The study of geology could be summarized in many ways, but if one were pressed, a strong candidate might be the notion of change: the process by which one thing develops into another, by which one shape or form changes into a different form. The idea that nothing is fixed or static suggests that all life is, on some level, transformation. One implication of this notion is that it is difficult to predict where a person will end up, where they will go, what they will do. Such is the case of Jim Ulmer, who graduated from NDSU in the spring of 1969 with a Bachelor of Science degree that included a minor in Geology and Geography. Jim would eventually earn a Master’s of Science in Geology from the University of North Dakota, but the seeds of that pursuit were sown as an undergraduate.
While in graduate school, Jim discovered an activity situated at the crossroads of art and geology—pottery. Through this experience, Jim learned the science of ceramics, everything from mixing glazes to recycling clay.
After graduating from UND in 1973, he joined a team of geologists who were charged with developing an environmental impact statement on the subsurface hydrology of coal mining near Beulah, North Dakota. Meanwhile, he had set up a small ceramics studio in the basement of a friend’s house in Mandan, North Dakota, and was teaching pottery courses for the Bismarck Art & Galleries Association. Leading a double life eventually forced the question: passion or profession? Pottery, Jim realized, converted an either/or problem into an and/both solution: pottery allowed him to make use of his scientific knowledge of the earth while also satisfying deeper artistic impulses. And so, in 1976, Jim bought a 35-acre farm near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and established a ceramics studio, Springwood Pottery, marketing Ulmer Stoneware with his wife, Ann Gerlach.
As suggested earlier, pottery blends art and science, geology and sculpture. Jim starts with a ball of clay—the stuff of earth—and forms it into a pot, which is then coated with a glaze made of silica, kaolinite, feldspar, and metal oxides. The pot is fired in a gas reduction kiln to 2300 degrees F, which produces, in essence, a metamorphic rock used for both functional and aesthetic purposes, a product otherwise known as Ulmer Stoneware. For over forty years, Jim has traversed the United States to sell his wares at arts and crafts shows. He has also engaged a variety of other pottery-related activities, like conducting workshops and training aspiring potters.
Change never ceases. He decided to plant a vineyard with a grape called Marquette and makes red wine. Winemaking incorporates the skills and knowledge of Jim’s previous vocations. His knowledge of geology informs the notion of terroir, a modern French word that refers broadly to the geography, geology, and climate of a specific place, but whose Latin root, terre, means “land” or “earth.” Understanding the composition of the earth and soil in tandem with the climate is key to grape growing, lending credence to the common enological maxim that “wine is made in the vineyard.” Pottery and wine have, historically, gone hand in hand. The first “glass” of wine ever drunk was surely no glass at all: it was likely a ceramic vessel. Jim’s pottery is usually classified as “functional,” meaning that it is designed for everyday use, often in the preparation, serving, and consumption of food, which for many is considered the consort of wine. And finally, like pottery itself, winemaking is both art and science, requiring skill, knowledge, and, above all, taste.
And so the paradox proposed at the opening of this story—that change is the only constant—continues to shape the course of Jim’s life. If you happen to stop by to visit Jim in the summer, you’ll probably find him walking in the vineyard, marveling at nature and the process of change, hand in hand with his granddaughter Dakota Lilly.
by Dr. Jesse Gerlach Ulmer September, 2014
15164 330th Ave Frazee MN 56544
4 miles north of Frazee
10 miles from Detroit Lakes
55 miles from Fargo/Moorhead
195 miles from Minneapolis/St Paul
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The Lawrence house if full of this fine Stoneware. And even some shipped to the daughter in CA. Thank you.
Ulmer Stoneware will always have a place on my dinner table! Elegant, tranquil, and of the utmost quality (durability, functionality, multi-functionality,simplicity, & innovative)!!!
I purchased two of your bowls last fall at the Renaissance Festival with the full intent that any new pottery that I get has to be useful and be used. I want to let you know that your bowls have come out of the kitchen cabinet many, many times and held a wide assortment of foods on our table. Every time I pull them out or put them away, I seem to notice how stunningly beautiful they are. Unlike many pieces of pottery that I have purchased over the years, your bowls are earning their keep, gracefully. Thank you.
I just wanted to say hello! We have never met, but Mom and Dad introduced me to your stoneware mugs and it has been a love affair ever since! I currently have 2 Ulmer mugs from my parents, have ordered a pair for dear family friends, and now just purchased a pair of red mugs just a few minutes ago. Mom and Dad bring your mugs on the plane all the way out to California when they come to visit, because they won't drink out of anything else. Since they like the Ulmer red, I purchased a pair of the red mugs from you today so they can leave their precious mugs at home but still have all the enjoyment of sipping from red Ulmer mugs. They arrive next week for spring break. Thanks for the joy you bring our family! Sitting down together for coffee is ceremonial to this family. And we could never do it from cheap ceramic mugs!
I'm really enjoying the mug. It's remarkably light and delicate. The detail work is first rate, from the little thumb button on the handle to the textured base. The glaze is wonderful. It reminds me of a forest scene. The colors are very easy to look at. Something about that shade of green next to the reddish earth tones really sets things off. It's a little masterpiece....anyway, I've been using it for coffee but I think it'll really shine as a receptacle for hot chocolate! In fact, I think I'm going to make some now.
I just want to tell you that the stoneware piece arrived in fine shape and is absolutely perfect. I am thrilled with the final look you created. It will remain on my counter and will also be used, on occasion, as a center piece filled with water and a few floating candles to take advantage of the interesting interior. The simplicity of the piece lends itself well to multiple uses and showcases your glazing technique.
Thanks for being part of our wedding registry. The place settings are absolutely beautiful!" Jennifer, Connecticut
"I received my piece today! Can I tell you ....I LOVE IT! You did such a great, wonderful, perfect job on this!! I absolutely cannot say enough about it! I love doing business with you.
We have several pieces of your artwork throughout our home and I smile whenever I see a piece. Your positive energy is hand-crafted into each piece, whether it's the mug, the platter, the oil decanter, the bowl, etc...and that energy is emitted into our home. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing talent and positive force through your artwork.
Thank you so much for creating such beautiful stoneware. Each and every meal is truly an experience!