(Celadon bowl and Plague Doctors by Helen Bommarito)
Late in 2020, potter Helen Bommarito was seeking an idea for a ceramic Christmas tree ornament that would represent the year. She hit upon the perfect one: the Plague Doctor. During the plagues of the Middle Ages and earlier, plague doctors were hired by towns to care for those suffering from the illness without charge. Usually, these were men with little or no medical training and so they mostly recorded deaths. They had their own PPE: a distinctive garb to protect themselves from the malady including a long black cloak and a black top hat; on their faces they wore a mask with round glass goggles and a long beaked nose that was filled with aromatic herbs like lavender, mint, cloves and myrrh to ward off the foul air that was thought to cause the illness.
Bommarito’s plague doctor figurines hanging on Red Chair Gallery’s tree sold out immediately to people who sought a remembrance of the pandemic year of 2020. “They sold faster than I could make them,” she laughs. In February, she is a showcase artist at the gallery, exhibiting more normal pottery work such as functional bowls and mugs and wall art.
Although she earned a degree in art from the University of Washington and spent two years studying ceramics and jewelry design at the University of Texas – Austin, Bommarito’s career was in music. She spent 20 years in Seattle managing and promoting Irish musicians and hosted a weekly radio show on Celtic music. Bommarito moved to Bend in 2004, “To be a grandma,” she says. She found studio space and returned to making pottery. The studio space was shared with other potters and they eventually founded the Clay Guild of the Cascades. Bommarito served as president of the group for five years and is still an active member.
While living in Seattle, she spent many hours at the Seattle Art Museum where she especially admired the Japanese art there. It has influenced her pottery because she often uses Asian style Shino and Celadon glazes. In the last couple of years, Bommarito experimented with making ceramic sculptures of women’s heads. They were each in the style of a famous artist, including Modigliani, Raphael and Goya. Lately, she has been working with different firing temperatures in her kilns to produce varying color effects with glazes.
Bommarito has taught ceramics at Central Oregon Community College for years but classes have been cancelled since last March when the pandemic began. She also teaches at the Art Station, which is expected to resume classes this spring. In her spare time, she began making face masks in brightly patterned fabrics and has now sold hundreds of them. They are available at Red Chair Gallery. In 2121, she hopes pandemic-related items will be a thing of the past.