Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Student Spotlight: Ciara Roberts

Ciara Roberts is a local college student who is going a far less traditional route than many of her peers when it comes to her studies in digital photography. Currently residing in Ferrum, she is heading into her second year at the New York Institute for Photography from the comfort of her own home. “NYIP sends me books and assignments; once I complete the assignment I mail it in and they send back grades,” she explains. But working remotely does not mean that her education is any less strenuous. “It’s more hands-on that I thought it would be, seeing as you don’t attend actual classes. But you do the work when it’s convenient to you. I enjoy it quite a bit.”

Her talent clearly shines though, overshadowing any doubts of such an independent education, and her work reflects her strong understanding of light and composition. Her wish to eventually find a job in the fashion photography industry is also very evident in her choice of subject matter, which consists largely of editorial-style portraits. But her leading inspiration differs from day to day. “It could vary from a thought, an insect, or a skull,” she explains, referring to photographs she took using a skull as her subject. “It’s whatever catches my eye that moment.” Some of her favorite artists are Emily Soto, Andy Warhol, Rankin, Van Gogh, and Salvador Dali.

Ciara’s other passion is collecting vintage items, ranging from clothing and accessories to antique cameras. “Usually the stranger the better,” she says of her approach in choosing these pieces. “At times these items make their way into my photography.” 

More of her work can be found on her website at

This article was originally published in the July issue of VIA Noke Magazine.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Student Spotlight: Peyton Stanley

Local student and artist Peyton Stanley will be a senior at Community High School this fall. Although she only recently began tapping into her artistic talents in a serious manner, she has been creative since she was very young. “I have been interested in arts since I was finger painting and drawing in coloring books in elementary school,” she explained, “but it wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I really began to take it seriously.”

She has a firm grasp on her own style of painting, which is clearly inspired by some of her favorite abstract expressionists from the 20th century; Wassily Kandinsky, James Rosenquist, and Sol LeWitt. 
Although she has a sizable collection of work created in oil and charcoal, photography is her favorite medium. Her photography work makes a similar approach to her subjects as her paintings, capturing images from unconventional angles and perspectives. Two of her favorite photographers are the photorealist and painter Chuck Close and local Lexington, Virginia native Sally Mann.

“I would like to continue studying the arts at Memphis College of Art or Virginia Commonwealth University. I plan on at least minoring in art, without a doubt,” Peyton explains. “My ultimate dream is to be able to support myself with my photography and paintings.”

This article was originally published in the July issue of VIA Noke Magazine.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Local Artist: Steve Mitchell Pottery

by Emily Sibitzky

I consider myself fortunate to have recently spent an afternoon at the home and studio of local artist Steve Mitchell. After meeting Steve and discovering his unique style, I was excited to see where and how he worked to create his pottery. I excitedly followed him from his outside studio to his glazing workshop then to his homemade wood-firing kiln, leaving with a further understanding of the pottery-making process and a greater appreciation for the hard work ceramicists put into each piece.

E: Tell me about yourself and how you began working with pottery. Did you have any formal education in ceramics?
S: I went to East Tennessee State because they had a degree in transportation and I wanted to work for the railroad. But about the time I was graduating Norfolk Southern was laying people off left and right so I stayed another year and got a degree in marketing. When I came out I found a job in insurance. I was a manager of claims for Nationwide Insurance; it was a pretty stressful job. Nobody is ever having a good day when they call the claims department, so you’re not talking to them unless they’ve broken a leg or wrecked their car. So I decided to try pottery to unwind... or I should say again. I dated a potter a long time ago; I taught her how to do stained glass and she taught me pottery. I always thought, “I could do better than this.” And so about 25 years later I tried again over at the Brambleton Center, and this time I seemed to have more of a knack for it. So I got a wheel and the hobby started to kind of run wild. I would take my vacation time to go learn and take workshops from famous potters a couple of weeks a year. I did that for about ten years. Then I finally had a glaze formulation class where I learned to actually make my own glazes and the dynamics of glaze-making. About eight years later I decided, “I can do this,” so I decided to leave the company. Of course, now I’m always trying to do something that sells. For most potters, even though they don’t want to do production work, that’s what it’s all about. If you want to try to make a living doing this you have to produce a lot of work. There’s no way around it.

