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Clay is Her Teacher

Visiting Clara Whitman Parrett '83 and husband Lloyd's humble yet extraordinary home in Centerville, Ind., gives insight into a way to live simply yet fully. The couple recently moved from Richmond, and their new home, which they have nicknamed "the Old Farmhouse," is just the right size for the two of them and the activities they love. It is surrounded by a fishing pond, flowers, vegetable gardens and an under-construction pottery studio, signifying endless possibilities for creativity.

Whitman Parrett was born in Salem, Ore., but did much of her growing-up in rural Maine. She discovered Earlham by looking through a college guide, and decided it would be the only school where she would apply. However, she did not attend Earlham right away, but instead waited almost two years, working for the Maine Department of Transportation and saving money for college. She was attracted to Earlham's shared-power governance, and was also able to talk to its religion and philosophy professors during a visit, which solidified her decision to attend. In 1979 she came to Earlham to study religion, mainly Biblical studies. In her last term, however, she took a pottery class and realized she "should've started there instead of ending there."

After playing with pottery for many years after Earlham, her husband suggested that she pursue it as a profession. Without his encouragement, Whitman Parrett insists she never would have stuck with it. "Being married to another craftsperson has been invaluable. He dealt with my temper tantrums, and all the times when I said I just didn't want to do it!" she says with a laugh.

But she did. Her business, God's Earth, consists of pottery inspired by both nature and her personal faith. Her creations range from a footwashing bowl used in her wedding ceremony to bowls pressed with leaves and wheat to candle holders which can cast shadows of trumpeter angels. Although she does have pieces for sale in shops in the Indiana and Ohio area, including Richmond's Allain Gallery, she wants to keep her business small and close to home. The majority of the pottery is functional and turned on the wheel. She works with a very dense red clay body, which she mixes herself. A young student once compared it to "chocolate pudding" when the clay was in liquid form.

She enjoys the challenge set forth by her materials: "The redware body has its own nature, very finicky, and it puts a beating on my shoulders. It tells me when I'm not doing it right. I get to learn a lot about life right at the roots, and clay is a really good teacher. "Redware is a clay body that people have worked with for thousands of years: "It's a very common clay, but it rings just like porcelain, which is the finest of the finest clay. I like that a common clay rings just as clear as porcelain. It has its own truth and integrity."

"To do pottery, you have to imagine something and then make it real," she notes. "It involves electricity, geology, physics and much more. We don't often do work where common sense and imagination have to be used together. I like the fact that I'm working with something that has history. It has its own history before I even put my hands on it - both a physical history and a human history. The commonest of clay carries a human story about basic things: eating, food storage, bedpans. But it carries sacred things, too, like urns and sacred texts. Clay has stretched through both."

She is also concerned with how her work impacts the environment. She recycles as much scrap clay as possible, there is no lead in her glazes, and it is low-fired, using minimal energy. When her new studio is finished, she hopes to make use of solar power to heat it during the winter. She is eager to get back to work, but right now, they must finish planting the garden, because "the garden doesn't wait." They garden organically whenever possible, and are aiming to eventually produce all the food they need. They produced and preserved enough vegetables for the entire year, and are working on fruit, meat and dairy as well. Warm and incredibly generous, this couple did not let the interviewer leave without an armful of green beans and corn from last year's crop.

Whitman Parrett used to spend 12-16 hour days working on pottery and keeping up house and garden. Now with Lloyd's retirement and their new home, her plan will be to spend six hours on clay and six hours taking care of the household and garden alongside Lloyd, five days a week, "and some days, we're probably going to fish," she says.

"I guess you could just call us old fuddy-duddy radicals!" she says with a grin. "We like to live in a way where we have some wholeness to our lives, not just dropping into bed, waking up, and starting all over again. People have become so compartmentalized. There's a way to live where all the pieces can be connected. I'd like to give that a shot."

Clara Whitman Parrett

Clara Whitman Parrett 1983, Potter, God's Earth

Hometown: Salem, Ore.

Major at Earlham: Religion

Interests: Gardening, fishing

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