The Shed Pottery
by Clifford E. Keller
Mandan potter and
ceramic maker Bill Baron chased the “ideal” red pottery glaze
for over twenty years before he found it. The red glaze that he
sought and developed is the result of some two hundred experiments
and it can best be described as a “hard and rich” red that seems to
draw you into the piece. The new red is prominently included in
Baron’s latest pottery lines which have evolved greatly over a
thirty-nine year pottery career.
Bill and his
wife Gail live south of Mandan in a chalet like home with open views
of their horses and a backyard full of pools and streams. A
separate building houses Bill’s studio, kilns and other pottery
making equipment, products and inventory. Examples of his pottery
and a good friend’s artwork are liberally displayed throughout their
comfortable and inviting home.
Gail, who recently
retired from teaching, taught English at South Central High School
in Bismarck and prior to that time she taught at Mandan High School.
Bill, also retired from teaching, most recently taught art at
Century High School in Bismarck and prior to that, taught industrial
arts in Wisconsin.
He holds a B.A. in art and art
education and has no formal pottery training although he did study
under Paul Soldner and David Leach, a well known English potter.
Soldner is considered by many to be the father of contemporary raku
pottery. While at UND he did sign up for a class in pottery in the
Engineering and Mines Department taught by Margaret Pachel and not
realizing he was caught in the middle of a departmental rivalry and
after several pottery class sessions and one piece of pottery, he
was subtly advised by his art department advisors to stick to art
classes and forget about the pottery classes. As a result his
pottery making career, with exception of occasional seminars, is the
result of self education and trial and error as he concedes that
many pieces have been “thrown over the hill” over the years. He
does recall a rather unusual incident while he was a student at the
University of North Dakota. There was an old storage building on
the grounds of the house that he and several of his student
roommates were renting. They explored the storage building and
found what they later used as clay pigeons while practicing for the
upcoming hunting season. It seems that the 100’s of make shift
“clay pigeons” that they used for target practice were actually
unmarked UND “Fighting Sioux “ Medallions.
While teaching in
Wisconsin, he and his students “fired” some pots but his pottery
making did not really begin until he was back living in Mandan when
a friend gave him an old sump pump and he turned the pump upside
down and added an electric motor and made his first pottery wheel.
Shortly thereafter, he sent for a potter’s wheel kit from California
at a grand cost of $220.00.
Mr. Baron has 6
electric and gas-fired kilns and their use is dictated by the type
of pottery being fired and is he is busy designing a seventh. He
stated that his pottery is the result of the mini-environment that
is created in the kilns and drying ovens. For his production work
or standard pieces, the electric kiln is preferred because of the
ability to duplicate similar firing conditions over and over because
an electric kiln is a true self-contained environment while a
gas-fired kiln which requires constant monitoring to adjust exhaust
gases, etc, is used more often for special or one-of-a kind pieces.
He adds that while a gas fired kiln is more difficult to operate it,
nevertheless, produces more dramatic glaze development than is
possible in an electric kiln because it is more efficient in drawing
the oxygen out of the glaze. Whenever a firing is underway, he and
Gail are present throughout the entire firing process to make
adjustments and record information.
In the beginning,
his pottery and ceramic career produced extra income to supplement
their teaching salaries. Their marketing consisted mainly of
traveling and showing at twelve to sixteen shows a year, most of
them in Montana, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming. One of those
shows is in Spearfish, where the Barons have exhibited over the past
twenty-eight years. Some of his regular customers include the North
Dakota State Historical Society, Wall Drug in South Dakota and the
Minnesota State Historical Society. The Barons are planning to cut
their show schedule back to three or four shows a year as Bill would
like to spend more time making larger and more unique pieces on a
commission basis and also show his work at some of the larger and
more exclusive shows and galleries. While he does spend time in his
studio every day, Bill remarks that being retired usually means
being busier than when he was teaching.
Bill uses several
types of clay for his pottery. He prefers a standard mix for his
standard production lines while for his special one of a kind
pieces, he uses a clay mixture of his own design and development.
He has spent a great deal of time developing his own clay mixture
which is configured for its malleability, texture, and ability to
produce the various glazes he looks for. He has had limited
experience with North Dakota clays due to the large amount of mica
which in turn causes some firing problems, Many of his glazes are
developed from the oxides he collects in the North Dakota Badlands
area. His production pieces are fired at a lower temperature; at
about 1600 degrees F. for 8 hours while his gas fired kilns are
operated at a temperature of 2250 degrees F. for 14 hours. The first
firing sets the shape of the piece and the second firing sets the
glaze that is being applied. The drying process usually takes
another 24 hours to complete.
You should see this beautiful red raku
This Wheat Pattern bowl is copyrighted.
One of his earliest
and most recognizable standard lines is the wheat pattern. The
line, which is copyrighted, proved to be very popular during North
Dakota’s Centennial celebration. The wheat pattern line can be
identified by the imprint of a wheat head in the piece. An actual
wheat head is used during the process and a special glaze is
used. Interest in the wheat pattern waned as did interest in the
Centennial, but according to Mr. Baron, the wheat pattern is making
a strong resurgence. While interest in the wheat pattern pottery
was waning, his green and blue colored pottery pieces sustained his
pottery operation. At the present time many of his one of a kind
and commission pieces contain the special red glaze he pursued for
so may years. His pottery is marked “Baron” in handwritten script
on the bottom of the pieces. Some pieces also list the year and
“Mandan, ND”. His present pottery pieces contain more carving and
etching than was seen in his earlier pieces. He is developing a
technique that uses horse hair and buffalo hair which in turn
produces a very unusual and striking design on the piece. Contrary
to what you might think, the buffalo hair is markedly thinner than
horse hair and the buffalo hair produces a very fine lace-type
design on the
Looking back over
his career, Baron wonders about the impact of not being formally
taught but at the same time wonders if a formal education might have
inhibited his desire to try new techniques He has taught pottery
and ceramic making to several of his students and according to him –
several of them are doing quite well. When asked what he collects,
he indicated he is always looking for pieces with special glazes and
admires Japanese and Korean pottery mainly for their use of shapes.
Listening to Bill
talk about his love of pottery, the listener is keenly aware of his
enthusiasm and intensity. He says it will take another hundred
years for him to try all the new things he wants to try. On behalf
of an appreciative public, we hope his goals are realized. While
public acceptance of his work is appreciated, he is first concerned
with the piece meeting his expectations because if it doesn’t, it
might end up being thrown “over the hill”.
Assortment of cups, plates, and bowls
Addendum: Bill Baron passed away on June 13th, 2015.