E: So you make all of your own glazes?
S: I do. I was rotten at chemistry in school so this is my punishment, because this is “chemistry world.” That’s what all of this is about; how materials react with other materials.

There are all kinds of borates, feldspars, nephelite; these are naturally mined clays and they come from particular mines. There’s a clay called “Albany clay,” or Albany slip. It was mined in Albany, New York and was the only true black clay. All of these people built their entire production around that one glaze, but they ran out of it and it’s not available anymore. That was the only place on the planet where that particular clay was found. Fortunately all of the clay that I’ve used for my work has come from the same place. But I had that happen to a frit from Germany. They all have this thumbprint, a profile of their chemical analysis, so I broke it down to its chemical base and I took all of the raw materials and made that frit myself. It took me two years to get it just right.

There’s ilmenite, manganese, tin oxide, vanadium pentoxide, all of these weird – some of them rare – earth metals that are used to make the colors that I have in my glazes. For most people, the first thing they’re attracted to is the color, and hopefully later they fall in love with the form and the details and all of that. So I have most of the spectrum of materials for glaze making. I have at least 5lbs of almost every element on the earth, and 50lbs of most of them.

Some glazes are activated by salt, which is entered into the kiln at about 2300º; it turns into a gas, vaporizes, and swirls around in the kiln and puts a glaze over everything. Back in the old days that’s how they glazed pots, from natural fly ash or salt. I have always fired at cone 10, 2350º, but it’s a very slow process. I met a guy at a workshop who told me, “All of the things you do at cone 10 you can do at cone 6,” which is quite a bit cooler. So I gave it a shot, and sure enough... the ash melts at cone 6, salt turns into a gas at cone 6, but it saves half of the wood. It takes me as long and as much firewood to go from cone 6 to cone 10 as it takes just to get to cone 6, so this cuts my time and wood use in half. I’m reformulating all of my glazes so that they work at cone 6, which just means using different fluxing agents. I’m now using minerals that oddly I had but hadn’t really used before.

E: Do you have a signature style or create any signature pieces? 
S: You have to do something to distinguish yourself or you’re not going to sell anything. The horsehair pots I make are about two to three times larger than a lot of potters will make them. For those I glaze the inside red and the outside snow white. I heat the pot up to about a thousand degrees, 1100ºF actually, and as it cools down there is about a fifty degree window where I can stick a piece of coarse horse hair in and burn a little carbon trail into the white clay. Interior designers really like that black, white, and red.

I have a wood firing kiln as well as an electric kiln so for about six months of the year I do the wood firing work and for the other six months I do my crystalline work in the electric kiln. Chemistry and the temperature cycle create the crystalline. The glaze solution is made up of 25% zinc, which is what they use to create the crystalline pattern on galvanized metal. Zinc wants to go into a crystallized formation, but needs a little bit of a catalyst, which in this case is titanium dioxide. You put a little bit of that in the glaze and coat it on pretty thick. At 2350º the glaze gets real loose and starts flowing off the pot into a tray underneath. I crash cool it down to about 1900º and that solidifies it a bit. At that point the zinc starts flowing towards the titanium dioxide molecules and the crystals will start growing. The longer you let it sit at that temperature the bigger the crystals will get.

It’s a lot of work to get a crystal on any pot. On some the crystals get too big and all run together. I don’t like that but it’s funny, some people really like when the crystals grow together. If I don’t like them they usually end up in the ditch. All potters have a ditch; it’s where the stuff that doesn’t work out very well ends up. If there’s something that I’m not pleased about but someone might like it I’ll throw it in my sale instead. So someone will ask, “What’s wrong with this one?” and I’ll say, “Oh it didn’t do what I wanted it to do.” And they think it’s perfect so they’re excited that they get it for 70% off.

