Is it a plate or a piece of art?

?At Terra Incognito Gallery and Studios, the answer is 'yes'

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By LAURA STUART

Linda Hillman sets a lovely table. Usually it's for family or guests in her Oak Park home, but these days she's moved the table?#34;literally?#34;to Terra Incognito Studios & Gallery for the exhibit she curated, "Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: Staging Great Meals with Pottery."

In Terra Incognito's gallery space, Hillman's oak table is decked out for six with handmade pottery by "seven of the nation's best potters of utilitarian dinnerware," she says. And even though the cups, plates, bowls and goblets are pretty enough to hang on the wall, Hillman eats off similar pieces everyday, and believes the rest of us would enrich our lives if we did the same.

No matchy-matchy here. Each artist made 12 pieces of one part of the setting: Ellen Shankin did cups and saucers, Jeff Oestreich dessert plates, for example. "It's so beautiful as an ensemble," says Hillman, who started making her own pottery after 35 years as a university professor. "Handmade pots can make a real difference in your dining experience by making this ordinary human ritual an extraordinary one."

"I love the idea of combining work on a table," agrees Oestreich, who was in town from his rural Minnesota studio a few weeks ago to attend the exhibit's opening and hold a two-day workshop at Terra Incognito. "I'd like to see us all sit down and have a wonderful meal."

It doesn't take a special show to bring work by nationally-recognized potters to Terra Incognito. Owner David Toan says the gallery sells pottery by ceramic artists from all over North America, "tops in their field. I try to promote the idea of the vessel as an art form, by artists with singular approaches to clay."

Toan, an Oak Parker, retired junior high teacher and longtime potter himself, bought the space five years ago. The name, he explains, is a play on words, a take-off on the expression "terra incognita" (unknown territory). "Terra incognito means earth in disguise, which is what clay is."

And although the gallery is Terra Incognito's public face, its heart is behind the scenes, in the studio and classrooms.

"What I like, and what I try hard to foster, is the real sense of community here," Toan says. "At our classes and in our studio, we have a really great group of people with an incredible array of backgrounds, from young students to doctors. It sets the place apart."

About 35 artists rent studio space at Terra Incognito, gaining not only a place to work but also access to supplies and equipment. The variety of that equipment is unusual for an urban setting like Oak Park, Toan notes. There are gas, electric, Raku, wood and soda firing kilns. The wood and Raku kilns?#34;too messy for indoors?#34;are out back, thanks to "a nice courtyard and understanding neighbors," he says.

Along with a full range of pottery classes, last spring Terra Incognito added classes in silversmithing and precious metal clay (99.9 percent silver with an organic binder, it works like clay and fires into silver). Toan, who admits he's spending more time on the business and a bit less on his own art these days, gave up his studio space to make room for the new classroom.

Ceramic art doesn't get the attention in this country that it should, Toan remarks. He points to a recent visit from Japanese businessmen, who pulled out special cloths to handle the pots as they looked. "They told me, 'In our culture, we're raised to really respect pottery and potters,'" he says. "That's not the case in America; potters who are national treasures are barely making a living."

Toan aims to change that with Terra Incognito. "We're trying to educate people on the value. These things are more than tchotchkes. They're someone's heart and soul and art."

"Making the Ordinary Extraordinary" runs through Oct. 19, when Hillman gets to take her table home. Terra Incognito, 246 Chicago Ave., is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. All of the pottery in the show is for sale. For information about classes and other events, see the website at www.terraincognitostudios.com or call 383-6228.

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