Halfway down Fourth Street, in Annapolis’ Eastport neighborhood, sits a gray shotgun cottage. A sweet-potato vine snakes around the porch’s balustrade, and pieces of pottery are stacked on a small shelf. It’s easy enough to miss the nondescript sign, but the cozy nature of the front porch indicates that this is the brick-and-mortar home of Quirk-n-Bach Pottery.
Inside, Kristin Quirk and Cameron Bach, wearing identical work aprons, perch on stools. A shaggy golden retriever sleeps underfoot. Both are sandy blondes with clay under their fingernails, and they work and chat with the ease of partners who have been side by side for decades; earlier this year, Quirk-n-Bach turned 25 years old.
Quirk reflects on her path rejecting the workaday office environment. “I was never going to be one of those girls wearing pantyhose and high heels,” she says. Luckily a local Annapolis pottery shop on Cornhill Street was looking for clay apprentices. The job paid little, but Quirk was instantly in love with throwing clay. She was hired. Two years later, another intern showed up: Cameron Bach had a degree in archaeology from Arizona State University, but no one was hiring recent graduates to dig. Her college major gave her the basic understanding of ceramics, and Quirk was tasked with teaching her the rest.
Their connection was immediate, which was important because the training was intense. Genevieve McWilliams, their first mentor, had them throw countless mugs, cutting them down the middle with a sharp wire to judge their thickness. “She’d say, ‘It’s not perfect, do it again,” recalls Quirk. And they did, again and again.
Although they loved what they were doing, being commercial potters had drawbacks, such as anonymity. “It’s hard to throw all this pottery and put somebody else’s name on it,” says Quirk. They started collecting the tools and equipment necessary for their own studio. In 1997, they made their partnership official and moved everything into Cameron’s basement. Bach’s children left tiny clay footprints all over the workspace.
But the realities of operating a pottery studio in a basement were not ideal. “We put everything in storage for a year,” says Bach. “It was a weird time. It didn’t feel right.” Fortunately, a neighbor had an available aboveground basement with water views and a giant sunroom. “We didn’t think we’d be able to pay the rent because we’d never had overhead,” says Quirk. But the business grew and it was an idyllic time, fueling their passion while being present for their families.
Their art experienced a natural evolution as well. The colors went from muted earth tones to bright turquoises and aquas, influenced by the coastal color wheel of Chesapeake shores. Heron, geese, gulls, and shells became their hallmark. To achieve the colors, Bach studied glazing with the diligence of a chemist, writing out glaze formulas and tacking them to her wall. Mixing base elements with intense heat could create the staggeringly beautiful colors she saw.
Although the duo was creating functional pottery, the items were also something else. An elaborate oyster shell was a serving dish, a piece of driftwood became the handle of a standard mixing bowl, the colors of a Chesapeake sunrise dripped down the side of a water pitcher.
They occupied the Bay Ridge studio for 14 years, until they outgrew the space. In 2017, the hunt for an operational studio began in earnest. A realtor friend showed then various locations around town, but nothing resonated. Frustrated, standing on a corner in Eastport, Quirk looked down Fourth Street and saw the small cottage. A sign with the words, “Your Name Here” hung in front. With a showroom in front and workspace in the back, the place was perfect. The kitchen pantry would be used to store glaze mixes. And, best of all, a small sunroom extending off the back could operate as the kiln room.
Today, the creation process is streamlined. Each month, 1,000 pounds of white stoneware clay are delivered to the shop from a supplier in Baltimore. If it’s not thrown on the wheel, it’s wedged and flattened on a slab roller before a cardboard stencil is placed on top. The clay is cut like an elaborate cookie, and then the shape is delicately hand manipulated and placed into a mold. It’s then bisque fired in the first kiln to achieve a terracotta form.
After the bisque firing is the coloring process. The piece is dunked into its first glaze—this time a cobalt carbonate edged with a deeper cerulean to give an oyster shell piece its vibrancy. As it dries, the shell is dipped into a spodumene wash, a mineral bath that will bring greater texture to the clay, mimicking a shell’s grainy surface. A small mouth-operated airbrush pen gives the final spray of color, and a dollop of aquamarine frit is sprinkled into the bed of the shell for a glossy finish. The piece goes a final time into the electric kiln, firing at 2232 degrees for hours. When the kiln is opened, the next day, there’s no guarantee what they’ll find.
“No matter how long we’ve been doing this, opening the kiln just never gets old,” says Quirk. The results are individual microcosms of color and texture. The frit melts first and finds the edges of cobalt in the primary glaze, dragging the blues into the glossiness of the shattered glass. The spodumene erupts a pocket of copper and creates a mountain of indescribable silver. It’s possible to be hypnotized by a coffee mug. “We want to make things that people want to buy and appreciate,” says Bach. “But not make them too precious.”
Bach pulls a wheel out from a corner, and Quirk heads to the sunroom to inspect the bisqueware. The dog lies back down as the door shuts on the windswept colors inside the cottage on Fourth Street, and two artists proceed with their craft. █