The Saint John’s Pottery in Minnesota

On the campus of Saint John’s University, The Saint John’s Pottery combines locally sourced materials with Pacific Rim pottery processes to create works of art that are rooted in Benedictine values.

Master potter Richard Bresnahan founded The Saint John’s Pottery in 1979. (photo by Bob Sessions)

On my visit to see The Saint John’s Bible, I also toured The Saint John’s Pottery, which provided another example of how a commitment to nurturing spirituality and the arts permeates Saint John’s Abbey and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The studio was founded in 1979 by master potter Richard Bresnahan, who has led the pottery as both director and artist-in-residence for more than forty years. A graduate of Saint John’s, he’d returned to campus after training that included a multi-year apprenticeship in Japan. “I proposed to the president of Saint John’s that the school start a pottery studio, and that I wanted to bring in enough clay from a site I’d found nearby to keep it going for three hundred years,” he said. “And because it’s Saint John’s, he actually said yes.”

Richard Bresnahan pours Japanese-style tea in The Saint John’s Pottery. (photo by Bob Sessions)

As Richard and I sipped cups of Japanese-style tea made over the studio’s open hearth, he described how the studio expresses Benedictine ideals, from the dignity of labor and the importance of environmentally responsible practices and materials to the recognition that God is present in seemingly ordinary things. Another part of its mission is an apprenticeship program that believes shaping souls and character is just as important as learning the fundamentals of pottery.

One of the remarkable parts of the pottery is the Johanna Kiln, the largest wood-fired kiln of its kind in North America. Based on a traditional Japanese noborigama, the multi-chambered climbing kiln is made primarily of recycled materials. Seven feet in height and 87 feet long, it’s named in honor of Richard Bresnahan’s mentor, Johanna Becker, OSB. Becker was an art historian and potter who was the first female professor at Saint John’s University in 1954 and Bresnahan’s teacher from 1972-75.

Firing the kiln is a community-wide effort that takes nine weeks of loading, ten days of firing, two weeks of cooling, and a week for unloading. A key part of the process is the use of locally sourced wild rice hulls that are packed around the pottery pieces. The hulls protect the clay objects from fusing together and create unique markings on the finished pieces. More than 50 people work in shifts during the firing, which uses deadfall wood from Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum.

Beautiful works of art line the shelves at The Saint John’s Pottery. (photo by Bob Sessions)

I learned that the afternoon tea I was enjoying is a part of the mission of the pottery. Richard explained to me that welcoming guests is important in both Japanese culture and Benedictine tradition. In the words of Saint Benedict, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself would say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Tea is offered at 3 pm six days a week (the pottery is closed on Sundays). On your visit, be sure to browse the shelves to see a wonderful selection of pieces for sale that were made at Saint John’s. You can also purchase pieces online at The Saint John’s Pottery. With advance arrangements, you can enjoy an educational tour of the facility.

Numerous books and documentaries have been made about the pottery, including:

The Saint John’s Pottery is located on the western edge of the Saint John’s University campus, on the lower level of Saint Joseph Hall.

 

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