By Anna Hoeschen.
There was a time when craft was livelihood. Everyone was an artisan, tapping into their environs and creating objects that were true and humble expressions of their lives.
Craft was, and arguably still is, life-sustaining. Like a spirited fire, it exudes energizing warmth and light.
Thankfully, the desire to create continues to burn brightly. Contemporary artists often allude to an instinctual need to make. Creating is as natural as breathing.
Finding outlets for that creative flame is vital. It used to be that artists passed down techniques and traditions; it was an integral part of artistic growth. As machines replaced the hand, the glowing embers of a vibrant, fiery tradition cooled and faded, taking with it apprenticeship and shared stories.
So, who ensures that craft is taught? Who fans the flame?
When we’re talking about people who shed light on the world of craft, we can’t underestimate the impact of teachers, who are storytellers in their own right. Their tales are creative catalysts for the next generation of artisans.
Puttering slowly towards Saint John’s Pottery, located in a back pocket of Central Minnesota, I think about Richard Bresnahan’s role as a storyteller, teacher, and artisan. Richard is understated and subtle, but still brimming with passion and spark–much like great craft itself.
Perhaps this kind of persistent energy can only be expected from a lifelong master potter, who at the tender age of 22, left to study under a thirteenth-generation potter, Nakazato Takashi,in Karatsu, Japan.
Upon his return approximately three years later, Richard built Saint John’s Pottery, the studio, in 1979. Through the years, as many students have passed through its doors, Richard has remained steadfast in his commitment to sharing both his resources and his stories.
A vivid example of how his teaching has resonated with students can be seen in the current exhibition, Stoked: Five Artists of Fire and Clay. The touring exhibit contains a compilation of works by Richard and four of his apprentices (Kevin Flicker, Stephen Earp, Samuel Johnson, and Anne Meyer), each with a distinctive style and approach. It speaks to the critical need for guidance and encouragement in the world of craft.
When I ask about his emphasis on generational learning and on ensuring that knowledge is transmitted, Richard explains:
“I’m more custodial. When someone walks through the studio and wants to be an apprentice, there’s a deep yearning for creativity that’s already in their mind… my responsibility to them is to give them as much information and steps of working with the material and the tools so that when they have an idea that comes from their mind it can pass through their hands. I’m facilitating the thought process. I’ve heard so many students say, ‘I had this great idea. Then I started the process, and I realized I couldn’t do it. It’s kind of about the way I thought about it. It’s the way I couldn’t articulate my ideas, so I’m still searching.’”
Helping students find their creative voice is Richard’s forte, and he’s done a great job of creating an environment where that can happen.
When I first enter the pottery studio, I’m greeted by the Irori table. Richard brought this tea table back from Japan; it’s one of the cultural touchstones that had an impact on him. Around the Irori table, shared stories flow openly, like earthy tea from a clay pot.
He reflects on the significance of the Irori and what it means to him:
“A European table is long, linear and has a certain pecking order (think corporate table). The people at the end aren’t able to hear the people at the front. Around these central [Japanese] hearths, there are no points of disconnect… that parallel plane of contact invites a different format of communication.”
That different format of communication, more specifically, is one that is marked by vibrant and lively exchanges. The Irori facilitates and invites stories. When people come to the pottery studio, they hang their hats and stay awhile.
On the day of my interview with Richard, I am lucky enough to witness one of these happy encounters. Richard’s former student, now a professor himself, has returned to campus and is reconnecting with his old teacher. His two young children, Harper and Ben, actively join in the conversation and play with the sand inside the Irori.
I watch attentively as Richard engages Ben: young, wide-eyed, and extremely sharp. He shows Richard an old tile he found outside the studio. Inspecting the aged treasure that rests on his palm, Ben casually remarks that his sister is the real artist in the family. Richard’s eyes sparkle and he happily retorts: “You’re living in the 21st century Ben. You’re all going to become artists; you just have to find your medium.”
Before they leave, Richard measures Ben and Harper’s heights on a beam in his studio. It’s completely filled with measurements, a scrawling testament to the community of young people who’ve grown up with the pottery studio…and keep coming back.
Sitting across the road from the pottery studio is another place that keeps students and friends coming back: The Johanna Kiln. The largest wood-burning kiln in North America, it has been fired eleven times since its inception in 1994 and has produced pieces by both Richard and his apprentices. The firing is significant for Richard in many ways:
“Some people have been back for all eleven firings. These are people from all walks of life: farmers, dentists, aeronautical engineers, physicists, writers, poets…I’m seeing unbelievable things come out of the Kiln… it’s exciting to me to see people being enthusiastic about what you’re seeing.”
It’s also quite exciting to see a glowing example of a craftsman who tells tales of his craft and finds ways to share and teach it too.
Photography credit: Rosemary Washington