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January 06. 2014 3:48PM

Art can be useful

Keene artisan likes her pottery work to emphasize functionality

“I like to make things that people can use,” the Keene-based potter said, “and that will sell.” 

KEENE -- Wendy Thorpe-Allen is a problem solver disguised as a potter. Sure, she can throw a pot and science up a fanciful glaze, but what she really does is answer the big questions, like the great kitchen mystery: How do you get a sponge to stop smelling?

"I like to make things that people can use," the Keene-based potter said, "and that will sell. I'd say my sponge holders account for half my sales."

The sponge holder — a beautifully crafted bit of holey genius that allows a sponge to stand on a corner and fully dry after a use—is just one of Thorpe-Allen's practical projects for the home.

Thorpe-Allen was born and raised in Maine, surrounded by art. Both of her grandmothers were artists: her maternal grandmother made jewelry, while her paternal grandmother worked silver into bowls and flatware. Her paternal grandfather painted watercolors.

Her parents were creative as well. It all rubbed off. By the age of 6, Thorpe-Allen was already noodling on her mother's sewing machine. By junior high, mother and daughter both had moved on to stained glass.

"I was always a very visual person, and very tactile," she said. "That's how I learn."

When college rolled around, Thorpe-Allen had it in her mind to become an architect and chose Keene State College. Unfortunately, she didn't realize KSC didn't have an architecture program.

"I didn't look very hard," she said, laughing in hindsight. "It was more like, 'I have to go to college, I don't really have a choice, so OK.'"

She took mechanical engineering courses, but soon found her way to the school's art department, where she started soaking up as much as she could.

Eventually, a girlfriend told her she should create her own major. She did, and graduated with a degree in graphic arts, which led her to a 20-year career in the commercial printing industry, where she learned everything she could and evolved with changes in technology.

But it was during a particularly difficult point in her life that she found pottery. She was having trouble with her friends, her grandmother died and work had reached a stressful boiling point. A friend suggested she take a pottery class. Thinking that it might be fun, she signed up and attended the class in the basement of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen in Hanover.

"I just took to it right away," she said. "And I think part of it was that it's very meditative. You have to push the clay around, but you have to keep your body very still and concentrate and that was very therapeutic for me at the time."

Thorpe-Allen continued working in printing, but established her own pottery studio at her home in Keene. She also continued to take classes, most recently at the Sharon Arts Center in Peterborough, working with Lulu Fichter and James Mitschmyer.

About five years ago, Thorpe-Allen found herself laid off with a lot of time on her hands. More time meant more throwing. It also prompted her husband to suggest she consider selling some of her work at craft fairs. She took the delicate hint and did just that.

These days, her works can be found in homes around the country, from Annapolis, Md., to New Canaan, Conn.; from Milton, Mass. to Yarmouth, Maine.

Much of what she sells is practical: lamps, earring holders, one-piece chip-and-dip sets among other things. And of course, the sponge holder.

That, as it turns out, came to her when her son was young and she was constantly wiping things down with a sponge. She found the sponge never really got dry and eventually got stinky. That malodorous side effect would inevitably transfer to her hands, and who wants that?

She tried buying commercial products, but they didn't fit the bill. They didn't drain properly and didn't allow the sponge to stand on a corner so that the whole sponge would dry. So she started making prototypes.

What she ended up with was a beautiful sculptured holder, with an appropriate amount of holes positioned above a dish to catch drips.When she's not solving problems through pottery, Thorpe-Allen also donates her time working with fourth- and fifth-graders at Fuller Elementary School in Keene, coaching them in throwing pots on the wheel. She and the students have donated many bowls to the Keene Community Kitchen Empty Bowls project.

Additionally, she is a ski instructor at Granite Gorge, a substitute tutor and she and her husband help manage a bed and breakfast.

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