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Minnesota potter Matthew Krousey: ‘As artists, not creating right now would be a big mistake’

Like many events that can’t be held in a time of physical distancing, the 28th Annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour has gone online.

Matthew Krousey
Matthew Krousey: "You need to maintain your practice, go through the rhythms and maintain some discipline."
Courtesy of the artist

In an alternate non-pandemic universe, this Mother’s Day weekend would have been the 28th Annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. Over three days, thousands of people would have visited seven artists’ studios dotting the valley from Harris to Shafer, buying thousands of handmade pots. They would have been welcomed by eight host potters and 56 guest potters from as far away as Oregon, North Carolina, New York and the U.K. Bags of carefully wrapped pots would have gone into car trunks, destined for kitchens, shelves and dining-room tables.

Like many events that can’t be held in a time of physical distancing, this year’s tour has gone online. Starting at 10 a.m. Friday, May 8, you can go here, click Online Shops Directory and choose the web shops of the potters whose work you want to see.

It won’t be the same as the in-person tour. No road trip, country views, hot soup, cold beer, milk and cookies, meet-ups with friends and lingering around campfires. No catching up with artists you haven’t seen since the last tour or art fair. But there will be pots. Lots of pots. If more than 50 potters make 100 pots each, that’s 5,000 pots. Most are making more.

Matthew Krousey grew up in Little Falls, where a high school guidance counselor told him that “pottery isn’t an actual occupation.” He went to the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry, then joined the National Guard to afford the tuition. The G.I. Bill gave him the freedom to study art. “I’m probably the only student who left biochemistry for the College of Liberal Arts,” he has said. “It’s usually the other way around.”

Krousey has been a professional studio potter since 2008. During the 2015 and 2016 tours, he was a guest potter at the studio of Robert Briscoe, one of the tour’s original founders. In 2016, Krousey and his wife, Tamino Tsutsui, bought Briscoe’s place. Krousey has been a host potter since 2017.

We spoke by phone on Tuesday morning. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Where were you in your career as a professional potter in early March?

Matthew Krousey: It was onwards and upwards. The income was reliable, I knew what was going on, I knew what shows I would have each year. I was in a place of predictability. I felt I had been working my whole life to get to that point and had finally had a few years of it. And then obviously – like everybody else, I’m not special in this – the rug got pulled out.

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MP: Your work is in several galleries, and you were doing a lot of shows.

MK: Mostly local galleries – the Grand Hand, Northern Clay. I was doing 15 to 20 shows a year. Tamino works every other weekend, and we have a young daughter, so I tended to stay within the Minnesota-Wisconsin area, which turns out to be great if you do art fairs. That’s a full schedule right there.

I was starting to get invited to some of the more prestigious shows, like Pottery on the Hill [in Washington, D.C.] and the Flower City Pottery Invitational [in Rochester, New York]. Last year, three of us veterans who are potters did presentations at the Library of Congress.

So I was movin’ and groovin’. This [pandemic] is a pause button.

A scene from the 2019 St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour.
Photo by Ariana Lindquist
A scene from the 2019 St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour.
MP: What does your year look like now?

MK: Online. Basically, I’m shifting my whole business model to Etsy. Right away, when things started getting canceled, I thought, I’ll try to get ahead of this. I held a cup sale [online] and sold all the cups. That was in the beginning of April. That helped my brain comprehend that taking the tour online is feasible. It’s going to be a lot of shipping, but that’s fine. Once we’re not at stay-at-home orders, I can open up my gallery, which is self-serve.

Artists and craftspeople live such various versions of trying to make a living that having to remake things, and how you do business, isn’t necessarily that far-fetched.

MP: When did the host potters start thinking the tour might not happen this year?

MK: It was late January when we started wondering if [the coronavirus] could affect the tour. But that was more like “Oh, maybe turnout will be a little lower.” By mid-March it was very obvious that the tour wasn’t going to happen in the usual way. Then it became a conversation about “Could we postpone to the fall?”

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Rhonda Couchigian, founder of Rayce PR and Marketing, helps with our marketing. She very wisely said, “Just go online. There’s no reason this couldn’t happen online.” A couple of us, me included, were like “Let’s just postpone.” She pushed for us not to postpone, but to still own that weekend.

Postponement doesn’t help, especially if [the virus] is going to be here for a year or two. Then the tour becomes this vague thing. It loses all its wind. But if we own it on Mother’s Day, everyone’s expecting it, everyone’s planned for it, and whether it’s virtual or physical, it’s still happening at the same time.

Rhonda was also instrumental in convincing all of us that the word “cancel” is a death sentence. She said, “Even if you do another iteration, don’t say ‘cancel.’ Say, ‘We’re moving the event to a different format.’ As soon as people see the word ‘cancel,’ they’re done reading.”

MP: What kind of feedback are you getting from your customers?

MK: Regular customers who have been here are really excited that we’re doing something. What’s even more interesting are the people who have always wanted to come from far-flung places in the country but couldn’t because of the distance. They’re excited they get to participate this year. That was really eye-opening. By only doing the physical event, we haven’t been filling these customers’ needs. Going forward, some version of this [online tour] needs to continue.

MP: This could represent an evolution in the tour.

MK: Oh, yeah. A lot of us are thinking, If everybody’s building this infrastructure, it would be a waste to not carry some version of it forward. When we go back to the [in-person] tour, I’m going to make sure I have a bunch of pots online. Some of us at my fall show started doing this last year. Virtual shopping was 10 percent of sales.

MP: Getting ready to sell online can be a steep learning curve.

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MK: It was for me, too. People look at me like I’m the young one. But I didn’t grow up in a tech-savvy household. I didn’t have a computer until college. My learning curve is still slower than most people my age. I want to be a Luddite, but it’s not an option anymore.

MP: After the tour, what’s next for you?

MK: Endless shipping! We all know this is going to be a pretty intense shipping experience. I’m also going to try to do some themed shows online. Maybe make a whole new body of work. For years, I’ve wanted to make 3-D versions of the animals [on my pots]. I’ve dabbled in that with some grants. Maybe I’ll make more sculptural work and have a mid-summer show with that.

A scene from the 2019 St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour.
Photo by Ariana Lindquist
A scene from the 2019 St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour.
MP: What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?

MK: Mostly the unknown. Not giving into anxiety. I’m kind of an anxious person.

MP: You don’t seem anxious. You seem very confident and organized.

MK: It may appear that way from the outside. I kind of know how to operate in the art world professionally, during normal times. But no one’s done this before in our lifetime.

I can always work. I can always be making work. But I don’t want to be stockpiling three years’ worth of sales in my studio. That would be overbearing. At the same time, I think as artists, not creating right now would be a big mistake. You need to maintain your practice, go through the rhythms and maintain some discipline. I could say, “I don’t have any shows this summer, so I’m going to take three months off.” But getting back into it would be excruciating.

I thought about making just one kiln load of work for the tour. But then I thought – no, I’m going to make the regular amount of work. You have to maintain your veracity.

MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do, once it’s safe to do whatever you want?

MK: See people. See friends and family. Potters are social artists. It’s a very community-driven art form. Whenever you go to an art fair, all the potters are huddled around someone’s booth, talking shop. The first thing I’ll do is see everybody. I’ll have a party.