Ceramist thrives in Castleton countryside

The Old Ways in Rappahannock

It is often difficult to find goods made in the United States, much less made locally by hand. But in Rappahannock County, there are people who preserve old techniques that were developed generations before industrialization. These individuals are not just protecting the environment and helping the local economy; they are also preserving American art forms. This is the seventh in a series of articles about Rappahannock residents who are proud to carry on the work of artisans of bygone days by doing things “the old way.”

Most people ate the asparagus from their summer gardens; Castleton resident Libet Henze made decorative tiles with hers.

“I was going through a normal day tending to the garden, and thought, ‘Hm . . . I think I could make a tile from my asparagus,’” Henze said. “That sort of thing happens a lot when I’m outdoors.”

Henze is a ceramist and owner of Far Ridge Ceramics in Castleton.

Ceramist Libet Henze poses in her Castleton studio amidst some of her tiles. Photo by Kay Beatty.
Ceramist Libet Henze poses in her Castleton studio amidst some of her tiles. Photo by Kay Beatty.

“My business is three-tiered in that I create art tile panels and mosaics, functional ware and gifts, and decorative tiles for wall installation,” she said. “I used my asparagus to make both decorative tiles for hanging and for installation in walls. The tiles are part of a three-piece series that includes celery, onions and mushrooms, and blackberries, cherries and blueberries.”

Although her ceramics are primarily for indoor display, her work is often reminiscent of the outdoors, especially the land around her studio that is nestled deep in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“I love this land,” she said. “I always take notice of the details – the birds, bugs, flowers, everything. There’s so much to experience, to gain inspiration from.”

The interior of her studio is proof. On the walls and shelves are acorn squash and pepper bowls; fish dishes; carrot, turnip, berry and radish tiles; and numerous wall art pieces made from models of fish, snails, cicadas and other small creatures from her property.

“I found a dead lizard outside the studio and figured I’d create a model of its body,” she said. “I feel good about creating art in this way because I feel like I’m commemorating their lives.”

To make a new ceramic item, Henze creates a detailed clay model based on a sketch or idea. Using the model, she then casts a plaster mold. When the mold is dry she pours in liquid clay, which hardens as the plaster mold absorbs the clay’s moisture. Once the clay is firm enough, she removes it from the mold. She puts it on a wire rack, where it’s dried. Then it’s fired, hand-glazed and fired again.

Henze glazes tiles made from her first design, a bird on a vine. Behind her are tiles made from a mold of her garden asparagus. Photo by Kay Beatty.
Henze glazes tiles made from her first design, a bird on a vine. Behind her are tiles made from a mold of her garden asparagus. Photo by Kay Beatty.

“It’s a process that can take days, even weeks to complete, depending on the thickness of the materials and intricacy of the design,” she said. “I enjoy every second of the process, although working around a 2000-degree kiln in the summer can be challenging.”

Henze has always preferred working with her hands. Before ceramics, she enjoyed needlework and painting, although they were more hobbies than vocations.

“I majored in General Studies,” she said of her time at the University of Maryland. “I don’t know why I didn’t major in art because I was always hand-crafting something between classes.”

Although she didn’t get an art degree, Henze’s upbringing helped her find her own niche in the field. Born an American citizen in Germany, and raised in Turkey, the U.S. and Ethiopia, she was able to observe art in multiple cultural settings.

“Being exposed to so many cultures, places, landscapes, styles of architecture and people has nurtured a fascination with and admiration for the broad range of human creativity,” she said. “Some of that developed into ideas for my work. It might be a landscape or a stained glass window, a needlework pattern or wrought iron fence. Sometimes I only recognize where the idea originated after I finish a piece.” She noted that she has a series of mosaic tile panels that are based on tile pavements in a 14th-century medieval abbey in England and that some of her coasters are reminiscent of German and Australian folk art designs.

“I haven’t really translated any African influences into my work yet, though I have several designs in mind,” she said. “I’m sure they will surface sooner or later.”

Henze, who has lived in Rappahannock County since 1987, started making ceramics about 12 years ago, while she was also working for a Front Royal-based company that specializes in stained glass restoration. In 2005 she became a full-time ceramist. Her catalogue has grown every year, but her first designs are among the most popular.

“My very first tile, a bird on a vine, remains my best-selling tile,” she said. “I’ve nearly worn out the molds. Constantly making them is a happy reminder of my beginnings.”

Although Henze enjoys creating all the items in her catalog, the items she cherishes the most are the dog bowls with a paw print of her beloved dog, Joe, whom she adopted in 2009 from the Rappahannock Animal Welfare League (RAWL) in Amissville. He died from cancer in 2011.

“When I found out he had cancer I decided to make a model of his footprint,” she said tearfully while tracing the outline of Joe’s imprint in a deep blue ceramic dog bowl. “He happily obliged. Joe was a special dog.”

Patti Want, RAWL’s director, said the bowls Henze made with Joe’s footprint helped pay for Joe’s medical bills, as well as raise community awareness of special needs dogs.

“Libet, with some help from RAWL, went above and beyond to give Joe the best medical care possible,” Want wrote in an email. “Selling ‘Joe Bowls’ helped pay for Joe’s astronomical medical bills. Libet also thought it was a good idea to give part of the proceeds to RAWL (for general use). She is a selfless person who I am happy to know and to call a friend. Her dedication to Joe-the-shy-shepherd is an inspiration to me.”

Henze donates Joe Bowls to RAWL and other animal charities for fundraisers, and plans to donate a portion of the proceeds of all Joe Bowl sales to RAWL once all of Joe’s medical bills are paid.

“There are many special needs pets out there, like Joe,” she said. “I wish I could help them all.”

Henze plans to always support RAWL and other charities with Joe Bowls and other pet ceramics. She also plans to expand her business by hiring other ceramists and expanding her catalog.

“My clientele is building steadily,” she said, “My clients come from Rappahannock County and all over the United States.” She noted that a lot of her business in the county is in decorative tiling for kitchens and bathrooms.

“I love being able to make something unique that means something to someone, and make it a permanent part of their home,” she said. “I just can’t quite describe how good it feels.”

A selection of Henze’s decorative wall tiles and many other items can be found on her website, farridgeceramics.org, and on her Etsy store, etsy.com/shop/FarRidgeCeramics. Her work can be found locally at the Shops at Ginger Hill Antiques, on U.S. 211 between Washington and Sperryville, and her studio is part of this year’s Artists of Rappahannock Studio and Gallery Tour Nov. 3-4.