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.
Story by Dr Jesse Gerlach Ulmer