#MadewithaBailey - Tom Guell
Tell us about yourself and how you got started working in clay.
For some reason, I have always been drawn to the potters’ wheel. I can remember that in high school, I could not wait to get my opportunity to try my hand at the wheel. I think I was in a class of roughly 20 students and we had 3 wheels for the class, so our wheel time was very limited. I didn’t really have a natural gift for wheel throwing, but I remember that I really wanted to be good at it.
In my senior year of high school, I had completed the required amount of credits to graduate, so I had the opportunity to do an independent study where I could use the last hour and a half of my day to pursue further education in a subject of my choosing. It worked out perfectly that there was no clay class in the afternoons so I was able to do an independent study in clay. This gave me the opportunity to have a wheel all to myself for the last hour and a half of my day for an entire semester. By the end of that year, I actually got to a point where I thought I was pretty good at it, but the year came to a close and I didn’t really pursue clay much after that.
Fast forward almost 15 years to 2016. At this point, I am 31 years old. I am married to a great girl, have a beautiful 2-year-old daughter, and a pretty decent job as a union ironworker. I am not rich by any means, but I have enough money at this point that I can make some big impulse purchases (which I’m known to do from time to time). Well, one day I got the itch to get back into pottery because in my head, I was “so good at it when I was in high school”. So, I ordered the cheapest wheel I could find, found a kiln on craigslist, and set up my own little studio in my basement.
After almost 15 years, any muscle memory I had for wheel throwing was gone. I think for the first month I was trying to pull up the walls of my pots on the left-hand side of the wheel (I’m right-handed). But with a lot of persistence and quite a few YouTube videos, I started to make some progress, and now here I am today.
You’ve posted some amazing glaze results on Instagram; can you tell us a little bit about what you are up to?
All of the great glaze effects I have achieved up until this point have come through the trial and error process. I am not much of an artist in the sense of drawing or painting, so I knew that I needed to find a way to let the glaze do the painting for me. Through a little bit of research and a little bit of luck, I have stumbled upon some glaze combinations that do some amazing things on their own. In the future, I hope to take luck out of the equation and really understand what is going on when the glaze melts and cools. I am currently going through an online workshop by Matt Katz @ceramicmaterialsworkshop to help me understand glazes beyond just reading a recipe and hoping it works out.
What inspires you?
I am mainly inspired by progression and just trying to make the best work I can possibly make. I’ve made a lot of mugs, but almost every time I sit down to make one, I think in my head, “I want this to be the coolest looking mug I’ve ever made”. I love the feeling of progression. There is a mug in my cupboard that I remember taking out of the kiln and thinking “Now this thing looks like something a professional potter would make”. Now I look at that mug and think “Look how far you’ve progressed since this mug”. I hope that years from now I can look at the work I make today in the same way.
What do you love about the ceramic process?
There are so many things that I love about the ceramic process. I am a pretty introverted person, so I love the time by myself to clear my head of everything and just focus on what that piece of clay is doing. Just the rotation of the clay and the wheel mesmerizes me. I also love the fact that I will never know everything about being a potter. There are just too many techniques, tools, shapes, firing methods, and glaze variations, that I will always have something to look forward to trying next.
What tool could you not live without?
This is a tough one because I love having every tool and gadget I can possibly have. I guess most pottery tools are pretty simple and could be made from common household items if you were really in a pinch. The two that come to mind that would be hard to replace would be a heat gun and an immersion blender.
I like using a heat gun if I am making a piece that I want to stretch out from the inside. It really helps to stiffen up a piece quickly so that you can try to push the clay to its limits.
A hand held immersion blender really comes in handy when mixing glazes that have hard panned in the bottom of a bucket. I also use it to mix up thickened slip and small batches of plaster. It is great for breaking up chunks and getting a smooth material to work with.
Which Bailey products do you use, and how do they help you get the results you need?
I have a Bailey Pro XL wheel that I love. I really like the design of it. My favorite part is the giant built in splash pan. There is plenty of room to have my throwing water right there in front of me and still hold a ton of trimmings. The built-in drain makes clean up pretty easy too. All you have to do is grab out all of the clay and then hose it out. All of the water runs right down the drain hole.
The first wheel I bought when getting back into pottery was a cheap beginner’s wheel. It served its purpose as a cheap gateway to get me back into pottery, however, I burned through about 3 motors in a year and decided it was time for an upgrade. Another local potter recommended I try a Bailey wheel, and I am glad I did.
My wife has recently gotten into hand building, so we also have a Bailey Mini Might slab roller. She loves it. I don’t do any hand building, but I have put the slab roller to good use making plates on the GR Pottery Forms WA system. I have never really enjoyed making plates, so the slab roller and pottery forms help me push through those custom plate commissions and get back to doing what I enjoy.
In the future, I look forward to investing in a Bailey MSV 12 SS Deairing Mixer/Pugmill. We live in rural Wisconsin, so I am pretty far from a clay supplier. It would be great to be able to reclaim my clay in an efficient manner and also eliminate all of that time spent wedging.
When you are not creating ceramics, what do you enjoy doing?
A lot of my free time is devoted to trying to build my pottery business at this point. With a house payment and a family to support, I haven’t had the guts to ditch the security of my full-time job as a construction worker yet, so my day job takes up quite a bit of my time.
There is a lot that goes into trying to build a sustainable business beyond just making pots. Trying to build and maintain a presence on social media to reach potential customers is a difficult task itself. Then trying to take appealing photographs and list your work for sale is another time-consuming task. On top of that, I have recently been working on building a website.
I still try to make time to do the other things I enjoy though. I love the outdoors, and the state of Wisconsin has a lot to offer with its many lakes and large wooded areas. In winter, when the lakes freeze over, there is almost nowhere I’d rather be than on a sheet of ice, chasing fish.
What are you excited to try next in the studio?
I am looking experimenting more with the raku process. I’ve always enjoyed the amazing surfaces that can be achieved with alternative firing methods. I also look forward to exploring and understanding glazes more. One of these days I really want to push myself more with throwing sectional pots to achieve some larger sizes, but at this point my studio time is somewhat limited, so there is a certain amount of time I have to commit to keeping an inventory of work that sells well, so that I can continue to grow my business.
The next big thing that is really on my plate right now though is renovating my studio which I refer to now as “the dungeon”. My studio space is in the basement of our 100 plus-year-old farmhouse. I am just about to begin a pretty big project to cut down on dust and to improve organization so that I can work more efficiently and in a safer environment.
Thank you so much to everyone at Bailey Pottery for giving me this opportunity. It really means a lot to me and feels like a big step for me.