Peter Brondz

Just off the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, tucked in the woods next to an active salmon stream, you’ll find a hidden gem of a place: Peter Brondz’s pottery.  Peter Brondz is an exceptional potter whose mentorship/friendship helped guide my current career path.  I first met Peter when I was a studying ceramics at the University of Alaska,

Peter and his salt kiln

Peter and his salt kiln

Anchorage.  At the time, Peter had the only wood and salt kiln in the area and he often invited the students from UAA to fire them.  One summer, Peter invited Deb Schwartzkopf and me to make pots with him for a few weeks.  It was such a rich time that I will forever be grateful for.  Deb went on to spend a full summer working with Peter.  Knowing the positive impact Peter had on her life, I asked her to write a short blurb about her time with Peter:

“I worked for Peter off and on doing studio chores in 2001 and then was his summer student in 2002 (just after I finished my BA at the University ofAlaska: Anchorage). I learned from Peter’s meticulous systems how to be efficient and how to think ahead– from mopping the floor to re-oiling the gallery shelving to baking bread to butchering chickens. Being a summer student was an immersion program for a budding potter. I was enveloped in the rhythm and expectations ofbeing part of the studio as well as the gorgeous forest and sheer mountains surrounding the property. I learned about a way of life I wanted for myself. The studio processes merged into and affected every facet of life. I found a sense of clarity working in Peter’s space that I have endeavored to bring into my studio practice and other areas of my life. This ongoing relationship has helped me weather the ups and downs of a career as a potter, while moving around the country, setting up a studio, and recently buying a house. This relationship has bolstered my sense of determination and created an important support system.”

I have always admired Peter’s work, studio and lifestyle.  He has the idealic studio in the woods in one of the most picturesque spots in the world…Alaska’s Turnagain Arm.  While I was at UAA, I distinctly remember when Peter came to the ceramics room to demonstrate his processes.  I recall being mesmerized at the thoughtfulness, efficiency, craft and care in which he made his work.  But…what really sunk in were the stories he told about starting out as a young potter in Alaska, the sacrifices he made and how hard he worked to get where he was.  Peter was, and still is, an inspiration.

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Here is a lovely salt-fired pitcher that Peter gave me and my husband as a wedding gift.  It’s been the perfect vessel for tulips these past few weeks of spring.

Thanks for such a candid interview, Peter!

How did you first get involved in ceramics?  Would you explain your attraction to functional ceramics?

I grew up in a home with a lot of good art, including a few handmade pots, so I was always aware of the value of the handmade object. My mom, in particular, had a good eye, and would bring home pots she found from who knows where. My dad taught Botany at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater.  I was familiar with the campus because it was a great place to ride my bike (and it was only a mile or so from our house). The ceramics studio was in the basement of Old Main, a space no one else wanted. Clayton Bailey ran the program, and later Steven Kemeneffy, Verne Funk, Don Bendel was there for a short bit. There was a big salt kiln outside the back of the studio.  I was first attracted by the flames, I think. I started hanging around the pot shop, watching things get made, soaking in the vibe. There was always something cool going on there, 24/7. One student was casting full size molds off his naked girlfriend… pretty exciting for a 14-year old boy.  Anyway, with fire and sex, what more can you ask for? Eventually, one of the students noticed I was there a lot and told me I might as well make some pots. He showed me how to use an old, stand-up, 2-speed wheel {high is for centering, low is for everything else}, gave me some clay, and I was hooked. All around me were college students making cool stuff and no one cared I was in junior high (it was the 60’s). When the janitor ceremoniously locked the front door at midnight, everyone just went in and out of the window.

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Photo courtesy of David Freeman

Eventually, I told my folks where I was spending so much time. They were thrilled and found a student, Allen I think was his name, who gave me an official lesson for an hour on Sat. mornings for 5 bucks. He taught me the rudiments of throwing, it wasn’t easy for me, centering took a long, long time to figure out. Everyone around me was making pots and cool sculpture, I just began throwing and never stopped. My folks were very supportive and made sure we used my first efforts in our kitchen, terrible as they were. We had a yellow stain or oxide made from Uranium that looked great in the salt.  One day, a student brought in a Geiger counter and got a lot of fast clicks off that oxide (even after it was fired) so we stopped using it.  When a couple of my friends also got interested in making pots, we set up a little studio in an old shed in our back yard.  My folks bought a wheel so we would go to the shed and throw, then we’d fire at the University.

