Who: Sheila Harvey (aka ‘Pumpkin’)
Where: Morton, Illinois
Artist’s Chosen Location for Interview: Her house and studio
NV: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
SH: Well, I think any advice I follow from my friend Dr. Kathy is the best advice. She’s been helping me out, and because of her I’m not in a nursing home. About ten years ago I should have gone into a nursing home. I’ve hurt—fractured or dislocated—seven vertebrae in my back. I’m much shorter than I used to be.
You see, I was lifting a big pot full of clay when I was working on my pottery, and I felt something in my back. I knew something wasn’t right. I kept on going, though, and it turns out it was three of my vertebrae.
They said I’d have to go into a nursing home; that I wouldn’t be able to do pottery anymore and that I couldn’t lift anything over five pounds. I laughed at them and thought ‘How do you expect me to go to the grocery store? I’ll have to lift one item at a time’. But Dr. Kathy and I changed all that. She has been by my side every day since then. She comes over and mows my grass; she helps when I have to lift heavy objects, and she’s always checking in on me.
I haven’t told her yet that I want to strip the paint off of my house and paint it orange. I want to do it on my own, but I’m sure she’ll have something to say about that.
NV: What’s a memory from your life that still makes you laugh?
SH: Let me think… Well, I can’t tell you that one [Laughs]. I don’t want to confess to too much, so I don’t think I can tell you [laughs].
What’s your favorite time of day?
The afternoon. Things calm down in the afternoons. You see, I wake up every night at midnight to turn on the kiln. Then I’ll go to sleep for a bit longer, and then I’m up at 3 a.m. in order to turn the kiln down to medium heat. I try to go to sleep again after that, but by that time my mind is going. I start thinking about if I really turned the kiln down, if I turned it down low enough, and different ideas about what to make goes through my mind.
I have so much fun making the ‘Punk’n Chuckin’ and ‘Road Kill’ pumpkins because I get to take the clay and throw it against the floor. For the ‘Road Kill’ pumpkins I get my lawnmower, and after I throw the clay on the ground—which flattens out the bottom real good—I put the clay in a plastic bag and run part of it over with the lawnmower wheel. Then I put another one in the bag and pull the lawnmower over that one. It’s a lot of fun for me.
There isn’t this idea of mistakes with those pumpkins. Although, mistakes can turn out great. I once had a whole group of handicapped kids come to the pottery store. They came in and they loved the pumpkins with the names carved into them. Those are my biggest sellers nowadays. I’ve made a little over 3,350 of those pumpkins.
Well, all of those kids wanted one of those pumpkins, and these were pumpkins where I had spelled the names wrong, so they were just sitting in my shop. I looked at their teacher and said, ‘These don’t have the right names on them for the kids.’ They didn’t care, though. They just knew that they loved those pumpkins, and each kid went home with one that day. My mistakes were a great thing that day.
Is there anything you think can’t be changed?
[Laughs] Mistakes. When I go to put the pottery in the kiln, I don’t ever really know what it’s going to turn out like. In fact, I want to show you something.
[She grabs a box from her kitchen.]
Look at these. These are going to be pumpkin pie magnets that I’m going to sell at the Pumpkin Festival. Did you know that the pumpkin pie was voted the number one pie in Illinois this year? It was up against the sweet potato pie, but everyone knew it was going to be pumpkin pie. Well, I put the glaze on these pie magnets, and this is what some of them came out to be. Green. Dr. Kathy told me to throw all of those green pies away. No one wants a green pumpkin pie.
Since this column is in NolaVie, with which influences publication in New Orleans — how have you been or are you connected to New Orleans?
I have an answer to that one. Every year the Pumpkin Festival has a theme. This year it’s ‘Pumpkins of the Caribbean,’ and last year it was ‘Carnival’ I didn’t know a thing about Carnival, or I think you call it Mardi Gras. I didn’t know what I was going to make for the theme, and, then, I was watching a movie. It was about some father who was looking for his daughter, and they were running through the streets… when it was Mardi Gras. There was one shot where I paused the movie and thought ‘That’s exactly what I’m going to do. A pumpkin with a mask and one with weird things coming out of its head like feathers?’ That way I could make a Carnival pumpkin.
Sheila Harvey now runs Morton Pottery out of her home. You can see her pottery work at the Morton Pumpkin Festival (September 16-19). She also ships her handmade pumpkins and Christmas pottery anywhere in the United States. You can place an order by calling her at (309)-263.7974