The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.

1 Naysan McIlhargey’s Prince on Horseback, feeding seemorgh, 14 in. (36 cm) in diameter, fired to cone 10 in an electric kiln, 2019. Photo: Asa Mader.

The Early Years

My respect for other potters—local or international, humble or celebrated—began at Yellow Springs High School, in Ohio, during my four-year community-experience placement for credit with local potters David and Keiko Hergesheimer of Catalpa Lane Pottery. As a 14 year old, I was introduced to the wheel and clay, and instilled with an appreciation of a Japanese aesthetic. Then, as a student of Mike Thiedeman at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I was exposed to the importance of form, chemistry, and function. We wood fired and spoke about cultures, history, beauty, and the unknown craftsman. The bonds that formed with fellow studio pottery classmates at Earlham have endured for 25 years, and reflect my adoration of the craft and its craftspeople.

Following Earlham, I participated in craft shows for two years, selling functional, gas-fired pottery. During that time, I realized two things: I hated doing craft fairs and would not pursue pottery if I depended on them, and I needed more education, quickly. I started taking weekend trips to help fire wood kilns, and developed relationships with potters, future mentors, and teachers. One of those potters was Cary Hulin at Holmes County Pottery in Big Prairie, Ohio. Working with Cary and his wife Elaine for a year, I learned that deep friendships were possible with potters whom I admired. We talked constantly about pottery and potters, kilns, and food. We ate well, played cards, and developed a group of friends. Most importantly, I learned how to throw with a throwing rib and work with a production potter’s mindset. 

2 “100 pots a day, 30 days in the life of a production potter” postcard, introducing to customers the scale and intensity of a potter’s work. Photo: David Mader. 3 “The Big Pot Firing” postcard, announcing the theme and sale, featuring 1-year-old godson Isaac.

During my time at Cary’s, I had written to Todd Piker at Cornwall Bridge Pottery in Connecticut to ask about an apprenticeship. Todd and I met at the wood-fire conference in Iowa and hit it off. With mixed emotions, I ended my time at Cary’s early and went to work with Todd, who needed a hand. It was during my two years at Cornwall Bridge Pottery that I grew the most from a technical standpoint as a potter. Todd and his wife Evie Piker took me in, in every way possible. We played cards and made weekly ethnic-food feasts with local friends (two of whom later became my in-laws). I also worked hard as an apprentice and waited tables full time to help pay the bills. As difficult as it was to conjure up the energy to keep up the pace, my time at Cornwall Bridge Pottery was the most important time in my life as a student of pottery. To this day, I have vivid memories of lessons from Todd, where he is throwing in front of me, and I am seated, intently observing his graceful moves.

The Making of Miami Valley Pottery

I met my wife Jalana 20 years ago, having played cards with her parents, just as I was leaving my apprenticeship at Cornwall Bridge Pottery. While dating, Jalana and I discussed relocating and the naming of the pottery we would open, and we also visited a lot of potters who had anagama wood kilns.

We moved back to Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 2004, after buying a property. There, with the help of my stepfather David, we spent a year building the kiln complex, fixing up the barn/studio, and starting to make our tiny National-style home our own. The kiln was built level, with the ability to stand in it, and has roughly 450 cubic feet of stacking space. As if the stress of taking a loan out to do all this was not enough, the kiln collapsed when we were dropping the last of the arch forms. This was a serious setback, as we were forced to rethink the design elements, and recover emotionally.

4 “Stork Throwing Bottles” postcard and kiln-opening sale announcement with news of first-born son, Emil, 2011. Drawing by Jennifer Berman.

But it was a good early lesson, as running a pottery is full of emotional ups and downs: not only the wonderful feelings after successful Black Friday sales and hugs from customers, but also the dreadful feeling after Christmas, when sales pause for a long while. These feelings haven’t changed in the 18 years we have been called Miami Valley Pottery. Over the years, we have added more customers and deepened our relationships with them in a more sincere and meaningful way. Whenever a new customer comes to the pottery, I always stop working to chat, show them the kiln and the studio, and ask them to sign the mailing list. I learned early on that the sincere nurturing of customer relationships begins with education about the process and the kiln, as well as sharing my own excitement with them.

Early in the establishment of Miami Valley Pottery, we tried all kinds of advertising: print, radio, local shows. But we found the best, most effective way to nurture customers was to focus on the mailing list. We prioritize collecting customer names and addresses to later send a postcard announcing the theme of each firing, along with sale dates and times. These postcards have also been a meaningful way to include customers in the news of our lives. One of our first postcards was an introduction to the workload of a production potter.

