Bill Gossman (BG) is a potter living in New London, MN. His wood-fired stoneware has been sold through NCC’s gallery since 1996. Sales Gallery Manager, Karen McPherson (KM), took an afternoon to speak with Bill about his path to clay, his travels around the globe, and his ongoing political career as mayor of New London.
KM: How did you become a potter?
BG: My first experience was a kindergarten pinch pot. I remember it very clearly.
I later went to Mankato State. My goal was to become a potter. I realized in college I was being trained to be an educator. So, I quit after two years of study. I was more interested in being a potter. I got a job at a production pottery. My throwing skills increased quite a bit; I threw fast; was making good money; and could reproduce shapes. After a year, I started on my own in River Falls, WI. I was going to art fairs… just living hand-to-mouth. After a couple years of this, I went back to the production pottery. I made pretty good money, about $15/20 hour, which was great money in the 70s.
Then, in 1979, I had a chance to go to visit a girl, Anne, in Denmark. I worked there on a farm and was part-owner of a sawmill. My pottery career was temporarily on hold, but I managed to save enough to buy a pile of firebricks and build my first wood kiln. Anne became my wife, and we left in 1981 for Swaziland. She was an agronomist. I met a Canadian potter there who was starting a studio with a wood kiln. We mined our own clay and minerals… were pretty much self-sufficient. After two years, I went back to Denmark, divorced, and returned to the farm and wood kiln. Then I met Janne, my second wife. We rented a place in a small village of five homes where I built another wood kiln, not far from one of the oldest Clayware Factories in the rural town of Sorring, Denmark. I worked for a time in the workshop at Sorring making traditional Danish slipware and mixing clay.
KM: What is traditional Danish pottery?
BG: They use earthenware. Traditionally, the potters would decorate their ware using a hollowed out cow horn with a goose quill on the small end. The cow horn was filled with colored slip that poured out through the quill. Everything was glazed and wood fired; there was some flashing. The forms were functional and mostly related to the kitchen, or food preparation, in some way. The colors of the slips were basic cobalt blues, copper greens, and iron reds.
KM: Tell me more about the production of these pots.
BG: In Sorring, there was a time when there were 75 potters living and working. With the advent of factories producing metal, and later, plastic kitchen wares, the individual potteries disappeared. Two larger potteries survived until around 1970, until only Sorring
Lervar Fabrik remained and is there today as the only traditional factory in Denmark. Traditional wares still made today range from various sizes of bowls, plates and platters, pitchers, mugs, covered jars, candleholders, and egg cups (for soft-boiled eggs).
Life In New London
KM: How did you get back to the states?
BG: After 12 years, I told my wife we had to live in the states for a couple years so our kids would know what it is to be American. We were going to stay in the states for two years, but our third child appeared and our return to Denmark kept getting postponed.
KM: How did you become Mayor of New London?
BG: I started getting involved in our local community. I was always embarrassed to have only one name on the ballot for mayor. I kept telling people they should file; I guess I was getting a little crazy. People told me, “You should file for mayor!” I finally did and then thought, “Now what??” I have been mayor now for 6 years.
KM: Rumor has it your race to the mayor's office was tied to getting a wood kiln approved?
BG: I was looking for permission to construct a wood kiln at my property in town. I didn’t think I would get permission, but since nobody I asked knew exactly what a wood kiln was, it was classified as an outdoor furnace, which was easy to get permitted.
KM: What is your political agenda for ceramics?
BG: Well, Craig Edwards is also on the council in New London, so there are two potters! We are planning to make 2015 the Year of Clay to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the town. We are hoping to get Ann-Charlotte Ohlsson and/or Nina Hole to come do a fire sculpture. Our priority is figuring out how to get this in the school curriculum. The superintendent is on board, but we will have to go to a school board meeting and offer our services; maybe I will be doing demos?! Also, two years ago, five of us established a non-profit, the New London Arts Alliance, to encourage participatory arts in town.
A Career in Pottery
KM: Will you share a career highlight?
BG: Probably it was when I won the first Danish National Throwing Championship in 1979. Imagine, an American as the first Danish champ! Also, I went back to Denmark in 2012, to Bornholm, and it just happened to be at the same time that Queen Magrethe was visiting, and I got to make a couple pieces for her.
KM: Any advice for those thinking of being a potter today?
BG: Be passionate about your work. Take some business or marketing classes; it is vital. It involves totally different skills than making. Can be like oil and water, but the two have to work together. I think anyone going into it to make money may choose to do it on a larger scale, almost like factory or production work. If someone has a passion for studio pottery, though, they should do it. Janne works half-time as a professional nurse, and, with our combined income, we get by. We don’t get rich, but we lead a rich life.
KM: What is your five year plan?
BG: We bought a house next door to us. Our plan is to rent that out for other artists. I want to broaden my reach in the arts. I want to explore sculpture myself, and be a resource for other artists in other mediums. I think my impact is keeping on!
Sorring Lervar Fabrik Factory,
Bill Gossman, Covered Cylinder Jar (Swaziland, 1982), native clay and glazes, wood fired, 12" x 5" x 5".
Bill Gossman, Round Covered Jar (Denmark, 1984), La Bourne clay body, Limoge porcelain slip, wood fired, 10" x 10" x 10".