Maine native finds fertile soil in Hood River Valley, volunteering and exploring until she discovers the art of shaping clay

By Stu Watson

Rebecca Brochu trades one day of labor a week for use of Jim Diem’s pottery studio.

Rebecca Brochu likes to compare her life’s path to someone hopping from stone to stone to cross a creek.

The Maine native did not set out to become a potter, but one rock led to another. Eight years after moving west, she found herself on solid footing in a pottery class at Columbia Gorge Community College.

Rebecca says she always had an interest in clay: the raw, moist, malleable stuff that becomes fired earthenware. Growing up, however, Rebecca did not have the chance to explore that interest. After studying Spanish and graduating from the University of Maine, she followed a friend who took a job with the Forest Service near Trout Lake, Washington.

Rebecca landed a job as a substance abuse prevention specialist with The Next Door Inc. in Hood River, which began her local hopscotch career path. Her boss, Maija Yasui, introduced her to Pat Rawson, who was starting the St. Francis House— a nonprofit youth drop-in center—in Odell. Rebecca volunteered at the center for several years before taking a nine-month trip to Australia with her brother. When she returned, she helped write an AmeriCorps grant to fund a paid position for herself at St. Francis. Around the same time, Rebecca learned of a housesitting opportunity for Tom and Mole Schaefer.

She had met Tom while volunteering with the Lions Club’s Leos youth group and its beverage container recycling efforts. The opportunity was another link in the long chain between Rebecca’s origins in Maine and her becoming a committed resident of the valley. Three years later, Rebecca took a part-time job with Columbia Gorge Community College at its Hood River campus, helping students find research resources online or in the school’s library.

College employees can take tuition-free classes. “On the day I was hired, it was the deadline in September 2012 to take a free class,” Rebecca says.

Using a moist sponge, Rebecca dampens the clay she is shaping on the wheel.

“So I signed up to take a pottery class with P.K. Hoffman, who had been teaching there for like 35 years.” Rebecca repeated the class for 30 months before a pending round of layoffs nudged her toward the biggest leap of all: a full-time commitment to pottery. While living in the upper valley, Rebecca met Karen Harding of Parkdale, herself a potter.

Karen introduced Rebecca to Jim Diem, a former art teacher and children’s museum exhibit manager from Michigan. Jim has been making and supporting himself with pottery full time for 13 years.

“I’m glad to be a potter,” he says, from the studio he built in the detached garage at his home just south of Odell.

When Jim met Rebecca, he was looking for studio help. He and Rebecca worked out a deal under which she helps him one day a week, and he lets her use the studio the rest of the week.

“I help with the glazes, and learned to use a power drill and saw,” Rebecca says. Studio equipment is not cheap. Jim says a kiln can run around $3,000, and a pug mill to mix clay costs about $5,000. Rebecca says the relationship has been a great opportunity to keep learning and to launch her own pottery business. Last year, she sold her work at eight craft fairs, including the 2016 Harvest Fest in Hood River. “I like that platform of sales,” she says.

A variety of tools are used in shaping pottery on the wheel.

“I like the interaction between the potential customer and the pots. Clay is made to be touched.” That is just one reason Rebecca has no interest in setting up an online store on a site such as Etsy. The other reason? “Because it would put me in front of a computer,” she says. Rebecca loves the tactile nature of her newfound life.

“I like to work with my hands,” she says, turning a wet lump of clay and gently using her hands to constrict the mud into functional form. “I knew I wouldn’t be good at first. I would just make a mess for a while. Then, omigosh, I just made a cat dish. How did that happen?”

Rebecca says her work is still focused on making things that have utility. “Dishes, basically, because you need to learn everything,” she says. “I’m developing …” She pauses.

“A personal aesthetic,” Jim says, finishing her sentence. While Rebecca grows her skills and career, she continues to volunteer, including at the St. Francis House and for others who appreciate her flexible approach to life.

“I’m really very lucky that I get to do this,” she says.