Photos by Robert S Johnson
When Steve Kemp, who set up his Orleans pottery studio 45 years ago, first started working with clay, he asked Harry Holl to be his teacher. Holl turned him down — though Kemp would eventually find his way to an apprenticeship at Holl’s storied Scargo Pottery.
Kemp was born not far from Cape Cod, at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in North Kingstown, R.I. But he didn’t see the Cape until he was in college. He had a summer job in 1973 harvesting cranberries just off Cape in Carver. And after graduating from the University of Florida at Gainesville with an art degree, what else was there to do but pick up cranberrying again? He found a place to live in West Barnstable.
In his spare time, Kemp explored what he calls “pre-pottery-making.” One day, he ran out of clay and was advised to go see “the potter on the hill.” Following a path into the pines behind Scargo Lake in Dennis, he says, “I couldn’t believe what I had just walked into.” There was a potter, throwing on a wheel, surrounded by “glorious pots, deeply sculpted vessels, cubist wall plaques.”
He had found Harry Holl in his outdoor studio. “I was a seeker, trying to figure out who I was and what I should do, and this was it,” Kemp says. He asked Holl then and there if he could apprentice with him. “I don’t have time for that,” Holl told him. He would take on only a skilled potter.
So, Kemp went back to Florida, began a graduate assistantship at his alma mater, and set out to take every pottery class possible. He fell in love with Linda McNeill in Florida, but she was from Marshfield, and eventually the pair found their way back to the Cape. This time, Holl said yes to taking Kemp on.
Working at Scargo, Kemp’s biggest concern was losing his own style. When you’re apprenticing, he says, in essence you have to “become one” with the master. “You learn what they know, and then you hope you can break free of that influence, take what he gave you, make it your own,” says Kemp.
It took years, he says, to develop his own style. How? “In feeling,” Kemp says. Harry’s muse was the figure, he says, whereas for Kemp it was nature.
In recent years, Kemp has found a muse in the ripples left on the tidal flats at low tide. Working with their endless patterns helped draw him back into the shop after Linda died in 2021. Early in the morning, he has been known to go out with a few helpers, a wooden frame, and plaster and make a cast of the ripples. He rolls a clay slab over the casting, works it into the grooves, and flips it, picking up exactly what’s on the flats. “You see there is a seaworm there,” he points out.
“Today, when I’m on the wheel and I’m making a pitcher,” he says, “I can remember the demonstration Harry gave me, remember that whole dialogue in my mind as I’m working, and then I find my hands doing something of mine instead.”
Where does inspiration come from — his head, his hands, or his heart? “Damned if I know,” the potter says.