In the Studio with 16 Hands

This Floyd artist collective works together to welcome visitors.

Photo by Brad Warstler

Top row, from left: Andrea Denniston, Silvie Granatelli, Wendy Wrenn Werstlein, Josh Manning, Benjie Osborne. Middle: Ellen Shankin, Hona Leigh Knudsen, Sarah McCarthy. Bottom: Seth Guzovsky, Josh Copus, Donna Polseno, Brad Warstler. Above: Stoneware teapot by Seth Guzovsky.

In southwest Virginia, in and around Floyd, a group of artists routinely turns nothing into something. They pour magic, delight, wisdom, gentleness, and bits of themselves into every platter, bowl, vase, vessel, and furnishing they make—and then share their work with collectors and customers in a studio tour as personal as their handmade crafts.

Ellen Shankin, a potter, and seven fellow artists founded the 16 Hands Studio Tour in 1998. “We had all been offering home shows of our work independently and thought it might be a better idea to have a tour on the same day,” she says.

The group has grown and members have changed over the years—16 Hands currently has 10 potters and two woodworkers—but the self-guided art appreciation and shopping excursion still takes place every May and November. Artisans often pair up at a location so customers can make fewer stops, and the group sometimes invites visiting artists to participate, as well. The event has always focused not just on sales, but on personal interaction between the makers and their customers.

As with so much else, organizing the tour has been a challenge this year. Says Shankin, “In March [2020], when we began to understand that life as we knew it was shutting down, it caused a lot of worry and stress. Events we all count on were cancelling, and it became clear that we would not get to interact with the people who buy our work for a very long time.” But she adds, “Artists are problem solvers.” The group pivoted from in-person gallery visits to an online experience.

Photo by Andrea Denniston

Wheelthrown tulip vase by Andrea Denniston.

“We all jumped right on the idea of virtual sales,” says member Andrea Denniston of the decision to go virtual for the May tour. “Some of us—the younger generation, mostly—already had online shops, but many of us had to create them.” 

In some ways, the virtual tour was better than the real thing, says Denniston. “We were definitely able to reach a wider audience; we shipped boxes all over the country. I actually had a better show than usual because 16 Hands has some very loyal customers, and I have a pretty strong online following.” 

Photo by Ellen Shankin

Handmade mug by Ellen Shankin.

Echoes Shankin, “We did far better than we imagined. So many people who had wanted to attend the tour over the years saw it as an opportunity to visit virtually, and we tried hard to make it feel like a visit. Even when person-to-person events begin to happen, I think we will continue to offer a virtual tour, also.”

With social restrictions ongoing, 16 Hands’ fall tour took place online, as well. With more time to plan, they expanded their offerings to include gallery glimpses and demonstration videos by 16 Hands’ members, and welcomed several guest artists. The exhibitors introduced new products each day.

They also sold collaborative pieces to benefit a local charity. As an example, Denniston explains that she and fellow potter and 16 Hands founding member Silvie Granatelli were paired for a project. “Silvie is making a piece in her own style and will be sending it over to me for decorating, glazing, and firing in my personal style.” Follow the collaboration process at Instagram.com/16.Hands or Facebook.com/16HandsTour.

Photo by Brad Warstler

Lathe-turned plate by Brad Warstler.

Time to explore and reflect without looming deadlines has been another silver lining of 2020 for these artists. “It has been a time of great creativity … deeper explorations, branching out into objects I had not considered before,” says Shankin. “I hand-built large spheres to float in my pond. I made garden stacks—tall monuments of stacked repeating forms to ornament flower gardens. I spent weeks deeply considering the simple mug.” Her introspection has been rewarded: “Just recently I made the best mug of my life and couldn’t bring myself to sell it,” she says. “Instead, I drink cappuccino from it each morning with homemade Italian pizzelles—one of my life’s simplest pleasures.”

But Shankin feels a sense of disorientation in the studio, too. Her desire to make didn’t change, but the need was less strong, and what to make was less clear. “I long for clarity but feel the gift of time.” 

Photo by Donna Polseno

Figurative sculpture by Donna Polseno.

Denniston also used the down time to ponder her craft. “After the spring tour, it was more difficult to get motivated again with so much uncertainty in the world, and all shows in the foreseeable future being canceled,” says Denniston, whose husband, Seth Guzovsky, is a fellow potter. The duo funneled their energy into expanding their physical gallery, while “hoping we will be able to welcome customers back to our place in 2021.” 

She adds, “Lately I’ve really been enjoying making and using lots of different bowls. When the pattern radiates outward from the interior center of the bowl, it often feels like an open flower, and when the same pattern moves in the opposite direction—downward toward the center of the bowl—it creates a completely different feel. I’ve really been trying to consider how each bowl will be used as I am making it.”

Denniston admits it felt a little strange listing pots for sale online in the middle of a global pandemic and economic downturn. “But after taking a couple of months out of the studio, I think it is important to keep making these handmade pieces and putting them out into the world,” she says. “They are evidence of time spent and care taken, and are intended to brighten someone’s morning coffee, their afternoon lunch, or their evening ice cream, and I think we need as much of that positivity as we can get right now.” 16Hands.com

Photo by Benjie Osborne

Cherry coffee table by Benjie Osborne.

Photo by Andrea Denniston

Handmade teapot by Andrea Denniston.


This article was originally published as “Making the Best of It” in the December 2020 issue.

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