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A Kansas City ceramic artist is inspired by a 350-year old mermaid to create holiday ornaments

Julie Denesha
Ceramicist Irma Starr mists a large jar in her Kansas City studio. For over five decades, Starr has mastered the centuries-old slipware decoration technique that enchanted her while a student at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Artist Irma Starr designs ornaments using a centuries-old technique known as slipware, but she adds a modern twist. The snowflakes, Santas, Christmas trees and menorahs she dreams up decorate homes across the metro.

It’s mid-December and Irma Starr is hunched over a large ceramic pot. She’s struggling to get the expression just right on Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz."

“So I’ve got her smiling, but she looks a little scary,” Starr says. “Going to figure out how to make her happy and not scary. Got any ideas?”

Starr gets her inspiration from 17th century English slipware pottery. It’s an exacting craft, and it takes a steady hand.

“So sometimes this trailer that I use spurts out,” Starr says. “Then you have to clean it up, so half the time is cleaning things up.”

Julie Denesha
Starr squeezes a thin stream of colored clay onto a ceramic pot. More than three centuries ago, artisans used 85 different slipware patterns to decorate their work.

Starr was a senior five decades ago at The Kansas City Art Institute. She was studying under ceramicist Ken Ferguson and her final assignment that year was to find a piece of ceramic art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and reproduce it.

While wandering the exhibits, a smiling mermaid with long, flowing hair caught her eye. The mythical sea creature was peering out from a large plate in the Burnap collection of ceramics at the museum.

Starr was intrigued by the method used to create the mermaid. She discovered it involved what, until recently, was a lost art. More than three centuries ago, artisans used 85 different slipware patterns including marbling, feathering and slip-trailing.

Decades later, Starr has made slip decoration her life's work.

A colorful Santa statue with a long beard wears an expression of surprise amidst boxes of ornaments and other holiday decorations.

“You take clay, which is 95% of the Earth's surface, and you add water to it,” Star explains. “Then you sift it to get the rocks out, the gravel and all the imperfections. You get a nice, smooth, thick, heavy cream. With that, you can add colors to it.”

Slip is a fine mixture of clay and water that is piped onto a ceramic piece. Some say it’s a little like decorating a cake.

“In the 17th century, they used a white goose feather and they used both ends for decorating,” Starr says holding a goose feather. “You just take off some of this feather part and use the end. Then you cut this like a pen and the slips twirl in that part of the feather. It's pretty amazing.”

Julie Denesha
Over the years, museums have given shards of antique pottery to Starr so she can study the slipware techniques of the past.

Starr’s work is in museum collections around the world, and she’s regularly commissioned to create commemorative plates to mark historic occasions.

Locally, she’s known for her whimsical holiday ornaments. This time of year her studio is stacked high with Santas, gnomes, snowflakes and menorahs. Starr designs each one — then works with a factory in Sri Lanka to produce them.

“I try to make them like the mermaid, humorous and happy, joyful, put that feeling into them,” Starr explains.

Around the holidays Starr hosts an open studio. Before the pandemic, customers lingered over wine and cookies. These days it’s more low key and by appointment.

Margaret Keough, Director of Marketing and Communications at Mid-America Arts Alliance, is looking for a few gifts.

“I chose a tulip for me,” Keough says. “I chose a menorah for one part of my family. And then for a sister in New York, I chose one of the Plaza Towers because she's very nostalgic about Kansas City. And so it will be a perfect holiday gift. But don't tell her. It's a surprise.”

Julie Denesha
When customers come to her holiday open house, Starr takes extra time to personalize each ornament.

Keough says what she appreciates most is Starr’s attention to detail.

“They're so intricate in a very special way and so you can see the labor of love that she spends with her ceramics,” Keough says.

Starr’s studio door opens wide and Mary Esselman, president of Operation Breakthrough, arrives for her afternoon appointment. For her, a visit to Starr’s studio marks the start of the holiday season.

“I think people aren’t quite as out and about as they typically would be so I'm loving the attention today,” Esselman says.

Each year Esselman selects an ornament for each member of her growing family. It was a tradition that started with her parents.

Julie Denesha
A large banner in Starr's studio displays a rendering of the mermaid decorating a large plate in the Burnap collection of ceramics at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

“When I grew up, my parents bought an ornament for us every single year,” Esselman remembers. “So by the time I got married, I had a set of 20 ornaments that I took with me and it became the base for my tree.”

Esselman picked out ornaments for her own children as they grew up. Now that she is a grandmother, she buys ornaments for her grandchildren, too.

“They’re such a personal gift because you can select them while thinking about who’s getting the gift,” Esselman says.

Julie Denesha
Stacks of Santa ornaments fill the tables in Starr's studio.

Starr likes to catch up with her customers, while taking extra time to write a personal message on the back of each ornament.

“That just looks fabulous,” Esselman exclaims admiring the finished ornament. “Let's go to the next one.”

For now Starr’s work may be finished, but her signature ornaments will add magic this holiday season.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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