Room to play

A first-ever Artists’ Garage Sale gives local painters and potters a chance to clean out their studios

Photo By Deidre Pike

The painter pulls a framed oil from a stack of art. The subject of the painting: three sheep with thick but oddly orange wool.

“It’s in peach,” she says, dismally. “I don’t know why I did this in peach. I guess some artists get in a blue mood. I must have been in a peach mood.”

She gives the painting another thorough look before setting it down.

“I don’t know if I’ll sell that one. Maybe I’ll keep it, make it whiter, add some beige.”

Sandi Y. Burke, who’s best known locally for her watercolors, is organizing her new studio. She and her husband, a retired New York City police officer, moved into a new home in Hidden Valley just a few weeks ago, and that gives Burke all the more reason to find a pile of works to sell at VSA arts of Nevada’s Artists’ Garage Sale this month. She’s selling some watercolors, a few photos, leftover ceramic candleholders and possibly a few paintings that date back to the first painting course she took at Truckee Meadows Community College. On her desk rest a couple of tall, flat ceramic figures that you could stick into the soil of a garden.

“A while ago, I did a whole series on spirit guides for Silver State Gallery,” she says. “I just have these left. … One reason I’m trying to sell some of these pieces is that this is a fresh start for me in a new home.”

Burke, a warm woman dressed casually in jeans and a red plaid shirt, says that her new adventures may include sculpting in cement. Her daughter, Jodi, has been experimenting with mosaic tiles. They may collaborate on some projects.

“I don’t know what direction I’ll go,” Burke says. “I’m going to start from the beginning. Maybe garden art? I love gardening.”

Burke has participated in several successful VSA arts events in the past. She thinks the garage sale will be a huge success.

“It’s for a good cause,” she says. “VSA is one of the better organizations for the disabled and those with special needs. They do a heck of a job.”

After 50 local artists responded to a call for items to display and sell at its first Artists’ Garage Sale, VSA arts of Nevada had to stop accepting work.

Hannah Willis throws a prayer bowl in her home studio.

Photo By Deidre Pike

“We couldn’t believe the response,” says Mary Ellen Horan, executive director of VSA’s Art Access Gallery. “It was amazing, but also understandable, really. If I’ve changed my medium or colors over the years and can’t put an old work in a new show, what am I going to do with it?”

Unload it at rock-bottom garage sale prices?

That’s the idea, Horan says. Artists have been asked to price works to sell. And between the number of artists contributing and the quantity of work each brings to the show, you might expect the lovely kind of digging, sifting and perusing that’s usually reserved for warm Saturday mornings in June, when there’s a garage sale around every corner.

Incense is burning and soft music is playing in Hannah Willis’ garage studio in southwest Reno. The way Willis, 42, peacefully thumps a fist-sized glob of clay on her wheel, you’d hardly know she was on a tight deadline.

A catalog retailer, Femail Creations, ran out of Willis’ prayer bowls during the holidays. The bowls, which sell for $29, are built for setting fire to prayer requests—"hopes, dreams or sorrows"—written on white paper. The bowl isn’t a safe vessel for food, but that hasn’t hampered sales.

“They need 25 right away,” Willis says, turning the wheel and working the clay up into a perfect smallish bowl. She takes the wet bowl from her wheel and sets it down next to three identical bowls. These will be fired first in her electric kiln, then glazed outside the garage in Willis’ raku kiln, which looks much like an ordinary metal trash can. The trash can kiln is lined with a special heat-shielding layer of fibers created by NASA, Willis says. And, fueled by propane, it heats up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in about 15 to 20 minutes.

After a 20-minute bake in the raku kiln, a hot bowl is placed in another garbage can, this one filled with torn magazines.

“It hits the paper and explodes into flames,” Willis says, excitedly. “Then I put the top on it and let it smoke.”

Willis has been making and selling pots since high school. She has a degree in art from Denver University and served an apprenticeship with the Boulder Potters Guild in Colorado. She created the prayer bowl as a tribute to her grandmother. Willis cared for the woman, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, during her last two years of life.

“It was a wonderful, difficult experience,” Willis says. “And after her death, I needed to do something in homage. But dinnerware sets were not … as satisfying. The bowl came out of that experience, and it has helped quite a few people deal with a sickness or death, recovery from addiction, domestic violence, abuse.”

Willis doesn’t make just prayer bowls. She’s crafted dinnerware items, vases and objects of art that she sells at local galleries and shops. These days, Willis is figuring out the best way to incorporate glass and clay.

“They’re related, but they argue quite a bit,” she says of the two media. A few of her experiments—small objects with glass angel figures and large clay platters with blue glass winged shapes—rest on a table near her pottery wheel. “I want to use the glass as a painter would use a brush. I want to be able to control it.”

As an artist who’s been participating in VSA arts shows for about 10 years, Willis says she plans to bring “everything left over from Christmas” to the Artists’ Garage Sale.

“This is the quiet time of year," she says. "So it’s a good time to be constantly experimenting and trying new things. Cleaning out the studio gives people a chance to buy things that aren’t expensive, and it gives me more room to play."