As he plies his craft of creating pottery in his studio inside a small historic outbuilding on his property south of Houston adjacent to Hog Creek, Mike Joens enjoys the peace and tranquility of the forested setting.
He also finds a therapeutic release from his fight with cancer.
Joens (pronounced “jens”), 53, recently overcame colon cancer while living and working near Duluth, Minn., but the disease has returned and has spread to his lungs. He began radiation treatment last week.
“I don’t let it get me down, and as long as I’m happy, that’s good,” Joens said. “And I’m happy when I’m out here messing around.”
Joens grew up in Texas County and attended school at Houston. He came back to this area about four months ago after spending the last 22 years working at a paper mill in Duluth.
In 2009, Joens decided to get into pottery and took a class at a community college. He founded his “Swan Lake Pottery” business in 2010 (named after the road he lived on near Duluth), and has since attended several more classes.
“Once you’re taking classes and you end up with a couple hundred pieces, what do you do with them?” Joens said. “I threw a lot of them away, but eventually I started going to craft shows and church bazaars and selling them. That got my name out, and then people were looking for my stuff and like buying my stuff.”
Examples of Joens’ work are available locally at several area locations (including Pit Stop’s Ozark Treasures and Pond Trail Farm Guesthouse in Houston, Mabel’s Trunk in Cabool and Artisans Marketplace in Springfield) and he has set up at local craft shows like the recent Pioneer Days in Mountain View and last weekend’s big annual event in Eminence.
While several methods of creating pottery exist, Joens said he works in stoneware.
“That’s basically a type of clay,” he said, “and most of my pieces are wheel-thrown.”
As its primary material, clay is the most integral part of pottery. Knowing your clay is important, Joens said.
“A lot of clays are classified by where they’re found,” he said. “A clay from Minnesota, for example, might be very different from something dug up around here.”
As he has gained experience as a potter, Joens has learned how to customize his own clay. That allows more flexibility in creating specific pieces with specific characteristics.
“I like mixing my own clay,” Joens said. “I might use four parts of Kentucky ball clay, three parts of another type and two parts of another.”
The combination is mixed in a bucket with water to form a “slurry” that is then allowed to cure, or dry. Finding the right recipe is often a simple matter of trial and error.
“You might add a little of one ingredient to provide a little more placidity, and you might add something else to make it a little harder and more durable,” Joens said. “If I want to throw something thinner, like a pot or something, I’ll approach the mixing differently than if I’m going to make something sculptural. It’s kind of a lost art, but you get the feel for it.”
To fire his pieces, Joens currently uses a pair of kilns with a few custom features. The heat comes from a weed burner attached to a propane tank that sticks into a hole on the side, and is stoked by a bathroom exhaust fan facing the hole.
Temperatures inside the cylindrical containers can reach well over 2,000 degrees.
“Since I use a gas burner, I can get different effects on the clay by dampening it or turning it up,” Joens said.
While in Duluth, Joens also used a huge kiln (big enough for a person to walk into) that boasted several shelves inside. He plans to reassemble it here next year.
“Then I’ll be able to fire lots of pieces at the same time,” he said, “and increase my production.”
Glazing a completed piece is what Joens considers the hardest aspect of his craft. The glaze basically forms a colored glass coating that adheres to the clay, and again, coming up with a suitable formula is crucial to a result.
“Making it is like making chocolate chip cookies,” Joens said. “It’s a little of this and a little of that – and of course, not everyone’s cookies taste the same. Sometimes it’s like being a mad scientist; I can just sit out here and try little batches and see how things turn out.”
When Joens sits down at the wheel to turn some clay, he typically has a mental picture of what he’s about to do. But he also knows the end result might not resemble that picture.
“You need to have something in mind when you start,” Joens said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to end up like that, but you should be thinking of a vase or bowl or some sort of piece. And as I’m making it, I end up with colors or patterns in my head that might look good on it.
“You try to direct the clay, but sometimes it directs you.”
When it comes to paintings and other art, people differ in their tastes, but most would agree they know something good when they see it. In the end, Joens said, a good piece of pottery also has no clear definition.
“I know when I see it, too,” he said. “It’s about the shape and the texture, and the color can definitely be a big part of it. And sometimes a design can inspire a feeling.”
Joens enjoys creating whimsical pieces, like jugs bearing faces or odd-looking creatures. He sometimes does custom pieces for companies or organizations, and for events like weddings, where his “love jugs” are popular.
Joens also enjoys sharing his talent with people wishing to learn. When he’s showing how to make a pot, he follows the “COPS” technique he was taught when he was a novice – center, open, pull, shape.
“I love teaching people,” Joens said. “I want this to be a fun place for people to come and enjoy themselves, and I welcome anyone who wants to come here for any reason.”
A sign bearing the Swan Lake Pottery name now hangs on the refurbished outbuilding that houses Joens’ studio – a structure that was once a chicken coop at the “old Killion place.” Cancer notwithstanding, Joens plans to continue keeping his creative juices flowing and “throwing” pots and other clay objects in the historic shack as long as he can.
“I feel my life is fulfilling itself,” he said. “I love doing this – it’s more like playing than working, because when you’re doing something you love it’s not work.”