Ceramic artist wins second 'Best in Show' at Festival of the Arts

Saturday, September 27, 2008 | 7:29 p.m. CDT; updated 1:39 a.m. CDT, Sunday, September 28, 2008
Mary Verdi-Fletcher performs with Carly Dorman during the Columbia Festival of the Arts on Saturday. The Dancing Wheels company from Cleveland incorporates seated and standing performers in modern dances.

COLUMBIA — The forms are figure-like. Their colors, vibrant. Their material, delicate.

This isn't your typical clay pottery.

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When: From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Where: Boone County Courthouse Square between Seventh, Ninth, Ash and Walnut streets, one block north of Broadway.

Weather: Sunny and mostly clear in the high 70s and low 80s.

Parking: Free in the garages at Eighth and Cherry streets and Walnut and Seventh streets and in city parking lots on Eighth, Ninth and Ash streets.

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This is porcelain stoneware at its finest — hand-carved and glazed — and these pieces were part of the collection of ceramics that took "Best in Show" at this weekend's Festival of the Arts. The artist, Paul Pfrehm of Wewoka, Okla., has been doing ceramics for more than 40 years. This year marks his sixth time in the show and his second time as winner.

Pfrehm, who obtained his Master of Fine Arts in pottery from Wichita State and worked as an art professor until he retired 12 years ago, has shown his ceramics all over the country. However, Pfrehm said he is a wannabe local and spends much of his time showing in Missouri.

"Columbia seems to have the best eye for pottery," he said.

The Columbia Festival of the Arts is in its 16th year, and its Courthouse Square location welcomes nearly 10,000 visitors each September. This year, the work of 47 visual artists lines the sidewalks, only part of the full art package. Interactive dance, poetry readings and cultural music are among other sightsa visitor could take in at the two-day festival.

"I noticed more mixed-media pieces, paintings and pastels this year than in years past," said Kay McCarthy, cultural program specialist in Columbia's Office of Cultural Affairs. McCarthy has organizedthe show for eight years. Each visual artist, she said, must be jury-approved to be able to participate.

McCarthy said she is familiar with Pfrehm's work from past shows.

"Paul's pieces are more refined and artistic," McCarthy said, comparing his work to more typical ceramic work.

Forty years of experience have contributed to Pfrehm's ability to make his pieces uncharacteristically thin even with his use of a potter's wheel. His ceramics are delicate and decorative, yet still functional.

"The thing that viewers 'ooh' and 'ah' about is the thinness," Pfrehm said. "People are also always surprised at the lightness."

The thinness and delicacy of his ceramics are the envy of other potters, he said. Only when a large vase Pfrehm made split down the middle did its current owners realize how thin its walls were from top to bottom, he said.

"They were impressed as to how even the thickness of the vase was the whole way down," he said.

Surface glazes and the porcelain medium allow the final result to be bright in color. Most potters use earth tones, he said, but the glazes Pfrehm uses give a bold hue on the stark white porcelain. "Everyone loves the color and the shapes," he said.

The last decorative detail is his hand-carved surfaces. "I love to do the hand carving, but it takes a very long time to do," Pfrehm said.

When the pieces aren't hand-carved, the surface is instead pressed with his handmade stamps, he said.

Pfrehm's delicate work is uncharacteristically functional in an art where decorativeness is usually set opposite to functionality. It is important to him that his pieces are still able to be put to use.

"The lids have to fit or they go in the trash," he said, handling a pale blue cap jar whose lid fits perfectly. Since the high-fire porcelain he uses is half glass and half clay, buyers can use it in the kitchen. People are always surprised, he said, at the practicality of such a delicate-looking piece.

Pfrehm's work is inspired, he said, by three art genres — Oriental forms, early American art and Greek/Roman forms.

"My favorite pieces, I don't even bring to shows," he said. "I'll keep them to save for my grandchildren."

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