1 German Water Tank, 28 in. (71 cm) in height, stoneware, shino glaze, soda fired to cone 10, steel tubing air vent at top.

Remnants of a past time, when iron and steel dominated the industrial landscape of many cities across the Midwest—where average middle-class Americans once worked tirelessly to provide for their families—the artifacts of production left behind afford inspiration for many artists, poets, and musicians. The work of ceramic artist Dan Anderson is no exception and serves as a clear example of how artists reach back into their upbringing to provide a contemplative view of both the past and the present. It is in this industrial landscape that Anderson chooses to live, both physically and aesthetically, to create objects that speak to, and about, our past lives, as well as our collective hopes for the future. 

Success in Education and Artistic Discovery

Dan Anderson, a professor emeritus who now works full time as a studio artist after teaching for 32 years at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (1970–2002), grew up in a small town in northwestern Wisconsin. He received a bachelor of science degree in art education from the University of Wisconsin–River Falls in 1968 and a master of fine arts degree in ceramics from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1970. Anderson’s work in clay and his extended career in teaching demonstrate an artist’s love for the making of objects and the sharing of art and clay with others. Balancing the solitude of studio practice with regular interactions in the classroom, Anderson’s love for education and personal artistic discovery became the perfect symbiotic relationship in a career marked with success in both arenas.

2 PIONEEER Corn Crib Teapot, 13 in. (33 cm) in height, stoneware, Toshiko Black and shino glazes, wood fired to cone 10, decals fired to cone 017, sandblasted, rusted-patina iron base. 3 KC, MO Water Tank, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, stoneware, Toshiko Black glaze on lid, wood/soda fired to cone 11, decals fired to cone 017, fabricated steel base.

For Anderson, teaching was always an inspiration in both his clay work and personal life. Through his daily involvement with students—leading class critiques, supporting a vital visiting-artist program, organizing group firings in his Mounds anagama kiln at his home studio, and other efforts he tirelessly pursued to sustain one of the top graduate programs in the US—Anderson’s work toward creating a sense of family became the taproot for a program that has thrived for over three decades. Now, most commonly using Instagram and Facebook, Anderson remains connected to former students long after they have left the program, and proudly proclaims, “I know for certain, once a teacher, always a teacher.” 

It can be difficult to separate Dan Anderson’s role as a mentor for students over his career with the personal work he creates in his home studio on Old Poag Road in rural Edwardsville, Illinois. He shares the studio with his wife, Caroline Bottom Anderson, who is herself a successful clay, glass, and, more recently, watercolor artist. Anderson’s work has garnered him many grants and awards, along with representation in prestigious public and private collections, both national and international. However, outside the university where he was continually surrounded by students, colleagues, and peers for so many years, it is his work in clay that distinguishes him in the larger art and clay communities. The sculptural and utilitarian ceramic vessels he creates carry significance in how they reflect and describe his world.

4 Dan Anderson demonstrating on a treadle wheel at Red Lodge Clay Center, Red Lodge, Montana.

Snapshots of Another Era

Architecturally inspired ceramic objects, based on sources such as water tanks, industrial edifices, grain elevators, etc., have come to define the artwork of Dan Anderson and in turn have helped serve as cultural icons that describe life in the Midwest where silos, water-storage units, barns, and other similar structures have dotted the landscape for generations. Impressions of life growing up in the 1950s and 60s have helped shape much of Anderson’s view into how he might give form to objects and structures, therefore allowing his sculptures to serve as metaphors by capturing the essence of both time and place. 

Anderson’s vessels, with references back to an industrial age where machinery often displaced and devalued the hard work of the individual, are depicted in clay to serve as reminders of a past era. Objects such as ceramic oil and gas cans are fired in an anagama kiln, where flames encircle the pieces and create patinas that are reminiscent of the original, worn-out products Anderson hopes to mimic, reminding us of both the artifacts of industrial America that he loves, and the way that they speak to the historical time-period. The flame and ash can alter and enhance the vessels, resulting in etched surfaces that create a sense of depth on the objects themselves. 

5 Viola Frey Teabowl, 4½ in. (11 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and paddled porcelain, Tom’s Shino glaze over Oestreich’s Crackle White Slip, wood fired to cone 10, decals fired to cone 017, 2021. 6 Mac Teabowl, 3 in. (8 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and paddled porcelain, Wirt’s Trap glaze, wood fired to cone 10, decal fired to cone 017, 2020.

7 Popeye & Olive Oil Teabowl, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and faceted porcelain, Wirt’s Trap glaze, wood fired to cone 10, decals fired to cone 017, 2020. 8 Japanese Baseball Card Teabowl, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, Tom’s Shino glaze, wood fired to cone 10, decal fired to cone 017.

