The practice of pottery is a blurred line between craft and art. It takes muscle and a delicate touch. It is often connected to community, but is created alone — one person and one lump of clay.
Potters have lived and worked in the St. Croix Valley for a long time. The region is nationally recognized for the many working potters and the unique styles and philosophies they represent. It has evolved in waves of mentors and apprentices, trading labor and ideas, figuring out how to make it work.
Two St. Croix Valley potters who are early in their careers say it’s not easy, but they’re finding new ways to make a life out of clay.
The world is different today than it was for potters who started decades ago, but the basics of the potter’s life have changed little over millennia. It’s a life rooted in the soil, creating objects that can feel alive in your hands.
“You have to be a little bit romantic, thinking that you can make it work and that’s how you want to spend your time in your life,” says Alana Cuellar, who has been living and working on both sides of the river in St. Croix Falls and Shafer for the past five years.
These new potters still mix glazes from old recipes, use elegant and primitive machines and their bare hands to shape the clay, carefully load kilns, and wonder just what will emerge. The romance is balanced by a lot of hard, dirty work.
“It’s physical labor and, to me, one of the best parts is that it’s mixed with sensitivity and awareness and art and beauty and poetry,” says Nick Earl, who works at a studio near Stillwater.
They must not only make pots but market their wares and do their taxes, host studio sales and online shops, photograph and ship, and find their way through a world where handcrafted and local goods are often overshadowed by the corporate and mass-produced.
Called to clay
Cuellar has lived among potters and pottery most of her life, and has long felt called to the craft. But she did not seriously pursue it until she had graduated from college and worked in other fields first, beginning about five years ago.
She grew up in Venezuela, where her father, Guillermo Cuellar, worked as a rural potter for many years before the family moved to Minnesota. She says Guillermo neither encouraged nor discouraged her to pursue pottery, instead letting her decide for herself. Since she started, he has been an important mentor, supporter, and partner.
The practical knowledge she has picked up is paired with influences from past potters.
“Growing up so close to so much pottery is that I feel like it’s kind of under my skin,” she says. “I kind of always knew I wanted to make pots.”
Nick Earl found his own way into the craft. Growing up in Edina, his family were not potters nor pottery aficionados. His clay career started more than 10 years ago, in a high school class, and took him to the University of Vermont to study the craft and art history.
Ever since graduating, he’s been figuring out how to “stay in the clay.”
“The only way to really make better work is to make a lot of it,” Earl says. “I think it’s really something that can’t be forced. It comes through making a lot of pots over many years.”
Making a lot of pots means it’s critical to have a studio after college. Earl’s journey brought him back to Minnesota for an apprenticeship at potter Dick Cooter’s Two Harbors studio from 2012 to 2014. Cooter has long been a guest potter at Guillermo Cuellar’s studio sales, and Earl was helping at one of the events when he heard a St. Croix Valley studio was available.
The studio looking for a new potter had been Richard Abnet’s, a widely respected potter who helped found the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour and was influential in the development of Minnesota’s famous “clay culture.” Abnet passed away in 2011, and his widow, the painter Edie Abnet, was looking for a potter to use the space, which included a large kiln Abnet and his son built in 1981.
Earl set up shop and has been continuing Abnet’s legacy of a working studio selling pots locally. He says he’s benefitting from Abnet’s and others’ work in other ways, too. The earlier potters developed not only artistic style, they built up a large community of people who appreciated and purchased pottery in the area.
“In terms of generating some sort of momentum in people, in the interest in pots, I think that’s huge and that’s something that we are reaping the benefits from still,” Earl says. “I benefit greatly from the legacy of Richard Abnet here, the beautiful place and the offerings that he had for decades here pays dividends in my life.”
The St. Croix school
Every potter has their own way of working with clay. Each brings unique ideas and techniques. But the St. Croix Valley also has long traditions that show up in the work of many current local potters.
“There’s a certain aesthetic that I grew up around that influences my work really strongly,” Alana says.
This style and philosophy is based on creating objects that are both beautiful and functional. That was a concept inherited from the proto-St. Croix Valley potter, Warren MacKenzie, who passed away on the last day of 2018. It’s been growing and evolving since MacKenzie opened his studio in Stillwater in the early 1950s.
“These unadorned quieter tableware pots don’t go over well everywhere, but there’s definitely a learned value people have here that helps,” Earl says.
MacKenzie was notably influenced by the English potter Bernard Leach. MacKenzie apprenticed in Leach’s production pottery after college, learning a work ethic based on consistency, productivity, and mastering the fundamentals. He blended it with styles from Japan, where local potters made simple vessels for everyday use.
Fundamentally, MacKenzie believed in making a lot of pots each day, and pricing them so they could be purchased by almost anyone, and used often as daily tableware. He passed on these ideas while teaching at the University of Minnesota and mentoring several St. Croix Valley potters.
Cuellar says local potters are not too “precious” about their work, while Earl points to a “lack of pretension.” Informed by potters on other continents, the philosophy is nonetheless Midwestern understatement.
On recent days in their studios, Alana and Earl were each using glaze recipes that had been passed down from MacKenzie. Earl says MacKenzie got the glaze from Randy Johnston, an internationally-renowned potter and professor at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Johnston learned it from a Danish potter.
“The influences are more diffused. It’s sort of a mash up of different impressions from different people who are on different continents,” Cuellar says. “The impact is more second or third hand, a longer trajectory, which is another cool aspect when you have generations of potters.”
