Archived Story

Ottertail man making lots and lots of pots

Published 10:33am Tuesday, August 14, 2012 Updated 10:34am Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It’s hard to miss the sign for 102 Pottery Dr. on State Highway 78 in Ottertail. The sign marks the home and workshop of ceramic artist Stuart Tollefson.

Once a high school teacher of French, German and art, Tollefson decided to quit his day job to become a full time artist in 1974. After living in California and Oregon, he moved to Ottertail in 1983. As a child, Tollefson spent many summers on Otter Tail Lake, so the town was always like a second home to him, he said.

Tollefson set up a shop and continued his work as a ceramic artist after moving to Ottertail.

While he occasionally dabbles in more decorative based art, he has always preferred to make functional pottery.

“I like to make things that can be used,” Tollefson said. “Most things that are functional seem to sell the best anyway. Works of art are fun to make, but sometimes they’ll sit in the shop for 20 years.”

For many years, Tollefson made a line of realistic, decorative fish.

“I was looking for something I could interest the men in,” he said. “They were a good item for a while, but I’ve backed off on them lately. I sold a lot of them in the last 25 years.

Tollefson goes through two to three tons of clay each year, and he has made more than 100,000 pots in his lifetime.

“It’s hard to say how much I work,” he said. “Some days it’s eight hours, and some days it’s 18 hours. In order to make it, you have to enjoy it enough to be willing to put in a lot of hours. You have to be up to the challenge.”

While it’s not for everybody, Tollefson likes the idea of working for himself, he said.

“It depends on how you like to live,” he said. “Some people feel more comfortable working for somebody else.”

Tollefson said his favorite part of working with pottery is opening up a kiln to see how things turn out.

“You usually have a pretty good idea of how things should look, but you never know 100 percent until you open the kiln,” he said.

Tollefson is now busy stocking up on inventory for his biggest show of the year, the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul. Around 170,000 people per day attend the fair, and Tollefson hopes to sell two van-loads full of products.

Although he has sold work all over the country, Tollefson only attends five to 10 shows per year now. Styles and trends in what people want are constantly changing, so Tollefson never knows when pottery will be in or out of style .

“In the 80s and 90s I could sell a lot more because country decor was popular, and pottery was more in demand,” he said. “For the last few years it has been tougher to make a living at it because styles have changed and the economy isn’t doing as well. You just have to keep coming up with new things that are desirable and popular that people can use. You’re kind of at the mercy of what the public wants.”

These days, Tollefson makes a lot of egg poachers, French butter dishes, vases, bird baths, berry bowls, mugs, honey pots and bowls of all kinds.

He has found it much easier to sell smaller, functional items especially at places like the state fair.

Success in pottery comes from persistence and creativity, Tollefson said.

“I am always experimenting and coming up with new things,” he said. “It’s necessarily to make a living at it. You always need to come up with new ideas, products, colors and glazes.”

Anyone interested in purchasing some of Tollefson’s work can contact him at or 218-367-2022.


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