Speaking Through Clay
For nearly two decades, Dan Bellow was a wordsmith. You might say it’s the family business. The son of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, he worked the circuit of Northeast newspapers, covering crime in Albany, city government in Pittsfield, and state politics in Burlington, Vermont.
By 2003, observations about the declining health of the newspaper industry, a dose of carpe diem inspired by 9/11, and a nagging sense that he wanted to be an actor rather than an observer led Bellow to resume an artistic passion of his high school and college years. He built a kiln in the backyard of his Great Barrington home, and started making pottery again.
In the converted garage that serves as his studio, surrounded by rows of coffee mugs that have been shaped on his potters’ wheel but not yet fired in the kiln — as well as some shelves of finished products waiting to be packed up and shipped to customers — Bellow sounds like an excited anthropologist when he talks about pottery.
“This is the first time we got the molecules that compose the earth to undergo a state change,” he says about harvesting mud and heating it in an oven to fashion cups and bowls. “If you look at technology, at being able to manipulate the natural world according to your will, this is a primary step in that human development. And people have been doing this for five thousand years.”
Bellow works exclusively in porcelain, with English grolleg clay imported by Sheffield Pottery. His aesthetic leans toward simple shapes, often highlighted with long ridges, decorated with gorgeously irregular glazing that takes advantage of richly “analog” effects of his gas-fired, downdraft kiln. (It’s a much more finicky process, he says, than working with the type of digitally controlled, electric kiln you may remember from art class.) He prefers highly sensitive glazes, savoring the push-and-pull of ancient technology.
“It’s not a direct experience like being a painter, where you lay the paint on the canvas. The kiln is the box of mystery,” he says. “Hand-made pottery is a fine balance between precision and looseness.”
He left his last newspaper job (as editorial writer for the Berkshire Eagle) in ’05, getting into real estate in time to catch the tail end of the booming housing market. The pottery continued as a semi-professional hobby, as Bellow earned a growing local following through the crafts fair circuit, while supplying local businesses like Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield with handmade creamers and showing work at Ferrin Gallery.
After five years of growing his sideline slowly, he aimed to put the pottery at the forefront, investing several thousand dollars in a booth at the New York International Gift Fair at the Jacob K. Javitz Center, intending to hobnob with buyers from the likes of Bloomingdale’s and Barney’s. His mugs and tea bowls caught the eye of a rep from Anthropologie, the international retailer owned by Urban Outfitters, Inc. that’s focused on women’s apparel and home décor with a distinctive, hand-made appearance.
A few months later came the phone call: Anthropologie was on the line, asking if he could fill an order for 1,600 pieces. The biggest order yet he’d handled from his homespun operation had been for about one hundred pots. He gulped and said yes.
The relationship has been a good one; the appearance of Daniel Bellow Porcelain in the Anthropologie catalog was launched by a full-page spread, and the retailer has since come back for more, ordering about a thousand more pieces this year. In fact, it spurred Bellow to take the next step in ramping up the scale of his production: casting a mold for his design of a butter dish with cover, rather than fashioning each individual piece from start to finish. This enables studio assistants to execute the piece; though it takes the product out of the “hand made” category, the final result maintains the quirk and charm of Bellow’s handiwork. The butter dish is part of a suite of kitchen pieces he designed for Anthropologie, also including a utensil holder and old-fashioned juicer.
On the strength of orders like this (and for Uncommon Goods, for whom he designed a beer growler), Bellow has been able to focus on his own online shop, studio sales, and the big orders. He’s in full production mode this month, and is having open studios on the weekends, where shoppers can pick up freshly finished work directly from the artist, or mix and match among pieces with minor irregularities available at a steep discount.
“I really like my work,” he says, and it shows — in the obvious joy he has in describing his process and in displaying the results. “I really like doing it and I like what comes out at the end. This is a really cool way to make a living. And it seems to be working.”
He credits his high school pottery teacher, Tom White, as a big influence, as well as Sam Taylor (of Dogbar Pottery), Joy Brown and Guy Wolff. Among bigger stars in the pottery universe, Bellow cites Svend Bayer, Simon Leach, and Peter Voulkos. Much of these potters’ work is more sculptural and representational than Bellow’s, but he says they’ve been influential as he’s developed his own sense of process and style.
Although he hasn’t lost his interest in publishing and his facility with words, Bellow says he’s arrived, at long, last, at his true life’s work.
“I no longer feel like I have to grow up and be a novelist,” he says. “I found what else I do. —Jeremy D. Goodwin
Daniel Bellow Porcelain
12 Benton Ave
Great Barrington, MA 01230
Open studios: December 15 & 16, 22 & 23