Ceramist from L.A. shapes a rustic home in Fort Bragg
“I’ve always been a country girl at heart,” declares ceramicist Colleen Hennessey, reflecting upon her recent move from Los Angeles hipster enclave Silver Lake to Fort Bragg, Mendocino’s less renowned neighbor to the north. After 17 years, Hennessey, 50, was ecstatic to swap traffic and rising rents for a midcentury, one-bedroom house set upon 4 acres of redwoods, rhododendrons and wandering deer.
Within weeks of settling in, Hennessey and her wife, filmmaker Adele Horne, had plotted out a kitchen garden and set up Hennessey’s studio in the carport, where metal racks are stacked with dozens of unfired vessels (called “greenware”) awaiting the kiln. They’ve dubbed their homestead Pudding Flats, in homage to nearby Pudding Creek, which is overlooked by their forested plot of land.
In the past few years, Hennessey’s refined but rustic nesting bowls have reached an appreciative audience through tastemaker Heidi Swanson’s lifestyle Web shop Quitokeeto (where they have routinely sold out within hours), and have been featured as supporting players in a clutch of cookbooks, including Swanson’s “Near and Far” and Jeremy Fox’s “On Vegetables.”
A native of Mill Valley, Hennessey, who grew up in an old hiking lodge with six older siblings, is genetically predisposed to work with her hands: “My parents were super crafty. My mom was an expert seamstress and my dad made a lot of our furniture.” She discovered ceramics at Tamalpais High School, where she often skipped lunch in favor of a throwing session in the pottery studio.
Hennessey shifted from ceramics to sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, finding it less restrictive. “I still worked in clay, but I was making mass quantities of things — like 70 ceramic balls I’d place all over the city and then photograph.” A few years after graduating she returned to the Bay Area, landing a waterfront studio as an affiliate artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts in the Marin Headlands, and a job as a line cook at the Hayes Street Bar and Grill in San Francisco, which kept her days free to create.
When Hennessey moved to Los Angeles in 2000, she continued to cook in such high-profile kitchens as Campanile, Canele and Lucques. “The repetition of being a line cook suited me. I’m weird! I have this crazy tolerance for doing the same thing over and over, whether it’s making short ribs or throwing pots.” She also likes the high-wire aspect of both métiers: “It’s exciting just knowing that a mild tragedy is possible at any moment — food can burn, clay can collapse, warp or crack. You have to stay in the zone.”
While in Silver Lake, Hennessey started cultivating a vacant hillside behind her house, turning it into a living laboratory. “I love that the garden holds produce until you need it.” And in a foreshadowing of their bucolic future, she and Horne co-parented some chickens with a neighbor.
What Hennessey had not done since leaving art school was throw a single pot. She drew and did photography, and when she tired of kitchen work (“I was getting older and everybody else seemed to be getting younger”), she worked with a nonprofit helping undeserved girls gain confidence through horse care, gardening and cooking. When Hennessey’s beloved Clydesdale died in 2010, Horne signed her up for a ceramics class at the Barnsdall Art Center. “I was so tired of hearing her talk about ceramics,” says Horne. “It was time to get back to the clay.”
Things took off when Hennessey’s sister, Molly de Vries, placed a few of the bowls in her Mill Valley textile shop, Ambatalia. “That’s where Heidi saw them — and it was like hitting gold,” recalls Hennessey. “I was so grateful.” Although Swanson has recently cut back on offering one-of-a-kind wares because of the time commitment (the ceramics are available at Shed in Healdsburg, and at www.colleenhennessey.net), she remains a huge fan.
“Her aesthetic echoes my approach to cooking: rustic, but with great attention to detail,” says Swanson, who has around 30 pieces in her personal collection. “Her pottery makes food look beautiful, which is why it tends to be so popular with stylists and cookbooks. And it’s not delicate — I take pieces directly from oven to table.”
Echoing the colors of the natural world — earth, bark, sun-bleached grass, lichen, cream — and animated by speckles and textural details that emerge after glazing and firing, the bowls have a reassuring heft and do, indeed, flatter their contents, be it a mound of crimson berries or a multi-colored ratatouille. “The ceramics exist to show off the food,” Hennessey says. “You can never make something as beautiful as nature.”
While Hennessey remains open to creating new shapes and sizes (“I’ve been getting a lot of requests for ramen bowls,” she says, “and I have a commission for a cup.”), she remains firmly committed to her signature palette. “One thing I can tell you for sure,” she says. “I’m never going to go purple on you.”
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