Above:  In her basement studio, potter Judy Robkin creates ceramic “ladies” she says have stories to tell. Photos by Joe Earle.

Judy Robkin doesn’t call her hand-built ceramic pieces “statues.” And it irritates her when some people call them “dolls.” They’re not. They’re “ladies.”

“They just take on personalities, which is fun,” Robkin said.

Each lady has a story

Robkin finds each of her ladies in pieces of clay. Each is different. Each has her own story to tell, or her own secrets to keep.

Judy Robkin sculptures
Each of Judy Robkin’s ceramic “ladies” has a unique personality.

Robkin says that when she starts working on a piece, she has no idea what the finished lady will look like. Each appears as the 66-year-old craftswoman shapes the clay by hand. Beneath her fingers, a figure slumps or rises into an evocative pose or posture, and soon the lady herself emerges. Each is unique, her own person. After a while, she’ll have her own name.

“I have this thing that a lot of people in America are undervalued,” she said one recent morning as she worked on a new sculpture in the studio in her Sandy Springs home. “I love the idea of these ladies being storytellers.”

They spread their stories as they move into other people’s homes through crafts fairs and galleries.

The American Craft Show

Barry Rhodes bowl
A bowl made by Barry Rhodes SPECIAL

This month, Robkin and a booth-full of her ladies return to the Cobb Galleria Centre for the 30th consecutive American Craft Show, one of the largest and best-known juried fine crafts shows in the southeastern U.S.

The annual show, one of four held around the country by the American Crafts Council, is scheduled from March 15 to March 17. Its promoters say more than 230 craftspeople, including about 30 from Georgia, will be on hand to display works in ceramics, jewelry, furniture, textiles and other crafts.

Barry Rhodes and his passion for pottery

Barry Rhodes potter
Barry Rhodes

Potter Barry Rhodes said one reason he keeps going back to the ACC show is that it attracts discerning buyers. “You get a lot of people who are interested in good craft,” said the 67-year-old, a long-time Decatur potter who recently retired to a farmhouse on 27 acres in North Carolina but still keeps a condo in Chamblee. “For me, in Atlanta, it’s really the penultimate show.”

Rhodes, who studied physics and worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before he retired, now is making ceramic pieces fulltime. “My passion is pottery. I’ve always been a maker. I’ve always loved to make things,” he said. “There’s just a connection with working in a medium that’s thousands of years old, that references both past and present.”

The unique ceramics of Adrina Richard

Brookhaven ceramic artist Adrina Richard also likes the idea of connecting with the ancient tradition of creating works from clay. “I just love working with clay,” she said. “I don’t know [why]. I think maybe the idea that ancient people used clay as a basic material. I wanted to be an archeologist when I was in the sixth grade. [I like] the idea of taking that basic material and turning it into something without any tools, but your hands. It’s just fascinating to me.”

Adrina Richard clay vessel
Adrina Richard smiles as she displays some of her elegantly decorated clay vessels.

She, too, plans to return to the ACC show this year. Richard, who’s 71 and retired from an administration job at Oglethorpe University, collected ceramic pieces for years before she attended a pot-throwing class with a friend about 15 years ago and got hooked on making one-of-a-kind pieces from clay.

She first exhibited her work at the ACC show only about a decade ago. That first year, “I was an ‘emerging artist,’” she said with a laugh. “But you can emerge as an artist at any age.”

Now she assembles pieces from slabs of clay and decorates them to create intricate surface textures. Sometimes, that makes her pieces look they’re made from cloth. “A lot of times, people think it’s not clay. They think it’s fabric,” she said. “People ask me, ‘What is it made of?’”

It seems appropriate. Richard said her mother, an Armenian immigrant, was a seamstress. Richard remembers spending time as a girl watching her mother cut cloth into pieces and turn it into clothes. Now Richard cuts apart thin slabs of clay so she can reassemble the pieces into vases, tumblers or cups.

Once she’s done decorating and firing a piece, she decides if it makes the grade. If not, she destroys it. “I smash pots I don’t like. I take a hammer to them so they won’t haunt me later,” she said one recent morning as she worked on building a new batch of cups at Mudfire Studio and Gallery, a Decatur pottery studio where she often works. “I’ve even taught my husband and my housekeeper to smash pots I don’t like. At first, they were worried. Now, they like it.

“I’m always working,” she said. “Why do I sell [my work]? If I didn’t, I’d have to smash it all. How many pots can you give to your friends before they stop answering the door?” Besides, she said, “if a stranger comes up and says, ‘I really like that. I have to have it,’ it’s an ego boost.”

Stories in and from the clay

Robkin, too, enjoys sharing her work. “[My ladies have] connected me to all sorts of people I never would have met,” Robkin said. “They’ve brought out all kinds of stories.”

Judy Robkin works in clay
Robkin finds a new lady as she works a bit of clay.

Often, a customer who buys one of her pieces will say the ceramic lady is reminiscent of a relative or a friend. “It has happened over and over again,” she said, “that someone has said, ‘Oh my God, that looks just like my grandmother!’ and I’ll say, ‘What’s your grandmother’s name?’ and it’s the name on the sculpture,” Robkin said.

When customers get home with their ladies, some send Robkin photos of the figures so she can see how they look in their new environments. Robkin keeps those photos. “The way things happen, I get such a kick out of it,” she said.

She keeps another set of photos nearby, too. They’re of the woman she says inspired her to start creating her ladies in the first place. The elderly woman was a shopkeeper in Croatia. Robkin and her husband saw her while traveling in that country and took her picture. Then, Robkin’s husband complimented the woman and the Robkins photographed her again as she broke into a smile of pure joy.

A few years later, Robkin realized suddenly she was inspired to make figurative pieces from clay and her ladies emerged. Now she works every day in her studio to create more of them, finding new ones as she works the clay between her fingers. Once they’re done, she names them.

“The name is the last thing,” she said. “I sort of have to get to know them first. They’re all old souls.”

American Craft Show in Atlanta

The American Craft Show features 250 of the country’s top contemporary craft artists, specializing in everything from handmade ceramics to fine jewelry, apparel, furniture, home décor and textiles.

  • When: Friday, March 15, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, March 16, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; and Sunday, March 17, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • Where: Cobb Galleria Centre, 2 Galleria Parkway, Atlanta 30339
  • Admission: Online/advance tickets are $12. On-site admission is $13, free for children 12 and under and for American Craft Council members.
  • More info: craftcouncil.org, click on the Events Calendar.

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.