By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BOZEMAN – When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Ryan Mitchell would say a hobo or moonshiner. Although it would be years before pottery entered the picture, his attraction to that outlaw lifestyle would prove to run deeper than a young boy’s romanticized notions of the Prohibition-era South.
While studying biology at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, Mitchell took a ceramics class “to keep his sanity,” and immediately fell in love with the medium—in fact, it came over him like “gangbusters.”
Some of the first pieces he made were whiskey jugs and flasks—rounded, cork-topped vessels, the pocket variety outfitted with a leather carrying pouch.
“I’ve always been drawn to moonshine culture and making what you need for yourself within that culture,” Mitchell said while squirting terracotta-colored glaze over the bottom half of bone-white porcelain pots and mugs in a loose, mountain ridgeline pattern. “The moonshiners and potters would be in business together; you couldn’t go into a store and buy a million jars, so you’d go to the local potter and have him make them for you.”
Mitchell also draws parallels between his affinity for farming and working with clay.
“You’re working with dirt basically, and shaping it into something else,” Mitchell said. “If you find a clay deposit, you can shape it, heat it and you’ve got a cup.”
Although Mitchell does not dig his own clay—he gets it from the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena—he is somewhat of a minimalist, and the functionality of objects is important to him on a number of levels.
“I’m always trying to declutter, so if I’m going to buy something, I want it to be utilitarian,” said Mitchell. “There’s something so amazing about being able to create vessels that serve so many purposes, that can have so much beauty to them but still be used.”
Back in his Bozeman studio after touring the craft fair circuit for most of the summer, Mitchell is busy replenishing his inventory. During an Oct. 4 interview, Mitchell explained that the pieces he’s glazing—what he calls the “least sexy” step of pottery-making—have already undergone an initial firing in an electric kiln he’s affectionately dubbed “Betsy.”
Once he finishes glazing, the pieces will undergo a second firing and hopefully emerge from the 2,200-degree heat 15 hours later as the newest additions to his mountain line, one of his most popular designs. They come in a variety of forms and color combinations, each one-of-a kind but cohesive as part of a set.
Mitchell also makes pieces that have a more contemporary, playful aesthetic with an illustrative style reminiscent of Dr. Seuss—pale greens and blues with simple sketches of clouds, flowers, creatures and critters.
Both of these veins of work, as well as pieces that don’t fit neatly into either, line the shelving in his studio-storefront with a plethora of practical household items: serving bowls, jars, butter dishes, candlestick holders, cake stands, soap dishes and dispensers, tea pots and sets, and cups and mugs in every variation of size and style one might want.
For Mitchell, handmade items with functionality enhance every day rituals, and a surprisingly intimate relationship can develop between object and user.
“In most cases you’re not going to put your mouth on a painting, but someone is going to put their mouth on that cup every day,” Mitchell said. “That is so intimate. It should be beautiful. You can go to Walmart and [buy a mug] and it will be really cheap but it’s not going to make you feel good; it’s not going to feel special.”
It’s difficult to imagine any of Mitchell’s work at Walmart. One can see, and feel, his hands in each piece, refined just to the point that his skillfulness shines, without compromising the handmade quality so inherent to its value.
Mitchell also does a fair amount of custom work for individuals—including newlyweds looking for dinnerware more meaningful than store-bought china—and businesses, including Zocalo Coffee House, The Daily Coffee Bar, Townshend’s Tea Company, and the Rendezvous food truck. He also sells his work in both Bozeman Ace Hardware stores, and currently has a window display at the downtown location.
Whether working with businesses or individuals, he enjoys the collaborative process. “It gives them ownership of it, and keeps me pushing and experimenting in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
But in terms of Mitchell’s ambitions, they are as humbly, fundamentally salt of the earth, as his medium of choice.
“If I can make pretty things that people enjoy using on a daily basis, that makes me feel so good,” Mitchell said. “To me, that’s success.”
Gangbusters Pottery is located at 724 N. Wallace, Suite 3, in Bozeman. Visit gangbusterspottery.com for more information.