Student overcomes adversity, shines with passions, like ceramics at the KC Clay Guild

05/13/2014 6:59 PM

05/13/2014 9:30 PM

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 16, Petty 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 Petty’s depleted energy forces him to miss school altogether.

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

The 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, Petty has made a name for himself in the adult world of the KC Clay Guild in Waldo, 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 aspires to a career as a herpetologist, studying, collecting and hunting snakes and amphibians.

With an intensely curious disposition and with a tendency to practice his hobbies with a vengeance, Petty is transformed among his pottery and reptiles from the kid whose voice sometimes trails 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 Petty’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 Petty mentoring a visually impaired student.

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

Petty, who lives in Leawood with parents Linda and Mike and 17-year-old brother and Barstow junior Jack, shrugs 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 Petty’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 Petty’s large frame appears in the doorway.

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

Petty, attired in clay-spattered sweats, quietly greets Scholtz, selecting a wheel and work station, 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 Petty 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. ... I tease Joe he should become a professional potter and leave those snakes alone,” Scholtz says, referring to Petty’s dream of becoming a herpetologist.

Standing at a counter behind Scholtz, Petty 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,” explains Petty, a student at Shawnee Mission South High School. “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.”

Petty bought 300 pounds of the clay with Christmas money. 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.”

KC Clay Guild regulars continue to drift in and Petty 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,” says Petty, centering the clay on the wheel’s spinning bat and doming it into the beginnings of a mug.

“It’s good therapy and escape for me to come here.”

Petty 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,” Petty says. “You do what you want, like custom glazes, which involves aspects of chemistry.”

Gilbert said Petty 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 Petty would have a brilliant future ahead of him if he chose pottery.

“His work is that good,” said Gilbert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every Mother’s Day, I give my mom a piece of pottery,” said Petty, who got a pottery wheel of his own when he turned 16 in April and has since taken over the family garage. “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 Petty. 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.”


Elly Biggerstaff lives in the quiet Waldo neighborhood that is home to the KC Clay Guild.

As president, instructor and participant, she likes her proximity to the guild’s white building at 200 W. 74th St. in Kansas City.

“I can walk there in good weather, as long as I don’t have lots of pottery to carry,” she said.

A 10-year member, Biggerstaff finds the organization is an outlet from her day job as a University of Kansas Medical Center researcher. She teaches three different classes for kids ages 6 to 15 on Saturday mornings.

“Working with clay is a very therapeutic medium, and it’s a terrific way for kids to express themselves, much like Joe Petty does,” she said.

She said Petty enjoys the technical characteristics of throwing.

“We have somewhere between 200 and 300 members, and kids younger than Joe. But he takes our motto of ‘quality not quantity’ to heart.”

One of Biggerstaff’s specialties is teaching beginner to intermediate sculpture hand building, an ancient pottery-making technique that ranges from the simple to the complex.

“I’ve taught one girl since she was 7,” said Biggerstaff. “She’s 12 now and very talented. It’s cool to see kids’ imaginations come to life.”

Lorelei Sells, a research administrator at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, lives down the street from the guild in the Armour Hills subdivision. She has taken classes for four years.

Her goals: enjoyment and to learn new skills.

“I take wheel throwing and hand building from Todd Scholtz,” said Sells, who makes functional pottery.

“But I don’t sell my work — I give it away as gifts or use it as home decor.”

In addition to honing her pottery know-how, Sells likes the diverse group of people she meets.

“The Clay Guild is a great organization because it attracts kids to adults,” she said. “Kids like Joe who collect snakes and thrive on learning. From stay-at-home moms to oncologists, architects and lawyers looking for a break from intense routines.”

Pottery, Sells noted, meets people at individual interest levels.

“There are serious artists at the guild, and people just discovering pottery-making. And the instructors are wonderful at managing everyone’s interests.”


Back at the wheel, Petty 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 Petty 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 the KC Clay Guild for a Friday night activity. They’re not actively involved in pottery but are captivated by Petty’s quick, enthusiastic lecture.

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

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

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

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

“The craftsmanship fascinates me,” he said.

Animal carvings are Petty’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,” he said, “so it makes sense for me to represent that in my work.”

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

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

Petty 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.

Biggerstaff said Petty’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 Petty 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,” he said.


Petty opens the door to a large cedar closet off his second-floor bedroom.

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

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

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

“He’s tasting the air, getting a better sense of his surroundings,” he says.

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

“See his milky eyes?” he asks. “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 Petty slowly bakes in a 250-degree oven to kill mites or pests.

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

“He might grow to 3 or 5 feet. Females are bigger, growing to 4 or 6 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 Petty’s repertoire.

Herpetology usurps even his passion for pottery.

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

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

One snake laid eggs in April, and they’re expected to hatch next month.

In addition to snakes, Petty 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 Pettys’ kitchen.

Purebred pugs Chester and Hank round out the menagerie.

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

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 Petty as he plops on the sofa, jockeying for his affection.


Petty 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. “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 Petty’s fascination with the great outdoors and creatures that live in water and slither through the grass.

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

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

“I like to keep moving,” Petty said. “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.”

That’s a life philosophy for Petty. 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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