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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Molding the River's Edge Pottery Studio

Oct 27, 2015 10:58AM ● By Brandi Barnett

A Labor of Love

November 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Monica Fatica

Up the hill in Three Rivers, along the bank of the South Fork, Anne and H.J. Brown turn and mold blocks of clay into gracefully glazed pieces of art. Married nearly 50 years, this duo is the creative force behind River’s Edge Pottery, but if you ask who is the better potter, H.J. will tell you, “Oh, she is.” For H.J., it’s not even really a question. “But,” he clarifies, “we’re not afraid to give and take, back and forth, and follow the evolution.”
H.J. was likely referring to the evolution of a block of clay, delivered and unwrapped, from slab to wheel to hand to kiln, to the sum of their collaborative efforts. But H.J. may as well have been talking about their relationship – a 48-year marriage that likely has influenced their pottery as much as has their individual personalities.
Any relationship that can last a half a century will mold its component parts, but the Browns are especially unique, since they’ve known each other since childhood. That’s a lot of time for back and forth, give and take. “Actually, we’ve known each other since before we were born,” says H.J. “Our mothers taught school together.”
Since that first meeting in the womb, both Anne and H.J. have grown into equally driven and ambitious individuals. Anne became a teacher in the Los Angeles area, while H.J. pursued photography and cinematography. They married relatively young (at 21), but through their demanding careers, the marriage was a steady constant.
It wasn’t until retirement that the couple began to take pottery seriously, though Anne has been doing it longer. “I’ve been doing this off and on for 40 years, but I haven’t been able to do it steady the whole time because I had little kids,” she explains.
“When I was teaching I didn’t do it very much,” she continues. “I stopped for eight years one time, and teaching consumed me. Then H.J. built me this studio, and I sat down at the wheel and it came right back – like riding a bicycle.”
That was in 1996, two years after the Browns bought their current home along the South Fork River. Both were then still living and working in Los Angeles, so Anne visited the studio on the weekends.
That she even began working with clay was almost an accident. “I was trying to graduate early,” Anne says with a laugh, “so I took art classes because I thought that would be easy.”
She studied under an internationally famous potter, who passed away in the middle of the course. Anne never got a chance at the wheel, “and that left this burning desire to do it,” she says. “And one day I was nine months pregnant with my daughter, and we found a place two miles from our house that did wheel classes. It’s not about hand building for me,” Anne clarifies, gesturing at H.J: “He does the hand building.”
Which really describes, on the surface anyway, the give and take, the back and forth between them. But their pottery isn’t just a process separated by division of labor. The couple spends more time working together now than ever. It wasn’t until their retirement that H.J. even began helping with Anne’s pottery.
H.J. was gone for about half of the first 30 years of their marriage, traveling as a cameraman. But the nature of his work translated to the hands-on creativity, the building and constructing, the process of working with clay.
“Oh, I’ve been building camera rigs since I was kid,” says H.J, who traveled the world shooting for National Geographic. Engineering was just another part of the job, adapting cameras and rigs for unexpected weather and terrain. H.J. later shot music videos for bands like Fleetwood Mac, as well as the popular television show Friends.
H.J. brushes aside his work. “It’s just stuff,” he says, repeating, “just stuff.” He knows it was an unusual career, and he just happened to establish himself in what he calls a tiny business – and he’s grateful for it. Now, after years spent traveling and shooting, he’s content to spend his time in the studio. “That’s all you have to do,” he says. “You have to eat, you have to sleep, you need a shower, and otherwise there’s nothing interrupting your focus.”
“When you get into the flow, you can go eight, nine hours,” he says. “You become what you’re doing, and there’s nothing else. You don’t hear the river, you don’t hear the birds – it’s a wonderful place to go… That’s what you did when you shot. You got into a zone.”
H.J. may never even have joined Anne in the zone if it weren’t for the purchase of a slab roller. That was when they had to extend the studio, to create a workspace for H.J., where he cuts, molds and shapes clay by hand.
Now, the Browns go through about a half-ton of clay every six months. “The clay comes in those boxes,” says H.J. pointing to a large stack in the studio, “and then it goes out onto that table and gets weighed.” Then Anne takes the wheel.
The wheel sits on a balcony overlooking the river, protected by a weather-worn patio umbrella. It was originally in the studio, “but the first summer I moved it out there and it never came back in,” H.J. says. “She’ll put on a vest and though it might be snowing, she’ll throw it; if it’s raining, she’ll throw it.”
After Anne throws the clay, it’s moved inside the studio to dry on shelves. Then it goes to the kiln, and onto another shelf; then it’s waxed and glazed, and immediately placed back in the kiln, after which, voila: River’s Edge Pottery.
H.J. describes the process of recycling their unused clay, and how he designed the floor of the studio to quickly allow pressure cleaning. H.J. also has dabbled with mixing and blending glazes, and created samples that surround the workspaces of the studio. Just how many samples are there? “Oh, there’s a gazillion,” laughs Anne, though H.J. begins counting them out, “let’s see there – 80 of them.”
H.J. admits, “I have to be real organized,” to which Anne responds, “and I’m pretty much slapdash.”
Her pottery, however, is anything but slapdash. The beautifully formed and colored pieces rest neatly on the shelves, glaze catching the light. Some pieces are a combination of H.J.’s handwork and Anne’s throwing, the give and take, the back and forth, the result of an evolution.
Looking at all the pottery on the shelves, it’s almost hard to believe that just two people could produce so much. “It’s definitely addiction,” Anne says. “And a labor of love.”
You could call their pottery a career, but they’re not making a killing at it. “It’s started off at 10 cents an hour,” H.J. deadpans, “and now I think we’re up to about 25.”
“But you know what,” Anne quickly adds, “it’s cheaper than a psychiatrist.”
If they’re not making a living doing this, then why do it at all? Why make enough pottery to keep six different stores stocked? The answer, says Anne, is simple: “Because we like it.” And what better way to do something you like, than to do it next to somebody you like?

Find Rivers Edge Pottery in Three Rivers at Hearts Desire and Anne Lang’s Emporium, in Visalia at The Naked Nut and Enjoy the Store and in Santa Monica at Lois Lambert Gallery