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Gorgeous functional pottery, an idyllic landscape, and Minnesota hospitality come together in the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour.
Feature Article


Gorgeous functional pottery, an idyllic landscape, and Minnesota hospitality come together in the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour.
Spring 2023 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Janet Koplos
Image of pottery.

Pottery by Jason Trebs at Matthew Krousey’s St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour site. Photo by Matthew Krousey.

The St. Croix River, which forms part of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, is stunning with its towering rocky banks, forests, and lush green hills. It is so beautiful that it was one of only eight rivers included in the original national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, enacted by Congress in 1968. The river valley is also home to bucolic farms and many artists. The St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour was first held there in 1993 and is now one of the longest-running pottery tours in the country, drawing talented ceramists from across the nation.

The tour was born when three Minnesota potters—Linda Christianson, Janel Jacobson, and Jeff Oestreich—coordinated their spring sales with a joint map. From that humble beginning, the tour grew so that now hundreds of fans arrive each May, braving the early spring mud to browse the works of dozens of potters at seven host studios. For 2023, the tour has added an eighth studio.

I’ve attended the tour many times. Last year I visited after the tour had just reconstituted following two years of virtual sales during the pandemic. This is what I found.

Gridlock on Farm Roads
The St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour is always a celebratory event, but last year, it rocked with excitement. Not only was it the tour’s 30th anniversary, but it was larger than ever, with 66 American potters and two from England hosted at seven pottery studios about an hour north of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Among the orchards, wineries, and farm fields, significant intersections on the rural roads were posted with the tour’s distinctive red-and-gold jug-silhouette signs to mark the routes—roads so rural that my GPS once advised me “Turn left, if possible.”

Moreover, after a period of prolonged cold, the May weather suddenly shifted to sunny 70s for the first two of the event’s three days—all the more reason for the citizenry to go for a drive in the greening countryside. No one keeps a count, but there were lots of people. The lines of parked cars stretched out of sight down the farm lanes. Observers described gridlock at Jeff Oestreich’s studio, where a one-lane dirt road with cars parked on one side required turn-taking to enter or exit.

Image of a customer holding pottery.

Bowl by Minsoo Yuh at Guillermo and Alana Cuellar’s hilltop home and studio. Photo courtesy of Amber White.

There were rituals of picking up and turning over each object, proactively hanging on to one beloved pot and then another and another . . .

Attendees were unfailingly polite as they gingerly tried out unpracticed hugs. The tour is never wild-party time, but unquestionably there was a buzz of energy, of conversation, of sounds of delight as people encountered other people or desired pots. There were rituals of picking up and turning over each object, proactively hanging on to one beloved pot and then another and another until the load was taken to a holding table and hands were free to acquire more.

Most of the venues displayed each potter’s wares on an identified table, with the maker hovering around to greet collectors and colleagues and to answer questions. Regular host Guillermo Cuellar, however, mixed makers on the dozens of tables at his hilltop studio overlooking the St. Croix River, coding the price tags with a band of color. Some works were nevertheless immediately identifiable, such as the primitive drawings and animal sculptures of local cult figure Mike Norman. In other cases, the visitor responded to form or decoration and looked up the coding to see whose work it was. Cuellar believes this presentation fosters attentive looking, encourages people to set aside preconceptions, and ensures that makers new to the site get as much attention as the old-timer favorites. Besides, he says, that’s how our pots live in our homes.

At the studios of Oestreich, Richard Vincent, and Ani Kasten, each potter handled checkout individually, while the other hosts—Cuellar, Linda Christianson, Matt Krousey, and the potter-couple Will Swanson and Janel Jacobson—had a centralized checkout, quicker for the buyer but requiring more careful accounting for distribution of profits.

Food and beverage options varied, but everyone provided something, mainly out of hospitality but also to keep browsers from wandering off to the cafés in the surrounding small towns. In years past, Cuellar made a practice of cooking up a true lunch with the aid of many volunteers (who get first choice of the wares) and serving it on pottery that was also for sale. What better advertisement than seeing the plates, bowls, and cups in use? The practice was suspended in 2022 out of concern for pandemic sanitation, but there were still desserts, served on paper plates or napkins. Swanson and Jacobson, famed for baking and freezing 4,000 cookies over the winter in preparation for the event, also suspended the practice last year—in part because Jacobson broke her wrist in August 2021, and it was challenging enough to get back to potting. The Kasten venue has offered soups, had a popcorn machine, and provided s’mores for children at a firepit, as well as a rope swing. Several sites contract with food trucks. Krousey and Vincent usually have live music. Three of the seven hosts provide golf-cart shuttles to ferry visitors from parking to displays.

Each of the host studios provided a distinct browsing experience, so there was always something new for regular visitors. Most of the hosts, while invariably inviting potters whose work they respect, made an effort to provide for different tastes. Seemingly every possible aesthetic for functional pottery was represented. Function is the key term. This is a pottery tour, not a ceramic sculpture exhibition, and while the highest price I saw in 2022 was $2,600 for an elaborately worked object, a huge percentage of the wares cost between $30 and $100.

In the homeland of the late Warren MacKenzie, who fostered the ceramic environment and encouraged several generations of makers, affordability is still a goal. The hosts didn’t discuss prices, leaving that to the potters. The only requirements for participation are that the work be ceramic and the maker be present.

Within the requirement of function there were no limitations, no attachment to stereotypes of clunky brown and green objects. In addition to the free spirit of Mike Norman’s animals and joyous nudes, animals and birds cropped up in form or in painted or incised drawings in works by Liz Quackenbush, Sue Tirrell, Matthew Metz, Kip O’Krongly, Donna Polseno, and others. Kyle Carpenter explored foliage and flowers. Becky Lloyd, Maggie Jaszczak, and others developed patterning. Some potters, such as Kasten, pushed the limits of free-form tactility, while others, such as Sandra Byers, moved in the opposite direction toward distilled perfection in diminutive size. Ikuzi Teraki and Jeanne Bisson used a finely mottled glaze that evoked abstract painting or a remarkable atmospheric phenomenon on their reductive wares. Some potters best known for large-scale vessels, such as Randy Johnston, or even work in other mediums, such as Robert Brady, presented plates, bowls, cups, or platters that suited the requirements of the tour. The hosts themselves, by and large, adhered most diligently to the traditions of simplicity, modesty, and service that make functional pottery still meaningful for the sharing of food at a dinner table.

Customer looking at pottery work on the lawn of Ani Kasten's home studio.

Customers looking at the work of Liz Pechacek on the lawn of Ani Kasten’s home and studio, a property formerly owned by potter Connee Mayeron Cowles.

Continuity and Change
The tour originated when Oestreich, Christianson, and Jacobson all moved to the upper St. Croix River Valley around the same time and decided to hold simultaneous sales, with a brochure and map, in hopes of drawing bigger crowds. The coordination expanded after Swanson joined Jacobson and Bob Briscoe built a house and studio nearby. Briscoe is credited with being the promotional energy behind the tour. “He brought in a spirit of marketing that we didn’t have before, a kind of can-do attitude, which not everybody has,” Swanson remembers.

Briscoe, Oestreich, and Christianson have been major figures on the workshop circuit, where they would take the opportunity to hand out flyers for the tour as it grew. For the first three years, MacKenzie participated, which attracted many people, and then he bowed out. There has been a slight change in membership over the years, most strikingly in 2016, when Briscoe sold his house and studio to Krousey, and Connee Mayeron Cowles passed her site to Kasten. Briscoe has since retired from pottery making, but Mayeron Cowles still participates in the tour at her former studio.

The generational shift was acknowledged last year in a different way at Cuellar’s studio, where his daughter, Alana Cuellar, showed her work in person after participating in the virtual event during the pandemic years. In 2023 she will be his cohost, and eventually, he says, she will be the host and he a guest. A generational focus is also planned by Oestreich. He intends that in 2023 the majority of his guest potters will be under 40, to encourage the legacy of function. In 2022, exceptionally, his selection of guest potters had a local focus. He invited Leila Denecke, Ursula Hargens, Ernest Miller, and Nate Saunders from Minnesota; Jim Grittner from Wisconsin; and Margaret Bohls, now in Nebraska but formerly of Minnesota. In a show of loyalty, he included the Leach Pottery of the United Kingdom, where he apprenticed from 1969 to 1971.

