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BATTLE GROUND — People often romanticize the life of professional potters, and it’s hard not to make assumptions about Careen Stoll.
The wispy 39-year-old woman with a blond braid trailing past her waist is almost always barefoot in her rural Battle Ground studio. She wears yoga pants and a tank top dusted in clay while gingerly walking over to grab a block of porcelain.
After cutting the clay, she weighs it and forms it into a ball before she shapes it on her treadle wheel. The self-constructed kick wheel is made from heavy wood. The metronomic movement of the heavy wheel allows her to deliberately but subtly make the ceramic asymmetrical.
“Symmetry can get boring,” she quipped.
About one-third of Stoll’s time is spent doing this — making art. Another third is spent marketing and reaching out to clients, hustling as Stoll describes it. The rest of the time is spent cleaning and maintaining her studio and her materials.
“I have to work my butt off to make a living,” she said.
If she was to spend all her time making things, Stoll said the repeated motions would break her body. After all, she’s basically a one-woman factory.
Primarily, Stoll takes large orders from local restaurants for tableware. If you’ve ever been to Biwa in Portland, it’s likely you’ve eaten off one of her handmade dishes. And, Langbaan, a Portland Thai restaurant that serves $75 seven-course meals, also commissioned her to do work.
“I just love the food world. It’s vibrant, it’s creative, it’s relaxed,” said Stoll, who’s met many restaurant owners.
The fact that her wares are handmade and made from porcelain is attractive to high-end restaurant owners, who want dishes that aesthetically complement their food and are durable. Porcelain is the most dense and strongest kind of ceramic, she said. There’s less grit in porcelain than other clays, which gives Stoll the smooth surface she desires.
“I love the feeling of social engagement around a dinner table,” Stoll said. “It’s not just a bowl. It’s about sharing food with someone you love.”
She goes for “light, friendly” forms and takes inspiration from anything soft and smooth, like bare skin or indentations.
“Mostly, I’m just inspired by the natural world,” Stoll said. It helps being in a studio in the middle of the woods. “The way tumbled stone feels really good in your hands — that’s what I’m going for.”
She learned to make pottery in middle school and never stopped. After earning her bachelor’s in fine arts at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., she completed her master’s in fine arts, specializing in ceramics, at Utah State University. She moved out to Portland because it felt like the right place to be, and she lived there for eight years before renting studio space in Battle Ground.
Her ceramics are sold at galleries in Portland, including Eutectic Gallery, a contemporary ceramics gallery. Mudshark Studios is one of Eutectic’s production facilities and they will soon begin producing slip-casted crocks based off of Stoll’s designs. The owners are her friends — really the only type of people she would trust to make her work. It will help her mass produce her work and make it more widely available.
Her fermentation crocks are self-described as the BMW of crocks. They’re made from the same durable porcelain she uses for her tableware and are designed after a German food preservation method. Foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi are made using fermentation crocks. The fermenting process preserves the food, too.
Stoll got into that business by first designing and making a crock for herself. When she was having health problems, a friend who’s a nutritionist suggested she eat fermented foods, which are loaded with probiotics that improve digestive health. The difference between molding food and fermenting food is oxygen, Stoll said. The fermenting process kills bad bacteria and produces good bacteria (such as probiotics).
The crocks are sold at a handful of places in Portland including Pistils Nursery, Portland Homestead Supply Co. and Milk Glass Mrkt.
Stoll looks to take on more wholesale orders. Besides pottery, she’s worked odd jobs in tech, education and construction. But it’s bringing food and people together through her porcelain creations that really gets her treadle wheel spinning, so to speak. And maybe, someday, she’ll have a space that she owns.