Studio Visit: Lockbridge Pottery: Jeff and Donna Diehl, Meadow Bridge, West Virginia

Just the Facts

Clay
stoneware and porcelain

Primary forming method
wheel throwing, slab building, and a modified onggi technique

Primary firing temperature
cone 9

Favorite surface treatment
salt-fired pots with a just-off-the-wheel look

Favorite tools
I appreciate all of my tools, but especially my forklift for unloading pallets of clay delivered by tractor trailer

Wishlist
a bigger brain

Playlist
audiobooks by Anuradha Roy, Douglas Adams, and Craig Johnson, as well as the Traveling Wilburys Pandora station

Studio

In 1980, when Donna and I first saw the abandoned two-room schoolhouse in the mountains of southern West Virginia, the front door was open. “God Loves You” and “Zorro Was Here” were both written on the blackboard. We knew immediately that this would be our home and studio. Located on a one-lane country road and set in acres of woodland that now provide fuel for our wood kiln and home, the school was a shell of a building that had no plumbing or electricity. With the help of family, friends, and neighbors, we made the space functional and started creating and selling pots in a few short months. We have added a kiln room and gallery on the studio side of the building and bedrooms on the house side. We also added sheds for the wood kiln and salt kiln and several sheds for equipment, bricks, clay, and the menagerie of essential stuff accumulated over 46 years. All the tools (even the potter’s wheels), 5-gallon buckets, glazes, and clays are on wheels for ease of movement, allowing the 20×25-foot studio to be used for all of the pottery processes. The studio has a different configuration every day to make for a smooth work flow, based on what is being done.

The two school rooms—converted into one living space and one studio—are about 500 square feet each, with large windows along one wall providing lots of natural light. We have kept the studio one big room and make use of an ever-changing layout of tables and equipment, depending on the pots we are working on. Two large, rolling ware racks stand ready for greenware or bisqueware. Shelves on the side walls provide storage for tools and glaze materials.

We have six wheels for different pots including a Leach wheel (christened by David Leach), an unstoppable, heavy-duty wheel for throwing the big pots that was made for me by a local welding shop (you could throw a silo on it without slowing down), a waist-height electric wheel for most of the production ware, an onggi wheel (for when Kang Hyo Lee visits), and a couple of small electric wheels, all with Soldner pedals. The wheels are all stored on casters to allow easy set up.

We mix most of our clay, which is then stored in decommissioned freezers. The pugged logs of clay are gently stacked in the freezers (the shelves were removed). The freezers have seals around the doors so it is not necessary to bag the clay. The reduction kiln room is attached to the back of the building and our gallery is situated beyond the kiln room. The electric kiln used for crystalline glaze firings is located next to the reduction kiln. The wood kiln is outside, housed in a large, open, timber-frame shed with a clay-tile roof (the clay tiles were made in Alfred, New York, in 1907), while the salt kiln is in a round stone building.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

I was introduced to clay as a child by my grandfather who was a potter. For my formal training, I was fortunate to be in the ceramic apprenticeship program at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where I was enrolled from 1974–79. This is a pottery training program developed by Walter Hyleck that produces a line of functional pots marketed through the college’s Student Craft Industries. Walter connected me with Wilhelm and Ely Kuch in the former West Germany, and between my junior and senior years at Berea College, I trained as an apprentice for a year at their production pottery near Nuremberg. Coincidentally, this was close to where my great grandfather had operated his pottery at the turn of the 20th century.

There were 13 potters working in the studio and we normally fired the 100-cubic-foot reduction kiln 3 times a week. The Kuchs’ production line required accurate, precise sizes for thrown vessels. The beer steins had to be made to fit the pewter lids, so exact throwing was necessary. Once, the master came in and asked why I was throwing organ pipes instead of the specified sizes of the cups I was supposed to be making. My beautiful, one-of-a-kind masterpieces were casually tossed to the floor. It was excellent training. It kept me focused and gave me the skills to work with close tolerances when needed.

After my apprenticeship in Germany, I returned to Berea College to finish my final year. During that year, I also met Donna. The following year, I became the graduate apprentice at the school, produced pots to be sold at the college, and made plans for my future studio.

For many decades, I attended an annual potter’s gathering here in West Virginia, that brought in the world’s best potters for weekend workshops. I also received further training at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University summer programs.

