Ceramicist founds year-round artisan lab

GOULDSBORO — In 1971, Dan Weaver moved to town as a broke twentysomething with plans to make a living as an artist.

For nearly five decades, the Texan and master of fine arts graduate did just that, hand-crafting pottery and much more at Maine Kiln Works.

Now on the other side of his career, Weaver wants to provide other artists with the vocational opportunities he had — through the Artisan Lab, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which was officially launched this past spring.

“We’re going to be immersive. We’re going to be resident. We’re going to be year-round,” he said. “Those are the things that are going to distinguish us.”

Ceramics are fired at very high temperatures in a kiln in the garage. Weaver has seven kilns in total and built a few of them himself.

The idea is not completely new. Weaver cites the Apprentice Shop in Rockland, which teaches boat building, as a model for the kind of vocational programs he envisions. He is interested in the pedagogical influence of German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn, who encouraged students to follow their own curiosities rather than adhere to step-by-step instructions.

“Basically, we’re going to provide an opportunity and a platform for people to explore,” he said.

Weaver has always identified as a maker. Many of his classmates at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University took teaching jobs, but he wanted to keep creating work of his own. He packed his bags for Maine and embarked on what turned out to be a “46-year apprenticeship.”

A small ceramics shop in rural Maine was never going to attract outside investors, so Weaver used income from his clay work to slowly build West Gouldsboro village’s former general store building on Route 186 into an 8,000 square-foot facility with half a million dollars worth of machinery. His creations are wide-ranging — from porcelain mugs, vases and tableware to artisanal sinks. In addition to ceramics, his skills include welding, woodworking and, in recent decades, digital media. He built several of his kilns himself, and has always preferred to renovate machines rather than buy them new.

Inside the shop, pottery of all shapes and colors is on display. Weaver explains that the particular shades come out differently depending on whether he uses a propane or electric kiln. For certain designs, he uses a special photographic technique to monitor the sizes of melting crystals in the kiln so he can remove each piece at the correct moment.

While Weaver’s daughter, Joanna, and his late wife Liz have been involved with the studio, and he has hosted a few apprentices over the years, it has been primarily his workspace, and his alone. However, the space and technology could support several artists.

“We have so much unused capacity here,” he said. “If I don’t do something with this, it’ll all be pissed away at a yard sale.”

The solution, which floated in Weaver’s head for several years but is now beginning to come into fruition, is an educational nonprofit focused on vocational arts. He envisions offering both long-term residency programs as well as shorter makeshops at the Artisan Lab.

Weaver knows that vocational art programs are often regarded as impractical. “Why teach somebody to throw on a wheel when you can’t build a life around it?” he ponders. Materials are expensive, and hand-thrown mugs can’t compete in terms of price with those that are mass-produced.

While Weaver has managed to make a living for nearly five decades, he feels that the same opportunity is not available to younger artists.

“It would be virtually impossible for me to do now what I did in 1971 because the costs these days are astronomical,” he said.

The increased costs of making art are precisely why Weaver hopes a nonprofit could give other artists a leg up. In his mind, he imagines an artisan partner — one person, or maybe several — who make art in the studio full-time. For that, he hopes to “recruit someone that is like me 20 years ago.”

In addition to permanent occupants, he would like to see other residents, perhaps recent MFA graduates, spend a few months or a year at the Artisan Lab.

Weaver has found success making hand-crafted artisan sinks. He uses a ram press as well as traditional throwing techniques to mold the clay. He can make sinks in custom sizes and colors, and all are compatible with regular-size bath drain fixtures.

Weaver doesn’t care so much about an artist’s background. He is happy to accept passionate high school students or interested retirees and — if it were not for visa issues — would take artists from any country. What matters to him is the level of devotion.

“If they’re not seriously interested, we probably can’t help them,” he said.

Beyond residencies, Weaver also imagines shorter-term workshops, as well as collaboration with institutions of higher learning, such as College of the Atlantic. Eventually, his own role in the studio will fade away.

“Long term, I see it independent of me,” he said.

To start the process, he formally incorporated Artisan Labs as a nonprofit earlier this year. The organization has a board of directors, and Weaver has been meeting with the Gouldsboro Planning Board to obtain the appropriate local permitting.

Genio Bertin, who co-owns the Mandala Farm in Gouldsboro, is one the new nonprofit’s directors. He has known Weaver for over a decade, and helped him expand the size of the Maine Kiln Works studio in 2003.

“Watching what he does there, and being a builder and maker myself, I was always intrigued by his skill and focus,” Bertin said about the artist.

Weaver, who has little experience with fundraising, says that finding the money to support the project is the next big step.

“It’s quite clear that this will not happen without major funding,” he said.

Once the program is up and running, Weaver says the optimal annual fundraiser would be about $185,000. Prior to that, he hopes to renovate the Maine Kiln Works studio. The building is structurally sound as is, but he wants to improve its accessibility. Among other changes, he envisions installing residential space in the basement, which would allow visitors to stay overnight.

After nearly 50 years of having the business on his own, he is ready to bring in more artists.

“Now, I’m in a position to share and benefit other people,” he said.

For more info, contact Dan Weaver at 963-5819 and visit www.mainekilnworks.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.