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Minnesota Clay Co. USA Galleries

Hillcrest Pottery

Hillcrest Pottery "Trading intuition and creativity for something that sells isn't a good transaction. If one's work never provides economic security, at least one has the satisfaction of doing what feels right. Money can't buy that."
- Willem Gebben
Quote from Ceramics Monthly Comment September 1990
I'm driving across the western Wisconsin countryside on a cold early October morning. There is dense fog in the valleys of the rolling farmland around Colfax, Wisconsin. I'm on my way to visit Willem Gebben, a potter who is located just outside of Colfax.
I first "discovered" Willem Gebben's work for myself on a visit to Warren MacKenzie's showroom. I picked up a number of pots without knowing the maker, (there are several potters who have items in MacKenzie's showroom), and was surprised to learn every piece that I liked had been made by Gebben. I was impressed by the quality and attention to the utility of the forms. The tankards and dessert plates that I selected had a sturdy elegance. But I think it was the tenmoku glaze that prompted me to visit Hillcrest Pottery the first time.
You can't detect a roll of glaze around the foot of Gebben's tenmoku glazed pots, the interface between the clay and glaze is complete and tight. But the raw glazed tenmoku pots have a visual depth that contradicts their physical thinness. Willem Gebben
Hillcrest Pottery is on the site of an old farm. There are four buildings surrounding the driveway: the house, the pottery and painting studio, a barn protects the new propane and the two chamber wood kilns and there is an ancient out-building that is the pottery showroom. The gardens are still exhibiting some life, but last night's frost has put an end to the growing season. The clay mixing season is coming to end as well, the clay is blended into a slurry in a large tank outside the studio then placed on drying screens, so enough clay must be mixed to last until Spring.
Hillcreat Pottery Studio Once set to a proper moist consistency, the clay is brought into the small studio. It's heated by a zealous woodstove, and a number of wide windows allow in plenty of light. Several orders are on ware boards: a dozen or so covered servers for a local bed and breakfast, there are also raw glazed tankards, plates and teapots. The studio is split down the middle; half serves as a painting studio for Gebben's wife, Hjordis Olson. The problem of sharing a painting and pottery studio - namely clay dust, has been addressed by the use of a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter.
Gebben Slip Trail Showroom 2 Showroom
The showroom is a weathered farm outbuilding. (The first time I visited Hillcrest Pottery, the wind was blowing in from under the floorboards, sending throw-rugs about.) The shelves are filled with casseroles, mug sets, teapots, serving bowls, faceted jars and candle holders. The pots are glazed in rich tenmoku, fluid ash and celadon, some simply are rich red brown clay with varying degrees of flame lash covered in a glistening layer of salt.
The Kilns Wood Kiln
Typically, Gebben fires a two chambered wood-kiln (now being reconstructed) one chamber is lightly salted:
"I don't put much salt France they salt light, as opposed to Germany where they salt heavier. (My salt glazed pieces) are like the French salt, light without the orange peel texture."
The kiln takes about 16 hours to fire.
"I wanted something that I could fire with my wife and myself. I didn't want to have to rely on a huge team. (Multi-day firings) are fun for universities, but I don't want to be reliant on a whole bunch of people to fire my work. And I kind of like doing it myself."
Propane Kiln He is currently using a propane fired kiln while he rebuilds the first chamber of his wood kiln. I asked him what differences he saw between the two fuels.
"I think it's not quite a big difference in the salt kiln, but definitely in the glaze chamber...I like the glazes in the wood firing better. (The wood kiln) goes in and out of reduction...I think the glazes are less glassy and they're a little softer."
When asked what are his favorite glazes:
"I'm really partial to tenmoku, although it's a really hard glaze to sell. Potters like it and collectors like it. You put a salad in a tenmoku bowl, or soup - or anything - it's beautiful....People always like blue! I mean, I don't hate blue and I know if you put blue on it, you'll sell it. It seems the more that people know about pottery, the more they appreciate the ash glazes, tenmoku and some of the amber glazes."
I mentioned that the appeal to me of wood and salt fired ware had to do with my own struggles with firing an electric kiln and trying to get lively surfaces in oxidation.
"Michael Cardew said that making good pots with an electric kiln was probably the hardest. Because the kiln doesn't do anything for you... There's not much going on in there except heat....In a wood kiln, I think the wood does a lot to add to the quality of the pots." "I like Lucie Rie's pots, those are fired in an electric kiln and those are beautiful pots. Or Hans Coper's pots...The other woman whose work I saw in England, Katherine Pleydell Bouverie, she did a lot of ash glazes...they were fired in oil, but when she got to be older they were fired in an electric kiln, and some of those were just incredible- they were really beautiful. So I think it's harder - I've seen a lot of electric kiln pots that I thought were pretty boring."
I have to plead guilty on that one! Gebbin's Work
I take another walk around the showroom, selecting a couple of pots including the faceted jar and salt glazed casserole shown here. They turn out to be a "good transaction" for me, not just because Gebben's pots are reasonably priced, but also because I've neglected to sign my check- something I don't realize until several days later when Willem contacts me by mail!