In a backyard studio on Wadmalaw Island, Bette Mueller-Roemer conjures humble clay and plain-looking powders (glaze chemicals, in fact, scooped from buckets labeled “flint,” “ash,” and “feldspar”) into the most vibrant and tactile raku pottery. Though the Spartanburg native has been making ceramics for decades, she dove in with new vigor after retiring from teaching art (at Stratford High in Goose Creek and before that, Charleston Southern University) 15 years ago. Today, her colorful, hand-shaped bowls, vase-like cylinders, and wall sculptures (many shimmering with a copper luster) are popular at Nina Liu and Friends gallery downtown, while her handmade journals—often fronted by ceramic covers—sell at Blue Bicycle Books and Limeblue.
On becoming a potter: I was in grad school for art history at UNC Chapel Hill and saw a friend doing pottery. I liked to draw and paint, but the idea of working with a new material was appealing. After graduation, I started teaching at an American school in Germany but would travel to North Carolina’s Penland School of Crafts to learn ceramics during summer breaks. Eventually I got a masters in the art from East Carolina University.
Why raku? It’s a rapid firing and cooling process—unlike normal pottery, which has to fire slowly and cool slowly—so you see the results immediately. It’s less controllable and predictable, and a lot of fun.
Natural inspiration: My parents purchased part of an old 1890 tea farm in Summerville. After they died and I was caring for the property, I discovered beautiful camellia plants that I hadn’t even known were there. I began to use imprints of the leaves and flowers in my pottery. I dug up small camellias and tea plants to bring to Wadmalaw, and I still use them to decorate my pieces.
On making books: I’ve always loved to read, so of course I love books. I learned to make paper and do simple bookbinding at Penland, and I like combining the media of paper and ceramics. Often, I’ll paint the section dividers in watercolor.
Sharing the love: My twin granddaughters, who are six, love making things out of clay. It’s a great medium for children—or anybody, really, but children aren’t afraid. I think as adults, we make up our minds about what we can and can’t do and have a harder time starting something we haven’t yet experienced.
French connection: When I retired, I decided to learn French. I spent a year learning from tapes and meeting French friends for lunch. Then my husband, Walter, and I went to France so I could go to a language school. Now we visit France every year. Walter rides his bike around the country, I study French and painting, and then we meet up for a little vacation.
What's next: I’m going back to Penland this summer to take a class in making functional dinnerware.
View Her Work: Find Bette Mueller-Roemer’s ceramics at Nina Liu and Friends gallery at 24 State Street. Her books can be seen online at www.bettemuellerroemer.com