Retired Potter Inspires Young Artists Through Summer Camps

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Cely’s House Creative Workshops have been a Chapel Hill family-favorite for more than 20 years

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Cely and her campers enjoy snack time under the shelter at the end of her driveway.

By Brooke Spach | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Scraps of fabric, piles of fluff and bustling children filled the colorful craft room. Cely Chicurel stood with a student, offering a helping hand and supportive guidance over the sound of the chattering sewing machines. Nearly lifesized plaster figures of dogs, unicorns and even Rameses, UNC’s mascot, sat perched on the miniature craft tables, overlooking the excitement on that day in July.

Cely has hosted Cely’s House Creative Workshops for more than 20 years in the basement of her home near Ashley Forest. One of her most popular summer camps, and the one that started it all, is “Crazy Chairs,” a weeklong day camp where each student creates a rideable version of nearly any animal they can think of.

Selema DeBellis helps Maya Downs paint details on her Crazy Chair. Selena is a volunteer leader at the summer camps.
Selema DeBellis, 17, helps Maya Downs, 8, paint details on her Crazy Chair.

Some kids choose their family pet or favorite animal, and some let their imaginations run wild. Cely says that in recent years, she’s had to reel it in to strictly four-legged creatures after attempts to build a rooster and a fish. Each chair starts as a frame of two-by-fours, and the campers spend a few days adding plaster and paper to give it its shape.

Other camps include “Magical Moments,” a two-week pottery camp, and “Wonderful Worlds,” where students paint and create a plaster panorama of their own world. Registration for Cely’s summer camps typically fills up by March.

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Sofia Vavalle sews a UNC pillow for the seat of her Rameses-inspired chair.

Sofia Vavalle, a sixth grader at Culbreth Middle School, was the artist behind Rameses, which was inspired by her love for the UNC men’s basketball team after their awesome 2021-22 season. This was her first time at one of Cely’s camps, and she said her favorite part of the process was painting her chair. The students truly bring their creations to life by painting on its features once the animal chairs take shape.

Claire Lynch, a Durham Academy sixth grader, agreed that adding the details was the most rewarding part. “You can really start to see what it looks like,” she said while gluing white fur onto the ears of the replica of her pet Cavachon, Charlie.

Overview of the craft room where the summer camps are held

Cely and her husband, Bill Chicurel, have lived in the house for more than 30 years. And as it turns out, the suburban home on the corner is the perfect venue for a summer camp. Outside of the main craft room, the spacious backyard is filled with gardens, a playground and a zip line, plus a few beehives and a chicken coop. There’s a large “Where the Wild Things Are” mural that Cely painted in the foyer. Also on the main level is her personal workshop, a winding fun house of rooms filled with her ceramic creations and a pottery workshop where she teaches classes.

Cely has been an artist her whole life. The Chapel Hill native says she grew up behind a potter’s wheel in her parents’ basement and then worked as a production potter for 35 years. “Clay was this awakening. I had not felt artistic before,” Cely says. “3D art worked for me, and it was like an ‘aha!’ moment. I found a voice.” She hopes to facilitate those “aha!” moments for her students through her summer camps and other art classes. “We offer a wide range of activities so that kids can find the material that best expresses their creative selves,” she says. Between teaching, the longtime member of the Orange County Artists Guild also worked as an after-school teacher at Orange United Methodist Church before retiring.

Ben Mauney assists Makayla Cinpinski, 11, with the sewing machine. Ben himself grew up attending Cely’s summer programs.

Cely has a core staff of helpers who make it all possible with an average of 16 8- to 13-year-olds each week. Twenty-somethings Henry Wilkinson and Chloe Strauss are some of Cely’s protégés, having grown up attending her after-school classes and summer camps.

“I feel like this is a place where everyone can both express themselves and get a sense of accomplishment, which is an important thing for young minds,” says Chloe, an Orange United Methodist Church preschool teacher and owner of Creature Camp Studio, a card and sticker company that donates all profits to a different nonprofit each month, like TABLE and Compass Center.

Aurora Li, 10, adds finishing touches to her pink ombre giraffe.

Noah Zerden, a seventh grader at Guy B. Phillips Middle School, agrees. “[The camp] made me feel creative, and I knew I could express myself anyway I wanted to,” says Noah, who has been attending camps and classes since second grade. “I had a lot of support, and it raised my confidence in my art. Ms. Cely is such a nice and gentle person, and when you make a mistake, she helps guide you through the next step.”

Cely’s programs are just as popular with parents as they are with the students. “Cely’s House is one of Chapel Hill’s greatest treasures,” says Noah’s mom, Lisa de Saxe Zerden. “She is amazing, as are all the teachers there. It couldn’t be a better place for children to foster their love of creating art.”

Aaliyah Ehrmann, 8, sits atop her polar bear creation, which she named Mia.

As Cely’s students continue to grow and new kids take her classes, she says she will be there to develop their talents and help foster an appreciation for the arts. “There is just tremendous talent with these young people,” Cely says. “We’ve tried to create a safe space where they feel successful and creative and good about themselves. … They’re so nice to [one another] and supportive. It’s a joy to be with this group of kids.”

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Brooke Spach

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