Alaska to China to Door County

On December 21, when the winter solstice marks the shortest and darkest day of the year, a day traditionally recognized as a time for introspection and stillness, Chad Luberger was embarking on what can only be called a new, not-so-still beginning. With a pick-up truck and a few friends, he moved all of his personal belongings into his first home and his first studio, located on twenty private acres south of Egg Harbor. That night, while most of us were hunkering down, pulling inward and preparing for the dark, Door County winter, Luberger was instead starting to create the next chapter of his life.

“The move wasn’t hard,” he said. “I don’t own much. The heaviest loads were the pots,” and he pointed to the boxes and crates in the corner, filled with all shapes and sizes of ceramic vessels, glazed and unglazed. In a manner befitting a young artist, he owns little that’s not somehow related to his craft. “It’s been a whirlwind,” he laughed, looking at unpacked boxes and empty kilns, “all the crazy places this clay has taken me.”

An actor by trade (Luberger has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University), he enjoyed the better part of his early twenties working in the entertainment industry in Hollywood. Like most new actors, he worked odd jobs to earn a living and spent much of his time with writers, producers, and other actors. His career was encouraging and he marks his success by the fact that he was able to obtain steady work, including, amongst other endeavors, a role in Sally Field’s film The Christmas Tree, and the building of his own production company, North Point Pictures. In 2001, he wrote and directed a short film. A few years later, determined that Hollywood was only a part of his journey, not where he’d like to stay, he packed his truck and headed for Alaska. It was there, while living in Alaska and assisting native Alaskan AIDS patients, he took his first ceramics class.

“Clay was so different from anything I’d known,” he said. “I loved acting. I had focused my life on theatre and had worked hard to gain a level of competency in my craft and to become a skilled performer. I still love acting. But the first time I touched clay, it was almost as if it was everything I was trying to find in the theatre; it was satisfying in a way that had been lacking. And because I had no previous experience with it, I was blown away by how grounding it was to work with such a base material. It didn’t feel like learning a skill, it felt like discovering something that was there all along.”

From that point on, Luberger said, he knew that clay had captured him. What he didn’t know then was that during the next few years of life, his best-laid plans would be set aside when opportunities – all of them related to clay – would take over.

“I came to Door County to work for a summer, to earn money for law school, which had been my plan when I left Los Angeles. By that point I had taken the LSATs and was thinking that this was where I was headed. I didn’t expect what happened next.”

What happened next was that Abe Cohn, Door County’s revered Master Potter, and Ginka Cohn, co-owners of the Potters Wheel in Fish Creek, were impressed with him and agreed to take him on as a groundskeeper. He exchanged his labor for time at the wheel. Luberger said that even early on he was aware of the honor and opportunity it was to study with the Cohns, to meet the artists connected to the gallery, and by association, the artists and staff at the Peninsula Art School. He began to spend all of his free time either at the Cohn’s or next door at the school, and started to do the same type of exchange (labor for studio time) at the art school. He became an official student and eventually joined the faculty. In his relatively brief association with the Peninsula Art School, Executive Director Cathy Hoke-Gonzales cited Luberger as “a gifted artist and self-directed student of the arts.” In 2006, he was featured as one of the prestigious Peninsula Art School’s Emerging Artists.

As his need for studio space grew, Luberger rented space from local potter Rich Higdon and began selling his work at the Potters Wheel and at various art festivals around the state. In early summer, he was accepted into Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle, Maine, a nationally known school of craft. Last October, on a random and first-time visit to the Linden Gallery in Ellison Bay, owner Brian Linden told him about Door County’s unusual sister-city relationship with Jingdezhen, China, the birthplace of porcelain. If he wanted to attend the International Ceramic Festival, Linden said, he’d have to buy a ticket within the next week. Without hesitation, Luberger did just that. A month later, he found himself on a self-funded, self-directed trip to China.

“It was amazing to be in a place where time seemed to slow down and I was able to contemplate how it was that I was lucky enough to be there, learning and living with artists whose families had been working in porcelain, such a precise and difficult medium, for over a thousand years.”

His experience in China also gave him an eagerness to learn even more. He returned to find that he had been accepted into North Carolina’s Pendland School of Craft’s very competitive Spring Clay Concentration, to study with America’s pre-eminent porcelain artist Cynthia Bringle. Upon completion this coming spring, Luberger will bring these techniques, ideas and methods back to share with the Door County community as a local artists trained in the fine art of porcelain.

Though Chad’s seemingly a newcomer to the area, it’s no surprise that he’s an easy Door County fit. Unlike many who come to Door County armed with memories of childhood vacations and summer jobs between college semesters, Chad’s tie to the county is much stronger – it goes back five generations to the year 1919, when his great, great grandfather, J.W. Miller, first staked claim to several hundred acres on the west side of Lost Lake. Some of the land was sold during the Great Depression, but a beautiful 120 acres is still owned by Chad’s grandmother and her five sisters, and their children and grandchildren. His pull to Door County has always been strong.

“My grandparents, John and Marion Blake, have been and continue to be so instrumental in my life and are, initially, why I loved Door County. I loved being here because they were here. As I grew older, I always knew I’d settle down somewhere, but for some reason, never thought it would be here…I don’t know why.”

“But now something intangible has grabbed me. In addition to pottery, I’ve become involved with Isadoora Theatre Company and made friends with so many interesting, articulate, talented people, both in and outside the arts community. There’s an unusual, collaborative energy here, it’s incredibly supportive.”

“Yeah,” he says, shaking his head like he still can’t believe it, “I guess this is home now.”

Plum Bottom Pottery is located at 4999 Plum Bottom Road, Egg Harbor. It is slated to open to the public mid-June, 2007.