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Grand Forks artist fueled by passion for pottery

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Holly Van Santen Knipe shows off some of her work in her home studio. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Holly Van Santen Knipe, a potter, throws a bowl in her studio in rural Grand Forks this week. Knipe is this year’s “featured artist” at the Art on the Red festival which runs Saturday and Sunday, June 9 and 10, in downtown Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

Holly Van Santen Knipe became fascinated with ceramics while serving as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Central America.

Knife was fresh out of college, with a bachelor's degree in family studies from NDSU, in 1989 when she headed off to a tiny Costa Rican village where she worked for more than two years to improve the lives of women and children.

As a college student, she had never explored her creative side, said the Battle Lake, Minn., native. "I was pretty serious about what I was studying."

That all changed after her immersion in a culture influenced by the ancient Mayan and Incan empires, said Knipe, who remembers being drawn to the hand-built vessels and plates she saw in Latin America.

When her commitment to the Corps ended, she spent nearly three months backpacking through South America.

"It was during that time that I bought my first piece of pottery, a plate, in Peru," Knipe said.

She carried that piece on her back for months, and still treasures it.

After landing a job and moving to Grand Forks in the fall of 1992, she enrolled in a continuing education course in ceramics at UND and, later, took college courses to learn glaze formulas and how to fire kilns.

"Making pottery is hard," she said, but "there's an addiction about making it."

Don Miller, then-UND art professor, was "the most influential of any potter I've known," she said. Miller, who's retired from UND and heads the Muddy Waters Clay Center in Grand Forks, set the bar high for his students.

At the time, Knipe knew she had earned approval when Miller asked her to create 10 pieces to mark the 100-year anniversary of the ceramics program at the UND Art Department.

'Best in Show'

Knipe, who has been making pottery for 18 years, said her studio at her home near Merrifield, N.D., is her "happy place."

She was "totally shocked" when her artwork was selected as "Best in Show" at last year's Art on the Red, she said. That honor qualified her to be the featured artist in this year's festival.

Knipe, whose pottery will be prominently displayed this weekend on the Greenway, will show and sell platters, mugs, bowls and tall floor vases that exhibit formation, glaze applications and firing techniques she's developed.

"I like to make pieces that are functional but still pleasing to the eye," she said.

"I believe the ability to eat and drink from a handmade piece of pottery, as well as enjoying the look and the touch, lets the consumer develop a relationship with the piece."

This is the fourth time "Holly the Potter," as she's known, has had a booth at the arts festival.

She most enjoys making or forming the piece, she said, and her favorite objects are platters and platter-bowls.

"What I dislike most is glazing, because it's time-consuming. It's a lot of work," she said.

Knipe dips, pours or sprays glazes onto objects she's creating.

"I do a lot of spraying of glazes," she said. "If you feather one glaze into another glaze, you get another color."

Her pottery is distinctive for hand-carved designs which decorate the mat, neutral-colored rim or a section of a piece, in contrast to a reflective, richly colored section.

She also uses handmade stamping tools, including a bull's-eye image, that serves as her personal signature.

"I put it on all of my pieces," she said.

Knipe also enjoys experimenting with color.

"I like to have more than one color in a piece," she explained. "Sometimes I use spray glaze and dip glaze on one piece."

The process of firing the piece can be frustrating if things don't go as planned, she said. "You can spend a lot of time in the forming stage, but if you misfire your kiln, all your work is for naught."

A misstep in firing—her gas kiln reaches 2,300 degrees—could result an unintended glaze color, she said. "There's a lot of science to it, what with the chemicals and all."

Most of her pottery is safe for food, oven, microwave and dishwasher. Some of her pieces which have embedded shards of recycled glass should not be placed in an oven, she said.

Although her ceramic pieces are works of art, Knipe emphasizes their utilitarian purpose to those who admire them.

"I'll have customers who say, 'I'm going to put this up on a shelf,' " she said. "I'll say, 'Please use it.'

"I want them to use it."

Art on the Red

What: Arts festival with more than 100 fine artists, live entertainment, artist demonstrations, children's activities, food courts, beer garden

Where: Downtown Grand Forks' Town Square, East Grand Forks Cabela's parking lot, and Greenway

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free

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