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Celebrating a life’s journey, after death

St. Peter artist specializes in handcrafted clay urns

By Grace Brandt

If you visit the gallery of St. Peter artist Michelle Kaisersatt, you will see shelves of beautiful, painstakingly crafted pottery. Earthy red and brown clay vessels showcase beautiful nature scenes, from leaves to feathers to a striking blue heron silhouette. These images are not painted onto the pottery but rather carved into the clay itself, each requiring hours of precise and focused work. Some pieces even feature accents from the real world, such as driftwood and crystals.

Michelle Kaisersatt works on a hand-crafted “life journey vessel” at her art studio/gallery. Photo by Grace Brandt

“I’m always trying to learn how to reflect different textures or elements, like wind or water rippling,” Kaisersatt said. “I started a couple years ago really loving the idea of bringing nature elements into my work.”

Kaisersatt’s pieces are beautiful on their own, but they also serve a beautiful purpose. The majority of them are used to commemorate the life of loved ones who have passed away. Since Kaisersatt seriously began working as a potter in 2008, she has focused on urns and “life journey vessels,” as she calls them. (Life journey vessels are intended to be purchased by a client, used to store special memories throughout the client’s life, and then used as an urn after the client’s passing, which is why Kaisersatt uses the “life journey” name.)

“Death has not really been a scary thing for me to talk about,” Kaisersatt said. “I know there a number of people out there who are wanting me to make them an urn, but that’s not something most people feel comfortable saying. I think that’s why I was looking for to the life journey vessel, just to make people feel more comfortable, because death is no less common than birth. We’re all born and we all pass on.”

Kaisersatt herself was first introduced to the concept of death at a very young age—only four—when her baby sister drowned in a swimming pool. Since then, she has lived through many more forms of loss, including her husband Dale’s passing after a battle with cancer. Now, she works with clients to find ways to honor loved ones through her handcrafted cremation urns.

“I’ve numerous people who approached me to do cremation urns, because of my own experience,” she said. “I feel like maybe I’m more empathetic and can relate [to others]. So, I’ve helped a number of clients create vessels for their loved ones.”

A winding road

Growing up on a farm in Le Center, Kaisersatt wanted to be an artist from a young age. She enjoyed drawing, and she took art classes in high school that introduced her to oils, acrylics and mixed media—as well as a session on pottery.

“I made little teacups,” she recalled. “But instead of being a set of teacups, I ended up having five that were all different sizes. None of them were the same. But I still gave them to my mom for a Christmas gift, and she still has them.”

While Kaisersatt wanted to make a career out of art, she wasn’t sure if she could be successful enough, so she decided to study something more marketable: radio broadcasting. She attended school in Austin, Minn. and found a job in her field, but while she enjoyed her work, she realized that it wasn’t something she wanted to do forever.

“I just didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was really searching for [my path].”

As she looked for her passion, Kaisersatt worked at several different jobs, including stints at a furniture store, a lumber yard and a graphic design company. She also returned to school to study interior design, working as a drafter when she, her husband Dale and their family moved to Waterloo.

Eventually, though, Kaisersatt found herself drawn back to art.

“When I turned 35… I had a moment where I was like, ‘Who am I? What are my interests? I need some creative outlet for myself,’” she recalled.

Luckily, Kaisersatt soon found her answer at the Arts and Heritage Center in St. Peter. She started taking classes once a week in and, by the next year, she was already co-teaching her own class.

“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I was addicted to it the first time that I started throwing. I love the feel of the clay through my fingers. When I first got my own wheel, I got a kick wheel, and I loved the serenity of it. My studio was out in the woods, and I’d have all my windows open, and I could hear the leaves rustling and see the leaves blowing… It was just meditative.”

Weathering the storm

In 1998, only a short time after Kaisersatt started teaching at the Heritage Center, a terrible tornado swept through St. Peter and devastated a large portion of the city—including the center itself. Kaisersatt was in the building’s basement at the time, but she came out unharmed.

“That was a very, very traumatic time,” she said. “I was huddled in the hallway, and all of the sudden, the buckets of glaze started flying. The windows upstairs were exploding from the pressure. I was sitting down there, crouched on my knees, and just repeating, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace…’ I think that’s all I could say. We were all just kind of in shock from it.”

Some of the center’s pottery wheels were salvageable, so Kaisersatt transported one to her home. There was no longer any usable kiln, so she couldn’t fire any of her pieces. Instead, she just practiced her art and used it as a way to enjoy herself.

“I just practiced,” she said. “If I had a piece I liked, I kept it [to fire later] and if I didn’t, I threw it back.”

At the same time, Kaisersatt began working with several of her former interior decorating clients, since many had lost their homes and needed to create new spaces for themselves. While Kaisersatt was happy to just help her friends and neighbors recover, most of them insisted on paying her, so she saved the funds to put towards her own studio.

“I’d take a little money and put it in a kitty jar, and I ended up building my first studio in our backyard,” she said. “I did over half the construction myself. As time went on, I bought myself a wheel, a kick wheel because I had no electricity out there.”

A full-time artist

St. Peter artist Michelle Kaisersatt stands next to a wheel and tools at her art studio/gallery. Photo by Grace Brandt

Thanks to her new studio space and equipment, Kaisersatt was able to start creating more pieces. She started selling them at vendor events, craft fairs and other local marketplaces, and, when she had built up an encouraging client base, she decided to become a full-time artist. However, she knew she needed to focus on something specific to set her apart from all the other talented artists in the area.

“It took me a while to decide what I wanted to do,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do pottery, but it was a little bit of a different aspect because I put so much of my soul into each piece. I asked, ‘What type of a product am I going to be able to create and blend the two characteristics together and make it marketable?’”

For Kaisersatt, the answer was memorial urns. While many artists didn’t feel comfortable working with pieces that inherently focused on death, Kaisersatt looks at the end of a person’s life a bit differently, thanks to several experiences in her own life. Her sister drowned when Kaisersatt was only four, and her father was killed in a tragic accident in 2012. One of the greatest losses in her life, however, came in 2017, when her husband, Dale, passed away after a battle with colon cancer.

Because of her experiences, Kaisersatt has come to look at death as a natural part of life, which doesn’t need to be hidden, and to cherish memories of a loved one even after they’re gone.

“Everybody has their own way of processing things and what they believe in, and that’s just the beauty of living,” she said. “I can’t say, ‘Yes, they’re still here,’ but I can believe they’re still here because of my experience. During those last four years [of my husband’s diagnosis], I’d been really focusing on being strong for Dale, and it was a rollercoaster ride. You’d have one week where you’d be up and the next week you’d come crashing to the ground. It really makes you learn that you have to pay attention to everything in life. Because of my own experience, I feel like maybe I’m more empathetic.”

Helping others

Through Kaisersatt’s life journey vessels, she works with each client to create a tribute to a loved one who has passed on. She strives to weave in details such as a person’s favorite plant or materials that evoke something they loved in life. One client in California wanted an urn for her husband, who died in a motorcycle accident. The client shipped Kaisersatt many of the gears and chains from her husband’s motorcycle, and Kaisersatt was able to incorporate them into the finished urn. Another client had planted a tree as a memorial to the person who died, so Kaisersatt carved leaves from the tree into the vessel.

“It’s really a matter of sharing their story and somehow infiltrating that into the piece,” she said. “It becomes less of a purchased product and more of a sacred piece for them, too, because they’re a part of the creation process. It’s always been a really enriching experience for both of the parties involved.”

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