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UMW Galleries hosts retrospective of longtime potter Dan Finnegan's work

UMW Galleries hosts retrospective of longtime potter Dan Finnegan's work

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Making pottery didn’t immediately grab Dan Finnegan when a college roommate introduced him to the craft in his freshman year.

“He invited me to a class one night. I made a little pot and that set me on my course,” he said. “It never even got fired, but I carved a little sun in it and gave it to my girlfriend at the time.”

Of his early interest in pottery, Finnegan said, “I thought it would just be a cool hobby, but it crept up on me. I found that over the first few years that my time was always in the studios. I really loved it, but I never had any models for making a career out of it.”

He figured it out in Fredericksburg by way of England.

Universities and colleges came and went for Finnegan. He attended three before finally making his way to Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire, England, in the late 1970s, where he learned how to couple creativity with running a business. Winchcombe has been around and profitable for more than 200 years.

“It’s one of the oldest potteries in the Western world and it’s very, very, renowned place and I was very fortunate to work there,” said Finnegan. “The emphasis there was on really finely crafting beautifully made work, much simpler than what I do today, but there was also an esthetic that I have adopted and sort of embraced. It has guided my work most of my career.”

University of Mary Washington’s duPont Gallery will host a 40-year retrospective of more than 100 pieces of Finnegan’s work, with an opening reception on Oct. 28 from 5–7 p.m. He will give a talk about his art at the Hurley Convergence Center and via Zoom Oct. 29, from noon to 1 p.m.

While Finnegan was an apprentice in Gloucestershire, he helped produce wood-fired useful pottery and earned $30 a week. After he returned to the United States in 1980, he found his way to Fredericksburg.

“When I came back to the States, I didn’t have the money to start my own business. There was a pottery that existed in Fredericksburg. I answered an ad in a pottery magazine, and they hired me to be a manager,” he said.

And that’s how Fredericksburg became Finnegan’s home.

“I was paid a salary and I was given a place to make pottery. That was overarching. I would have moved to many, many places to work, but this is the place I was given the opportunity.”

Finnegan managed the pottery for three years, then bought out the partners.

For years after that, Finnegan made pots and sold them out of his little shop behind the building that now houses Sammy T’s restaurant, where he met people who are his friends to this day.

Finnegan said his watershed moment came in 2001. He had a tiny school in a spot across the street from his studio that was becoming successful, so he was looking to expand. That expansion became LibertyTown Arts Workshop.

“I never had any dreams of building a big arts center. I often leap before I think, and I did,” Finnegan said. “I was looking for 2,000 square feet and I found 12,000 square feet. I kind of changed my plans and borrowed a bunch of money from local people and built an arts center.”

Throughout his time in Fredericksburg, Finnegan took on a dozen or more paid apprentices and taught them the skills they would need to succeed at the craft and at business.

“I never tried to pass on my esthetic. I’m sort of proud of that. I’ve taught them about skill and about how to look at things, and I exposed them to the wider world of ceramics history and museums and what’s happening contemporarily in our field,” Finnegan said.

Some of his assistants have gone on to teach others and some have successful careers.

“Pottery is this traditional art that continues to be passed on over thousands of years,” Finnegan said. “I’m just a little piece of that stream and I feel like part of my role is to keep it moving.”

Finnegan, whose pieces ranges from $50 to $2,000, said he still keeps usefulness in mind when he makes his pots.

“I often describe myself as an explorer in the studio, but the main thread through these 40 years has been pots for the table, but I have always tried new things,” said Finnegan, who has bonsai pots, with bonsai trees in them, at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Some of his pieces are also held in a number of private collections, including the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

Finnegan continues to fire his pots in a wood-fired kiln as he learned to do in England. He said he loves the finish the flames impart.

“I love sticking wood in the hole and making it get up to 2,400 degrees. Instead of big gas burners blasting in the kiln, it’s the gentle fire, so I love that whole process,” Finnegan said. “It takes a long time, but I really love the finished result, but the work is getting harder.

“I’m 66 years old and it’s hard work, but I still do it because I love what it does to the pots.”

Age, Finnegan said, has made him more contemplative about his work that he now does at his home in the woods outside of Fredericksburg.

“I don’t want to make tons of little things that I’m just bashing out. I take a lot of care with my work now. I’m slower and I’ve become more particular as life has gone on.”

Show curator Jon McMillan said there’s an array of work in the UMW exhibit that is likely to contain something for everyone.

“This show showcases 40 years of Dan’s work here in Fredericksburg. The variety of objects that he’s made over that time period, the depth and breadth of the form he’s experimented with, the surfaces, the glazes. There’s so much variety,” said McMillan, an associate professor at UMW’s department of art and art history. “It’s something everyone will be drawn to, I think.”

McMillan said, owing to its size, the show is likely to intrigue.

“Another thing that I think is really cool about it is that it’s very rare to able to see artist’s work, especially a potter’s work over such a long time period, all together seeing the progression and seeing how things have changed, maybe how they’ve stayed the same.”

Visitors to the exhibit will see works sorted into groupings of differing forms, such as pitchers, teapots and serving dishes.

“You really do get to compare and contrast the things that Dan has done over the years within each little vignette of a form. It’s going to be exciting in a lot of different ways,” McMillan said.

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