Getting Potted in Minnesota

by Laurie Gilberg Vander Velde

“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.   

Pottery for sale on the hillside outside Guillermo Cuellar's studio overlooking the St. Croix Valley.

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.

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A Potter's Life

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My 11-year-old Audi rattles down the dusty dirt track road, across the cattle guard, through the rusted open gate and past the listless cattle that turn an indifferent eye to my arrival. Four miles ago, I’d rolled through the nearest town, White Oaks, a once booming, now bust, ghost town, boasting, at last count, population twenty-three. Preceding that was an hour-long drive across empty two-lane county roads through desert scrubland, a sleepy motel and gas station crossroad, past the vacant plots of a fledgling real estate development, and over the same transcontinental railroad tracks that had once carried East Coast pioneers to the Frontier West.

With the eager anticipation of a great journey to an exotic land, my husband, Hank, and I make this pilgrimage to our friend Ivy Heymann’s pottery studio, and home, at least three or four times a year. In the tradition of rural hospitality, we go to visit over a cup of coffee, to see a valued friend, to add a new piece to our growing collection of Ivy’s pottery, and, if we’re lucky, to learn a thing or two—about art and living.

A waif of a woman with a vivacious spirit and sturdy practicality, Ivy is legendary in these parts. The Georgia O’Keefe of Lincoln County, New Mexico. What she makes is fine porcelain pottery, hand-crafted with the patience and simple elegance of a perfectionist. Who she is, I think, is extraordinary; although, I suspect she’d cringe at this depiction.

Like the colorful mismatched mosaic tile floor in her studio office, the story behind the artist is vivid with the uneven shards of an uncommon life. Arriving to the region in 1975, just out of college, the soft-spoken little blue-eyed blonde from back East proved to be every bit the equal of the cagey miners and ranchers who preceded her. Paying $500 an acre for her 15-acre spread from an obstreperous rancher rumored to have run a handful of buyers off the land to resell it, Ivy set about the business of building – adobe brick by adobe brick – her studio, house, craft and life.

Today, if you visit, you'll find a new building under construction situated a stone’s throw from her studio. “For when I’m 85,” Ivy says as she shows us around the light-filled one-room structure made of recycled foam and cement that’s to be her new home. “No more trekking up the hill from that shack,” she says gesturing to her home across the property. “It was supposed to be temporary, but who knew that temporary would last 30-years.” The new 750-square-foot living space, like the artist herself, is about both form and function, from the south-facing curved wall of windows that showcase the surrounding desert landscape and mountain vistas to the recycled tin roof and efficient galley-style kitchen.

On the drive home, it feels good to imagine Ivy snug and sheltered in her cozy haven, and from the looks of it, well before she’s 85. 

For more information, visit www.whiteoakspottery.com

*Check out my new photo gallery featuring White Oak's Pottery

Travel expert Ellen Barone did what many of us only dream of doing: at the age of 35, she traded a successful academic career for the wild blue yonder and set out to explore the world and herself. In the decade since that intrepid decision, she has turned passion into profession, journeying to more than 60 countries in search of evocative images and life-enriching adventures.

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