The Artisans: Shepherd's Grove

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I think it’s safe to say that Americans and the English are the loopiest pet lovers in the world, particularly when it comes to dogs. We gear our homes to our dogs; our cars are bought to accommodate our dogs as much as to get us from point A to point B; our clothes advertise our favorite breed; our bumper stickers extol the virtues of our breed over all others; and we apologize for the condition of our homes and cars and clothes with even more bumper stickers. (“My car is not dirty. That’s my dog’s nose art.”) Television shows about dogs are perennial favorites and some of us even pretend we watch because they’re educational. Dog food today includes delicacies such as pomegranate and bison that many of us like in our own diets, and today’s dog’s bed is probably the same Tempur-Pedic mattress as yours. This is probably because he sleeps on the bed with you, but even if he is forced to rough it in his own bed it’s probably better quality than your mattress. The pet industry generates almost $70 billion—billion—a year. Oh yeah, we love our dogs.

The vast bulk of the dog-related stuff we buy is unnecessary, but so what? If it gives us pleasure, or if it gives our dogs pleasure, well, why not? The problem is that much of the dog-related stuff for sale is pretty tacky. Most of it consists of cheap computerized images of our favorite breed on products badly made in China out of materials that are probably hazardous to both our health and the health of our dogs. Not, in short, the kind of stuff you can take pride in.

Enter Shepherd’s Grove (shepherds-grove.com). Christine Albertini is the unlikely owner and artist behind some of the most beautiful ceramic ware you can find anywhere, celebrating virtually any and every breed you can think of.

Why unlikely? Well, a graduate degree in biology with an emphasis on riparian water quality is hardly a natural springboard for a business in handmade stoneware decorated in traditional Portuguese patterns with custom-painted dogs. But dogs sometimes have a way of altering life-courses.

Christine’s brother was very active in German shepherd rescue and needed to find a home for pup. Christine took the rescue, who became her best buddy. When he died—too young, always too young—she wanted something with his image on it, but she couldn’t find anything she liked. Always artistic, she taught herself how to slip cast. It’s such an easy thing to say, but it is actually a complex process, so it is safe to say that Christine also had a natural mechanical aptitude. “Slip” is the name for a liquid clay that is poured into molds (as opposed to thicker and denser clay that is worked on a wheel), hence the term “slip casting.” It’s a process that may go back to mid-eighteenth-century England, or mid-eighteenth-century France, or over a thousand years to Peru, or to the ancient Romans, or to the ancient Greeks, or… Let’s just say it’s a process that has been around for a while, but it’s still complex, time-consuming, and requires multiple steps and a lot of skill.

Today Christine and her husband and another German shepherd named Dante (a name that discourages entering without knocking first: “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.”) live in the magical, gingerbread, northern-California town of Eureka, where Christine makes a variety of microwave-, dishwasher-, and oven-safe stoneware decorated, in addition to the traditional Portuguese pattern, with any breed your heart desires. She will even match the image’s color to your dog’s coat color. At least, she matched the gifts I bought for my bride to the colors of the two most spoiled, pampered, and loved Australian shepherds anywhere in this world or the next.

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