Dave is a native of Beverly, Massachusetts–about an hour north of Boston. He grew up there until his family moved to South Florida, when he was twelve. Dave’s father was originally from Maine, so the family would always make the journey back north during the summer. Dave remembers spending that time playing with boats. He says, “Maine is a real fishing community. They used dories (boats with narrow, flat bottom, high bow and flaring sides) for fishing and pulling nets in and stuff like that, but mostly lobster fishing. These boats were iconic watercraft years ago, but when I was kid they were kind of phasing these out.”
Dave had always wanted to be a pilot like his father, so he enrolled in flight school at a junior college in Florida. Eventually, he decided against this because he realized he didn’t want to serve during the Vietnam War. Facing which direction his life would lead, he decided to pursue the arts after enjoying his first art class at the junior college. Dave applied and was accepted to the University of Florida (UF), and it was pottery “right off the bat.”
Dave recalls, “I had no clue what pottery was. All my childhood and young adult life, I was served my dinner on a china plate, but I could care less about it at that time. At UF, we used kicked wheels, but I had to take hand-building and help out in the studio before I was even allowed on the wheel. You had to put your time in and earn your way up there. When I finally took wheel throwing, I loved it, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was making everything functional. Plates, pitchers, casseroles, planters, whatever I could spin, I made it.”
Dave stopped attending school during his junior year to focus on earning more money for his education. “I had a lack of funds, and even though my folks said they would pay for it, I didn’t want to do that. I felt like there had to be some skin in the game for me, for it to mean more to me.” For a year, he continued to live and work in Gainesville before he returned to UF to complete his Bachelor of Fine Art degree in ceramics. Right before graduation, the Chair of the department approached Dave with an job opportunity. He remembers, “The department head comes up to me and says, ‘I got a call earlier from this guy in Savannah. He said he wants a potter.’” This was in 1974, and fortunately Dave’s parents were living in Hilton Head, so he took the chance and traveled to meet the couple he would work for in Savannah.
“It was mutual love. They became like my parents almost. The guy was a marketing guru out of New York and his wife was a potter, and they moved to Savannah. She opened a studio, called ‘River Street Pottery,’ but this was before the river was renovated–before the first tourists showed up in Savannah. In fact, we were in the studio one day, and a group of people showed up. They were on this trip where they don’t tell you where they’re going–a mystery tour. So they walk into the shop on River Street, and I think those were the first tourists in Savannah.”
The owners of “River Street Pottery” already had the physical shop with commercial pottery in it, but their vision was to sell hand-made pots. So Dave moved up from Florida and began living in an old warehouse on River Street. “There was nothing up there, 100ft x 80ft wide. Two windows facing the river. My wife and I made a little kitchen, and we raised up our bed, so we could look out the window and watch the ships go by. Downstairs was the pottery, and a lot of people came in and would just stare at us. We taught classes in there as well, and that’s where it began.”
What did life in Savannah look like for you after left River Street Pottery four years later?
I did functional stuff for awhile and non-local shows, but I wasn’t making the money that I wanted to, and that’s a popular predicament. I had a friend who had a commercial marine surveying business who needed help, so I went and helped him part-time while I was making pottery. I then got approached by another company who wanted to hire me full-time. I went out and did that for several years, and I lost the pottery. I still loved it though, so I kept all my chemicals and my wheel and packed everything up. I had a daughter, and life passed us by. My daughter was 17 at the Savannah Arts Academy, and she asked me to teach in pottery for the school in 2004. I agreed to help where I could. It was a lot of fun, and I was asked to teach, but I turned it down. I ended up developing a clay program proposal for the school, and they got a few kilns and a new instructor, Carrie Chapman.
I think this is the way it goes–the kids inspired me. They did some great things. People had been telling me to get back into it, and they mentioned the City of Savannah program. I went there and Irene McCollam was teaching and Lisa Bradley was managing the facilities. I decided to take a beginning or intermediate class and see what happened. I got back in there, and it just came back big time. Irene noticed me after about an hour, and said, “You’ve had some formal training. You don’t need to be on this side; you need to be teaching.” She lined me up with Lisa 12-13 years ago. That’s how it came back.
What led you to creating boats?
I was just messing around and doing stuff, because I didn’t have to make a living from it. The boats only started about 4 years ago. I was selling some stuff at the Telfair Gift Shop, and the lady over there kept asking me for olive boats. There was a potter there before who had done them, but I was like “Really, an olive boat? You want an olive boat?” I just dismissed her, but every time I went in she asked me for one. I finally went into the studio and rolled out a slab. I was looking at this olive tray and thinking that it looked like another type of boat, a peapod. It doesn’t have a stern on it like a dory. I thought, wow...I can make peapods. I almost got mad at myself for not making the connection earlier, but I guess I wasn’t ready for it.
I made like ten of them, and started changing the shapes and putting seats in them. I called a gallery owner and sent her some pictures, and she said she wanted some. I packed up like 7 or 8 of them, and she put them out. The first day she sold a boat, she called me and told me that she didn’t know if anything else would sell. She said, "We’ve never seen anything like this, so I never know. It’s like a first painting or sculpture for anyone. The lady who bought the first piece was a summer person, so you just never know, it could just be a fluke." About 3 or 4 days, later I get another call from an assistant of the gallery, and she said, “You better start making some more boats. We just sold the rest of them.”
What attracted you to surveying?
