Tonya Sondej, which sounds like “Sunday” when pronounced correctly, has been making pottery since 2016*, and as a full-time job since 2021.
Her interest in ceramics started in 2006 during her honeymoon in the town of Vietri Sul Mare, Italy. “There were hand-painted tiles on all the walls and in the walkways. Terracotta everywhere. The whole town was vibrantly colored.”
“Everywhere you looked, there were just walls and walls of beautiful pottery, and I jokingly said to my husband, ‘this is what I want to do when I grow up.’”
Little did Tonya know (and when do we ever?) that “growing up” was imminent.
In 2016, Tonya was laid off from her job in product development and brand management.
“When I got laid off, I kind of transitioned into being a stay-at-home mom, which was like going from a very intense, deadline-driven, chaotic career to a kind of mundane life being at home all day. And I was crawling out of my skin.”
Projects around the house came to the immediate rescue. Tonya taught herself the arts of carpentry and picture molding.
“I redid my kids’ bathroom and both of their rooms. I repainted the whole house. I’m just somebody that needs to stay constantly busy.”
But a house has only finite surface area. There are only so many walls to paint, so many rooms to reimagine. Something else was needed, something with more dimension. As much as Italian inspiration, taking up pottery turned out to be a matter of necessity.
“I finally decided to take pottery classes and I sucked at it. But I’m the type of person that, if I’m really bad at something, it's like a challenge.”
“Then COVID hit and I got my own wheel. I went from practicing once a week at class to every day.”
The details of the basement are barely visible in the dull morning light, trickling in through terranean windows, traversing the patient pottery wheel, catching the glossy finishes of last week’s batch of pottery on the far shelf, and complementing the salty odor of the clay that fills the air, as though this little pottery studio is perched at the edge of the ocean.
Lightbulbs flicker on. Tonya emerges at the top of the stairs—hot drink in hand, hair in mussy layers, eyes open only enough to safely descend—and makes her way to the small table, where the notes for today’s pieces are laid out like a map.
Setting her cup down, she looks at the sketch of the first item on the list. She’d made versions of it before, though not recently.
Was it raw talent that allowed her to succeed? Or polished skill? Or patience? Or luck?
“Let’s see if I have another one in me,” she says, turning towards the clay tank, where her future is waiting to be shaped.
In addition to a creative outlet and a source of income, making pottery also functions as Tonya’s “alone time.”
In her house, “it’s a known thing. When Mom goes in the basement, she’s off-limits. I’m a social person, but I really need my quiet time, my no-one-talks-to-me time.”
Pottery, Tonya explains, is much like the process of meditation, “especially in the throwing process, because if you’re not in it and focused, you can’t throw. You have to be comfortable with uncertainty and just letting go. It’s hard to do with other people around.”
“It’s also made me comfortable with relying on my partner when I was starting my business, even as someone who’s fiercely independent, to be able to humble myself enough to say ‘I need help.’ I think that's also very common in the artist, which is why so many of us are starving because we don't ask for help. Thankfully, I’m not starving.” She laughs self-effacingly.
Opening the tank, the earthy smell hits her like a splash of mud.
Tonya digs her outspread fingers into the mass of clay and draws out a chunk about the size of a coconut. Putting a little bit back, she carries the rest to the wheel and starts it spinning, dousing it with cloudy water.
Tonya takes a seat and a deep breath. Every success and failure of the last few days runs through her mind: pieces of pottery perfected or flawed, sold or unsold, claimed or left behind along with the possibility of meanings or memories...the doubts and challenges that characterize the life of a working artist.
With a satisfying *SLAP,* Tonya throws the clay onto the wheel. Slowly, she starts shaping it to match the picture in her notes, and trusts her hands.
Before pottery, Tonya developed products and brands. “I led a creative team, but I wasn’t hands-on in the sense that I was creating anything myself.”
But still, “I’d get so excited to show [our work] to the CEO who ultimately made the final decision, and sometimes he’d say ‘I hate it’ and I’d have to start all over again. Or he would take it and dismantle it and I’d go, ‘he just destroyed everything I made.’”
