By Brandei Clifton
September 27, 2023
Each uniquely beautiful piece of pottery created by Jeff Walker is truly one in a million.
That’s his best guess about how many pots he’s thrown on the wheel since he fell in love with pottery when he was 14.
Now, Silver Dollar City’s Master Potter is on a mission to make sure his love of clay is carried on – a feat that’s become worrisome to Jeff in recent years.
“Potters are almost impossible to find,” he explains. “The only way to pass on the tradition is to bring people up under your wing.”
The process of properly training someone takes years and multiple steps.
“It’s so much more than handing them a piece of clay and throwing it on the wheel,” he says. “I can tell within 20 seconds of trying it whether a person has what it takes.”
Jo Grothoff has what it takes.
A year and a half ago, she reached out to Jeff about joining his team at Hillcreek Pottery at the park. He handed her a one-pound ball of clay and told her to make something right there on the wheel as he watched – an audition of sorts.
“That was pretty nerve-wracking,” she says with a laugh. “I just stayed focused and threw a cylinder because that’s what I was most comfortable with.”
Jeff saw Jo’s potential and agreed to mentor her. She’s currently a “Tyro” which is the first step in a five-step ladder to become a Master Potter.
The steps are: Tyro, Associate, Demonstrating Craftsmen, Senior, and Master.
“It’ll take a few more years to get her to where she needs to be,” Jeff says. “But, she’s going to get there because she’s motivated and driven.”
As you watch Jo put the finishing touches on dozens of small ghosts called “Little Boos,” an untrained eye would see pure pottery perfection. She and Jeff, however, can see minor tweaks to be made, and opportunities for growth on her roadmap to Master.
“Each pot I throw is just practice for the next one,” she smiles. “Even if I get to Master level, there will always be something new to learn and something to practice.”
“Pots” is a general term for any piece a potter makes whether it’s a mug, bowl, vase, pie plate or some other clay creation.
Jo’s “pots” aren’t too shabby for an artist who thought she’d have a career using other mediums.
“I actually was studying painting and drawing in college when I took a pottery class my senior year,” Jo remembers. “I fell in love with it and my entire trajectory changed.”
Getting bit by that “clay bug” is something Jeff also knows all about.
His high school art teacher introduced him to pottery and, by the time he was 19, he had thrown more than a thousand mugs.
“As long as I was throwing pots, I was happy,” he recalls. “Not much has changed all these years later.”
One thing that has changed is how harshly Jeff judges his own work.
“It took me a while to realize that as long as it’s handmade, it’ll never be perfect,” he says. “Each piece is unique and that makes it perfect. I’ve found that customers love those little imperfections. Potters are their own worst critics!”
As Jeff continues to show Jo his arsenal of tips and tricks, he’s already seen so much growth in her game including how swiftly she can throw on the wheel.
“I can make about 24 mugs in an hour,” she beams. “I could only do about 11 when I started. As time goes by, I’m getting so much more comfortable!”
Jeff can definitely crank out an impressive number of beautiful pieces, even when he’s visiting with customers as he throws. He makes thousands of pieces each year and can create up to 32 soup bowls an hour if he really buckles down.
“We throw a lot,” he says. “And, Jo is jumping right in!”
For Harvest Festival, the shop’s biggest sellers are the “Little Boos” and “Big Boos” and Jack-O-Lanterns. Each time the pottery pair thinks they’ve made enough, they’re gone from shelves like a ghost! For the Christmas season, holiday pie plates are usually the big hit.
Hillcreek Pottery currently has 250 items in its catalog. For a Master, there’s always room for more!
“I’m always looking to make something I haven’t made yet,” Jeff smiles. “Craftsmen who are always happy with what they make will never get better. It’s an unspoken rule in this art, you can never truly be satisfied even though you know your customers are.”
“No matter what we make for our customers, it’s such a special feeling knowing we’re making something for them that will last for generations,” Jo says. “How satisfying to turn a ball of mud into something so beautiful.”