‘We need to connect with our hands’: A Gainesville potter’s passion becomes a lifestyle

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Kate Murray thoroughly stirs the watery powdered rock, known as glaze, with her hand before carefully dipping a small ceramic plate halfway, coating it in the golden rust color liquid.

The surprising transformation comes later: the plate becomes a green ash after it is heated in the kiln, a chamber behind her studio used to harden clay at high temperatures.

“The raw glazes as they are in the bucket have no resemblance whatsoever to the final surface in terms of color or shininess,” she said. “So we have to use our mind’s eye a lot.”

Murray, 63, is a self-employed potter. For almost 40 years, she has been creating different ceramic pieces such as pots, jars, cups, vases and plates out of porcelain or stoneware in her studio built behind her home.

The walls are covered in posters, photographs and drawings of pottery pieces; plastic bins filled with glazes of all different shades and colors are scattered across the floor. Finished and unfinished ceramic pieces fill the shelves around the small, crowded space.

A selection of those finished pieces are currently on display at the Artisans’ Guild Gallery at 224 NW 2nd Ave. in Gainesville.

Her work is greatly influenced by historical pottery from the Mediterranean, eastern Asia and the Americas from the Neolithic period to today. The traditions of these cultures are powerful and ancient, she said.

“I feel like we have an awful lot in common with the Etruscans and Romans and Minoans and the people in caves who put their hands up on the wall with blue pigment,” she said. “We’re saying something very similar to what I am saying when I make something: I was human, I was here.”

Murray’s work today reflects a more personal message, with the tied lids on the jars representing a connection with her mother Emmy Shakeshaft, a spinner, weaver and knitter who passed away in August 2021.

She said it is also a way for her to come to terms with wrapping things up in her life.

“I can look back with a great deal of satisfaction and see how all those decisions that I made have led to a life that I really like,” she said. “I have liked my life. It hasn’t been easy, but I sure have enjoyed it and I sure am glad to be here now.”

The ceramic jar Murray made in honor of her mother, Emmy Shakeshaft, who
passed away in August 2021 (Camila Pereira/WUFT News)

As an adjunct associate professor at Santa Fe College teaching wheel throwing and hand building, Murray said she wants to share her life experiences and passion with her students.

“I really feel like my teaching mission is to pass on a love of material, love of process,” she said.

Additionally, she wants to encourage students who haven’t experienced making pottery to give it a chance as she believes people need to connect with their hands.

“Many people never do anything with their hands except type, push buttons with their thumbs and they are in desperate need of something else,” she said. “Something closer to real and actual material in their face compared to mediated through a screen.”

Ethan Slater, 19, is one of Murray’s students in both of her ceramics classes at Santa Fe, and his passion for pottery comes from her mentorship.

“As a microbiology major I’ve taken STEM courses all my career,” the University of Florida transfer student said. “But having an outlet creatively, and something to pour yourself into rewards with dividends that you can not only touch, feel, but are beautiful and engaging is an incredibly fulfilling experience in college.”

Similar to Slater, Murray’s love for ceramics began when she signed up for a pottery class in college for fun.

As an English major at Grinnell College in Iowa, Murray said she wanted to give it a try after her roommate had taken a pottery course.

In learning to be in tune with her hands while throwing pots and delicately shaping the clay between her fingers, Murray found herself and her passion.

“I just enjoyed doing [pottery] so much that I made a way to keep doing it,” she said.

She then pursued a bachelor’s in ceramics at the University of Iowa after working for five production pottery companies as a thrower and studio assistant in Vermont.

But she wanted to do more than just mass produce her work.

“I decided I didn’t want to be a factory,” Murray said. “I didn’t want to have to come up with two hundred and something in blue.”

Choosing to follow her passion, Murry applied to graduate programs at UF and four other schools, only to find herself moving to Gainesville with a full fellowship to pursue a masters in ceramics and become a graduate teaching assistant.

She then became an assistant professor at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, but upon meeting her husband Don Murray, who passed away in 2006, she decided to move back to Gainesville.

“And even though I knew if I resigned that job, I would never get another one,” she said. “I resigned that job, and I came here and we turned this room into a ceramic studio, built the kiln out back and started making pots, and sailing boats and making food and reading books and we had a very, very, very good time. And I’m not sorry.”

Murray has been recognized as an Emerging Artist by the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts and has had her work in numerous regional and national exhibitions, including five appearances in the Strictly Functional Pottery National.

About Camila Pereira

Camila is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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