Tonya laughs now, but I get the feeling she didn’t back then.
Yet, although she had her gripes with corporate life, working in marketing taught her how to turn the abstract into the concrete, to always be willing to rethink and start over—skills that would prove essential in her pottery business.
Artists who work on commission walk a fine line between their own artistic impulses and what the client wants. If the client wants a specific look, feel, color scheme, or to match a certain mood, Tonya approaches it with the sensibility of the designer, to wit:
This is a creative object, but it also needs to fulfill a certain function, and part of that function is its aesthetic. If it succeeds, great. And if it doesn’t, well...
How does that work? How does the artist take vague input from the client and turn it into a finished piece, to be admired, treasured, perhaps even handed down to the next generation?
“I ask a bunch of questions. Let’s say the item will be a gift. What month was the recipient born in? What is their favorite color? What is their favorite place? Do they like more contemporary or traditional things?”
But with specific needs comes its own set of risks. How does it feel when they don’t like what you come up with?
“My objective at the end is for them to be in love with the work I did, but if they’re not....The artistic drive can make a person idealistic, like you just expect your artistic creation to be instantly accepted, even embraced. It can be difficult to accept that they wanted something different. And it’s okay.”
So what do you do about it?
“Nowadays I just say to myself, ‘Well, I guess I didn’t communicate well enough’ and try again, if I can.”
Gray smudges mark Tonya’s face like bruises; muddy claywater trails up both arms. The object on the wheel is taking shape: squat at the bottom, oblong towards the top, open, but not a vase, not a bowl. The base is tapered, threatening top-heaviness.
But what the client wants, they get.
She stops the wheel, observes the object, compares it to the notes in the notebook. Its gray surface glistens.
A quick sigh. Tonya grabs up the soft item and crushes it into an indeterminate blob. With a new palm-ful of water, she readies the clay for a new throw.
The words of John Lennon pop into her head. “It’s just like starting over.”
Tonya is the child of a Sicilian and Irish mother and a Norwegian father. Being of Mediterranean and Irish ancestry myself, I take a moment to compare upbringings and learn that we both have large families: she has twenty-six first cousins.
With irresistible anticipation and not a little envy, I ask if her Scandinavian heritage—with that region’s rich connection to design—has had any impact on her pottery or creative outlook.
“I didn’t grow up with my father, so I don’t really know that side of my family.”
Empathic but crestfallen, I back off.
But there is more to the story. Traveling the world as an adult—especially visiting Ireland in 2019—led Tonya to consciously explore her Norwegian roots for the first time. “Most of what you see in Celtic art, like those fortune-telling runes, is actually from Norway when the Vikings went to Ireland. So I really thought that was cool because it bridges those two sides of my DNA.”
So being inspired, curious, creative, wanting to learn about the world, allowed her to get in touch with a side of herself that was previously unknown to her. Such is the power of world travel, I suppose. But the journey starts on the inside.
How does it feel to explore her Norwegian heritage?
“It makes me feel like a badass. Like a freaking Viking.”
After a second pursuit, the piece now sits still on the stopped wheel. All of the excess clay has been stripped away, leaving the item in its essence. Tonya looks once more at the notebook.
The pictures on the page and in her mind match the object that now stands before her, as far as she can tell. With a small knife, she cuts a square opening in the soft clay, towards the top.
The piece is ready. The kiln is waiting. She slides a spatula under the item, carries it to the kiln’s red-hot maw, and lowers it inside before closing the kiln tightly.
“Might as well get some hot chocolate while I wait.”
In other arts like painting (at which Tonya is also proficient) there are ample opportunities to correct an error.
But fixing a mistake in pottery is not always an option. “Once you get to the first firing, there’s no going back.”
Initially, “I didn't like that at all; it was something that I really had to get used to, because there’s so many things out of your control. And there’s no instant gratification.”
