You could call them co-workers of the ceramics field. For nearly a decade pottery artists Amy Higgason and Katlyn Koester have been lending each other a hand, whether it’s borrowing a glaze chemical, sharing space in a kiln or offering critiques.
“We are always helping each other in various ways with different issues. She needed to borrow my gram scale this winter because she was mixing glazes; her dad built my new display shelves – things like that,” Higgason said.
From the beginning of Koester’s ceramics career, Higgason was there as a sort of mentor. Now, after Koester graduated from Viterbo University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in studio arts, the two ceramics artists each won an award at Art Impressions held in Land O’ Lakes July 28. Higgason was given an Award of Excellence for Fine Craft and Koester received an Honorable Mention for Fine Craft.
“That was the first time that we were actually in a show together at the same time. The awards we won were not just for pottery – they were for anyone in the craft category,” Higgason said. “And we thought it was really cool because we’re also both in Artistree Gallery, an artist co-op, so the two potters from Artistree Gallery both won awards at that show.”
Crossing paths in ceramics
Higgason’s career path took a drastic turn, resulting in her moving to the Northwoods from Chicago. Working as a marketing firm art director in Chicago for 25 years, Higgason decided to start a hobby in ceramics – but it quickly led to much more than a pastime.
“I took a beginning clay class just for fun as a hobby, and just never stopped from that point. I took a workshop up here with a group of potters and developed a relationship with Joan Slack, the owner of Riverrun,” Higgason said.
After Slack decided to build Riverrun Center for the Arts, she offered Higgason a full-time position as an assistant with living arrangements above Riverrun.
“It was when I was looking into going to grad school for clay, because I never had formal clay education, so I decided to do that instead. So I quit my job and I moved up here in April of 2003,” Higgason said.
It was at Riverrun that Higgason and Koester would meet, marking the beginning of their friendship and professional relationship.
“The first pot I ever threw was when I was about 13 years old. And shortly after I did that, I went on the Northwoods Art Tour with my dad and we met Joan Slack when she was still doing work out of her basement,” Koester said.
Slack was in the process of constructing Riverrun, and told Koester about ceramics classes that would be offered there. Shortly after participating in a few classes, Slack asked Koester to be an assistant at Riverrun.
“Katlyn must have just turned 16, and she and another young girl were doing apprenticeships at Riverrun. We had fun, silly times together. I was kind of their supervisor, kind of their teacher. But that’s how we met, and the bond and the friendship just kept from there,” Higgason said.
After working with clay for 18 years, Higgason has developed a recognizable, personal style.
“I’ve been doing it a long time now, and my style has developed over time. It’s all functional, but it’s highly decorative on its outer surfaces, covered with carving and drawing, patterns and textures,” Higgason said. “When people see my work at shows here, they know it’s mine. It doesn’t look like anybody else’s.”
Even though Koester hasn’t put in the same extent of time in ceramics that Higgason has, she already has her own style.
“Katlyn I’ve watched for nine years, and she’s going that same path – her work looks distinctive, looks unlike anyone else’s. And I’ve seen it grow a great deal in the last year and a half since she’s been back from college,” Higgason said.
Looks aren’t the only personalized aspect of Koester’s work.
“My pottery is all functional also, but I developed a clay body when I was in college, so it’s my personal clay,” Koester said. “I have my pieces that I carve floral images onto, and then some of my other pieces are glazed with two colors, using dots and lines to make patterns in the glaze.”
Though many of her pieces are functional, Koester also creates “whimsical” animal pieces using a technique she learned at a Penland School of Crafts class titled “Surface decoration and alteration.”
“You took round forms and changed the shapes of them by cutting pieces out and reattaching the edges. I ended up with a couple of forms that reminded me of animals. So I make bird vases and fish vases, but they all start out on the wheel,” Koester said. “They all have their own personalities.”
“And they’re funny. They’re like little characters,” Higgason said, describing Koester’s work.
For Koester, ceramics is her career.
“Since she’s been done with school she’s been back here living at home, and she has a studio at home. She’s strictly trying to make her way doing this,” Higgason said.
Having Higgason there as a support system keeps Koester motivated, especially during the long winters of the Northwoods.
“During art shows, you get feedback from customers and other artists and that’s always really helpful. But generally as soon as September hits, there’s no shows again until May or June,” Koester said.
And the relationship is mutually beneficial for Higgason, especially moving from Chicago and being in contact with a large community of ceramics artists to the Northwoods.
“When I was in Chicago, if you had an issue or a question, there was someone right down the hall that you could ask. And when I first moved here, I didn’t know anyone other than the owner of Riverrun,” Higgason said.
After living and working in the Northwoods for nine years, however, Higgason now has a network of artists in both ceramics and other media, including Koester.
Calling on Koester’s talents, Higgason invited her to be an assistant in teaching a surface decoration workshop for students from across the country at Higgason’s personal studio Aug. 24-26. After that, Koester and Higgason, in addition to three other artists from Chicago, Minneapolis and Land O’ Lakes, will be showing their work at Art Detour held at Pigeon Road Pottery Oct. 5-7.
Looking back to the beginning of her ceramics career and recalling how her first teacher recognized “that raw talent and enthusiasm and nurtured it,” Higgason hopes she has the same impact on Koester.
“[My first teacher] changed the entire course of my life. I didn’t know I was going to be living here in this whole new way, give up my job, give up three-quarters of my income, but I’m so much happier,” Higgason said. “I’ve always wanted to do that for someone else, and I feel like Katlyn is the closest I’ve gotten to that. I hope to be a positive force to help her through the rough patches.”
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com