“Hi, son, do you need any pots?” I asked my son on the phone. I was standing on a hillside in the beautiful St. Croix River Valley. Dark clouds dropped cold, almost icy, droplets on us one minute; the sun shone the next. We were bundled up against the cold spring weather we had not anticipated when we headed up to the Minneapolis area for the annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour over Mothers’ Day weekend. Wooden planks which spanned sawhorses were the simple palette for a varied display of handmade ceramic pots.
My son replied quickly to my inquiry. “No, Mom, I don’t need any pots…And you don’t either!” He was probably right, but he was talking to a confirmed pot head. My husband Michael and I love ceramics, and it had taken us years to get to the pottery tour. We’d known about the Minnesota potters for a long time. Warren Mackenzie, American pioneer studio potter, taught at the University of Minnesota for a long time and inspired many students with his simple, functional, affordable pieces. We’d admired his work, read books about him and had managed to acquire a few of his pieces over the years.
Was it necessary for us to buy another pot by Warren MacKenzie or any other accomplished potter? To tell the truth, necessity hasn’t entered into our pursuit of fine handmade pottery since back in the late sixties when we bought our first pieces at the Ann Arbor Artist Guild sales. In more than forty years of marriage, pottery has been a passion for both of us. The warmth of the stoneware, the earthiness of the colors, and the simplicity of the glazes bring us joy when we eat a home-cooked meal on the handmade dishes. We’ve taken some pottery classes and have felt the smoothness of the clay and the joy of forming a pot on the wheel. We have an appreciation of what it takes, not only to make handmade pottery, but to make a living at it -- the dedication and tenacity needed to work and succeed as an artist. Buying a potter’s work helps him/her to live; loving and using their work is all they want from us. And we were happy to oblige.
At the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour, over two and a half days, at seven venues, 44 potters from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina and as far away as Oregon show their wares. It’s a rare opportunity to see that much fine work from so many potters in a short time. The map in the color brochure made it easy for us to find our way on the country roads. “How is it that these consummate craft folks find such beautiful places in which to live and work?” I wondered. A home and studio in the woods on a dirt country road seems to be the ideal location for a potter, and most of them had found their dream place.
Friday was rainy, cold, and muddy, not a day I’d normally want to be riding around the countryside, much less tromping around looking at pots. I can’t say I was too enthusiastic at our first stop at Linda Christianson’s place. My fingers were freezing as I touched cold, wet pots and dumped out the inch or so of water that had already accumulated in them. Fortunately, water doesn’t harm these works of art; unfortunately the chill was sinking into my bones. There was shelter from the rain, hot coffee and some cheese to munch, but no respite from the cold. We didn’t get carried away – just a couple of small mugs. A delightful chat with our hostess warmed us up a bit before we trudged back up the muddy hill. True Minnesotan that she is, Linda wisely pointed out that you can’t do much about the weather. But, I thought to myself, I can certainly complain about it! I soon realized that was not conducive to a happy day and resolved to change my attitude.
The next venue helped with my attitude change since it was indoors and warm. We sloshed through the squishy grass over a couple of well placed boards to enter the warmth of Jeff Oestreich’s studio. We munched on hummus and chips while chatting with Jeff about glazing techniques. Warren Mackenzie showed up with friends he was taking around on the tour. He said he remembered us from a few years ago when we visited his studio, which made us happy. We enjoyed talking with one of the guest potters, Andy Balmer from Oregon, about the traditional slip trailing methods he uses to achieve his unique results. We added a few of Jeff’s dinner plates to our collection as well as several bowls by Andy. The concept of “need” didn’t really enter into the equation. Appreciation for a potter’s work and the joy of owning work made by true craftspeople were our motivations – or so we rationalized.
