A creative family with differing aesthetics merged their love of various types of ceramics into one collection full of stories. The different pieces are mixed and matched and add meaning to every meal or gathering.
I tend to like “potter’s pots.” Pots that are various shades of brown, fired in wood, salt, and soda kilns. Pots that flash and talk about the fire. Maggy, my wife, tends to lean toward narrative, colorful, figurative, and anthropomorphic works. She is an artist as well; her hand-stitched embroideries and art quilts have some of these qualities. Our children love quirky, funky, and zoomorphic forms.
Our collecting philosophy is simple. We collect what we like, and our collection is a timeline. Each piece has a story to tell. There are trades with former students, former residents, other ceramic artists, teachers, mentors, and heroes. There are pieces that were gifts, and some were purchased to celebrate anniversaries and holidays or to remind us of a special trip or event.
Education, Creativity, and Community
In December 1993, I graduated from Wichita State University with a BFA in studio arts with an emphasis in ceramics. It was clear to me that I had found my passion and wanted to continue my arts education. So, I applied to graduate school and had a whole semester to play the waiting game.
At the recommendation of my undergraduate professor, Rick St. John, I applied to an 8-week concentration at Penland School of Craft for the spring of 1994. Several weeks later I received my acceptance letter, and I packed up the car and headed to North Carolina. I was going to spend eight weeks with Will Ruggles and Douglass Rankin, making pots and firing the climbing wood kiln they had designed and built on the Penland campus.
The energy at Penland was magical. My daily routine was ideal—eat, work in the studio, sleep, and repeat. We toured artists’ studios in the surrounding communities, and one afternoon Will and Douglass took us to visit Rock Creek Pottery. I still remember the drive up the bumpy road and seeing their home and studio surrounded by forest. We toured the studio and shared a meal in their home. We looked at their collection of pots and talked about the artists who made them. It was there that I bought my first pot: a beautiful wood- and salt-fired vase covered in white slip with orange flashing and black brushwork—a perfect example of Rock Creek Pottery’s early 1990s pots. When I look at that vase today, it’s a memory of that time and place. It was made by artists that I admired and respected, who not only taught me about pots, but also about living a creative life. It was there that my love for collecting began.
After leaving Penland, I headed to Syracuse University to continue my education. In 1997 I received my MFA degree and met Maggy, an amazingly talented artist and now my life partner. We made several moves across the country to various teaching appointments, added children to the family, and in 2005 moved to Red Lodge, Montana, where I started a new career as the executive director of the Red Lodge Clay Center. The center’s mission is to support artists and the creative process, as well as provide a place for professionally minded ceramic artists to create new work. We host visiting artist workshops, lectures, demonstrations, gallery exhibitions, and educational programming to share the importance of art in our everyday lives with our resident artists and the general public. One of the joys of being the director of the center is the opportunity to entertain and share our collection with all of the resident artists who come through the program.
Art in Everyday Lives
We use the pots in our collection on a daily basis. The day begins with coffee. Matt Long, Dallas Wooten, or Josh DeWeese are my go-to mugs. We serve breakfast on plates by Nicholas Bivins or Justin Lambert. Lately, my daughters have been making tiny savories and sweets for high tea. It’s fun to see what pots emerge from the collection. It’s usually an Ayumi Horie teapot accompanied by cups from Kyungmin Park, with cream and sugar delivered from pots by Sarah Jaeger, and Kristin Pavelka’s plates filled with finger sandwiches. The pots make the meal much more interesting. Dinners are a reunion of several decades of collecting coming out of the cupboards to present the meal. McKenzie Smith plates, salt-and-pepper shakers from a collaboration of Rosalie Wynkoop and Tara Wilson, and bowls by Warren MacKenzie and Ron Meyers.
Jeff Oestreich, a wonderful, longtime potter from Taylors Falls, Minnesota, was here doing a workshop, and we had a potluck dinner to celebrate the occasion. Jeff was looking around at our collection and after a moment of silence asked, “Is Ron Meyers your uncle or something?” “Not my uncle,” I replied, “just a great friend and one of my favorite potters.”
When we moved to Red Lodge in 2005, we renovated a small cabin in the woods. Our family grew and so did our collection. So, in 2015 we added on to the cabin and created more space for entertaining and more space for our collection. Maggy enjoys grouping pots together with similar forms side by side. She likes to see how different artists solve the same problem. Our pieces move around a lot, too. We add new pieces fairly often, and once we move one to make room for another, it becomes an interesting shuffle of pots from room to room.
Art as a Teaching Tool
The collection is a great teaching tool as well. Every year in May, Red Lodge Clay Center hosts the Advanced Student Project Network (ASPN). The center selects a faculty mentor to help jury five ceramics majors from prominent clay undergraduate programs to come to Montana for a three-week, short-term residency. While the students are here, they work in the studio, give an artist talk, and travel around the state on a three-day tour of artist studios, university programs, and various art centers and museums. We have a dinner party at our place and have a contest to see who can successfully identify 25 of the artists in the collection. The competition is fierce, and it makes for great conversations about the collection.
Chances are if you’ve attended one of our parties, I’ve poured you a drink at my bar. When we built our addition to the cabin in 2015, I commissioned my neighbor Nick Kosorok, an exceptional furniture maker and woodworker, to create the bar. Another local craftsman, James McGregor of McGregor Designs, created the concrete countertop. The bar is a small but mighty beautiful creation. The cupboards atop the bar are filled with numerous cups to choose from to consume your preferred adult beverage. Some of my favorites are the martini glasses by Matt Long, whiskey cups from Frank Boyden and Steve Lee, and cocktail cups by Sean O’Connell.
The pandemic of 2020 has forever changed our world. We were asked to shelter in place to help control the spread of the COVID-19 virus in our communities. We stayed in our homes, read books, watched movies, and listened to music. We turned to art to comfort and heal. We dusted, washed, and rearranged our collection, thinking of the people and places each piece evoked. It’s a great reminder of why we collect, surrounding ourselves with the art created by the friends we’ve made along the way. Let the journey continue. Cheers!
the author David Hiltner is an artist and the executive director of Red Lodge Clay Center. To learn more, visit www.redlodgeclaycenter.com.