In early March — before the pandemic shutdowns — students crowded into the Norris Arts Studio and Gallery, ready to create. They moved among potter’s wheels and stacks of clay, shelves bursting with glazes and brightly colored ceramics, easels with in-progress paintings and a white-hot kiln that transformed raw clay into works of art. Business was blazing at this studio, the retirement vision of Anna and Ted Norris.
Their artistic pursuits had been a vital counterpoint to demanding health care careers, but retirement allowed them to give their full attention to art-making. Things were shaping up beautifully in this welcoming space where Ted could make pottery and Anna could paint, and both could offer classes to earn extra retirement income. They could not have imagined that, after spending their professional lives tending to the health of others, a global health crisis would threaten their dream.
They had always had studios at home, where their doors were open to friends.
“We didn’t really run any formal classes,” Ted said. “We just introduced people to pottery. They said, ‘Boy, if you ever start teaching classes, let us know.’ ”
They found a spot in Camas just off Highway 14 to do just that, and hung up the “open” sign in December 2018.
“When we first opened, it was dead,” Ted said. One or two people came by for individual sessions, he said, but things really heated up after they booked their first large group.
“Parties were the things that started it. People want experiences now,” Anna said. “Ted calls it ‘bit by the clay bug.’ ”
They were already connected to Camas’ thriving art scene through Attic Gallery in downtown Camas, where Ted and Anna exhibited their works and offered live demonstrations during First Friday celebrations. Word quickly spread about the Norrises’ classes and their warm, encouraging teaching style.
“We exploded in January and February and launched into March, then all of a sudden, boom, we had to close,” Ted said.
Because of their medical background, they paid close attention to the grim news from China and Italy. They made the decision to close on March 14. That night, Ted had an idea: They could rent out their potter’s wheels to students who wanted to keep practicing at home. By March 16, the wheels were all spoken for.
“We may not get some of them back,” Ted said with a laugh. “They may end up buying them, but that’s OK.”
Anna and Ted came up with other ways to help their students while also replacing some of their lost revenue.
“We sold almost a ton of clay over the last two months or so, since this has started,” Anna said, “and we also have glaze.”
Local potters can also rent shelf space in the Norris Arts kiln.
“We do kiln firings, both for our students and for the public,” Anna said. Some people travel from Portland because the studios where they work are closed.
The Norrises are offering curbside service by appointment. No one is allowed into the studio, especially since Ted has pre-existing conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous for him.
If Ted is anxious, however, he doesn’t show it; he is cheerfully making more pots.
“Our latest inspiration was doing a Facebook Live Mother’s Day pottery blowout,” Ted said. “We opened the kiln and pulled out 10 pots and ended up selling most of them.”
They will offer a Father’s Day sale in early June, but Ted is mainly is using Facebook as a teaching tool. He’s posted dozens of videos at www.facebook.com/norrisartsandgallery/, giving instruction in pottery techniques and showing in-progress clay works.
Anna, meanwhile, is taking artistic cues directly from the pandemic. She recently finished a scene of downtown Camas from inside Natalia’s Cafe, empty except for the owner, who stands looking through the cafe’s windows at deserted streets.
The painting, “We’re Not in Camas Anymore,” depicts the pandemic as the monochromatic beginning of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“It’s kind of like Dorothy when the house falls,” Anna said. “Everything is black and white and then she opens the door and it’s all color, but inside it’s still black and white. I feel like a house fell on us.”
Anna intends to paint her way through the pandemic, using a brush and canvas to explore the effects that COVID-19 has had on her community.
“I want to go do an empty town because that’s surreal,” said Anna, who is now using the emptier, light-filled Norris Arts studio to create larger-scale works. “I want to paint. That’s all I want to do right now.”
Both artists appear to face the future with their good humor intact, as long as they can keep creating together.
“Part of what Anna and I do is we brainstorm really well together,” said Ted. “What can we do better? And we try to do better all the time.”