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The shape of things to come: Student overcomes adversity, shines with ceramics

Updated: 2014-02-26T02:45:26Z

By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN

Special to The Star

While playing at his uncle’s Oklahoma farm as a first-grader, Joe Petty was bitten by a tick and later diagnosed with Lyme disease.

Now 15, Joe also has chronic fatigue syndrome and struggles with other physical issues, including toxic mold inside his body, that sometimes leave him so exhausted he can’t get out of bed until well after lunchtime.

There are other days when Joe’s depleted energy forces him to miss school altogether.

“I don’t dwell on it,” Joe said of his physical pain. “Sure, some days I think, ‘Why me?’ but I shake it off and do things I love.”

The Shawnee Mission South High School sophomore is a testament to the power of moving forward. The big, quiet teenager isn’t into the social scene at school. Video games aren’t his thing. Neither are sports.

But despite conditions that interrupt his daily living, Joe has made a name for himself in the adult world of the KC Clay Guild, crafting pottery so artfully some think he should make a career of it. And that’s not even the interest he’s most passionate about — he’s a budding herpetologist, studying, collecting and hunting snakes and amphibians.

With an intensely curious disposition and practicing his hobbies with a vengeance, Joe is transformed among his pottery and reptiles from the kid whose voice trails sometimes off midsentence, forcing you to lean in to understand him, into a passionate teacher.

Take the KC Clay Guild, where veteran potters and instructors marvel at Joe’s skill level and ability to produce exceptional work.

Jeff Gilbert, a Clay Guild monitor who oversees shifts at the nondescript building tucked at the end of a Waldo street, has on numerous occasions observed Joe mentoring a visually impaired student.

“Joe is not only a talented potter, he has extraordinary people skills,” says Gilbert. “It’s touching.”

Joe, who lives in Leawood with parents Linda and Mike and 17-year-old brother and Barstow junior Jack, shrugs his shoulders when asked about why he enjoys helping someone.

“Why not?”

“I like to share knowledge,” he said, matter-of-factly.


A dusty, clay-caked plastic box filled with a ceramic artist’s tools is tucked under Joe’s left arm as he enters KC Clay Guild.

It’s 6:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, and studio activity is bustling. The audible hum of pottery wheels creates a soft whir. A slight haze of dust floats throughout the fluorescent-lit space.

A radio plays and there’s a murmur of voices as people converse, comparing progress on projects, exchanging tips and suggestions.

Empty chocolate heart wrappers are scattered among soda cans, water bottles, sketchbooks and pieces of pottery ready for firing.

Four people sit on stools, bent in front of pottery wheels, focused on forming clay into various shapes, occasionally dipping their fingers into buckets of water, returning them to the emerging mug, bowl or vase spinning before them.

Todd Scholtz, a ceramic artist and KC Clay Guild instructor, stands as Joe’s large frame appears in the doorway.

“There’s the man,” he said. “How are you?”

Joe, attired in clay-spattered sweats, quietly greets Scholtz, selecting a wheel and workstation, dropping his tool kit on a table.

“Joe took my class for a couple of months and I was surprised by his ability,” Scholtz says as Joe disappears into a back room and returns with a hunk of clay.

“I wasn’t making pots that good when I was a senior in high school, and he’s only 15. I tease Joe he should become a professional potter and leave those snakes alone,” Scholtz says, referring to Joe’s dream of becoming a herpetologist.

Standing at a counter behind Scholtz, Joe divides the chunk of moist, gray material into four blocks, kneading one of the pieces with fluid hand and wrist movements.

“This is Bee Mix clay,” explained Joe. “I’m wedging it to remove air bubbles so it doesn’t crack or explode when it’s put into the kiln. Plus clay must be the right consistency for forming properly on the wheel.”

Joe bought 300 pounds of the clay with Christmas money and has already used half of it. He prefers the hard clay, a mixture of porcelain and stoneware, to other varieties.

“It’s good for mugs and other smaller or narrower shapes,” he said, finishing the clay’s manipulation.

KC Clay Guild regulars continue to drift in and Joe decides to move to another room, politely excusing himself, gathering his tools and the four lumps of clay that will soon be a quartet of mugs.

“I discovered ceramics when I was 7,” said Joe, centering the clay on the wheel’s spinning bat and doming it into the beginning of a mug.

“It’s good therapy and escape for me to come here. I’ve been a member since last April.”

Joe is a well-known fixture at the KC Clay Guild, an organization that started in the basement of professional potter Michael Smith in 1988 and offers a supportive, nurturing environment for ceramic artists and enthusiasts.

He repeatedly exerts upward and inward pressure from the top to the bottom of the clay, being careful to lubricate it with water from a nearby pail.

