NEOSHO – While the number of minutes taken to create The Clay Cup are technically countable — it’s going on five years since the coffee-shop-and-pottery-studio opened just off the Neosho square — the moments of emotional investment in the how and why are harder to quantify. Because they, as if sculpting a unique creation, have helped make the space.
And all is based on the decades William Jeffrey Jones has poured into becoming the artist he is today, setting the stage for its creation in the first place.
Jones owns the shop with his wife, Donna Divine, and has been a working artist for more than 30 years. The couple opened the spot, characterized by color, woodwork and shelves of jewel-hued creations, after seeing a local demand for products made of clay. The combination concept for creation — a place where coffee could be created in front, community created through a place to gather, and pottery created in back — would offer a new place to learn and share.
“That is a reason why I’m here — to create markets for the arts,” says Jones.
Classes for all skill levels
On a recent Saturday morning, those efforts were evident through folks in front, as well as one of the studio’s weekly pottery classes occurring just a few steps away.
The sounds of soft jazz and comments from Jones and his co-instructor, studio manager Cathleen Bailey, filled the room, as well as four students seated at pottery wheels.
“You’ve got to keep your hands still,” he says to one of the students. In another moment: “You want the clay going through your fingers, not at your fingers.”
The Saturday morning session is for beginners; it’s a one-off class, where they create several pieces, choose the glaze they prefer, and come back to pick up their finished pieces a few weeks later.
“It’s on their bucket list to get on the wheel,” he says of those in the class, during which he periodically paused to talk. “They just want to try it.”
The studio serves as a touchpoint for others at various points in their pottery journeys. Four potters, including Jones and Bailey, utilize the space for their own businesses. Other classes, too, and open studio space are offered throughout the week to allow more advanced students to delve deeper into the art form.
One of those individuals is Nikki Phillips, who regularly drives from the Joplin area to the studio. On this particular day, she brought her sister to try her hand as well.
“I was almost in tears — it moved me,” Nikki says of starting to work with clay. “I wish I could come here all the time.
“If you connect with it, it’s an emotional, spiritual thing. It’s helped center me, and that’s what you do here.”
“Centering” the clay, as Phillips references, is the art of getting it on the center of the wheel — a very important step, since if it’s off-center at the beginning, the piece won’t be symmetrical. It’s a fundamental skill that takes time to develop when beginning to work with a pottery wheel.
“You have to learn the touch. You have to learn the skill,” says Jones of wheel work. “It’s up to each individual — not necessarily an amount of time as far as the calendar goes, but the amount of time invested.
“That’s what I appreciate about it — it’s reliant on each individual person and the effort they put forth.”
That dedication and learning curve are relevant to all at their start — Jones included, he recalls.
“Nobody comes out of the womb knowing how to play the violin,” he says. “It’s all about practice.”
The winding road home
While the artist has amassed a great deal of experience in a variety of visual art categories, including as a sculptor, potter, painter, and guitar maker, he also began without experience when he stood at a crossroads.
For him, that was a decision to attend Cornell University in New York on a full-ride scholarship to study chemical engineering after high school graduation.
“I turned it down because I didn’t want to make shampoo for Johnson & Johnson,” says Jones.
Instead, he knew: even then, he wanted to be an artist.
Today, that manifests through the studio, a place filled with color and motion and specialty lights — from when the studio was a music venue — and even a stash of bourbon bottles under the counter, gifts from friends and customers. It’s a place where he is often found into the wee hours of the morning, a still space for him to fully focus on the art he wants to create.
Sometimes his work involves commissioned pieces. There are celebratory moments — like a sculpture of a couple, created to reflect their personalities and living through intricate details Jones brings to life through clay. There are times when the tone reflects hearts, hurting and healing, such as a mother-and-daughter piece made to commemorate lives lost. At others, it’s simply what hits his heart and mind: perhaps inspired by song lyrics that run from his mind through his fingers.
Photos in his portfolio showcase a wide variety of work, including figures that blend reality and fantasy: a pumpkin person, identified by a jack-o-lantern head, and with violin in hand is just one example — but often, people are the heart.
“I’m fascinated with the human body; with the form,” he says, sharing his particular interest in creating those of women. “It’s beautiful. The female form is a sculpture in itself.”
And none have come to reality because of chance.
“My biggest pet peeve is people telling me I have a God-given gift,” says Jones. “I had to work my ass off, and have 92,000 hours under my belt.
“You have to learn how to do that. You have to learn that you can do that.”
In a traditional sense, that mastery was embarked upon after graduating from Neosho High School. When turning away from the path to Cornell, Jones began his college studies at Tulsa University before transferring to Missouri Southern State University. Those years led to working with clay and the start of his professional journey.
Steps along the way included teaching at Crowder College, having his own studio, and eventually, working as a full-time production potter at Silver Dollar City for several years.
“I had experience being self-employed as an artist, but that really showed me more about business and I learned more about manufacturing,” he says. “I also learned what the public prefers. If your work didn’t sell, you might not work that winter.”
And it also helped him see assignments as challenges — for himself.
“Things I had to create were not things I would have chosen to create,” he says, a fact that was also relevant in later years, when he began working for McFarlane Toys as a staff sculptor.
“I always saw that I didn’t have a duty but an opportunity to challenge myself with what people wanted me to do,” he says. “I learned a lot.”
That work led to more, ultimately building a collection of figures he created representing many sports and pop culture legends including basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Resident Evil, Pirates of the Caribbean and Battlestar Galactica, among others.
Jones also spent time creating large-scale exhibitions, such as sand sculptures and a larger-than-life, 35-foot-tall Santa made from styrofoam and fiberglass for a department store in Germany.
Various phases of that work were spent away from the Ozarks. In the early 2000s, however, he decided to come back to Neosho.
“I have a love affair with my home,” he says, noting contrasts between the Ozarks and other parts of the world. “Everyone helps each other. Whether or not you know someone, everyone’s friendly.”
He continued his career as an artist after his move back, working out of a home studio — and his relationship with Divine, also a Neosho native, grew too, leading to the couple’s marriage around a decade ago.
In 2017, life turned to a new chapter for the couple with the opening of The Clay Cup after a former coffee shop in the same location closed its doors.
The space offered Jones and Divine the opportunity to contribute to multiple needs in the community: they created a place for the arts to be present, and to contribute to a version of Neosho which both of them wanted to cultivate.
“We weren’t looking for a community that fits us,” says Jones. “We wanted to help create a community we wanted to live in.”
This opportunity was furthered in 2018 with the purchase of a former church right across the street from the coffee shop. The stately structure, built in the early 20th century, is complete with ornate stained glass and defining woodwork, and it now welcomes events from artists, musicians and more as Northwood Arts & Event.
One such event is set in the coming weeks: “Eye to Eye: A Portrait Painting and Sculpting Demonstration,” starts Feb. 17 and features Jones and painter John P. Lasater IV. The artists will take the stage for a workshop in which they will demonstrate their skills simultaneously: Jones will sculpt Lasater, while Lasater paints Jones.
None of these elements would exist without a great deal of preparation.
“We didn’t spin a wheel to have a business in Neosho,” says Jones.
At least not a wheel of chance.
But in Jones’ clay-covered hands, perhaps a different form of wheel can be found at the heart of it all.
Want to visit?
The Clay Cup is located just off the square in downtown Neosho. For more information, click here. Upcoming events and additional info about Northwood Art & Event can be found here.