The initial reason I wanted to make a living at pottery was that it would provide me with a degree of independence. I imagine this was instilled in me growing up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota. I was accustomed to work but what I enjoyed about pottery (and farming) was the cyclical nature of the occupation and the ability to live and work from home.
While in college, I was also drawn to making functional pots. Graduate school entered my mind but my experience working in La Borne, France, firing the wide array of wood-burning kilns convinced me that I wanted to make functional wood-fired pottery, and it seemed to me that the most practical way of achieving this goal was through an apprenticeship. In 1983, I managed to get one with Todd Piker and spent four years with him.
In 1988, I moved to Cambridge, Wisconsin. My motives were, in part, market driven as well as the need for a job. Cambridge had two large potteries, Rowe Pottery and Rockdale Union Stoneware, employing nearly 200 people making reproductions of early American, salt-glazed stoneware. I had a job offer at Rockdale.
It was clear that people were traveling to Cambridge for stoneware, and I had joined the fray. While turning out production pots, I started my own pottery in a rented chicken coop on State Highway 12, the main route into Cambridge. I was fortunate to have the support of the community while establishing my shop and my location allowed me to grow my business during the ten years I was established there. My work was noticeably less commercial and provided an alternative to the industrial work that was being in made in Cambridge. The atmosphere also allowed for a degree of discourse with the maker that was missing in the retail shops. I was also able to sell the bulk of my work retail with a few wholesale orders balancing my production.
One of the more difficult decisions I’ve had to make was the initial one of establishing a pottery on rented property. There are inherent risks involved with building a large kiln on someone else’s property but it seemed to be the fastest way of achieving my goal. I spent nearly three months working with my soon-to-be landlord tearing down an old tobacco barn that would become my kiln shed and transforming the chicken coop into a workshop. We then worked out a ten-year lease. The decision was a bit daunting, for I knew that the year-long process of building a kiln and workshop would have to be repeated.
Ten years went by quickly. In 1997, my wife and I started a family, built an addition on our house, and bought an acre of land adjacent to our home for the new workshop and kiln, which I constructed over the next two years. I would be lying to say that it wasn’t a difficult time for us, but once the transition was complete, the new pottery offered the convenience of a central location. My mailing list allowed for a reasonable transition and I continue to sell the bulk of my work from my showroom. Most of my sales come shortly after my firings by promoting kiln-opening sales. I also have a small hand-painted sign in the shape of an arrow on Main Street in Cambridge. It simply promotes my business as “Cambridge Pottery, one mile.”
Degradation of the human anatomy is a process that can come slowly, for some gracefully, for others surprisingly fast, robbing you of your confidence and dignity. I saw the latter nearly a decade ago. I was diagnosed in 2002 with osteoarthritis of my left hip, a result of a post-traumatic injury that occurred in 1969. At the age of ten, I fell down a fifty-foot silo chute resulting in open fractures of my ankles. After dozens of surgeries, my left ankle was fused and my right ankle was partially fused. I recovered surprisingly well from the injury, but in 1996 I noticed some hip pain and thought it to be back related. With no relief provided by chiropractors and therapy, I saw an orthopedic surgeon who made the final diagnosis. The condition would not improve and, inevitably, I would need a hip replacement. The best that could be offered was pain management and maintaining my physical fitness. I did this for four years but the discomfort and pain progressed on a daily basis. Sleepless nights were the norm. After a firing in 2006, I could barely walk back to the house and it was quite obvious to me and my family that the time had come. On September 16, 2006, I had the procedure with great success. In an instant, it seemed that years had been erased from my being. I now attempt to maintain my health with a daily routine of exercise, which includes aerobic and weight training and yoga. For a self-employed potter (and for anyone really) your health is your greatest asset. I do not intend on retiring and hope to embrace aging by attempting to stay one step ahead of it.
After making pots for nearly 30 years, I allow myself the luxury of looking back at the decisions that brought me here. There was never a time in which I decided, per se, to become a potter. It was a gradual process that started with a spark and, fortunately for me, the proper conditions existed so that my passion for the process grew and was encouraged over time. I also was lucky to have had the opportunity to work with several exceptional potters in my formative years.
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