MAKES A Winning Hand at The Potteries in Mesilla
Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
Two blocks off the tourist-trafficked Plaza de Mesilla, on Calle de Santiago, sits a resurrected historical homestead converted into an art gallery cum pottery studio next to one of the many irrigation canals that slice through the village.
A growing legion of loyal local clientele and some of Mesilla’s more adventurous visitors find their way just west of the Basilica de San Albino to The Potteries, where a giant olla, or earthen pot, marks the location just a short stroll off the beaten path. Here, Bill and Janice Cook, and their longtime partner, Jeanne Rundell, make handcrafted ceramics, clay sconces, and one-of-a-kind pieces of art.
“We had three different businesses,” says Bill, “but joined together in our gallery as The Potteries 13 years ago. We’re all studio potters, but Jeanne has become a painter.”
Janice and Jeanne, who specializes in sculptural paintings, have been working together since 1986, when they had a little pottery studio behind the Café de Mesilla. In 1993, Bill moved to Mesilla to open his own pottery studio nearby and ended up marrying Janice the following year.
The creative trio bought an overgrown lot and rundown building on Calle de Santiago in 2004 and went to work clearing a dead orchard, demolishing parts of the old homestead that couldn’t be salvaged, and making adobe bricks on site to rebuild and enlarge the old structure.
“When you stood at the street, you couldn’t see the building,” Bill recalls. “We hauled out 50-plus loads of debris in a one-ton truck.”
Today, the adobe-colored, stucco retail outlet and working studio hums with activity from 1am to 5 pm Tuesday through Saturday.
The shop’s mascot—a rescue dog named Carly—greets customers entering the front gallery, where they can peruse guest artists’ decorative and functional stoneware, red clay sconces, colorful pop-up paintings, and Janice’s eye-catching turquoise porcelain dinnerware. If the artisans aren’t in the middle of a critical phase of creating their ceramics, they will gladly conduct a tour of the adjacent studio, which is divided into several separate work spaces.
The Cooks’ ceramics are fired out back in two kilns built with fire bricks. The heavy steel-framed, brick doors that seal the kilns for firing the ceramics slide back and forth on short steel tracks resembling railroad ties. They were designed by Bill, who learned to make kilns while earning his Fine Arts degree at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. The larger kiln, in which Bill fired pots in his former studio, was disassembled brick by brick and rebuilt at the current location.
“This is the heart of the ceramic arts,” Bill points out. “We take sedimentary material and make it into metamorphic.
“I call the girls the artists and I’m the craftsman,” adds Bill, who stays busy making clay lighting fixtures – chandeliers, pendant lights, and exterior sconces — for homebuilders, contractors, and remodelers. His outdoor lighting fixtures can be found on commercial buildings and homes throughout the Las Cruces area.
Unlike most potters, Bill makes his ceramics from three different clay deposits excavated in Arizona and hauled in buckets to Mesilla. The resulting lighting fixtures come in white, buff, and red. The craftsman’s sconces are designed with covered tops or with the light pointing downward to keep light from escaping into the sky and creating light pollution, thus meeting the city’s Dark Sky Ordinance.
Jeanne and Janice, who used to sell their pottery at art fairs throughout the nation, belong to several arts organizations, including the Border Artists, which sponsor art shows throughout the area at such venues as the Branigan Cultural Center.
After more than a quarter century in Mesilla, the artists have become well known and find that their creations are gaining a sizable following among fine arts aficionados throughout the Mesilla Valley. “It’s like a miracle to us,” Jeanne says.
To thank their loyal customers, The Potteries hosts an annual event the weekend prior to Thanksgiving Day. In addition to receiving 15 percent off of any purchase, customers are treated to a Posole Party, featuring more than 60 quarts of the homemade New Mexican favorite.
“It’s not like our stuff always sold well, but now it does. I guess if you put in your 50 years… ” Janice trails off with a laugh.
Drop by The Potteries sometime and you’ll discover why the working studio and handcrafted creations have become a treasured addition to the Mesilla scene.
2260 Calle de Santiago | Mesilla