In 1973, Win Byers moved from New York to Madison to study for a PhD in economics. His wife, Sandra, came along—she was growing her ceramics studio and practicing porcelain sculpture. Two years into the program, it struck Win. “I realized Sandy was having a lot more fun than I was.” Sandra introduced Win to pottery years earlier, and the urge to return to it nagged him. Win left the PhD program. “We bought a second wheel; bought our building, an old six-room grade school; and the rest is persistence,” Win says.
To Win, persistence initially meant using his time trying to get better. “It’s exciting to start low on the learning curve and get better in a hurry,” Win says. Genuine passion enables persistence. It’s easier to return to something day after day that suspends the world around you, captures your focus, and energizes you. It is impossible to return to something that doesn’t. While an undergraduate at Cornell, Win spent so much time in the school’s pottery shop with Sandra that the instructor insisted he receive a credit of independent study. This is the kind of dedication that hints at passion.
Making a career in the arts doesn’t come easily. For Win, persistence also meant dealing with rejection and building his business. “As an artist, no matter how successful you are, there will still be lots of people saying ‘no,’” Win says. “You also don’t get paid if people don’t see your work, so you’re constantly pushing to get your work out there.”
Win focuses on functional stoneware. “Most of them are for serving food,” he says, though he knows some customers choose to display his pieces instead. “I am heartened by customers who come back and tell me that living with and using my work has made their lives better.”
Win sees his pieces as being stripped down to the basic components: foot, rim, silhouette, proportion, and color. The result is an elegant clarity in his work. “I find comfort in the proportion where the ratio between the two parts is the same as the ratio of the larger to the whole. It is what makes old Greek pots and English gardens feel right to a Western eye,” he says.
Win’s very large platters are particularly eye-catching, and making one requires not only aesthetic judgment, but also athletic stamina. For each of these, he uses 75 pounds of clay, adding it to his wheel in increments. He leans against the wall for enough leverage to throw, or shape, the initial form. The initial throwing process can take an hour. Because he’s usually working on several pieces at once, and because each 75-pound form of clay sits on its own 40-pound plaster tray, Win has a forklift of sorts that allows him to move various projects on and off the wheel.
While most pieces can take as little as a week, it takes at least a month to make the largest ones. He might have 100 pieces in process at a given time, many bisqued but not glazed, several drying, and a few thrown but not yet trimmed. He also maintains a selection of finished pieces for a well-stocked showroom. On the occasional days when he doesn’t feel like working, which happens even to people doing what they enjoy, deadlines help keep him in motion. Whether he’s preparing for gallery shows, art festivals, or working on commissioned pieces, Win lives by deadlines.
Win travels often to participate in festivals and to show his work. Already this year he has visited Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, and several towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This fall he’ll travel to shows in Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. But sometimes he stays local to participate in the vibrant art scene at home. “This is a great area,” Win says. “The Fall Art Tour is proof that there’s enough great work in this area to draw people from hundreds of miles away.”
For more than twenty years, Win and Sandra have opened their home and studio to the public during the Fall Art Tour, which invites the public to interact with artists in their own spaces throughout south-central Wisconsin. Visit the Byer’s studio to see it has everything they need, including a damp room to keep Win’s in-progress pieces from drying and houses Sandra’s delicate porcelain. They also have a kiln in their basement, made possible with the use of natural gas instead of propane. “Having the kiln in the basement is a real luxury in a Wisconsin winter,” Win says. Win refers to several things in their studio as luxuries. He seems to feel fortunate to share a space with Sandra and to practice his art day after day. Perhaps he’s grateful for the handful of clues that rerouted him years ago and led him here.
Cara Lombardo is a writer and a CPA.
Photographs provided by Winthrop Byers.