Terry Shepherd's hands were itching for a hammer.
Walking back to the kiln behind The Art Center on a Saturday morning, it would have been easy for him to pick up a hammer and take out his frustration by smashing to smithereens the 42-inch-tall ceramic representation of hours bent over a potter's wheel.
Standing in the kiln, still warm from firing, the pot's color was beautiful: earthy beige to orange, deep dark red and accents of blue.
But Shepherd tapped the side of the pot and the tone was dull. "That tells me there is some weakness in the structure," said Shepherd, whose usual easy smile was now serious.
"There's always a certain risk," he said. "We'll know when we move it."
Shepherd, 67, is the director of ceramics and resident artist at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts, known by most as The Art Center.
For more than 35 years, Shepherd has been part of the center's ceramics program in one way or another. "He knows every light bulb," joked his wife, Suzi Shepherd.
And everyone who steps foot in the center's ceramics studio knows Terry Shepherd, which was why when he began this project, working more than 20 pounds of clay on a potter's wheel in mid-August, those making mugs or bowls nearby took note and some came over just to watch.
Shepherd was beginning work on a stacked piece, a tall pot made of five separately thrown sections, each a different shape. Shepherd usually makes two to four stacked pieces each year, and this one was intended to be part of Shepherd's annual show at the center on Dec. 6.
It would take more than 30 hours, negotiated around his busy teaching schedule and responsibilities in the studio.
This first section, the base, "sets the stage for everything above it," Shepherd said with effort as he put almost all of his body weight into moving the clay, getting it centered on the potter's wheel.
Earlier he had pounded and slapped the clay — "it's kind of tedious" — to soften it and ensure there were no trapped air bubbles.
Ceramics take a toll on the body, he said, then chuckled and repeated what a surgeon told him several years ago: "You know, our hands aren't supposed to be used like hammers."
In 2013, he had to have surgery on his left wrist to remove the lunate bone, complete a bone graft and partial fusion "and some other work to salvage" his wrist, he said.
It was the result of Kienbock's disease, but his life's vocation likely exacerbated things, he said, his eyes intent on the brown clay that was beginning to look like an oversized basin.
His right wrist now seems to be headed toward surgery, but "I'm not surgery happy," he said.
He deals with stenosis in his neck, and a dozen years ago he completely ripped the bicep muscle in his right arm. That might be why he uses his body weight more while throwing clay, he said.
If The Art Center is closed, don't be fooled. There's a good chance Shepherd is there, loading or unloading the kiln, working around the studio.
Just as the dust from the ceramics studio has worked its way into his leather shoes to give them an original patina, Shepherd and ceramics have become synonymous.
While attending Grand Junction High School, "I just got captivated by that soft material," Shepherd said while building the wall of a section for the body of his stacked piece.
He started reading a teacher's copy of Ceramics Monthly, a magazine he still subscribes to.
But when he started at Mesa Junior College in 1970, he wasn't an art major at first and had to get special permission to take a ceramics class. It was a hand-building technique class, big on the science of ceramics and by the time it was over, "I wanted to be a potter, more than skim the surface," he said.
However, he was putting himself through school. His days were filled with classes and his nights with a full-time job at a "steak and seafood place before the age of salad bars." He worked up from a dishwasher to a prep chef, and "I got really tired of working in the restaurant."
Just a few credits shy of getting his associate degree, "I decided to go straight to studio," he said.
He moved to the Roaring Fork Valley where the art scene was enthusiastically growing in the early 1970s.
Artists were fleeing big cities, moving to the Roaring Fork Valley and developing studios. There was plenty of opportunity to share ideas and materials and to find encouragement to explore and develop your art, he said.
He worked various jobs, adding carpentry and more to his growing list of skills, and he kept meeting potters. One of those was Paul Soldner, an internationally recognized ceramicist who became Shepherd's mentor and lifelong friend.
At that time, Shepherd and another "budding potter" also were developing their own studio, which at first was located in a log outbuilding with no water or electricity. They built their own kiln in two months and at one point were recruited to teach ceramics in Colorado Mountain College's continuing education program, he said.
Shepherd is a natural teacher, said Suzi Shepherd. And since 1983, when he moved back to Grand Junction to work at Coors Ceramics as a kiln operator, Shepherd has taught at The Art Center, going full time in 1993. He has taught hundreds of classes and workshops from California to Maryland.