Surveying is something you can do by yourself. It’s not physically demanding, so I'm able to do it. I specialize in the commercial surveying, a lot of empty container work, like the ones you see on the river. The containers have to be certified before they go out to sea, if they haven’t been used for a while. We do cargo surveys, so let’s say we get a big shipment of potters wheels and the ship rocks and rolls on the ocean. The people who receive it say, “Wow, this really is a mess.” They will hire a marine surveyor to come and look at it for insurance purposes. There are a lot of facets to the whole thing.
Do you find inspiration from your job? No, I don’t get a lot of inspiration from my job.
What does your creative process look like then?
You’re constantly rolling over stuff, going back and forth and sometimes in the middle. We all look at everybody else’s stuff too, trying to get inspiration or some little tidbit of something that gets us going. For instance, Liz Crane and I went back and forth with emails for surface treatment.The juices flow, and you get excited about getting back into your studio. You can find it anywhere at anytime. In the middle of the night, you can wake up and your head starts to spin.
I scribble all over everything. I use this large pad of newsprint to sketch out and paint on. I have a bunch of legal pads in the house that I sketch on as well. It’s kind of a natural thing. Some of the stuff is hard to sketch out, but the process is always different. I’m always taking it to another level.
Your use of color is very attractive. What inspires the color choices and combinations?
For most of these [boats] I use Amaco underglazes, but I do a lot of mixing. I don’t write anything down. I like the stressed thing and chipped paint and old thing. I’ll take a grinder to a boat in a second, it doesn’t matter. I have a propane tank here that I use to burn the underglaze and make it bubble up, then I can scrape it off to get the underlying color. Burning it actually fuses the underglaze makes it more stable, so you can apply a clear glaze over the boat.
This experimentation process really freaked me out at first and made me question if I was being “pure.” You know what I mean? You have to fire with with glaze to make it permanent. Was I breaking that rule? And I thought well this is an art process here. I’m not doing functional stuff, so what are my parameters? So I’ve kinda allowed myself that.
How do you choose your colors?
That’s taking me a long time. Making the boat is no sweat, but the color. Sometimes it’s a hit or miss. You’re still somewhat limited to glazes, but I narrowed it down to the [Amaco] velvets. If you look at your palette and what’s available, you can narrow it down to a specific palette.
Your appreciation for architecture if very evident in your work. Where do you find inspiration for new forms? What’s your research method look like?
I don’t go from any model. They do resemble boats, but then again, they don’t. I alter the lines, and I feel that I don’t have to stick to the original. I add whimsical features, and do some traditional, but I just try to mix it up.
What did your older artwork used to look like? How has your practice change over time?
Every once and awhile I have to go round. I want to do more raku as well, and Clair [Buckner] at City of Savannah is doing some wonderful things.
What have you learned from your gallery experience?
I work best in a gallery that is mostly paintings. I’ve never really had big sales in Savannah. Some boats sell better than others. There are 3 or 4 styles that I can rely on that sell. The gallery has to be close to the water and have type of tourist trade. I’m not particularly strong in my sales in Savannah. I think people get the wrong impression on Savannah, and they think oh what a town with the arts, because of SCAD and all that.
What’s your next project/exhibition you will be involved with?
I got into the gallery in Rockland, ME, about 3 years ago, so everything I make goes to him. There are about 20 boats here that are going to him. I drive them up to Maine. I have a show coming up in June there with a painter. In July-August is when I do my best sales there, so I to get a full inventory of things and just ride on it.
What is your dream project?
This, the shipyards, the wrecks. There’s a strong metaphor and connection there with the wrecks. You can see the decomposition and rotting. It’s a really natural thing. I’m really excited about it, and I’m headed down that road. My next step is to expand the debris field–that’s filled with resin and sand, chips of old glaze and paint, in order to have a wider frame for the boat. But my dream project would be making it big. Perhaps 4ft long wrecked ships, where I can have fun with it. To get into the ribs of the ship, playing around with the bending and twisting. The largest I have made are 33-34” across because of the current kiln limitations, but I’d be interested.
Why is art important to you?
I’m an artist. It’s a little bit about everything. It’s about paying it forward, teaching, giving, sharing and a little bit of ego. If you get good at something, people ought to enjoy it and be a part of it. As far as ceramics, it’s fun. If you can’t have fun with it, why do it? On the other hand, you need to sell, otherwise you’ll bury yourself in your work. I never taught before, but I did it because I was asked. Once I was involved, I loved it.
"...we have to turn people's thinking around."
What role does the artist have in society?
I’m one of four. Three of my siblings are pretty artistic, but my parents didn’t know anything about art. We were never taught about it, so when I got into this, they became more appreciative of art. They were receptive and became art collectors in a way. I like to imagine sometimes, had I not become an artist–if I had become an accountant for instance, what would my parents’ home look like? It’s interesting the way it spreads. The more you do, the more people see, the more art that happens in your community, the creative the environment becomes. You’ve got to get it out there, you’ve got to talk about, you’ve got to show it. It feeds on itself.
I was so pleased that when I asked my father one Christmas what he wanted, he asked for one of my boats. So I go over there, and he’s got it right there. That’s the story.
How can the arts infiltrate every home in Savannah?
That’s a really difficult question, and there has to be answers. I’m not smart enough to figure it out. I think about that, and I would love for Savannah to be supportive of the arts, but we have to think about demographics. We’re dealing with something that most people don’t realize is the heart of the matter. We’re a small group, and we have to turn people’s thinking around. People are really structured, and they like it that way. It’s hard to break through that ice. A bunch of education and hammering hard. Doing something without permission? What is that? I don’t know. The more heads you put together, the better the answer.