“What we do with the clay, what we create with our hands, what we offer from our spirits may not end racism or stop injustice, but it may just help keep our culture human.”
–Malcom Davis (activist and potter, 1937-2012)
This week, we sat down with Dr. Deborah Bernstein herself—founder of the small batch pottery company Deb’s Pots and one of our featured makers. Aside from being a devoted mother, Deborah is an accomplished potter, home chef, and psychologist who celebrates the power of handmade pottery designs and community connection. Her creativity shines through every piece she creates—like her simple and elegant stoneware bowl set—offering a meaningful look at what it means to thrive as a maker and artist. Here’s a look at our exclusive conversation with the mastermind behind Deb’s Pots.
How did you get started as a potter?
From the time I was a tiny child, I was interested in making things. I learned to cook and bake at a very young age, taught myself to make candles, and cut hair. In my teens, I had a couple of little cottage businesses calligraphing wedding invitations and marketing sand art.
During a period of terrible loss and tragedy in my twenties, desperate for a reason to live, I wrote a list of goals: find a life partner, become a psychologist, become a mother, and learn to work on a pottery wheel. On my 40th birthday, I realized I’d reached all of them except the last. I took a class. And the first time I sat at the wheel, I was hooked.
My sweet husband bought me my wheel and some tools, and then an intensive throwing workshop. I’ve been blessed to study with some of the finest potters in the world, and have worked hard to develop my own “voice,” in clay. I love the process of making, glazing, and firing, especially wood firing. And I love making food, choosing pots, and photographing the whole process for Deb’s Pots, my food and pottery website and blog.
What’s your process for creating pottery?
Making pots and working with clay is an organic, cyclical process, like giving birth, growing herbs, baking bread, or breathing. The cycle starts with gathering and kneading (wedging) the clay, assembling water, and gathering tools. Then the shaping; I love the turning of the wheel, the way my hands have learned to anticipate the movement and the texture of the clay. Trimming is next, the part of the work that allows a potter to reveal the form. Then, the first (bisque) firing, followed by glazing. Then, glaze firing, in which the pots are transformed by heat. Once they cool, my favorite part happens: unloading.
What influences your pottery designs?
I hate to sound like a woo-woo hippie, but I’m aware of a creative force that drives my mind and hands when I sit at the wheel. Sometimes I just let my hands decide what to make. There are many other inspirations, including the work of other potters. I am often asked to make work to donate to raise money for local charities or to feed the hungry (I’m very involved in the Empty Bowls movement). One of my grown kids or a friend might ask me to make a particular piece. I’m frequently inspired by something I’ve seen in nature on my daily run or walk: the growth pattern on the trunks of trees, the shape of a rock or the curve of a hillside. I often choose glaze combinations inspired by the colors of the ocean, or the evening sky, river rocks, light on snow, or sun baked sand.
Lately, I’ve been informed by my interest in serving the community of food bloggers and stylists I’ve met in the blogging and Instagram communities, and here on Propped. There is a wonderful cross-pollination going on between the makers, cooks, stylists, and photographers on social media these days. I am honored and humbled to be a part of it. When an incredibly talented home cook/photographer like @feedtheswimmers or @piquecooking features one of my pots in their images, it brings me enormous joy.
“Last year, my sister, her husband, and I taught Dad to throw to help his Parkinson’s. For his 80 birthday, we all worked on a big bowl together.” – Deborah Bernstein of Dr. Deb’s Pots
Does your pottery affect what you cook or does the food influence the choice of pottery?
My cooking is almost always driven by the market, or by what my family requests. My husband and I are empty nesters, but our amazing son and daughter come home fairly often; all of us are very interested in food and we have a lot of fun planning and preparing meals together.
The choice of what to cook always comes first. Then, I choose the pots. I think about function first. Do I want a more upright bowl, for example, because I want to keep that silky pureed cauliflower warm? Or will the bright vegetables I’m arranging around my Ricottacado look best on a very wide, rustic platter?
How would you say you express yourself differently in ceramics vs. cooking?
I think my aesthetic is very similar in both cooking and in making pots. I am interested in simplicity without austerity. I want authenticity, directness, abundance, and intimacy. I want a connection with my ingredients (local, organic), and my materials (clay of and from the earth). I have become a tool person, very much appreciating things that are well-made and durable in both the kitchen and the studio. I think, if you look at my food and my pots, you’ll be able to see my “voice” in both.
Would you say there are certain types of ingredients or dishes that usually inspire you? If so, which ingredients or dishes?
Local, seasonal, organic. I am blessed to live in a community where there are farms and apple orchards. When I go to the farmer’s market, or apple picking, or dig my own sweet potatoes, I am in all my glory tasting and thinking about how ingredients taste and feel together. I forage mushrooms, berries, grape leaves, and grapes, and make my own maple syrup. Buying local honey and getting eggs from a friend who raises chickens enlivens my palate and my imagination. At those moments, it could be said that I am one with the food I cook. And then I go down to the studio, full of ideas of new pots to make, and I’m one with the clay.
We love the way Dr. Deb gives her full attention to the symbiosis between foodie culture and the design of everyday objects. Her dual role as chef and ceramicist adds depth to her creation process, resulting in some truly unique pottery designs. Her small stoneware euro plate, for example, has a shallow profile and high sides, making it perfect for stews and soups as well as steaks, fish, and veggie dishes. In addition to her inventive shapes, Dr. Deb uses a beautiful selection of layered glazes, making each piece of ceramic dishware truly unique.
If you’d like to see more, check out Deb’s pottery designs on our storefront, or follow her on Instagram @dr.debs.pots.