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Danny Meisinger has spent his entire life in Kansas. He's seen his hometown of Gardner grow from a small town with 1200 residents to a bedroom community 10 times that size.
For potter Danny Meisinger, creating functional and non-functional ware is just one part of the person he strives to be.
Danny Meisinger has spent his entire life in Kansas. He's seen his hometown of Gardner grow from a small town with 1200 residents to a bedroom community 10 times that size. He's seen one family business crumble only to be replaced by another. And, as if by accident, he's seen what one man is capable of making with his own two hands.
Since 1989, Meisinger has thrown clay professionally from a converted barn workspace on his property called, appropriately enough, Spinning Earth Pottery. His pieces range from traditional flatware to oversized-yet-functional ewers and vases, many of which are featured at The Dolphin Song, a fine crafts gallery/general store in Gardner co-owned by Meisinger, his mother and two of his sisters. While recognition was hard to come by at first, Meisinger's work has garnered numerous accolades over the past few years at the art fairs he regularly attends across the country. Best of Category and Best of Show awards-it's enough to make a guy think he can make a living in the pottery game.
But Meisinger has a unique way of keeping everything in perspective. "If someone asks me what I do for a living," he says, "I reply that I'm a potter, but I'm really much more than that. Ultimately, all that I am influences my work. My family is the most important thing to me, and making pottery is a very satisfying way to provide for them, but I never want to become so consumed by my work that I can't hold it in a healthy context."
Taking ChancesIt wasn't always Meisinger's plan to become a potter. He grew up in the family horse business, a profession they begrudgingly abandoned in the mid-'80s after becoming disillusioned with business practices in the horse sales market.
Meisinger was 20 years old at the time. "I was lost," he says. "I didn't know what to do." As sometimes happens, though, a seemingly random event just a few years earlier would prove fateful in Meisinger's time of crisis.
Meisinger was a junior in high school when a scheduling foul-up left him with a choice between two electives, advanced biology or ceramics. Having had enough of biology, Meisinger chose ceramics. Within a week, he was throwing like a pro. "My instructor told me to just go," Meisinger says. "He thought I could really take my craft somewhere."
Meisinger resumed his ceramic studies at Johnson County Community College in 1987 and then transferred to the University of Kansas.
At the end of his second year of college, however, Meisinger found himself at another crossroads. In addition to feeling that his educational needs weren't being met with the courses he was taking, Meisinger's wife was pregnant with their first child. It was time to get down to the business of living life.
In the summer of 1989, Danny Meisinger, a man who, by his own admission, had never been to an art fair and had no concept of what it meant to be in business for himself, built a gas-fired downdraft kiln in the same barn where he once trained horses and started making pots.
"My dad probably thought I was crazy," Meisinger says today of his unlikely career choice, "but he's always supported me."
The Dolphin SongAround the time of Meisinger's professional debut as a potter, his mother had an idea. The family, once so closely associated with the horse trade, would purchase a former bank in downtown Gardner and launch another business, a fine crafts gallery/general store with an environmental bent. Needing a place to display his work, Meisinger was in, as was his wife, two sisters and father. The family purchased the building that would eventually house The Dolphin Song in February of 1990, but opening the store would prove to be an exercise in patience.
"The building had never changed hands since being built in 1907," says Meisinger, "so when we bought it, every grandfather clause was gone. This meant completely new plumbing, new electrical. We wound up gutting the place until it was nothing but ceiling and bricks."
The Meisingers went to similar extremes when it came time to remodel the property. "We figured we needed to put our money where our mouths were and try to create something really beautiful-not in an overblown way, but by paying really close attention to certain details."
Details like catenary arches separating rooms, and walls painted in the lazure style wherein layers of color washes on a white base reflect light through a glowing effect that resembles a sunset. Altogether, Meisinger's sister, Lisa, painted the ceiling of the main gallery 14 times to get all of the blends from the store's different rooms to come together.
The Dolphin Song celebrated its grand opening on Earth Day in 1993. As planned, Meisinger's Spinning Earth Pottery was prominently showcased, but it would be several more years before the national ceramic market took notice.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race"I failed miserably in business for a long time," Meisinger says of his first years as a potter. "I had to teach myself to be disciplined."