Can you briefly describe your background and education?

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Peter’s Studio Gallery

My high school didn’t have any kind of clay program, the only Art classes were drawing, which I never took. Too bad, I still can’t draw very well. By the time I went to the University in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1974-75, I knew the basics of throwing and glazing/firing.  Verne Stanford was the teacher that year, while the regular teacher, Stan Zelinsky, was on sabbatical. Verne had been a production potter in Colorado and had shared a studio (or a kiln at least) with Paul Soldner.  Verne trained at the University of Oregon with Bob James, and spent a bit of time working at St. Ives with Bernard Leach.  He could really throw some nice pots! I practically lived in the pot shop that year.  It was on the 2nd floor of the Art building with a panoramic view of the Alaska Range…what a great place to work. Verne was a good teacher and covered lots of information I had never gotten back in Whitewater.  He was the closest I ever had to a mentor.  When that year was up, he was gone and so was I, chasing the dream of having my own studio and making pots for a living.

How would you describe your work?  What are some of your inspirations/influences?

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Glazing
Photo courtesy of David Freeman

I am very tuned into making well-designed pots for everyday use in the kitchen and home. I want pots to be easy and fun to use and make the whole eating experience more beautiful. Some of my early influences were eating off of Heath Ware in my folk’s house. Fancy meals only, but they were nice dishes. I also liked some of the old crocks we had in the basement as a kid. Later, I became aware of Japanese pots and Bernard Leach’s work, then early American jugs and old German salt-fired wares.

You live the ideal life of the “potter in the woods” that many aspire to.  Can you talk a bit about your journey including the struggles/sacrifices you made to get where you are today?

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The Pottery

It was a long, serpentine journey to get to where I am today: a well built, spacious studio on 2 acres in the spruce forest, only 25 miles from Anchorage. I knew I had to have my own place to make a living potting, but before I could afford to buy land, I thought I could make money commercial fishing. I tried that for almost 2 years, out of Kodiak. That was really hard, I got sick on every single boat I fished on, especially in the beginning when I wasn’t used to the way the boat moved. I was usually the cook, an extra challenge in bad weather. I saved some money, not much. One very important thing did happen while I was fishing. The boat I was cooking on went to Seattle for extensive repairs. I asked for time off, got 6 weeks, rented space at Pottery Northwest, and was making pots the next day.  It was heaven.  The immediate contrast of being on the boat one day, making pots the next, confirmed for me what I really wanted to do with my life.

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View of the spruce forest from Peter’s wheel

Eventually I quit the boats and ended up in Bird Creek, Alaska, where I rented a cabin to live in. One of my neighbors, Cay Robinson, had bought a high fire kiln and secured an old chicken/goat shed to use as a studio. It was 12 by 20 feet, just a shell of a place. I made a deal with Cay, to share the kiln I would fix up the building and she could use the whole set-up in the summer when she wasn’t working. Another neighbor, Brad McLemore, who made really nice pots in his spare bedroom, also shared Cay’s kiln.  That lasted for 4 years. I was very focused, never took any time off, never left the state, just made a ton of pots, did as many craft fairs as I could, sold at several galleries in Anchorage, and lived a very frugal life, saving every nickel I could. It was hard on my personal life, my girlfriend at the time made clothes, we would share a booth at the craft fair and she helped me set up and tear down, etc. I was very driven to have my own place, not to pay rent, and after being in such a cramped space, have a bit of elbow room to work in.  Eventually, the property I had originally rented my first cabin on, came up for sale. I had saved $35,000 in those 4 years, more than half of what John was asking for the lot. I look back now and realize how hard it was on Renee, we broke up after 6 years, but I knew what I wanted. In 1982, I started building my current studio, a timber frame, two story place and moved into it in 1985. I also built a little temporary studio in my own yardjust so I wouldn’t have to drive the 3 miles to the chicken coop and pay rent.

When I think of you and your pots, I think about all the delicious food I enjoyed at your home.  On top of being an incredible potter, you are also an amazing cook.  I always loved sitting down at your beautifully crafted dining table and admiring the array of dishes used to serve food/drink.  Can you talk a little bit about how food and meal time inspires your work?