I use Indian wood blocks to create patterns on some pieces. I think the wood is made out of some kind of teak or mahogany, but [the carvers] sit there with little knives and carve these little patterns into the wood blocks; it just seems amazing to me. They use them to print batik fabric, or wallpaper some people say. I stamp the clay and stretch it out to creates texture. You can line them up carefully and never see where the pattern starts and stops. What I like about it is that you get this natural, irregular feel to these pieces.

I’m working on a thing called “terra sigillata.” It’s something that the Greeks kind of came across by accident. You put the clay in a bucket and use a deflocculant – they used vinegars, I use a silicate – and it causes all of the particles to deflect each other so they don’t settle. I mix it up, let it set overnight, and the next morning all of the big particles are at the bottom and the super-fine particles are all in the solution on top. You can dip the pots or spray it on and then polish it on the wheel. The fine particles create an almost enamel-like surface. I’m thinking my next generation of pots will be like that.

I went to France with a friend of mine who was a wine importer and we went around France tasting all kinds of different wines from different regions. We got down to the Loire Valley to see Marc Ollivier, who is like the rockstar of the Loire Valley in winemaking. So I introduced myself, “Steve Mitchell, potier,” and he responded, “Potier!? My great, great grandpa potier!” And he runs out of this beautiful stone and walnut cellar into this huge mansion and he comes back down with this roughly hand-shaped crachoir, or spittoon. And he goes, “You make?” and I say, “Yeah, I can make!” So I came back home and made like a hundred of them, large and small. I’ve actually sold a bunch. I have a friend who went to Gascony, France and there was one of my crachoirs sitting on the bar; he took a picture of it and sent it to me. So I have them all over. I have a lot of them in Washington and Oregon because there are a lot of winemakers there. It’s a piece that I make that not many people really know much about.

E: Tell me about your wood firing kiln.
S: I was renting a kiln and fired it about ten times, at the average cost of a thousand bucks a pop, and I thought, “You know what? I can go home and build one.” The bricks are 8lbs a piece and there are probably about 6,000 of them. The first chamber is the initial woodburning chamber and the middle one is the first lair chamber. You stack ware all the way up to the ceiling and then brick it up to close it off. The third chamber is the salt chamber. Salt eats into the firebrick and gives them this finite life; that’s why I was paying to use that other kiln, because you’re literally wearing it out as you’re firing. I researched this for two years before I built it; I made hundreds of drawings. There are places where I mortared, but most of it is just dry-stacked.

My kiln will hold about 350 pots, but with the larger sizes I make it will hold about 80 per chamber. I throw pretty fast; I’ll spend 6 weeks throwing and making all of the pots I’m going to make and I’ll spend another month glazing them and getting them ready for the kiln. Then I’ll spend another month splitting wood. In one week I’ll load the kiln, seal up all the doors, get everything cleaned up and ready, and then I have a crew of guys that also fire pots in here come in to help. We’ll fire it all over a two-day period. A lot of wood firings take about three days. We do 8-hour shifts and rotate. You’re up most of that time, but if you get a reliable crew who knows what they’re doing you can go to sleep for a few hours, maybe four or five at a time. It takes a lot of work; some people just don’t know.

E: Where can people find your work or how can they reach you?
S: My website is and people are welcome to contact me to come by the studio and gallery.

(This article was originally published in the July issue of VIA Noke Magazine.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Studio Visit: BanG!

by Tif Robinette

Affordable studio spaces for artists seem to be in short supply and high demand in Roanoke. But moving your studio out of your spare bedroom and bringing your work to a more public, professional, and accessible space can be a huge career step for artists. Betsy Hale Bannan and Gerry Bannan, a dynamic artist couple working and teaching in the Roanoke region, are making that plunge this summer. Working out of a cool space downtown, while still keeping costs low, were priorities for these two painters. In a true Do-It-Yourself spirit, they found a frightfully dirty space on 4th Street, previously a concrete business, and are transforming it into two slick studios and an adventurous mini-gallery. Still in the process of the transition into this new space, cleverly christened “BanG!”, I caught up with the busy artists.

