July 20, 2024


Get Into Fashion

Pottery buffs’ passion for early American craft fired up


ELSAH – Crocker and Springer Salt-Glazed Stoneware and Redware in Elsah seems to be the best-kept secret as far as fine crafts in west-central Illinois.

The studio’s owners, Jonathan “Jon” and Jan Wright, also live in Elsah Hills outside of the historic village of Elsah. The couple have been perfecting this craft over the last 35 years and their work is annually featured in the national Directory of Traditional American Crafts, of which its featured craftsmen are jury selected. 

“We’ve been accepted for that every year since 1991, which is a big deal for us,” Jan Wright said. “It’s a perfect target market for what we do. Our customers become friends over the years and come from far and wide to the studio.”

The potters’ studio is at 25337 Beltrees Road, where it’s been for 35 years. Although they do not offer classes on how to make the pottery, they do offer demonstrations for those who call or text 618-466-8624 or email [email protected]

There is an outdoor massive kiln used in the process for salt-glazed pottery and an electric kiln used for redware pottery, which is decorative only. 

“The business is all about cultural history and the preservation of cultural history,” Jon Wright said. “The salt-glaze stoneware and redware originated from the Rhine Valley of Germany in the 13th century. Early settlers who came here brought the knowledge. It was a carefully guarded secret in Europe.”

He said the craft spread west during the U.S. Industrial Revolution. Glass came, and processes changed as settlers moved west where salt-glazed and redware became less popular, and less practiced.

“It’s not as commonly done and not as commonly known and recognized in this area and westward,” Jan Wright noted. “It was popular from the mid-Atlantic to New England and eastern Ohio, but not so much farther west from there.

“We’ve always been interested in that historic and cultural preservation,” she said. “Not many people do this kind of pottery and stoneware. It’s quite difficult.”

The Wrights frequently travel to northeastern Ohio markets, which is about the farthest west they physically extend their efforts. 

Jon Wright built the studio’s building, kiln, warecarts, displays, equipment, mixers and spray booth.

“He’s a jack-of-all trades,” Jan Wright said. “He has so many skills in addition to making pots, and skills to build the studio and everything on the property, just about.”

Salt-glazed stoneware and redware require two completely different processes and kilns. Crocker and Springer’s salt kiln is located in a shed next to the building.

“We don’t fire it often, maybe two to three times a year, but it holds 300 pieces depending on the size,” Jan Wright said. “We fire the redware in a small electric kiln, which is much easier to fire. 

“Salt has a mind of its own,” she said. “Jon built a number of salt kilns over the years. He loves fire; another thing, if he’s making pottery, he can use his fire skills, and knows how to control the fire.”
Both are art majors graduates from of Principia College. They met at the college, married in 1986, and founded Crocker and Springer in 1987. 

“At Principia, it had a limited 3D program, and he took the two pottery courses offered,” Jan Wright said. Jon Wright also did independent study in clay and woodworking; Jan Wright studied two-dimensional art.

“We wanted to do something that would use both our skills,” said Jan Wright, who uses her knowledge to spray, paint and carve the Crocker and Springer stoneware and redware. “With pottery, he could throw the pots and I could paint, sculpt and carve the pieces.”

She uses a carving process known as sgraffito, a technique of applying to an unfired ceramic body two successive layers of contrasting slip, or glaze, and then in either case scratching so as to reveal parts of the underlying layer.

The couple also spent time at the acclaimed Penland School of Craft in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where Jan Wright is from originally. 

“Penland School taught any handcrafted teaching you could think of,” she said.

The Wrights have collected a huge library of books they constantly read and reference.

“We’ve read and tried and experimented; sometimes we failed but found victory along the way,” Jan Wright said. “I feel we’ve learned a lot in 35 years.”

Jon Wright is from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, where there’s a passionate love of antiques in the state’s eastern portion where many now-antiques were made. His mother collected antiques.

“She had a beautiful collection and Jon inherited from her a beautiful salt-glazed pitcher,” Jan Wright recalled. “We wanted to do a craft together and saw an article in Country Home magazine in late ’86, early ’87. It was about Rowe Pottery in Wisconsin.

“The pots were of a cold gray color with electric blue,” she recalled, “fired with wood instead of by a computerized kiln. They were nicely made, but looking at the antiques, those were so much more soulful. We thought we could do this, but make the pots look older.”

Jon Wright built a giant wood kiln which fired their early pieces, but the pieces were unsalvageable. He tore it down and made a more manageable outdoor kiln which operates partially with propane and partially with wood. 

With salt glaze the pottery is fired only once versus twice like most pottery. The kiln itself puts a glaze on the pieces, Jan Wright explained.

Salt-glaze pottery, usually stoneware, has a glaze of glossy, translucent and slightly orange-peel-like texture which is formed by throwing sodium chloride, common salt, into the kiln during the highest temperature part of the firing process. Sodium from the salt reacts with silica in the clay body to form a glassy coating, or glaze, of sodium silicate, also known as water glass or soluble glass, a compound containing sodium oxide and silica that forms a glassy solid.

“The pots come out having amazing glass on the surface and I haven’t put a glaze on it,” Wright said. “The kiln itself has heated up to 2,250 to 2,300 degrees and takes about 30 hours from start to finish, a very slow 30-ish-hour period.” 

She gradually increases the heat or risks ruining the entire content of the kiln. When the kiln is heated, at that point it’s hot enough to blow salt into the kiln.

“Under that high of heat, it immediately goes from solid to liquid to gas in seconds,” she said. “Like snap, crackle, pop, swirling as gas in the kiln. The sodium chloride bonds with silica, which is the main ingredient of clay, and forms sodium silicate, which is the chemical name for glass.

“The sodium bonds with the surface of the pots and forms glass on the surfaces. The clear glaze caused by the heat and salt being introduced to it, forms an orange peel kind of textured antique glaze. That is the mark of having been salt glazed.”

The glaze may be colorless or may have shades of brown from iron oxide, blue from cobalt oxide or purple from manganese oxide.

“Some might be in the cooler part of the kiln, farther from the firebox. Some may be very glossy with cobalt dripping down; wood ash can cause drips,” she said. “Each one tells a story about where it was in the kiln. No two ever look just alike; they might start out identical and come out totally different. 

“It’s like Christmas every time we open up the kiln,” she said. “We try to help educate customers as to why it’s not an exact science and that’s the beauty of it.”

Wright said, for a while, there were several large salt-glaze potteries around the country that are not in business anymore. Rowe Pottery remains in business and makes several styles of pottery.

“You have to know what you’re doing to do what you’re doing,” Jan Wright said. “It’s difficult and we are happy to have visitors pick our brains. We’re not shy about sharing our process.”

Art classes from Principia usually visit the studio once a year when students do a clay laboratory workshop for a couple of days. 

“We are better known nationally than locally,” Wright said. “We have a small sales area but don’t have walk-in traffic. We are not aggressive marketers but do spontaneous demonstrations.”

The Wrights have traveled to fine craft shows in the Washington, D.C., area of Mount Vernon Square, New England and Shaker villages over the years. They also find a market from Early American Life magazine, which also provides a perfect target market.

“It’s like the Bible to them; people save it and refer back to it,” Jan Wright said. 


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