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Stirring emotions often wake Tracy Ameen, but they also inspire her powerful double-wall pottery

Story by Jonah L. Rosenblum
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Tracy Ameen discusses “Cry of a Woman,” one of her many intricately designed and emotionally moving pieces of double-wall pottery, at her studio.

Tracy Ameen discusses “Cry of a Woman,” one of her many intricately designed and emotionally moving pieces of double-wall pottery, at her studio.

When she was younger, Tracy Ameen’s father used to say she was emotional. Ameen used to fight back.

“I accept it now. I’m emotional,” says a smiling Ameen, now 54 years old. Her Wheel Works Art Studio in Bainbridge Township is full of art that supports her father’s claim.

Ameen’s father also once told her that he was going to be an artist – but then she was born.

Her initial reaction: Too bad, Dad.

Her later reaction: Ameen pursued art herself and has become one of America’s precious few double-wall pottery artists, her work displayed in the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and the White House in Washington, D.C. – as well as Pennello Gallery in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood.

It’s more than the unassuming Ameen, whose formal arts education at Kent State University was short-lived (by choice), ever could have
imagined growing up on Cleveland’s East Side.

“How the tides turned and got me here is just fate, I guess,” Ameen says of her career. “It’s one of those things that I didn’t pick. It picked me.”

Power in form

Ameen’s Mammy cookie jar collection, which includes “Obama’s Victory” above, has brought her acclaim and controversy.

Ameen’s Mammy cookie jar collection, which includes “Obama’s Victory” above, has brought her acclaim and controversy.

Ameen’s artwork also picks her – often from the depths of night.

It was late at night, when considering how to differentiate her work from other pottery, she first conceived of her hallmark double-wall pottery.

Indeed, Ameen’s craft wasn’t something she studied in a textbook. When she started, she didn’t even know it existed. It was only later that she learned about its roots in China’s Ming Dynasty.

It is a difficult art form and it took time to work out the kinks. As intricate as the carvings on the outside wall are, Ameen says first creating the two-wall structure is hardest. For a class she once taught in Phoenix, she didn’t even bother having her students try. She made the double wall, allowing them to skip to carving.

“I’ve got to get my hand down in there and pull that wall up without bumping the other one or without it twisting or without it collapsing,” says Ameen, whose voice burns with the charm and conviction of a preacher when discussing her craft and her art. “Getting those two walls up separately and then reattaching them is a job all by itself.”

It has its benefits, though. For one, the outer structure allows her to add a third dimension to her artwork. She can pile clay on top of clay – or carve clay out to add depth and texture to any piece. Equally important is the fact that she stands alone in her field.

“No one can tell me you’ve done it wrong,” Ameen says with just a hint of glee.

The overlooked

Unnamed pieces of double-wall pottery such as this one, which depicts scenes from her childhood on Cleveland’s East Side, await completion in Ameen’s studio.

Unnamed pieces of double-wall pottery such as this one, which depicts scenes from her childhood on Cleveland’s East Side, await completion in Ameen’s studio.

It’s also in the dark of night that a bad dream will lead a distraught Ameen downstairs to her studio to set free her feelings – and to create the works that have brought her global renown.

“I’ve got to release (these emotions) some kind of way and go, ‘I’m OK now. I’m OK,’” Ameen says.

Recently, it was the Lost Girls of Nigeria, approximately 300 girls kidnapped by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, who left Ameen tossing and turning.

So sprouts an unnamed piece in her studio, waiting to be finished, with the Lost Girls’ arms reaching out in tortured fashion.

“I don’t want to hear the details,” Ameen says of the tragedy, still wrestling with how it makes her feel. “My own imagination is good enough. Hearing that story and thinking, ‘Oh, those are babies. Oh, how sad it is, and you know their innocence is gone now.’”

“Have you seen ‘Cry of a Woman?’” Cynthia Ishler asks excitedly.

Ishler is one of many students to circulate through Ameen’s “open-door” studio over the years.

Teaching isn’t Ameen’s passion, per se; it’s more an economic necessity.

“It was just supplementing,” Ameen says. “I’m not excited about teaching but I can – and I take that seriously.”

“Yes, you do,” Ishler says. “She’s a good teacher, but yeah, she’d rather create.”

Ishler is speechless, on the other hand, about “Cry of a Woman.”

Perhaps there is no speech worthy of the tortured woman who stands, head tilted back, in full anguish.

Ameen passionately explains that this is the story of women – all women – who give endlessly to their families.

“It’s like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve had enough. Does someone see me?’” Ameen says.

A plea to be seen is the theme of much of her work.

“Call to Arms” depicts three arms holding a globe, with “government” and “religion” nearly squeezing it to a pulp, while the “arm of the people” silently supports its weight.

The plight of the overlooked is also what’s behind her famed Mammy cookie jar collection – easily her bestseller, with Whoopi Goldberg among her customers.

One sculpted figurine, “Obama’s Victory,” flashes a toothy grin as she hoists the American flag in the air. Another, “Makin’ Sunday Dinner,” licks a whisk while donning a sunny yellow apron. “My Hands is Full” shows a slave cradling a white boy, who reaches toward her face with one hand while holding a pie in the other.

Though the Mammies’ thick lips and deep black skin hint at racial caricature to some, Ameen says they’re a matter of celebrating history.

“This over-black, fat, obese woman, it’s like she’s a joke, but if we really look at it, the joke’s on us,” Ameen says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with being a black woman. It just has everything to do with look what I’ve done, look at what my contribution was.”

Lupus and lags

Supplies are plentiful and the workspaces frequently used in Ameen’s Wheel Works Art Studio in Bainbridge Township.

Supplies are plentiful and the workspaces frequently used in Ameen’s Wheel Works Art Studio in Bainbridge Township.

If it seems like Ameen hasn’t invited people to her Wheel Works Art Studio (which doubles as a gallery) in a while, it’s because she hasn’t. She estimates her last show was a couple of years ago. Her pieces circulate, as they always have, but there have also been some sizable delays. She notes a couple of pieces that were supposed to be finished in 2013 still sit downstairs.

To some extent, that’s just her way.

“I don’t want to be in a position of, ‘that show is coming up, I have to get something finished,’” Ameen says. “I don’t want to ever do that.”

Why do pieces sit unglazed in her basement?

“Faking it (to meet a deadline) ends with me tossing it in the backyard,” Ameen says. “As an artist, I just want to do art.”

It has been harder recently as she fights lupus, diagnosed a few years ago.

“I get so tired,” Ameen says. “I push myself beyond what I probably should. I leave out of here and I am dizzy as the day is long. Then, I tell myself, it’s in your head. It’s in your head. That does not exist. A good night’s sleep and we start again.”

Lupus doesn’t make maneuvering 20- to 30-pound sculptures any easier. Just wedging the clay, which requires one bodily thrust after another, is strenuous.

After wedging, the double wall can take hours, the carving can take months and the whole process can take up to a year.

Still, Ameen plows away – and has a show planned for 2016 at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike.

Powerful pieces linger in her studio, including one that hints at her roots among the young children playing in the junkyards of Cleveland’s East Side. Little boys are depicted climbing out of tires and jumping over buildings. It’s freedom, innocence and poverty mixed into one piece.

“I’ve been repositioning myself. I’m reinventing,” Ameen says of her direction. “How do you do that? I don’t have a clue.” CV