T: Betsy, could you tell me a little about your work?
B: I think what people most know me by are my paintings, the female figures of the stewardesses, the Madonna-type figures. They are large, symbolic, and iconic, but lately I’ve been doing drawings on paper that are organic, with seed pods. I also am making these tiny paintings that are poured oil paint. They are really just all about the paint. They have come out looking like galaxies, nebulas, and explosions. I like that they are quick and intuitive. I like doing something different. The large paintings are laden down with all the symbolism. They are hard. They are really hard paintings to do, like a puzzle. How does an airplane fit visually with a 1940’s movies star? I like working on different things and they aren’t all the same bodies of work.

T: Gerry, what are you working on right now?
G: I have been doing ink drawings on mylar. I’ve always liked the way ink slides across mylar. In doing these drawings, I’ve pulled the drawing out of my paintings. I’ve felt an obligation to have paintings be tamed by drawing. A painting had to behave itself. I think the more I do the drawings, the more they separate. The paintings are very carefully planned. I have found a way to make my drawings be intuitive and then let my paintings be more intuitive, but [the new paintings] will be different from anything I’ve ever done.

T: What is your current subject matter?
G: The drawings are really specific in subject matter, an assembly of objects that could be together, some drawn from life and some from my imagination. I let the objects start to tell me a story. I’m drawing a shell. What’s next to the shell? Oh, a pair of scissors. They get to be the remnants of a fairytale, or a narrative. The plant forms in them are a connection to the paintings. 

T: As oil painters working on a fairly large scale in cramped quarters in your home, how do you think moving to this larger space will affect your materials, scale, or practice?
G: Larger space will allow for having more work stations, having a drawing portion and a painting portion of my studio. I feel the two parts of my work [drawing and painting] getting pulled apart further. I like the ability to be able to work in two different ways, and walk across the room and draw, not having them truncated. 

T: What about scale?
G: I’d like to see if things get bigger. But I’m a pragmatist and will work in panels, modularly, like the 14th century altar pieces. 

T: Could you talk about the process about finding this particular space?
B: It’s funny how it seemed to take a long time, but also all of a sudden. We had to physically be in the house for our studios when we had a child, but now he is grown and moving off to college. 
G: Financial constraints too, we always found places to live where we could have extra room for us to work in the home. Our apartment in Brooklyn was very big for New York standards, and we always worked out of the house.
B: I liked working at home after my full time job and kid, but now I feel like I could leave the house at 7:30 in the evening to go to the studio to work.
G: It has taken a few years to find something, but it has to happen by word of mouth. A lot of leads don’t work out; spaces that could have possibilities, but when the right one comes up you have to snatch it. 
B: We just drove around and got numbers off of available buildings. Ideally we wanted something a little bigger, but now that we are in here, this is all we could manage. If the ceilings were higher or if the space were bigger it would have been so much more daunting.
G: This whole notion of not working outside the house wasn’t only because of having a child. You go to work, come home from work, do stuff at home, and we feared we would be wasting our money on a space we wouldn’t use.
B: I feared it would be unrealistic. But now it’s totally doable.

T: Do you think moving your studio outside your home will bump up sales or increase visibility? 
G: One thing that sparked all this was one of the problems of working in the home. This town has never had a successful commercial gallery that wasn’t a co-op. The art idea is that you work at home and then other people show and sell your work for you, but that doesn’t happen here. If someone wants to see my work, I don’t want to show out of my house. I want to show my work in a neutral environment.
B: It’s more objective and professional: the clean, blank space. It has made us more accessible, people are already stopping by. 
G: We both work out of town, all day, and we have never had those experiences of just bumping into people or…
B: Never happenstance or organic meetings.
G: The chance encounter spawns ideas, “Let’s do this thing, then that thing turns into something else.”

T: So this space will be that bridge for you. Tell me about your vision for the mini-gallery.
G: We want the gallery/exhibition space to invite people to be experimental in a small space. You may not have enough to fill Olin Hall. But you have a little body of work, maybe drawings. I think it can be more dynamic, changing all the time.
B: Less formal, more spontaneous. And of course if no one is in there, we can hang our stuff in between. And having openings! The idea of an art party is intriguing, taking the stuffiness out, I like the idea of hanging out with art. That’s how artists live, and I don’t think people are comfortable doing that. Or used to it.
G: People know how to go out and enjoy music, but how can that experience be analogous to art? Everyone is afraid to say things about the work at openings. 
B: You eat your cheese and stay 45 minutes, then leave. The objective is that this is accessible.

