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Carving a Niche in the Door County Pottery Scene

A 125-year-old farmstead 1.3 miles east of Egg Harbor on County E is home to Off the Wheel Pottery, where Reneé Schwaller makes and displays her work – as well as the work of 25 other artists – in the barn and granary on the property. 

“I have a few painters and glass artists, but mostly clay artists,” Schwaller said. “I like to show work from many different potters/sculptors because there is such a wide range of styles and techniques in clay. I want to show my customers that. I also love how pottery is functional art – something you can use in your daily routine.”  

Many of her pieces combine construction, painting, and partial or full glazing.

“I’m a potter – a potter who dreams,” she said, explaining the elements she pulls together in her works. 

It starts with the clay.

“It takes many years just to become a good potter, years to establish a style, years to develop glazes that work well on your work and with your firing technique,” Schwaller said. “It is such a long process [that] you have to draw lines on what you want to focus on. And once you get that – I feel like it took me at least 10 years to be sort of where I wanted to be – you can start to experiment with new techniques.”

A potter could work for an entire lifetime with clay and not try all the techniques, firing methods and glazes. 

Schwaller’s work mostly begins on the wheel, but she also has some hand-built pieces. 

She explained the process for one of her pieces in particular. 

“Once the pot has dried enough to work with – it has to be at just the right state of dry, just beyond leather hard – I painted the colored leaves, painted the background of the tree area all black, [and] then I drew out my design with a small carving tool and scraped the background away,” Schwaller said. 

The technique she uses is called sgraffito. The pot goes into the initial firing (called the bisque firing) once it’s completely dry, or “bone dry.”  

“After the first firing, I brushed a wax resist over the design and then dipped the piece in multiple glazes,” she continued. “Then [it goes] in for the second firing, the glaze firing.”

Although this style has become a bit of a signature look for Schwaller, she still views her work and style as evolving.

“I feel like my style, it changes a little bit,” she said. “You’re always growing, but it’s so slow. I feel like [with] every firing I do, [there is] a little tiny something different that I can build on. But then my customers will say, ‘Oh, look at all the changes. I love this new thing you’re doing.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Am I doing new things?’”

Currently Schwaller is experimenting with simplifying some of her designs.

“I’m working on a line of pots that are more simple, with just a small carving on them,” she said. “But I also have fun using many different elements in one piece. It’s like a puzzle – trying to get them to work together. It can help make the work more interesting.”

The trick, however, is making pieces look interesting without being too busy. 

Schwaller’s journey of becoming a Door County potter began when she spent college summers living at her parents’ Fish Creek vacation home and working at The Cookery. She took a dance class with Ginka Cohn, whose husband, Abe, founded The Potters Wheel Gallery in Fish Creek, and Ginka displayed Schwaller’s work at the gallery. Schwaller also worked with Mary Ellen Sisulak at her Turtle Ridge Gallery in Ellison Bay, where Schwaller did bookkeeping and learned a lot about what it takes to run a small arts business.

She remembers telling painter and gallery owner Margaret Lockwood that she wanted to open a gallery but didn’t think she was good enough. Lockwood, who has been a mentor to many women artists in the county, wasn’t having it.

“She said, ‘Yes, you are. Just do it.’ Sometimes you just need that little push,” Schwaller said. “I probably started before I was ready, but you have to start somewhere.”

Twenty-three years later, it looks as though Lockwood’s advice was right.

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