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Clayfest Potters' Games & Mud Ball

By Greg Marshall

The following article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct '97 issue of Clay Times

There are some interesting things about Manitou Springs, Colorado. This village of about 5,000 residents nestled at the base of Pikes Peak has been attracting diverse groups of people since the 1800s. Tourists, artists, and entrepreneurs have all been enticed by the natural beauty and mild climate of the area. Manitou Springs now hosts an assortment of events and festivals throughout the year. One of the more unusual ones takes place every June in the form of the "Annual Clayfest and Mud Ball."

Seven years ago, a couple of Manitou artists came up with the idea of hosting the "potters' games." The idea was to have an event that would encourage potters from the area to get together, socialize, show off their pottery skills, and have a good time. They contacted a few other potters in the area and bounced their ideas off of them. The response was good. It sounded like fun, but how do you go about getting an idea like that off the ground?

It turned out that the timing was on their side. It just so happened that in 1991 the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which runs from Manitou Springs to the summit of Pikes Peak, was getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The rail company was interested in working with the Manitou Chamber of Commerce to help sponsor other events to add to the festivities. The group of potters put together a proposal and presented it to the chamber. The proposal was accepted, a modest amount of money was made available, the organizers became known as "a bunch-o-potters," and the Clayfest and Mud Ball was born.

With little money available for advertising, the "bunch-o-potters" decided the best way to attract spectators to the event would be to have it in the street. They approached the city government with the idea of closing off one of the streets in town to hold the event. The support from the city manager, the city council, and the police department was amazing. Canon Avenue near the center of town was selected as the site, and things started rolling.

Clay suppliers in the area were enthusiastic right from the start. Both Laguna Clay and Mile High Ceramics in Denver have donated clay for the events as well as equipment and tools for prizes. Over the past seven years, the list of donated prizes has grown from gift certificates for meals at local restaurants and a few various pottery tools to include products from clay suppliers all over the country. At this year's 7th Annual Clayfest and Mud Ball, the major contributions included 4,000 lbs. of clay from Laguna Clay Co., a slab roller from North Star Equipment and Mile High Ceramics, a gift certificate for a workshop at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, 500 lbs. of clay, a Giffin Grip, and three sets of throwing classes from the Clay Pen in Colorado Springs. Over 40 other suppliers and businesses donated a variety of items including a Talisman sieve, magazine subscriptions (yes, Clay Times was a sponsor), videos, glaze markers, a banding wheel, kiln repair kits, gift certificates, t-shirts, and cash.

Each year, three artists, potters, or people involved in the arts are invited to serve as judges for the events. Past judges have included Paul Soldner, Doug Casebeer, Henry and Ro Mead, and Bob Smith. This year's judges were ceramic sculptor Brad Miller from Denver, potter Stephen Kilborn from Pilar, New Mexico, and sculptor Sean O'Meally from Colorado Springs. The Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs, a major sponsor of the festival, also hosted a workshop with Stephen Kilborn the day before the events.

The idea all along was not only to have events that required skill in throwing and handbuilding, but events that were also fun for both the participants and the spectators. It was decided to offer events in both professional and amateur divisions so participants would be competing against each other at their own general skill levels. The events have been modified slightly over the years, and this year's Clayfest and Mud Ball included all-day pots, fastest bucket of 1 lb. balls, relay team throwing, blind-folded throwing, partners handle pull, Siamese tandem throwing, largest pot with 5 lb. limit, and no-handed throwing. To add to the fun, all the splash pans were removed from the wheels. When Paul Soldner served as a judge in 1993, he started an event called the Soldner Challenge. Soldner took a ball of clay, weighed it, and threw a pot as tall as he could. The challenge was to throw a taller pot with the same amount of clay in the same or less time. The event continues today with the previous year's winner throwing the first pot.

Points are awarded for finishing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in each event, with prizes and clay medallions awarded. Overall winners in the professional and amateur divisions are declared at the end of the day based on total points accumulated.

The first year, there were about a dozen wheels in the street, about the same number of participants, and a few more spectators. Three years ago, bleachers had to be added to accommodate the hundreds of spectators. And this year's events required over 20 wheels for the nearly 70 participants. Bluebird Manufacturing in Fort Collins brings three new Soldner wheels each year, and Max Corporation in Colorado Springs brings a couple of new Max wheels for the potters to try. The remaining wheels were borrowed from potters, schools, and businesses in the area.

In addition to the competitions, an area was set up for adults and children to get a short throwing lesson for $5. There was also a clay-play area for children at no charge. Another fun event was the celebrity pot-throwing. After a quick lesson from volunteer pottery coaches, local government officials, media representatives, and business owners were pitted against each other at the wheels.

Most participants came from all over Colorado, but two people came from Minnesota and this year's long distance award went to Terri Swift from Wakefield, Rhode Island. The overall professional winner was Mark Hodgkinson from Boulder, Colorado, and the overall amateur winner was Kat Venis from Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Spectators and participants alike seemed to have a great time, and when the events concluded the whole muddy mass headed down the street for the Mud Ball where they danced away what remaining energy they had left.

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