During a weekend trip into the Twin Cities, after attending a lovely Pots in the Grass sale at the studio of Warren Mackenzie, Simon and I stopped at the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus to have a look at the current exhibition, A Culture of Pots: The 25th Anniversary of the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. The St. Croix tour is one of the largest in the United States, featuring some 50 ceramic artists across 7 host locations along the beautiful St. Croix River valley. Simon has work in the show, and many of my favorite makers did as well, so as you may have guessed, we were pretty giddy to go.
The Weisman, recognizably designed by Frank Gehry, curated a spectacular show highlighting both the host artists, and the diverse group of guest artists from across the globe who have had the honor of participating in the tour. The show was spread across two rooms. The first spotlighted the hosts, with individual pedestals reserved for each artist. The other, sported a similar spread of pedestals with guest artists thoughtfully mingling with one another. The large, circular images flanking each space became windows to the rural potter's landscape, transporting the museum goer to the tour itself.
The pedestal surfaces were colored with bright primary reds, blues, and yellows. The color brightened up the space, adding some vibrancy to the room in contrast to the mostly muted tones of the pots. Simon suggested that the colors helped create a rhythm to the space to subtly guide you around the room. It was a bold decision, and on the whole I'd say a successful one. The one critique that I must express was how much the color reflected itself up onto the work above it. It was a distraction from the true surfaces of many of the pots.
It is worth noting how appreciative the Midwest seems to be when it comes to pottery. Through this exhibition, the Weisman is codifying the St. Croix tour and all of its participating artists as fine art makers. They sincerely recognize the pursuit of the contemporary studio potter–to create beautiful and useful objects that enrich the experience of their users.
Ceramics is a way of life in Minnesota, and the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour exemplifies the passion of both the artists and the collectors who consider it an annual pilgrimage.
Walking through the exhibition, steeped in the work; the hearts and souls of all of these extremely talented makers, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude. As a young potter who is just beginning his journey down the firebrick road, I am grateful to even be peripherally associated with this community. This show represents years of work by each of the makers that compose it. Lifetimes of trial and error, good ideas and flops, epiphanies and dead ends, perseverance, passion, and play. I'm humbled by the dedication and beauty found spread across these colorful pedestals.
As a maker, all I want is to make something that engages me, which will later bring you some joy as you view, handle, or use it. Things that will sneak their way into your daily routine, whose presence is ever present, but never intrusive. Vessels that will hold things that you hold dear, and be gathered around by you and those close to you. I think I can confidently say that just about every artist in the show feels somewhat the same. Thank you, St. Croix potters for your hard work and dedication, and thank you Weisman Museum for recognizing them.
So with a full heart and inspired soul, I leave you with these words by Pamela Espeland which sums up the sentiment with perfection:
"...Pots like these have become part of our everyday lives. From them, we've learned to see a bit differently, set a table more deliberately, eat or drink more mindfully. We've felt the artist's fingers on the rim of a plate or the curve of a handle and noticed how a glaze can look like a painting. Maybe we hang out at the dinner table longer. It's amazing what a lump of clay can do, in the right hands."
Sometime in the last year, Simon built a small woodfired pizza oven out in his backyard. After a few uses it became apparent that the design was flawed because they were having trouble building and retaining heat. Simon went back to the drawing board, redesigned the oven, and assigned me the task of demoing the old and rebuilding the new. I was stoked to take on this project because of the similarity to building a wood kiln for pottery. I was sure to gleen lots of knowledge and experience in that direction.
The main differences in this design are a taller entry door and interior arch, and the addition of four stoke ports, two in front, two in back. The stoke ports will provide better air circulation and a space for wood to burn out of the way of the cooking surface, and the larger interior space should allow for a more efficient heat distribution.
I took some process shots that I wanted to share along with a little insight into the process. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!
I began by marking out the dimensions of the first layer and drawing the lines for each row of brick.
Complete first layer. I used scrap softbrick for everything except the two rows of full hardbrick which will become the bottom of the stoking aisles.
Complete second and third layers. Here you can see the stoking aisles. I used larger 6 x 9 hardbricks for the cooking surface. These layers are entirely hardbrick. Notice how seams are always crossed for stability. Always being very careful to make sure the bricks are level and not wobbling. Add a little clay under corners to fix wobbles. I also used a grinder to smooth out the cooking surface and take down any lips.
Simon's friend Justyn is building a woodfired pizza oven as well so he and his daughter came over for a few hours one day to help out and learn a bit. His daughter, Alicyn helps us trace the catenary arch form created by hanging a chain from the width of the door, down to a mark for the height.
Complete form suspended in place, ready to support the first arch.
First arch complete with high-temp mortar.
We created the main arch form by tracing the doorway arch. The first row of the large arch will rest halfway over the door arch.
Complete main arch. No mortar was used here, just coils of clay. Then I stuffed clay into all of the cracks, allowed to dry, then removed the form. You can also barely see where I left a roughly 5 x 6 opening toward the front of the arch for the chimney.
A peek inside.
Next, a layer of refractory fiber wrapped tightly in chicken wire to help the mortar adhere. This was my least favorite part of the process. Chicken wire sucks to work with. After this picture was taken I went back in and put more wire across the bottom in between and beneath the ports. Mortar will not stick to brick alone.
I also notched out the chimney hole from two 4.5 x 9 soft bricks. They look like this  from above. And put scraps underneath to level them out.
Three bags of quickcrete mortar, a bit of fussing, and finish-sponging later.
Mix a bit of dishsoap in with the mortar to increase its spreadability.
Presto! It's pizza party time!
Under the Maple Tree
I swing suspended under the maple tree,
My right side warmed by the setting sun.
Shadows are growing longer,
Blue bird songs are sung.
When I close my eyes I can see a bit better,
Throw my hands back to cradle my thoughts.
Relaxed into a quiet drowz
A mosquito's life was lost.
Independence Day, quite ironic.
Claiming no need for the world which supports us,
The legs of our gluttonous ranks.
Unacknowledged they go as the ignorance flows.
Sometimes it's hard to relate.
It is hard to relate.
It is easy to reject.
But, we have so much.
Right now I hear fireworks exploding outside my window.
Ever been to a place where the explosions aren't so fun to watch?
I guess there's a balance to be found.
Gratitude for the ups,
Consciousness of the downs.
Hate never healed a thing.
So when that resentment bubbles,
I'll notice it.
I'll acknowledge it.
And that's it.
It doesn't win, or fill my mouth with negative speech.
The control of my heart's within reach.
I'll be gentle with the words I choose,
For plenty a person outside of these states,
would give it all up or line up in length,
to take a walk in my American shoes.