The rocket scientist's sculptor

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Clay sculptor Rosie MacDonald's father sent a clear message as she applied for colleges: You will not be an artist; there's no money in it.

"It's funny how those two words, 'starving' and 'artist,' always go together," MacDonald said. "Art is supposed to remain a hobby and then you have your real job."

The irony in her father's advice was that he started his career as a rocket scientist and made hand-carved wooden signs on the side for fun, but when the rocket industry weakened, his sign business thrived.

"It was his sign business that ended up carrying us through," MacDonald said. "He was wrong. There is money in art."

And, whether he wanted to or not, he passed his talent on to his children.

"Dad would be working on a sign and ask my sister or I to draw him a deer," she said. "And we would. We didn't know that we couldn't, that was never taught to us in our house. It was expected of us that we could."

MacDonald and her sister were natural artists.

"My sister was a fantastic artist, but she became a math teacher, instead," she said. "It's kind of sad. It was a waste."

MacDonald can't remember a time in her life when she wasn't making art.

"I've always done it, and I've always sold my work at fairs and in galleries," she said. "I have to. It's part of me."

MacDonald's kiln and clay carving tables dominate her living room. Three-quarters of the room is art, one-quarter is set aside for the couch, entertainment center and a huge Necky kayak.

MacDonald tried being a potter for a while, but got bored by just making pots, she said. She was, in her soul, a sculptor.

"The pots just became a vehicle for sculpture," she said.

Now, she relies on her friend, potter Sue Binsfield, to throw the pots. MacDonald receives them, still wet, and sculpts them into other shapes or adds faces.

"It's pretty unusual for a potter to let you tear apart their work," MacDonald said.

MacDonald, also known as "The Mad Sculptress," is famous for the clay suns and moons that she's been making for years.

"But I'm sick of those," she said. She hopes to slowly wean the public from the suns and moons to an interest for her thick, intricately carved clay tiles.

"What I like about the tiles," she said, "is that I can be more free with the size. My kiln is small, but I can make a wall-size piece because I do it one tile at a time.

"It's also a nice return to where I started as a child, drawing bas-relief (images) just like my father did with his signs."

Her biggest challenge, which she has yet to solve, is her terror of a piece breaking in the kiln. She can spend days carving an image, but one wrong calculation during firing and the piece is gone.

MacDonald's work, the pieces that survived the entire process, will be included in tomorrow's Pottery and Sculpture Sale, put on by the Steamboat Clay Artisans at the Depot.

"I'm excited to see what else will be in the show," she said. "Sometimes you go to these shows and you get bored because everything starts to look the same.

"But these potters are very aware of each other and they are all pushing themselves, stretching their work, so that it is different."

The Pottery and Sculpture Sale will be the first official event hosted by the Steamboat Clay Artisans, a group that formed after working together to produce the bowls for last fall's LIFT-UP Soup Bowl Supper.

"I guess it's good karma for the group," MacDonald said. "It started that we were just donating our time for a good cause, and then they got addicted to being around each other."

Being around so many other artists is a new experience for MacDonald.

"Until I met this group, I was alone for so many years," she said. "But as soon as I met them, they started telling me everything -- sharing ideas about glazes and techniques. It was great. I'd been doing the same thing that I learned 30 years ago."

MacDonald plans to enter a large bowl, a dragon sculpture and several tiles in the show, including a tile piece that she copied from one of her sister's drawings.

"My sister died a few years ago," she said. "But I still have this drawing that she did 20 years ago. I found it in the garbage.

She started the piece at 2 a.m. and didn't stand up until it was finished late the next afternoon.

"I was still in my nightgown," she said. "Now I'm afraid to fire it, because it was so much work."

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