Art is life-enhancing on an infinite variety of levels; perhaps one aspect of that enhancement that we don’t experience as often as our ancestors did is being surrounded by useful everyday objects that are works of art in themselves. Way back in the day, before mass production, you’d either craft your own necessary items or make a deal with that one person in the village who’d developed a talent for working in leather, metal wood or clay and could create what you needed. Like music and storytelling, useful things were rooted in a place and very much touched by human hands—hard to imagine in our era of mass production. If you want more of that soul-enriching, handmade energy in your life, we have a suggestion—get to know the work of Kaete Brittin Shaw, sculptor and ceramicist extraordinaire, with a gift for functional objects. Shaw welcomes browsers to her High Falls showroom and offers an extensive selection of tableware, candlesticks, lanterns, platters, vases, teapots, and more. Her functional items are an important aspect of her body of work, encompassing cast porcelain pieces along with hand-built porcelain, mixed media, and outdoor sculpture. “I’m a one-woman operation, and I’ve been doing it for a long time, and there’s a lot of range in the work that I do,” she says. “Yesterday, we went down to New Jersey to an arboretum that has invited me to do a group of installations next year.
I’m very excited about that…I had very early success when I was in graduate school at New Paltz, and I’ve shown all over the country and spent a lot of time showing down in the city. And all of it, all through it, everything’s just kind of happened on its own.” Born in Boston, she grew up in Princeton, NJ and discovered a gift for languages while living abroad in Belgium with her family at age 11. At Swarthmore, she majored in French literature, the better to spend her junior year abroad. “Swarthmore had a ceramics studio, and I’d never been in one before, and it just really made a huge impression,” she says. “We didn’t have art classes for credit, so I did a lot of extracurricular time in the studio, and there happened to be a gifted teacher named Paulus Berensohn. One thing led to another, and he became my mentor and lifelong friend, and I believe he got me a scholarship to Penland [School of Crafts, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains].”
Berensohn died in 2017—four years after Shaw traveled down to Penland School of Crafts for his 80th birthday celebration. He had published “Finding One’s Way With Clay” in 1972, described in his New York Times obituary as “a guide to making pinch pots that blended instructions for making these simple clay bowls with reflections on art, the environment and spirituality, and that advanced the idea that creativity was universal.” Those themes vividly play out in Shaw’s own lifework. She would go on to study with Dr. Hugo Munsterberg at SUNY New Paltz while earning her MFA. “His specialty was far Eastern art, which I hadn’t explored, and he opened all that up to me. It probably had a strong influence on my vision,” says Shaw. That vision has led down a fascinating path, with works having found their way all over the country and beyond. Craft shows led to Madison Avenue galleries, the American Art Museum at the Smithsonian, to South Korea—and to Unison Sculpture Garden in New Paltz, among a long list of other Hudson Valley and Catskills adventures.
“I’m a big believer in visualizing,” she says. “So when I visualize something, it happens. Like this new project with the arboretum—I had been wanting a new challenge, and it showed up.”
Visualization informs every part of her process. “When I’m on a roll, when I wake up in the morning, I can see in my mind’s eye what I need to work on. I’ll go to sleep without an idea and wake up with one—that’s been a very useful tool, because it gets me right into the flow. I love being so into the flow that you don’t even realize time is passing." The disruption of the pandemic, and the later upheavel of moving her home from High Falls to Gardiner, resulted in less studio time; she’s excited at the prospect of getting her flow back on with the arboretum project and a show in Olivebridge that will take her back to her creative roots. “I’m going to be showing some of my teapots. They used to be my signature pieces, and they’re mature, so I’m excited about that. And two years ago, I was able to take over the downstairs area of the studio building as a gallery here in High Falls and show a whole body of work that I didn’t have room for upstairs: mixed media pieces composed of river wood from the Rondout Creek combined with porcelain. So now I have an entire wall of them.”
For a transformational break from your usual routine, be part of the experience and call on Shaw in her studio on Route 213. She welcomes visitors on Saturdays from 11 am-5 pm, Sundays from noon till 4 pm, and by appointment. “I just love my studio,” she says. “I’ve been in it since ‘85—it’s pretty full, so I’ve kept the new gallery very spare and simple. It’s almost like a meditation spot for me. And people do come in, you know; that’s actually the most interesting part. I never know who’s going to come through the door. I’ve made new friends and met very interesting people over the years. I love that. I’ve done a bit of teaching, but not much and for me that sort of replaces the interaction that you get from teaching. Things just unfold—I’m putting it out there that I’m up for new adventures, new challenges, and they seem to be coming in—I’m actually headed to Istanbul soon, and am hoping for new inspiration!”