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The Nature of It

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Maybe you spied her work in a Carson’s store this past holiday season, or you’ve admired her signature “sgraffito” technique in one of the local art galleries that can’t keep up with demand for her colorful works of clay. Step inside the studio of West Dundee’s rising star.

West Dundee potter Danuta Loane shows off some of her works at her studio (Samantha Behling photo)

Just a few years after taking her first ceramics class, West Dundee resident Danuta Loane is enjoying a runaway success as a potter.

Her work vanishes quickly from the shelves of gift shops, boutiques, galleries and shows in places like St. Charles, Spring Grove, Barrington and West Dundee. She takes orders from art lovers around the country, most of whom have found her original pottery on her online shop at Etsy.com.

This past Christmas season, her works appeared at three Chicago-area Carson’s department stores.

Not too bad, considering Loane only started throwing pottery in 2011, after a friend invited her to a class at Fine Line Creative Arts Center, in St. Charles. She quickly got hooked.

“After the eight-week session, I signed up for more classes and then went to every open studio time I could,” Loane says. “After about a year, I had accumulated a lot of things that I made.”

Loane now spends four to eight hours a day in her West Dundee studio, in between driving her 15-year-old daughter, Emma, to school and working part-time for her father’s custom woodworking business.

The 50-year-old painter-turned-potter finds herself especially drawn to Japanese gardens, culture and patterns, which weave their way into designs including ginkgo leaves, blackbirds, leaves and Koi fish – sometimes set against diagonal cross-hatches.

“All my inspiration really comes from nature,” she says. Sometimes, a look outside the studio windows is enough to connect her with the wooded lot and wildlife just outside. Her favorite colors – blues and greens – remind her of the sky.

“I’ve tried other combinations and so many glazes, but I’ve always gone back to the same colors,” she says. “Ultimately, that’s what inspires us, something that we enjoy looking at.”

Many of Loane’s pottery pieces have some element of “sgrafitto,” a process that involves etching away a layer of hardened clay to create a complex pattern. Here, she refines the outer shape of the pot before setting a black glaze and etching her design.

From Clay to Pay

Clay is unforgiving and unpredictable to the unskilled hand. Taking lumps of stiff, sticky earth and forming them into symmetrical works of art is an impossible feat for some. It comes with a degree of ease for Loane.

That’s not to say she hasn’t had her share of mistakes along the way. Works have exploded, glazes have turned weird colors, and things have cracked under the pressure of being fired at more than 2,000 degrees. The failures of her first firing are emblazoned in her memory.

“It was a disaster,” she says. “Every piece was the wrong color or blistered, and everything that was in the kiln pretty much got thrown out.”

Loane buys 600 to 800 pounds of clay at a time, transforming it into bowls, vases, mugs, trays and spoon rests she’ll sell to art buyers or art gallery owners, like Joyce Younger, owner of Colored Squid Gift Gallery, in Barrington.

“Danuta is well on her way to becoming an artist that people recognize, especially those who love handmade ceramics,” Younger says. “When she changes her designs on a seasonal basis, you’d better get a piece or two before they’re gone. She’ll become an artist whose work people collect, for sure.”

Occasionally, Loane gets special requests, like a French confit bowl reproduction. Someone recently requested custom luminaries that could adorn every table at a new restaurant. They were needed within 21 days; Loane usually requires four to six weeks. She made the order in time.

“They had to dry outside in the sun,” she recalls, adding that she noticed dragonflies landing on the pieces. Fittingly, each piece of her pottery carries a dragonfly symbol on the bottom – her signature, of sorts.

Early Days

Loane grew up in Schaumburg and graduated from Conant High School, in Hoffman Estates. She earned an associate degree from Harper College and then studied fine art at Columbia College in Chicago. Before she graduated, Loane received an offer to join the Florence Art Conservation, an Italian organization with work in Chicago, where she would go on to restore priceless works of art for landmark hotels during the 1990s.

