When Elaine Corn took her first ceramics workshop a decade ago, she didn’t know that it would spark a new passion — nor that years later it would become a lifesaver of sorts after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
The nervous system disorder affects movement and muscle control, and she says working with her hands has made a tangible difference in her quality of life.
“You have to create your own rewards,” said Corn, 68, about living with a disease with no cure. “With Parkinson’s there are good days and bad days, but I’ve found that going to the studio is so good for your frontal lobe and anxiety and stress.”
The Sacramento resident began her career as a journalist and went on to become an award-winning food writer and author of six cookbooks. In 2010, she was working at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate, Capital Public Radio, when local ceramicist Tony Natsoulas was a talk-show guest one day. She was intrigued by what she heard, and after the show ended Corn approached him.
“I was listening to him in the newsroom, and when he came out of the studio, I began to ask a lot of questions,” Corn said. She ended up attending one of his workshops and discovered her appetite for the art form.
At first, she found herself drawn to creating platters, bowls and serving dishes. It made sense, since she had spent much of her career in food.
“You have to think about what the food is going to look like, to either contrast or compliment the dish,” she said. “Certain colors really set off the food.”
For example, a gun metal serving dish she made wasn’t much to look at on its own. But when she added a bunch of lemons to it, or used it to serve golden saffron rice, the colors really popped. “You never knew gun metal could look so good,” she said.
Three years ago Corn started making menorahs. She was already a collector, and on a trip to Israel she’d been impressed by the more modern ones she saw.
“The menorah has so many possibilities for shape, height, and not having the candleholders where you think they ought to be,” she said.
Her menorahs are like her serving dishes, usually brightly colored with a shiny finish and a variety of shapes. She builds all of her pieces by hand as opposed to using a wheel.
Before she became enamored with ceramics, Corn had a long and varied journalism and food writing career, starting at the Dallas Morning News where she was “ripping the wires during Watergate and Vietnam,” followed by a stint at the Austin American-Statesman where she inaugurated its food section, and then the Sacramento Bee, which hired her as its food editor in 1986. That’s how she met her husband, David SooHoo, a Cantonese chef. They recently celebrated their 30th anniversary. “I met him on a story and married a conflict of interest,” she likes to say.
After leaving the daily newspaper world, she started writing cookbooks, winning Julia Child and James Beard awards for “Now You’re Cooking: Everything a Beginner Needs to Know to Start Cooking Today.” She says her mother was an excellent cook but “one Polish-born grandmother cooked straight from the Bible; her best dish was a burnt offering.”
Like many creative people, Corn sees commonalities among her different artistic pursuits.
“I approach my writing as a form of art. I think about the structure, and building it, and how it’s going to communicate, and how will I move the reader along in some way. The same thing occurs with clay. It’s not an easy medium, and if you don’t start out strong it’s going to fall apart.”
Corn uses the Japanese technique raku, which she likes because the glazing patterns are random and she never knows how the finish will turn out.
“Art has taught me to let my perfectionism go,” she said.