January 26, 2020

Hearts shaped from Clay

Walter Heath and Bahereh Khodadoost have spent most of their lives together, as artists working with clay. They have been married for nearly 35 years. The two share a space at NCC’S Farmer’s Market where they sell their handcrafted pottery. 

Bahereh and Walter met in Tulsa, Oklahoma when she signed up for a class he was teaching.

“I was teaching a glaze seminar – Raku, a Japanese firing technique,” Walter recalls, “and Bahereh was there.” He laughs softly remembering the day they met –a sweet memory of their youth. “The rest is history,” he says. 

Bahereh is easy to love. Time has grayed her soft chestnut hair but her warm smile projects a glowing youth. She greets the customers who wander up to their booth and is quick to spark up conversation. She loves crafting original pieces, carving out each unique design. She takes great pride in her work and describes each piece as having “soul”.

“I grew up with mysticism, literature and poetry,” Bahereh says. “My mother was a mystic. She was Persian so I grew up in the tradition of the Baha’is faith, a belief that all religions – all people are one.” 

Inspired by this tradition, her business is called “Heartizen.” A term she coined for a short story that she wrote. It refers to the notion that all of humanity are citizens of the heart, regardless of where they were born. 

“It is fine to acknowledge our country of origin,” she says, “but more importantly we are citizens of the universe, belonging to the whole. My mother was a humanist, a heartizen. My father was more square-shaped but my mother was all curves.”

When she was a little girl, if Bahereh was anxious or fussing her mother would say, “Come here, let’s see what Hafez has to say.”  Hafez was a Persian poet, an oracle from the fourteenth-century. Her mother would open the poetry book at random and it would lead them to the answer, Bahereh explains. “It was always something uplifting and each poem would conclude with, ‘This is what lays ahead of you, my child.”

What would lay ahead for Bahereh and Walter was a difficult life together. As is the case with many artists, they struggled financially. They tried to make a living on their “artistic tendencies” but it was complicated. “You can’t just create things,” Bahereh explains. When they were self-employed it was a constant struggle and there was never any money set aside. So they decided to get “regular jobs.” She got an 8-4 job to ease her financial burden and continued her artwork after hours, out of her basement where she would write, paint and work with clay.

Walter Heath Pottery photo by Bahereh Khodadoost

“Artists always need to wear other hats to support their habit,” Walter says. “Work is done for financial resource but art is done for the soul.” He says that art is “not something you choose to do, you are compelled. It’s undeniable.” To earn a living over the years he has worked as a respiratory therapist, in a print shop as a silk screener, and he’s waited tables. His most recent hat is professor at NCC. “It’s a tough life,” he says. 

While life can have its battles, “It comes down to what lens you use,” Bahereh says. “We can each see the same tree, the same sky, but we can each see different things in them. I see the poetry.” 

Walter sees in poetry too. He has been working as an adjunct professor at NCC for thirteen years teaching Advanced and Beginners Ceramics. Sometimes he teaches outside in the East 40 Community Garden at the Center for Clay and Fire, an outdoor kiln where students learn to process, sculpt, glaze and fire pottery on-site. He describes the process as “poetic yet practical” saying that “in the garden there is a primal connection to the clay.” It’s something that you don’t get from taking store-bought clay from a box.

Through the years, the pair have rolled with the punches, always finding a way to balance work and artistry. But over the summer, life became a little more difficult for them. As Walter was leaving school one evening he ran his car into a curb in the parking lot. It was a heads up that he needed to address his failing eyesight. Both the car and his eyes needed to be fixed. His eye doctor found optical nerve damage, cataracts and glaucoma. Walter learned that he is legally blind in his left eye.

This diagnosis has prevents Walter from operating a vehicle but it hasn’t stopped his artistic vision. “It’s interesting for a visual person to have no depth perception,” he says, explaining what it’s been like interpreting clay. “I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the way it feels.” He is preparing for corrective procedures in the coming weeks. 

In the midst of this battle, they were struck with another blow. Walter was diagnosed with stage four metastatic prostate cancer. “I was already on the ropes,” he says, “it was just one thing after another.”

The news hit everyone in the community hard. He is dear to all of his colleagues and the students at NCC. Tony Williams, Walters apprentice, has worked with him for two and a half years. He says he “was drawn not only to the way Walter looked at pottery, but also at the way he looks at life’s philosophy.”

“I am moved by his commitment to art and his unwavering integrity.” Tony says, “Walter has been a wealth of knowledge and is my greatest center for encouragement. They (Bahereh and Walter) have been incredibly supportive and at times, they have more faith in me than I have in myself.”

As Walter plans for the future he says, “I need to take better care of myself with the energy I have left. I need to maximize the time spent with my family and friends and of course my work – which I am doing right now.” He is busy making tea bowls and firing Baherehs new ornaments. “It’s difficult work and a more difficult life, but I wouldn’t trade it,” he says.

While there is no doubt that Bahereh and Walter love what they do, the road has not been easy. Bahereh believes that NCC and other schools with arts majors need to incorporate business management and accounting into the art program. “Talent is not enough,” she says, “Students need to learn to develop a business plan and a sense for projections. They need to know that artists often teach or have other odd jobs to supplement their income. All those things are a part of the equation.” Her advice to students pursuing the arts is to “Plan in such a way that you never have to struggle and feel overwhelmed and crash.” 

To help Walter and Bahereh get through this difficult time, their daughter Sienna has set up a Go Fund Me account. Walter says,“It was hard to ask for help, but once we did we began to see the outpouring of love and support.”

If you would like to donate visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/healing-walter-heath039s-cancer and visit their table Wednesdays at the Farmers Market and purchase an original piece. 

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