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    This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Photo by Drew Meredith

    The glazing tanks drone while Colleen Gipson paints at her desk in the center of Louisville Stoneware’s factory off Broadway in the Paristown Pointe neighborhood. “I tune the noises out. I tune the craziness out,” she says. When I see her on a recent Tuesday morning, she’s painting little red brushstrokes on the tiny windows of a Maker’s Mark Distillery replica. Gipson, 60, has been painting pottery here for 32 years. “When I first started, I was like, ‘Where can I get a coffee cup?’” she says. “The lady at the time, Norma (Sydnor), she was like, ‘Honey, that’s what we make here. We have a whole showroom. Go get ya a coffee cup.’”

    Louisville Stoneware, known for its personalized mugs, platters, pitchers and other kitchenware found in homes across the country, goes back 200 years. “I just tell everybody we’re primitive where I work,” Gipson says. “With everything so fast-paced nowadays, I can still tell people it’s gonna take awhile to do something because at least 20-plus sets of hands touch each piece as we’re going.” When she gets an item, it’s in the greenware stage, meaning her colleagues in the manufacturing department have added water to the clay and either cast it or jiggered it before sending it through the finishing area, where it’s smoothed and dried before she paints it.

    Gipson grew up on Hepburn Avenue, around the corner from the factory, but until her mom told her about the job opening — because Gipson loved to paint and draw — she’d never even heard of the place. Gipson will spend all day on one or two of the intricate platters with homes or family trees painted on them. Other jobs, such as mugs or ornaments, are simpler and she’ll get through a bunch in one day. “I’m a detail-oriented artist. That’s why I get to do all the detail stuff nobody else wants to do. I’m like, give it to me; I’ll do it.” She prefers the tighter, small-tipped brushes, which collect in containers across her desk next to small tubs of paint. After leaving her hands, an item usually gets over-glazed and then fired for almost 24 hours in one of the 2,200-degree kilns.

    Gipson walks me over to one of the post-glaze open kilns and hops inside to look at the products that are cooling off. “This is the best place to be in the winter. They open it and we all come running over,” she says. “Seeing all these shiny pieces makes me excited. You get to look at things you’ve done.” When she visits family in other states, she’ll see old Louisville Stoneware items in flea markets and recognize her work by her “chop mark” — the artists add theirs to the bottom of each piece. Hers is her initials, though she’ll spell her full name on more detailed, personalized pieces.

    The factory makes roughly 30,000 pieces a year. Next to Gibson’s desk is a dry-erase board that lists the large corporate orders — Yum!, Pillsbury, the Salty Dog Cafe in Hilton Head, South Carolina — that are due before the holidays. “I’m so busy making sure the orders get done that I don’t have time to work on my own things, like Christmas gifts for family members,” Gipson says.

    How much longer does she plan on working? “I’m hoping to be like 90-something,” she says. “I wanna be the old one in the corner.”

    This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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