A good many years ago, when Brian was still in charge of this newspaper, he assigned me to the occasional interview of local personalities and business people. One of the more interesting interviews I had was with Clary Illian, who was – and still is – a potter with a shop in Ely.
I don’t know for sure just what impressed me the most about Clary and her pottery. I sensed immediately that she had more than a commercial interest in what she did. She needed to make a living from her art, yes, but there was a driving force that went beyond the mere practical. Clary had a need to explore and express the nature of her medium. She needed to follow some near-primal urge to celebrate the essence of the clays, the colors, and the natural shapes the medium dictates. I could almost feel the touch of her hands against the wet clay as I looked at a marvelous, wide bowl, decorated with soft, earth colors and designs that echoed some primitive basic element – some message expressed in tremulous lines and organic shapes. I wrapped my hands around a wonderful coffee mug in her upstairs apartment, and it warmed not only my hands but my spirit.
Maybe I was too civilized or too literate to fully understand, but there was some primal vibration that reached deep, beyond words or reason. Something that said: this is clay, drawn from the earth, formed by human hands, stabilized in fire, expressing… what?
As an artist, I know better than to try to put art into words. As a writer, I keep trying to do just that.
I’ve driven the Ely road dozens and dozens of times in the past 50 years. It’s a convenient way to reach I-30 from my home near Morse. It was even a convenient way to get to Cedar Rapids, the Cedar Rapids airport, and even downtown Cedar Rapids for shopping when we lived in Iowa City. Being a street-map illiterate, I find it the easiest way to get to Marion from downtown Cedar Rapids. (Maybe not the most efficient way – but there’s something to be said for familiarity.) And, of course, turning onto C Street, it’s a direct route to Czech Village.
Even before my first encounter with Clary, I had always intended to turn off the highway and explore the little downtown district I glimpsed off to the east as I drove past. And, since our first meeting, I have stopped to browse in her showroom and have purchased a few nice pieces of her work as gifts for special people. I’m afraid I’ve not stopped as often as I wanted to – sometimes because I was accompanied by an impatient husband or child eager to arrive at a specific destination. Sometimes, my intentions were thwarted by my own lack of planning for a nice little chunk of extra time. Whatever the reason, I’ve always intended to stop a lot more often than I actually did.
Most recently, I’ve ridden to Cedar Rapids with friends for meetings, and in passing I’ve mentioned Clary and her pottery. What usually happens is that we agree that we shall make a special trip in the near future for the sole purpose of visiting the shop and possibly buying a pot or two. That, as I said, has been our intention. And, a couple weeks ago, my friend Jan declared that there was no time like the present and we turned off the highway and parked in front of Clary’s door.
As we browsed the showroom before Clary joined us, we were attracted by some whimsically organic shapes decorated with bright glazes. One or two were plump and rounded, with a little curled appendage at one end. After some puzzlement, we decided they must represent snails or some creature closely related. We browsed further and Jan discovered some charming soap dishes, one of which she thought was just right for a small powder room in her house.
While purchasing the soap dish she expressed a liking for the “snail.” Clary seemed momentarily puzzled as to just what she meant, then nodded in acknowledgement. Later, I concluded that Clary is a pretty good salesman. If the customer wants it to be a snail, it’s a snail – even if it isn’t. Later, when spring gets here and I don’t have to worry about the ice and snow underfoot, I’ll make a special trip to Ely and take another look at those “snails.” Maybe I’ll even get up the courage to ask Clary if that is, indeed, what they are. Well, at least I have good intentions!