By J. Michael Kearsey
The Willamette Stone is a point of intersection where the Willamette Meridian and the Willamette Baseline meet. Located in Portland’s West Hills, the Stone was set in 1851 and all townships and sections of land in the States of Oregon and Washington are measured from this point.
When that line crosses the river, the baseline becomes Stark Street, named for Benjamin Stark, a US senator of the late 1800’s. At 28th and Stark, the once quiet corner is bustling now: music at Goodfoot, food options at Bonfire, Baby Doll Pizza and the Canteen and beside a tall striking mural are the doors to the Stark Street Gallery, one of Portland’s longest running pottery and stoneware galleries.
Nearly forty years ago, Charles Piatt, was a U of Oregon Fine Arts graduate looking for a place to land, a place to throw pots and burn glazes in a hot kiln. He found his spot on Stark St. and never left.
Piatt’s fledgling company, Illuminated Ceramics, knew the folks at Doby Depot who provided supplies for Portland’s growing pottery community from the building there. When they closed in 1979, Piatt moved in with a vision to gather the best of the ceramic artists in one spot.
During the 80’s and 90’s, Piatt expanded his collective, which now numbers 12 potters, clay sculptors and a jeweler. Pottery denotes the craft and handmade side of clay work, usually thrown on a potter’s wheel, glazed in the many techniques of old and fired at high temperature. There are now 12 kilns burning.
A visit to the Stark Street Gallery is an unforgettable experience with a mix of personal artistic vision in unexpected colors, shapes and form.
“We offer a great work environment for the professional and for the hobbyist,” the dust covered Piatt notes with artistic enthusiasm.
“We were able to buy the building from an out of state landlord in 1998 and open the gallery. We have a wide variety of items here from the functional pottery to displayed artwork, ranging up to $600 and well worth it.”
Several Stark Street colleagues have shown and won Best of Show at at the Oregon Potters Association’s Annual Showcase over the years, including Babette Harvey, Carole Lebreton and Don Sprague, one of Oregon’s best-known ceramic artists.
Piatt’s love for clay began in Eugene, awaiting the U of O Architecture department to accept his application. He chose a Fine Arts degree instead. He became an original vendor at Portland’s Saturday Market and has had a booth for all of its 42 years. He is now on the board of the Art in the Pearl Festival and was a founding member of the Oregon Potters Association in 1980.
Dedicated to his own work, he is also supportive of his artists and artisans: “We are proud of the work that we produce but also that some of our best folks are in the community: Michael Gruber is teaching at Centennial High School, Victoria Shaw is at PCC and Multnomah Arts Center and Don Sprague is now in his third year at George Fox University.” In the years ahead, Charles hopes to support all his current potters, accommodate the waiting list for new ceramic artists and improve the gallery space. He also keeps an eye on the city’s changing zoning laws that have seen historic and ‘eyesoric’ buildings make way for sun blocking condos.
Piatt hopes his thriving collective will be seen as a community landmark and avoid development. This would be the best alternative for those who throw pots as well as for those who love the look and feel of handmade pottery.