The barbecue grills outside Michael Plourde’s house still smell of smoke, even though they haven’t been used in a couple of days.
You may wonder what Plourde was cooking, but that’s not quite the right question. If you go into Plourde’s shed, he’ll show you what was in the grills: beautifully intricate pieces of pottery, each with its own unique design, texture and colors.
“Where else can you play in the mud, mess with fire, listen to music and have it all be legal?” he asked. “I’ve been making ceramics for nearly 40 years now, and the process is still exciting to me.”
A piece of raku pottery by Plourde, along with an oil painting by fellow Buffalo artist Karen Barton, are among the pieces on display at SAGE Community Arts’ national juried art show this summer in Sheridan. The show features 31 artists from 10 different states, according to Plourde, and it’s an honor to have two artists representing Buffalo and Johnson County.
“In the shadow of the Bighorn Mountains here, we have a tremendous amount of talents in the arts,” Plourde said. “Many are very, very famous, and there are some, like Karen, that should be. I’ve been fortunate to meet many of them. And to be selected out of all the talented artists in this region is a tremendous honor.”
Plourde is Buffalo’s premier practitioner of Western Raku pottery – a type of ceramic-making where the vessels are removed from the kiln at the red hot heat of 1,800 degrees and then placed in the grills, which are filled with combustible materials. The materials are lighted, and the smoke and removal of oxygen in the reduction chamber help develop the colors and patterns in the pottery.
“There are so many factors that come into play,” Plourde said. “Sometimes the barometric pressure makes an impact. Sometimes the temperature outside will lead to different effects in the colors.”
Because of this, the artist doesn’t have a lot of control over what the final piece will look like, Plourde said. While he can manipulate the process up to a point, a lot is left up to chance.
“You ultimately don’t have a lot of control over what is going to happen,” Plourde said. “You kind of have to leave it up to chance.”
Plourde’s entry into the SAGE show, titled “Tele Bowl,” took roughly four hours to create from start to finish, Plourde said.
“With every piece I make, I start it on the wheel,” Plourde said. “That’s where you create the textures and the form. You then do your trimming – there are always some places that I make cuts and other places that I add pieces. Once the piece is dry, you fire it, and then of course you do the whole raku process.”
Plourde taught art for 34 years at Campbell County High School before moving to Buffalo a decade ago. He says he tries to follow a piece of advice he always gave his students.
“As a teacher, I would tell the kids to do quality work because that’s something they can always be proud of,” Plourde said. “That’s something that’s very important to me too. My ambition is to create a zowee-wowee  response and hopefully a little contemplation. My work should have wonder, imperfection and intrinsic merit. In other words, I try to elevate the ordinary.”
Barton’s submission to the SAGE show – an oil painting titled “A Long Day” – is also an attempt to elevate the ordinary, she said. Her inspiration was a photograph she took during a performance by Native American dancers in front of the Sheridan Inn a few years ago.
“There was this one girl there who just wouldn’t smile,” Barton said. “I took lots of pictures, but when I looked through them, that was the one I was drawn to – just because it was so different, and she was so emotional. And, of course, her regalia was just gorgeous.”
Selecting the photo was one of the easiest parts of the creative process, which lasted about three months, Barton said. Barton was unhappy with the original photograph’s background and tried several different background possibilities before settling on a saddle blanket that she had laying around her house.
“I had to come up with a background that would fit her,” Barton said. “So it was trial and error for a while. I walked away from it for a while and then came back to it. I wasn’t in a big hurry to get it done, but I’m pretty happy with it. I like the way it turned out, and I hope other people enjoy it too.”
Both Barton’s “A Long Day” and Plourde’s “Tele Bowl” are featured in SAGE Community Arts’ 10th annual juried art show, which is open to the public through July 25. SAGE Community Arts, located at 21 West Brundage Lane in Sheridan, is open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
Through July 14, community members can vote for the winner of the art show’s People’s Choice award athttps://www.artinsheridan.com/juried10.