Malley Weber of Kennebec Clay Works shapes clay harvested from a local source. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — There’s a plastic bag on the bench in Malley Weber’s pottery studio with a handwritten label: “Ted’s stream.”

Inside the bag is clay.

It’s blueish green. There’s a spot of mold growing on it. The texture is a little crumbly and coarse, not quite like the smooth stuff that’s used for classes here at Kennebec Clay Works. Weber calls it “wild clay,” and she collected it from, as she wrote on the bag, the bank of a neighbor’s stream with his permission.

April is mud season, when Mainers often think twice about driving down a dirt road or trekking into the woods in a new pair of hiking boots. Weber, however, thinks about wet earth year round. She is one of a very small number of potters in the state who digs clay from the ground herself and uses it to make ceramics. (And while the conditions right now might be ideal for mud pies, they are actually terrible for harvesting clay. Imagine trying to dig up a bucketful.)

“The minute I started working with clay, I was kind of curious about, where does this come from?” said Weber.

Most artists order clay from commercial suppliers for the simple reason that digging your clay and cleaning it up to use is a huge amount of work. But it does form naturally in the ground, and Maine is rich in deposits that tell the story of the glaciers that were here 14,000 years ago. When the ice melted, it released sediment into the area, and then the ocean flooded the space where the glacier used to be. The result is a blanket of blue-green marine clay called the Presumpscot Formation.


An unfinished piece by Malley Weber of Kennebec Clay Works. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bonnie Newsom is a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, an assistant professor at the University of Maine and an archeologist who has studied Indigenous ceramic technologies for 20 years. She has found ceramics all over Maine, including in hundreds of shell heaps in coastal areas, and said people started making clay pots here about 3,000 years ago. That development allowed people to heat and cook food directly in the fire, instead of using hot rocks that had been heated in the fire and then added to water.

The pottery can provide clues about the lives of the people who used it. For example, Newsom found pots near Howland that had a lot of added materials to make them stronger, such as crushed granite. Those pots were hardier and perhaps better suited for constant travel on the Piscataquis River. But Europeans brought metal pots that generally replaced the clay ones made by Wabanaki people, and the tradition didn’t continue.

“It occurred to me that there was a real disconnect between people who in the past made and used ceramics and contemporary Wabanaki people,” she said. “That’s not to say that everybody was not knowledgeable of our ceramics heritage, but it really isn’t something that is prominent within our communities like our basket traditions which has thrived because of the efforts of brilliant basketmakers who kept it alive.”

So she is working to reclaim that knowledge and bring ceramics back to the Wabanaki community today. She and Weber hosted a camp for community partners to experiment with clay, and they tried to fire pots in an open flame as it would have been done thousands of years ago.

“It validates who we are as Indigenous peoples,” said Newsom. “Oftentimes, this type of pottery gets labeled as primitive, and it really isn’t. Those messages affect our identity and our understanding of ourselves, particularly among our young people. One of my goals is to dismantle that thinking not only among non-Indigenous peoples, but within the communities ourselves, to build up our young people to understand that our ancestors were quite sophisticated in this.”



Centuries later, the glacial marine clay fueled the success of Maine’s brickmaking industry during the 19th century and until the Industrial Revolution. (Today, one manufacturer of waterstruck bricks remains in the entire United States: Morin Brick in Auburn.)

Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts was born out of the death of one such factory. In 1974, a woman named Margaret Griggs tried to revive the business on property she owned in Newcastle and Edgecomb. When the business folded, she was left with a giant pile of locally mined glacial marine clay and two large beehive kilns. She turned to artist friends who decided the spot would be ideal for a ceramics residency program.

Reeder Fahnestock is now the center’s studio manager. He said that clay pile was for years an important resource for the artists who visited the property. Some would mix it with other clays in the studio to make a hybrid material, while others would use it straight off the hill. But over time, it became less workable. Eventually, the pile was touched only for one major project every year, when a visiting artist would be required to use it to make 500 plates for an annual fundraiser. But even that was becoming too much; Fahnestock said artists often had to scrap plates because of, say, an errant twig that had escaped their notice until too late in the process.

“It was a very coarse clay, and it had impurities in it, so it was not particularly suited to, say, functional work,” he said. “It also had never been stored under cover, so it was exposed to the elements year after year after year.”

In 2020, Watershed replaced its original barn with a state-of-the-art ceramics facility. That rebuild also meant the end for the clay pile. But when the construction crew dug the foundation for the building, they hit “one of the purest alluvial clay deposits I have ever seen,” Fahnestock said. So he stored a couple buckets, just in case.

The center hosts residencies, workshops and educational programs on its campus. Sometimes, artists are interested in working with local marine clay or contact Watershed with questions about how to use the material. But Fahnestock said he doesn’t know of many who use it on a regular basis.


