Throwing Caution to the Wind: A Tale of Two Potters
Having lived in midcoast Maine for more than 40 years, it is quite possible that you know Joe and Mary Devenney, full-time artists living in Jefferson. Maybe you had Mary as your art teacher or saw Joe’s name credited for a photograph in a New England magazine. Or perhaps, you haven’t met them in person, but you have a sense of them through their pottery. Those that know them, know how love surrounds them—a love for their art, love for each other, and a love for life.
Thus, I wanted to the know their story—the whole story—the story that brought them to be the artists and couple they are today. Their connection was unmistakeable from the first moment we started talking. As they began remembering along with one another, I slowly faded into the background and became a mere witness to this retelling of their story with each other.
When they first met, Joe worked in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, at the National Marine Fishing Service, spending a fair amount of time at sea surveying fish, and Mary was a teacher living in Derry, New Hampshire. Joe befriended one of his co-workers who just happened to be Mary’s brother, and on one winter weekend, he and Joe decided to travel up to New Hampshire to ski with Mary and her roommates. Joe was originally set to date one of the roommates, but the bonding experience of taking down a Christmas tree from Mary’s apartment and tossing it out a second story window ended up bonding the two for life.
“I was already an art teacher when I met you. And I was engaged to somebody else,” Mary remembered. Face flushed, she continued, “Then you came and helped me take down the Christmas tree, and I thought, ‘Oooh, I like that guy.’ And low and behold…”
In the mid-1970s, they found a spot in Waldoboro, Maine, an old farm house with a porch where they set their wheel and kiln. The unheated porch made working through the winter uncomfortable, to put it mildly, but the rent fit the bill. Much of the year was spent traveling from show to show, packing up their car, and driving up and down the East Coast to sell their handmade wares.
Young, in love, and yearning for more knowledge in ceramic work, they traveled to Alaska to take a course in glazing. Joe and Mary quickly gained the knack for glazing, a temperamental beast, and decided to move to Alaska when Joe got a job as a cartographer in Anchorage. Ready for the adventure, they packed up their car, and headed West. In the end, heading West seemed to be all the adventure they needed, and once they reached the Oregon coast, they realized Alaska wasn’t for them and turned around.
As it turned out, their adventure came in the form of buying a home in Jefferson, starting a family, and setting up a ceramic shop in their garage. While continuing the pottery business, Joe took on photography work for a stock photo company and eventually moved on to become a freelance photographer. Joe’s freelance jobs often took the family around the Northeast and the country. Once their daughters were a little older, Mary was hired as a visual art teacher in South China, where she taught for 18 years before her semi-retirement in 2017. I say “semi-retirement,” because as the world shifted into the digital age, Joe transitioned his time back into the pottery studio more and more, while Mary’s “retirement” allowed her to start spending more time there as well.
Inspired by each other, their family, and Mary’s students, the style and personality of their pottery has changed through the years. A handful of pieces from each stage are present in their home: farm-themed pieces, vibrant fish, and brightly overlapping squares of color. Today, the the current Devenney signature is in their glazing: gentle streaks and speckles of turquoises, greens, and blues, often accompanied with one or two tiny red hearts. They hand build and wheel-throw, or incorporate both techniques, and sometimes textiles are used to create texture. While most of their wholesale pieces are glazed, others, especially custom orders, are hand painted. With all of these pieces, styles, and techniques, the essence of both Joe and Mary are always evident in the final product. Sometimes one acts as the consultant for the other as one creates a piece, while other pieces are a collaboration from start to finish.
I asked them what it’s like to be a couple that both lives and works together, expecting to hear how they work through conflict, and that yes, they occasionally do get on each other’s nerves. I’m sure this does happen; however, what I heard instead was more about working in each other’s presence. That through working with one another over the years, certain tasks organically fell to either Mary or to Joe. They use each other as a sounding board, checking in with one another when they need to, but otherwise just getting the work done in an unchoreographed dance of two potters.
Their love for their art is as clear as their love for each another. They love to create. And not just pottery. Joe still photographs, and recently, Mary and Joe have begun a collaboration in which Mary takes one of Joe’s photos, blows it up, and layers paint over it—similar to an Instagram filter but in real life and a whole lot cooler! Their love of art has been passed down to their daughters as well—one has become a professional photographer, and the other is an art teacher, painter, and metalsmith.
Art is so ever-present in their lives that it would be difficult to tell the story of Joe and Mary without art as the common thread. Joe has hiked mountains to capture a photo. The pair travels to Portland for the clay they prefer to work with and consults with suppliers in upstate New York and western Massachusetts. Family vacations were often dictated by one of Joe’s photography jobs. Now, they mainly stick closer to home, selling to regional art and pottery retailers, and traveling to New England-based shows.
At Archipelago, we sell their mugs, vases, chowder bowls, and more, and the gallery has also shown Mary’s paintings. And while we receive many comments on their work, my favorite is from a man who called looking to replace one of their heart mugs, which broke when he accidentally knocked it off the counter. He explained, “This may sound weird, but I’ve used a lot of mugs in my life, and this mug just fits the best in your mouth.” Yes, the comment was a little weird, but it helps to sum up how Mary and Joe show up in the world and how their pieces exemplify that. This mug feels good in your mouth, because they want you to enjoy sipping whatever it is you’re sipping. There are hearts on their vases and pinch pots to remind you to love and that you are loved.
So next time you take a sip out of your Devenney mug, enjoy and savor it, knowing that they poured a bit of their love of one another, the world, and their work into the piece you’re holding.