House + Home Q+A

Need a gift idea? How about an ornament by Kansas City’s Irma Starr

Updated: 2013-12-01T01:56:53Z

By ALICE THORSON

The Kansas City Star

Since she began to produce them more than three decades ago, ceramic artist Irma Starr’s Christmas ornaments and figurines have become a Kansas City holiday tradition. An Irma Starr creation is unmistakable, employing a wide range of decorating techniques that she discovered in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Burnap Collection of English pottery 50 years ago.

Available at the museum’s store and at Hall’s, Starr’s meticulously detailed Santas and snowmen are go-to items for gift-givers. And as her legions of fans know, every year she comes up with something new.

What’s new for this year?

I like to do things that relate to Kansas City. This year I created a Union Station ornament; earlier I did a “Shuttlecocks” cup.

I did a new snowflake and an ornament based on a Plaza tower; I’ve also introduced a line of ornaments inspired by “The Wizard of Oz.” And I just finished some “Wizard of Oz” cookie jars, only available in the Nelson-Atkins store. I topped off one of the cookie jars with little sparkly red shoes.

I love making stuff. I can’t stop decorating. I work every day.

Your studio looks like Santa’s workshop with the lighted tree decorated for the holidays. Tell me about the ornaments.

I do angels, gingerbread men, snowflakes, stars, roosters, toy soldiers and a variety of Santas. They’re priced from $15 to $40.

My “Wizard of Oz” ornaments include the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, Dorothy, the Good Witch and Bad Witch, the ruby slipper, a flying monkey and a Munchkin. KCI (airport) has begun carrying the “Wizard of Oz” ornaments. They come in specially designed boxes that show the ornament against a background with a rainbow and images of the characters.

I also produce figurines — Santas, angels and snowmen — for holiday decor, and pins and earrings.

Do you do all of this yourself?

I design and create the first one, and I found a factory in Sri Lanka where six girls create the copies. They’re all done by hand.

How did this all start?

In my senior year at Kansas City Art Institute, all the seniors were told to “go to the Nelson-Atkins and find an object you love and research it and make it.” Mine was the mermaid from the Burnap Collection of English pottery. I studied under Ken Ferguson, and he loved the Burnap Collection too — his rabbits were inspired in part by the Burnap Collection.

He came over and said, “We’ve got to mix the clay so it looks like Burnap pottery.” He taught me how to throw big dishes and sent all over the U.S. for the right colored slips. Slip is clay, but it’s thinned and strained like thick cream. It’s used as a surface coating and also for the decorations. The techniques include combing, feathering, marbling and slip-trailing. It’s like decorating a cake with little squeeze bottles.

We finally made the mermaid on an 18-inch charger. Ross Taggert, then the museum’s curator of decorative arts, brought it to the Nelson-Atkins shop, and that was the beginning.

So that first piece sold?

Yes. And then I was asked if I could do another design, “the pelican in her piety,” which is a symbol of Jesus. After that I did a honey jar, and then the store’s manager John Hamann came over and said, “Let’s try some Santas.” Next it was “Let’s do snowmen,” and we did all the holidays. That was 20 years ago, and they’ve given me ideas all these years. They’re my family. We do things together.

It’s the same at Halls, where I work with Melissa Pyron and Larry Ladd. Every year they pick out one of the Plaza towers and I translate it into an ornament.

And it’s turned into quite a business.

The Nelson-Atkins store has opened up a registry. People come in and order a dish to commemorate a wedding, graduation, anniversary, the birth of a baby, buying a new house. Then they come to my studio and we do a drawing. Everybody designs their own dish.

Where do you find inspiration?

The old shards in this bowl came from a pottery museum in Stoke-on-Trent, England, and show the hand-marbling design used in Burnap pottery. It used to be done with a goose feather.

I create some of the border designs on my platters by pressing seashells into the rim, so the lines aren’t all even. That kind of imperfection is desirable. You see it in the lettering on the original Burnap Collection objects.

Besides the Burnap pieces, I find inspiration in things I find at crafts stores; I also look at magazines and catalogs for anything that says Christmas.

You have an event coming up.

I’ll be at the Nelson store from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7. I’ll be personalizing the things people purchase, drawing on the back of them with a marking pen. You can see examples of all of my work on my website, IrmaStarr.com.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

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