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Tucked away southwest of Warsaw, just a few miles off of U.S. 30, sits a potter’s sanctuary. Not just any potter’s sanctuary, but one owned, worked, dirtied and loved by John Bauman. Bauman, who owns, operates and is the sole potter of Bauman Stoneware, has been honing his craft for years, creating beautiful, functional art for the public. The passion he has for pottery is evident in the pieces he makes. Like any great artist, nothing comes easy. If art came easy, then it wouldn’t be art. It’d simply be product.
Apparently Bauman had had different plans for his life.
“I chose the college I attended for one reason: Sports. It wasn’t a particularly good motivation – and not just for the obvious reasons. I not only picked a college that held little probability of preparing me for life, educationally speaking, but despite my passion for sports, I was a mediocre athlete. And that’s putting it generously.
“But despite my questionable motivations, I ended up at Grace College at the exact point in time that offered me exposure to a very deep tradition of functional pottery. One year earlier, or one year later, and I likely would never have been introduced to pottery.”
As a college junior, Bauman was immediately captivated when he first saw a potter work at a wheel.
“It was something akin to magic to see something of value come into existence from nothing but skilled hands and a lump of clay,” he says. “It’s nice to reminisce about these things.”
Bauman rather eloquently describes the senses intermingling when one works with the earth’s very essence.
“After more than 30 years of being tangled in the midst of it, I remember that the choice of a craftsman’s life comes down to what attracted me to the arts and to the biz of making stuff and the biz of selling that stuff in the first place,” he says. “And it might have something to do with how hopelessly romantic I can be about the incredibly cool processes that many of us craftsmen go through in the production of our work – the smells of linseed oil and turpentine, just cut wood, OM4 ball clay (it smells like chocolate) – the visuals of incandescent lit, late-night workshops, floors littered with sawdust or clay shavings, kilns belching two-foot flames out of 10-foot chimneys, pouring molten metals, or glass pulled from glory holes, blistered or cracked and dry but skilled hands that can take materials of next to no value and turn them into something that could, generations from now, still be treasured.
“There’s a real brotherhood among craftsmen,” he continues, “and I’m proud that it’s a big part of my life.”
Finding one’s passion in life can be quite elusive. But for those who find it, it’s a beautiful thing. The true challenge is to take what you love and make a career out of it, or at the very least do it and manage to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. Bauman has been able to find the balance between art and commerce.
“As I hinted, pottery wasn’t even a career choice. It was something I stumbled upon by accident. But I took to it right away. I really enjoyed the rewarding creative process. But though my passion for pottery was a big factor in my pursuing pottery as a career, the decision was at least in equal part due to what I couldn’t do: type.”
A lover of writing and literature, were it not for his inability to type, Bauman would never have become a potter.
“I quite probably would have pursued something along those lines [writing or English] if I hadn’t been smacked in the face with the cold, hard reality that I wasn’t going to go on to graduate school without the ability to type.”
He would have been equally happy making a career out of one of his other passions – music (more on that later) or sports – if he thought he could make a living at it. But it was his “new-found passion for clay” that seemed the most likely route to earning a living.
“Between ‘making money’ and ‘something I love to do,’ I’d have to say it’s the latter that drove me into the career,” he says. “Making money has often been mostly about survival.”
What’s a day like for a potter?
“I was once asked how many hours of the day I spend in my pottery studio. I answered, ‘All of them,’ and I was only half kidding,” he says.
“I usually start the day finishing the pots I started the day before. I like this kind of start to the day because first thing in the morning I’m not thrilled about sticking my hands in throwing water and wet clay.”
After working a few hours, Bauman likes to take a break and run four or five miles on Winona Lake’s bike trails with his wife, Dar, and two Alaskan malamutes.
“The break is an important part of my life as well as my physical and mental health,” he says. “When I get back from the trails I get started on new pots. I try to make between 10 [large] and 30 [medium] pots a day. Some of the pottery I make is more involved in the finishing than in the throwing, so quite often what I throw in one day requires a day or two to finish.”
For Bauman, business is personal.
“I have no employees,” he says. “Every piece of pottery is made by hand by me and signed with my name. This kind of business life has taught me much – influenced how I view economics. It has illustrated for me, in a concrete way, the notion of a value-added, production-based economy. What enters my shop with very little value exits my shop exponentially more valuable by virtue of the use of my hands, mind and time.
“I spend very long hours in the shop, but working for myself has its perks. I keep a guitar and a mandolin in the shop, and I take frequent breaks to play them.”
Music is a passion for Bauman as well. He was influenced by his parents’ jazz and big band records when he was younger. In the 70s it was singer-songwriters, and then musicians such as John Hartford, Norman Blake and Tony Rice. He even gets together with some musicians for a little break from throwing on the wheel.
“And whenever it’s possible, I go up to Goshen and play old-timey music with a group of folks who get together a few times a month,” he adds.
Finding that a lot of the music he loved was much more technically advanced than his own abilities, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
“Much of that music was beyond my abilities, but when I turned 40 I decided to take upon myself the discipline to actually learn how to play that way – to flatpick. I’ll never be as comfortable as a flatpicker as I am a fingerpicker, but learning to play with others in an ensemble has been worth any effort, and the additional musical skills allowed me to go full circle and teach myself to play many of those jazz/American songbook standards I first filled my musical consciousness from my parent’s record collection.”
What’s the future hold for John Bauman and Bauman Stoneware? “I used to joke that I retired when I turned 20 [when I started my pottery]. To some extent, that’s always been true,” he says.
“I already live the dream most men have for when they finally shed themselves of the business, work-a-day world. Now that I’m facing the reality of that meant-as-humorous statement, I admit it’s daunting. There’s a security in my self-employment – I won’t ever fire me – but the economy has made selling unnecessary art to the middle class a much harder endeavor than it was 10-20 years ago. After 35 years of this, I have to face the reality that I may not survive financially. That was an eventuality I never foresaw.
“But should I find more new tricks to surviving this business world in a weak and getting-weaker economy, I have no plans of giving it up. Why would I? I love making pottery and I see nothing about aging that would diminish that enjoyment.”
Visit Bauman Stoneware online at www.baumanstoneware.com.