Meet the Ceramics Creative Behind Fire Hole Pottery In Montana
A visiting potter-in-residence at Yellowstone National Park for 40 years, Carl Sheehan is the visionary and ceramicist behind Fire Hole Pottery, a unique collection of handcrafted stoneware and porcelain with a palette inspired by Yellowstone and the surrounding Rocky Mountains. US Park Pass caught up with the master ceramicist at his studio and gallery outside of Bozeman, Montana, as part of our Meet the Artisans of the National Parks series.
“My guiding phrase is part of Longfellow’s poem, “Keramos:” “And while he plied his magic art, for it was magical to me I stood in silence and apart wondering more and more to see That shapeless lifeless mass of clay rise up and meet the master’s hand, And then contract and then expand and even his slightest touch obey. By mingled earths and ores, with the potency of Fire to find and new enamel hard and bright, His dream, his passion, his delight
USPP: How did you get started as a ceramicist?
I was first exposed to ceramics as a junior in High School. There was a bit of a tussle outside the Ceramics classroom involving me and another jock and the teacher pulled me off my tormentor and said I needed to take pottery class and make more creative use of my excess energy! So I took her advice and dropped French class and took Ceramics instead! Working on the wheel came easy to me and I fell in love with what you could do with that medium. I continued taking classes throughout college and graduated in 1977 from Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana with a degree in Art Ed, and Fine arts.
USPP: What inspires your craft?
I moved to Montana to live in the Rocky Mountains and they continue to inspire me daily. The Big Sky country changes moment-to-moment, season-to-season. In my impressionistic glazing, I try to capture the colors of the mountains that surround my studio; the crimson sky as the sun sets; the golden color of wheat fields just before harvest; or the night sky under a full moon. The rolling hills of the high mountain valleys and the rivers that flow through them all inspire me. And having worked 27 summers in Yellowstone Park, the wildlife, landscape and unique thermal features all continue to inspire my work on a daily basis.
USPP: What values does your business embody?
I try to make the highest-quality handmade pottery in the Rocky Mountain West. I want people to enjoy using my pottery, to feel the hand that made the handle of a coffee cup, to see there’s sometimes a mountain hiding in the glaze work of a piece. I strive to use the best materials available and carefully fire the work in my handmade kiln to the optimum temperature ensuring a durable and food-safe product.
USPP: What part of your craft do you love the most?
I love sitting at the potter’s wheel creating the pots needed for the orders on my list and throwing a few extra for the needs of my creative spirit, then looking back over the tables at the end of the day, in awe of the fruits of my labors.
USPP: What have you learned from doing it?
I have learned to be patient and that making work on a potter’s wheel is a dialogue between the spinning clay and my hands: You have to listen and respect the material’s limits. The end of the cycle, the firing, can also make or break all the hard work of the past weeks. It takes 12 hours to fire and one must pay attention the whole time to get the correct results.
USPP: How do you spend time at the National Parks?
For the last 13 years, I’d spend part of the summer working in the lobby of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn as part of a rotating guest-artist program called “Inspired by Yellowstone.” I’d visit with guests while carving a bison on a pot or signing the bottom of one of my pieces.
After doing that all day, I’d hike the Geyser Basin in the evenings or ride my bike to a favorite spot on the Firehole River for some evening fishing. Sometimes, I’d just go to a secluded spot by the river and sit and enjoy the sounds of the woods and water while writing a few words.
In my last six or seven summers, I also volunteered for the Park Service. I’d don a uniform and walk or ride the Geyser Basin trails, answering visitor questions and keeping track of any geyser eruptions that would occur on my watch.
USPP: How has Yellowstone played a role in your craft?
Yellowstone has changed the way I look at nature and people. I’ve met many wonderful people from all over the world during my years in the park, many of whom have inspired some of my forms. I have been so impressed with the bison at Yellowstone that I’ve used that image in a number of ways on some of my more exotic pots; elk and bears are also featured on my one-of-a-kind porcelain pieces.
USPP: What is unique about your pieces?
My pieces are unique in that they reflect the world around me, which I believe is what an artist responds to in his or her creative life. My impressionistic glazing of the Rocky Mountain area and images from Yellowstone set my work apart from most others.
USPP: What advice would you give to other craft makers who want to start their own business?
I think the most important part of the business in any craft or art is timeliness. Getting orders done on time and being consistent with the quality of one’s work is critical. Have faith in your work and network with as many people as possible and with as many online platforms as you can.
USPP: What are some struggles that you have faced as a small-business owner?
I found that most small businesses need more than one person to make it work and I have had many assistants over the years and it has been hard keeping that trained person, who may want to become a potter, on board for more than a few years. Also banks don’t like to handle a mortgage for a home without someone else having an income (such as my wife).
USPP: Are you the only one involved in creating your craft or do you work with others?
I enjoy having another person in the studio with me. They have to have the right skill set and personality to make a good fit. I enjoy teaching my craft to prospective potters who have worked with me, at least seven have become potters over the years. It is good to have another person to bounce ideas off of, share news of the day and opinions with and I have found that I learn from them as much as they may learn from me. Also sometimes it takes two people to do some of the work involved in the pottery biz.
USPP: What is something no one has ever asked you about your craft that you want your audience to know about?
Many will ask how long it take to make a mug, etc., to which my answer is always, “10 minutes and 40 years.” I also want them to know that by using a handmade, ceramic mug for their drink, they’re doing their part to help eliminate the waste of plastic and paper cups.