Other St. Croix Valley potters in this practice include Bob Briscoe, Will Swanson, Linda Christianson, and many more. They have all worked together as friends and partners, sharing ideas and the work, and preaching the joy of pottery.
As much as pottery is an art, Cuellar says it’s also a community in which she has always lived.
“The life of pottery, which is like its own culture, is sort of the culture that I identify with the most,” she says. “Instead of Venezuelan or American, I’m from the nation of pottery.”
The culture, the connections, the community that potters comprise is a big reason why young artists set up their studios in the St. Croix Valley. And it’s why the region has become known for its ceramics, and why potters have been successful in making a life and a living here.
The community has thrived in large part because of its interconnectedness. Collaboration is part of the potter’s life. They must haul heavy bags of clay, carefully carry pots, often transporting whole shelves of the fragile objects. They also need to connect with people who want to buy pots. Friends can help.
Potters also frequently team up to host studio sales, sharing the effort and expenses, and the customers. By working together to promote the events, they reach more people and sell more pots.
“We have much bigger mailing list together than we do individually,” Cuellar says. “It just feels like a good way to share the expenses of promoting the events, while also lifting each other up.”
The seven host potters also invite numerous guests to display their works, and both Cuellar and Earl have been welcomed. It offers a whirlwind weekend when they can meet pottery buyers in person, connecting directly with their customers. Thousands of people visit the studios, and take home a potter’s work of months.
An old craft in a new world
A lot has changed since Warren MacKenzie set up his studio in the years after World War II, and even since the beginning of the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour in 1993. From the economy to the internet, from real estate markets to audience interests, making a career in clay has new difficulties and new tools.
It can be harder for a young potter to find a place to work today. Property values are higher and many young people are in debt from college, where most potters get their first extensive experiences in clay. But establishing their own work space is also part of finding their voice and identity as a potter. Land is a lot more expensive in the St. Croix Valley than it was when Abnet bought his farm for $16,000 in 1961, or when MacKenzie bought his for what he described as “dirt cheap.” Both still labored to get their studios off the ground, constructing the necessary infrastructure on shoestring budgets, slowly building a business model that is still emulated today.
The markets is different, though. The internet has opened up a national and international audience for a craft that was once primarily supported by local sales. Richard Abnet vowed at the outset of his career that he would never go more than 50 miles to sell a pot, and he stuck with it for all five decades he was working. While neither Cuellar nor Earl typically travel to art shows, they still sell a lot of their wares to distant customers.
The internet has also opened up a new world of influences, as they discover and follow the work of potters around the globe, often interacting with them and sharing ideas.
Cuellar says she was lucky to have the opportunity to work in her father’s studio since 2016, often with another mentee, Peter Paul. When the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, she suddenly did not have access to her wheel and studio, and no way to make her wares. Alana and her husband Paul Howe, a home builder and remodeler, took action, converting a slumping screen porch to a four-season studio. She continued to fire pots in shared kilns with her father and Paul, keeping their distance as they took turns loading the shelves.
Meanwhile, Earl has been fortunate to use Richard Abnet’s former studio, wheel, and kiln. He and his wife, Emmy, also recently purchased an old farm on the river bluff in Scandia, a potter’s dream — except the house is in disrepair so it won’t be livable for months, and it will be even longer before the deteriorating barn can be used as a studio. In a sign of the close community of local potters, Alana Cuellar’s husband Paul is helping restore the house.
Property values aren’t the only difference, though. Economic and racial inequality are also making it harder for everyone. Cuellar says it wasn’t until the Affordable Care Act was passed that she could consider a career as a self-employed potter.
“It’s still way too expensive, but at least you can actually get coverage,” she says.
But other issues of inequality can’t be solved solely by the pottery community.
“Big, broad improvements of the material conditions for working class people could go such a long way,” she says. “If people knew that they weren’t going to go bankrupt because somebody got sick, there would be more potters.”
Committed to clay and the St. Croix
Both Cuellar and Earl have been seriously making pots for about 10 years each, and they are committed to the craft. They have made their homes here, and have made lives, as well as pots.
But new potters know that they are only beginning a lifetime relationship with clay.
“It’s really just about putting the hours in, and making a lot of pots,” Cuellar says.
The sale of pots primarily serves to fund the creation of the next batch. Each one teaches them something, each one ends up in a happy person’s hands.
The St. Croix Valley is a place where potters make this life work, for many reasons. Besides the existing community and traditions and studios, there is the setting. The river, bluffs, and parks offer respite and reflection outside the studio.
Cuellar says living here lets nature be part of her daily life. She often walks nearby trails with her dog, and married Paul on a river sandbar in 2019. Moving to the St. Croix Valley was an important part of pursuing a career in pottery. She had lived in Chicago and other large cities, and loved them, but needed a change.
“I’ve been on this mission to convince more people to move to small towns because I really feel like, if you can do it, you might be able to afford to buy a house and you might have a beautiful natural space nearby,” she says.
Progress is slow and steady. Cuellar was able to quit her part-time job in early 2020 to work full-time as a potter. It seemed like a good moment to try it, and then the pandemic hit. She was among the young potters who led the way in quickly moving sales online, and most members of the community were still able to sell pots during lockdowns.
Earl is still working part-time, but keeps filling the kiln and working toward a dream.
The life is simple, but solid: “I make pot, you buy pot,” Cuellar recently told her audience. It’s a model that has been working for decades, and these young potters are determined to keep it alive.