Cooking and eating have always been a big part of my day. It was really fun to start making bread as a teenager, then to be able to make some nice bread bowls in college. I have always enjoyed using handmade dishes and watching my friends enjoy the meal at a table set with just clay, glass, wood, fabric. No plastic on the table (it has it’s place, but not on my kitchen table). There is a high, narrow bowl I throw that is perfect for whipping cream.  It stays in the bowl instead of flying all over the kitchen.  Intelligent design is always on my mind.

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Condiment Set
Photo courtesy of David Freeman

I make condiment sets: a tray holding olive oil, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, sea salt containers. The tray sits on the counter next to my stove, so I have those things to cook with, then I carry it to the table for salad dressing and seasoning. So easy, and nice to look at.  I think of colors of pots as background for certain food.  Both salmon and salad look great on a black,Tenmoku background. I make serving trays that are easy to pick up and hold the entire salmon (cut up into portions). I like to think of new serving pots for specific

Salmon Platter

Salmon Platter

foods, but I don’t get too carried away. I have a fairly small kitchen with limited space, so pots have to be multi-use. I love looking across the dinner table set with handmade dishes, some mine, many by friends. It’s an immense feeling of well being, even before we start eating!

At what point in your career did you make the decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?

While I was commercial fishing I made the decision to make my living potting. I was tired of working for other people, on their wacky schedules (it was probably good training for being a production potter). I also knew I needed a creative endeavor to be happy. Cooking on the boat was not enough, and being another strong back on deck got really boring.

When we first met, you had the only wood kiln and salt kiln in the Anchorage area (that I was aware of).  How were you able to educate your audience (who were loyal to your cone 10 reduction glazes) about the beauty of wood and salt-fired work? 

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Tumble-stacked pots in wood kiln

I sell most of my wares from my gallery, a small room on the side of my studio. When I started wood and salt firing, in the early 1990’s. It was a big change from my colorful cone 10 reduction work. I talked to my customers whenever I could, explained how the flame painted patterns on the pots and how it was a big chance the way things came out. Once folks knew a bit about the process, they were more receptive to the subtle beauty of the mostly brown pots. I was also helped by my timing, as there was a national movement towards wood firing at the time. Interested customers could walk around the wood and salt kilns and, when the kilns were firing, there’s lots of opportunity for education.

Living as an artist in a remote location can be isolating.  How do you keep inspired and engaged with the ceramics community at large?

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Peter and Iris post-unbricking the salt kiln door

It can be a challenge staying inspired and engaged with the larger ceramics community. I have a few close fiends who I talk to and email with often. I try to take every workshop the local University offers, and they have had some great potters. I will often have a summer student, this is a great chance to engage in critical conversation with a younger person on the clay path. I will sometimes invite other potters to come and work with me, that is a rich time. Sometimes I attend NCECA. It’s a zoo, a 9 ring circus, but there’s usually something there that speaks to me. I subscribe to both Ceramics Monthly and Studio Potter.

How do you come up with new ideas?  Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?

New ideas are hard to come by. My work changes in slow and subtle ways. I notice the changes, a few of my really tuned-in friends notice the changes. Brand new ideas might come from taking a workshop and seeing a form I want to try. Eventually, after throwing or building pots close to the other person’s pot, it changes enough to be my form. Sometimes I will have a need for a new pot in the kitchen or a friend will request something I have never made before that piques my interest, so I will try it out.  If it works well, that new pot shape will be added to my gallery selection.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

A typical workday: alarm goes off at 6:30. Make breakfast for my wife and daughter, make lunch for my daughter and get everyone out the door for work and school. Walk the dog, feed the dog, feed the rabbit, walk the 100 yards to the studio. If I’m in wet-work mode, I will throw, trim, whatever needs to happen, till lunch, continue till it’s time to make dinner for the family, walk the dog, etc. I used to work after dinner, now not so much. Family time is important. IMG_0279My working hours are anywhere from 6 to 9 per day. If the deadline for a show is coming up fast, I work longer hours. After Christmas is over, I always take a break from the studio and hang out with my family, try to ski, sometimes we all go somewhere warm.

What is your most valuable studio tool?