I am a full-time potter and average about 60 hours per week in production and pottery related tasks. Donna is my partner in the pottery and does a huge amount of the work that needs to be done: mixing glazes, loading kilns, and making slabware. Donna’s time in the studio varies depending on what needs to be done. Her training has been on the job and from many contacts with potter friends from around the world.

Our days always start with some YouTube yoga followed by a business meeting during breakfast. Donna and I cover old business, new business, and make a plan for the day. We work until lunch and then after a 15 minute rest, go back to the studio until 4, when Lucy, our lovable lunatic pup, insists we go for a walk around our fields and woods. We normally work a bit after dinner finishing and cleaning up, especially closer to the shows and during glazing cycles. We generally work in two day cycles: throwing or slab work the first day and trimming, assembling, and decorating the second day. We do not have any rigid divisions of labor. Every day is different and we both work either to make and finish the pots or to get food on the table.

Marketing

There were many quality craft shows and shops in the 1980s. For our first 15 years, we filled our van with pots and travelled the East Coast hoping for good weather and appreciative customers. We averaged 12–15 shows a year, plus supplying half a dozen galleries with our pots. In the mid 1990s, while preparing inventory to go to a craft show, we realized that we didn’t have enough pots available for a decent showing because many pieces were on consignment at several different galleries. It was also increasingly difficult to fit the pots and our two sons into the van for the shows. At that point, we decided to try selling our work here at the studio rather than traveling to shows.

The studio shows and sales have evolved over the years. Experimenting with different show dates, we have settled on four shows a year. Postcard invitations, social media, articles in our very supportive local paper, and word of mouth are our best marketing tools. In 2001, we built a 40×40-foot garage/gallery building that allows the show to be set up early and accommodates our wide variety of pots. During non show times it houses woodworking tools, some of the wheels, and studio tools that don’t get to stay inside all the time.

We often have clay-related competitions at the studio shows. We were hearing from customers that they would play golf instead of coming to the pottery shows. So, we set up a canoe in the field and gave anyone $100 worth of pottery when they landed the golf ball in the canoe. We realized that the longer the customers stay, the more time they have to see the pots and the more they buy. We had a rule that while one person was hitting golf balls, their spouse or partner was to have possession of, and freedom to use, any and all credit cards.

The goal of these added events is for the customers to enjoy the shopping experience and the pots they go home with. Any exposure to wet clay and glazes helps the customer realize that there are skills involved in getting the clay to do what they have in mind. Competitions have included making a boat out of clay that floats and holds the most pennies or seeing who can throw the tallest pot on the wheel with a pound of clay. There are always wheels set up for demonstrations and to give visitors a chance to throw their own pots. We also have a raku body that has enough sand to permit immediate firing, allowing people to make a piece, fire it, and take their creation home the same day. Customers have told us they had to drag their kids to the shows, and then they have to drag them away. Many of these kids return years later and are now buying our pots for their own homes.

Because of the many repeat customers, we have to innovate constantly. The most common request at each event is “Show me what’s new!” We make a wide range of primarily functional pots and keep altering them and experimenting. We always have a show special introducing new items to our standard line. The need for changing surfaces and forms expanded our line from stoneware fired in reduction to stoneware and porcelain fired in salt and wood kilns, as well as developing crystalline-glazed ware that is fired in an electric kiln. All the kilns are fired to cone 9, so all the porcelain and stoneware clays can be fired in all of the kilns. Many of the 25 (or so) glazes are also used in all four kilns, giving us a broad palette and a range of surfaces.

We walk on a trail blazed by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. They lit the fire that developed the awareness of the human soul’s need to appreciate and value handmade pottery. This need for pottery has kept food on our table and provided our family a wonderful quality of life for 40 years.

Mind

We often spend long summer nights on the lake in our boat. The changing colors of trees and water and the patterns on rocky cliff faces feed my work, keeping the pots alive. International travel and teaching have opened many doors. Historical and contemporary pots from China, Korea, and Wales have given us a springboard for new forms, glazes, and decorations. Our studio and house have floor-to-ceiling shelving filled with both the work of other potters and pottery books. Teaching workshops and firing kilns abroad cultivates the desire to know more. All of this broadens our world, taking our conversation with clay to a new level.

Most Important Lesson

Phil Rogers once told me to strive to keep some decorations I was working on “spontaneous, but organized.” I found this suggestion helpful for the decoration I was working on and also good advice for life in general.

www.lockbridgepottery.com
Facebook: @jeff.diehl.71

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