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UT senior crafts path to graduation, New York through pottery

Peter Cates discovered he was good at making pottery pieces by accident freshman year. Now, he's selling his work, and it's molding his future for life after UT.

Knoxville native Peter Cates will be walking across the stage, receiving his diploma from the University of Tennessee on Saturday.

It's a feat he thanks, in part, to a talent he discovered by accident freshman year: pottery.

"You know I'd taken an art class in high school but we didn't do ceramics in it and I wasn't very good," said Cates.

Graduating UT senior Peter Cates demonstrates how he makes his creations.

That changed quickly once he took his first pottery class, after a friend asked him to sign up.

He picked up the skill faster than his classmates, and then some of them wanted to buy his work.

"A $10 mug here and there, and then my mugs got better so they became $20 mugs here and there," said Cates. "And then people started asking for more commissioned work or bigger vases or things like that, and I was able to do it."

Now four years later, and at least about 200 pieces of art sold, Cates used his business to pay his rent through college.

And he's kept a little for savings for his post-graduation life.

"Being able to do something I love and get paid to do it is a real privilege," said Cates. "I'm very, very lucky."

But it's never been about the money.

Cates is an English major, and said his studies have an impact on his style as a potter.

"I learned about aesthetic appeal, I learned about how one symbol can have meaning behind it, and it brings a lot more depth to my pottery," Cates said.

He wants to keep writing and keep making pottery when he moves to New York this summer.

Cates wrote his first play this past year, inspired by his life and his craft.

UT All Campus Theatre produced it this spring.

"The play's about a young person in their twenties figuring out what they're doing with their life," said Cates. "So it's dealing with the same themes of what I think about all day, every day. And it helps that it involves pottery."

As he gets ready to move away from home for the first time, it's bittersweet.

A lot like the last line of his play.

"All of that meticulous time and focus that you put into this one beautiful thing," quoted Cates. "And you'll have to let it go. You'll have to let her go. And go on living."

Cates isn't just a potter. He said it's been a big part of his college career, but he's accomplished a lot of things in his four years at UT.

He did undergraduate research work, and served as student president of the Chancellor's Honors Program.

After graduation, Cates plans to backpack through Eastern Europe before moving to the Big Apple.