To view more work or contact the artists, check out their websites: &

(This article was originally published in the July issue of VIA Noke Magazine)

PechaKucha: Telling your story in the 20 x 20 format

by Chelsea Brandt & Emily Sibitzky

After David Verde attended his first PechaKucha Night in Charleston, South Carolina last October, he knew he needed to bring the event to Southwest Virginia. “I have several friends down there who are very invalided with the event,” he explained. “It’s like a rock concert for $5. I had to bring one home to our area.” 

Seven years ago architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Tokyo, Japan created the first ever PechaKucha Night, a networking event where creatives can come together to talk about their projects and endeavors. PechaKucha, a Japanese term for “chit chat,” serves as a great description of the presentation format, in which you show 20 slides, each for 20 seconds. The official PechaKucha website states, “It’s a format that makes presentations concise, and keeps things moving at a rapid pace. PechaKucha Nights are informal and fun gatherings where creative people get together and share their ideas, works, thoughts, holiday snaps - just about anything really.” Many people have compared PechaKucha Night to TED Talks, but Klein and Dytham disagree. “TED is top down, PechaKucha is bottom up! 

David quickly contacted the global PechaKucha office in Tokyo to request to use the event trademark in Southwest Virginia. Two weeks later he was approved and the planning began to create a regional PechaKucha for the Roanoke and New River Valley region. “For such a small area, there are many groups of people trying to do good things, but it seems they have gotten into a rut of unintentionally exclusivity, making it hard for others to get involved,” he says. “I also think there is far more happening in our area outside of downtown Roanoke and Virginia Tech and people need to become aware of it somehow. Southwest Virginia and especially the Roanoke and New River Valley need to come more openly connected. We’re too close to one another to think our communities don’t effect one another.” 

The event is now happening in over 500 cities worldwide, and PechaKucha Night Southwest Virginia is growing right along with it. The first local event, which took place this past February, was organized and put on almost completely by David. “My wife helped out on the day of the event. If it weren’t for some of my personal friends and the presenters who came out to speak for  the first night, it wouldn’t have been able to happen. It was a group effort, which is the whole idea behind PechaKucha, I think.” Thankfully, David no longer has to run the show alone. “I now have a growing team of incredibly motivated and talented individuals who believe in PechaKucha’s mission.”

A variety of topics were presented at the first and second PechaKucha Nights, both of which took place in downtown Roanoke. Presenters ranged from Erica Mason of Hired Guns discussing “20 Steps to Creative Success” to 13-year-old Jacob Wynn excitedly explaining the rules and terrain of Christiansburg’s Wolf’s Ridge Paintball. In fact, the diversity in subject matter is what makes each PKN so great. “Good PechaKucha presentations are the ones that uncover the unexpected, unexpected talent, unexpected ideas,” the website reads. “Some PechaKuchas tell great stories about a project or a trip. Some are incredibly personal, some are incredibly funny, but all are very different making each PechaKucha Night like ‘a box of chocolates’.”

David’s mission for the Southwest Virginia chapter of PK is clear: “I want PechaKucha to become the first thing people think of when it comes to where to find out what incredible things people are doing and things happening in our area. PechaKucha belongs to each town and city in SWVA, each presenter past present or future, every sponsor, every person who attends, and people who don’t know about it yet. If people take ownership for PechaKucha, in turn I hope they will take ownership of the community they live in and its neighboring communities. Ownership is how communities grow and flourish.”

PechaKucha Night #3 is tentatively set for Wednesday, July 18 and will take place in Blacksburg or Christiansburg. Visit to keep up with the local chapter and to learn details as they become available. PKSWVA can also be found on Facebook. Visit to learn more about PechaKucha.

(This article was originally published in the June issue of VIA Noke Magazine)