What started as a way to reward members for supporting Bunnell Street Arts Center has grown into an annual event that brings together artists of all talents with local potters.
Now in its 25th year, like the plates volunteers create, the Bunnell Plate Project completes a circle between creator and benefactor. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday at Bunnell, members donating $250 and more get first pick of this year’s plate. This year’s plates also will be shown online starting then, and out-of-town supporters can view the plates and then call Bunnell at 907-235-2662 to make pledges.
Members donating at the level of $125 or more get second pick starting at 11 a.m. Friday, May 18. A reception for this year’s Plate Project also is held that night from 5-7 p.m. followed by a concert with Tyler Langam at 7:30 p.m.
Ceramic artist Ahna Iredale of Rare Bird Pottery came up with the idea of the Plate Project 25 years ago, shortly after she moved to Homer from Soldotna in 1992. Iredale had joined the Bunnell board of directors.
“We were trying to come up with a thank-you gift for people becoming members,” she said. “We came up with the idea that we could organize the potters and get painters to learn how to use the underglazes.”
Iredale referred to the ceramic paint used to put images on the “palette,” the blank form of the plate. The Plate Project involves a double contribution from potters. First, they create the bare plates, either thrown on pottery wheels — Iredale’s preferred method — or made as slabs. Painters then come to Bunnell and either paint on plates there or take plates and paints home. Painted plates are then coated with a clear glaze and fired. The glaze gives the plate its “pop,” turning muted colors into dazzling art.
“It’s not just a fundraiser,” said Bunnell Executive Director Adele Person. “The project is first of all this beautiful collaboration between potter and painter, but it’s also pretty rigorous. Everyone is invited to paint, but we ask for commitment to paint, to inspire a $125 membership.”
Initially, Bunnell artists and potters held a potluck and painted in one session. Over the years the gallery has been the focus of painting. Some people come in and paint at quiet moments. Others join in group sessions. Some prefer to take paints and ice-cube trays of paint home to paint in private.
“A lot of people just came in off the street. They were the hot body. You want to paint a plate? Go ahead,” Iredale said. “… Not everybody is creative under the microscope. There were people walking in asking you ‘what are you doing?’”
That community art aspect makes the Plate Project special and “really speaks to the origin of Bunnell,” Person said.
“It’s a visual art project. Our visual art space in the front gallery is important not just to Homer, but to Alaska,” she said. “… It gives artists room to make a substantial, professional body of work.”
Anybody can paint a plate. Children often prove to be the most creative. The project has gone on long enough that now some young painters have emerged as accomplished artists. Some painters have moved on or died. Person said the Plate Project has become a great community art project, where children can paint with teenagers who paint with elders.
“It’s joined with different styles and different ideas of what is a great art plate,” she said. “… And you also have this partnership with the plate itself. This one is square. This one has texture. This one is round and blank. This one has a border.”
The trick in getting interesting plates has been in teaching people how to use the underglazes, Iredale said.
“Over the years we got really good at instructing people who were beginners to have success,” she said. “…That’s why when you walk in, you look at the wall — wow, fabulous results.”
Over the life of the project, Iredale estimates about 2,500 plates have been made, raising about $250,000 for Bunnell. The goal is to have at least 100 good plates every year. Sometimes that would mean creating 110 to 120 plates “just depending on the learning curve,” Iredale said.
Depending on the mood of the times or of the painters, some years themes emerge, Iredale said. Sometimes it’s political, like reactions to the Pebble Mine or climate change.
“It’s like a bumper sticker, a forever bumper sticker,” she said.
Some year themes are of nature.
“One year there were a lot of birds. One year so many flowers,” she said. “… A lot of fish. One year there will be a ton of fish and the next year one fish.”
With thousands of plates created, Iredale said it’s amusing to see where plates show up, like at potlucks.
“Even with my plates I don’t know where they end up,” she said. “It’s nice to go and rediscover a plate I’ve made.”
As a sign of the value people place on the plates, Iredale noted one place she’s never seen plates: at the Salvation Army or garage sales.
“They’re out there still giving,” she said.
Person said roughly $10,000 raised annually in membership is used by Bunnell to get more grant money.
“It really shows the community investment in the nonprofit, and that’s what leverages every other dollar that comes to Bunnell,” she said.
About a dozen potters contribute blank plates every year. To show its appreciation and showcase contributing potters, this year Bunnell sponsors a Homer Pottery Tour.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 19 and 20, people can take a self-guided tour of local studios, with pottery for sale at each location. Find the tour map at Bunnell’s website or pick up a printed copy at any participating studio, Bunnell Street Arts Center and other locations around town. For images of past plates and more information on the program, visit http://www.bunnellarts.org/2018plateprojectunderway/.
“Come join us,” Person said of this year’s Plate Project. “Come see the plates. It’s the coolest all-in art show.”