“Making ceramics is unlimited,” Joe says. “You do what you want, like custom glazes, which involves aspects of chemistry.”

Gilbert said Joe learns pottery techniques quickly and comments on his unique talent for glazes.

“Joe’s use of color catches your eye, and you can immediately recognize one of his pieces,” said Gilbert.

Like Scholtz, Gilbert believes Joe would have a brilliant future ahead of him if he chose pottery.

“His work is that good,” said Gilbert.

Joe favors functional pieces such as coffee mugs, vases and salad bowls over decorative items.

“I like it when something has a purpose,” he said, concentrating on the clay taking shape on the wheel.

Suddenly Joe grabs a wire and slices down the middle of the piece he minutes before coaxed into a shape. The two pieces fall away, revealing a smooth interior.

Joe exhibits a spark of energy and excitement as he examines the inside of the mug, testing its thickness.

“A piece is a piece,” said Joe. “In the future it’ll be better. Practice makes perfect, right?”

Joe’s mom, Linda, is the recipient of many Joe Petty originals, which he inscribes on the bottom with his printed and cursive signatures.

“Every Mother’s Day I give my mom a piece of pottery,” said Joe. “And for Christmas I made her a fountain. That was tough — there couldn’t be leaks, which required engineering solutions.”

Scholtz, along with other KC Clay Guild members, informally mentors Joe. A member for 20 years, Scholtz teaches advanced classes on Monday evenings and attends studio sessions as a stress reliever from his full-time job as a process engineer at a Kansas City engraving company.

“Joe throws well,” he said, referring to the activity of shaping clay on a pottery wheel. “He’s a little pottery factory. He threw a mess of mugs a couple of weeks ago.”

Elly Biggerstaff, president of KC Clay Guild, teaches kids’ and adult classes. A 10-year member, the organization is an outlet from her day job as a University of Kansas Medical Center researcher.

“Joe enjoys the procedure of throwing and its various technical characteristics,” she said. “We have somewhere between 200 and 300 members, and kids younger than Joe. But he takes our motto of ‘quality not quantity’ to heart.”

Biggerstaff said Joe’s genuine interest in every step of making ceramics, combined with a methodical personality, is an asset.

“His attitude will benefit Joe as his talent evolves,” she said.

By nature Joe is a fast worker, which perhaps contradicts his insistence on perfection and how often he deconstructs his work to examine mistakes and opportunities to improve.

“I just work hard,” said Joe.


Back at the wheel, Joe gives an impromptu demonstration to Delaney Ferguson, 11, of midtown and Lucy Bailey, 12 of Waldo.

Covered head-to-toe in dust, chunks of thrown clay stuck in their long hair, the girls watch Joe throw another mug, paying attention to his technique.

Brohan Surma of Leawood and her 4-year-old son, Jackson, observe from a wheel at the end of the table.

Delaney and Lucy’s moms, Lisa and Michelle, have brought their daughters to KC Guild for a Friday night activity. They’re not actively involved in pottery, but are captivated by Joe’s quick and enthusiastic lecture.

“This is a Steve tool,” said Joe, holding up a small, spiked wheel and then carefully applying texture to a mug.

Joe offers more pointers about wedging and the importance of centering clay on the wheel.

“YouTube has great videos on throwing pottery,” recommended Joe, who often learns about a technique online.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a frequent destination for Joe, who is intrigued by the collections of ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman decorative arts.

“The craftsmanship fascinates me,” said Joe.

Animal carvings are Joe’s artistic trademarks on the pottery he produces, a reflection of his interest in Latin.

He’s especially fond of alligators.

“Reptile and animal names have Latin roots,” said Joe, “so it makes sense for me to represent that in my work.”

Come fall, Joe hopes to show pottery at the UnPlaza Art Fair at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City and participate in KC Clay Guild’s Annual Holiday Show and Sale.

“It’s gratifying to make something, put your signature on it and sell it,” said Joe. “And it’s my reputation, so I need to make sure it is near perfect.”

Joe removes the mug from the wheel, adding it to the three he’s thrown in an hour. He glances at the four mugs, a slight smile crossing his face.


Joe opens the door to a large cedar closet off his bedroom on the second floor of his family’s Leawood home.

“Does it smell like reptile in here?” he asked.

The space, which has been converted into Joe’s reptile room, has the pungent smell of cedar. Glass enclosures and plastic drawers containing ball pythons of various length line the room.

Joe removes a shell covering his prize pet snake, Leon. The coiled black-and-gold patterned ball python raises its tiny head, his forked tongue flicking the air.