One of the best rewards of teaching is "seeing people become skillful and confident in what they're doing in a technical as well as creative level," Shepherd said.
When working with clay, like nearly any material, "there are limits you must acknowledge," Shepherd said.
"I can have a finished shape in mind, but you have to be willing to change it up," he said.
And you never know, "it may be developing a contour that you hadn't anticipated that is better than what you had in mind," he said.
Even this pot he was working on changed slightly in its contour from the sketch and measurements that were part of his original idea.
With all five sections joined by tongue and groove, then smoothed and shaped, the pot is ready to dry, something that will take a good 10 days. Shepherd's drying system is "real high tech," he quipped.
With help from The Art Center's curator, Matt Jones — "Matt is a great man. He's a great potter in his own right," said Shepherd, who is never shy about offering a compliment — Shepherd moved the pot from a potter's wheel to a table in the studio.
Using an extension cord, Shepherd suspended a light bulb inside the pot starting about a foot from the base and moved it up as needed. The light bulb supplies 100-degree radiant heat, and "it dries them out real well," he said.
Once dry, the pot would be bisque fired for 36 hours at temperatures up to 1,850 degrees, then glazed.
When it comes to glazes Shepherd has an "insatiable curiosity." You can know the chemistry, the properties and how glazes go together, but there are still things to discover, which then "results in a lot of questions," he said.
However, one important and practical lesson Shepherd learned with regard to glaze and ceramics came while glazing a stacked piece only about a dozen years ago.
While spraying glaze on the pot using a turning potter's wheel, Shepherd inadvertently put the spray gun down on the pedal that controls the wheel's speed. The wheel sped up and the pot twisted off, falling to the ground. Shepherd looked it over and there didn't seem to be any damage, so he went ahead and fired it. In the high fire, "a crack opened up like a gash," he said.
The lesson was to always set a governor to control the speed on a pedal, he said. It's something he has strictly adhered to ever since.
Shepherd was on the verge of demolishing that piece, when Suzi Shepherd came into the studio and stopped him. "I said, 'oh, God no! You're going to bring it home,' " she recalled.
So Shepherd repaired it with epoxy and it now stands on the landing of the home's stairway. "I don't even know where the crack is anymore," Suzi Shepherd said.
Maybe it's because he sees it every day, but it's one of his favorite stacked pieces from among the many he has made over the years.
"I don't know if there is a single favorite," Terry Shepherd said about his stacked work. However, there is one right inside the entryway at the Bookcliff Country Club that he recognized not long ago while at a dinner in memory of the late Tilman Bishop.
"I like its proportions," he said. "The colors were pleasing, too."
So why did Shepherd consider smashing this pot?
"Darn!" he said, carefully turning the stacked piece to reveal a hairline crack running from several inches above the base and up through the body of the pot.
"This might have to go home," Shepherd said, disappointment tangible in the warm heat of the kiln, and it's easy to see he is still considering that hammer.
It's the first stacked piece to develop a crack in the past 24 he has created. "It's one of those moments you don't expect," he said.
If he had to speculate on how the crack developed during the high fire of 2,400 degrees, he'd have to go with dunting — perhaps the batch of clay he used was mixed with too much silica and not enough feldspar, which can result in hairline cracks as a piece cools and contracts, he said.
"I'll stay away from that batch of clay," he said, and then mentally backed away from the urge to destroy the pot.
Five days later, the pot held together like a mummy wrapped in silver duct tape and blue painter's tape, Shepherd used clear liquid epoxy on the inside of the pot to patch and secure the crack. He had to concoct a couple special tools for the job.
"It was hard to get to," he said.
And several days after that, Shepherd used a small palette knife to push black PC-7 epoxy into the crack on the outside of the pot. He has done plenty of restoration work and had the option of using an epoxy colored to match the pot, but he prefers a restoration approach that makes the crack visible, "kind of an honest statement," Shepherd said.
It's his version of kintsugi, the Japanese idea that something broken hasn't lost value and a broken ceramic piece is repaired with liquid gold or silver. "They turn it into a precious scar. It retains value," he said.
In this case, epoxy will have to do instead of gold and, as difficult as it might be to find himself repairing a piece that is new, there is a degree of merit to the process, he said.
He won't sell this pot like he originally had hoped, but it will ring solid and true when he is done, better in some ways for imperfection.
"I do like the piece," he said.