You probably know Cynthia Spencer through myriad of lenses: as a teacher, a mentor, an advocate for the arts, a local artist, and yes, a creative genius. If you ask her what she calls herself she’s straightforward: “I’m a potter.”
Spencer grew up thinking she would be a doctor but says, “My mom always encouraged the creative side.” Originally of Korean descent, she was just five weeks old when she was adopted in 1958 and came to live in Oregon with her new family. She grew up mostly in Eugene and moved to Corvallis in 1985.
Her pottery includes (and is certainly not limited to) a variety of sculptures, mugs, bowls, and vases. She started working with clay as her primary medium in college but never thought she’d end up enjoying production pottery as much as she does. “My ideal is a one finger grip [on a mug], but some people want to have all their fingers in the handle. I play around with left-handed and right-handed.” She tries to make the cups twelve ounces “enough for a whole beer” and then she adjusts them slightly if they feel too heavy. She explains how she then makes them half inch narrower and then laughs and says, “I’m getting too technical.”
The ease with which she walks me through her kitchen past more than a dozen ceramic pieces to her handmade kiln in the backyard to her basement work area has all the texture of an afternoon with a close friend sharing the dearest particulars of a master artisan—an unusual mix that makes Spencer even more comfortable sharing her talents. The kiln stands grandly as she recalls building it by making her own sketches from one she worked with at Linn-Benton Community College. “I had a friend weld the outside metal and I cut the bricks to fit around the standard-sized shelves that I purchased.” Absolutely nothing is standard about her.
In the center of her workspace are the words—Compelling Sculpture—written in black ink. “I thought it was a good vision statement. I needed some inspiration.” As soon as the word inspiration comes out she stops. “Not inspiration. A path of what I wanted to make.” This conscious word correction tells more about Spencer as an artist than any specific description. Her work is continuous. She strives to keep learning and creating.
One way she keeps her ongoing path is by teaching pottery classes at the Benton Center, having taught her first class in 1990. “I used to teach a hand building class: the basics. Then a salt class, where students came in with their own projects. I was more the firing mom. To kick myself in the butt I taught a different decorations technique class.” This term she is excited about teaching a site specific installation for LBCC. She says the hardest part is for eight people to come to a consensus. But of course she’s up for the challenge.
Spencer’s newest project right now is bibimbap bowls. This is a traditional Korean dish served with rice and topped with seasoned vegetables, fried egg, and sliced meat. She’s having fun making the bowl the perfect size. “I just make what I want to make,” she smiles.
Formerly executive director of the Corvallis Fall Festival, Spencer is enjoying the daily life of a potter where she can focus on her art.
Currently her work is on display at North Santiam Hall Galleries at LBCC until Friday, Feb. 28. Her ceramic sculptures will also be included in an upcoming show at Art Elements in Newberg, Oregon from Thursday, Feb. 20 through Saturday, March 22.
by Mandy Clark