Stanley Smart and Jeff Purcell
Interview and Photographs by Lauren Lipscomb
Part two: An interview with stanley smart
& jeff purcell
For part two of our feature on Stanley Smart and Jeff Purcell we conducted an interview, allowing them to both elaborate on their history and work in their own words. Note: at the time of conducting this interview, Jeff and Meghan Purcell were awaiting the arrival of their first child. Meghan has since given birth to their son, Jack, in September.
Let’s start at the beginning: Stan, Jeff, describe each of your individual journeys with pottery, its role in your life, and how it has lead to the birth of your businesses (Heart to Hand Creations and Clay Works of Purcell Trading).
Stan: I was a fine arts major at the State University of NY, Potsdam. My original interest was in sculpture as I had done some in high school. However, I soon found myself at odds with my sculpture professor and migrated over to the pottery studio next door. As they say, the rest is history. I found myself in the perfect place of magical chemistry between the professor and students; I was home.
My pottery professor, Arthur Senate, was a graduate of Alfred University, one of the top ceramics schools in the nation. I will always feel tremendous gratitude to him for being such a great mentor. From there, I continued my pottery education at three different college studios in California.
Pottery hasn’t been my day job. I’ve owned a construction company, Smart Roofing & Construction, since 1993. I always wanted to move into pottery to supplement my income and explore my art. Building my wood-burning kiln in the late 1990s was the birth of the next phase of my journey. I put in a lot of time figuring out the intricacies of a wood-burning kiln. I knew I was making progress when in 2010 I was accepted as one of 25 regional artists at the National Folk Festival, Butte. Now that my children are grown I am ready to be more involved. I want to move into increased production and into my new passion – teaching ceramics to promote this eternal art
Jeff: I started throwing clay in the art department of Mukwonago High School in Wisconsin. I was always a drawer but found the process of throwing more than just creating art. I found it more satisfying because it yielded instant satisfaction from beginning to end. The process of throwing clay, with its physics of centrifugal force driving a part of the earth upwards is so deeply connecting. The fact that clay has taken hundreds of thousands to millions of years to break down to that particle size and is now evolving into a functional piece of art that we can use in our daily rituals is mind-blowing. I found meditation within the process that was crucial for my young adult mind at the time and even now. After a course or two in college I sort of drifted away from throwing clay due to the fact that I no longer had the facility within my reach or financial means of obtaining what I needed to continue. It wasn’t until I randomly met Stanley that I was given the opportunity to fire it back up again. My wife, Meghan, and I had already started Purcell Trading when I started throwing after such a long hiatus and it was only natural for it to become a part of the business.
What drew you to choose clay as a medium?
S: You can do a lot with clay – throw, sculpture, hand-build. There is almost unlimited possibilities with the glaze chemistry and different firing processes. For me it heals my soul in ways that other art doesn’t. It’s very hands-on.
J: It was a natural artistic medium for me. I was drawn to it immediately. The energy of the clay itself, the process of throwing on the wheel, the firing process is all very grounding for me energy wise. It was an easy choice to get into it.
The two of you are not in business together, but have a strong working/collaborative relationship and currently share a studio space. How did your working together begin and in what ways has each other's involvement influenced your work and creative process?
J: I met Stanley and his wife at an art fair here in Livingston over July 4th weekend. I really like his glazes and the energy of his pottery. There were a lot great potters there but something felt different about his stuff. When he told me it was wood-fired, I was even more interested. I had told him that I hadn’t thrown clay in 10+ years and he immediately invited me to his studio to start throwing. He said something to me like, “You’re in brother”. I showed up, started getting back into it and he got me back up to speed on my technique that I had forgotten over the years. Stanley had also turned me on to different and more efficient styles of throwing. He turned me to the beauty of wood-fired ceramics, which allows us to be a part of every single process from start to finish, something not a lot of potters can say.
You create your pottery using a low-fire process in a brick, wood-burning kiln built in Stan’s backyard. In what ways does the low-fire process differ from standard pottery practices? Why have you chosen this process for creating your pieces over others and how has it influenced the personal aesthetic of your work?
S: Most potters fire at a higher temperature than I do. Due to the high altitude of our studio I found firing at lower temperatures was more efficient. Firing to higher temperatures would take much more wood and time increase my overhead. Besides the practicality of low wood-firing, I am getting beautiful results which are actually getting better as I progress. I feel like I am blazing a new trail with these wood low-fires glazes which I mix myself because no two firings are the same. Glazes turn out differently just by the location of a piece in the kiln. There are always surprises which add to the excitement of opening the kiln after a firing. This unpredictability makes me more of an open artist. Some of the pieces aren’t exactly what I am looking for and sometimes they are even better than anticipated
J: We’re not just loading an electric kiln and pushing a button. We have to go up into the mountains, harvest truckloads of dead and down lodge pole pine, load the kiln and then continually feed the firebox for 6-7 hours straight in order to get the pottery we make to be durable enough and for glazes to melt out. We’re there for every single step of the way, which is not common for most potters. I like this process because I feel the fire gives our pottery a very charged energy to it. Our pottery has soul. I like to leave imperfections within my work because, like nature, perfection doesn’t exist. This process has taught me a lot about flowing with the process rather than trying to control it. It’s about reviving the honesty and simplicity within my work.
"The fire gives our pottery a very charged energy to it. Our pottery has soul. I like to leave imperfections within my work because, like nature, perfection doesn’t exist."
