Guillermo Cuellar gets some serious production going in his Shafer, Minnesota, studio. Photo: Dennis Chick.

Guillermo Cuellar gets some serious production going in his Shafer, Minnesota, studio. Photo: Dennis Chick.

Just the Facts

Clay
stoneware

Primary forming method
wheel throwing

Primary firing temperature
cone 10 propane reduction

Favorite surface treatment

slips and glazes, altered form and surface

Favorite tools
besides my hands, maybe a rib


This article is featured in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s April 2011 issue.
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Studio

My studio in Venezuela was southeast of the capital, Caracas, in Turgua, a small village in a traditional coffee farming area. It was an impractical tropical paradise of trees, ferns, bromeliads, orchids, sloths, birds, and beautiful butterflies. The view from my studio looked out through trees and vines to the forested hills and valleys many miles to the south. The 480-square-foot rammed-earth building was perched on a slope with a materials storage and clay preparation area underneath. Translucent corrugated roofing and many windows allowed abundant natural lighting. It felt like being outdoors. Below that was a roofed concrete slab for two kilns. There were no flat areas so there was a lot of carrying of materials and pots up and down trails. I had to transport propane gas bottles and drums of oil for firings from Caracas along a precarious mountain road on my pickup. It was too far for people to drop by and see pots on a regular basis. Pots didn’t dry in the rainy season. Landslides and tree falls often blocked the roads. As I said, an impractical paradise.

<p>The sales shop in Turgua, Venezuela, with tables set up for a group sale. Photo: Gabriel Reig.</p>

The sales shop in Turgua, Venezuela, with tables set up for a group sale. Photo: Gabriel Reig.

The cooperative studio in Turgua. Photo: Jorge Vall.

The cooperative studio in Turgua. Photo: Jorge Vall.

Cuellar’s home and studio are less tropical, but more practical in terms of making a living. Photo: Laurie MacGregor.

Cuellar’s home and studio are less tropical, but more practical in terms of making a living. Photo: Laurie MacGregor.

In Minnesota we now live in the St. Croix River valley, an hour drive northeast of the Twin Cities. Located on a rise next to the beautiful St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, we enjoy rural views of the bluffs along the river and beyond to Wisconsin. The house has a finished walk-in basement so I simply moved my wheels in and made some ware racks in that space. We built an addition with a kiln room downstairs and showroom above. The garage is now a packing area for shipping and space for storage of materials and clay and glaze preparation. I built an efficient, propane fired, 80-cubic-foot downdraft car kiln, just unpredictable enough to be interesting, and installed a 1000-gallon gas tank. A two acre lot provides ample outdoor space to set up surfaces for my studio sales in the spring and fall. Given the less-than-tropical nature of Minnesota weather, all the activities of pottery making are now indoors. As I have aged, energy has become a more precious resource so I appreciate how this functional working space allows me to focus on the pots.

Cuellar glazes a platter with the help of a trash can lid.

Cuellar glazes a platter with the help of a trash can lid.

Paying Dues (and Bills)
I fell in love with clay at Cornell College, in Iowa, in 1970, and discovered A Potter’s Book, by Bernard Leach. I was fascinated with the Mingei folk art philosophy of beauty in handmade useful objects and devoured Soetsu Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman. I aspired to make useful pots that enriched peoples’ lives, the way the old pots did.

When my parents discovered that I was spending so much time in the ceramics department my funding dried up. After two years I obtained financial aid through the Venezuelan government and returned to Cornell, but my scholarship required a geology major. Time for pottery was limited. Upon graduation I married my college sweetheart, returned to Venezuela, and found inspiration and work in an environmental organization. In the following years, obituaries appeared for Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and Michael Cardew in the local press, and I felt I was losing the links to the kind of pottery I wanted to learn. I decided to try to make pots for a living, made really bad pots, and despaired.

In 1981, by chance, I heard that Warren MacKenzie was invited by a local potters group to come and teach in Venezuela. The course was full, but I was accepted as an interpreter and assistant. I had never seen anyone who could really throw pots on the wheel. Warren tossed off pots quickly, casually, with an ease that belied the skill, like a virtuoso musician. Aside from the workshop time, there were trips to visit the Venezuelan countryside. Warren and I had time to get to know each other and I hoped I could continue learning from him.

Platter, 18 in. (46 cm) in diameter.

Platter, 18 in. (46 cm) in diameter.

After the workshop I travelled to Minnesota to visit Warren. Canadian potter John Reeve, who had also been an apprentice at the Leach pottery, was working there at the time and while Warren taught at the University of Minnesota, I spent several days watching and learning from John. In 1984, Warren invited Clary Illian, Christy Wert, my wife Laurie, and me to work in his studio for a month, fire a kiln, and have a sale.

In the years that followed I became a regular guest, spending four to five weeks almost every summer in Stillwater making pots in Warren’s studio. At first I wasn’t much help, but as time went on I learned the ropes and eventually Warren and his wife Nancy would travel while I made pots and took care of the shop, showroom, and house. Through discussions, from living with his collection of great pottery, his library, and Warren’s own work, I avidly soaked up the spirit of the old pots I admired so much. I absorbed his consistent, steady work ethic and the rhythm of studio cycles. I was never his student or apprentice; I was a friend from abroad who occasionally visited and we made some pots together. As Warren was inspired by Leach’s A Potter’s Book and sought out an apprenticeship with him in St. Ives, I was also inspired by Leach and found my way to learn from Warren.

