BY MARY ANN KOENIGIn a world of art bound by mud and heat and wax, Heidi Hill found her calling. The Vero Beach ceramicist had always been aware of her artistic side, but not until she began taking pottery classes at the Vero Beach Museum of Art, simply as an escape valve, did her talent begin to flourish.
Working from an outdoor studio on the private 5-acre estate she and husband Geoff built, Hill can easily lose herself in her craft for hours. “I love being covered in mud,” she says.
Her ceramic pieces and pottery are easily recognizable by a few tangible themes. Whimsy and humor go hand-in-hand with practicality and design. Dragon fruit bowls offer soft pink exteriors with replicate green leaves surrounding a white core dotted with individually painted black seeds. And a seafood platter is graced with a purple octopus wrapping spindly tentacles around the edges.
Hill and her creations can be found most Saturday mornings at the Vero Beach Farmer’s Market on Ocean Drive, a perfect showcase for an artist who relishes connecting with her clients.
“I like my art to be approachable,” she says. “My creations are kind of like my offspring. I want them to be in a friendly environment, adopted by good families and in happy homes.”
A happy home has played a significant role in Hill’s art journey. The escape valve she utilized when first adopting ceramics as a medium was a regular, three-hour Wednesday evening class that turned into a respite from raising two rambunctious toddlers.
“One of the things about being a mom is that your needs always come last,” Hill says. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved raising kids. I’ve got the most awesome sons, but it’s really easy to lose yourself when you’re in the trenches of motherhood.”
Hill grew up in Europe, living in Dipperz, Germany, and in Brussels, which makes her fluent in German, French and English, cultural distillations that have spurred her creative energies.
Now, living in an oceanfront community, turtles, fish, seashells and starfish are prominent models for her art. Heavily consulted reference materials include a fishing guide. Whether painting koi fish on a glazed plate, sculpting baby turtles and their tracks escaping across an undulating ceramic dish, or designing a mosaic mermaid at the bottom of a client’s pool, Hill takes advantage of her proximity to the ocean to stimulate and embody her art.
“If I’m sculpting an animal, or a turtle, it just kind of comes to life and talks to me.”
Her home studio is an all-inclusive workshop that expanded over the years, coming together piece by piece. From a friend she acquired a wheel to throw pots. Then, for Christmas, her sons and husband made her a wedging table, a flat, canvas-topped space for working clay or drawing out designs.
A rolling table for adjusting clay thickness was added, and a work bench with colored ceramic tablets, meticulously ordered in graduating hues, that demonstrate how white, tan, or dark brown clay will respond to different colored glazes.
“I like to paint, so sometimes I use a plate as a canvas,” she explains. “Glazing is just painting on the piece so you can create a lot of cool things just with a glaze.”
A large kiln, capable of firing clay above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, completed the studio.
Hill’s early works seemed to embrace family history. Sculpting and drinking wine with friend and fellow potter, Valerie Risher, she began creating replicas of shoes and boots.
“My mother’s father had vineyards in Hungary, and my dad’s father was a master shoemaker. I thought it was ironic drinking wine and making shoes out of clay.”
Then the hobby became a full-time profession.
With expanded inspirations her art thrived and extended to participation in a charitable effort supported by local ceramicists. For the last 20 years, Hill has donated her art to the annual Samaritan’s Soup Bowl fundraiser. Her octopus-themed tureens became well-known and sought-after raffle items.
Hill didn’t work on a wheel much in the early days.
“I wasn’t very good at throwing, so I’d camouflage my heavy, lopsided bowls with wax resist designs and hoped no one would notice they were off center,” she says. “I’m more asymmetrical and off-centered myself. But, over the years, especially because of the Samaritan’s Soup Bowls, I’ve finally learned how to throw, and I enjoy it now.”
And creating patterns with wax resist became her signature style.
The opportunity to do commissioned works brings her the most gratification.
“With a commissioned piece I’m creating something I haven’t done before, and it takes me outside my comfort zone,” Hill says. “That’s an exciting challenge.”
Her commissions have ranged from replacements for a client’s broken or lost piece, to intricate cascading bonsai pots with specific criteria of wiring and drainage holes. Her art contains a user-friendly approach.
“I like to be accessible to people who have a special need or request.”
And her own creations occasionally come from deep psychological recesses laced with humor.
“I hate snakes.”
So naturally, some of her prominent sculptures are hors d’oeuvres snakes.
“I thought it would help me get over my fear, but not so far,” she admits.
And when she began in ceramics her children were very young.
“Everything I made ended up looking like a naked baby’s behind,” she says. “I think it was because I was changing so many diapers at the time.”
HEIDI HILLAge: 58
Lives in: Vero Beach
Occupation: Ceramic artist
Family: Husband, Geoff; sons, Brett and Max
Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Akron, foreign languages, French major, German minor
Hobbies: Painting, photography, belly dancing
What inspires me: “Recreating the beauty in nature and bringing other peoples’ visions to life.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I’m known for my knoblauch [cream of garlic] soup.”