Artist’s sgraffiti catches, pleases the eye

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The contrast solicits attention, and the intricately carved designs reward curious eyes cast upon Crystal Nolfo-Brown’s sgraffiti.

The products of her labor commend her 13-year full-time devotion to crafting pottery. Other than one adult-education class at Nicholls State University, Brown is self-taught. She spends her days throwing clay, trying to recreate stimulating styles she finds in magazines and maintaining her website.

But her interest in ceramics was sparked years before she could spend an entire day at practice, when she attended a pottery workshop with her 13-year-old daughter as a bonding experience.

“I made a little bowl and some little leaves. It was the first thing I made,” Brown says. “I really liked it though. It was like a vase kind of thing. I had molded some ivy leaves and kind of wrapped them around it, glazed it in two glazes.

“(My daughter) didn’t keep doing it; I did, I ended up continuing.”

After she quit her office job six years later, Brown purchased her first pottery wheel in 1999, and personally started writing the script for her website

Her work since then is stacked atop shelves lining three red walls in one of her home’s rooms. Each piece is tagged with a number, and her ceramics stock goes through the ebb and flow of a business supply – she has satisfied inquiries from as far away as Denmark and one customer from Hawaii.

Although her talent and personality can be seen in the various styles and colors she molds, one model’s striking invitation has given her work’s stories ample attention.

Sgraffito, the word, is of Italian origin. It’s the past participle of “sgraffire,” or “to scratch.” The plural form is “sgraffiti.”

The art form is easy to understand but difficult to practice.

Brown begins by molding her light-tan clay into the shape she desires. She then coats the object with contrasting liquid clay, often black in color (“I think it’s so striking”). After firing the object in one of her two kilns, Brown begins the process of scratching away the open space of her design, which she sketches beforehand. The objects she depicts remain in black.

“It has to feel right before it can be carved correctly,” the 50-year-old Houma native says.

That’s probably because her designs are thoroughly detailed.

She weaves weeds flanking an egret in a swamp scene carving. In another, the moon lights up a body of water, where a pelican with ruffled feathers is perched on a tree stump. She’s also able to incorporate fading clouds, woven reeds, a peak at a third dimension, a canoe and its shadow and a cabin in the distance of a new bayou-setting design she has been working to perfect.

With the intricacy, however, come higher stakes when applying a pattern.

“Once you scratch through that clay, you’re there,” Brown says. “Sometimes you can fake it and go across a different way. You have to concentrate. I don’t know where I pull that from, how I correct some mistakes like that, but sometimes it’s like magic, I guess. It’s hard to explain. You still want everything to flow correctly through the pottery.”

Karen Kelly, treasurer of the Terrebonne Fine Arts Guild, of which she has been a member and officer since 1975, owns a couple of pieces of Brown’s pottery, a compliment considering she is a potter herself.

“Her pottery is absolutely marvelous,” Kelly says.

Brown identifies herself as an inactive TFAG member. All guild members must first exhibit fine arts before they can branch out into other artistry, such as ceramics. Kelly says Brown attended an adult-education painting workshop at the guild, and she can see how it helps her sgraffito.

“Sgraffito is kind of difficult in that once your pot is leather hard, right before it’s totally dry, is when you start carving it,” Kelly says. “You’ve got to be pretty good. You kind of put your drawing in, so you really need fine art, you need to know how to do drawing and such.”

Kelly says she too is a self-taught potter, and the lack of formal education doesn’t prohibit success. She admits she’s learned through libraries and trial-and-error, and self-instruction through experimentation lends itself well to creativity.

“(Brown)’s not a by-the-book potterer,” Kelly says. “She’s very creative in what she comes up with, and like I said, I purchased several of her pieces. I do pottery myself, OK?”

The married mother of two, a 20-year-son and 32-year-old daughter, Brown’s portfolio includes sgraffito-designed platters, bowls and trays. It also extends beyond sgraffito, with colorful ceramics geared toward Ikebana, a Japanese floral arrangement, teapots and oil canisters, to name a few.

Brown has also painted several landscapes, wildlife and botanicals. She doesn’t plan to restrict herself to one style or mold anytime soon.

“My mind just sometimes goes really fast, so I hop around with a lot of things,” she says.

Most of her sales go out of state, which Brown said she enjoys because of the subject matter she is sharing with her customers.

“I like our local scenes because I’m from here and it’s what I enjoy,” Brown says. “I want to portray it to everybody else in the country. It seems like sometimes we have people from other parts of the country, and they’re like ‘Louisiana is ugly.’ I don’t think so, and this is what I see.”

Brown’s only official training was the completion of a beginning throwing class at Nicholls. The self-made artist doesn’t trivialize the help that class gave her, but it would be foolish to overlook the impact joy has had in prolonging and solidifying her ceramics practice.

“I enjoy what I do each time I do it, and hopefully it works out,” Brown says.


Crystal Nolfo-Brown stands in front of her work at her home in Houma. Brown is known for her sgraffito, the scraping away of hardened clay to create contrast with a base clay.