Today, Meisinger's particular brand of self-discipline means eight to 10 hours in the studio per day. He usually has a handful of pieces going at any given time, and it's not uncommon for Meisinger's three spinning wheels to whirl day and night for months on end.
While some of the 6000 to 7000 lbs of clay that Meisinger throws per year becomes traditional functional ware-butter dishes, bowls, pitchers-his favorite pieces are inspired by the work of the ancient Greeks. Meisinger's ewers are a good example of what he calls the Mediterranean style: simple vase forms made more elegant through the use of tall, long lines.
Meisinger has spent considerable time of late experimenting with size as it relates to functionality-which is to say he's been making some pretty big stuff. Some recent sangria bowls, for instance, measured 40 in. across, weighed 100 lbs. and were valued at up to $6500. Though Meisinger acknowledges the logistical issues associated with owning pieces of this size, he makes no apologies for his work. "I make traditional, functional forms," he says, "they're just really big. Does that make them non-functional? I don't know."
As it happens, the form-vs.-function dilemma as it concerns Meisinger's work may be of little import. In 2003, Meisinger was awarded Best of Show at the Hidden Glen Arts Festival in Olathe, Kansas, and in 2004 he received the American Century Award at Kansas City's Plaza Art Fair.
For his part, Meisinger has no trouble keeping a level head. "Everything in my career has happened very slowly,"
he says. "There's been no big jump; I've just matured in the past four or five years."
The Hometown PotterDanny Meisinger enjoys being a hometown potter, despite the fact that Gardner is quickly losing its small-town status (its population has doubled in the last four years and will likely double again in the next two) and the knowledge that the handmade crafts industry saw its most recent heyday in the 1990s.
"Life is cyclical," Meisinger says of the challenges facing artists in our capitalist society. "You have an abundance, things go over the top, and then there's an adjustment. Right now, we're at a clearing-out stage."
Mother Nature hasn't helped matters much, either. According to Meisinger, the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could be felt in the pottery industry, where sales abruptly dried up.
"People go to art fairs and galleries to buy artwork because it's what they love," he explains, "but they only do it with discretionary income. During times when people are more conscious of their money-'Why should I be buying this $400 whatever? I should be sending this money to the Red Cross'-we're the first to go. And we're also the last to come back."
Fortunately, Meisinger has plenty of charitable work to occupy his time-and his mind-until the next great pottery boom. He currently serves on the board of the Waldorf Association of Greater Kansas City, a not-for-profit organization that promotes education through practical experience, and he teaches main lessons and specialty classes at the Waldorf-inspired Lake Farm School in Gardner. Meisinger has also spent the past several years working as an instructor for Accessible Arts, Inc., another not-for-profit group dedicated to making the arts accessible to everyone, even those with special needs.
In juggling his professional and philanthropic roles, Danny Meisinger seems to have found a balance that suits his personal philosophy just fine. "My work as a potter, though extremely enjoyable, is not the totality of who I am," he says. "I am first an individual striving to become more deeply human."
Editor's note: All photos in this article are by Al Surratt.
FAST FACTS: Danny Meisinger
Clay of Choice: 50% Laguna Clay, 50% his own recipe (both porcelain and stoneware).
Kiln: Homemade propane-fired downdraft.
Potter's Wheels: Meisinger has three, but he prefers throwing on a Brent wheel, the first he ever bought.
Glazes: Meisinger mixes all of his glazes himself. Some are recipes from other potters (mixed straight or slightly altered), and some are recipes of his own design.
Employees: While Meisinger does not have anyone on payroll, he has had a student apprentice for the past year and a half. Their arrangement is strict trade: Meisinger gets help when he needs it and his apprentice gets to fire as much clay as he wants.
Other Tools: Meisinger uses air conditioning as a tool. If he needs pieces to dry quickly, he turns the air up. If pieces need to stay wet, the air goes off.
Workshops: Meisinger holds a number of workshops throughout the year to demonstrate his techniques. A workshop schedule and registration information can be found online at: www.thedolphinsong.com/shows.html.