“He’s tasting the air, getting a better sense of his surroundings,” said Joe as he peers into Leon’s cloudy eyes.

Joe gently removes Leon from a spacious cage decorated with rocks, limbs and greenery.

“See his milky eyes?” asked Joe. “That’s part of shedding, which takes about 10 days.”

Leon is one of seven ball pythons in the reptile room. Cages are carefully lined with cypress mulch that Joe slowly bakes in a 250-degree oven to kill mites or pests.

“I breed some of my snakes, but not Leon,” said Joe, who acquired the 4-year-old snake during a 2010 summer science camp.

“He might grow to three or five feet. Females are bigger, growing to four or six feet. They live anywhere from 20 to 25 years.”

Snake genetics and facts — “There are 300 genes in the ball python species” — are part of Joe’s repertoire.

Herpetology, which Joe wants to eventually make his career, usurps even his passion for pottery.

Two breeding female and five male snakes comprise Joe’s current collection.

“That’s a strange ratio for me to own,” said Joe. “It’s usually the other way around.”

Every couple of months Joe attends a reptile trade show at the Overland Park Holiday Inn to peruse vendors selling snakes and related products and stocks up on frozen mice to feed Leon and the gang.

Joe will sell his animal-embellished ceramic mugs at the July event.

“My number one interest is definitely herpetology, but I squeeze in pottery whenever possible,” he said.

In addition to snakes, Joe owns a tiny gecko that resides in a glass case in the teen’s room, and a piranha dubbed Jaws whose aquarium resides in the Petty’s kitchen.

Purebred pugs Chester and Hank round out the menagerie that Joe adores.

“Chester is glued to Joe,” laughed mom Linda.

Jack’s athletic interests and gregarious personality are in sharp contrast to his sibling. Dad Mike notes he and Linda work diligently to instill an attitude of clearing life’s hurdles in their sons.

“We stress the importance of making the best out of anything,” he said. “Jack does it with athletics, Joe with science and art. Joe is positively influenced by the examples Linda and I give, but part of it is just who he is — curious, inquisitive, determined.”

Chester and Hank pounce on Joe as he plops down on the sofa, jockeying for his affection.


It’s 7:40 a.m. on a Tuesday, and the 20 students in Ceramics I and II class are moving slow.

Room 223 at Shawnee Mission South is crammed with quirky objects including mannequins, carousel horses, old CPR dummies and two huge mounted plastic dinosaur heads, along with rows of pottery wheels.

“Today we’re throwing boxes,” said teacher Fritz Buster. “Let’s get to it.”

Joe was up until nearly midnight working on a robotics competition project and is bleary eyed as he collects his tools and clay and chooses a wheel.

After wedging the clay — “This is white stoneware, not my first choice” — Joe positions himself at the wheel and begins throwing.

Conversation in the room is at a minimum as students ferry materials from cupboards and lockers to their wheels.

Ceramics II is a class Joe added to his load this semester, and along with Advanced Placement European history, chemistry and environmental education, is a high point of his academic day.

“I’m in this class four days a week,” said Joe. “Mr. Buster is great.”

“Assignments are guidelines; I encourage kids to experiment and test their own ideas,” said Buster,. “You learn more from failure than success.”

Joe, frustrated with the jar and lid he is throwing, approaches Buster for advice.

Teacher and student put their heads together, figuring out how to make Joe’s work of art better.


Joe was 3 years old, dressed in his Sunday best, when he splashed into an Anderson, Mo., creek to retrieve a tadpole.

“My nephews spied tadpoles and urged Joe to fetch one,” Linda recalled the scene. “So he did, wading into the water fully clothed. Joe has no fear — he’s like the Crocodile Hunter.”

That display of innocent enthusiasm was just the beginning of Joe’s fascination with the great outdoors and creatures — frogs, turtles, snakes — that live in water and slither through the grass.

Shortly after the pond incident, Joe’s first pet — a frog named Steve — joined the Petty household.

Joe’s unfortunate collision with nature — the fateful tick bite — and ensuing physical ailments have hardly deterred Joe’s appetite for the outdoors, or anything he puts his mind to.

“I like to keep moving,” said Joe. “I’m generally an outdoorsman — fishing, hunting for snakes, hiking. When I go to a pond to fish, collect frogs or just poke around, I usually get in.”

True to his mom’s words, Joe isn’t afraid, even holding a snapping turtle.

“You can’t be fearful to get bit once in awhile,” said Joe.

That’s a life philosophy for Joe. Learn and grow, despite inevitable obstacles. Be true to yourself. Go for the gusto.

Live a fearless life, he likes to say.

And sometimes, expect to get bitten — but keep moving forward.

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