Featherstone – Minnesotan from the Beginning

Photos courtesy of Featherstone Pottery
Photos courtesy of Featherstone Pottery

There’ve been Featherstones and kin on this farmland land since Minnesota became a state in 1858. The land is situated in rural Red Wing, but Red Wing’s a late-comer, not formally a city until 1889. Back at the beginning Sidney Featherstone bought four farms, later bequeathing two to each of his sons. The property has come down to distaff nephews Jeff and Tom Larkin, founders of today’s Featherstone Pottery.

“A member of the Featherstone family has resided on “Featherstone Farm” since 1858,” explained Clara Featherstone, “and Featherstone Pottery has had its roots on the family homestead since 1980; family traditions are inter-twined with the land.

“The farm has been a gathering place for generations, for young and old alike,” she continued. “To this day, descendants of the early Featherstone settlers still feel as comfortable visiting ‘the farm’ as did the elder generations who resided elsewhere. The parcel of land located in Featherstone Township–on which Featherstone Pottery sits– has remained intact, in the family, since the land was first established.”

Over the course of time, customs and needs change, but land remains and must be maintained to thrive. How, I asked, has this acreage changed–or has it–through the long course of the years?

“The acreage remains farmland,” was the reply, “with crops grown through agreement by a relative who resides just two miles up the township road.”

Featherstone pottery sale 2021

I learned on your website that the pottery came into being after Jeff Larkin happened to take a course at the University of Minnesota. That seems an unusual career move–would you tell us more about that?

“While Jeff was enrolled in the UMN-Twin Cities, someone told him they’d be dropping their registration in an Intro to Ceramics class taught by Professor Warren MacKenzie. Jeff made a quick decision and signed up for that person’s spot in the course. This led to a love of pottery, and an apprenticeship before culminating in the business located here on the family homestead.”

Jeff, further inspired by the work of Bill Marshall and Bernard Leach, traveled to England to the renowned Leach Pottery in St. Ives where he served an apprenticeship from 1976-78. (William “Bill” Marshall (1923–2007) was an esteemed studio potter, known for his Japan-influenced style, while Bernard Howell Leach (1887 – 1979) is now regarded as the “Father of British studio pottery.”)

Returning to Minnesota, Jeff and brother Tom established the current studio on the family farm where their mother, Alice Featherstone Larkin, was born. Jeff spearheads pottery operations, considered instrumental in assuring continued upkeep of the farmstead.

While visiting Jeff during his apprenticeship in St. Ives, Tom was approached by the then 90-year-old Bernard Leach who asked if he, too, wanted to become a potter. There was no immediate response–but the seed had been planted. Back home in Red Wing, Tom and Jeff began the conversion of the family farm into a pottery studio. As they worked, Tom remembered Leach’s question and began to explore the craft on his own.

Picking up the narrative, Clare continued, “Jerry Larkin, Tom and Jeff’s father, was a talented stonemason/brick-layer. In 1980, he worked with his sons to build the kiln that is still in use today.”

(Clockwise) Chad at kiln fire mouth, Jeff Larkin baking FP bread, Tom Larkin with his grand nieces in studio.

Indeed, the website describes that kiln as a “4-chambered, 30-foot, wood-fired, climbing kiln.” Could you describe that in a bit more detail? I’m envisioning an encounter with a dragon.

“The kiln was constructed in the form of a Korean climbing kiln. Those kilns could be a hundred feet long, and an entire village would take part in firing them. Our 4-chambered kiln doesn’t have a chimney. The heat is generated at the mouth of the kiln (the
1st chamber) over many hours through a long, arduous process, and the ‘climbing’ aspect of the kiln allows the heat to rise through the remaining chambers that that themselves rise higher in elevation from front to back.

“The process also entails making enough pottery to fill the large chambers–high enough for a 6-foot person to stand upright inside when loading and unloading the wares.”

I’m guessing, given all that’s involved in preparation is what makes its firing-up an ‘annual’ event?

“Yes, a large wood-fired kiln requires months of preparation but most importantly, it involves a lot of people-power to produce successful results. The temperature of the kiln will have reached approximately 2300 degrees Fahrenheit by the time the heat roars out the back end of the kiln.”

What are the advantages of the kiln being “wood-fired”?

“The varying atmospheres in the chambers tend to give the pots a nuanced look. The appearance of each piece is different, with no two pieces completely alike. The results are determined by the position of the item in the kiln, the temperature inside each chamber, the type of wood used, the wind direction affecting the draft of the heat/flames, the weather, and so on.”

Blue wine goblets

Tom’s website quote on style makes me curious–is there a shape/style/function that particularly appeals to you? Each piece can have different, specific uses, but is there something you find personally, aesthetically pleasing, satisfying to create?

“Because our family loves to cook and eat, Tom enjoys making items to which food- lovers also can relate. For example, serving platters and large salad bowls are particularly sought after in the studio showroom. Tom’s beautiful, functional work is found in many public and private collections.”

What are culinary uses for the pieces? Those one might use to make those luscious recipes on the website?

“Every piece of pottery has been high-fired (2300 degrees Fahrenheit), allowing the dishes to be oven (not stove- top) safe. The open baking dishes and covered casseroles are well-loved for their versatility, ranging from wild rice hotdish, scalloped potatoes, apple crisp, to baked meats and roasted vegetables.

“We love to share ideas about how to use Featherstone Pottery and to hear how others use the items they take home with them. We especially appreciate receiving photos showing how visitors have enjoyed using their pottery.”

Do you have events and sales?

“We host an annual fall show and sale, typically the first two weekends in November. The studio is open year-round, by chance or appointment. Check Featherstone Pottery’s website (featherstonepottery.com) and Facebook page for more information and newsletters”.

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