The craftsman, artisan, and maker are back in vogue. People who want to know the butcher, baker, and the wine and cheesemaker behind their meals are now looking to add the potter to the list. More and more people are seeking an authentic experience of eating from dinnerware made with creative craftsmanship and craving a connection with the artisan behind it. To them, great food served on a handcrafted plate just seems to feel right.
Ashley Pfannenstiel (pronounced fan-in-steel), artisan potter and owner of Wilson Creek Pottery, credits the growing popularity of handcrafted functional stoneware to the farm-to-table movement. “The stoneware is beautiful and has been handmade from scratch, just like the food that will be served on it.”
For Ashley, the story behind Wilson Creek Pottery began when she was in college. An art and education major, she graduated from North Central College outside of Chicago. During her college years, she enjoyed found-object sculpture and focused on welding, woodworking, and ceramics with thoughts of becoming an art teacher. But dreams don’t pay the bills, and the hard reality was that sculpture and ceramics art, and art space in the city, is expensive. Her career took a different direction, and for the next 12 years she found success in the outdoor industry.
Art was still Ashley’s first love, so she started to think of ways to change career direction to get back to her greatest passion. Her focus had changed since college to functional pottery so she could create pieces that would fit into actual spaces inside the home. The more often we hold something in our hands, the more important a role it plays in our everyday contentment.
Life has a funny way of revealing the paths we’re meant to take. Little did Ashley know that lunch with Liz, her friend and former college art instructor, would reveal her new career destiny. Liz encouraged her to check out a friend’s functional pottery studio. A connection was made with Peggy Ahlgren, owner of Wilson Creek Pottery in Spring Green, who wanted to retire and sell her studio. It was important to her to have a potter behind the wheel who would love it as much as she did.
At first, Ashley thought this was a crazy idea to leave city life behind and move to rural Wisconsin. Since she was looking for greener pastures, she soon realized this was a dream come true, to be an artisan potter surrounded and inspired by a picturesque countryside with beautiful rolling hills. Just six short months later in 2012, she found herself making functional pottery and immersed in Spring Green’s artistic community living with Mildred, the dog.
The studio has character. It was once a cheese factory serving local dairy farmers living in Wilson Creek valley from the early 1930s to 1973. When it closed, Peggy purchased the small factory and adjacent farmhouse. With the help of family and friends, she converted the cheese factory to a pottery shop and studio and added a hand-built gas-reduction kiln situated outside between the studio and farmhouse.
The gas reduction kiln is heated to 2,400 degrees, which gives Ashley’s work a unique look, different than an electric or wood kiln. Reduction refers to intentially cutting the amount of oxygen that goes into the kiln. This forces fire into the clay in search of more oxygen, which draws out new colors.
After Ashley creates the shape of the pottery and puts on the glaze, the creations are surrendered to the fire of the kiln to let nature take over to add an element of uniqueness. The atmosphere swirls around the clay, doing all sorts of interesting things to the glazes. Firing takes three days that include a 24-hour period where Ashley has to set an alarm to check on it every 45 minutes, all day and throughout the night. When she opens the kiln at the end of the firing process, it’s a surprise to see what nature performed and how the pieces came out.
Functional pottery is created to be used rather than for decoration. When making it, there are many components to consider that go far beyond throwing a cylinder on the potter’s wheel and slapping on a handle. The potter wedges the clay, centers it on the wheel, throws the form, trims it, adds handles, decorates and designs it, carves, sands, fires, hand glazes, and refires each piece to perfection. Technical decisions are made to determine the size of the pot, the position of the handle, the volume in a vessel, plus the design and aesthetics.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of drinking from a pottery mug before, you may not realize that coffee and tea may actually taste better. The size and shape and curved edge of the vessel provide lip appeal, affecting the sensory experience as the aroma and liquid find the taste buds of the tongue and mouth. The handle should comfortably cup the hand of the user and be able to carry the liquid’s weight. Pottery mugs help keep hot and cold liquids at the desired temperature for longer than other cups. It’s more than a mug, it’s also a piece of art you get to hold.
Wilson Creek Pottery uses the same red stoneware clay with its unique aesthetic and earthy feel and firing practices Peggy used for over 40 years. A testament to its durability, neighbors are still using her pottery daily. Pottery is nonporous, glass-like, and hard as stone, so it’s chip resistant and can be used in the oven, microwave, refrigerator, freezer, and dishwasher.
To learn about how pottery is made from the ground up, visitors are encouraged to take the 45-minute scenic drive from Middleton to Spring Green to meet Ashley and wander around the studio to see pottery in different stages of creation. Wilson Creek Pottery is a few minutes from downtown Spring Green and open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. But it’s best to call ahead.
Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.
Wilson Creek Pottery
E6101 County Road WC
Spring Green, WI 53588