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MLC art professor uses local clay

Martin Luther College (MLC) Art Professor Lance Hartzell uses clay found in Brown County to create pottery in his studio. He says clay is all around us in most of southern Minnesota, under several feet of fertile topsoil.

May 29, 2011
Story, photos by Fritz Busch , The Journal

Martin Luther College Art Professor Lance Hartzell gets excited when he talks about the availability of local clay for his pottery projects.

"It's incredible. There is clay all over the place around here...Some of the best clay deposits in the country are in the Minnesota River valley, between New Ulm and Springfield, about 3-4 feet under our fertile topsoil," Hartzell said.

He doesn't have to go far to prove his point.

Article Photos

Prof. Lance Hartzell displays clay he gathered on campus recently where the Chapel of the Christ was built.

Several years ago, when the foundation of MLC's Chapel of the Christ was being dug, Hartzell got buckets of clay before it was hauled away.

He keeps the clay wrapped tightly in plastic bags so it doesn't dry out.

The thrill of the hunt for clay intrigues him too.

"It's kind of like an Easter Egg hunt with chemistry, history and mining thrown in...the earth's crust has many kinds of minerals, most of them under the top layer," Hartzell added.

A number of his recent pottery works adorn Hartzell's MLC art studio.

His New Ulm area clay has green color that lightens to a grayish hue before it is heated in a kiln and turns orange.

"It looks like a big cheesecake at first," Hartzell added.

Raw clay can be purified by removing sand and gravel with a hammer, then sifting it through fine screens or it can be placed in water in a five-gallon bucket and stirred so heavier elements sink to the bottom, Hartzell said.

He prefers creating "hand-built" pottery, using the coil method instead of a wheel.

Hartzell said materials like sand, volcanic ash or talc can be added to clay to keep it from breaking during kiln firing.

He grew up in rural Arizona, near Indian Reservations, where he gained an appreciation for Southwestern culture, particularly art.

His artistic travel destinations include Mata Ortiz, a small town at the base of a mountain called El Indio, about 100 miles from the U.S. Mexican border.

Mata Ortiz recently experienced the revival of ancient, hand-built Meso-American pottery, that was traded in Arizona and New Mexico long ago.

Low-temperature Mata Ortiz pots are fired with grass-fed cow manure or split wood and sold internationally again.



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