If a Colonial potter walked into my shop, the only substantive differences he’d find would be electricity and the wage scale," says Joel Huntley, co-founder of Wisconsin Pottery, a Columbus, Wisconsin-based studio that produces traditional, aged redware inspired by 17th- and 18th-century designs. "The materials, hand tools, and decorative techniques have pretty much remained unchanged for the past 200 years or so.
For the past 16 years, Joel, and his wife, Debra, have been making and marketing traditional earthenware plates, bowls, and jugs-former staples of Colonial kitchens and taverns. "Redware was basically the crockery of the common man," he says, explaining that the durable glazed pottery derives its name from the reddish hue produced by the mineral-rich clay after it has been fired. "It was the stuff they used every day. The red iron oxide in the clay gives it its distinctive Color." Originally intended for everything from storing spices to serving food, the utilitarian pieces often were decorated with designs in black or yellow slip–a creamy blend of clay and water that was applied before firing.
Joel’s appreciation for the humble earthenware began in 1975, when he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute to study pottery and art history. After two years, he headed for England and was offered an apprenticeship in a small country pottery that produced simple domestic crockery. "I started out throwing small pots and doing all the grunt jobs, for roughly $80 dollars a week," he says. "But I was finally a potter and working with my hands."
Two years later, he returned to the Chicago area and married Debra, a drama teacher, who encouraged him to pursue his calling full time. Shortly afterward, the couple moved to Wisconsin where Joel worked as a housepainter but continued to throw pots "when I wasn’t painting, mostly at night in a garage," he recalls. The couple launched Wisconsin Pottery in 1984, after learning that an abandoned elementary school located eight miles out of town was for rent. "Like most artisans, I always dreamed of having my own business," he says.
While Debra managed the business and juggled a full-time teaching career, Joel threw pots–primarily simple slip plates and trays and traditional blue-and-gray salt-glazed stoneware. When the market for the salt-glazed pottery "went sour" in the mid-1990s, he expanded the line to include fancy slip-decorated wares and elaborate sgraffito, or "scratched," designs. Inspired by the works of David Spinner (1758-1811), a Bucks County, Pennsylvania, potter renowned for his elaborately decorated and inscribed wares, Joel began experimenting with traditional Pennsylvania German motifs–mounted horsemen, leaping stags, and fruit and flower designs. "I studied photographs and museum pieces, then basically added my two cents worth," he says.
Two potters work full-time with Joel, producing an extensive selection of lead-free, slip-decorated wares as well as signature sgraffito pieces. "Each piece is unique," he says, noting that all pots are dated, stamped, and signed, so as not to confuse them with actual antique redware. "No two pieces are ever identical. We’re a studio, not a factory."