The first year, we fired the kiln three times and found it too much, and have now settled on two firings per year, spring and fall. For firing number four, I decided I needed to fill the kiln with big pots. I had bottled up in me years of wanting to learn how to make big pots. Now that I had a big kiln, I was able to fire them, and what a thrill it was to decorate them!

5 Luster horse-lion, 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, fired to cone 10 in an electric kiln. Photo: Asa Mader. Inspired by a 12th-century Fatimid Period bowl, Syria or Egypt, from the collection of Phoenix Ancient Art.

To mark the biggest news for Jalana and me, we decided to announce our son Emil’s birth with a custom cartoon by a local cartoonist, Jennifer Berman. Adding to the fun, for firing number 12, we hosted an interactive cartoon-caption contest, with a handmade lamp as the first prize.

Jalana served in the Peace Corp in Madagascar and had a special connection with a tiny 4-year-old girl, Bli. Ten years later, Bli came to live with us as she excelled in high school. The postcard image for firing 21 proudly announces Bli’s graduation from The College of Wooster.

6 “Provenance” postcard, featuring McIlhargey painting Chinese-inspired pottery. Photo: Tom Heaphey and Vicki Rulli of Itinerant Studios.

A Day in the Life

  • Feed kids, pack lunches, and take them to school

  • Stretch in the hot tub, then have coffee

  • Head out to studio

  • Throw, trim, stack wood (mix it up)

  • More throwing and trimming 

  • Decorating at the end of the cycle

  • Afternoon tea

  • Work on orders, chip away at to-do list 

  • Play Wordle

  • Prepare dinner for family and friends 

  • Help prepare the kids for bed

  • Work in the studio for a couple more hours 

  • Stretch in the hot tub

  • Watch Ted Lasso 

  • Bed

Tracing Themes Over the Years

From our first firing on, each firing has been treated like a technical scholarship, an exploration of a particular idea, and an opportunity to reach, educate, and fill our customers with curiosity. Some themes marked important times in our family, others focused on a particular material or technique, or included collaborations with other artists. All of these themes have been passionate probing, and always avoiding categorical conclusions. Working this way reminds me that I’m a lifelong student, just touching each idea with a lifetime more to learn. 

For firing number seven, which we named “Honeysuckle and Pine,” we cleared our honeysuckle, collected discarded Christmas trees from all around town, and felled a large white pine tree from our property to use as fuel. The results were very interesting and inspired us to talk to our customers about fuel sources, and how each species of wood creates a different color ash on the pots. Over the years, we’ve used many types of wood, and serious customers ask about (and know) what type of wood might grace their pots.

Time marched on. Themes and firings continued. We had “The Mug Project,” a study of 2000 mugs (50 shapes, 40 of each), all sold at the same accessible price; the first study of Persian ceramics (from the 9th–13th centuries) titled “Persia; The Bird Bowl Project” in which 2500 bowls were decorated (50 shapes and 50 different birds). The bowls were all placed out in the yard in the shape of a peacock and a drone took the postcard image from above.

7 Postcard for Miami Valley’s spring sale, featuring the three McIlhargey kids, Emil, Elyse, and Bli. Card design by Kaitlin Meme. Photo: Bill Franz.

Collaboration and Community

One of the greatest parts of being a potter in Yellow Springs and Southern Ohio is being part of a very creative community, where collaborations are limitless. For some firings, I collaborated with many two-dimensional artists to decorate our pots, including professors of painting and printmaking and local high school art teachers. The creative community doesn’t just include visual artists, but culinary artists like the staff at the Winds Cafe, who have been kind enough to serve on our dishes, too. We do a show at the Winds every other year. For the show “Persia,” the Winds Cafe created, with suggestions from us, several Persian culinary dishes for the menu, and we made unique plates to highlight the collaboration.

One of the most meaningful collaborations has been with Tom Heaphey and Vicki Rulli of Itinerant Studios. They immediately became great friends and the photographers for many of our postcards that advertise the firings. We collaborated on the exhibition “Wood-Fired” at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westcott House in Springfield, Ohio, where Tom and Vicki documented each step of the production process, and each room in the house held massive images of each step. I made pots to fill the house that coordinated with the printed images and beautiful building.

The image that captures Tom and Vicki’s creative skill the most was the postcard for the firing theme “Provenance.” We settled on two candles as a light source and shot the image at night, after many other attempts at finding the ideal light sources. Working with talented professionals has been thrilling and essential in our pursuit of these postcards.

8 “Persian Routes” postcard. Card design by Kaitlin Meme. Photo: Asa Mader.

