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Midland Living Magazine

Bringing Ceramic Artistry to Life

written by ellen slater | photos by angela gonzales and provided by karen hembree

Karen Hembree has been a ceramic artist for the past 25 years. Her travels and life experiences have always influenced the beautiful pieces she creates. According to Hembree, the creative element of the art form has always appealed to her. “My work really is a reflection of my life – my travels, my children and grandkids – they all have a huge impact on the items I create. One of my favorite aspects of ceramics is planning the next project I’m going to work on.”


Hembree’s Odessa studio is in a small building behind the Hembree home. The studio is equipped with a variety of tools, a pottery wheel, a slab roller, moist clay and chemicals for glaze development. Her favorite pieces to make include teapots, bowls, drinking vessels and vases, which she creates on the potter’s wheel. Sometimes, she likes to “carve” the clay into more intricate designs. The vented electric kiln is housed in the garage she and her husband Don share. The kiln is used to fire her pieces to extremely high heats of 2,345 degrees, which chemically converts the clay into ceramic. The artist says the firing process is a source of fascination for her. “I love working with the earthy, soft, malleable materials in the studio, and then enjoy seeing the unique chemical changes that occur in the kiln,” she said. “The element of chance that soda, wood, and crystalline firings offer is exciting…I never know exactly what the results will be when I open the kiln.”


Hembree discovered the lure of ceramics a little later in life. Her first degree was attained at the University of Houston and was in Business Technology. After working in the corporate world for several years, marrying Don and having their first son, Hembree traveled to Houston to visit her parents. Her mother, Kathy Brown had been studying ceramics at the Glassell School of Art. The first time Hembree saw her mom throw a beautiful cylinder on the wheel, she was mesmerized. She couldn’t wait to try this herself, and began taking classes at the University of Texas Permian Basin (UTPB) - in 1999 she received a degree in art with an emphasis in ceramics. She helped found an art studio Co-op called Studio 7007 in Odessa and was part of a gallery Co-op, Gallery 1114 in Midland. “We would create our ceramic works and fire them at the studio and kiln in Odessa, and display them at the Gallery in Midland,” she recalled. In 1999, Hembree accepted a position as an art educator and curator with the Ellen Noel Art Museum in Odessa where she worked for many years. As an art curator, she organized hundreds of exhibits at the museum through the years. Her own ceramic artistry has been displayed in art exhibits and galleries across the country. Hembree, is a self-proclaimed “lover of learning” and in 2003, she earned a Master of Arts and Museum Science from Texas Tech University. She has worked as an Adjunct Professor teaching ceramic and art education at UTPB and continues to teach short-term classes for young people at the Ellen Noel Art Museum.



According to the artisan, traveling, especially in Asia has been influential to her work. Her husband Don, is of Japanese descent (his father met his mother while serving in Japan during the Korean War). Hembree became enthralled with Japanese aesthetics and culture during her first visit to the country. She did a cultural study in Kyoto and also studied ceramics at the Oogoya studio in Shigaraki. “Don has a lot of family that still live in Japan, and he was able to join me after my studies,” she said. “We discovered that Don’s grandfather was a kimono designer,  and during our visit we were able to see the last, gorgeous silk kimono that he designed for his daughter, Fumiko.”


Hembree’s oldest son, Brandon, who had done mission work in China, is now married and has four children. The family lives in Shanghai, China, and Hembree tries to visit at least once a year. While there, she has had the opportunity do several residences at the Pottery Workshop in Shanghai. “With a history in ceramics dating back over 6,000 years, China is a potter’s paradise,” she laughed. The artist has always had a passion for ceramic teapots, so was thrilled to visit Yixing, China where the famous teapots are created. “These small, exquisite teapots are made from local clay which ranges from purple to a light sand color,” she said. “Each teapot reflects an aspect of nature such as bamboo, lotus flowers, small animals and insects.” While Hembree’s teapots are quite different from the Yixing teapots, she has found inspiration by exploring various aspects of Chinese culture such as the five elements of fire, water, metal, earth, and wood. She’s also been inspired by the country’s spectacular gardens as well as the free form movement found in the ancient art of Tai Chi.

According to the artist, another aspect of ceramics that she’s always been drawn to is its sense of community. “The Co-ops that we work in lend themselves to a community spirit,” she said. “It takes a lot of time, patience, and teamwork to fire a kiln. Ceramic artists are some of the most generous people I know.” One of Hembree’s favorite community events to participate in each year is Empty Bowls - a fundraiser put on by local artists to help feed the hungry in their cities.
"There are many people in the field who I admire, however UTPB Professor of Art, Chris Stanley, stands out with his strong sense of community. He started the Empty Bowls event in the Permian Basin," she said. ”It’s an opportunity to give back to our community.” And although the Empty Bowls Fundraiser may have started out small, today it’s held each May in communities across the country. Local ceramic artists donate their handcrafted bowls and for a donation of $15 to $25 participants take home a handmade bowl, and are also treated to a meal of soup and bread donated by local restaurants. All proceeds from the event go directly to area food banks.


And what does the future hold for Hembree? Well in addition to continuing her work as a wife, mother of three and grandmother of nine, as well as a ceramic artist and educator, she said she looks forward to continuing to travel and explore. When pressed further as to where her next trip will take her, she turns to a quote by one of her favorite authors, Henry Miller: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing.” †


 For more information on Hembree’s Ceramic Art 
visit her website at:

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