Thursday, June 26, 2003

The potter at Higgins Beach

Published in the Current

Bill Cox has spent a lifetime of summers on Higgins Beach. He says it’s a break from his pottery at home in Pennsylvania, but he still manages to draw inspiration from the Maine coast, and sell a few pieces as well.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the colors of blues and greens in the ocean,” Cox said. He also looks for colors in the local rocks. “Sometimes I’ll photograph things,” and take the pictures back to the studio to work on recreating the colors, he said.

Cox, 75, is a retired research chemist who now pursues his “serious hobby” of the past 20 years with a scientific passion.

“My real interest is in glaze development,” Cox said. “The chemistry of these temperatures is very complicated.”

He keeps a notebook with formulas for glazes and the results of testing different bases and ways to apply glazes.

“You can put the same glaze on two clay bodies and they’ll look very different,” Cox said.

He sometimes mixes the clay himself, but not usually. More often, if he doesn’t use just a standard commercially available clay, he’ll use Maine materials to put what’s called a “slip” on it – a thin clay mixed with other material on top of a generic clay base.

“Sand imparts texture and color,” Cox said.

He always mixes the glazes according to his own recipes. Finely ground glass is the basis for all glazes, as are differing amounts of clay, feldspar and talc. Other substances add color. Amounts of iron vary the depth of brown or yellow, while cobalt imparts a blue color.

Each substance has a different melting temperature, which affects how the glaze appears after it has been fired in a kiln.

Sometimes he has a color target but usually he is playing with a recipe he has used before.

Cox tries to keep only about a dozen mixed glazes at a time, to prevent his
studio from being too cluttered.

“I’m still fascinated with bowl shapes,” Cox said. “It enables me to show the
glaze both inside and outside.”

They also reveal the glazing process. On Cox’s bowls, places where a slightly too-thin glaze has dripped a bit are evident, as are overlapping areas where the items are hand-dipped.

Cox also keeps records of how he coats his pottery with glazes. Dipping a bowl in glaze quickly results in a lighter color than pulling it out slowly.

Even so, there are some appearances he just can’t recreate, despite all of his notes. He chalks those up to variations in materials from his suppliers and moves on. He is a studio potter, not overly concerned about whether a large number of his items match in the ways that commercially made pottery must.

“The glaze development just goes on and on and on,” Cox said.

He makes some pieces for family members and also sells his work at a gallery in Naples. Much of his work is sold right from his studio in Pennsylvania, but he brings some up each year to sell at the Higgins Beach Craft Fair in August. This year the show will be held Aug. 15 and 16 in a community building near the Higgins Beach Inn.

He also has donated work to support fund-raising efforts of the Friends of Scarborough Marsh, Maine Audubon and the Scarborough Historical Society.

His family is long established in Higgins Beach. In addition to family in the area, his father first came there in 1918. “Ironically he stayed in this cottage when he was a bachelor,” Cox said of the cottage where he now spends summers.

He does not accept commissions. “This is what I do. If you like it, that’s fine,” Cox said.