Color, whimsy mark potter’s art

Elaine Unell ceramic art.jpg

By Jim Winnerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Artist at work: Elaine Unell, 68, is a lifelong St. Louisan and member of Congregation Shaare Emeth. A mother and grandmother several times over, Unell retired after 33 years of teaching at six  schools in the Parkway School District. 

How would you describe your art?              

For the last eight years, I have been a potter “playing” with clay. I am always experimenting and creating new and different ceramics. Lately, I have been interested in work that is more whimsical and colorful.  I have been making pieces that look like stacks of individual cups and bowls but are actually attached and open from top to base.  Some can be used as unique pitchers or teapots, or sculptural art. I call the series “My Husband Likes to Help Do Dishes” because they look like how he stacked the dishes.

Do you sketch out a piece before starting?


Sometimes, but I also like to start with a thought and let the clay tell me what to do as it turns on the potter’s wheel. Usually, I do not have a firm idea how a piece will turn out. I like spontaneous creativity.

 How did you get interested in being a potter?

I had signed up for an oil painting class, but it was cancelled. Then a friend asked whether I wanted to take a pottery class together, but I never was very good at it the few times I had tried before. Also, I didn’t think I’d like getting clay under my nails. I tried it and soon became addicted to it.

Where do you get the ideas to create your art?

My work is a combination of what I want to try, combined with observing the pottery of others, which helps me with technical skills. Beyond that, I just let the clay and my hands dictate the rest. Some of my best pieces are serendipitous. Each of my pieces is entirely unique.

Do you get commissions?

Recently, in response to a request from Shaare Emeth, I created a sculptural piece for Tikkun Middot. It functions as an oil candle. The design represents the middah of kavod, which is “honor, dignity and respect.”

How many hours a week do you work?

When I can, I spend at least 12 hours a week working in the studio (at Craft Alliance and Kruger Pottery). 

Do you come from an artistic family?

My father was good at working with his hands and designed many objects out of metal or wood. One is an aluminum menorah, which has been displayed at the Washington University Hillel House since the late 1950s. My sister is an artist and a writer. My children are also very creative. Most of the art displayed in my home was created by my family, which makes it very meaningful to me.

What is the price range for your work?

Pieces range from $15 to $180 depending on their complexity and the studio time needed.

Where can your art be purchased? 

Currently, I have pieces for sale in the Craft Alliance Gallery and also in Fine Art of Missouri, which is a shop at Chesterfield Mall.