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From lumps of clay, Annapolis couple made pottery a full-time business

Outside what was once a backyard garage, mugs, sponge holders and broad bowls are lined up on tables to dry.

A peek inside the structure reveals dozens of butter dishes, teapots, toothbrush holders, bowls of every size, vases, trays and more, all in various stages of production, resting on racks of shelving.

And by the windows, with sunlight illuminating their potter's wheels, Nevan Wise is turning brick-sized blobs of clay into pitchers, and her husband, Doug Wise, is shaping clay lumps into kitchen utensil jars. Both have smears of the tawny red clay up and down their arms and on their clothes.

"You have to feel the thickness," Nevan Wise says, dipping her wet fingers inside an emerging pitcher, lightly touching the exterior as the clay spins.

"I've gotten to where I can eyeball it," her husband says of the cylindrical item he's creating. He's good at getting it round, he says, though he always checks the height with a ruler kept on the table.

They each make several pieces an hour. By the week's end, the Annapolis couple will have glazed most of what's there and thanked the buyers who take them home.

"We have trouble keeping up," says Doug Wise, 52, who says they have 40 products in seven different colors — and run through 300 to 400 pounds of clay a week.

It's a full-time job for both. They work their magic with clay at home on weekdays and sell it at three farmers' markets on weekends — at Riva Road outside the Annapolis city line, the bazaar by the Baltimore Farmers' Market under the Jones Falls Expressway and at Washington's Eastern Market.

They'll sell at least 100 pieces nearly every weekend, often more.

Nevan Wise, 38, attributes brisk sales for the five-year-old business to making useful items and then selling them at markets instead of shops. That allows them to price their items affordably, she says, from $6 to $100.

"In this economy, people say, 'Oh, it's so pretty,' and they justify it by saying, 'It's functional,' " Doug Wise says.

The two work to make the items even more useful — a brie dish comes with recipes, and an olive oil dish has a garlic grater on the bottom. Nevan Wise notes that so many customers asked her if it was OK to use a particular round bowl as a pet dish that she created a special model with a pawprint-edging design.

Most pots have swaths of sky blues, outdoorsy greens and other earthy tones on them, but dragonflies and leaf patterns decorate some items.

If the Wises sell out of an item one weekend, they make more on "throwing days" — Monday and Tuesday. The rest of the week is taken up with drying, glazing and firing in their two kilns.

Not all pots sell equally well in all markets, and the Wises have learned quickly where to pitch certain items. Noodle bowls — they come with chopsticks that rest in fingertip-sized depressions on the rim — are big in Baltimore. Sponge holders are all the rage in Washington. Berry bowls are hot at the Annapolis market. Large bowls are scooped up as wedding gifts everywhere.

An Illinois native who studied fine arts at Southern Illinois University and graduated in 2003, Nevan Wise followed her sister to Baltimore. She taught at Baltimore Clayworks, and the next year began working in Annapolis as production manager of the Annapolis Pottery.

The move to Annapolis introduced her to her husband, who earned a degree from Frostburg State University in 1984 in wildlife and fisheries management and who needed a roommate in 2004.

They married in 2007, and the next year she taught ceramics at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

He was forced into giving the class a try and, he said, "I was immediately hooked. It's a little bit of an addictive thing."

Nevan Wise opened her business, Printemps Pottery, naming it after the French word for spring because she opened the business in spring 2008.

When Doug started in earnest, his less-than-perfect beginner mugs went into the $5 "apprentice pottery" basket. But then "he graduated to the shelf," she said. In 2009, pottery was full time for him, too.

Though the work schedule can be grueling, Nevan Wise said there's great satisfaction.

"One of the things I like about being a potter is that you get to be a part of so many people's lives," she said. "People buy something, and then they use it, and they come back and say, 'You know, I use your mug every day. My pasta is in your bowl.' "

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/andsiegel

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