A young boy looked across the North Dakota prairie and saw the house that his German-Russian grandparents built out of native gray clay from the prairie. This clay and straw mixture was called adobe. That sight became the inspiration for Rev. Oliver Dewald to create pottery out of North Dakota clay. He has been active as a potter since 1961. He has been working with North Dakota clay for forty seven years.
Pastor Dewald explained to Audrey and I that Pottery making has been around a long time. It is referenced many times in the Bible. Chapter 18 of Jeremiah, Verses 1-6 reads as follows:
"The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to
hear my words. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he
made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.
Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the
clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.”
Pastor Dewald grew up south of Ashley, North Dakota. He is a largely self taught potter except for a two week course taken with a potter in Manitoba, Canada. He attended Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. While interning at Mason City, Iowa, he bought his first kiln. Since then Pastor Dewald has acquired three kilns that he uses. The smallest kiln is used in firing the test tiles. The two larger kilns are used to fire his bowls, vases, and other utilitarian pottery.
Before a bowl or vase is fired in one of the larger kilns, the potter needs to make a test tile. This test tile is made from the same clay mixture as the completed bowl or vase will be. Each of Pastor Dewald’s test tiles measure about 10 centimeters long, 1 inch wide and about 3/16 of an inch thick. An example is tile number 225. Pastor Dewald’s notebook states that this tile contains a special mixture of clay from south of Wilton, some Hettinger bottom clay, 4 dry tablespoons of F. dark clay from north of New Town, some Bentonite clay, and also some clay from Wilton bottom. After this tile is fired it is kept for future reference. His record book also records the temperature that the test tile was fired at.
Other test tiles also show what the glazes look like and again the record book contains the information of what the glaze is made from. A glaze by definition may be a translucent layer that coats pottery with a decorative finish. Even though Pastor Dewald uses some commercial glazes, the most interesting ones are those that he had developed. These glazes make innovative use of clay slip mixtures. Clay slip is referring to a clay that is mixed with water until it becomes somewhat soupy. This mixture is also strained to insure purity. This slip can then be used to decorate the pottery or ceramic bisque. Clay slip may be used that has two colors of clay such as a light color and also a darker color. Pastor Dewald has several beautiful pottery pieces decorated in this technique. Green ware or unfired pottery/ceramic becomes bisque when the piece is fired for the first time. The color of the bisque is determined by the color of the clay. The pottery can then be decorated with either a commercial glaze or one developed by the potter.
He has used North Dakota clay from many locations, including clay from the Underwood Coal Mine, clay from a hill west of Mandan, Bear Den Butte, and also Linton. He has also used native clays from eastern Montana and Minnesota. Not only does he dig his own clay but he also processes it. The clay is kept in separate containers along with meticulously kept records. All the native clay that is dug in North Dakota has impurities and must be carefully prepared over time before it can be used. He uses various sized flour sifting screens in eliminating impurities from the clay.
During the months of April and May, 2008, Pastor Dewald’s pottery was displayed at the Garrison Public Library. Audrey and I visited this display and were very impressed. This display was viewed by many people in the area and well received. The Washburn Leader-News also ran a very interesting article on Thursday June 18, 2008. The article is entitled “Local potter uses N. D. clay to create pieces.” Audrey and I have read this article and we highly recommend reading it.
During the interview process with Rev. Oliver Dewald and his wife Rosalia, it was very evident of their love and appreciation for North Dakota pottery. Oliver stated that “we in North Dakota are standing on a gold mine”. referring to the quality and varied types of clay in North Dakota. Pastor Dewald feels us Americans think mold made pieces are of lesser value than hand thrown. His philosophy is that either type creates a piece of art and should be appreciated as such no matter the process used in creating that piece of art.
Rev. Dewald does the pottery for his enjoyment. The finished pieces are not for sale, and therefore phone calls would not be appreciated.
Audrey and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Dewalds for their wonderful hospitality during the interview process.