Persian Routes: Pottery Under Quarantine in a Tiny London Flat

Jalana’s pursuit of a doctorate in midwifery took our family to London in 2019. A couple of months before the world shut down due to a global pandemic, I had secured a residency at a studio near our flat in East London. I made 100 plates and platters as samples for restaurants, as I had sold dinnerware to a few restaurants in London years before. The week before everything shut down, I quickly bisque fired the pots and transferred them to our flat.

The next four months were the most stressful, intense, and productive months of my adult life. While dealing with the chaos and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, and children out of school in a small apartment, I turned our bedroom (shared with my PhD-seeking wife) into a studio of in-depth research and detailed decorative scholarship. The day before the world shut down, I put on a mask and gloves and took a bus to Chinatown to find brushes for this ambitious pursuit. I was able to order other materials online and find all the information needed from museum websites and collections worldwide—all on my phone.

9 Leopard on Horseback, 14 in. (36 cm) in diameter, ceramic, fired to cone 10 in an electric kiln. Inspired by a 12th-century Iranian platter, Nishapur, Iran, from the collection of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Asa Mader. 10 Cobalt Geometric Bowl, 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, ceramic, fired to cone 10 in an electric kiln. Inspired by a 14th-century Lajvardina Ware bowl, Ilkhanid period, Iran, from the collection of Yale University Art Gallery. Photo: Asa Mader.

All 100 pieces were meticulously decorated (many took several days to decorate) and stored safely around the flat to be glazed and fired when the world opened up again. Eventually, the pieces were fired and shipped to the US for an exhibition, titled “Persian Routes,” at The Southern Ohio Museum and the Winds Cafe, accompanied by a catalog. The show and publication captured the emotional, cultural, and artistic intensity of this study—and my connectedness as an Iranian American, tied to the historic ceramic works of the Persian world. The Persian Routes collection continues (and hopes) to be shown around the world.

11 Geometric Star Plate, 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, ceramic, fired to cone 10 in an electric kiln. Inspired by a 14th-century Ilkhanid bowl, Iran, sold by Sotheby’s. Photo: Asa Mader.

Full Circle Back to Yellow Springs

Following the intensity of Persian Routes and quarantine in London, we came back to the US, and I returned to my studio and wood kiln. The theme of “Swirlware” was a success, highlighting the wood ash and salt against the different swirls and clays.

The next theme would be “Dinnerware, A Pageantry of Plates.” This consisted of 1000 plates (50 different shapes and sizes, 20 of each). All 1000 plates were placed in the yard in the shape of a dragon, and a drone took the postcard image from above.

12 “Swirlware” postcard, card design by Kaitlin Meme. 13 “Dinnerware: A Pagentry of Plates” postcard, featuring 1000 plates by Naysan McIlhargey (20 of each 50 shapes and sizes, photographed with a drone). Postcard design by Kaitlin Meme. Photo: Jordan Gray.

For the most recent firing, we decided to focus on “Tiny Pots,” 1500 of them in 50 different shapes. They would all be fired in the electric kiln, to cone 6, and all 1500 fit into two kiln firings. After having done a Big Pots theme years ago, the thrill of this project was the decorating. The best description of the process is “delicacy of touch,” both in making the pots and then in decorating them with miniature animals, flowers, and nature scenes. We have always snuck in a few tiny pots in each wood firing, but it wasn’t until this theme that we realized how universally adored tiny pots actually are. 

14 “Tiny Pots: An Intensive” postcard, advertising 1500 hand-thrown and decorated tiny pots. Postcard design by Kaitlin Meme.

Now as I write this piece and reflect on my 30 years as a potter, it’s difficult to imagine being a potter in any other fashion. The curiosity of exploring themes for each firing has suited my personality and ambition well. From a young age, I have always enjoyed advertising and art, and lucky me, I was introduced to ceramics at a pretty young age. I was always taught that the world of ceramics and ceramic history is ripe for exploration, and with reverence—and modesty—it can fulfill an artist for life.

15 Geometric Pie Shape Plate, 10 in. in diameter, ceramic, fired to cone 10 in an electric kiln. Photo: Asa Mader. Inspired by a 13th-century Kashan bowl, Iran, from the Harvey Plotnick Collection.

Career Snapshot





Bachelor of Fine Arts, Earlham College, 1997

Apprenticeships with Cary Hulin of Holmes County Pottery and Todd Piker of Cornwall Bridge Pottery, 2000–2003


Making work (including firing): 80%
Promotions/selling: 15%

Office/bookkeeping: 5%


metal throwing rib


Work sold at Miami Valley Pottery studio: 50%
Work sold at Miami Valley Pottery Kiln Opening Sale: 40%
Work sold on Miami Valley Pottery website: 5%

Work sold at Biannual Show at Winds in Yellow Springs: 5%