GOSHEN — Bob Smoker has always had a fascination with the malleability of clay. Little did he know his passion for clay art would mold himself.
In retirement, he spends hours of his time devoted to sculpting, glazing and firing works of clay into his own masterpieces. He crafts his output alongside other fellow Goshen Clay Artists Guild members. He gains inspiration from nature, including from outside the window of the guild workspace.
“Some days, a blue herring will come lofting and settle in (outside the window),” Smoker said. “There was actually a beaver in that race one year, which wasn’t too cool because it took down some trees over there. I forgot beavers took down trees.”
His main work is creating clay art with leaves. He will find a leaf he likes the design of and create an imprint of the leaf on the clay. He uses the leaf-printed clay to create decorations and bowls.
In general, Smoker finds creating new textures on clay art to be appealing. He will create textures out of anything he can find — tree bark, Legos, sewing tools and more.
“His attention to detail is one of the things I really appreciate and enjoy,” Jerry Lapp, a fellow founding guild member, said. “And, I find it really delightful when he works by hand in doing some of his leaf sculpture pieces.”
Smoker first experienced working with clay when he attended junior high in 1960s Chester County, Pennsylvania. From his first touch, he felt thrilled to be pressing his hands into the clay. He remembers his first creation being a small head.
In art classes within the confines of his small, private Mennonite high school, he created his first clay pot. He felt the same thrill as he did in junior high. He attended Hesston College, a two-year Mennonite college in Kansas, where he took pottery classes.
But he left college and stepped away from art after having a spiritual experience during a trip to Oregon. He did not seriously sculpt with clay again until he arrived in Goshen during the 1970s.
“I did a year and a half of service at Mennonite Central Committee, where I ran the printing press and (my wife) Cathy worked in reception,” Smoker said. “Abner Hershberger from Goshen College came and did a chapel service. We chatted over lunch, and he encouraged me to continue my art education and come out to Goshen.”
While at Goshen College, he took ceramics courses with Professor Marvin Bartel and graduated with a degree in art education. His educational training at Goshen convinced him to continue refining his creative work after school.
But the birth of Smoker’s two daughters changed his heart. He gave up clay art again for the next 20 years, so he and his wife could focus on raising their children.
“Occasionally I would design an invitation or announcement, where I’d draw an infant for them,” Smoker said. “So, I did a lot of two-dimensional drawing during that time. There was very little I was doing to keep (the clay artist) part of me alive.”
In 1998, local catalyst Dave Pottinger approached multiple artists to see if they were interested in starting an art studio. Lapp relayed Pottinger’s plan to Smoker to see if he had any interest. After meeting to discuss how an artist guild would operate, Smoker and 26 other people formed Goshen’s first clay artists guild.
Members of the guild use their studio space to craft and fire clay art year-round. They also offer beginner and intermediate classes that are open to the public four times annually for three-month sessions.
“I haven’t developed the confidence to step up and volunteer to teach,” said Smoker, who now serves as the guild’s treasurer. “I did one session and I shared a lot of about the texturing and stamp making and things like that. I really enjoyed it, and there were a few forms I introduced. I guess, for me, I just more enjoy working around other clay artists to see what they’re about and see what they’re about.”
The guild gives artists the chance to absorb inspiration from each other as well. However, Smoker said no one tries to copy another’s style of clay artistry.
“I think generally there’s that kind of respect that’s given,” he said. “So far, honey keepers … no one has tried to do those kinds of things. Obviously, a lot of us do mugs, but we have our own style or own touch.”
Local patrons have financed much of the guild’s work and expensive equipment. One of Smoker’s favorite aspects of the guild is getting to work on the potter’s wheel in the downtown marketplace.
“Working on a potter’s wheel in a market setting, you become a kid-magnet,” Smoker said. “There’s been mornings where I have five or six kids gathered around in a semi-circle just mesmerized by what’s going on, and there’s extremely interesting and encouraging conversations that come from those children and adults as well.”
He said the marketplace is the perfect place to intersect with the community and Goshen College students from around the world. He feels alive every time he steps in through the doors of the guild’s building and shapes the clay into various molds.
As Smoker continues to mold sculptures with his hands for his community, he is constantly reminded of his Creator.
“I try to make a point in saying that this a cooperative effort between God and me because there’s no possible way that I can duplicate this kind of detail,” Smoker said. “I take something that my Creator has provided to push in another direction.”