At our last stop of the day, pots by six different potters were displayed both indoors and out. The functional plates and bowls of the host potter, Will Swanson, were glazed in the pale pink to earthy orange color of the shino glaze that holds a special allure for me. They were just beckoning to be used. The familiar shapes of fern leaves were imbedded in a deep green platter by Ellen Grenadier from Massachusetts, and it gave me an immediate sense of the deep woods. A small covered jar with a soft glaze by Silvie Granatelli from Virginia had a handle that was the delicate neck of a swan. It just invited me to open it up and look inside. I was attracted to a functional casserole in a deep russet glaze with a friendly handle on the lid from Ellen Shankin, another Virginia potter. A few of the pieces spoke to us, and we made our purchases, but not before nibbling on a few cookies and enjoying the soothing guitar music that accompanied our shopping. We’d visited three venues, with four more to go.
Our first stop on Saturday morning was the gallery/studio of Guillermo Cuellar, where pots were displayed on the beautiful hillside where I stood when I called my son. Guillermo also throws functional pots which he glazes with shino. We’d bought a lot from him in the past, but his work is hard for us to resist. Mike Norman, another Minnesotan, makes whimsical creatures and some utilitarian pieces. A couple of his small cups with rough scratchings of birds and fishes would work well for our afternoon espresso indulgence.
Forget going into the village of Taylor Falls for lunch as we’d planned. At the next studio, Connee Mayeron served up hearty fare to hungry pottery devotees. We enjoyed a bowl of wonderful homemade chile and fresh artisan baked bread while we sat around the campfire to warm up. I couldn’t resist making myself a s’more at the encouragement of our hostess. We were most taken with the works of Jenny Mendes from Ohio who paints playful figures on her finger bowls and makes small bird sculptures. In the showroom inside the rustic barn, we were serenaded by an accordion player as we enjoyed looking at the works of the other potters.
We contrived to end our pottery tour at Robert Briscoe’s place since we’d heard he put out a wonderful spread of food. We parked at the foot of the hill and walked up to a feast for the eyes. There were pots galore and eight guest potters’ work to view. Matthew Metz from New York is a decorating fiend, carving faces, birds and geometric designs into his pieces. A husband and wife team from Virginia, Richard Hensley and Donna Polseno, produce works with a tawny matte glaze decorated with opalescent leaf and flower designs that were unusual and alluring. It was difficult to resist another covered pot by Robert Briscoe – we’d bought one when we visited a few years ago.
Oh, the food! It was getting to be dinnertime, and I noticed a closed door which turned out to be the entrance to Bob’s gallery/home and the place where everyone was filling their plates. Feeding the pottery-hungry customers was serious business, and a bustling group of Bob’s friends and neighbors were working hard in the kitchen to keep the bowls filled. Outside, we shoppers all juggled plates of food and drank draft beer while huddling around the campfire. We looked and looked some more, putting our selections on the “hold” shelf, pending a final decision. With our bellies full and our purchases made, we were pretty well potted out and ready to call it a day, albeit an expensive one.
We’d completed our pottery tour in a day and a half. Frankly, I’m not sure I could have done it for another day. Without much effort, we’d managed to find at least one piece at every venue -- serving bowls, dinner plates, a vase or two, covered containers, mugs, a casserole -- to be carted back to our home in St. Louis to be enjoyed and savored. It is a joy to open our cabinets and know who made the beautiful stoneware dishes that we use every day. Selecting which mug or plate or bowl to use is a happy decision we each make many times during the day.
I obviously didn’t heed my son’s admonition that I didn’t need any pots, but I took him at his word and didn’t buy one thing for him. I know he appreciates pottery, however, since he grew up eating on it and has made some himself. One day he’ll be able to choose whatever he wants from our collection, and hopefully he too will find joy in the warmth of the handmade pieces. Will he need the pots? No, of course not. Will he enjoy them? I am willing to bet that he will.
Laurie Gilberg Vander Velde and her husband Michael now make their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico and brought every one of the Minnesota pots with them when they moved. In addition to continuing to enjoy all their pottery on a daily basis, they make every effort to remain tourists in their new home state. They also look forward to more traveling abroad in the year ahead. Check out www.minnesotapotters.com for information on this year’s pottery tour.