“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.”
CONTACT THE POTTER
Swan Lake Pottery artisan Mike Joens offers lessons for $20, which includes clay and one finished piece (additional pieces are $10). To speak to Joens, call 218-390-0321. Swan Lake Pottery can be found on Facebook.
See more photos featuring pottery artisan Mike Joens: www.houstonherald.com/photos