Small serving bowl, 6 in. (17 cm) in diameter.

Small serving bowl, 6 in. (17 cm) in diameter.

Over the years, a great relationship evolved between the thriving Venezuelan clay community and the Midwest potters. Many came to teach, including Jeff Oestreich, Linda Christianson, Randy Johnston and Jan McKeachie Johnston, Clary Illian, and Mark Pharis. My relationship with Minnesota became richer and deeper as those friendships evolved. When we surveyed our options for a new life in the US, Minnesota offered a beautiful natural setting, a rich community of potters, nearby family, and a good possibility of surviving as a potter.

We had been considering leaving Venezuela for some time. The arts were progressively falling by the wayside in the turbulent political climate. Many clay suppliers closed. It was not easy to convert local currency into dollars, so importing materials was very costly and risky through the notably corrupt ports. In Venezuela, a relatively peaceful existence making pots was gone. Other factors contributed to the decision to pick up roots: family in Iowa, children heading off to college in the US, and the feeling that it was now or never.

Cuellar puts the finishing touches on the last teapot in a session. Studio photos: Laurie MacGregor.

Cuellar puts the finishing touches on the last teapot in a session. Studio photos: Laurie MacGregor.

Body
We have expensive, high-deductible (catastrophic) health insurance. Any health problem that could prevent me from working would be financially serious. Keeping fit and well is a priority. We have been lucky. I make time to work out three or four times a week. Cross-country skiing is my current passion, and I love kayaking and canoeing in the summer. I am addicted to yoga.

Mind
Over the years, I have worked on and off as a wilderness guide in South America, and that has brought me into contact with native people and their handwork, current and historic. Getting out in the natural world recharges me physically and creatively. Setting up teaching situations, talks, and slide shows takes me out to engage with people both here and abroad. I taught a workshop at Taller Huara Huara in Chile in March.

As of January 2011, I am now a citizen of the US, a part of this larger community. I was unexpectedly moved by the experience of the naturalization ceremony. I don’t know of another country that celebrates its immigrants, and I can’t imagine another place that would have been so supportive for us starting over. This, my adoptive country, is a great place, and I hope those who have been here longer can keep that perspective as they voice their criticism of current issues. As the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Five yunomis, approximately 3¾ in. (10 cm) in height. All pieces are glazed stoneware fired with propane to cone 10 in reduction. Photos of pots: Mark Rasmussen.

Five yunomis, approximately 3¾ in. (10 cm) in height. All pieces are glazed stoneware fired with propane to cone 10 in reduction. Photos of pots: Mark Rasmussen.

Marketing
The experience I took away from my first group sale at MacKenzie’s studio in 1984 was the power of shared group work for mutual benefit. Pooling resources, gathering like-minded crafts people together to eat good food, critique recent work, and engage with the public energized me, and I took that experience back to Venezuela. For a long time, we were very isolated there. We had no land line and only got a telephone when cell phones were introduced, and we had to walk up to the ridge to get a signal. There was no Internet service in our rural setting. The interdependence of our pottery collective, Grupo Turgua, made it possible to have two group sales a year with a dozen or so potters and guests in other media for over a decade.

Gathering people around an idea, and strength in diversity, are elements I still seek out. The pottery tour provides that experience for me. After three years as Linda Christianson’s guest on the Potters of the Upper St. Croix River Valley Studio Tour, I was invited by the group to become a host. I believe being part of that tour will be the foundation that will make our studio self supporting. As a host, I now have guests who bring their own great pots and energy to the event and make it even richer and more diverse.

Starting over in the US at this stage (we are 59) is a stimulating challenge. Laurie and I have embraced new options to reach out to an audience: a website, social media, and email marketing, as well as traditional venues such as galleries and the showroom. I am very happy that my pieces are represented in some wonderful galleries, both online and brick-and-mortar. In all of the above, we try to develop honest relationships and engage and communicate with people.

We have an online showroom on my website, and I am pleasantly surprised that people are becoming increasingly comfortable in committing to a purchase from a screen without actually seeing or holding the piece in their hands. It is important to respect that trust. When responding to an inquiry, I make an effort to be certain that the piece is going to be satisfactory. Ultimately, if someone would like to return a piece, I am happy to accept it.

I don’t seek orders but do accept them. My preference is to have a variety of pieces always in the showroom, which is open daily. I try to be available to answer questions if people arrive and help is required. Attendance varies quite a bit with the seasons, though Minnesotans are hardy folk and do turn up even in the middle of winter!

It is no surprise to anyone that making pots and making a living require creativity and effort. It has to be treated as two separate jobs: making pots and selling pots. Being self employed demands a lot of work, and it always seems to generate less income than one would like. Having several income streams provides more stability. There is no certainty, but we are still here. I can’t imagine a better life.

Most Important Lesson
Keep working. Ideas lead to new ideas, pots lead to new pots.

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