Ken Willingham and Gary Hetrick display their crafts at Horseshoe Canyon Gallery in June Lake.
Tucked away behind Ernie’s Tackle Shop in June Lake is a true Eastern Sierra gem: Horseshoe Canyon Gallery, home to the pottery of longtime local Ken Willingham, and the paintings of more recent transplant Gary Hetrick.
Willingham, the Gallery’s owner, has been in the area for 42 years, and at the Gallery location for 16. Fishing originally brought him to the Eastside, but skiing kept him on seasonally at June Mountain for three years. Willingham later transitioned to full time as a graphic designer and sign maker for Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
“It sounds glamorous, but it was really just making signs,” Willingham laughed. After many years at Mammoth, “The draw of my original passion was too strong; the kids had been raised, so I came back to [pottery] 16 years ago,” he said. “To make a living doing what I love … it couldn’t get any better.”
Willingham studied Fine Arts in college, but stumbled into pottery in his last semester. He recalled how his college advisor told him he had taken just about all of the art classes available, “and that’s how I ended up in pottery class,” he said. “The light bulb went on, and that’s the path I’ve taken ever since.”
Willingham said the diversity of the process in particular appeals to him. “Each phase, from the forming to the firing, to the glazing and then the re-firing, is different,” he said. Even something as apparently simple as a coffee mug—a staple of the pottery business—goes through a multitude of stages, from the potter’s wheel, into the kiln, out for glazing and the application of mineral colorants, and back into the kiln, where it’s fired for 12-13 hours.
Willingham said he loves the surprise of seeing how the finished piece emerges from the kiln. “For that time period the piece is in the kiln, it is out of your control,” he said. “You have the anticipation, when you open that kiln; you’re looking to see if it will be that one in a million piece.
“That’s the journey I keep traveling, trying to improve.”
Although Willingham said he integrates inspiration from the Eastern Sierra landscape into his pieces, he draws greatest inspiration from his customers’ feedback. “I’m always trying to improve the functionality,” he said. “Mugs, plates, or bowls; these are things that are useful, but also have an art element to them … I’m always trying to produce something that’s useful and beautiful at the same time.”
Willingham noted wryly that he still hears some customers wonder why an item is selling for a higher cost than they might purchase it at Wal-Mart.
“Pottery, you can’t hit a button and print it out,” he said. Items in the gallery are “handmade, and they are one of a kind.”
The greater majority of Willingham’s customers enjoy the uniqueness of his pottery pieces, as well as the beautiful Horseshoe Canyon location, complete with a small garden and wind chimes to welcome customers into the light-filled, two-room gallery.
“I couldn’t ask for better,” he said of the location in June Lake. “It’s just perfect. I looked at it as divine fate, and I thank my maker every day.”
Willingham also acts as a mentor to other aspiring potters in the area. In exchange for completing some work for him, Willingham opens his studio and offers tips to his apprentices. One of these apprentices, Kristen Shelburg, is responsible for the chimes on the wind chimes—she’s also the artist behind the mugs for sale at Stellar Brew in Mammoth.
Potters like Shelburg “have got the bug,” Willingham said. Knowing his reputation (Willingham also teaches shoulder season pottery classes), “They seek me out,” he said.
Yet the presence of high quality art in a small town continually surprises visitors, agreed Willingham and painter Gary Hetrick.
“This area, it’s not like Taos or Santa Fe, where people come in thinking there are artisans here,” Hetrick said. “That’s a perception we’re trying to change. People come in and see Kenny’s work, and they’re amazed.”
“They say, ‘What the heck are you doing here?’” Willingham said.
Hetrick began hanging his landscape paintings in Horseshoe Canyon Gallery about a year ago; “The coolest thing about being here is being able to talk to Kenny and have a kindred spirit,” he said.
Like Willingham, Hetrick has also satisfied a life-long desire to devote himself to his art.
“I started painting when I was 12 years old, but what I did for 35 years was pinstriping on custom cars,” he said. “I also built choppers for a long time.”
In 2009, following a divorce, Hetrick moved from Orange County to make a permanent home in June Lake. Since then, Hetrick has turned his time and energy back to painting.
“The really cool thing is when people connect [to a painting],” he said. “We had a couple here, they looked at a painting of an area at the end of Grant Lake. They’d just been down there earlier that day, and they bought the painting. Thing is, that painting will take them back there, every time they look at it. That’s a wonderful thing.”
“It’s those connections that validate what we’re doing,” added Willingham. “Really, that’s why we do what we do.”
As for why Hetrick is drawn to painting, he said, “It’s not really the finished painting, it’s the process of doing them. The real enjoyment is creating them, and doing that over and over … And then hopefully someone will buy them, and they’ll find a home.”
Hetrick also described a phenomenon familiar to painters, potters, even writers: the moment when a work of art seems to take over the artist. “When I really get in the zone, I tell people, I just watch my hand, and it’s like my hand paints,” he said. “You don’t even think about what you’re doing; it just comes out.”
Hetrick said most paintings begin with photographs of a place, which he then takes home and paints. Painting in the field is challenging, Hetrick said, as “you only have about two hours to paint. Monet, the good guys that did that, they painted every day for the same two hours, and it might take a month to get everything done.”
Hetrick’s paintings, which capture the range of light and variety of landscape in the Eastern Sierra, can take up to 80 hours to complete. “I probably sit and look at the paintings as long as I paint,” he added.
Both Hetrick and Willingham agreed that the June Lake area has much to offer artists.
“The intrinsic beauty [of June] lends itself to the creative process,” Willingham said. Although, he added with a laugh, “It’s really not a hub for pottery. I have to travel a long distance for supplies, and it’s quite expensive to produce up here, but it’s my choice, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Willingham and Hetrick said they’d both seen the small community of June Lake change during their time in town. “Unfortunately, there’s more businesses going out than coming in,” Willingham said. “I’m happy to see the [June Lake] Brewery coming back, and the Smoke Shack. We want to see June Lake grow … to a point.”
“It’s just slower over here,” Hetrick added. “That’s a wonderful thing … except when you’re trying to make money,” he laughed.
In spite of the challenges of living in a small town off the beaten path, both artists said they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re doing what we love to do,” said Hetrick; “it’s the greatest thing ever.”