There is an element of nostalgia involved as well. Where the original forms and structures he references once held the key to prosperity and the future—the products of progress—they are now used up, discarded, or left behind to exist in an enduring rural landscape as relics of the past. Anderson’s art freezes moments in time to create archetypal pieces that help us remember the working class and middle class of the past, and how our future remains tangentially connected to a former time and place. Viewers are asked to reflect on a past era where time moved at a different pace, and human labor was valued (and then later devalued). As he states, “I have taken the aesthetic and political ugliness out of industry, reminding everyone that change can be both hurtful/traumatic and positive/healing, once again underscoring the power of art to uplift the human condition.” 

9 Belgian Water Tank, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, stoneware, wood fired to cone 10, unglazed, natural fly-ash glaze.

When describing how he makes these sculptural vessels, Anderson says, “Many of my sculptures required numerous pieces to construct, both thrown on the wheel and handbuilt with slabs. Some of my tea sets may have over 50 parts. I keep the pieces soft enough to build with by storing them under plastic sheets or in a plastic container. It’s not uncommon for a complicated, architectural teapot to take a week to put together.” 

Other comparable clay objects, such as those referencing tools and machines, are recreated in a similar fashion, where age and daily use are present, again serving as snapshots of another era, preserving the past in clay. Forms that are fired to display a look of weathering on the surface brought on through time are then fired again with decal images (including logos for brands like Lucky Strike and Land O’ Lakes) that help place them in a specific genre with an identification of the former industry to which they belong.  

10 Mounds anagama kiln at the artists’ studio, built in 1987. It gets its name from the nearby Cahokia Mounds State Park.

Anderson readily admits to a fondness for enamel ceramic-decal transfer images, which he frequently adds to both his wood-fired sculptures and functional pottery. The decals reference brands that inspired him while growing up in a family-run grocery store full of mid-century advertising and packaging. Learning how to silk screen in his early college years during the height of the Pop Art era and being inspired by the aesthetics one of his idols, Andy Warhol, led him to discovering how he could personalize his utilitarian wood-fired vessels using the decal-transfer process. “The decals help date the pieces as well,” he explains. “Many smaller oil and gas companies got bought out by larger, conglomerate oil behemoths . . . . I still feel that the power of some of the logos I have borrowed in my work add a great deal with [regard to] time and aesthetics.”

A striking sense of realism often overtakes his forms in a trompe-l’oeil manner, further underscoring his references to the industrial past and the landscape where they still reside. 

11 Chicago Water Tower Teapot, 1999.

12 Best in the Long Run covered jar, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, stoneware, vertical texturing, alternating layers of 50/50 Shino glaze and Oestreich Crackle White Slip, lid glazed with Copper Blue Matt, soda fired to cone 10, decal transfer fired to cone 017.

Connections to Traditions

In addition to his pursuit of sculptural vessel making, Dan Anderson continues to find pleasure working on his Leach-style treadle wheel producing utilitarian pottery. Growing up in the pottery-rich
St. Croix Valley of Minnesota and Wisconsin, he was introduced to the region’s Mingei-Sota1 pots and wood-firing processes at an early period of his ceramics education. Combining these traditions with his interest in Pop Art and decal imagery, he often uses the images of well-known ceramic artists on his pots. 

While on the surface, his domestic ware might appear separate from his iconic architectural structures, he has consistently made both bodies of work, and they are both connected to the same aesthetic thread that demonstrates a familiarity of process with deep-rooted connections to the Rust Belt region and the era of his childhood. It is clear Anderson cares deeply for pottery, both functional pots as well as his vessels rooted in function that exist more as metaphors than utilitarian objects, all of which helps explain why his studio work continues to thrive.

Lucky Strike Water Tank, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, earthenware,  commercial overglazes, fired in an electric kiln to cone 06, decal  fired to cone 017, sandblasted. Mobiloil Water Tank, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, stoneware, Toshiko Black and Wirt’s Trap glazes, wood fired to cone 10, decal fired to cone 017.

The life and times of Dan Anderson, which include an expansive career in both his private studio and the classroom, illustrate how an artist can live on the edge of two realities, balancing each to separately prosper while they simultaneously support one another. Witnessing how one’s early life might lead an individual to study the ceramic arts, and then observing how their mature work is developed throughout the years, gives testimony to both a commitment to and belief in their vision of life and how it might be fulfilled. Anderson’s legacy in teaching is apparent and most easily seen through the family of students who have forged their own successful careers. And while his legacy as an artist also remains clear, the many pieces he has created will live on through time. With the remnants of another past age slowly disappearing from the Midwestern landscape, Anderson’s capturing of their essence allows it, like his work, to live on in perpetuity. 

The word master appropriately applies to Anderson, and a lifetime of honest observations along with a commitment to the study of ceramics has secured his place in the history of art, clay, and ceramic education.

the author Joe Molinaro, professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, lives and maintains a studio practice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. To learn more, visit http://joemolinaro.com.

1 “Mingei is defined as the folk art of the common people, and Mingei-Sota subsequently refers to a collective of Minnesota potters who studied under Warren MacKenzie and believe, as he does, that a pot should be appreciated for what it is and not who made it.” Holly Goring, “Editor’s Note,” Pottery Making Illustrated 22, no. 1 (Jan./Feb., 2019): 4.

Topics: Ceramic Artists