Artist Spotlight: SC Rolf

Today we turn our artist spotlight toward River Falls, WI, where Steve (SC) Rolf pursues the balance of two loves – clay and family. On a cool September morning, as the leaves start to turn, we shared an insightful conversation. One which will, hopefully, inform your use of his wares in your own pursuits. Steve holds an MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute, and a BS in Broad Area Arts from the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. He also apprenticed under Wang Hui Ming, a master painter and wood engraver. You might say, there is a modern day Albrecht Dürer at work here, if he had, after pursuing his engraving studies become enraptured with clay.

NCC: Please tell us about your work.
SR: I have been making one-of-a-kind functional pots. My focus, really, has been on work in and around the kitchen and serving people. This became important to me… I think it had a lot to do with growing up on a farm, there was a certain sense of utility. Much of the food we ate, we grew and I think the experience grew into loving to make and use things made with my own hands.

NCC: Where do you make your work?
SR: I have a business at my residence. It’s like the old store front model, where the bakery was downstairs and the family lived upstairs. It has been great, because I have a real physical separation from my work space. I put parameters on when and where I work, so that even though it’s a family business, lines don’t blur so much that it takes over the family. The parameters have been really great. For example, I am in the studio every morning, and since our kids were very small, my wife trained them to come and get me for coffee for 15 minutes. They came down to my studio and would say, “Papa! Coffee and kuchen!” Then at lunch, they say, “Papa! Lunch!” and I am reminded to put my work down and have the opportunity to have great family time, then I go right back to work. It’s really disciplined in terms of my work time, but I can also be there very quickly for the family. 

NCC: How long have you been making?
SR: I have been making full-time since 1995. Before that, I was in graduate school at Alfred in upstate NY and I made the goal of being full-time in the pottery after I was a year and half out of grad school. That was my goal. I got a loan to build a kiln and I had started working in the pottery making pots while working for a kiln builder, for a ceramic museum, and teaching a few classes. It was a crazy year and half. When I had just started selling enough pots, my wife and I had just gotten married, she was in graduate school and had another three years to go. We had a decision to make because we barely had two pennies to rub together. We thought about it. We prayed about it. And we just made the jump. Sometimes I made pots that would keep the electricity on. We just didn’t turn back. Ten years later we look back and say, “Wow, everything kind of worked out.”

NCC: And prior to clay, what did you do?
SR: Well, one thing that I knew I wanted to do, that I knew I liked, was making things and fixing things. My first degree was in painting and printmaking. I wanted nothing to do with clay! I apprenticed under a well-known painter and wood engraver on the coast. I had a painting studio for a year. But, I had one clay class before I left college and it just kept incubating. It is a material that pushes back in a way other materials don’t. It was a medium with making and fixing inherently involved.

NCC: What else do you do for money in addition to making your work?
SR: Laughing, “Nothing!” I do teach workshops throughout the country and I do sabbatical replacements once in a blue moon, but nothing that takes me away from my family. I am a mentor for MN NICE. So I guess I do keep one toe in academia. Either inside or outside of academia, I’m a part of academia. It’s fantastic in that I feel I can hopefully give something to young people, but I also love their energy and their searching. I love to help them connect the dots. I guess that really feeds me.

NCC: What do you love most about making your work?
SR: I guess I love the freedom. I love the freedom to be able to make whatever I want to make. I think that is so cool! I feel like I can just imagine something I would like to use in my own kitchen and then I make it.

NCC: What’s the hardest part?
SR: The hardest part is wearing so many hats. For example, there is always a mountain of office work every morning before going to the studio. Promoting, which I don’t enjoy. Doing all the things that need to be done to move my work from my studio to the public. I love having my work with the public, and meeting the public, and seeing where the pots wind up, but getting there is difficult and sometimes I don’t enjoy it.

NCC: What are your goals for the future of your work?
SR: I guess the future goals are…I have a lot of ideas for many new forms I haven’t explored and that, to me, is really exciting, new surfaces. Drawing is still a factor in my practice, but that is something that is a bit misunderstood, by lay people anyway. Their connection with drawing manifests itself in this question, “Why are you not drawing on your pots?” I’m actually exploring many of the same things I did in painting. The last paintings I was working on were very in line with Flemish paintings, in that there are many layers where you can explore depths. They were working on a dark ground and I am too. The chocolate clay allows me to play with a similar sense of depth. Drawing has nothing to do with motif for me. The painting aspect is very similar, very familiar to me.

NCC: What do you see as your biggest achievement so far?
SR: Oh boy! I think being able to make what I want to make and balance it with my family life. Trying to keep a healthy family life. I’ve actually been making for 20 years, only 10 full-time. I still pinch myself that I’m able to make what I want. I’ve never made what I thought would sell. The hardest thing might be the greatest thing, just trying to balance this family life and being able to make a career that is really meaningful. I’m finding out at my age that one of the hardest things in life is to balance. It would be so easy for me to be just crazy in the studio all the time, but to be able to maintain something at a high level and not drop the needs of the people around me is difficult and rewarding.

NCC: What else are you excited about in your life?
SR: Things that I like to do? I’m really excited that my family has become a bit musical, which is a surprise in some ways. That’s a blast! I really enjoy it. We really have a strong connection with the outdoors. We’re outdoors people. That is now becoming more a part of my life, now that the kids are teenagers. It is an exciting thing. I have a sneaking suspicion that more things are going to happen with the studio, now that my family is of an age where I can travel more. So, I’m looking forward to traveling more. We still do have family in Europe and we get there almost every 14 months.

NCC: What art do you look at for eye candy?
SR: I think right now, textiles from India and Native American textile work. Lots of pattern and surface that is really lovely.

NCC: Can pots fix the world?
SR: It’s an incredibly intimate art form. One thing I was recently talking about with a friend is that it [making pots] is like looking through a microscope rather than a telescope. There are people and worlds in front of us. I think we are always reaching out and looking out when there is so much right in front of us, right at the table. Making pots is very intimate. And that has never ceased to excite me. I am having as much fun making pots now as I have in many years.


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