I don’t know, probably my wheel. I used to make lots of pots before I had a clay mixer and pugmill and slab roller.  With no wheel I would be dead in the water, that’s why I have 3. Back up in case one goes down during a busy time.

You have taken on apprentices and assistants in the past.  Would you be willing to share some advice for potters who are thinking about hiring an assistant/apprentice?

My advice about taking on an apprentice or student… this could go on for a long time, there is a lot to figure out. It helps to know the person before hand. Be sure you know what you want them to do and make sure they know what to expect from their time with you. Keep the lines of communication open, or it can get weird fast. It’s a good idea to have a short probationary period before you commit all the way, and to have a set time period that both of you agree on.

Basically, most people do better if they know exactly what is expected of them. Be firm, be nice, be fair, but remember who’s the boss. This subject is one you could write a book about.

You have an established gallery connected to your studio where visitors can come purchase pots anytime.  What percentage of your income comes from these sales?  How did you develop your audience?  How do you currently advertise your studio sales?

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Studio Gallery

My gallery sales from my on-site gallery provides 90% of my sales.  I do a little bit of wholesale to a really good kitchen store in Anchorage, and sell a few things at a couple of small galleries in Anchorage. I have always believed in direct marketing my wares.  Talking to the folks who are using my pots was the best part of doing craft fairs. Now I get to do the same in the comfort of my own studio, it’s deluxe. I have had an annual Christmas show in my studio for forever, even when my studio was the chicken coop.  The Christmas show and craft fair sales helped me generate a mailing list. That is my loyal customer base. I send a postcard once a year announcing the studio show, they bring their friends, etc. I have about 2,000 on my mailing list. We are trying to compile an email Peter-3list now to help cut down on the costs of mailing, but I am not quite ready to give up the postcard yet. I make a little 5 by 7 inch card that has a map to my studio, some photos, my phone and address. I hand out the map card to folks who might be interested in finding me since there is no sign advertising my pottery on the main highway. It’s a tricky thing, because my gallery is open, whether I’m there or not.  Customers have to take the price sticker off, wrap up the pot, turn off the gallery lights. I like being able to trust people. Obviously, my location is key to having this work out well. I know I have lost a few pots over the years, but I still think it’s worth it in the end. I recently installed a locked, metal box for the money, in the old days it would just pile up in the change purse hanging on the wall. This just keeps the honest folks honest and keeps the gallery open 24/7.

Aside from studio sales, what other venues (such as craft fairs, group holiday sales, etc) have you used to successfully market your work in your community?

I used to do a group show with 3 other potters in Anchorage. That worked really well, but we lost our venue last year. It’s tricky finding just the right place, so we are giving it a break for now.  When I was just starting out, I did every single craft fair I could until I realized not all fairs are created equal, then I did about 5 or 6 good ones a year and sold from several good galleries in the state. As my studio gallery came into being and my direct sales grew, I was able to drop the fairs. The last one to go was a pre-Christmas fair that was well attended and lucrative, but not much fun to be at. My studio show is much more enjoyable. The risk is if we have bad weather that weekend. One year there was an avalanche that closed the Seward Highway.   Three people came, instead of the normal 60 or 80. Most folks didn’t know all the avalanche chutes are past Bird Creek (not between Bird Creek and Anchorage). Oh well, we started putting a line on the studio show card about where the avalanche chutes were. You always learn something.

Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?

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Telemark Skiing Turnagain Pass, aka Peter’s backyard

My advice to any aspiring potter is: be prepared to work your ass off. Be organized, be smart, be dedicated, be generous with your customers, be good to your family and friends. Know what you want, don’t be distracted. Make a lot of what you are interested and passionate about, it will serve you better than making a lot of boring pots you think will sell well.  Keep on learning, look around at the wider world, there’s lots there for inspiration.

To find out more about Peter and his work, there is a lovely article entitled Bird Creek Potter celebrates 33 years that photographer, Loren Holmes published for the Alaska Dispatch.  And, if you ever find yourself in the Anchorage area, a trip to Peter Brondz’s pottery in Bird Creek is a must.  To get directions to his place, just pop Peter an email or give him a ring (see contact info below).  Also, if you are currently in Anchorage, Peter has a show opening this Friday, May 3rd at G.Street Fox downtown.

Contact:
pbrondz@gmail.com
907.653.7272

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