Handling Her Business

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The handcrafted pottery of Coco Chispa has everyone fired up—including John Wayne’s son.

 Written by Jenn Thornton

It all went to pottery a decade ago for Coco Barrett-Tormey, the founder and creator of Coco Chispa. She was living with friends on a farm in a tiny California town. It was surrounded by mountains and, she says, “an hours winding road away” from the main highway. What Barrett-Tormey lacked in a social life she made up for in what backboned the making of the American West—gumption and necessity.

“I would wake up in the dark in a tent in the garden and start my morning ritual,” Barrett-Tormey remembers of those long-ago days when she “fell in love with the art of long mornings.” Essential to this ritual was her favorite handmade mug. Unbeknownst to her it was also a flashpoint and when Barrett-Tormey moved back to her native Santa Cruz, she started working with clay at a local studio and went on to develop her own style of handmade mugs with signature mountain designs wrapping the cylinder; a reminder, she says, of “those slow, full moments in the mountains.”

Today Barrett-Tormey has a burgeoning bespoke brand on—and in—her hands. “I spend seven days a week touching clay,” she says. “My hands are constantly cracking from being between wet and too dry and puffs of clay dust come off my pants any time I sit or stand. I can’t imagine I knew it would become my world.” And yet there she is, throwing 80 cylinders easily, matching her hands to the pace set by her foot. It’s all pretty rigorous. Yet like the best craft, one sees the finishing not the work. For fans of Coco Chispa (John Wayne’s son among them), this means a thing of beauty with the quality of it feeling good in the hand. There’s weight, there’s texture. “Handmade pottery is intimate,” says Barrett-Tormey, adding that a favorite mug can become a part of one’s identity. “It feels like only yours because there is only one exactly like it in the world.” It’s individual and inheritable. Hers are pieces with value beyond commerce, which is to say the value of the tangible, that which sustains us in increasingly fast-moving times. It’s as reliable as self-reliance is to the West.

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“I think a lot of people don’t know that I’m the only person making my mugs. … When someone says they are drinking out of one of my mugs, I know I made it.”

— Coco Barrett-Tormey, Coco Chispa

And to the one-woman operation that is Coco Chispa. “I think a lot of people don’t know that I’m the only person making my mugs,” says Barrett-Tormey, who gets a ton of clay loaded and unloaded in the back of her truck at a pop. “Weighing out one pound for each mug, throwing each cylinder, attaching every handle, painting and carving every design. When someone says they are drinking out of one of my mugs, I know I made it.” Her signature motif is another sign. “Each mug is unique not only for its shape but also for the design I paint and carve onto it.” And each is hand-thrown, -painted, -carved, -glazed and -fired. Barrett-Tormey does it all from her industrial Santa Cruz studio, which is just five blocks from the ocean and faces  train tracks that run across town and toward the wild coast.  There is an auto shop, surfboard factory, and metal workers there. “These are the people I see every day,” she says. “Dust is a big part of my environment.” Some things in the West never change.

The picture this forms is the vision of American-made. “I feel really lucky that people can feel the difference between what I make and what comes from the dollar store,” Barrett-Tormey says of this hardworking contingent. Which would include, were he still with us, a certain iconic actor. “John Wayne had style!” she says. “I’d like to think he would appreciate the look and feel of the both delicate and rough handmade mountain mugs.”

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Photos courtesy of Coco Chispa