Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Laura Garberick says she knows when the clay she’s working with isn’t in the mood to be played with or molded into a piece of pottery.
“When I’m sitting and I rub my hands on stuff, I want something that’s going to play back with me,” she says.
But there are days when she’ll get up and walk away because the clay tells her that it’s not in the mood to be played with and she replies back to it that she’s done for now.
As an artist working in this kind of medium, Garberick says, “I’m trying to be the tool that the spirit uses to bring something into this world. I get to see how you can push and play.”
Evidence of the spiritual journey that surrounds and guides her creative talents is on display throughout her studio next to the Pennfield Township home she shares with her husband with whom she has two adult children.
The studio contains three electric kilns, two in the back and one in front that shares space with a machine used to flatten out the clay, shelves that hold her many containers of glazes, and a few more shelves that hold finished orders and pieces available for sale through her business -- Garberick Stoneware
. The front room is dominated by a rectangular table where she and her clay alternately get along or find themselves at odds with each other.
Laura Garberick talks about her life and passion for making stoneware art
The space is enclosed by walls painted yellow.
“I picked yellow because yellow is a happy color. This is a healing space,” Garberick says. “I have people just say to me that they’re having a bad day and I tell them to come to the studio and get their hands in clay. If you have something good you should share it, that’s how you become a light in the world and that’s what artists are supposed to do. I take that seriously.”
Garberick says she learned to become that light for others from a friend diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis who was giving her advice after she became ill at the age of 32 with a severe case of Lyme disease that would not be diagnosed for another six years.
That friend, who has since passed away, encouraged her to stick with a pottery class she began taking at the Art Center of Battle Creek in 2014 after she became ill.
“She taught me when I got sick that I have to come up with something to keep myself sane in a society where you’re really defined by what you do. When you suddenly find yourself in a situation where you can lose your whole identity, she said this is how you regain yourself,” Garberick says.
The disease left her virtually incapacitated and unable to take care of herself or her family, leaving her with feelings of anger, frustration, and hopelessness.
Laura talks about the designs on this mug.
“I felt like even my worth as a woman and mother was compromised. I always defined myself by what I could do and what I could provide and when I wasn’t able to really give that it took a lot out of me,” she says. “I was really depressed for a couple of years. I really wanted to die. For about two years when I first got sick, I was literally on the couch. I could listen to my husband and kids in the other room. I felt so bad because I’m the mom and they’re the ones taking care of me.”
On a winter day two years into her illness when she was home by herself, she decided she would die by suicide because she couldn’t get beyond what the disease was doing to her physically and mentally. She no longer wanted to live this way.
Garberick had planned to leave a note for her family, but was so tired that she couldn’t marshal the strength to follow through with the decision to take her life, much less write that note. With this realization came extreme anger and emotional pain.
A chance encounter with a cardinal would prove to be a turning point.
“I saw this little flicker of red go across the window. It was a cardinal. I have always been fascinated with birds in the winter because they are able to survive in such a harsh environment and look really happy with each other,” Garberick says. “In that moment I realized that I wanted to live and no matter how harsh the environment I was going to find a way to make it work and be happy.”
Laura talks about how she made this colorful cup.
Before the illness took hold, she had been a massage therapist, a vocation she chose because she loves to work with her hands.
“My hands are actually my favorite part of my body. When I got Lyme disease, I had to use a wheelchair and couldn’t use my hands. I’ve gotten treated and I’ve gotten better, but I’ve never been the same.”
Her work at the Art Center began after she started working with polymer clay at her home. She could not get out because her hands and legs weren’t working leaving. Once her illness improved and she could venture out, she says, “I thought if I loved polymer clay so much, let’s try the real stuff.”
On good weeks when her disease is under control, she spends about 20 hours working in her studio, but the norm is between 10 and 15 hours. She recently returned to her studio after taking three weeks off to recover from a seizure.
“I was down for a week with that and after that I couldn’t really recover fast,” she says.
A little more than half of the pieces she creates are custom orders. She also sells her work at art fairs and donates pieces sold to benefit various nonprofits. While she would like to do more, she is at the mercy of her illness, and says, “I’m small potatoes in terms of how much I can produce because I’m limited by what my body can do.”
Using a small rolling pin Laura makes a design on clay.
Cups are by far her most-requested item, followed by planters and fairy houses. She also receives a fair number of requests for urns for animal cremains.
“I like making urns and don’t generally photograph them because they are so personal to people. There’s something sacred about that and I don’t like to make money off of people’s pain,” Garberick says.
Her inspiration for the way the urns and other pieces will look and feel comes from graffiti, machinery, and nature. For her, the latter two are very similar because they each imply intelligent design that has a function and a purpose.
“Clay is not just pretty to look at, but it has a function,” Garberick says.
She embraces what she calls “functional flaws” in her pieces. These flaws could be anything from an unintentional mark caused by one piece sitting too close to another during the firing process or a glaze that may not appear the way it was supposed to.
Laura uses a variety of rolling pins to make designs on clay.
“There’s always a level of unpredictability when you try to re-create something because when it’s fired it comes out a little differently each time,” she says.
Similar to the conversations she has with clay, she also “interviews” her glazes to see if they’ll be right for something she’s trying to create.
“Part of my interview process with glazes is ‘Are you a good fit for this job?’ I look for specific qualities,” she says. “I have glorified test tiles for testing a clear glaze over underglazes so when I go to paint, I have a good idea of what the color will look like when it’s done.”
Her pieces feature both smooth finishes and texture. She used to use rolling pins with designs carved into them and now creates her own textures using a variety of objects to introduce lines and patterns into the clay.
One of Laura’s favorite pieces, a cup, sits to the left of her very first creation.
“I’m always looking to put more of my hand in it and that’s the difference between a manufactured piece and a piece that’s made here,” Garberick says.
Sitting at the table in her studio where she gives form and function to raw pieces of clay, she says her work has given her back a sense of purpose and identity.
While holding the cup that started her career in pottery, Garberick says, “The first thing I ever threw on a pottery wheel was supposed to be a cup. It wasn’t pretty but it gives me a point of reference for what I can do now and how far I’ve come.”