Where some people would quit (this writer most likely included), Tonya drew wisdom. “One thing I like about pottery is that it’s taught me to just kind of roll with things. Mistakes and epic failures are part of the process.”
She’s even had the privilege of passing along these lessons to a student.
“I asked him, ‘What’s the most important thing about pottery?’” Absent a response, she answered herself: “Letting go of everything that happened today before you sit at the wheel.”
The paper cup is empty, a light film of whipped cream around the rim. The kiln issues a loud “beep.” The item is done.
Tonya stops mixing pigments and replaces the lids on the glaze jars. She walks to the kiln and opens the lid. The heat warms her face; the sandy, burnt odor of the kiln’s interior always signals the moment before a discovery, good or bad.
The dons the large gloves and reaches in, raising the item from its hot perch. She carries it to the table like a relic, placing it beside two small items she made the day before: a tube, like a spout, and a C-shaped handle.
The item is coming together, thus far.
At the end of the day, why pottery?
“I’m very engineer-minded, very science-minded and creative and [pottery] takes care of everything I’m interested in.”
True, such activities engage the mind and keep one busy, but perhaps there were other forces at work. I push a little further. It turns out artistry and dexterity run in Tonya’s family.
Her mother, Josie, is a jeweler and sketch artist. Josie's father—Tonya’s grandfather—Vito, was a contractor and, later in life, a woodworker. Two of his creations—a bookshelf and a birdhouse—sit comfortingly in her home study. The complexity of Vito’s character becomes evident:
“Here’s this man at the end of his life, making beautiful pieces of woodwork; very gruff, very salt-of-the-earth, but also extremely sensitive. Like a walnut: tough on the outside, but soft in the middle.”
Then Tonya mentions her Aunt Rose, a quilter and stained glass artist. She turns and picks up a doll from the nearby table, holding it lovingly like a small child. “When my mom couldn’t afford to buy me a Cabbage Patch Kid, Aunt Rose made me one.” Some time later, Aunt Rose would also sew Tonya’s wedding dress. A piece of Rose’s stained glass lives in Tonya’s kitchen window.
These people were imaginative, proactive, and generous. The objects they created continue to affect her life years after receiving them. Such is the power of “functional art” as she calls it: creative objects, like pottery, that serve everyday purposes, allowing people and places and feelings to talk through time, to connect with other cultures, even other lives.
With such a lineage, finding herself in its world was a fait accompli. Someday, maybe Tonya’s creations will lovingly grace the homes of her own descendents, or serve as reminders of beloved memories to folks she’s never met.
With a sigh, Tonya falls back into her seat upon realizing that the spout doesn’t fit on the body of the would-be teapot. An air bubble expanded in the kiln; now the opening is misshapen.
The last few hours, the dirt and grime, the clay itself....producing only an error.
Tonya trained herself long ago not to run her hands through her hair at moments like this; deep breaths come to her aid. She rises and picks up the teapot, leaving the spout and handle—innocent, eager, seeking only a purpose—on the table.
Outside, the day is barely half-over; the sunlight filters through the tree branches, dappling Tonya’s backyard in a golden grid. She makes her way to a patch of ivy, where a birdbath stands proudly next to other pieces of imperfect pottery, each one nestled in the green, leafy bed.
Tapping the teapot gently on the edge of the bath, Tonya breaks its top covering off, so that it now resembles a wide-mouthed cup. She places it next to the others, tipping some water into it from the birdbath.
And with a final, deep breath of acceptance, she turns away and starts back towards her studio, to try again.
The jagged cup sits alone in the ivy.
A light breeze picks up, carrying a samara—the helicopter seed of the maple tree—towards the cup, which comes to rest in its few inches of water. No one is there to witness this hole-in-one, but a finch lands on the jagged edge, unbothered by its brokenness, unconcerned with human ideas of beauty. Her tan feathers gently match the hue of the broken clay, as though the two are made of the same stuff.
The small bird drinks from the cup, looks around, and, her thirst quenched, flies away.
Story: Mark Ludas @aulos.media
Photos: Peter Stog