An Artist’s Way: Nell van Vorst -April/May 2013

by: Lindsay Pykosz

photography by: Terry Pommett

NELL VAN VORST didn’t envision a career as an artist, but the path her life has taken draws on inspiration from Nantucket’s natural world.

“I had no idea that I would end up doing this. I really didn’t. I’ve never been a planner and I’ve always just felt like I’ve sort of followed a crooked path. Maybe it was always leading this way, but I didn’t know.”

Born on Nantucket, Nell Van Vorst left the island for high school to attend Concord Academy, a private boarding and day school in Concord, Mass. Late to sign up for electives, she got stuck with a pottery class, which she admits was not her first choice.

“I really wanted painting,” she said with a laugh, “but I ended up taking a pottery class. I had the most amazing teacher. It’s all about the teacher. She was so fabulous and so inspiring, so sweet.”

Describing a pottery class for beginners as “one of the more frustrating things” she’d experienced, she nevertheless stuck with it.
After high school, she went on to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to study biochemistry, but art was never far away. After taking additional pottery classes, she eventually decided that science wasn’t in her future.

“I think the biggest stumbling block is getting out of your own way.”
Then came a complete change. She transfered to Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore., where art became her life.

“I learned how to draw in that school,” Van Vorst said. “No matter what your focus was, you still had to take hours of drawing. I learned a ton, and although I don’t draw as much as I should, I’m so grateful for that training. I think the biggest stumbling block is getting out of your own way, and I can’t thank my teachers enough. It’s such a great thing to have a good teacher. I’ve been so fortunate in my life to have really good teachers. Now that I’m teaching a little bit, it’s like I’m channeling my ancestors asking myself, ‘What did my teachers tell me’?”

Since moving back to Nantucket in 1998, Van Vorst has made art her life. She teaches classes at the Artists Association of Nantucket, and her pottery is on display at Ambrosia, a chocolate and spice store on Centre Street owned by her friend Claudia Wallace, and at Bodega, a home-décor store on Candle Street.

Her work is heavily inspired by nature, which she attributes to her parents.“Both my parents are birders, especially my mother,” she said.

“Growing up on Nantucket, I grew up with that influence. My mom would pull over on the side of the road, so I’m very aware of the animals on Nantucket.”

Many of her pieces depict owls, birds and sea life, and she describes her technique in creating them as “simple yet laborious.”

“I work with the black line which acts like a resist that holds the different glazes apart,” she said. “The glazes are water-based, and the black line is wax. It’s very process-oriented. My forms are really simple and fairly easy to reproduce. The imagery is the part that most of my time goes into. It does keep my numbers small because there’s only so many I can produce.”

The clay Van Vorst works with comes in large, 25pound bags that she “smashes out” to make into bigger chunks. The clay is pushed between a printing press that acts like a slab roller that compresses the material from both sides.

“I cut it into squares, similar to the way that Claudia cuts her chocolates, and stack them between pieces of blue board until it’s what I call ‘leather hard,’ or no longer squishy, then I trim the edges. After that, I’ll sponge them to make them smooth. They get fired once, then they get glazed, then fired again. Ceramics is mostly a process. A lot of the pottery you see is dictated by process. I’m trying to go the other way and force it to do what I want. It’s really labor-intensive to do what I do,” she said.

Looking at a tray of Van Vorst’s already finished cups, they look nearly identical, something she attributes to “muscle memory” when she’s throwing the clay on the wheel.

In the future, Van Vorst said she hopes to display her work in multiple galleries in different cities, and has toyed with the idea of hiring an intern or assistant to help create her pieces.

For now, the closest thing she has to assistants are her children: daughter Rowan, 11, and son Silas, 9, who she raises with her partner Ben Moore, an island woodworker. She credits her daughter for some of her concepts, and said that there’s a possibility one or both of them might follow in either of their parents’ footsteps.

“It’s funny, because if you look at it, I always think about how both my parents work with their hands,” Van Vorst said. “My mom was always sewing clothes, she knits and does calligraphy, and my father works with wood. He used to do all these cool little carvings. Then Ben comes from a line of woodworkers too. His grandfather was a woodworker, two of his uncles. We all work with our hands, no matter what the medium is. Even if I wasn’t dong this work, I would still be doing something else with my hands.” ///

Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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