Assumption Abbey Pottery
with Brother Llewellyn Kouba
Contributed by Audrey and Darrel Spencer
Spending a day at the Assumption Abbey at Richardton, North Dakota was a very rewarding experience for us. We were privileged to visit with Brother Llewellyn Kouba at his pottery studio. The depth of his talent is as impressive as his background. His artistic well springs from a lifetime of loving nature and the earth. As a child, he was drawn to the swirling golds & greens of the prairies and these themes greatly influenced his artistic achievements in the mediums of watercolor, oil paintings, silk paintings, rug hooking as well as the pottery.
He joined the Benedictine community at the Richardton, North Dakota Assumption Abbey during the summer of 1975, and made his Solemn Profession of Vows in 1981. His monastic responsibilities have included various assignments such as maintenance, custodial work, grounds manager, cook, bookbindery, laundry, hospitality and more recently pottery.
The Pottery Studio at Richardton first opened in 1988 with Brother Basil Atwell as the first director. Brother Basil had been sent to study printshop related courses, but was intrigued by the ceramics class in an adjacent room, so his focus of study was changed to the pottery instruction. He later retired as pottery maker but continues his work in the pastoral field. Brother Llewellyn studied a year with Brother Basil before the studio was temporarily closed for a couple of years.
Through mutual agreement Brother Llewellyn completed an apprenticeship with Sister Denis Frandrup, OSB of St. Joseph, Minnesota and then in 1996 ASSUMPTION ABBEY POTTERY was once again reopened. His transition from the fine art of painting to pottery was a natural one. He was soon vigorously creating both stoneware and porcelain clay bodies, and making a difference in people’s lives through clay. He said “Clay and art is a passion”.
Completed works of pottery are bottom signed with L. Kouba as well as the official Assumption Abbey Pottery stamp. This stamp may be either in black or blue oxide stains. Most pieces are dated, but some are not. Every piece is numbered on the bottom which is also corresponding to his own glaze code (and or specific firing temperatures.)
It may take as long as two months in creating enough pottery wares to fill the 45 cubic foot gas down/draught kiln. A typical firing may mature the glaze melt at a cone 9-10, or around 2,300-2,381 degrees Fahrenheit, and can take 18-20 hours to complete. Each firing also contains a number of test tiles which aids Brother Llewellyn in his continuing study of the various clays/glazes, and how they interact with each other. His notes and observations are an important part of future firings, and in this technological age, are recorded on computer for easy access.
Brother Llewellyn also explained that at crucial times such as loading the kiln, he depends upon another Benedictine Monk for assistance. Brother Louie, who normally divides his time between the car garage, vegetable gardening, and the nearby Abbey Farm, graciously takes time from his busy schedule to help at the pottery studio.
Working with native North Dakota Clays has been especially interesting because of its abundance. A local potter and friend says, “We live in a candy store”, referring to the abundance and availability of local clays. Collecting and processing native clays is work intensive. Because of these factors and the reality that Brother Llewellyn works alone, pottery ware made with North Dakota clay will never be offered in large quantities.
Gas down /draught kiln that
is primarily used for firing
the Assumption Abbey Pottery.
Color Test Tile Comparisons: The top is porcelain
and the bottom is stone ware. Note that the porcelain
glaze is brighter than the bottom stoneware glaze.
This pit fired vase is made with native North Dakota Clay.
By definition, the Assumption Abbey Pottery is a studio pottery rather than a production pottery. As a studio potter, Brother Llewellyn has the latitude of dedicating his time and talent to individual wares that he would never have as a production potter. He said, “I like the larger pieces. They are kind of an extra challenge”. He explained that the unique specialty pieces sometimes contain many different combinations of techniques, and because of this, special glazes have been developed by him. He keeps extensive notes on these glazes as well as archival documentation with photographs.
Assumption Abbey Pottery is sold in the Gift Shoppe. Some of the different items that you may see in the gift shoppe are: oil lamps, chili bowls, vases, plates, bonsai planters with drain trays, cups, hand built bird houses and other utilitarian type pottery wares or artistic creations. His pottery can be found all over the United States, as well as overseas. Brother Llewellyn also does commission work and monastic works for the Abbey, such as the 15 piece Eucharistic set. His creations are in both stone ware and porcelain clays.
Photo showing some of Brother Llewellyn’s finished products in the Abbey Gift Shoppe: Center Row - Plates on top two shelves, Bonsai planter with drain tray, bottom lower right shelf. Gift Shoppe is open by appointment during regular business hours. (1-701-974-3315) Also note the larger view of the plate and plaque with the Iris motif from the middle shelf.
Audrey and I would like to thank the monastic community at the Assumption Abbey for the wonderful hospitality that was extended to us. The lunch was delicious and the conversation gave us a deeper insight into the history of the Abbey.
Brother Llewellyn, Brother Louie, Audrey and I marveled at the wonderful view that extended from the dinning room window. We could see the beautiful North Dakota prairie that at its horizon meets the sky. A special thanks to Brother Llewellyn for giving us a much clearer insight into his world of pottery, where beauty in its many forms can serve to deepen our appreciation and understanding of this practical and creative art form.