One-of-a-Kind Pottery

Three local potters delve into how they formed their favorite creations from 2016.

The Valley has a reputation for pottery—not least because of Warren MacKenzie, the Stillwater-based potter who brought Japanese style to Minnesota. In anticipation of the annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour that kicks off next month, we asked three local artisans to discuss their favorite pieces from 2016, plus the strange and wonderful inspirations thereof.

Peter Jadoonath

Inspiration: Eggs—or, rather, egg shapes

“The human body is made up of egg shapes,” Peter Jadoonath says. “The head, the belly, the legs—it’s a universal shape that can be found anywhere.” Such as in his buzzard baskets—stoneware vessels grafted onto the legs of crane-like creatures with oneiric swirls for eyes, hauntingly undefined but “more bird than not.”

In a buzzard basket Jadoonath made last fall, that distinctive egg-like curve shows up along the beak and in the sloping, loping legs, which function as handle. The shape of the basket echoes the creature’s ovoid head—echoed in the shape of the body, too, and in the arching wings.

“There’s a musicality to it,” Jadoonath says of the recurring shapes. Coiling the handle or carving surface designs, he asks himself, “How does the eye dance through it?” It’s like the Old Masters in painting, he explains, who would arrange compositions of figures “with one hand pointing and leading your eye through the piece, then carrying back around, so the eye is never allowed to leave the space; it’s always activated toward the center.”

The creature’s wings are thick—wedges not so much avian as Sydney Opera House. That’s because what turned Jadoonath from animation and toward pottery in college was how satisfying it felt to pare down a dense cylinder of clay, “the consistency of a block of cheese, firm but malleable.”

He learned to use knives with “tooth,” or tiny scratches on the blade. Jadoonath inherited a dull machete from his Trinidadian uncle (“in the bush, they use machetes the way we use hammers,” he says) and started using that, along with the dry matte blades of a reciprocating saw.

To glaze the buzzard basket, Jadoonath used a German method. The kiln baking the bird reached 2,000 degrees. He then put a garden sprayer to the lip of one of the portholes, injecting the kiln with a mix of hot water and soda ash. What matters is the salt in the soda ash. German potters who fired their kilns with driftwood discovered that salt from the ocean water that soaked through would glaze the pots while they baked.

Guillermo Cuellar
Inspiration: The indigenous people of southeast Venezuela

His relatives surround themselves with handmade objects, Guillermo Cuellar says: “Even things that are really utilitarian, like a dugout canoe, are beautifully made.”

Before moving to Minnesota, Cuellar lived near Angel Falls, Venezuela, for 30 years, and he remembers the people filling pots with stock, broth, game meat and chilies, boiling it over three stones and a small fire, then sitting for hours, dipping pieces of cassava-based bread into the stew, talking.

“They had plastic, and steel, and containers of all kinds, but they chose to carry this fragile pot around,” he says. “In the front of the dugout canoe, there’s a protected spot where they can put it, rather than use some aluminum pot.” Some aluminum pot would work just as well as the handmade ceramic one—but it would also lack something that Cuellar seeks in his own work.

“There’s a generic, anonymous quality to the industrial stuff,” he says. “You might be in your kitchen or you might be in your neighbor’s. It’s all pretty much the same.”

A handmade object invites one into the home. “I sit down and I make 30 mugs, but they all have individual personalities,” Cuellar says. “They come from the moment and all the baggage that I carry.”

When Cuellar sat down to make a garlic jar, he didn’t have a shape in mind. He rounded out the clay to optimize volume. He gave it holes so the garlic wouldn’t mildew. He gave it three feet to lift it up for better air circulation. He molded each foot separately, sized small and unobtrusive so that the eye could take in the jar as a coherent unit. Then he dipped it in a bright green glaze—a cheery kitchen color.

All of Cuellar’s work is functional, which might disqualify it as art to some critics.

“But those functional objects can be just as beautiful,” Cuellar says, “and maybe even more, because they’re made to be used, handled. You’re picking up this bowl or cup, holding it in your hand, and you get a whole lot of information, more than what you get from something behind glass or on display on a shelf.”

Marjorie Wade
Inspiration: That moment nearly every day when someone mistakes her for her identical twin sister

Pieces in Marjorie Wade’s pottery series might look similar, but each undergoes its own process.

In her home studio, she sits down at the wheel. She centers her clay. As she spins, the clay opens up as if to make a cup. She begins to narrow the neck. She smooths out the walls. This one will need thick walls, as she intends to carve into them with a piece of bamboo  she found.

“I feel my hands just shift,” she says. Subconsciously, she finds this pot’s form—this bottle or vase or urn. “It is whatever it is.”

Each in the series is a little shorter or a little taller than the next. One is a bit angular, the other straight. If she makes six, she has to make a seventh. “I’m not a symmetrical person,” she says.

Wade loves modern dishware—each plate mass-produced and nearly identical for stacking—but what really inspires her is the one-of-a-kind, cast-off nature of storage vessels from Japan circa 1600 B.C., or hand-woven textiles from Africa or Southeast Asia.

For ceramics, “If it’s old and rusty and dug out of the ground, that’s what interests me,” she says.

After shaping the bottle, she carves lines into the surface with a piece of bamboo. For texture, she uses odds and ends, like a rusty doohickey she salvaged from a barn. She once rolled a spool into her clay, because it had an interesting notch. If she finds fabric with a pattern she likes, she might press it against the pot.

For the bottle, Wade combines glazes: amber celadon followed by a dip in white to raise the ochre celadon to a bright gold. The bamboo markings break through the glaze and establish their own baked hue.

To the lid, she adds a metal ball as a topper—a ball once part of a bronze handle on the drawer of an antique dresser.

“If I look at my pot and say it’s really great, it has to do with more than me,” Wade says. “These elements of nature—the fire, the earth, the water—work together to make these forms.”