Exploring Red Wing’s Ceramic Past & Present

Potter Alex Wilson retrieves a bone-colored cylinder from his toolbox. “With this, I can actually draw designs on a pot,” he says. “It’s a cow horn with a quillish-type device stuck in the end.”

Alex Wilson's cow horn slip-trailer

Alex Wilson’s slip-trailer is a cow horn fitted with an artificial goose quill he made of wire insulation and pen pieces.

Wilson, one of three potters at Red Wing Pottery in Red Wing, Minn., is describing the tool he uses for slip-trailing, a method of creating designs on ceramics using watered-down clay — called “slip” — that has pigment added to give it color. Wilson uses a mixture of cobalt oxide and zirconium oxide to make his slip bright blue.

Crock by Alex Wilson with slip-trailed design of a dog in a garden

Wilson holds a salt-glazed crock he made featuring a slip-trailed design of a dog in a garden.

Salt-glazing gives the pottery its speckled, tawny appearance. Wilson says Red Wing Pottery fires its kiln once per month, with an average of 400 pieces inside. When the kiln reaches about 2250° F, “we just take bean cans full of salt and fling them in there.” As much as 1,000 pounds of salt is used in a typical firing.

Originally from Kilmarnock in Scotland, Wilson first trained as a potter at what is now the University of Cumbria in Carlisle in northwest England, then he spent three years’ additional training at Wetheriggs Pottery down the road in Penrith. “For me, ceramics was the obvious direction,” Wilson says of his artistic path. “It’s immediate: You see a shape in your head and you make it with your hands.”

Wilson later relocated to Iowa, and on a visit to Continental Clay in Minneapolis, he spotted an advertisement for a job at Red Wing Pottery, where he has now worked for 11 years. “I’m part of the second production wave,” he says.

According to Jennifer Komar Olivarez, Associate Curator in the Department of Decorative Arts, Textiles and Sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Red Wing’s first ceramics production wave began in the 19th century with the manufacture of functional stoneware.

Nineteenth-century employees of Red Wing Stoneware

The first wave of ceramic production in Red Wing began in the 1860s. This photo of 19th-century workers hangs on the wall at Red Wing Pottery.

Olivarez says the consolidated stoneware companies known as Red Wing Potteries enjoyed a heyday in the 20th century, particularly in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

“They sought out very talented designers to explore different areas and bring in a more national or international sensibility to what they were trying to do to create art pottery. They were not content to follow trends, but to set trends. If you asked a curator at MOMA what comes to mind when you say ‘Red Wing Pottery,’ they would say Eva Zeisel’s Town and Country.”

Zeisel, Olivarez explains, is a Hungarian émigré who designed the biomorphic — or amoeba-shaped — Town and Country dinnerware line (images of her work remain strictly protected, but it can be viewed here). “It was considered really contemporary, trendy in the way it followed that kind of push for design aesthetic,” Olivarez says. “When we stop and think, ‘Oh — that was made in southeastern Minnesota,’ it’s kind of interesting!”

Red Wing Potteries ended production in 1967. Wilson reports less expensive, post-World War II imports had priced Red Wing wares out of the market.

Disused kiln

Ruins of disused kilns stand as evidence of Red Wing’s earlier pottery production era.

Kilns in Red Wing mostly sat cold until 1984 when, according to Wilson, a potter called John Falconer started Red Wing Stoneware Company. Then in 1996, Scott Gillmer — the grandson of Red Wing Potteries’ last general manager from 1967 — launched Red Wing Pottery. Wilson says Red Wing Stoneware Company and Red Wing Pottery amicably coexist, with wares from both companies on display in the same shop.

Olivarez isn’t as familiar with Red Wing’s current ceramics production, but she has some impressions. “From what I’ve seen, it seems to be the more traditional, functional wares,” she says, “the late 19th, early 20th century collectible spongeware and things like that.”

Wilson describes an annual anniversary firing where Red Wing Pottery creates six unique, numbered pieces. “I did some dragon banks this year, which naturally I have no photographs of,” he laughs. “We tend to get caught up in the whirlwind of the event and things like photographs tend to get forgotten.”

Potter Alex Wilson

Potter Alex Wilson

But Wilson doesn’t spend much time pondering how collectible his work may be. “My part in all this is to make something that people enjoy using,” he says. “When they go in the cupboard and they see the mug that they bought from you, if they like using that mug, that’s the one that they’ll pick because it feels good or looks good, or feels and looks good.

“That’s the trick of it, I think, is to make something that people find pleasing.”