The Duncannon artist reflects on his passion for clay

John Guarnera’s interest in pottery began in high school, when he entered the Harrisburg Arts Festival to exhibit and sell his work for the first time.

“I spent seven out of eight periods of the day in art rooms in my senior year,” Guarnera said. “I had intended to go to the Tyler School of Art and Architecture in Philadelphia, but couldn’t raise the money.”

Guarnera, from Duncannon, is one of Perry County’s local ceramic artists and artisans. Her artist side wants to turn clay into decorative pieces, but her artisan side wants to make cups and bowls. He is open to creating whatever his friends or local businesses ask of him, but his main outlet is clay sculpture.

Her first job after high school was at Capricorner Pottery. The shop was distinctly named after the star sign as it shared half the barn with goats. He made functional objects there, such as cups and bowls.

Like many artists, Guarnera struggled to make enough money from pottery to support his family, so he pursued two professions in addition to his passion. The first was at the Governor’s Action Center, a former state utility central office. He eventually became the director of this office.

Later, through his autocross hobby, he found work at Sun Motors BMW early in the business and eventually became a sales manager. Once retired, he returned to ceramics full time.

Behind his house in Duncannon, Guarnera built a potter’s workshop. There he has his own wheels for shaping clay, an electric kiln that heats up to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, a specialized kiln for raku firing – a Japanese technique – that uses lower temperatures, and even a kiln portable.

Guarnera likes to use alternative methods such as Native American tribesman pit shooting, which creates a characteristic black coloration. Lately he has been using the Obvara technique, a 12th century method from the Baltic region of Europe. The method immerses the pot, fired with the raku method, in a brine of flour, yeast, sugar and water to create a unique pattern.

Over the years he has taught at the Harrisburg Art Association and the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen. He now teaches at the Carlisle Arts and Learning Center, where children ages 5 to 13 learn to work with clay.

“I like to learn at this age to start the interest early. I think it’s beneficial to start the enthusiasm young and hope it continues,” Guarnera said.

He enters his pottery in local exhibitions when he can. A few years ago, he created a meter-high sculpture of a vulture drying its wings. It won Best in Show at the Art Association of Harrisburg Juried Show.

He finds inspiration in many places.

“Hundreds of artists inspire me, especially painters,” Guarnera said. “I admire Michelangelo. His work seems to have been designed by God instead of human hands.

Most of his art is not based on realism but rather on interpretive forms. He loves sculptures found in unlikely places that give people an experience through random works of art.

There is a recent work of a spool sculpture nearly two feet tall, made with long spools of clay instead of being thrown on a wheel, with some large polka dots and small swirls of clay around Summit. He is inspired by African art. It’s the size of a chest, but the edges are curved to keep it abstract.

“At this point in my life, I’m doing this to establish a love of working with clay. I think it’s important for all of us to have an emotional outlet, like working with clay to me,” Guarnera said.

Guarnera has a year-round outlet at Co-Op in the Cove near Susquenita Schools on Highway 11/15, where people can purchase his work. Her pottery is also featured and for sale inside the Espresso Yourself Café in Newport. And he exhibits and sells his pottery at Brain Vessel, another retail store for local and national artists, with locations in Mechanicsburg and Hershey. He plans to throw clay outside the Hershey Brain Vessel gallery on May 28, weather permitting.