes are large and so heavy as to bend the entire plant toward the ground.
Swooping arcs.

I first saw these pieces two years ago in a show featuring Polseno’s and Hensley’s work at Margo’s Pottery and Fine Crafts in Buffalo, Wyoming. I was immediately struck by the technical mastery, bold forms, and sophisticated surface decorations revealed in all the pots shown and I’ve thought about the similarities and differences in the two potters’ work ever since. Because Hensley and Polseno are a married couple who have worked together for over forty years, I wondered about how the two had influenced each other, what aspects of their work lives they shared and what they kept separate. I found myself noticing characteristics the pots shared as well as those that illuminated aesthetic contrasts.

Hensley and Polseno’s work ... is so finely attuned to itself as to approach perfection.

Richard Hensley commonly works with wheel thrown porcelain—gas fired in a car kiln, reduction, cone ten. Most of the pieces I saw ranged from satin to glossy glaze finishes. Surfaces were marked sometimes by great washes of color, sometimes by quite painterly images though the painting was fairly loose, impressionistic, implying as much as it portrayed. There was a lot of blue, aqua, and celadon green. The pots were unabashedly and happily functional, ready for daily use in all its forms.

About ten years ago, while out walking, Hensley realized he felt some dissatisfaction with his work. “I knew that something was missing in my pots,” he said. Walking and wondering. What is the missing element? “I realized two things—I love glazes that run and I love making patterns.”

These two loves suggested motion on the surface of the pots. Hensley began to think more about dark and light. “I realized that when I made a mark in leather hard clay the glaze settled into the depression and was thicker and so produced a shinier finished surface, while on unworked clay the same glaze applied in the same way was thinner and ended up matte.”

Combining glazes that run and pattern-making with attention to light and dark space, Hensley’s work became more labor intensive with several stages required to produce a finished pot—throwing and trimming, incising designs, bisque firing, hand painting more designs, waxing over these designs, dipping glazes, more incising, waxing again, dipping again. “It makes me tired thinking about it and I end up throwing away a lot of pots.” But what’s left is filled with motion and both light and dark.

In contrast to her husbands work, the pieces I saw by Donna Polseno were mostly slip cast, often altered—added to or reconstructed. Electric kiln oxidation fired to cone five using up to three layers of glaze. Layering in this way requires both an exact thickness of glaze to produce the effect she seeks and an exact specific gravity in each glaze so the glaze will melt enough to keep the designs from being too stiff but not so much as to cause those designs to appear mushy—indistinct.

Her pots had mostly matte finishes not only in black but in creamy tones suggesting various combinations of butter and sugar blended together.

While Polseno works as both a ceramic sculptor and a functional potter, it seems to me that clearly sculptural aspirations mark even the most functional of her work. It is as if the pots were posing—albeit modestly—offering themselves up to be viewed while reminding us with a sly wink that they too have vibrant lives in daily use. Her decoration often includes geometric shapes or pen-and-ink-like drawings. The images on the pots I saw were often naturalistic—flowers, birds, and leaves.

Polseno’s father was a landscape painter and his life and work strongly influenced his daughter. “My pottery is inspired by nature, as was my father’s work. He modeled for me a deep appreciation of the natural world in every aspect of daily life and so, like him, I attempt to express that beauty as an artist.”

After completing their undergraduate ceramics degrees in 1972 at the Kansas City Art Institute, Polseno and Hensley studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, receiving Masters degrees in 1974. In that same year they moved to Floyd, Virginia, a small town in the southwestern part of the state, where they set up their studios.

“We built a raku kiln on our second day in Floyd,” Hensley said, “And we were working by the end of the week. Back then, it was an isolated area. Mostly farmers. We didn’t know anyone. There was the bank, the farm supply store, the hardware store. People who worked hard. It wasn’t easy to fit in—a couple of young potters from the city. But people were respectful and they saw that we worked hard, too.” Still, it was a difficult life at the beginning and Hensley felt how important it was to have a partner, someone who would be there for you.

About ten years ago, while out walking, Hensley realized he felt some dissatisfaction with his work. “I knew that something was missing in my pots,” he said. Walking and wondering. What is the missing element

More than forty years after moving to Floyd, Donna Polseno and Richard Hensley continue to work together as individual studio potters on the piece of land they bought together in 1976. They have balanced the work of sharing a business, a friendship, and a marriage. They’ve helped to create a vibrant pottery cooperative—Sixteen Hands—that has made the Blue Ridge foothills around Floyd a pottery destination.

They’ve made a lasting personal and artistic contribution to their community and to the national ceramics scene.

Inspired first by their pots and then by their lives, I wasn’t surprised when I heard Richard Hensley’s advice to young potters. Running counter to much of what we’re told in the contemporary globalized marketplace about moving around to follow economic opportunity, Hensley offers, “Find a very cheap place to live and never move.” He believes that by staying in a given place, you show your commitment to that place and you ultimately develop an audience for your art through an intimate connection to the community in which you work.

And Hensley adds, “A very cheap place—remember, you need room to make mistakes.” But no mistake about Hensley and Polseno’s work, work that is so finely attuned to itself as to approach perfection both as visually engaging objects and as practical implements of daily use.

Image Captions

Two wavy vases, Donna Polseno.
Bowl with leaves, sun and moon, Richard Hensley.
Oribe style fan tray, Donna Polseno, 10" x 8" x 1".
Pearl oil jar, Richard Hensley.
Ewer, Donna Polseno, 10" x 9" x 2".

by David W Romtvedt

David Romtvedt is Wyoming's Poet Laureate. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and was a graduate fellow in Folklore and Ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin. After serving in the Peace Corps in Zaire (currently Congo) and Rwanda and on a sister-city construction project in Jalapa, Nicaragua, he worked as the folk arts program manager for the Centrum Foundation. Romtveldt lives in Buffalo, Wyoming with his wife, the potter Margo Brown.