By Brian D’Ambrosio
Potter Joel Huntley’s art is calm, serene and internalized. Working with aged redware pottery inspired by the 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century folk art traditionally produced in Europe and America, Huntley has come to harmonize its understated, reflective beauty. For three decades his hands and heart have been kept occupied by his mind’s single-minded concentration to utilize clay in the making of sharp, ambitious, inspired things.
Joel Huntley’s ‘Selfish, Romantic’ Pottery
“This may sound selfish or romantic, but I don’t know how people exist in a job that they don’t have a passion for,” says Huntley, on a dark, drizzly day, sitting in a chair in the corner of his Columbus, Wisconsin, studio, back pressed against a wall scribbled with Bob Dylan quotes in pencil. “One of the first things I think about in the morning is how lucky I am to make a living at pottery; only a small, select crew of dedicated artisans is able to do that.”
One of the country’s foremost makers of traditional aged redware, or pre-Industrial Revolution folk pottery, Huntley throws and molds each day, every day. Pottery is more than just a matter or means of happiness or recreation to him, but a constant, steady, mysterious even, re-creation, a beautiful, noble, religious, mystical pursuit. Not fatuously euphoric, rather a disciplined process of strong, intense inner patterns.
“I guess you could say that I am hardwired to do this,” says Huntley. “People have always done this; it’s so much a part of human nature.”
Reflecting on more than thirty years of manufacturing pottery, the reclusive Huntley explains that pottery is less a lifestyle or ordinary job than it is something approaching the seriousness and complexity of a religion. “From the start the goal for me was to make a living in my chosen craft. All these years later I’m completely self-defined as a potter. I’ll never stop worshipping clay.”
Huntley’s studio is divided into two parts; the front comprises a gallery which showcases the artist’s eclectic wood-fired pots and face jugs. Beyond those doors, the self-sufficient craftsman, closed to the outside, open to his own thoughts and creativities, burnishes the luster and patina for heirlooms and commission pieces, slowly, if not perfectly, illustrating the metamorphosis of clay. His utilitarian surroundings look exactly the way one would envision: shelves and cabins crammed with wares; used and unopened bags of clay on the floor; tables stacked with painter’s tools and pots requiring painting. Hard work is the key to the potter’s success and no amount of heady praise from patrons or passersby can fool the potter into delusions of self-grandeur.
“It may be surprising but I can tell you that pottery is a stressful, hardcore business,” says Huntley. “There are compromises, disciplines and tradeoffs.” Huntley markets wholesale models to stores, large and small, across the country; the “bread and butter” of his operation is small scale, artisan studio productions. The luxurious pottery he crafts, which, he says, suits primarily Eastern tastes, sell in locales as diverse as Colonial Williamsburg to decorative art shops in the middle of Iowa.
Huntley employs old-fashioned hand tools and methods to produce the quality of aesthetic object and spiritual subject of a luxury item. Shape and texture are paramount to Huntley who first contemplates the tactility of the product before he even considers color coordination. When asked whether he sees his work as ‘exquisite’ or ‘beautiful’ he refuses to acknowledge these attributes. Aestheticism’s unfailing sharpness is what needs to reign supreme.
“I want the viewer to receive pleasure from the aesthetics,” says Huntley. “I hope that the quiet, yet powerful nature of my pottery preserves and serves strong utilitarian and aesthetic functions. I want people to appreciate the individual glaze and texture, and notice how a surface soothes or slows down, or associate a piece of pottery with a favorite place or land.”
With pottery, spontaneous senses converge all at once. Unpredictable, intense, and sensual, it is an endeavor fraught with novelty, impulsivity and adventurousness. Perhaps accordingly, mistakes often happen.
“Pottery is a cruel mistress,” says Huntley. “You can make a mistake anywhere in the process, but it’s only after you have invested all of your time, concentration and money –after the kiln – that the flaw or mistake becomes apparent. You can do all the steps correctly, but you still won’t find out until the very end. That appeals to me.”
Joel Huntley Life of Wisconsin Potter
Mindful of its physical nature, he concedes that pottery has taken a somewhat punishing toll on his body. Indeed, there is an underappreciated physicality to chucking clay which contravenes the outsider’s knowledge of the potter’s life; the rough processes of combining and crafting such visual, functional art is staggering: eight hours a day, solo, glazing, mixing, pounding, decorating, and throwing and spinning at the wheel.
“I have a clean bill of health to move ahead,” says Huntley. “But the bags of clay still weigh one hundred pounds and a large bucket of clay still strains the back. I am fortunate to have a strong one. Bad backs are endemic among this craft because of the repetitive nature of the wheel.
“There is a danger to it that I enjoy. There are power tools to be run, open flames to be burned by, temperatures to be dealt with, and all kinds of ways to burn or cut something off. I like that about the craft, the raw, open passion.”
Though Huntley often pedals his wares on State Street at the Dane County Vendor’s Market, he is more noted in such places as Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, than he is close by in Madison, Wisconsin. And he understands that it is not always easy to find an audience willing to pay for a handmade item which is priced four times higher than the one a machine spits out.
“Honestly, my profit margin is small because everything is done by hand. I just hope to connect with people who will pay more for a mug or plate because of how I value it, and because of who made it or why it was made.”
Talented and tenacious, pottery has endowed Huntley’s life with an authenticity and relevance and anchoring motivation to do, try, seek, touch and attempt. At 53, he says that it may even be the right time to embark on a new phase of his artistic career.
“All I ever have wanted to do is live in a rural setting and make pottery,” says Huntley. “Right now, I’m not at a turning point so much as a reflecting point, 30 years of making a living at this. The businessman and artist in me wonders what I can add or enhance in the genre, and wonders what I want to do for the next stretch. The glass is half full.”
Brian D’Ambrosio is a writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine.
His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.
Copyright Brian D’Ambrosio