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Ceramic artist Joe Pelka
By Jim Fester
Fort Wayne Reader
“Hand made means a lot out here,” says ceramic artist Joe Pelka, explaining why he and his wife, Kathleen, decided to move from California to the mid-west and set up shop here in Fort Wayne. “It’s one of those things people still value. People who buy my work know they can maybe get a better deal at a mass production place, but they like the idea that one person has made it with their own hands. It’s not by some factory outlet workers on an assembly line.”
As an artist, Pelka always liked working with his hands, and found the perfect outlet for his creative work in clay. “It’s such a powerful medium, and you can use your hands more than any other tool,” he says. Pelka honed his craft in California, opening up his own studio and working for several companies there — “places that made cookie jars and stuff like that.”
He eventually decided to go out on his own and concentrate on his own work in his own studio. He had a lot of success in California, but he and his wife — who Joe credits with keeping the business side of things running smoothly — noticed that the shows they participated in in the mid-west and the south (and Pelka still does a lot of shows, around 20 a year) were really well-attended. After scouting around, they decided to settle in Fort Wayne about six years ago, citing the cost of living, the proximity to other markets that responded well to Pelka’s work, and the general pace of life here. “It’s expensive on the west coast,” he says. “Most people work three jobs to try to keep ahead of their rent and their bills. People have a chance to breath here.”
They opened their studio at 14529 Lima Road in the Lima Plank Mercantile. “I wouldn’t say we’re getting rich; we’re working with clay,” laughs Pelka. “But we’re making a living, and in this economy, that’s saying a lot.”
Pelka takes his inspiration comes from a wide range of things — texture is very important to him, he says — but in general, he takes a little from here and there without settling on a particular style. “A lot of times, people look at my work and say, for example, ‘wow, it’s really Asian inspired.’ That’s a huge compliment to me, but I never set out to make Asian inspired artwork. It’s just what I saw a lot in California. I also liked a lot of Native American pottery. Some of it is intentional, but a lot of it just happens. I borrow a little from here and there.”
Among his most popular work are what he calls, for obvious reason, the “dot jars” — jars with a series of dots that Pelka puts on one by one, and often tops off with a distinctive looking lids. “It’s supposed to mimic and Aloe vera plant, but people always tell me it looks like fire,” he says. But that’s fine with him. “For people to ask ‘what is it?’ is great. I want people to wonder about it, to think ‘it looks like chili peppers’ or ‘it looks like a sea anemone.’ It’s fun for me to hear their comments.”
Visitors to the studio can often see Pelka at work — sometimes “throwing on the wheel” — and watch as his latest creation takes shape. He says he doesn’t mind talking or fielding questions while working.
Pelka Handmade Ceramic Arts
14529 Lima Road in the Lima Plank Mercantile.
Tuesday-Thursday, 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.