LARGO — John Moore's pottery is anything but commonplace. For starters, he sells his works through his business, the Hairy Potter, which conjures up associations with the Harry Potter novels or, well, a hairy potter. But it is the pottery, not the potter, that is hairy, and the hair is from horses.
For 19 years, Moore has incorporated hair from the manes and tails of horses, gathered up from stables at grooming time, into his pottery designs. The technique is rooted in the traditions of the Apache Indians.
"I read an article many years ago about this technique," said Moore, 59, who works in the garage and on the porch of the small Largo home he shares with his fiancee, Mary Hayman. "It was an Apache custom to honor a fallen war horse by putting its hair on a pot."
It takes two firings in the homemade kiln behind his house to get the horsehair attached to an urn, a bowl or a decorative vase. After the second firing, Moore uses large tongs to remove a vessel from the 1,200-degree oven and quickly applies strands of horsehair to the hot surface. The hair sizzles, turns black, and forms a design on the object.
"I try to lay the hair where I want it to go," he said, "but it moves around on the hot surface of the pot."
Horsehair is sometimes joined with Spanish moss to produce yet another effect. A vessel with Spanish moss acquires a reddish hue and requires three firings. As the vessel cools, the color continues to darken.
"You never know what you're going to get in the end," said Moore. "The color and design can change."
After cooling, the vessel is washed and polished.
Each piece is one-of-a-kind. To some, Moore affixes handmade wooden handles; to others, decorative lids. While the vessels can be used as vases for flowers, they are not designed to be useful.
"Primarily I make decorative art pieces," said Moore. "They are not glazed but polished and shouldn't be used for cooking."
The unique form of pottery, blending raku clay with porcelain in equal proportions, has garnered Moore more than 20 awards at art shows over the years, including a recent first place in clay at the annual art show in Mount Dora.
Much of Moore's work is whimsical. Eye-catching three-inch clay eggs with thin dangling legs are big hits at art shows, selling for $40 each. Some sport mouse ears and tails. And some, which he calls "eggshibitionists," are anatomically identifiable by gender. The public, he said, seems to enjoy those.
Another type of piece, "Crackpots," lure the eyes of passers-by at shows. Crackpots may be pots with a visible crack laced up with thin leather strips, or sculpted, clothed female torsos bearing laces resembling those on a woman's corset. The clothing is crafted from clay but looks like cotton or denim fabric when stained.
These torsos have become the domain of Hayman, who is learning the art of pottery from Moore.
"I use my great-grandmother's old-fashioned rolling pin to roll out the clay for these," she said.
Moore also has begun patchwork art fashioned from deliberately broken segments of a fired clay piece which are then glazed in different colors and reassembled. These colorful pieces are formed into platters, bowls and other vessels.
Turning and firing clay had not been on Moore's horizon as a high school student in his native New Hampshire, but boredom with school left him looking for an easy credit. He opted for a pottery class, thinking it couldn't be hard. The class changed his life.
"I was amazed with that class," he said. "I got to that pottery wheel as often as I could, including free periods and days off."
However, for many years Moore worked at almost everything but pottery, including construction, welding and work in a chemical plant to support his former wife and three children.
In the mid 1980s, then divorced, Moore moved to his hunting camp on a New Hampshire lake, making that his new home. That's where he returned to clay.
"Everything I learned in high school came back to me after a 10-year hiatus," he said. "I even found a job teaching an adult education pottery class at the University of Maine."
He began by making standard dinnerware because it sold easily, but it left him uninspired. In 2001, Moore moved to Florida hoping to avail himself of the many year-round art shows.
"I reinvented myself in Florida," he said.
Moore sells his work mostly at art shows in Florida and other Southern states. Prices range from $15 for a two-inch mini-pot to $600 or $700 for a two-foot-high meticulously crafted vessel.
Much of his work is on display this weekend at the Mainsail Art Festival in St. Petersburg, where he has won several awards in past years.
In the meantime, the artist appears content sitting at the potter's wheel or waiting beside the outdoor kiln.
"This is a passion for both me and Mary now," he said of his fiancée. "I want to keep doing this as long as people enjoy my work."
Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected].