Maker Stories

Going with the Flow: Brian Kunkelman’s Handmade Pottery

October 14, 2015

Brian Kunkelman's Studio | UncommonGoods

Brian’s home and studio near Lancaster, PA, Photos by Emily Dryden

Brian Kunkelman is a potter who seems to go with the flow, a metaphor that runs through his studio and craft—from the water that flows through the cultivated pond outside his studio window, to the variety of music that flows through his speakers (equidistant from his potter’s wheel), and the meditative motion of working with stoneware clay to throw his Soup and Crackers and Berry Buddy bowls. “There’s a fine line between a rut and a groove,” Brian likes to say, paraphrasing singer-songwriter Christine Lavin and underscoring the delicate balance required to hand-throw his designs with the right mix of consistency and hand-crafted variation that makes each piece one-of-a-kind.

Brian Kunkelman & Mungho | UncommonGoods

 Brian with his faithful friend, Mungho

Brian starts with stoneware clay and wedges the required amount with his pugmill to remove air bubbles, then cuts it into cylindrical chunks that are the right amount for either soup or berry bowls. Each prepared chunk goes on a bat—not a flying mammal or baseball equipment, but a wood disc that locks onto the potter’s wheel so the thrown pot can be removed easily once complete.

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Prepared portions of clay

Brian’s wheel turns through a hybrid of foot and electrical power. An electrical motor sets it in motion, but its heavy flywheel provides the majority of spin through centrifugal force. “The action is really smooth with the flywheel,” Brian comments as he deftly coaxes the desired forms from the clay, slip splattering the wheel’s alcove in an ever-changing, Pollock-like clay painting. He uses little more than his hands through the whole throwing process, gauging the height and diameter of the emerging forms with the span of his fingers and length of his thumbs. The beauty of such human scale applied directly to these vessels instills an unmistakable handmade appeal that runs deep.

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As one of his most essential tools, Brian’s wheel has had quite a workout. At one point, he had to replace an inner rubber wheel that had worn out. “We’ve never sold that part before,” said the perplexed manufacturer. Brian seems proud to have put the device through its paces, a reminder of the years and rigorous work they’ve been through together. And when it’s time to stop, the wheel’s braking mechanism is pretty simple: Brian’s shoe. “My right shoe always wears out faster than my left,” he quips.

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Both Berry Buddy and Soup and Crackers bowls start their lives as similar double-bowl forms, like large cups with attached saucers. But in the next steps, they take on their distinct shapes and functions. Using handy turntables, Brian quickly cuts away 180 degrees of the lower saucer and attaches the cut walls to the main form to create the Soup and Cracker bowls. The excess clay will go back in the pugmill; “that’ll be a pot in another day,” Brian says, summarizing the recycling process inherent to his craft. For the Berry Buddy, he keeps the lower saucer intact, but pulls a spout on one side, and adds a series of colander-like drainage holes to the main bowl. Then, for both designs, strips of striated clay extruded from the pugmill are added in graceful curves to become handles.

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Building the form of a Soup & Crackers bowl

At this point, the vessels are called “greenware,” and go to hang out on ware trucks for a few days to dry. Bisque firing adds additional stability to the forms, which are then dipped in a series of contrasting glazes that will play diagonally across the finished bowls in warm zones of blue, green, and cream. Brian adds a final, decorative stripe of glaze to the bowls with a gestural flourish evocative of Japanese brush painting.

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Adding a decorative accent

They’re ready to be loaded into his kiln, a hand-built brick and steel structure that he calls his “controlled volcano.” The propane-fired inferno slowly heats up to 2400 degrees, vitrifying the glazes to their final colors and finishes that will seal and protect the pottery for years of use. Although Brian is constantly “tuning” the kiln—refining it with baffles to improve its performance—he embraces the inevitable variations in every load, another dimension of the process that makes each piece a unique variation on the theme of his designs.

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Berry Buddies on kiln shelves

Trial and error is an organic part of Brian’s work, and he emphasizes the patient perseverance required to “dial in” and find your groove (avoiding the ruts): “…you get in the zone. It’s like one long thought…you’re thinking but you’re not thinking. Sometimes when it’s late at night and you don’t want to do it, five to ten pots into it, you’re like ‘this is exactly what I should be doing now.’ Once you get started it starts to become really comfortable.” And in that zone, he celebrates the unique nature of every piece he throws: “Each pot is still its own pot, requiring the same care and attention, whether you’re making one of them or a hundred of them…and I try to be conscious that this pot’s going to be part of someone’s life…”

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Finished Berry Buddies

Brian Kunkelman's Stoneware Designs | UncommonGoods

3 Comments

  • Reply Micki October 14, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    Are you soon having a show?

  • Reply Uncommon Goods – Uncommonly Good | Dining With Debbie April 30, 2016 at 11:00 am

    […] berry season just coming in, I’ve been giving strong hints that this Berry Buddy by Brian Kunkelman needs to find its way into my […]

  • Reply Gerard Meunier July 31, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    I went to Marietta College with Brian and we were in the same frat house together. Boy those were the days!! Brian and I a remain life long friends and frat brothers. My wife and I have two beautiful platters Brian threw for us hanging in our dining room. He truly is blessed with a awesome talent. Gerard Meunier

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