Courtney Murphy, a Missoula ceramic artist, wants her work to look beautiful, well-considered and practical.

“It’s my favorite thing when people come and tell me that they use my mug every day,” she said, or if people mock-fight over who gets to use it.

She prefers throwing on the wheel instead of using molds, because of the subtle variations it creates, and she decorates them with tight, hand-drawn lines and patterns influenced by textiles in welcoming color combinations.

She’s one of more than 200 artists who will appear at the 14th Missoula Holiday MADE Fair this Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Adams Center. (See box for details.)

She’s participated in MADE Fairs, a homegrown nonprofit effort from HandMADE Montana, for eight years, whether the version is summer, holiday or the events in Helena and Bozeman. The art fair season is a big sales time, when production ramps up — in her case it means preparing somewhere around 150 cups, her highest-selling item, not to mention the other pieces.

Patterns, lines, dots

Her current work — mugs, coffee pour-overs, vases and platters — might have a base of shiny gray, off-white or muted black — with decorative line “drawings” of underglaze she makes with a small bottle and needle applicator that leave an illustrated hand-drawn effect.

The line style varies by the piece: tight blocks of gridded lines or vertical stripes, tree rings, wide X-patterns, chevrons. A few newer ones include sets of long curved lines that find just the right point of ambiguity — she’s heard they look like mountains, trees, cathedrals, bird wings or feather patterns. “Everybody has their own take on that,” she said.

Another popular design is scattered colored dots on a black base — they’re constellations, but one person recently read them as fireworks.

The decision to move toward stark black or off-white came after years of a lighter palette. “I’ve just been really enjoying contrasting brighter colors on the black background lately,” she said.

A new focus

Right before the pandemic, she did a two-week residency at North Carolina’s Penland School of Craft, where she was able to experiment with new glazes and new forms. The pandemic provided time, and “it was good to have something new to focus on,” she said. That platform fed into all those new ideas — platters with scalloped rims; small vases with very small mouths and all the new patterns and designs.

While the pandemic canceled many shows in and out of town, she also started teaching classes at her home studio, from kids to adults, and was able to sell more on her website and Instagram account. After the upcoming markets, like Western Cider on Dec. 15 and the Showroom Missoula on Dec. 19, there will be a quieter month ahead when she can afford to experiment.

“I like to take January to try new things,” she said.

Making Missoula home

In her early 20s, Murphy was living in Brooklyn when she took a class at a community center and saw a posting from an artist who was looking for an assistant. While she didn’t have much experience yet, the two became friends and she saw a model for a successful full-time artist. “How do you get to do this? How do you make this happen?” she recalled thinking.

Pottery was “the first thing I ever, ever found that I would completely lose track of time,” she said. So she moved cross-country to Portland to attend the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Having only driven through Montana, she came to Helena for a summer residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in 2009, and then returned that winter for a two-year residency from 2010-12.

“It really pushes you to be around people who are that talented, and working that hard,” she said, and who could provide answers for any technical questions she had.

She continued staying in Montana by following residencies into different parts of the state and making connections. After one at the Red Lodge Clay Center, she moved here for a long-term residency at the Clay Studio of Missoula.

After that was completed, she decided to stay, and now works out of her home studio.

“Missoula’s just been so amazingly supportive,” she said.