'I Want To Have A Part In The Process': Craftsbury Potter, Teacher Averill McDowell

Jun 24, 2019

Ceramic artist Averill McDowell first caught the pottery bug as a student at Peoples Academy, in Morrisville.

"Pottery sort of just fell perfectly in my lap," she said. "I learned a little bit in high school how to work with pottery on the wheel. But there wasn’t, like, too much direct instruction. It was more like messing around."

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A wolf howls in the middle of a colorful junk-art mural created at Peoples Academy as part of an all-school inclusive project co-led by art teacher Averill McDowell and teaching artist Kristina Gosh. The work was created using trash and other found objects in the impressionist style of Tom Deininger, a New England artist.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

At age 31, McDowell still walks the halls of her old high school. But now she’s the art teacher.

Thanks to McDowell, those halls look different than when she graduated in 2006. Student art lines the corridors. And collaborative murals decorate entryways and outbuildings.

Averill McDowell led an all-school inclusive effort to create this mural on the side of Peoples Academy in Morrisville four years ago. She has since helped students produce four other major public art projects in and around the school.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Now McDowell is making sure students in her home town are getting direct art instruction, and she continues to learn right along with them.

"Being a teacher has changed my art because, on a daily basis, I have kids that come in here and they want to create something from materials I may have never used before and/or draw something I have never drawn before," she said. "And so I have to teach myself how to teach them how to do something I’ve never done before."

One of Averill McDowell's favorite parts about teaching art to high school students is figuring out how to make art she has never created before, such as these marbled pours on tile, by her Art I student Elixis Jiron.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Growing up, McDowell said her parents signed her up for private lessons with local artists around Lamoille County. More formal instruction started in college, as an art education major at the University of Vermont.

McDowell said her professors pushed her to learn advanced techniques. But her education didn't stop there.

One of Averill McDowell's pit-fired masks hangs in the bathroom of her Craftsbury home.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

"Once I graduated from UVM is when I said, 'I don't want to just like throw my finished pieces in a kiln with some glaze on it. I want to really, like, have a part in the process,'" McDowell said. "And so I was really intrigued by Raku and also pit firing."

McDowell sought out mentors to help her learn these primitive firing techniques. Luke Iannuzzi, from the Mad River Valley, introduced her to Raku. Then she teamed up with Duxbury artist Mame McKee to discover pit firing.

"Because we were just like, ‘How do we do this? Let’s figure it out,'" McDowell said. "And she was an amazing mentor because she's a wealth of knowledge and she's done ceramics her whole life, but not necessarily pit firing. So that was something that we worked through together."

McDowell makes decorative pottery – such as vases and masks. But it's the process that intrigues her, more than the final product.

Imagine baking a cake by wrapping it in aluminum foil and putting it in a campfire. Pit firing is basically the pottery version of that, except that you're also decorating the piece by putting organic materials inside the foil pouch.

Averill McDowell holds one of her Raku-fired plates, which was heated up to about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, taken out of the kiln, had horse hair applied to it, then was sprayed with ferric chloride.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Horse hair, placed on at just the right temperature, produces a black squiggly line. Other natural materials like salts, copper wire and even banana peels, produce different effects.

"It's like Christmas morning when you open these up," McDowell said of the foil pouches, called saggars. "It's just wonderful, it’s beautiful and, like, you don't necessarily know how it's gonna work. So it's an experiment. But you can have trust in science. And so science is totally incorporated into this whole process." 

With an air of self-reflection, she added, "Which is interesting because my dad's a science teacher. So, I don't know, it's interesting."

Recent Peoples Academy graduates Caroline Merriam and Aidan Lodge are both heading off to art school. They're standing in front of one of several murals Averill McDowell coordinated on school grounds.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

McDowell encourages her students to take chances as well. Aidan Lodge graduated from Peoples Academy this month and is headed to art school in the fall. For that, he credits his art teacher.

"Really, just the space that Averill gave me to be a maker, and to be a maker on my own terms, I think was really huge for me," Lodge said. "There's like a running joke that I never did any of the projects because I always sort of stretched the boundaries a little bit. And I think that having an art teacher who really encourages that has been crucial to me."

Averill McDowell looks at the anxiety exploration artwork of one of her AP Art students, Caroline Merriam. The paintings are intended to illustrate what anxiety feels like and use a number of materials including charcoal, watercolor and acrylic paints, and stitching.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Fellow graduate Caroline Merriam also tips her hat to McDowell for her recent successes of getting into art school and selling some of her work. 

"When she heard that I got into art school, she was very, very proud of me," Merriam said. "And I don’t know if she knows that I wouldn’t have done that without her and her support."

Five years ago, Dave's Lumber in Hardwick donated the slabs of wood to Peoples Academy, where Art I and Art II students painted them in a style originating from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

While McDowell said making art is an integral part of her life, shaping artists is at least as important.

"It's this funky balance of, like, what's more rewarding; is it teaching or is it the final product for myself?" she said. "And I would definitely lean towards my teaching. I chose the right career because I get so much out of teaching. However, creating on the other end has been a crazy outlet for me, and it's been amazing."

Through college and grad school and her early career, McDowell has stayed in Vermont. Here, she discovered her passion. Here, she found her mentors. And she's staying here, to pass along what she's learned.

McDowell recently bought a house in Craftsbury. There are outbuildings on the property, one of which is destined to be her new studio.

Averill McDowell hopes to turn this outbuilding behind her new home in Craftsbury into a studio.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

"That is the plan," she said, "to get a wheel in there, to make a studio space and make it happen. Because there’s no reason that we can’t dig a hole and build a fire and fire the work. I mean, it’s right there. It’s exciting."

This story is part of our series, Young At Art. Every Monday this summer we'll hear from artists under 40 about what inspires their work and how they view the future for artists in the state. Support for Young At Art comes from Quantum Leap Capital.