My name is Barry Braun. When I retired from teaching in 2013, my wife, Cate, and I bought an old farmstead in Grass Lake, Michigan, where we set up a pottery studio. Out here on the farm, we raise chickens and pigs and tend bees, and I continue to make the pottery that I love to make and use.
Our farmstead is located in the Waterloo Recreation area, which is a mix of horse farms, lakes, farms and hiking trails. Our place was settled by a german immigrant family in 1864 and the brick farmhouse was built from clay dug and fired just north of the house. We sit on the top of a rise over looking 13 acres of wet land, home to some Sandhills cranes, herons, nesting pheasants and plenty of other song birds.
As transplanted city folk we don't consider ourselves farmers, more participants in a very experimental adventure. The acreage was farmed organically up until about 10 years ago, most of whichwe've had replanted into native grasses and wildflowers, which our bees seem to thrive on. We've established a large garden with an over abundance of raspberries, strawberries and blackberries and lots of room for veggies. The farm had an old orchard with peach, apple, cherry and pear trees which we are learning to coax back into production, and the old timber framed barn now houses a couple of hogs and the chicken coop has a dozen laying hens who now have the run of the orchard.
The old garage had been transformed into a studio by the prior owner and is now home to my studio which overlooks the orchard and the gas kiln we completed this year. The view from my windows when I'm throwing pots is a perfect backdrop and reminder of why we love it here so much.
When I was a young kid growing up in Minneapolis, one of my neighborhood friends had an uncle who ran a small business. Uncle Nick ran his business on the side and worked hard to manage growth without spending a lot of money. So, he put us to work. At 12, I was doing odd jobs around the shop in the morning and usually spending afternoons at the movie theater. When it was time for Uncle Nick to really expand, he asked us to help him dig the footings for his new building and I was happy to help. When the building was complete, Uncle Nick offered me a job on the production line packing clay. Yes, Uncle Nick owned the Minnesota Clay Company and by the time I turned 16 I was mixing clay myself.
While I mixed clay on Saturdays for Uncle Nick, the rest of the week I went to Minneapolis Vocational High School and learned how to cook for large and small groups in the Hotel and Restaurant Training program. Both at school and at the Clay Company I was learning the same valuable skills: how to follow directions, understand and use ingredients, establish a production flow, and master every step of a process from start to finish.
I graduated vocational school in 1968 and was accepted to the University of Minnesota, but by the time I was allowed to register for classes, the pottery class I wanted to take was already full. I begged Uncle Nick to persuade the instructor to let me take the class—my first ever pottery class. The instructor, Warren MacKenzie, was a student of Bernard Leach, who was a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. MacKenzie taught me more than just how to make pottery; he gave me a deeper understanding of the materials and their importance to the final piece and he made me see and appreciate pottery’s functional nature.
I spent just one semester at the University of Minnesota before leaving to continue my ceramic education at Bemidji State University. I took a summer off in 1971 to spend some time in North Carolina where I made pots 40 hours a week for a 7th generation family-owned pottery. Master potter Zedith Teague Gardner had me making pottery in a variety of shapes and sizes that were sold at a small road-side venture. After a summer of throwing pots full-time, I headed back to Bemidji to complete college and officially changed my major from history to art, working toward a certification in teaching.
After graduating from college in 1975, I teamed up with my brother to start a pottery in Pinewood, Minnesota, which turned out to be more of an educational experience than a business. In other words, we learned a lot more than we earned. In 1978, I made my way back to Minneapolis where I went back to work at the Minnesota Clay Company.
By then, the Clay Company had grown enough that I could work there full-time. I bought a house, got married, and started a family all in the same year. We set up a pottery in the basement and built a gas kiln in the back yard. For the next 10 years, my wife and I made and sold pottery at the Renaissance Festival and I grew in my skills as a potter. Building on the teachings of both Warren and Zedith, I learned to make the kind of pottery I love, pottery that’s both beautiful and useful. I haven’t stopped learning. I’m always working to improve my process and my products. I’m always trying new things.