‘Master potter’ teaches his craft, and much more

Richard Bresnahan has had many honors and accomplishments in his years as artist-in-residence at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, and Saint Benedict’s University, St. Joseph. Several of his apprentices, who receive salaries and health benefits, have gone on to hold respected positions in the art world.  He designed and supervised the building of the largest kiln in North America.  In 1997 a ceramic plate which he created was placed in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in Japan.  And this year, he had the privilege of creating a vase which was presented to Pope Benedict XVI. Richard’s set-up is unique.  He is not part of a faculty, and his students cannot major in ceramics.  Most of his apprentices have been through undergraduate programs in other schools and have found that a Master of Fine Arts program will neither greatly improve their potting skills nor help them to make a living.   His class includes healthy doses of environmental causes and world views.  Students share meals with his family, meet visiting artists, and drink tea around a Japanese hearth called an irori, the centerpiece of his potting studio. Richard’s interest in the Oriental view of art came when he left his undergraduate studies at St. John’s in 1974 to apprentice with a family pottery studio, Nakazato Takishi Pottery, on Tanagashima Island in Japan. “There’s a myth about Japanese potteries,” he says.  “The small wood-fired pottery studio and the little thatched-roof house are gone.  Pottery centers are incredible technological and industrial systems.”  Some of these houses may have a humble exterior, complete with tea house, but behind it are long steel sheds filled with people putting out hundreds of pieces of ceramics. Richard started his apprenticeship by doing menial chores, such as sweeping, before he was able to make pots. “They didn’t even question what methods I had been taught,” he says.  “They just started over.  We’re talking about a family that has been making pottery for 13 generations.  Their view of apprenticeship is hierarchical and familial. There is no individuality.  That means being at the studio at 6:30 a.m., having the studio cleaned and ready for the teacher, having enough clay worked up for the amount of pots he has to make that day, and having all the processes going so that the studio works smoothly for the betterment of the whole family.” After four years, Richard was declared a “master potter,” a title that won’t buy him a cup of tea in America. He explains, “Americans may think that the only way you can get an academic degree is through the Master of Fine Arts program.  But this is very similar to a master’s degree, perhaps even higher.” His experiences in multi-cultural ceramics making led him to combine American and Pacific Rim technologies in 1997 by building his own kiln.  Named “The Johanna” for Sister Johanna Becker, O.S.B., an art historian and scholar who arranged for his stay in Japan, the four-chambered kiln is 87-feet long, 6-feet high, and 6-feet wide.  It can hold up to 12,000 pieces of pottery and hold large sculptured forms as well, some of them put in place with a fork lift. It lately fired a large bronze statue of St. Benedict now in place on the Saint John’s campus. It is normally fired only once a year. “It takes a month to load the kiln, 10 days to fire, 10 days for cooling, a week and a half for unloading, and another two months for cleaning,” says Richard, who  sells his work at the Saint John’s bookstore, his studio, and Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul. This year will mark the 12th firing of the Johanna. True to Richard’s commitment to the environment, the Johanna burns deadfall from the St. John’s woods and scraps from a local lumber company. His potting materials are all indigenous; no bags of processed clay or chemicals are involved.  Instead, Richard obtained and stockpiled 18,000 tons of kaolin, a type of fine clay, and another 18,000 of black-gray clay from a local road-building project, enough he says, with a chuckle, to last 300 years.  He filters and reuses all of the water from his kiln and processes ashes from his household fires to make glazes.  Other glazing materials include quarry dust, flax, wheat and sunflower straws from his family farm in North Dakota. “Flax will go blue-white,” he says.  “Sunflower will go browner or creamier, and wheat straw has a tendency to be more clear.”  The various woods burned add their own color as well.  “Oak is yellow, poplar and basswood a little greener.  One that I enjoy most is white elm, which gives a light blue-celadon color.” He tells a story about one of his students who had created a black glaze formula using a number of chemicals, including titanium dioxide.  He pointed out that titanium dioxide drainage ponds pollute drinking water and kill hundreds of migratory birds. “I can take a simple ironstone from our clay deposit, wood ashes, flax straw and granite dust–four materials out of the waste stream–and get just as beautiful a black glaze.”  He adds, “It’s not that there’s a lack of materials, but a lack of respect and awareness for our own earth.” An electric motor circa 1948, a filter press retrieved from a landfill, and old sewer pipes are all part of his setup.  Even his spacious studio, a former brick carriage house set over an old root cellar, is a marvel of large-scale recycling, as it was moved from 300 yards away and set on a new concrete base faced with local fieldstone. Some of Richard’s students learn more than potting.  He also teaches the art component of a class in architecture and design at Saint John’s, which offers an environmental studies major.  He frequently takes his students to visit such diverse people as those who have built their own environmentally-sound homes, grow mushrooms, produce electricity for their factory, build their own airplane, or install wind turbines. They view films and discuss environmental issues around the irori. Richard explains that everybody needs a place to live. “They’re going to build a house or rent an apartment.  We’re talking about the nature of a build space and how one lives in space.  We have architects come in and give architectural lectures, we do a lot of site planning, we talk about urban planning.  We have had the head architect from Target Corporation come in and talk to my students about Target refurbishing buildings instead of building the big box.  It’s to give them a vocabulary of how to make good choices.  And then they build their own models, so they learn some scale.  A lot of students come into a liberal arts education and don’t know the difference between square feet and cubic feet.  To get them up to this understanding of space is very important.  They make their own materials here in the studio, so it’s really a comprehensive art program.” Richard’s latest project is a national touring exhibit of his own work and that of four of his former apprentices.  Called “Stoked,” it celebrates the 30th anniversary of the founding of Saint John’s Pottery, and features lectures and workshops as well as exhibits. His work is also featured in the film Sharing the Fire seen on PBS and YouTube. The vase for the Vatican came about through a program called Art in Embassies, started under the Kennedy administration. The U.S. State Department has a curator who selects artists from around the country to represent their embassies. Vatican Ambassador Miguel Diaz presented the vase in a handmade wooden box from Richard’s studio.  Eighteen inches high, the vase is inlaid with granite dust from Cold Spring Granite Co. and also bean dust.  Richard received a very nice photograph and thank you. Eventually the vase will go to the Smithsonian or travel to another embassy. Meanwhile, the Pope plans to admire it in his living quarters. Saint John’s proudly says of Richard and his pottery:  “When you receive a piece of Bresnahan pottery, you receive more than a work of art, more than a functional plate or bowl. You receive the embodiment of a creative process that pays homage to the people, cultures, materials and environment touched by the processes of generations.”

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