Dalman Pottery: The Art of Earth, Wood and Fire
We’re all aware of the abounding nature found in the Upper Peninsula, but perhaps lesser known are the hearty folks sparsely tucked away within these endless forests. There amongst the timbers seeking the solitude of the forests reside a handful of artists who draw upon the essence of the surrounding nature, infusing its beauty into their creations. One such artist, brings this natural spirit to the homes of others through his unique handcrafted wares, practicing his art close to its ancient roots on his off-grid wood fired pottery farm.
What began as a simple admiration of the rustic mugs lining the walls and ceilings of the Blackrocks Brews Up a Passion For Beer led to questions about the artist and special process behind these unique drinking vessels. The ensuing search to satiate that curiosity would take us deep into the woods off the 550, down dirt roads, and past meandering streams to the peaceful setting of Dalman Wood Fired Pottery.
As we marveled at the pastoral scene upon our arrival a tall lithe figure approached and greeted us as he twisted paper and tobacco into a homemade cigarette and popped it into his mouth. Ryan Dalman shook our hands and promptly led us on a tour of his pottery studio, a simple wooden structure built by hand with the help of his family. High ceilings and soft light filtered in through dusty clay spattered windows, reminiscent of times past before buildings were lit by electricity. You’ll find no power lines here as daily life and pottery production operations at the Dalman pottery farm run entirely “off- grid”, fueled by 3 solar panels, a couple of small generators, and a lot of wood.
Dalman mounted his custom designed pottery wheel to give us a short demonstration. His long form hunched over a mound of clay as his hands adeptly shaped it into a mug. His foot kicked out time on the 1920’s Ford plant gear below keeping the rudimentary wheel turning at just the right speed. In a few minutes the task was complete and he moved us quickly along to the main event of the day, unloading the Noborigama.
A short distance from the studio a massive 3 chambered outdoor kiln awaited us. A Norborigama, the largest of its kind in the state of Michigan. Due to its size and the fact that it requires at least 3 full chords of wood to maintain the high heat temperatures necessary, Dalman only fires his wares 4-5 times a year. With so much time between and the unpredictable results that wood-firing enacts on the clay bodies, opening the doors of the ovens to reveal the finished pieces within, is a magical experience rivaling the Christmas morning excitement of small children.
Dalman slowly pulled mugs, bowls, and crocks out from the kilns one by one, eying them for the first time since closing the doors and lighting the fires a few days before. Lost in his own thoughts he expounded to himself with oohs, aahs, and grunts his likes and dislikes as he sized up the outcome. Overall, the firing seemed to have been a success. It can be a heartbreaking experience if things go wrong inside the kiln during the firing process and pieces are destroyed. Still, he enjoys the challenges presented by the demanding wood firing techniques he implements saying, “All of those challenges lead to one design coming out ten different ways with a completely unpredictable outcome.”
This is but one part of the process that ensures each piece he creates is one of a kind. After years of working with this earthen mud it’s apparent that the clay has come to shape him as much as he has shapes the clay. Over time, he has learned that recognizing when to listen and allow himself to be guided by the clay is as important to the process as directing it. “Right now in my life it’s more of just making it happen and letting it happen as it comes off the wheel. Just letting it be,” he says.
Dalman lives as a minimalist, a theme portrayed through his work from start to finish. It’s a path he began many years before when he made the conscious choice to simplify his lifestyle. Inspired by a fishing trip into remote Canadian wilderness, he realized he was completely comfortable being in nature with only the bare necessities. “That’s when I started unplugging I guess you could say,” says Dalman.
That’s when he began looking back at the origins of pottery, one of humankind’s oldest trades. He explored the techniques used in the orient thousands of years ago where kilns were developed. A time when nobody had power realizing that very few things were needed to create wood fired wares. After graduating from NMU with two degrees and building his first kiln he retired from his 9-5 job and dove in head first based on a good piece of advice he received at the time, “Move to Saskatchewan, buy the cheapest house you can, and hope the neighbors like your pots.” Good advice apparently, because it seems he hasn’t looked back much since.
Throughout our visit, Dalman spoke in a language of shapes, forms, and functionality and as I listened to him describe the process of making bowls and cups they took on a new meaning beyond the simple objects I knew them as. They became givers, receivers and I discovered a deeper consciousness embodied in the vessels we use everyday to hold our food. The food we use to nourish and sustain ourselves. Dishes created with intention and beauty give the meal held within a sense of reverence that makes the thought of mindlessly consuming their contents seem a blasphemous act. A special piece of hand crafted pottery can provide us with a way to connect with our food and drink with greater appreciation for the bounty within.
I couldn’t sum it up any better than the artist himself on his Dalman Pottery website, “The goal is to live lightly, thoughtfully and simply while paying more attention to the importance of quality and comfort in the objects we use daily in our homes.”