Written by Vicki
People who know me know that Door County, Wisconsin is one of my favorite places on earth. Near the top of the list of reasons why, is the art scene. Door County is a place where artists and musicians come to study and hang out for a summer, and end up never leaving. I’m nuts about ceramics and lucky for me DC is home to some of the most talented potters around. Despite the countless number of galleries I’ve been to on the peninsula, I keep coming back to one: TR Pottery in Fish Creek.
Owned and operated by husband and wife Tony and Renée Gebauer, the shop is warm and friendly with a large open window connecting the gallery and studio. It’s fun to watch Tony in all stages of production from throwing to glazing, creating a piece right before your eyes, while chatting with him and Renée about the latest in DC news or what’s growing in their home garden. It’s usually not a quick stop in as I find myself combing over every piece – picking up, putting down, and trying to figure out where I can fit just one more vase or make room in the cabinet for another coffee mug.
The funny thing about this couple truly living their dream is that they didn’t start out in the arts. Tony and Renée met in graduate school while getting their teaching degrees and were married a few months later on Washington Island in Door County. In 1993 they began teaching elementary school in Skokie, IL. During this time both Tony and Renée signed up for a local pottery class around their Evanston, IL neighborhood and after one class Tony was hooked. He then started teaching pottery classes and entering local art fairs. Years later they decided to follow their dreams and left their teaching jobs to open TR Pottery.
We were lucky enough to catch Renée for a few questions and Tony for a tour of the studio just weeks ago. Below we share a glimpse into their beautiful process and partnership.
Tell us a bit about each of your backgrounds – what did you study, and what were you doing before you launched TR Pottery in Door County?
I (Renée) have a degree in speech communication and public relations from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Tony has a degree in geography from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. We met in graduate school, National Louis in Evanston, IL. We were both getting Masters degrees in teaching. We taught elementary school for 10 years in Skokie, IL before moving to Door County and opening TR Pottery LLC.
How did you end up owning your own business in Door County?
In deciding to make our livings as potters, we were looking for a seasonal economy where we thought our business model would work. Door County was the perfect fit.
What processes are involved in the creation of your pieces?
Tony prepares the clay which usually involves running it through a pug mill to get it to a consistent firmness and moisture level. The clay is then cut to the size needed for the shape he is making (usually based on weight). Whenever he makes a shape, he makes what we call a "run". The number in a run is determined by what fits on the boards in our studio shelves, as well as how the pieces fit together when loaded into the kilns. The numbers vary for different shapes (8, 16, 25, ...).
Sitting at his wheel, Tony often sets a pointer to determine the height and diameter of the shape he's making. Many of the pieces we make we want to have a fairly consistent size over the course of a season and year to year. So when customers purchase small bowls from us, they are able to return again and again to add to their set, knowing that all the bowls will nest nicely.
At this point, Tony throws each piece of clay to his desired, pre-determined shape; filling each board and using all the clay he has prepared. Pieces are then set aside to dry slightly.
The next day they are finished; perhaps having the bottoms trimmed, or adding handles, finally getting our shop stamp as well as Tony's personal stamp.
Pieces are set aside again to dry completely, which usually takes at least a week. Dry work is loaded into one of our kilns, and fired once. Then it's unloaded, dipped in our glazes, then fired a second time. After being unloaded the second time, they are sanded lightly on the bottom and are finally ready to be placed for sale in the gallery.
What inspires your work? Which other artists or crafters inspire you?
We make functional pots; so often what we like to cook and eat provides inspiration for what we make. Our forms are traditional so naturally we are drawn to potters who work similarly; clean approachable shapes, with minimal decoration.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
On throwing days Tony will work with about 150 pounds of clay and make anywhere from a couple dozen pieces to over 100. Other work he does is finish pieces he has made the day before, (for example, trimming the bottoms of bowls or adding handles to mugs), prepping clay, mixing glazes, glazing pieces, loading and unloading kilns. My work involves running the gallery which includes interacting with customers and handling sales; as well as all aspects of owning a small business: bookkeeping and accounting, marketing, merchandising and display, answering calls and emails, making Tony's production lists, etc...
What items are your best sellers?
Most of our customers are visitors to the county so small pieces that are easy to take home sell well: mugs, bud vases, spoon rests, etc.
What pieces do you enjoy making most?
Tony always enjoys making the pieces that he is working on on that day. He likes repeating forms and from that refines his shapes, getting pleasure in seeing each piece evolve.
What are your interests outside of TR?
We both enjoy gardening and cooking. Tony plays the mandolin, guitar and a bit of banjo. I like to sew. Both of us are enthusiastic baseball fans.
Door County's best kept secret?
Secrets are meant to be kept!
Open Daily May - October
Open most Saturdays, November-February
4133 Main Street, P.O. Box 582
Fish Creek, Door County, WI 54212