Pottery artist John Shedd is devoted to what he does. If he weren’t, he would not be able to continue working in a difficult business in an expensive state, with much of his trade occurring at the end of the year, all the while dealing with nature both in and out of the studio.
Shedd — owner of John Shedd Designs — has been located on Main Street in Rocky Hill, near the D&R Canal State Park, since 1979. He has also endured three major — and a bevy of minor — floods and faced a number of setbacks while running his pottery studios.
Take for example August, 2007: that storm caused the D&R Canal to spill over its banks and flood Shedd’s gallery. Then a representative from the state of New Jersey stopped by his facility. “He was upset that my propane tank was upside down. I told him I’d just been through a flood and that the valve was shut off. He said, ‘Well, why would you do that?’ And it was obvious — as we were scooping mud out of the gallery with shovels — I said, ‘Well, I didn’t bring all this mud in here on purpose!’ So he gave me a citation,” says Shedd of his unusual business-as-usual life.
When you go into John Shedd’s gallery, you often have to summon the man himself from the back room — he’s a big, strapping guy — where he’s often busily preparing some new dinnerware for Princeton-area restaurants and other outlets. Though he has help, including two experienced part-timers who work on a project-by-project basis, it is mostly a solo show.
An area presence for more than 35 years, Shedd is a transplant. He was raised in Rockford, Illinois, not far from the Wisconsin border. Once he had caught the pottery bug, he leapfrogged around the country to further his expertise.
Shedd says his devotion to his craft started at school. “Rockford College was a liberal arts school. I had to have some elective credits and one of them was ceramics. It was the second semester of ceramics when I realized this is what I was going to do. While I was strong in science but weak in math, there was enough science involved in ceramics that I knew it was going to keep me happy.”
Shedd’s father, John, was a mechanical engineer with Gilman Engineering and other firms before he decided to farm — his reason was that he wanted to be outdoors and independent. His mother, Josephine, was a housewife and parts runner for the farm. Shedd, the oldest of four siblings, has two younger brothers, both farmers, and a younger sister who is going to retire soon from teaching.
After his pottery instructor at Rockford saw Shedd’s passion and talent, he shared with him his plans to retire and set up a pottery studio in Taos, New Mexico. When asked if he would relocate and help with setting-up, Shedd — armed with his BFA — leaped at the opportunity.
After two years in New Mexico, Shedd moved to Rochester, New York, to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology School for American Craftsmen for three years, where he earned his master’s in fine arts. He heard of a job in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and moved there, managing a pottery studio with five other potters.
“After almost two years in Myrtle Beach I found an option on an old mill in Rocky Hill. Most of the materials we were getting down in Myrtle Beach were from a place in Livingston (New Jersey), and I was shipping a lot of sales up to the Oranges. I thought that New Jersey might be a good place to start my own pottery. We opened this location in 1979 under the name Clayphernalia, and then later changed it to John Shedd Design,” says Shedd.
“We” includes Shedd’s wife, Sloane Browning, a decorative painter who helps him out during busy periods at the studio. “I met her because her father kept coming into the gallery, and he and I got to know each other for about a year. He kept saying to me, ‘You have to meet my daughter.’ Now we joke about it as an arranged marriage,” Shedd says.
The Griggstown couple has a son, Austin, who works in sales for Ralph Lauren in Palm Beach, Florida. “He had no interest in pottery,” says Shedd.
Initially selling wedding gifts as Clayphernalia, Shedd began to take on major corporate clients, including Starwood and Sheraton hotels. After several years he and his wife decided it would be best if he changed the name to John Shedd Designs.
Today the company annually produces about 8,000 ceramic works priced between $15 and several thousand dollars, the latter include mural commissions.
Despite the fickleness of nature, Shedd has found some consistency designing dinner pottery for restaurants in the Princeton area: Mistral, Elements, Tre Piani, 153 in Rocky Hill, and the Marriott in Forrestal Center.
He says that the work is an offshoot of his hotel work: “I would work with them to design tea pots and vessels for their hotels, and their attempt was to make things look handmade, if not actually handmade. It was a tremendous growing experience for me.”
Acknowledging that he is in a tough business, Shedd says, “It was almost a case of ‘this is what I was going to do.’ I had to find some way to make it work. There were times when it’s been pretty rough and other times you find a solution or you fix something for somebody. They’re looking for a certain vessel or they’re looking for the right gift,” he says, and that leads to more business from the same customer.
About his costumers’ wants he says, “It’s those things that bridge the gap between decorative and functional that seem to have the most demand. I sat down once and said, ‘I’m going to let my customers make my design decisions for me: let’s see what I sell the most of.’ If I made a mural, that costs a lot more, but mugs I would sell continuously at $20, and I’d come up with the same dollar amount at the end of the year, so I end up making a lot of different things: I do tile, I make sinks, but on the other hand I make dinnerware and functional ware and things that can go through the dishwasher,” he says.
“I’d say I sell more bowls and serving vessels than I do mugs. December is the busiest time of year, it’s more than a third of my business,” he adds. From mid-November to the end of the year, he is “firing” every day, and it’s a large kiln. Shedd estimates the typical bowl or coffee mug takes about four days to finish, and he has a large enough kiln that he can do multiple bowls and mugs in one firing. Items go into the lower temperature kiln overnight to remove moisture from the clay and then are fired during the day, while he’s on-site, where the temperature in the kiln goes up to 2,280 degrees Fahrenheit. This is called the “firing process.”
“You need 12 hours to make sure you have no water in the clay, to dry it out overnight,” he says. Once the firing process begins during the day, safety features in the kiln will automatically lock out an extra burner so temperatures don’t get too high and ruin the previous day’s work.
Shedd seems to have inherited his father’s desire to work independently and resourcefulness. When things got slow with pottery, he learned other skills, such as how to operate a backhoe, and still earns money doing excavating jobs on the side. He also has his pilot’s license and learned to fly at Manville Airport, but he’s not a commercial pilot. A number of years back when he displayed some of his work at a gallery in East Hampton, New York, he would use his Cessna to fly out there from Robbinsville Airport and deliver the goods that way.
Recently he has been planning for the next flood that his studio faces and says, “I’ve built mezzanines and within about two hours I can get everything that needs to be dry upstairs.”
But that’s later. Right now the kiln needs firing.
John Shedd Design, 200 Washington Street, Rocky Hill. 609-924-6394 or www.johnshedddesigns.net.