MARROWSTONE ISLAND — Seen running errands in Hadlock or swimming laps at the Mountain View pool, George Chechopoulos is exactly what he appears to be SEmD an architect who retired to Marrowstone Island and built a house.
But turn off the main road of the island and follow the narrow track to his studio, and you’ll find his artist ego, Tsitsas, who brings gargoyles to life, transforms tall pots into Greek myths and turns everyday objects to stone.
George and spouse Helena Chechopoulos, a tile artist, are Marrowstone Pottery, which they established in 2003 on their property on the east side of the island.
On studio tour
This weekend, their studio and gallery will be open to the public as part of the annual Art Port Townsend Studio Tour, providing a glimpse into the world of a potter who combines science with art.
“I have a ‘Book of Secrets,’” George says, his tone capitalizing the words.
The book holds formulas for clay and glazes that he has developed over the past two years in a laboratory in his garage. His goal: to make a stove-top pottery that withstands extreme changes in temperatures.
Known in pottery circles as flameware, it’s been around since the ’70s, George said, but few makers have managed to create a glaze that fits the clay body.
“The challenge is getting a glaze with a tight enough matrix,” George explained. “If oil or food odors penetrate the glaze, the glaze pops.”
He also developed a formula for clay, which he mixes in a pugmill in the studio, that when fired, has a low water absorption rate — less than 1 percent.
After mixing and rolling the clay, using a slab roller, he constructs cookware — Dutch ovens, platters, teapots and soup tureens — then fires the pieces in a monster kiln in a passageway behind the studio.
The firing is a two-step process, taking a piece from green-ware stage — meaning no appreciable moisture — to bisque fire (1,850 degrees), then glazing it and firing again to 2,350 degrees.
Freeze to flame to table
The result: a piece of pottery that can be taken out of the freezer, put on an open flame or in the oven, then taken to the table.
“It’s just wonderful to cook on,” Helena said.
Visitors can check out the 34-cubit-foot, high-fire kiln installed in a passageway behind the studio.
It’s not on the tour but another of the potter’s secrets is in his laboratory off the garage: a piece of equipment purchased a year ago from a NASA laboratory in Cleveland.
Called a dilatometer, it measures the thermal expansion of material.
“Without this instrument, you don’t know what you’ve got,” George said.
After developing a prototype — he’s on the second generation of his line — he conducts thermal shock tests, which Helena films and posts on YouTube (www.youtube.com/marrowstonepots).
His most recent test shows him heating one of his stove-top bowls, dry, on high on a burner on the kitchen’s propane stove.
When the temperature in the bowl reaches 650 degrees, as measured by a pyrometer, George dons welding gloves, takes the bowl off the stove and immerses it in a bowl of ice water.
The bowl, as well as samples of glazed pottery inside, comes through the test with flying colors — no cracks, no crazing or shivering of the glaze
He published his results in the May issue of Ceramics Technical, an international publication.
“I put the video out there as a challenge to other people who make flameware,” he said. “I’m the only one with published data.”
Started as a hobby
While perfecting his formulas has become a quest, George said his interest in pottery started as a hobby in 1996.
Originally from Chicago, he had worked as an architect for the General Services Administration, and also as a construction engineer for the Navy in China Lake, Calif., and for the Army Corps of Engineers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
He moved to Tacoma in 1985 to work for the GSA in Auburn, and met his future, spouse, Helena, who lived in Tacoma.
Inspired by her interest in tile-making, George signed up for a pottery class at a park district art center in Tacoma. He refined his craft in classes at Tacoma Community College’s pottery department, he said.
When he and Helena retired and moved to Arizona in 2000, he took classes at Cochise College in Douglas.
“I became extremely interested in pottery at that point, and kept pursuing it,” he said.
After three years in Arizona, the couple returned to the Northwest to live on Marrowstone Island, where they had purchased recreational property in 1996.
Studio built first
They first built the studio, doing the surveying and having some of the trees on the property logged and milled.
They lived in the studio while they designed and built the house, George said, and added a small gallery to display their work.
Helena, who grew up in Seattle, sells her work under the Greek version of her name, Eleni.
Pieces on display in the gallery include a tile mural, 25 by 50 inches, that she created from a design developed by Malibu Pottery in the 1930s.
Other pieces are her original designs and others taken from vintage travel posters and labels.
George uses Tsitsas, the original spelling of his family name, which is Greek.
He also incorporates Greek mythology into his decorative pieces, designing tall pots that embody the spirit of Poseidon, Circe and Eos.
He modeled his grinning gargoyle after one on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Another gargoyle is a scupper that would add a touch of whimsy to a garden.
“You can use it to channel water,” George said.
He and Helena also offer workshops in tile making, pottery on the wheel — there are four in the studio — and flameware pottery design.
For those who are interested in delving deeper into the art of transfiguration, George is looking for an apprentice who would help in the studio and gallery in exchange for use of the equipment — with the added fillip of telling people you are the Tsitsas’ apprentice.
George mostly sells his stove-top pottery, which he calls Furnoware, online to keep the cost down.
It is also available at the studio.
For more information about Marrowstone Pottery, go to www. marrowstonepottery.com or phone 360-379-5169.
Art Port Townsend’s annual Studio Tour is Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with 35 studios participating.
The tour is free.
For more information, go to www.artporttownsend.org.
Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County. To contact her, e-mail email@example.com.