Mark Skudlarek
Cambridge, Wisconsin

 

Pottery Cred
Years as a professional potter: 21 (journeyman potter for two years, apprentice for four years)
Number of pots made in a year: not sure, but we go through about 18,000 lb. of clay in three firings per year.

 

The Time It Takes
Making work: 30%
Making wood: 20% (for the kiln, house, and workshop)
Promoting/Selling: 15%
The balance of my time is spent on yard work, cleaning, and general maintenance of structures.

 

The Sales I Make
75% of my sales are retail. The rest are from wholesale, consignment, and at fairs.


This article appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s June/July/August 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!

 

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.

Tall vase, 28 in. (71 cm) in height, stoneware, iron banding under a synthetic ash glaze, wood fired, 2008.

Tall vase, 28 in. (71 cm) in height, stoneware, iron banding under a synthetic ash glaze, wood fired, 2008.

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.”

 

Platter, 18 in. (46 cm) in diameter, stoneware, iron wash under a synthetic ash glaze trailed with Verona stone (local, calcined earthenware), wood fired, 2009.

Platter, 18 in. (46 cm) in diameter, stoneware, iron wash under a synthetic ash glaze trailed with Verona stone (local, calcined earthenware), wood fired, 2009.

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.


Where to See More
www.cambridgepottery.com
Facebook: Mark Skudlarek
Etsy: CambridgePottery


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