Houston Studio

Mark Pharis Pottery

I began setting up my first studio in the spring of 1974 in Houston Minnesota.

Houston County is in the southeast corner of Minnesota. Much of this area is unglaciated with a mixed landscape of agricultural land and hardwood forest – it was and is a beautiful area. I was newly married at the time and we found a small farm with a ten stall dairy barn which became my studio.  The first year was devoted to converting the barn into a suitable workspace and building a kiln.


Tim Crane, a potter, also lived in the area. I had met him through Warren MacKenzie.  Tim was one of the people whose salt glazed work I had come to respect and admire. Although his forms were functional and had warm surfaces, they were sculptural and strong, bordering on austere. I had been salt glazing while a student at the U of MN and the kiln I built in Houston was salt glazed. I fired it with a combination of wood and fuel oil, introducing salt into the kiln at the end of the firing.


The Houston experience was formative. Among other things, it was my first experience living in a rural area, and because of that, it was filled with a newfound awareness of seasonal changes. I came to understand the cyclical nature of farming. I noticed the curiosities of vernacular farm buildings which functioned like big pots, holding grain, animals and machinery. I began making small pots configured like granaries, among other things. Maybe more importantly, I began making work that I felt was mine.

Houston was a watershed experience. It was a great place to practice, improve, experiment and develop ideas. But it was a challenging place to make a living.

Mark Pharis Pottery

I finished pieces by salt glazing during the Houston years. Among the historical and contemporary pieces that I admired were the grey and blue crocks from the Redwing potters; German Bellarmine jugs; Don Reitz's luscious surfaces, and Tim Crane’s minimal approach.

I built my first kiln in Houston during the summer of 1974. I ordered a few thousand hard bricks from a company in Missouri.  At the time, a railroad line ran through Houston and the brick arrived at the station in a boxcar.  I made arrangements with a local implement dealer to deliver the bricks to our property a few miles out of town. 

I developed a design for a two-chamber kiln. My plan was to fire bisque or earthenware in the first chamber and to fire salt glazed ware in the second chamber. A local sawmill provided wood for the kiln. I also had a set of drip feed louver burners made so I could also introduce fuel oil into the firing if needed.

The kiln was more or less finished by fall of that year.  And then, perhaps not surprisingly, plans changed. The first firing in this new kiln was a disaster. Nearly all of the pieces out of that kiln were under fired, flat and brown, and boring. In addition, my eyes were bigger than my stomach- the kiln I built was huge and it took me much too long to fill.  By the time I had thrown enough work and bisque fired it so I could begin glazing, I felt a great distance from the pieces. By that point I was ready to move on to working with wet clay again. New forms were emerging and as a result the bisque pieces languished in the studio. I hated working with bisque clay. It took a couple years to work through this unsatisfactory beginning.

"Once firing" – slipping and glazing leather hard pieces and firing greenware - proved to be a simpler and more efficient way of working. This process avoided the bisque bottleneck and simplified the whole process. Slips expanded what had been a very narrow pallet. And I was finally happy with the surfaces and colors that came out of many of the firings. For sixteen years I worked almost exclusively with this once fired, salt glazed process.

Salt Glaze

Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery

Transition to Earthenware

Mark Pharis Pottery
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The Houston clay and a lead glaze

from Betty Woodman opened the door

to earthenware for me

English slipware, Staffordshire lead glazed pieces from Galina, IL, and the work of Betty Woodman stimulated my appreciation of earthenware pots. But it took many years before I would work with earthenware in any serious way.  In the late 1980's I began working with a low temperature clay that I found on the Houston, MN property. It was clay I had used as part of a slip glaze for the once fired salt glaze pieces. It also could be thrown by itself with a few minor adjustments and fired as is.  It was an unrefined clay but it was free and easily available and it was a place to begin.

The colors of my salt glazed work, because of iron and stoneware temperatures, comprised just a slice of a much larger chromatic pie. Thus, I began by making many low temperature glaze tests and very few pots.  The Houston clay and a lead glaze from Betty Woodman opened the door to earthenware for me.  While I loved the subtle tonal variations and surfaces of salt and wood, as time went on I wanted more variation in surface and color. I wanted to be more intentional about the use and application of color.

Mark Pharis Pottery
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Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
Mark Pharis Pottery
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