The experience has left an impression on Loane’s pottery. Instead of removing layers of dirt and smoke, she now removes layers of clay using a “sgraffito technique.” This method of decoration involves the scratching away of hardened clay and the application of colored glazes to create ornate designs.

“Now, instead of removing dirt, I’m removing parts of the clay to reveal some beautiful image,” says Loane.

Sgraffito is a long process and one that requires patience.

“Her sgraffito/carving work is what caught my eye first,” says Younger, who discovered Loane’s pieces at an exhibit at Starline Gallery, in Harvard. “She has mostly black and white items with colors thrown in here and there. Each season, she comes out with a different design and it keeps getting better and better.”

No matter how busy she gets, Loane remains committed to each piece, constantly drumming up new ideas and reinventing herself along the way. Her process is, in many ways, the opposite of an assembly-line process.

“I’m not a very fast producer, but then I don’t just dip pieces in a glaze bucket,” she says. “It’s tedious and methodical, but also meditative for me. I just embrace the amount of time it takes, and I enjoy it.”

Though she’s only been throwing clay for seven years, Loane feels she’s somehow always had her hands and mind wrapped around this art form. So, it felt less like an abrupt change in her career, and more like a natural transition.

“I have always been an artist and finally found something that I am truly passionate about, and it feels like home,” she says.

Fear and lack of confidence, she admits, may have stopped her from switching gears in the past, but now she looks at a life that’s filled not with challenges, but with opportunities.

“I think what keeps me going is the versatility of what I make,” she says. “If I’m having an off day on the wheel, I can always slab build or take photos, edit and list works in my Etsy shop.”

She asks herself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

“If I’m not awarded a commission or a retail vendor opportunity, I will still wake up, go to my studio, and make pots,” she says.

Demonstrating the “sgrafitto” technique, Loane etches away hardened, black-colored clay into a dynamic, sweeping pattern. When the piece is done, it’ll receive an initial firing in Loane’s kiln before she applies colored glazes, fires it again and prepares it for sale.

Shows, Stores and Galleries

This past holiday season, Loane’s pottery was featured at Affair of the Arts, in Spring Grove, a juried show featuring original artwork by more than 40 artisans. She sold pieces at Swell Gallery, in downtown West Dundee, and at Fine Line. She regularly stocks Younger’s gallery, where her pieces seem to fly off the shelves.

“Her sales have increased 500 percent in the past two years,” Younger says. “She has to bring in new stock on a regular basis.”

Loane landed her newest client, Carson’s, through the department store’s “Close to Home” program, which showcases items produced by hometown designers and artisans.

Loane received word of her acceptance into the program while on vacation last summer.

“The first thing that went through my head was, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to be in a large department store,’” she says. “And then nervous energy kicked in. It took me a couple of days to get down from that and work backwards on the calendar to figure out what I needed to make and how much I needed to do.”

She successfully delivered more than 200 pieces, including lily and cherry blossom trays that continue to sell well in West Dundee, Schaumburg and Mount Prospect Carson’s stores.

Accompanied by her cat Moose, Loane loses track of time in her studio. And even though she suffers the typical physical maladies that accompany a serious potter’s repetitive motions – arthritis in one of her knuckles, a sore elbow, a stiff upper muscle in her right arm from her wheel and clay roller – she believes it’s all worth it.

As she fashions a blob of clay into a smooth, rectangular tray, she reflects on her many blessings and the reason she loves what she does.

“My goal is to make pretty things, to make something nice and appealing,” she says. “I want to be proud of things that I give away, and I want to be proud of what I put into a store.”

She’s already planning for upcoming shows, producing a line of vases for the spring Affair of the Arts show, and she hopes to land in the One of a Kind Show at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart in December. She’s also contemplating her own “Art Abandonment” project, which would involve the intentional hiding of a vase at a West Dundee park. The hope is that someone will find the work and take it home to enjoy.

“It’s exciting to think that someone will think it’s a treasure that they found,” Loane says. “And because it’s hand carved, it is one-of-a-kind.”

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