Dale Donovan, potter, pioneer descendant, and a founding member of the Philomath Open Studio Tour, finds purpose in your morning ritual.
“I like the fact that someone finds a mug of mine that fits their hand and they use it every morning, because I’ve got a mug like that.”
Donovan has been a professional potter ever since he graduated from Oregon State University with an art degree concentrating on ceramics in 1969. Before receiving his higher education, he discovered his passion for ceramics while abroad during the four years he spent in the air force, and before that, was a graduate of Corvallis High School. He grew up on his family’s farm, on the same land his mother’s side of the family settled on in 1852. As a child, the farm served as an apple orchard, and Donovan recalls a very chilly winter he spent as a 10-year-old packing the apples for distribution. However, in 1957 the lower section of the property was lost to the bank.
“We didn’t have deep pockets,” Donovan explains, “the fruit market is always a fickle business.”
By the time he finished up his degree at OSU, Donovan’s parents were aging and decided to move into town. He chose to rent one of the houses on the property from them for four years and then bought the remaining 13 acres afterward. He built his first studio there 25 years ago, which, paired with the family farm, began his unique approach to surviving as an artist in a small town.
Most of the acreage on the farm has now been dedicated to growing Christmas trees, though a handful of acres are still devoted to the family’s apples. The original farmhouse still stands adjacent to Donovan’s studio and is rented out, while he resides in a newer home on the property. The studio contains a display room that is open to visitors 24/7 under a system of trust. Surrounding the buildings is a beautiful landscape, combining the agrarian charm of the rows of young noble firs, the natural grace of Oregon white oaks, and the tranquility of more manicured Japanese gardens, together creating the perfect backdrop for the weddings that Donovan has previously hosted and officiated.
These different elements allow Donovan the means to do what he loves for a living, and the Philomath Open Studios Tour (POST), which just wrapped up its annual showing, has made a significant contribution as well.
“I’ve been fortunate because I’ve got three things going on: the POST that begins in October, then I move right into November when I have my Christmas tree farm. I sell a tremendous amount of work to the Christmas tree people coming out…then the other thing I have are these two guest houses on the property…I sell a lot to people who come in,” he explains.
During the POST, Donovan gets the chance to interact one on one with people who are interested in his work. He can describe to them his process, give them a tour of his studio, and learn about how individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds connect to his pieces as well. Visitors are often new to the concept of a studio open around the clock, and Donovan encourages their curiosity to come back whenever they please. Many nights, he’ll be at home and see the lights down the hill come on.
“I go down the next day and there’s a check or cash in that little box, which is a nice way,” he describes.
Today, the vast majority of Donovan’s work is sold from his home studio, whereas pre-POST, at his peak of production, he had work in 27 galleries up and down the west coast. Donovan is grateful not to have to deal with the costs of showing pieces in so many galleries and sees the POST as enabling his work to get into the hands of the public more quickly.
“Having sales like this, we try to not have it [art] become a storage problem,” he laughs.
The POST has been going on for over 15 years now and has increased from a dozen volunteer members running the event to over 30 today. Each member pays a fee that goes to advertising the event and attends meetings to discuss organizational aspects, which are held at Donovan’s home. Though he admits, “our group has gotten so big it’s hard to get everybody in there now.”
Each year, members with studio spaces on the tour route invite guest artists to show with them to keep things fresh. In addition, members’ own work is always evolving. “It’s been really fun to watch the other artists’ work change and mature,” Donovan says.
This has played out in his own pieces, and Donovan foresees more changes to come as he and his newly-retired wife have taken up drawing classes together.
“I can do a pretty mean stick figure, but I want to get back into sketching and drawing, and after that I have a feeling a lot of my plates are going to start having drawings on them,” he describes, “that’s the whole thing about being creative, you want to always be developing and maturing as an artist and see what path this leads you down.”
His featured artwork, “She Rose From the Sea,” was created by Donovan as part of a fundraiser for the Marys Peak Alliance. It incorporates cedar wood from Oregon, arrowheads created by a partnering artist of Kalapuyan descent, ceramic tiles by Donovan, and copper pipes that represent the geologic formation of the highest point in the Coast Range.
Stay tuned for next year’s POST, and stop by Donovan Place at 5720 SW Donovan Place, Corvallis to see some of Donovan’s art and Christmas trees (late November through December).
By Ari Blatt