By Gretchen Wehmhoff

You would almost miss the entrance in the winter darkness without the single strand of green lights at the top of the short stairway. 

“I’m sorry about the stairs,” Donna Griffard apologizes, opening the door to her basement studio.

Soft jazz plays from a portable CD player on a shelf next to art supplies. A small group of people sit around a raised, well-used, craft table, each focused on diligent precision or carefree experiments. All using clay, all looking content.

Griffard, a local Skagway artisan, has been providing clay workshops during Yuletide for about ten years or so. 

This season she has people coming in and out of her basement everyday working on different stages as the projects dry, receive glaze and spend time in her kiln. Most participants build small house-like luminaries, just big enough for a tiny light. Others come to paint glaze on pre-cut clay ornaments Griffard prepares. 

She has regulars. Some try something new and others just enjoy the quiet, creative time with neighbors.

Conversation at the table drifts from checking on each other’s creations to chatting about who moved into what home and who used to own it. Talk is friendly, peaceful. It’s a time that folks can sit down with each other to relax and recharge after the chaotic summer season.

“I hardly saw my mom all summer,” Tim Cochran said. 

He appreciates the time at the studio. Cochran focuses on a series of small houses, poking holes for windows and shaping the tiny roofs.

Nikki Cochran, his wife, works to cut a perfect circle for the bottom of what might become a paintbrush holder, or a pencil cup – she’s still not sure, but she doesn’t seem bothered by the end result. She reaches for a stick and smooths a seam on her creation.

Kerri Raia attended Griffard’s Day of the Dead mask workshop.  

“She really liked it, so she signed me up for this,” Scott Raia said, trying to keep the four sides of his project together. They fall, he laughs, then starts to ease the clay walls back into position.

Jeff Mull and Becky McGill try to come every year. 

Mull works on a rendition of the fairytale Old Woman’s shoe complete with an oversized roof. McGill carefully applies small clay stones to a fairytale tower home. 

Griffard has a table of sample houses and ornaments, all different colors and sizes. She says some people come every year to add a new design for their Christmas tree. But not everyone.

“One boy makes a dinosaur every year. He just likes dinosaurs,” says Griffard.

(NOTE: More photos are available in the Dec. 8, 2023 PDF – Page 8)