Pottery crawls with critters Unusual designs adorn sisters' clay wares ELLICOTT CITY/ELKRIDGE


Bug-lovers are attracted to Elkridge potters Van and Gail Wensil. Larger-than-life honeybees, houseflies and cockroaches regularly appear on the sisters' pottery.

"People who know their insects really get a kick," said Gail, who remembers a woman who bought her husband of 30 years a platter painted with waltzing flies.

For the past 15 years, the fourth-generation Elkridge natives have sold their wares at craft fairs from Vermont to North Carolina.

"At this point, you name it -- we make it," said Gail, 35, who has worked with her sister since 1983.

Using two kilns and an electric wheel, the sisters throw everything from mugs and pie pans to cookie jars and 12-piece dinner sets. Their pottery is also painted with fish and indigenous wildflowers like Columbine and Morning Glory.

The sisters open shop every morning at 10 a.m. and leave when their work is done. The cozy two-room studio is filled with tables and shelves laden with pottery in various stages of completion.

The extensive process begins when Van throws pots and trims excess clay from them. After letting the pottery air dry, Gail stacks it in the kilns. Both sisters then paint the pottery. Finally, Gail glazes it.

"We really push each other to get things done," said Van, 38. During the years, the sisters have discovered they have unique talents. "Van does bugs and fishes," Gail said.

Besides houseflies and cockroaches, Van paints freshwater fish such as bass and sculpin. Sometimes she uses a chalk board to sketch intricate designs such as a vase with appliqued fish ornaments.

"The bigger sculptural stuff I have to work out in my head," said Van, who studied pottery at Antioch College and apprenticed with a commercial potter for nine months before opening her own studio in 1978.

Gail, who learned pottery making from her older sister, said she enjoys glazing. "It's like it's the finale," Gail said. "I feel like I've really accomplished something that day."

The sisters believe pottery is an art that is filled with potential pitfalls at every step. For instance, the pottery must be sufficiently dry before it can be placed in the kiln. Otherwise, it might crack in the 2,350-degree Fahrenheit ovens. Glazing also changes the color of the paint -- to surprisingly dark hues. "It's all a game of chance," Van said.

Nearly every day, Van's two children, 1-year-old Hanum and 4-year-old Gailen, accompany her to the studio. Gail also raised her 12- and 15-year-old daughters there.

While nursing and then when they are old enough to help, their children accompany their mothers to craft fairs. Nowadays, 12-year-old Megan and Hanum usually travel with their mothers.

"It's taught them so much," Gail said of her daughters. 'They've really learned how to deal with people and they've learned how to be flexible."

The children have even influenced their mothers' artistic endeavors. Van and Gail began decorating their works with fish when Gail's oldest daughter, Austen, began asking for lamps adorned with fish.

In fact, that's how much of the sisters' art originates. "A lot of times, customers will suggest things," Van said.

Longtime customer Shirley Drell said she buys the Wensils' pottery because it's practical and attractive.

"I like the style and I like the fact that I can use it in the microwave," said Mrs. Drell, who has bought soup and salad bowls, teapots and cream and sugar bowls. "Everything is nice."

Currently, the sisters participate in 15 shows a year from April through December. They used to do 18 to 20 shows a year but found it difficult to keep pottery in stock. They also missed home. "Fifteen allows us to space it out," Van said. "This is the way we like it."

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