- Jeff Purcell
Stan, what inspired you to build a kiln in your backyard and how has it benefitted your work? What was the production process like? What have been the greatest challenges with managing and maintaining the kiln?
I was initially attracted to the lower cost of firing a wood-burning kiln versus the cost of an electric or gas one. I am a hands-on person. It takes seven hours of stoking to reach temperature for a glaze load. That doesn’t count the hours of cutting and hauling fire-damaged wood from national forest.
It has taken years to figure out the wood-fire process. Many pieces went straight from the kiln to the trash before I was able to fire reliably with a very low percentage of casualties. It was a matter of time and experimentation to formulate the right glazes that work with each other and lend themselves to the wood-fire process.
How does your environment influence your creative process?
J: The creative process influences the environment within the studio and vice versa. Stanley’s studio has such an intense but calming creative energy within its walls. It speaks to me big time. Between the cool random stuff on the shelves, the old school ceramic books, the shelves of misfit pottery, there’s a life to it all. It’s not too clean but organized in a chaotic way at the same time. It has a vibe that allows you to strip the outside world from your mind and allow yourself to give in completely with the creative and repetitive process of throwing clay. Stan’s creative energy is contagious. He drives me to keep pushing my limits as a functional and artistic potter with a solid positive energy. I can only hope that I can do a little of that for his process as well.
"We are blessed to live in an area with many artisans and crafts people. I am honored to be part of this art community – the artists, merchants, galleries. It’s beneficial to the health of the community to interact and support each other."
- Stan Smart
How do you describe your personal style and design aesthetic? What are a few key principles you keep in mind?
S: I derive my much of my form from the human form itself as do the far eastern potters. My pieces have feet, shoulders, lips etc. I strive for beauty through well- proportioned form, color and texture.
J: Simplicity drives my work and is the common mindset that continually inspires my work. My ceramics are inspired by creating a functional piece of art that mends well in a rustic or modern home décor. I consider hand-thrown ceramics to be both an art and a trade; beauty and functionality. My pottery allows both you and me to reconnect to a piece of the Earth in our daily rituals, grounding us in a process that has imperfections, yet is perfect in nature at the same time.
You put an emphasis on your business having strong local affiliations. Do you also source your clay and/or glazes locally(or relatively)? Though clay is generally considered highly sustainable, what challenges are there with maintaining a local source for this material?
S: We support the local supply house for most of my raw materials but for some items we have to go out of state. My glazes are very local – I mix them all myself. Hopefully, in the future I will be able to dig some of my own clay, a very laborious process. Presently, it is more efficient to purchase it from the supply houses. I only have so much time and I want to devote that to my studio.
J: We obtain our clay and glaze chemicals currently from the Archie Bray out of Helena, MT. I’m sure they do not go out and gather the clay from the stream banks around Montana but it’s as economically local as it get for us. Everything else is locally sourced. We always keep our ears open for sources of natural clay but it can be a huge process to bring it from the Earth to the wheel.
As a business owner in the digital age, you have the ability to reach potential customers all over the world. Why do you believe it is important to nurture and invest in your local community and retailers? In what ways have you and your work grown from the influence of a strong community, online and locally?
J: With internet consumerism at the top, I think it’s way more important to support the “mom ‘n pop” shops. It creates a much stronger friendship within people in and around our community and is directly influential to the health of our local economy. It’s much more sustainable in a time where you can click a button and have it travel across the country and be on your doorstep in one or two days. If we can stay connected with others in our community, it creates a positive reaction.
S: We are blessed to live in an area with many artisans and crafts people. I am honored to be part of this art community – the artists, merchants, galleries. It’s beneficial to the health of the community to interact and support each other.
Jeff, your wife is currently pregnant with your first child. As she is also your business partner, in what ways do you anticipate your work and business changing or evolving following the birth of your child?
Ebb and flow like the sea. I’ll always support her work because she is one of the most original artists out there and I’m not just saying that because I’m in love with her. We’ll fill in the gaps between raising our wee one with the things we love to do, like art. I’m not worried about it at all. It’s not about giving up something it’s about evolving just like everything else on Earth.
Since beginning Heart to Hand Creations/Purcell Trading, what has been your greatest accomplishment?
J: Seeing Meghan’s work reach so many people because I’ve always thought that it would be terrible for her creativity to be unappreciated. My success is purely a bonus.
S: I am a much better potter than I was even two years ago – I am happy to be making artistic progress.
What are some of your goals/dreams for the future of Heart to Hand/Purcell Trading or your pottery work in general?
S: I’d like to share my trade with more students and continue to see myself make artistic progress. I feel good when I see my students making artistic progress, too.
J: To sell other makers products on our site, fulfilling more of the “trading” aspect of our business. I’d also like to start making stuff that is influenced by potters from the 70’s since it’s my favorite era.
Why do you create?
J: Why not?! It allows us to tap into energy within ourselves that expands our limits of consciousness
S: Not only am I creating but I am making spiritual progress as I create which is what life is all about.
You can find more of Jeff Purcell's work at Purcell Trading's online shop here and see updates on available pieces through their instagram @purcelltrading. You can also find a limited selection of pieces through Cactus Blossom Collective in Livingston, Mt and Wilder Goods in Bozeman, Mt.
Stanley Smart can be contacted through email at email@example.com.