There are usually two ways you find June Ansorge’s Towles Court pottery studio: You’re looking for it, or you’re adventurous. Either way, if Ansorge is at the wheel, you’re in for a treat.
The 84-year-old potter is a chatterbox, and her signature purses, molded out of terra cotta clay and stuffed with terra cotta combs, Visa cards, sunglasses and orchestra tickets, are conversation pieces.
If you’ve not heard of Ansorge or seen her clay versions of designer handbags, you’re not alone. A Longboat Key resident, the artist garnered much attention at last month’s Red Hot! Love, Romance & Humor show at Art Center Sarasota, where she exhibited three porcelain wedding cakes, a plate of porcelain cupcakes and four lifelike purses, slumped, stuffed and pleated to look like worn leather. The collection of bags so closely resembled the real deal that Art Center patrons had a hard time fighting the urge to pick them up by their straps.
“They’re the ultimate container,” Ansorge says of her handbags. “Everyone should carry one. Men too. In Europe, men carry bags. Here, their pockets bulge.”
Seated behind a 60-year-old potter’s wheel — a relic she inherited decades ago from Bessie Schonberg, the widow of a hobby potter and a dance legend for whom the “Bessie” awards were named — Ansorge rises to turn off her noisy radio.
“You’re going to think I’ve been cleaning all night,” Ansorge says, wiping her hands on her shirt, a lightweight button-down that once belonged to her husband. “But I work clean. I don’t like breathing in this crap.”
Tucked behind a large Web site design business on Links Avenue, Ansorge’s studio is smaller than some bathrooms. At 8-by-18 feet, it contains a few cupboards, a stationary sink, a loud radio, piles of magazine and newspaper clippings and, of course, her beloved wheel.
Ansorge, a Manhattan, N.Y., native, has worked in Towles Court since 2004 and lived permanently on Longboat Key for just as long. A city girl at heart, she says she moved for good the day she signed the lease on her studio.
“I think people feel like they’ve found a treasure when they find me,” she says of her hideaway workshop. “We’ve all shopped and explored in strange cities. You think you’re missing out until you find something off the beaten path.”
Other than a few temporary displays at a handful of Towles Court art galleries, the potter has kept mostly to herself, charming occasional tourists whenever they happen to sniff out her studio during Third Friday Art Walks. Though she’s made pottery for 45 years, she’s yet to enter her work in a Sarasota art show.
“I’m too old for that nonsense,” she says, scraping bits of red clay out from under her fingernails.
At the urging of a friend, she began taking pottery classes when her children were little. The hobby stuck, and soon Ansorge was teaching beginner ceramics classes at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She started making clay purses not because she was a handbag fanatic, but because she realized a thrown cylinder of clay takes on a familiar shape when you cut it down and begin kneading it.
She also liked the playfulness of purses and, eventually, she started stuffing them with loose keys, watches and wallets crafted from clay.
“I’ve seen her process,” says Art Center curator Marcia Ente. “She collects all these fashion magazines and then pores over the ads. She stays current and produces things people can appreciate and relate to.”
Each purse Ansorge makes is thrown on the wheel and then sculpted and glazed to match a designer bag. After spending half her life studying Gucci, Prada and Coach advertisements, Ansorge has become a kind of trend-spotter. She can pinpoint the exact location of the Chanel ad every Sunday in The New York Times — the upper right-hand corner of page 3.
Boutique business owners have repeatedly asked Ansorge to produce pieces for commercial inventory, but each time the potter has said no. She doesn’t need the pressure, and the purses are too fragile to ship.
Despite her laissez-faire business approach, many friends and friends-of-friends from New York to Florida collect her work, which Ansorge says is a source of pride and all the validation she needs.
“I don’t need to make bowls,” she says. “There are many fine potters out there who make bowls. I prefer the whimsy and creativity of purses.”
If You Go
Visit June Ansorge’s mint green studio at 238 S. Links Ave. (behind atLarge Inc.) Friday, March 19, at the Third Friday Art Walk, in Towles Court. For more on Ansorge’s purses, visit www.towlescourt.com/june.htm or call 383-7240.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]