This year marks one more major change: the addition of an eighth studio on the tour, that of Peter Jadoonath. A guest exhibitor since 2018, Jadoonath is currently co–board president (with Lindsay Oesterritter) of Studio Potter online magazine.

There is some debate over whether the St. Croix Valley tour or 16 Hands, in Floyd, Virginia, is the oldest continuously operating American pottery tour. But the Minnesota version has certainly grown larger and become more influential. Its advantage over 16 Hands is being located within an hour’s drive of a metropolitan area of nearly four million people. Its annual choice of Mother’s Day weekend is strategic: Minnesotans and Wisconsinites are usually by May desperate to get out after the long winter, and usually the weather is reasonable. But not always. I remember that about 10 years ago the tour weekend was rainy and gloomy. I thought, What a shame, probably no one will come. I was quite wrong. The crowds were as good as usual, and everyone laughed about the mud on their boots, pants, and cars. Most of the sites have both tents and some indoor space, but even at unprotected tables, such as at Cuellar’s, pottery is not going to be hurt by a little rain!

The St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour has been the model for other locations, such as Art of the Pot in Austin, Texas, which follows the Mother’s Day timing and the practice of inviting guests. However, the underlying appeal of every pottery tour is visiting studios and getting a hint of how potters live.

“The potter has to be there,” says Swanson, who has taken on most of the organizational responsibility for the St. Croix tour. “The whole idea is to go and meet the potters, see three hundred of their pots, so it’s really a different experience from going to a gallery and seeing eight or ten pots and having some employee of the gallery explain it to you. There are still lots of people who walk in the door and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to live in the country and make pottery.’ There’s that vicarious thing of how do these people live, how do they do this?”

Oestreich says, “You know, what I like about it is it’s returning to what potters did a thousand years; they sold right from their studio. And I love that. We need galleries, too, though. We need it all, internet, gallery sales, home sales, tours; we need it all to reach the public.”

Display of pottery.

Ani Kasten and Connee Mayeron Cowles’s work on display in the barn loft above Kasten’s studio. Photo by Ani Kasten.

Father and daughter Guillermo and Alana Cuellar.

Father and daughter Guillermo and Alana Cuellar. Photo by Laurie MacGregor.

The whole idea is to go and meet the potters, see three hundred of their pots . .

Will Swanson

Pottery on display by Ikuzi Teraki and Jeanne Bisson.

At Janel Jacobson’s site, work by Ikuzi Teraki and Jeanne Bisson.

A Magic Formula
What else makes the tour successful? “Hospitality,” says Swanson. “It’s important to have a good time.” Jacobson adds, “When there are one or two hundred people, it kind of feeds the enthusiasm because other people are there and they’re holding up their pots.”

Here’s another part of the St. Croix tour’s special magic: “It’s a group project,” Swanson says. “We don’t hire a marketing expert; we just do it all ourselves, so people have to really chip in and make it work by contributing their mailing lists and beating the bushes out there and letting people know . . . that there’s this great national event here in Minnesota.” The event includes potters from all around the nation. The buyers are from all around the country, too. Briscoe started a tradition of posting a map on which visitors could mark where they were from, once tallying 36 states and a few foreign countries. Krousey, who purchased Briscoe’s home and studio, has continued the tradition. Cuellar has estimated that 25 percent of the buyers at his site are from outside of Minnesota.

While there is always a search for new customers, the tour benefits from continuity. As buyers meet the potters, enjoy the atmosphere, and take home their purchases, it becomes habit-forming. Not only do buyers look forward to the festive event, they develop favorites among their purchases, and it comes to seem both boring and unimaginative to choose a dinner plate from a stack of indistinguishable commercially manufactured offerings. Mindful living shapes the personality of handmade pottery, and the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour has made it a pleasure to buy. And to sell: Swanson says that 99 percent of the potters who have participated say they would like to return. And so would I. The eleven things I bought from nine of the potters barely squeezed into my suitcase and tote bag for the flight home.◆

Map indicating where buyers were from in 2018.

In 2018, buyers posted where they were from on this map at Matthew Krousey’s site, formerly owned by Robert Briscoe. Photo by Matthew Krousey.


Explore ACC’s 2014 oral histories of the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour—which are both recorded and transcribed— at

The 2023 tour will be held May 12–14, 2023. |@stcroixvalleypotterytour

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