“They’re all organic. They’re all living things because they come from my hands,” says Jered Nelson, as he gracefully pinches the walls up on a large clay bowl spinning before him on a potter’s wheel in his Berkeley studio.
Nelson makes it look easy as he forms a 14-inch serving bowl in less than three minutes in rapid succession. Nelson only stops throwing pots long enough to resupply by grabbing large tubes of clay from a nearby trunk of clay called a coffin.
Photos adorn the walls of his studio. Horse saddles hang above kilns. The vestiges of his old life clashing with his new. Nelson systematically kneads and weighs each ball of clay before returning to his potter’s wheel to work.
“My ability to make stuff quickly means that I can sell stuff at a reasonable price,” said Nelson. California style of pottery is a fairly minimalistic style of throwing pottery and utilizes earth tones for glazes. Nelson defines his style as a less minimalistic version of that style.
The blend of clays Nelson uses come from years of meddling to find the perfect combination. He's settled on three different California sourced clay, which make up 73 percent of the final mixture.
There are also small quantities of eight other clays in the mixture including one sourced near his hometown of Fort Pierce, a small cattle town in central South Dakota.
The son of a cowboy, Nelson grew up riding horses in the rodeo and even rode bulls a few times although that was short lived, he said with a chuckle.
At first glance, it might seem strange that a former cowboy would find his life’s pursuit in a craft such as pottery. But lots of guys from the rodeo circuit eventually get so banged up that all they can really do while they recover are crafts like pottery, Nelson said.
Nonetheless Nelson left the rodeo pursuits permanently and uninjured after taking first place in a bareback riding competition on his 30th birthday in Colorado. “It seemed like a good time to stop,” said Nelson.
After graduating from Moorhead State University in Minnesota with a degree in Fine Arts, Nelson headed down to Colorado to apprentice with master potter Richard Pankratz.
In 2000, Nelson moved back to South Dakota to set up a studio in an old dairy barn where he used the free wood scraps from a nearby mill to fuel his kiln.
“Wood is actually the most sustainable fuel for a kiln,” said Nelson, who now uses natural gas to fuel his kilns here in Berkeley.
A few times a year, after long periods of making various ceramic pieces in the barn, he would load up his Chevy pickup and make the 25-hour drive to the Bay Area to sell his work to various galleries at incredibly cheap prices, Nelson said.
With his work well received in the Bay Area, Nelson decided to relocate here in 2004 to open a studio in Richmond where, to pay for the increased cost of living, he became a production potter for designers.
Designers liked his work, he said, because unlike a machine that sometimes works faster and cheaper, Nelsons manufacturing process continually improves.
“If I start out with a design it eventually gets better. When you are used to making stuff you realize it’ll get better and better. A machine never learns anything,” said Nelson.
One of Nelson’s first commercially successful designs came soon after he’d moved to the Bay Area. It was an incense holder he designed and crafted for the Juniper Ridge, a national chain based out of Berkeley.
Unfortunately for Nelson, there has been a trend over the years for a designer to draw up plans for dinnerware and then to save on costs have machines manufacturer the designs.
“It used to be that an artist designed and made the stuff.”
Now there are designers who design pots and other people make it. It’s a horrible process,” said Nelson.
Stacey Carlson, Oakland resident, who was perusing through Nelson’s Potter owns a few pieces of Nelson already and wants to pick up some more.
As a writer working on her third novel, Carlson said she hopes to create the perfect coffee drinking and writing area that will help stimulate her creative pursuits.
To help complete this vision she plans on purchasing a ceramic coffee carafe, which comes with a ceramic cone filter top for making drip coffee.
“It will bring an artisan quality to the ceremony of coffee drinking to me,” said Carlson.
Another visitor to Nelson’s Ceramics, Lauren Mattey, of Oakland, was picking up pots Nelson was donating to her theater company “We Players” to be used as props in an upcoming play.
“His space is warm and inviting and his eyes and smile compliment that,” said Mattey.
These days Nelson’s pottery makes dinnerware for a variety of high-end restaurants in the area that source local pottery as a natural extension of the slow food movement.
Because Nelson is subject to Non Disclosure Agreements on who uses his pottery in their restaurants, he is not allowed to name drop the restaurants that utilize his pottery but recommends the next time you are dining out to take a look at the underside of your plate to see who made your dinnerware.