To understand the story of the Saint John’s Pottery in Collegeville, Minnesota, it is worthwhile going to the studio in person. In July, I visited this legendary pottery studio located inside the serene Benedictine environment of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (CSBSJU), accompanied by my photographer friend Tomoko Matsubayashi.
“It’s slightly unusual,” said Samuel Johnson, potter and Chair of the Art Department of CSBSJU, about the fascinating relationship and history between the Saint John’s Pottery and the University. “Ultimately, the pottery exists because it extends the Benedictine values of hospitality and community.”
I’ve been working with Sam since 2014, and this was the first time we met face to face. I was eager to see him because he is one of the rare breed of potters that went through multiple layers of training that included spending time as a Japanese-style pottery apprentice at the Saint John’s Pottery, going to graduate school, and studying overseas in Copenhagen and Japan.
We first met at Sam’s studio by his house located in Saint Joseph, a few minutes away from the college campus. Equipped with kick-wheels and long planks of ware boards, the studio resembled the pottery studios that I visited in Karatsu, Japan.
Many of the characteristics —even the studio’s cleanliness— are testimony to the transmission of knowledge through distance and time. Richard Bresnahan, Sam’s teacher, and the Artist-in-Residence at the Saint John’s Pottery, trained under the renowned Japanese potter Nakazato Takashi in Karatsu, Saga prefecture. “Through the tradition I was studying I felt linked to the past, to potters from other places and times,” Sam says.
There are two wood-firing kilns on the CSBSJU compound. The smaller kiln is called Sister Dennis Kiln that Sam built in 2012. This kiln is usually fired in the spring and fall, giving opportunities for students at the university to experience the traditional method of firing pottery. Through this experience, the students learn to work together and appreciate the beauty and function of handmade pots. “I studied here, so I thought it was only natural to use handmade pots,” Sam said in explaining the positive impact of being familiar with handmade ceramics. “But many people in the rest of the United States often ask if it’s possible to eat from a plate made in this manner.”
In the afternoon, we visited the Saint John’s Pottery located on the west side of campus. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet Richard Bresnahan on this visit because he was traveling to celebrate his birthday with his family. “I lived in that small narrow room,” Sam said, pointing to the upper part of the brick building as we entered from the door below. “It was so narrow that if I stretched out my arms, I could almost touch both walls of the room.”
Current members working at the pottery welcomed us for tea around the famous pottery hearth at the entrance to the studio. They included Environmental Artist-in-Residence, Steve Lemke; Studio Manager, Daniel Smith; and apprentice, Luke Kiefer. Through conversations over tea made with water boiled in a cast iron kettle and poured from handmade teapots, I learned about the many obstacles the studio had to overcome to establish and continue its apprenticeship program. Despite these setbacks, Bresnahan has successfully trained more than 50 apprentices over the last 44 years, and many more artists have come to learn at the pottery as residents of the studio with the help of supporters and grants.
The clay used at the Saint John’s Pottery is made from a nearby deposit that is extracted, stockpiled, and processed as needed in-house using secondhand equipment. The wood used to fuel the kilns is environmentally sustainable, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and comes from the nearly 3,000-acre Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum. The apprentices not only master their skills in a deeply immersive setting but also learn to sustainably use the natural resources from the surrounding environment.
Sam says that through his apprenticeship with Bresnahan, he experienced the quality that stirs the imagination in his work. “In cups and bowls that I make, but also in the mundane aspects of work [like] washing ashes or clay, stacking wood,” he said. “This is one of the gifts my teacher gave me.”
The Saint John’s Pottery is a hub that disseminates a deep knowledge of pottery craft. Its apprentices, including Sam and Iowa potter Shumpei Yamaki, are gems of this unique American pottery tradition.
After the tour of the studio, Daniel Smith took us to the other wood-firing kiln on campus, which is the famous Johanna Kiln that was designed and built by Richard Bresnahan in 1994. At over 80 feet, the kiln is the largest of its kind in North America and can hold around 12,000 pieces in a single firing. The kiln is fired once every two years, and as its front chamber is currently being repaired, the next firing won’t take place until October 2024. The labor-intensive firing event lasts for 10 days with the help of 60 volunteers who take turns stoking the kiln around the clock.
At the end of the day, Sam took us around the CSBSJU campus. The Benedictine monks first arrived in Collegeville in the spring of 1866, and by the end of the 19th Century had constructed the quadrangle building using bricks that they made from the rich clay deposit on site. When I saw these original bricks in the building wall that the monks made, and the durable end-grain wood floor of the Great Hall, it became clear how a remarkable institution like the Saint John’s Pottery was able to thrive here in Minnesota.
Stability, community, hospitality, and dignity of work: these Benedictine standards seem difficult to live by, especially in this modern, economically obsessed world. But what sets Saint John’s apart is that the university has made credible commitments to these ideals that are tangibly demonstrated in the work of the Saint John’s Pottery and its community of potters.
All photos by Tomoko Matsubayashi for Entoten