“What I have seen is mostly the desire to do this and experience it and experiment with it, rather than use that as the single source of clay in their studio practice,” said Fahnestock.


Wayne Village Pottery is the exception. All the clay comes from one very local spot – its back field. Sam Saunders said his parents bought the only brick house on Main Street in Wayne in the ’70s and soon started hearing stories about how the bricks had actually been made on the property. When Molly Saunders struck up a conversation at the local general store with a guy who had an excavating business, he told her that the field behind the house was all clay. Saunders said his mom had an interest in pottery and asked the excavator to help her find some, and he showed up with a backhoe.

“Next thing, my mother was sitting on 10 tons of clay that they had pulled out of the ground and completely fabricated Wayne Village Pottery from there,” he said.

Molly Saunders shows the first piece that she made from clay harvested from her property in Wayne. She built a business, Wayne Village Pottery, which her son Sam now manages. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

She started learning more about ceramics. Her instructors immediately informed her that the clay from her yard didn’t have enough plasticity to use on the potting wheel. But she was stubborn, her son said, and soon she was making mugs and pie plates. She ran a small retail store in the summer and made ornaments for an annual winter market. She wasn’t making a large number of products and therefore didn’t need a large amount of clay.

“About every 10 years, we would dig 40 tons and then bag it all,” said Saunders. “That was my college job one year. I was always trying to find other people to sucker into doing that. We would bag it all and keep it under the barn.”


Twenty years ago, Saunders left a career in the restaurant industry and moved back to his hometown with his wife. With their help, Wayne Village Pottery transitioned to wholesale ornaments, which are still made from the same clay and are now sold in multiple states, including Michigan and Maryland. Molly Saunders also makes whistles shaped like loons that were featured on an episode of “Maine Cabin Masters” during the pandemic, and the overwhelming number of orders that grew out of the TV show prompted Saunders to experiment with casts and other techniques to reproduce his mother’s delicate work on a larger scale. She is semi-retired now, and he and his wife run the business.

Molly Saunders and her son Sam Saunders of Wayne Village Pottery. A small number of potters in Maine harvest their own clay and use it in their work. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Saunders said the original owners of their land were brickmakers and blacksmiths, people who used the resources around them to make something for their community. That self-sufficiency is inspiring to him, and he jokes about becoming an “off-the-grid pottery studio.” He wants to built a wood-fired kiln for his mother’s personal work and fuel it with pine trees from their land. He is experimenting with making glazes out of the clay itself so they would never have to order them.

“To be in the house every day, to look at the bricks that were made on site, this entire place was built with a resource that was 100 years away,” he said. “The DIY-ness of all that is something that has always been very attractive to me.”

The Saunders family last dug for clay three years ago and will probably need to dig again in two years. They have developed a system for removing rocks and preparing the clay (it involves a piece of equipment Saunders described as “like a spaghetti strainer”). But it’s still slow. Saunders is trying to find ways to make the process more efficient so he could share the clay with more artists and students.

“If I didn’t have bottlenecks, I could share more of this clay,” he said. “That would be the way of encouraging people to use it. The processing part is so much work alone, and a lot of people get deterred.”

Sam Saunders of Wayne Village Pottery works with clay harvested from a field on his property. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer



Weber didn’t get deterred. She went back to graduate school in 2009 and dedicated her research to wild clay. She found local deposits, learned how to process the clay and experimented to get the right firing temperature.

Weber is also a teaching artist at Watershed, and she developed online videos and resources for other people who were interested in learning more about how to use local clay. Her instructions involve drying out the wet clay for days, then crushing it into a fine powder to filter out organic matter. When the clay is completely dry, potters can mix in small amounts of other types of dried clays to improve the overall plasticity of the material and make it a little easier to use. Then she adds water and waits for weeks for the powder to absorb it. (Her tried-and-true test: Roll a sample of the clay into a coil. If it cracks and crumbles, it could be difficult to work with. If it remains mostly smooth, it should hold up.)

“My favorite part is just being outside,” she said. “This Earth that we are on is just constantly giving. It’s the exploration.”

A piece that Malley Weber made with local clay. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

At first, she was using 1,000 pounds a year in her own work. Today, she uses a fraction of that amount. She started to cut back because she felt like she was getting too far from her original desire to be more environmentally sound in her work. The pieces she makes from it now feel precious.

“I’m doing it more as a meditation, creating quietly, slowly, deliberately,” she said. “It’s a spiritual practice as much as it is an art practice.”

Newsom said it is important to be deliberate and mindful about what we take from the Earth and why. She always makes an offering when she digs clay.

“All of the materials that we work with as potters are gifts,” she said.

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