Vince LaBarbera
Freelance Writer
November 29, 2016 // Local

Chosen to be a potter

Vince LaBarbera
Freelance Writer

Clay artist Tom Sherbondy, 75, sits at a potter’s wheel in Fort Wayne, working with a ball of clay placed in the center of a turntable that he rotates with foot power. During the process he presses, squeezes and pulls the soft clay upwards and outwards into a hollow shape. Eventually he throws the clay, drawing it up and shaping the walls to an even thickness. Thrown pieces can be further modified by the attachment of handles, lids, feet and spouts.

By Vince LaBarbera

A potter is someone who makes pottery. But that simple definition belies the amount of time, skill and labor that goes into the ceramic creations of clay artist Tom Sherbondy.

Sherbondy’s father, Harold, was a draftsman. Older brother Jim is an architect; older sister Sally is a commercial artist and younger sister Patsy studied art before becoming a teacher. Drawn naturally to the arts, and not long after graduating in 1959 from Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne, Sherbondy took a pottery class at St. Francis College (now the University of Saint Francis). Learning about sculpting and the use of clay sparked a desire to explore the medium, but life got in the way, he said. So it was just something he held in his heart for a time in the future.

Sherbondy spent one year at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. Thinking he might have a vocation to the priesthood, he enrolled at Our Lady of the Lake Seminary on Lake Wawasee, Syracuse, for a year, and studied another year at Dun’s Scotus Franciscan Seminary in Southfield, Mich. Finally, he discerned that the priesthood was not for him.

Sherbondy initially worked at Richmond Brothers in Fort Wayne, then spent two 15-year periods selling insurance and industrial chemical equipment. Shortly after meeting Betty Ann Nessel, they married in 1963 and were the parents of three boys: Mark, Craig and Brent, all of whom live on lakes in Northern Indiana. After Betty Ann died of cancer in 1993, Sherbondy also moved to a 100-year-old lake cottage on Sylvan Lake that was originally owned by his grandfather. He lived there for 20 years. In 2001, he married Anne Olry. They returned to Fort Wayne three years ago.

Sherbondy has belonged to several parishes throughout the diocese, but it was a St. Therese Christ Renews His Parish retreat in the early 1980s that forever changed him, he said, and subsequently brought pottery back into his life.

“The CRHP process was when I quit drinking. My participation in that retreat meant I had a support group for my sobriety, and the potter’s wheel for the time I used to spend in bars,” he said. He honed his skills at a fine arts school located on West Berry Street that later merged with IPFW, giving him 24-hour access to the arts department. For five years he had an opportunity to experiment with clays and glazes, sharpening his techniques for creating unique, sculptured pottery.

“For that last 35 years I’ve been spinning the wheel, sculpting and going to art fairs from Michigan to Florida. I often thought God had given me the gift of the potter’s wheel, but I never earned enough to even buy more clay. However, I did donate a lot of my stuff for silent auctions at churches and charity events,” he continued. “So I decided my gift of pottery was a way to ‘earn a giving’ rather than ‘earn a living.’”

He often continues to give a witness regarding how his sobriety came about through the gift of pottery. In fact, he considers going to art fairs more of a ministry than a business venture.

His “business” card evolved because “God was molding and fashioning me into a usable person,” he emphasized. It reads: “God is the Potter, We are the Clay.” It’s adapted from Isaiah 64:8, “…we are the clay and you are the potter…” and Sirach 33:13, “Like clay in the hands of a potter, to be molded according to his pleasure, so are men in the hands of their Creator, to be assigned by Him their function.”

Sherbondy had a pottery studio in his garage when he lived in Fort Wayne previously, and inside his lake home. But now that he and Anne are back in Fort Wayne he uses several studios for his work: one at an associate’s Fort Wayne home, another at Crooked Lake and the Sozo Gallery in Kendallville. He’s also enrolled at an Indianapolis wood-fire studio, where he creates larger pieces, and he spends six weeks a year at Garrett High School’s studio.

Sherbondy works on something about every day, creating a sculpture in three or four hours. Then it may need to dry for a month. “There cannot be any moisture in a piece,” he emphasized. “The clay forms a skin around itself and harbors the moisture inside, which has to work its way out over time. However,” he warned, “if a kiln is opened too soon the piece can just explode apart and all the work and creativity you’ve put into is gone. But, if there’s a computerized kiln available, such as at Crooked Lake, the piece can be placed in it and dried in about 14 hours.”

Next comes glazing, which Sherbondy feels is the most important part of the process – experimenting and coming up with colors that will interact with each other. “Knowing ahead of time from past experience what works and what doesn’t mix well helps to speed up the creative process,” he related. “I try to use my memory but at this point in my life sometimes it’s not very adequate,” he quipped. “It’s very seldom I can duplicate a previous work.”

Sherbondy has had a vision to moderate a regional, not-for-profit visual arts studio in Northern Indiana, where people can share their experiences and have pottery facilities they don’t have to invest in or have in their own homes. There would be lessons, workshops and artists invited to show new techniques, he explained. “The money paid to experience this learning would, hopefully, take care of the overhead. And the studio would not just encompass clay artists, but be open to other craft workers, veterans, mentally or physically disabled persons — anyone in need of a place to possibly unwind by expressing themselves creatively.”

In mid-November Sherbondy was anticipating approval for not one but two such studios; one in Auburn and the other in Fort Wayne.

“For three years I’ve wanted to found such a studio and now there may be two,” he exclaimed. “How unique is that!”


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