RANGELY I When ceramic artist Elizabeth Robinson Wiley moved to Rangely 10 years ago, she had little idea how the community’s life would integrate with her own.
A botany major captivated by pottery, Wiley spent her twenties working in clay studios across the country honing her craft. In 2002, she earned a master of fine arts degree at Ohio University before accepting a position as program director at a non-profit art center in Carbondale, Colo.
Her trajectory changed again when she married Colorado Northwestern Community College instructor Joe Wiley in 2005. Beth’s decision to open a pottery studio in a remote high-desert area not known for its arts and cultural scene but for oil, gas and coal resources, proved challenging and instructive.
Some of Wiley’s first acquaintances were town officials who helped the couple navigate building codes to renovate a 500-square-foot stucco building on Main Street into her studio and showroom. The space had been gutted and empty for years.
“When we initially considered buying the building, we naively thought I could slap a coat of paint on the walls and start making pots,” Wiley said. “But because it had been vacant for years, we learned we would need to do a more complete renovation before it could be occupied.”
The process took months of proposal writing, town council meetings and making upgrades, which Joe and Beth completed on their own. When finished, it featured an interior sheathing of five-eighths inch sheetrock, new wiring, lighting, bathroom, doors and windows, drainage and ventilation, improvements to the foundation to prevent further decay, a heating system, off-street parking, an exterior shed and a new coat of paint.
The 1940s-era building, one of Rangely’s oldest structures, had been a shoe-repair shop for decades before local Shirley Sinclair bought it in 1970, dubbed her salon “The Beauty Bar,” and ran the business for the next 28 years.
To Sinclair, seeing the shop restored and functioning again felt like a homecoming.
“I went in when she was first remodeling it,” Sinclair recalled. “She had utilized the space so well. Every day I go by it and think, ‘You know, that was mine.’ I’m glad it has a new life and a new purpose now.” The building also helped Wiley to plant roots. Her moving from place to place and traveling to learn ceramics had resulted in years of transient living. Making the commitment to the studio was also a commitment to settle in Rangely.
For the first few years in the studio Wiley worked alone. The pottery she made, hailed in the ceramics world as ‘your grandmother’s china meets Wabi Sabi,’ was shipped to galleries nationwide. While people occasionally dropped in and bought pieces, her clientele was largely elsewhere.
Over time, that started to change. A turn came with the Wileys’ first child in 2007. As she struggled to adjust, Beth reached out to other moms for support.
To her surprise, some were interested not only in parenting but pottery.
“I had never met a potter before; I thought her pieces were beautiful,” said Julie Noyes, who eventually purchased a custom-made dinner set from her friend. “One year, Beth suggested I make Christmas ornaments at her shop to give as gifts. It was fascinating to see how many steps it took to create one small piece of pottery.”
Slowly, as home life demanded more, Wiley’s studio time diminished. Another boy, born in 2010, meant a more drastic shift away from work.
Career-wise, there was an upside: with less time to make pots, her output increasingly shifted to special orders, some for locals. She began making more pieces to sell from the shop, forming a partnership with talented local artist Julia Davis.
The two agreed that Davis would make her own work with shop equipment and materials in exchange for offering regular business hours and other help.
The transition opened up other opportunities. Wiley took on apprenticeships with friends’ daughters who were eager to work and learn. She also accepted a few interns, introducing them to the nuances of form and structure.
Locals Jolene and Shayne Armstrong, once students in Joe Wiley’s classes, connected instantly to Wiley’s art. When Jolene fell in love with a platter, she squirreled money away for months to purchase it. And when the couple moved to Hawaii earlier this year, multiple items stayed in storage while all of Wiley’s pieces made the trip.
Now the pottery the Armstrongs display and use every day evokes their former home.
“Every time I take my bowl out of the china hutch, I smile,” Armstrong said. “We lived in Rangely for 10 years. It makes me think about everyone who touched our lives there.”
These days, Wiley’s passions continue to evolve. Whether she is organizing a week of art in her son’s classroom, helping Boy Scouts earn a pottery badge or hosting “Paint Your Own Ornament” booths at local fairs, her art has become more interactive and less solitary.
The process is similar to one Wiley experienced in herself. Her latest efforts include heading up the community’s new Children’s Garden at the Community Gardens, a creative and process-oriented space, much like the time-intensive processes of ceramics. She also uses her graphic design and marketing skills to promote local businesses, whether via a utility bill insert, this year’s Chamber Gift Guide or the town’s Shop ‘N’ Dine campaign.
“I think my core interest has shifted from merely making thoughtful, useful objects and finding homes for them to creatively integrating business and community involvement, seeing my little shop as part of a bigger whole, working together with my neighbors to care for each other,” Wiley said.
In September 2013, another idea simmering in Wiley’s mind came to fruition. Under her guidance, local non-profit organizations hosted the Harvest Bowls Festival, a fundraiser in which participants share a locally-harvested meal in the Community Gardens.
The event raised approximately $1,450 each for four local groups and one global hunger relief organization. It also brought more than 300 people together over soup-filled bowls—235 of them—made by Wiley and Davis and decorated with drawings by local school children.
Now, more than a year after the event, the bowls continue to hold sustenance and meaning for their owners.
“I love the feel, the look and the size,” said Tracey Hayes. “They hold the shape of the pasta, they hold the heat in. I’m loyal to the town, so the kids’ drawings also meant a lot to me.”
This weekend marks another beginning for Wiley.
Saturday from noon to 6:30 p.m. the community is invited to her studio to celebrate the business’ 10-year anniversary. In addition to pottery, the shop will feature a new line of fair-trade, handmade items from local and global craftspeople.
It’s the latest expression of individual and community stories melding together and of how Wiley connects with the people and art she cares for.
To find out more about Wiley’s studio, visit her website at www.elizabethrobinsonstudio.com.