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The Zappa Pottery Workshop

joan at the kiln
Joan Zappa at the kiln
Blending Landscapes and Pottery

Being "centered" is an important part of the life of potters Joan and Nick Zappa, not only in relation to the clay they skillfully shape, but also in the beauty of the windswept mesa on Uncompahgre Plateau that is home to their new workshop/studio and showroom.

Situated on the edge of Spring Canyon just off the old Paradox wagon road, which once led early settlers and freighters to the West End of Montrose County, Joan and Nick Zappa have built their dream home and studio. In a broad sweeping, 360 degree turn, visitors to the couple's retreat can gaze upon the entire San Juan Mountain range, covered with the first snows of the season, to the hills of Bostwick Park to the east and Grand Mesa to the north.

"we can watch golden eagles flying eye level along the cliffs and deer out our window," says Joan. "we also have foxes and mountain lions (in the area)."

Inside the spacious, 1,500 square-foot studio, completed in July, the couple works six days a week creating their trademark pottery, rich in the colors of the nature that inspire them continually.

"it's been a studio we've had in mind for years," says Nick.

"it's our old age studio," he laughs, "because everything (including the drying racks and shelves) is on wheels."

The Zappas, who describe themselves as basically self-taught potters, have been in the business for 22 years. "we left a place similar to this when we moved to montrose from evergreen, colorado, in 1990," adds Nick.

First becoming interested in the art of pottery making from his father, who made him a fly wheel out of an old manhole cover, Nick went on to pursue a career as an art teacher. But the lure of creating with clay was too strong, so he and his wife decided to devote their life's work to producing "functional" yet artistic pieces.

Joan had previously acted as her husband's assistant, doing a lot of the bookkeeping (which she still does), but decided she would also like to try her hand at pottery. Like her husband, Joan's love for the craft has also grown over the past 22 years.

"there's a lot of competition (in the pottery business)," notes Nick. "but we've been very blessed. we've always had a demand for our work." Their pieces are displayed in 10 different galleries across the country, including Santa Fe, Steamboat Springs, Telluride, Ouray and Breckenridge.

"the pottery business can really be trendy, but we try to stay away from trends and produce our own style of art," adds Nick.

nick pulling handles
Nick Zappa pulling handles

order to go
Orders to go
The unique style that the Zappas have perfected over the years can be seen in 70 different items, ranging from salt and pepper shakers, mugs and bowls to large platters and pitchers.

Other popular pieces include complete dinnerware settings, cannister sets, gravy sets, honey pots, cookie jars, ladles, lotion/soap dispensers, relish dishes, serving dishes, soup tureens, pie/quiche plates and tea pots. The Zappas also offer an assortment of vases in different sizes, and smaller items such as spoon holders and spice jars with corks.

"all our glazes are our own, although we do purchase clay from a man who makes it (in the region)," says Nick. Each finished piece will have gone through over 40 steps including the final gas kiln firing, which utilizes temperatures exceeding 2,370 Fahrenheit, the Zappas explain. The resulting product(s) is quality, lead-free stoneware that is microwave, oven and dishwasher safe, although the Zappas recommend that all stoneware pottery be allowed to preheat along with the oven in order to avoid possible thermal shock.

nick at the wheel
Nick Zappa at his potter's wheel
In addition to producing individually signed pieces, Nick adds his own personal trademark when he dips the smaller items in the glaze, leaving partial imprints of his fingertips on each piece. The imprints add a distinctive touch to the variated colors and patterns of the pottery, which are glazed and painted in earthen tones of dark blue, rust, brown and shades of green.

Although the Zappas haven't kept track of exactly how many pieces they've produced over the years, each time they sit down at the potter's wheel their love of their craft comes alive.

"throwing is still the favorite part of the process for both of us," states Joan. "there's a certain calming effect that takes place (when you work with the clay)," she adds. "it's good therapy."

The first and often most-difficult step to learn in working with clay is known as "centering." Joan explains that it is critical to the whole process that your body be centered over the wheel, along with the mound of clay and the right amount of water be applied to it.


From this point, Nick demonstrates the intense, yet precise feel of working with clay as he pulls and squeezes the material in his hands at the same time, creating a pitcher within a matter of minutes. Centering is one of the hardest things to master in pottery making, explains Joan, who along with her husband has been teaching classes for the past three years.

The Zappas will begin another class next week for five students. "it's a one-on-one experience. the students really get excited (about making pottery)," says Joan.

With new changes come new demands, but the Zappas know how to re-focus their energy and direction, even at the end of a long day. "it's a nice place to take a break," says Joan, referring to the spectacular cliffs that overlook Spring Canyon and are just a short walk from their new studio. "we can watch the storms roll in over the canyon," adds Nick.

For both, the landscape and their work blend nicely together, offering a "centering" effect in a world that is too often rushed.



Reprinted with permission from Elaine Hale Jones, Montrose Daily Press

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joan at the wheel
Joan Zappa at her potter's wheel


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