Fresh Art Tour features Red Wing master potter
Most Midwesterners can conjure up the iconic image of Red Wing stoneware: an earthy, salt-glazed crock with hand painted size numbers, swirls and embellishments in cobalt blue — little flourishes to serve as reminders of the artist’s heart and hand.
With that image in mind, it is easy to forget that Red Wing Stoneware was a factory. Until refrigerators were common, stoneware was the answer to home and farm storage needs. Pottery was hand-crafted, but at a rate that was intended to meet demand, not as works of rare art. The normal work day of a potter at Red Wing Stoneware involved repetition, piece work, production — production that relied on human muscle, perseverance, concentration, and finesse: art. The subtlety of artists’ devotion and the integrity of the Red Wing name have endured for over a century.
Most recently owned by Bruce and Irene Johnson, Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery honors the Red Wing legacy with useful contemporary pieces, made with reverence to the artists who came before. Sadly, however, unless a new owner is found, the Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery factory will end large-scale production at the end of September.
At least for now, the continuing story of Red Wing’s artistry rests with Red Wing’s last few master potters, like Art Gannett. “I wanted to find the best in the old works and honor the old masters, not simply re-create what they did. I think I’ve done that.”
As Gannett looked back on his more than 20-year history with Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery, he explained how he wove production work into inspiration for his own art. “Throwing is like playing music, and production is like playing a song with many verses. The lyrics change, but the pace is set by the rhythm and the beat.” To put it another way, Gannett added, “It’s a workout. It keeps you toned for the work you do at home.”
“…the work you do at home.” Red Wing Stoneware’s ongoing history is that of a factory, but the artists, those with “work you do at home,” have always been its soul.
Gannett started on the potter’s wheel in 1971, and has worked professionally since 1974. It was about this time he invited Barbara Andersen to try her hand at throwing. “I wasn’t very good at it,” Andersen said with a chuckle, but as a graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, it didn’t take her long to realize great satisfaction in adding her brushwork to Gannett’s pottery. A partnership was born. For 15 years Gannett and Andersen sold functional and decorative pieces at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.
Throughout the 20th century Red Wing’s stoneware sales continued. As imported ceramics became common, handmade wheel-thrown pottery was not always part of the Red Wing line, but local factory production was re-introduced as the company evolved and as popularity dictated. In the 1980s and ‘90s, in response to the huge popularity of antiques and country living home design, handmade pottery was once again a priority for Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery, and Gannett was hired. He wanted to keep his art music in tune.
“They needed someone who could do piecework, throwing pots in a factory environment. I started working there in 1997. I like production throwing. Every design has a way it needs to be made. Even if you made 20 pots the day before, you need to get back to the way the pot needs to be made.” As his title grew to master potter, Gannett’s work set the standard of quality for co-workers and apprentices. He made the masters from which molded piece were made, and worked on “anything out of the ordinary.”
At some point, maybe during one of those Zen moments when production work allows one’s mind to explore, Gannett decided that there just may be something more the world had to offer. “At age 40, with a house and two kids, I decided to go back to college.” He considered teaching ceramics at the college level. But the logistics of making his way through the educator curriculum eventually bored him, and in his words, “If I was going to do all that work, I might as well do something interesting.” He changed direction and majored in German, with an art history minor. An opportunity during the last semester of college changed his life.
Learning of a chance to study abroad, Gannett designed his own area of study. With the approval of his faculty advisor, his vocation and his avocation had become entwined. Gannett and his family were on their way to Europe where Gannett could put his second language into practice and discover the rich history of German pottery. A friend gave him a card with the name of a man he thought Art should meet. “I forgot all about that conversation until one day, hiking along the Rhine, I found that card in my pocket.”
The name on the card was that of Wendelin Stahl, Germany’s “most famous potter” (self-proclaimed, but that sureness was part of his charm, and more importantly, his influence). Wendelin Stahl was a third-generation potter and an award-winning artist, and now, as it turns out, is a well-known name to students of mid-century German pottery.
Andersen and Gannett met Wendelin Stahl, and marveled at the talented and fascinating people circulating through his studio. As the semester came to a close and Gannett’s family journeyed home, Gannett stayed on to write his paper, and one day found himself invited to tea with Mr. Stahl. Gannett was offered a three-month apprenticeship.
“Now, remember,” Gannett said, “I was in the process of giving up making pottery for a living. I was on the path to teaching German …” He and Andersen agreed it was an opportunity he could not refuse.
Andersen re-joined Gannett on the final month of the three-month stay, and it is obvious that they were both awed by Wendelin Stahl. In Andersen’s words, “He was delightful. His work was perfect — perfectly proportioned, perfect glazes. He really changed our lives. I was introduced to spray-glazing techniques by Mr. Stahl. The glazing I do now is all based on that learning experience.”
Gannett added, “He came to really respect my work. Honestly, I was a better thrower than he was. He rarely signed his name to his works or to the student works of his studio, but I can tell you that somewhere out there, there’s at least one pot that I made that has his name on it. I was initially introduced during my stay as ‘my American student,’ later as ‘my American colleague,’ and eventually as ‘my American friend.’”
Using Mr. Stahl’s own words, Gannett described how he and Andersen came to understand the importance of confidence in one’s own work: “If you want to sell pots like me, create the best quality product you can, and the rest … The rest is showmanship.”
Gannett fondly recalled, “He certainly was a natural showman, and his lifestyle reflected that. He was very charismatic and eccentric, and I sometimes wondered if we were there just for his entertainment, but I learned so much. After returning from Germany, I resisted getting my teaching certificate. I remember thinking, ‘Do I really want a regular job? I already have a home, a family, and we’ve gotten by this far ...’ I had long ago decided that working a regular job was not what I wanted. I didn’t become a German teacher. I went home, tore down my gas kiln and built a wood-fired kiln to make the kind of pottery I liked.”
Andersen and Gannett gave up their Renaissance Festival booth and began to produce the kind of art pottery that matched their vision. Their work began to show up in galleries and fine art shows.
In the 15 years since, Gannett continued to show up for his part-time “workouts” as master potter at the Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery factory, but thankfully, neither Gannett nor Andersen quite mastered the eccentric showmanship of Wendelin Stahl. They are humble and modest about their beautiful work, though Shahl’s words still center their focus: “I grew weary of making the ordinary. I grew very fond of making the extraordinary.”
Gannett and Andersen create their stunning designs in their home studio, Little Plum Pottery, located in the equally stunning Little Plum Valley north of Pepin, Wis. Gannett does the throwing, Andersen, the glazing. They are currently exploring oxidation glazes.
You will have an opportunity to visit Gannett and Andersen’s home studio, observe the master at work, and purchase their unique fine art pottery during Fresh Art Tour, October 4, 5, and 6, during a self-guided tour of home studios and galleries with breathtaking views of Lake Pepin and surrounding Wisconsin countryside in all their autumn splendor. Learn more at www.freshart.org.