Pottery from the Blue Earth: Blair Meerfeld

Article by Ed Quillen

Local Artists – May 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Outside the big south-facing windows, nature was providing a full dose of springtime in the Rockies — steady strong wind mixed with rain, snow, sleet, sporadic sunshine, the first hailstorm of 1997 — all in about ten minutes.

Inside the studio building behind his house and gallery, just south of the museum on U.S. 285 in Saguache, Blair Meerfeld was throwing a pot on his kick wheel as he explained his fascination with pottery: “It’s putting rocks in the fire, and seeing what comes out.”

Many modern potters buy their clay and glazes already mixed, Meerfeld said, “but I mix my own. I want to know what goes into my work.”

Most of his clay arrives dry in bags from pits scattered across the country — mostly the southeastern United States, but also Missouri and New Mexico.

The clay — so much of this kind, so much of that, with recipes based on experience, experiment, and intuition — goes into a 250-pound dough mixer salvaged from a bakery. Then he adds water, as well as his unique ingredients.

“The local clay fires to a rich root-beer brown, rather than the usual cement gray you see in clay from commercial pits,” he explained.

He doesn’t stop with hand-dug clay. “When I see some interesting rocks, I’ll grind a few of them up with a mortar and pestle, and add them to the blend.” If his grind is fairly coarse, “it can add strength and interesting textures to the pottery.”

Meerfeld’s pottery, which fits somewhere between functional and artistic, appears in many forms: bowls, tumblers, coffee cups, canisters, pasta jars, pitchers — just about everything in the household ceramic line except plates. “Dinner plates just don’t excite me, and if it’s not interesting, why take the trouble to make it by hand?”

His work is interesting, with quirks and foibles. “I like the sense that it was in motion, that you just saw it moving out of the corner of your eye, and when you looked at it, it froze in place.”

Beyond shape, there’s color. Meerfeld’s pieces don’t have solid, consistent colors. They’re more like a ripe apple on a tree — pale, almost pink, in some places, deep red in others, blends fading into each other.

Part of that results from his mixing his own glazes — watery concoctions of minerals that turn glassy when heated to 2300° F — and part from his resurrection of an old and generally abandoned technique — salt-glazing.

“Almost all ceramic technology comes from the Orient,” Meerfeld explained. “Salt-glazing is the exception. It was invented in Germany in the 1500s. It came to America in the 1700s — almost all colonial pottery is salt-glazed.”

Wet pots are stored in a gutted side-by-side refrigerator to keep them moist (the old freezer side thus functions well as a humidor for his cigars). They get a low heating from a small electric kiln, just enough to hold them together as bisque for glazing. Then it’s time to fire them in his home-built gas-fired kiln that sits in a shed between the studio and the gallery.

He raises the temperature every hour or so, until it reaches 2300° — “cone eight” in pottery parlance. Then he closes the damper, and tosses in two pounds of ground-up sheep salt (like the supplemented salt blocks for cattle, it has extra minerals).

Inside the kiln, the sodium from the salt vapor fuses with the silica on the glaze. Sometimes the salt particles pop against the pot, leaving small round white mementos, and the side of the pot that faced the salt-vapor stream will have a different hue than the down-wind side that might have been close to another pot.

“It’s an art, not a science,” Meerfeld said. “So much of it is in how you load the kiln. I’ve been at it for 25 years, and still there are surprises.”

Meerfeld was born 42 years ago in Akron, out on the plains. When he was 14, the family moved to San Luis. “I was one of about six Anglo kids in school there, but they were very inclusive.” He went to Adams State College in Alamosa, the University of Maine, and Montgomery College in Rockville, Md.

His degree was in art education, but he worked as a consultant for a company that sold clay. “It was fascinating, figuring out the mixtures for clients, but I decided I’d rather make pots than help other people make them.”

That brought him back to the San Luis Valley, where he taught at Adams State, and bought a house in Saguache seven years ago. “It needed a lot of work, and it also takes about five years to get a studio up to speed. So it’s been a busy time.

“Saguache is a good location. It’s a half-day drive to the two major regional art markets — the Denver-Boulder-Aspen-Vail corridor, and the Taos-Santa Fé area.”

At first, most of his work went to those markets, especially Denver, but now, he sells about 60 percent of his work from his Saguache gallery. “People will see the sign and stop by as they pass through, and turn into regular customers who come back year after year.”

So many people stop by that Meerfeld is remodeling his house and opening a coffee shop, which will also serve as a gallery for the oil paintings of his partner, Marty Mitchell.

“We kept thinking Saguache needed a place with coffee and pastries,” Mitchell said, “so we decided to do it ourselves. Besides, people kept dropping by and drinking coffee, so we figured we were already in the business, except we weren’t getting paid.”

The shop will be cozy, with seats for eight people. They plan to offer three or four varieties of coffee, along with pastry from small mountain bakeries.

Meerfeld and Mitchell hope to be selling coffee by Memorial Day weekend, when Saguache has its major annual festival, the opening of the museum, along with a barbecue and parade, on May 25.

But even if that project doesn’t stay on schedule, his pots — and bowls, cups, canisters, jars, and whimsy — will keep emerging from the kiln, each one a little different in form and color from its companions.

Ed Quillen, who helps publish Colorado Central, once made a really ugly pot in high-school art class. Much to his embarrassment, his parents still have it.