Potter Stephen Murray carefully measures silica and oxides to mix with blue glacial lake bed clay he dug himself from the local area. Glass jars stored above his work area are labeled with chemical compounds most of us haven’t thought about since high school or college. He is mixing glaze to decorate his pottery, which is built from slabs or thrown on a potter’s wheel and then hand carved and wood fired in an outdoor kiln he built himself.
In the shadow of Sauk Mountain in the tiny town of Concrete, pottery in various stages of production lines the shelves around the studio. A large gray cat lounges in front of the wood stove that heats the building.
The functional art that Murray creates is displayed in a small store adjacent to the home he built himself. His wife, Nicola, helped finish the house and runs the pottery business.
You can find beautiful pieces, like mugs carved with the profile of Sauk Mountain, evergreens, and other patterns. They make lanterns known as “Love Lights,” which project images of hearts and stars onto walls and ceilings when lit, and useful teapots, drip coffee makers, and “chicken bricks” that help you make the best roasted chicken (the bricks come with a recipe book)!
Murray is a rare breed: artist, chemist, and environmentalist with a penchant for living a self-sustaining off-the-grid lifestyle. He has been creating functional art for the past 40 years.
“Initially, I started wood firing because the cedar shake mills around here were just dumping wood into pastures and canyons — I thought it was a waste and that I can get this working for me,” he said while sitting in an armchair drinking coffee out of a mug he made that wasn’t up to his high standards to sell. “Once I started wood firing, it was another intimate connection to the process; I keep doing things to challenge myself.”
Most potters use gas or electric kilns to fire their pottery, many with electronic controllers that provide more control and consistent results with minimal monitoring. Wood firing is more challenging and labor-intensive, but it provides effects that you can’t get with other forms of firing. Wood ash circulates in the kiln, landing on and sometimes dripping down the pots, changing the glaze and creating unique effects.
“Wood firing is unforgiving,” Murray said. “It requires a very forgiving clay body.” For this reason, he has Clay Art Center in Tacoma make his throwing clay mix to a very specific formula, and he mixes water in with the dry ingredients once it gets to his studio. Depending on what the piece will be used for, he may add grit or other substances to the clay. Evidence of how unforgiving wood firing can be is readily found on his “Street of Broken Dreams,” where failed pottery is broken down to add color and traction to a gravel driveway on the couple’s property. Nothing goes to waste here.
He mixes all of his own slips and glazes. Some clay he digs himself. He test fires all of the glazes on tiles before applying them to pottery. Even in a more controlled electric or gas kiln, clay and glaze can be fickle and may not turn out the same way twice. Glaze made with ingredients dug straight out of the earth and fired in a wood kiln make it even more challenging to predict what the finished product will look like.
Murray’s take on artists is: “Most people in the arts are trying to retain as much of their childhood as possible. Being an adult is getting up, getting the mail, and doing things you don’t want to do.”
He is as far removed from mainstream society as one can be and still run a business. He refuses to own a cellphone, and when he is not creating art, he is often walking in the forest, salvaging wood, or working on building projects around the property. When asked why he is always working on one project or another, he laughed and said, “My mother told me to go be productive.”
Nicola Pearson, Murray’s wife and business partner, is an artist in her own right. She is an actress and award-winning playwright and author who also has a knack for running a pottery business. She penned “How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons” which likens falling in love and building a relationship to the process of making pottery. The book bears a distinct similarity to their real life story, but the book is a work of fiction, so the standard disclaimers apply. However, the book is still a wonderful way to feel a connection to the pottery they create and sell. She recently released the sequel as well as a mystery series and a children’s book.
When you walk into the shop, you will most often be warmly greeted by Pearson’s friendly smile. She will happily tell you, in her English accent, all about the pottery and the property and share the best places to go for a hike or get a cup of coffee.
Sauk Mountain Pottery is more than just a place to see or buy functional art. It’s a place to experience the people and inspiration that go into that art, and for those who are interested, to learn about a unique process. It is a place where you will be treated as a friend and will want to return.
When You Go
Sauk Mountain Pottery,
50303 Highway 20 in Concrete