Connecting with U.P. Maker and Educator Kenyon Hansen
Kenyon Hansen is all about making connections, and he felt a connection to Pewabic long before ever setting foot inside the building.
Last week was his first time not just at the pottery, but in Detroit, though he’s long known about Pewabic founder Mary Chase Perry (Stratton) because he lived a stone’s throw from her Upper Peninsula birthplace. And once Hansen became a potter, that connection strengthened even more.
"We used to live literally less than a block from the house she grew up in Hancock. You could almost see it outside our window. After driving by that house so often and hearing so much about her, we’re really happy to be here," says Hansen, before adding: "and I’m a ceramics guy.”
The Finlandia University visiting artist came to Pewabic to jury the Maker/Mentor exhibition, lead a workshop for the Education Studio students and deliver his studio work to make its Pewabic House & Garden Show debut June 6-9.
Getting social through social media
The Dollar Bay, Mich., potter continuously strives to ensure his customers feel connected with his Upper Peninsula studio, no matter their distance. Artists in more isolated locations need to curate online presences and relationships to reach their customers, says Hansen.
“With Instagram you give people a window into your own life,” he explains, adding that it provides a sense of the maker. “I may not know them, but through social media people feel that connection.”
That’s imperative to a professional artist like Hansen, who knows that other U.P. jobs might have come easier— and be more profitable — had he not decided to go to art school.
“The hand really isn’t celebrated today. There are a million reasons not to make with your hands,” he says, pointing to the precision computers afford. Stepping away from your craft, even briefly having a taste of a steady income flow, can force goals once important in art school to drift further and further away, he says.
“I struggle with the word artist because I think of myself as a craftsperson. If you’re interested in making — if that’s where your heart is — if you’re not making, you’re not moving forward,” Hansen says. “Nearly every major decision I made after I left school, the question was: Where is my next kiln? Where will my next body of work be made?”
At one point the answers included making pots outside and finishing them in the kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment in Marquette, Mich. And it means not being afraid to fail.
“I knew that the pots were bad, but if I wasn’t doing it, I knew I’d be remodeling kitchens and I wouldn’t be a maker,” says Hansen. “You’re never going to come up with anything original without failing.”
Along with a steadfast commitment to forge ahead, Hansen advises burgeoning artists to be mobile.
“Don’t be afraid to move across the country for opportunity,” he says, pointing out that he lived in seven different states in 10 years. “Every time I moved it was for another opportunity.”
It was all about the journey of making — keeping that the top priority, he says.
For Maker/Mentor, Pewabic’s upcoming staff and student exhibition that opens with the House & Garden Show, Hansen said he looked for a level of consideration from each artist. He wanted to discover what in each submitted piece caught the artist’s eye, and then moved on to the utility: interior and exterior relationships, the weight of a cup, how the artist worked with lines, forms and surface texture.
“A lot of the work jumps out at you. We all recognize quality,” he says. “I’m looking at craftsmanship — that’s part of my own process — because I’m a potter.”
He definitely had to turn turned away well made work, he says, to focus on the ones that ticked every box of what he hoped to find.
“You have to make a lot of bad work before you make good work,” Hansen explains. “A lot of people have ten years before they figure out who they are and how they communicate.”
Hansen is now at the point of his career where he hopes he’s closed the gap and that he won’t look back in 20 years and gasp at his own work, like he has in the past. Instead he hopes to continue seeing little threads from older work resurfacing.
“I like making pots — pots connect that experience between art and everyday,” Hansen says. “The average time spent between art in a museum is 15 seconds, whereas in a home people let down their guard. They interact with the pieces. When you bring it home, suddenly you’re holding it closer to your body. You’re engaging with it. It’s a whole different experience.”
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Steve McBride wore a wide smile as he quietly watched Pewabic Designer David McGee set the last tile in the fountain face: “I’ve waited four years for this.”
It was the almost-final touch on renovations to the National Historic Landmark’s courtyard, a space McBride had long wished to make more inviting.
Last autumn, his wish was granted thanks to the Southeast Michigan Placemaking Pilot Initiative. The William Davidson Foundation provided funding to Project for Public Spaces (PPS) to administer a capacity-building program for its grantees focused on placemaking activations. Through this effort, PPS provided design services and implementation funds to Pewabic for the new courtyard.
Pewabic founder Mary Chase Perry Stratton turns a spry 152 years old today. We can only imagine what she’d think of today’s world, but we like to think that she’d be pleased that her pottery on East Jefferson is still a bastion of artisans dedicated to creating handcrafted tiles and ware and continue to encourage a love of ceramics.