Potter’s pupil

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When a lot of people chose art as a career path, it’s usually after they have established themselves in what is usually referred to as “real life.”

They have a house, a spouse, maybe some grown children with the next generation on the way.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Potter Jeri Schmetterer has been learning to work clay on the wheel for nearly a year. She is a student at the Tomé Art Gallery.

But for Jeri Schmetterer, potter and painter, the career as artist came first.

Growing up in Santa Fe, she watched her mother paint. Feeling inspired at a young age, Schmetterer admits to “borrowing” those paints to make her own images.

After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in the University of New Mexico and earned her first bachelor’s — a degree in fine arts.

“I dabbled in jewelry and painting and for a few years, made that a career,” Schmetterer said.

But knowing that art can be a fickle field, living and dying by the public’s whim, she decided to go back to school, just in case.

In 1987, Schmetterer graduated from UNM again, this time with a bachelor’s in nursing science.

“Nursing is actually my second career,” she says with a laugh.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Beginning the transformation, Bosque Farms potter Jeri Schmetterer watches the clay on her wheel to see what shape it wants to take.

And in some regards, it was her second career that led her back to and lets her have time for her first.

Schmetterer has been the school nurse at Dennis Chavez Elementary School for 15 years. A kind and nurturing spirit, Schmetterer says she gets “lots of love from the kids.” Plus the working hours and breaks in the school year allows for a lot of time to pursue her artwork.

Schmetterer began her career in art as a watercolorist, but often found the medium too unforgiving.

“You really have to do it right the first time or it’s over,” she said.

Living in Bosque Farms for more than a decade certainly gave Schmetterer ample time to explore local art troves and find the depth and breadth of artistry Valencia County has to offer. One discovery was the Tomé Art Gallery.

“I’ve been a customer of the gallery for a long time. I love to come in and look at all the different things they have,” she said.

And she discovered not just beauty, but beauty at a reasonable price.

“You can buy these intimate little pieces of art for not a lot,” Schmetterer said, cupping her hands. “That’s why I became a collector.”

After years of visits and collecting, one day Schmetterer got the urge to create.

“I just thought, ‘I’d like to take a class there,’” she said.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Using bold color and carving, Bosque Farms potter Jeri Schmetterer brings her flowers to life in these cups.

So one Saturday, she stopped by a class taught by the renowned potter Jan Pacifico.

“I immediately thought, ‘I don’t know how I’ve made it 50-some years without doing pottery,’” Schmetterer said.

Calling herself an expressionist and eschewing photographically realistic pieces, she started transitioning her favorite subjects from watercolor to clay.

Her paintings depict stands of ethereal, gauzy pink hollyhocks in front stern dark mountains, soft orange poppies and colorful koi fish, wending their way through cool deeps full of wavy, watery flora.

She began working clay by hand, building objects such as platters and bowls. Many feature what seems to be a Schmetterer signature — a poppy in bas relief. Sometimes on the inner lip of a bowl or nestled as the bottom.

Comparing the “less forgiving” medium of watercolor with that of clay, she says pottery tends to “go with the flow. It’s an endless flow. The design ebbs and flows into the way it wants to be.”

The hand built pieces are easier to cut different shapes and designs into, Schmetterer says, but learning the wheel has taught her that the clay has a life of its own.

She puts a ball on the wheel at the gallery, where she rents studio time and space from, and begins to work. Hands cup the red lump, giving it the initial roundness that could become anything.

Left hand dips into a tub of water, thumbs press down, making a depression and the excess clay is scooped out and set aside.

Hand to water again and the shape begins. A bowl emerges, thick and sturdy, with a fat, flat lip. Perhaps for soup on a cold winter day. She wets her hand again and the shape shifts, becoming taller, more a cylinder, Schmetterer’s hands working inside and out to urge the clay upward and to keep the material even.

Then as quickly as it begins, it all ends. With a wibble and a ripple, the piece falls.

“And that’s it,” Schmetterer says, scraping the clay off the wheel and returning it to a container to keep it moist for another day.

She smiles.

“I’m still a student,” she says.

And the student can only say that working at the gallery, working with Pacifico and the other students is “wonderful. We all do our own thing.”

And Schmetterer says her “thing” is forms found in nature, animals and flowers and fish. Her collection of art at her home is dominated by animals, she said.

Schmetterer says that she still sees room for improvement in her work, which keeps her coming back to the same subject repeatedly, particularly the koi.

“I don’t think I’ve taken it where I want to be,” she said. “I want it to be like looking into the water and seeing a fish swim by.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.