For Natalie Poklop, it was all about the wheel. And she could not get her hands on one.
As a middle school student, her art teacher at Northbrook Junior High School showed her class how a pottery wheel worked, but they weren’t allowed to try it out.
“I just thought it was so amazing that you could make something out of nothing,” Poklop says. “It’s just a lump of clay, but you can make something so beautiful out of it.”
When she was almost 10 years old, she signed up for ceramic classes at The Art Center in Highland Park, where she heard students got a chance to try their hand at the wheel. First, she had to learn the non-wheel techniques of making pinch pots, coil pots, and slab pots.
“My teacher really stressed learning the other techniques before getting on the pottery wheel, and I sort of resented her a little bit,” says Poklop, now a junior at Glenbrook North High School. “I really wanted to get on the pottery wheel.”
She finally got her shot at the pottery wheel, and once she started, she never stopped. It wasn’t an easy skill to pick up. She worked at her technique for three months before she was able to throw a pot that she was actually pleased with. Six years later, she’s attracting some real attention.
Last year, as a sophomore, Poklop picked up her first award. One of her pieces took Best in Show at the Glenview Art League Youth Art Show. This year, at the Illinois High School Art Show, she won a scholarship to a summer program at the New Hamphshire Institute of Art. And later this month, her three of her pieces will appear at the annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts show in Portland, alongside the work of potters from all over the nation.
Now, between her ceramics class at the high school and her continued attendance at that original ceramics class at the Art Center in Highland Park every Saturday, she has the opportunity to work at the wheel four times a week. When she hits her stride, she can throw four ceramics per hour, mostly bowls and short vases, because those are the items people tend to buy.
Poklop first started selling her ceramics at the Highland Park and Port Clinton art shows, bringing a selection of 40 or 50 ceramics to sell throughout the day. And though she really enjoys creating large-scale ceramics, those don’t sell quite as well.
“People don’t want to walk around for an hour at an art show carrying a 40-pound vase,” she says. “I think it influenced me a little bit. When I saw all of my bowls were gone, I made a mental note—make more bowls. But I didn’t let what people want get in the way of what I want to make. Selling it is just a side thing. Making it and throwing it is really what I want to do. If people don’t want to buy it, that’s okay with me.”
Though the art fairs shown her how to turn her passion for pottery into at least a part-time profession, she seems more interested in passing down everything she’s learned as an educator.
“I look up to my art teachers, they’ve had such a big, positive influence on my life,” Poklop says. “Doing ceramics has helped me through a lot of hard times. When I’m upset, I just want to go and make some pottery and get my frustration out. I want to help other people have that channel.”
It wouldn’t be her first brush with teaching. When she’s not at a pottery wheel, she acts at the president of the After School All Stars, a club that heads to a school in North Chicago to tutor third, fourth, and fifth graders in Math and English.
“Being a part of that has helped me see how much I like to help others,” she says.