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Extra Content: Steven Rolf: Doing It Right


I was surprised when, a few years ago, I saw a pot by a former student, Steven Rolf, pictured on an exhibition announcement. It wasn’t long after that I learned he bought a home near me, set up a studio in his basement and built a kiln in his garage. I’d heard stories of potters who, in setting up a studio or building a kiln, ignored or flagrantly disregarded local zoning ordinances, building codes, or other laws and regulations. When I went to visit Rolf, I found his to be a different story—one of a young potter who I felt had done it right.

Born and raised on a farm near Fairibault, Minnesota, even at the age of 12 Rolf knew art was going to play a significant part in his future. He was heavy on art courses through high school, where his teacher suggested that, upon graduation, he attend the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. After two years there, he went to the University of Massachusetts on a year-long student-exchange program in painting and printmaking, followed by a summer apprenticeship with a wood engraver/painter. After going back to River Falls, he completed a B.S. degree with an emphasis in two-dimensional arts in 1988. During that period, he took one course in clay, simply because he had not investigated that area. Not “hooked” on clay, but with an art degree and strong two-dimensional abilities, he moved to Milwaukee to try his hand as a professional artist. He set up his studio in a warehouse building in order to do large paintings. He had a troubled year.

On invitation from his parents, Rolf returned home to work on the farm and settle his mind. Working with his hands, and the rhythm of doing farm chores, seemed to resonate with his limited clay experience. It also triggered his desire to find a place where he could get an intensive experience in clay. He attended the Kansas City Art Institute and earned his second undergraduate degree in art. Though he felt he had a strong base, he felt a need to find out what working as a full-time professional potter might be all about. He decided to enroll in graduate studies at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where he earned an M.F.A. degree. He was employed part time as a ceramics teacher, museum clerk and kiln assistant at Alfred. He also rented studio space and, after a year and a half, started his career as a full-time potter.

Butterdish, 5 inches (13 centimeters) in diameter, stoneware, reduction fired to cone 10.

Teapot, 4½ inches (11 centimeters) in height, porcelain, reduction fired to cone 10.

Teabowl, 4 inches (10 centimeters) in height, stoneware, reduction fired to cone 10.

While at Alfred, Rolf met and married his wife Jacqueline, who got a job in Minneapolis upon graduation. Because of Rolf’s familiarity with River Falls, they decided to look there for a house. On the last day of their frantic five-day hunt, they found a house and made an offer contingent upon their being able to get a loan.

Rolf started “doing it right” by adding a second contingency to the purchase offer: being able to obtain a permit to operate a business from a home in a residential area. There wasn’t time for further arrangements while in River Falls, so, back in Alfred, Rolf began that work by phone. He called the River Falls city office to discuss his studio and business needs, as well as city requirements and regulations. He explained to the city exactly what he wanted to do and asked what he needed to do in order to have his request passed by the city zoning commission. Some of the issues were kiln construction, where it would be built, safety devices and customer traffic. The zoning commission was concerned about what effect the latter might have on changing the neighborhood. In letters that followed, Rolf gave assurance he would keep a low profile so neighbors would hardly know he was there, except for one or two major sales a year. The house had a very open basement space that allowed for a definite separation between studio and living quarters. Result: no question as to which was which for tax purposes. The city approved building the kiln in the wood-frame garage without seeing any plans. Rolf did all of the studio and kiln construction himself but said he wished he had talked more with the building inspector beforehand. Even though he did everything right according to city requirements, if the burners had been 2 inches lower, the kiln would not have passed inspection. Rolf also consulted with refractories people for suggestions and guidance, worked closely with the natural gas company, garnered information, and gained necessary approval from each entity at every level of the project as support for the next level.

Cup, 3½ inches (9 centimeters) in height, stoneware, reduction fired to cone 10.

In his garage, Rolf built a 40-cubic-foot, softbrick, downdraft kiln with a fiber door, which he fires with natural gas.

Rolf tried to use a “soft-pedal” approach by asking, “Can you help me out? This is what I would like to do.” His advice to others is to state what you would like to do but don’t come on too strong; listen to what is suggested and required; and be open to suggestion and negotiation. During the course of his project, Rolf tried to build what he describes as a nondemanding relationship with each business and support person. He says, “If you do that, they will serve you better.” He advises doing business in town—pumping money into the local economy and getting to know the businesspeople personally, thereby getting them to serve you better and more willingly.

Rolf describes his work as being quiet and functional, based on objects or references found in nature. The majority of his work is Cone 10 stoneware with about 10% made of porcelain. He is very disciplined and adheres to a strict work schedule, an attitude instilled from growing up doing farm chores.

He recently set aside a small 10×10-foot room off the front entry to the living quarters as a sales gallery. Beyond his home studio sales, his work is carried in a number of galleries in the United States, and he sells at a few fairs as well. He also lectures and teaches workshops.

the author Kurt Wild is a studio potter in River Falls, Wisconsin, and professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin-River Falls.


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