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21Country: Joe Pelka Ceramics, a lifetime at the potter’s wheel

HUNTERTOWN, Ind. (WPTA21) - Location, and opportunity brought Joe Pelka to 21Country 18 years ago.

The artist from Ojai, California started selling ceramics early in his career, which is now around 40 years.

But earning enough income to supplement the costly west coast living quickly became a problem for Pelka and his wife.

“We were renting a house and it’s really difficult for the amount of money it took to buy a house,” he told us. “We visited Fort Wayne and realized we could have a ceramic business and buy a house at the same time — which is kind of unusual in California, almost impossible!”

Pelka chose Indiana for its proximity to big cities in other states.

He figured Fort Wayne offered reasonable travel time to opportunities nearby.

But the potter learned the Summit City’s art scene was impressive, and its creators tight-knit.

“We didn’t really zero in on the art market here in town, or if there were even artists here,” he said. “Then I started doing the Covington Art Fair and started learning, or meeting new artists in town here and it’s a pretty vibrant community.”

“The mindset of the Midwestern ceramic art lover is very strong here, and they really know what they’re looking at,” he said of his customers.

Now at home in his Huntertown workshop and gallery, Pelka has spent years creating pots for the community.

“The clay body I use fires at a much lower temperature so I can achieve a lot more color than high fire ceramics, where you have a lot of browns and greens,” he explained. “I use a lot of Koi fish, snakes, and frogs, salamanders — things that nature has inspired me to do.”

Pelka says his style, which some have described as Asian and Native American, is likely due to influence from his upbringing in California.

“It’s changed throughout the years,” he shared, “hopefully my designs always change because I always try to change something each and every year, to do something brand new.”

The potter can spend several weeks focused on a single task, like molding, trimming, and building elements for his work.

Sometimes he’ll spend days glazing unfinished pieces, before letting them complete after a few hours in the kiln.

During the pandemic, he had a chance to shift his attention to a different art medium.

“There were times where I was painting when I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll slip into being a painter for a while and not work with clay’,” he admitted. “But it draws you back in. If you don’t work with clay for a while you’ll start missing it and start feeling like you need to be creative.”

Several times throughout his art career, Pelka was forced to work other jobs and trades.

He told us bartending taught him to talk easily with people he didn’t know, and he learned valuable skills through cabinet building.

Attributes he says play a role into running a successful studio today.

“I’m blessed to be doing what I’m doing,” the artist said. “I feel very lucky to be making a living doing something I love to do.”

“There’s been times where I’ve been thinking to myself, ‘Well, how long will I be a potter?’” Pelka shared. “I hear of people retiring and that doesn’t sound appealing to me. I want to work forever.”

Pelka Ceramics is on 14529 Lima Road in Huntertown.

He will demonstrate his work at his studio October 9-10 during the Falling for Art, Artists’ Studio Tour he organized with his wife.

Pelka Ceramics is just one of fourteen workspaces open to the public for that event.

You can find more information here.

Author Profile Photo

Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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