A master of creativity

Story and photos by Bobbie Curd

I knocked on Paul Muth’s kitchen door, in a neighborhood off Hustonville Road, and there was no answer. After following punk music coming from behind, just passed the piles of burnt wood and other materials, I located him inside his shop, wearing a blue apron splashed with clay.

Inside, Sugar Grove Pottery & Ecletica is filled with raw pieces, just thrown and drying, some pieces just removed from the kiln with their matte, bisque coating; others dry after glazing, so shiny they reflect light. There’s platters, casserole dishes, soup mugs, bowls, vases, miniature figurines …

Paul picks up a specific piece and explains how it’s stoneware clay, mixed in Lexington.

“People get real concerned about how much water their pieces will absorb after it’s been fired. This has been through a torture test; it will only absorb 1 percent of water,” he says. The torture test means the clay producer actively boiled a piece for five hours, then sat it in water for 24 more. It’s weighed after that, showing the liquid absorption.

“If you put something with a really high absorption rate in the freezer, the water expands and it could break. Don’t want that with cookware,” Paul says. “You don’t put Grandma’s fine porcelain in the oven or microwave. But this — you can.” His glazes fit really well with practical uses — and they don’t wear off.

Paul is well-known locally for his pieces, but he doesn’t always sign them. “That scraping at the bottom is kind of my signature. I do sign things if people want,” he says. And he may stamp some with his name, but not all.

“I don’t really have a good answer why. Some very well-known potters, people I’d give my eyeteeth to have pieces of their pottery, actively quit signing due to the secondary market.”

He brings up a famous potter out of Minnesota, Warren Mackenzie, and says he’s one of the true American masters. “He thinks pieces should be between $25-$30, but people will buy them and sell them for $300. It gets so out of whack. But I don’t have the luxury of people coming after my stuff” — that he knows of, anyway.

Paul agreed to meet during a chaotic time: Christmas rush. He had orders to fill, lots of them. There were sauce sets and appetizer platters to be done for a restaurant, custom-made Civil-War inspired mugs.

Paul also does logo work.

“People find me on Facebook, with Sugar Grove. I normally only use it for my pottery. Or pictures of my cat. I’ve never really used social media as a personal platform.”

Lately, he’s been experimenting with an ash glaze. “That’s what all the stuff is in my yard — burning things down to ash, processing it.” He picks up a piece, showing the differentiation of color from the other browns; it’s lighter, with almost an iridescent look to it, almost a sparkle. He takes the top off of a bucket, picks up a handful of what looks like sand and lets it flow through his fingers.

“What’s really neat is — this is where I geek out — this one is from my dad’s fireplace at the farm, it’s hickory hardwood mixed, so it’s different,” he says, about the family farm in western Kentucky he will eventually be the fifth generation to take over.  

“Basically, any hardwood makes a different brown color. Burn it down, filter it and put it in glaze.”

This bucket of ash, he says, came from a pear tree he cut down in his yard. You can still smell the smokey wood in the piece before it’s fired.

The shelves of wet pieces cannot be touched; and the partially dried ones are still fragile. Then, when they’re bone dry, he says, they’re also fragile, so you can’t store them away.

“So, for durability and storage, you go ahead and bisque them,” he says, referring to the matte, salmon-colored appearance after they’ve been through their first round in the kiln. They’re then “cleaned up a bit,” dipped into his mixed glazes and fired again. That’s where they get that shiny, glassy appearance.

The kiln in his shop is super small compared to the one they’re building on his family’s farm — he says he would be able to get inside of that one.

“In western Kentucky, we found clay deposits on the farm — about four of them. It’ll change my work a little bit. When all the plans are eventually done, I’ll have wood kiln. The deposits are within a few hundred feet of where I’ll be firing, so we’re going to go more local.”

Paul says potters have been practicing sustainable living in their careers before it was cool.

No one else in his family was into pottery, but his dad is very artistic — he calls him a cartoonist, able to draw anything. “He’s a huge, huge supporter of mine. He was one of those people who drew cartoons on a placemat, and the servers would ask if they could keep it. He’s retired military, never really got the chance to do it as a career, so he always encouraged me.” Paul’s dad has been instrumental in building the big barn where he’ll have a studio, and will help with the kiln as well.

Paul graduated Centre College with a degree in studio art. He did musicals and plays in high school and sang in choir. In college, he thought about being an art/theater double major, but didn’t feel like theater was home for him.

“I really didn’t pick up throwing until college,” he says. He did a few apprenticeships after, but didn’t throw full-time for about 15 years. When his job was phased out where he used to work, he created Sugar Grove. “It was a good excuse to get back into it.”

Aside from the creativity it takes, Paul says everything with pottery is a challenge. “You have to build so much of the equipment, the glazes, the molds … You can buy them premade, which I buy some, but even yet — there’s a pretty high learning curve to doing this.”

Prices of his pieces vary. Some mugs and bowls can be around $15-$18, some platters $30, some pitchers $60. Paul says the prices depend on how much work goes into it.

An intricately carved rabbit sits to the side, so much expression on his face, his ears flat against his turned-up head. The piece is called “Want,” and Paul says he’s stretching up to smell something, or “some have said he wants to be petted …” A few are already calling dibs after he posted it online, and he’s not sure what to price — it took around seven hours to create.

“I like to carve like that, but don’t often get the chance to. Pieces like that have several, several hours in them … You never really get your time back in the price.”

Paul makes various miniature figurines out of leftover clay.

But that hasn’t stopped him.

“It’s just challenging — never boring. There’s more and more interesting ways to break stuff every day, and I will never know the half of it.” He recently got a new piece of equipment: a press he uses to make things like tiles for house numbers.

This time of year, he will have lots of inventory left over. He usually offers an after-Christmas “so I can eat” sale, he jokes.

Paul is no longer the only potter in his family. His son, Joseph, just graduated from Berea College, also with a degree in studio art. He’s already secured his first job with a potter.

Paul’s face lights up when he talks about it.

“He’s really into it, and is doing it the right way. He got the job all on his own. Maybe some day, he’ll come work in the shop on the farm with me.”