Hayden Swanson used to sit at art fairs and feel miserable.
The young potter would look on glumly as one person after another picked up his handmade mugs, balked at the price tag and gingerly set them back down. Children weren’t allowed to touch them, lest they break.
What was the point of art if no one could afford to take it home and enjoy it? he thought.
But when Swanson started pricing all his mugs at $20, the mugs started flying off the shelves. Swanson realized that there was no shame in creating pottery that many people could enjoy. Art could be one-of-a-kind and special - but also useful and accessible.
Now Swanson, along with friend and fellow ceramicist Kelsey Dawn Williams, will get the ultimate chance to showcase their functional art. Both have been commissioned by the Jasper Hotel's Rosewild to create much of the dishware (excluding glassware and banquet dishes) for the restaurant, which will serve downtown Fargo as well as the guests of the 125-room boutique hotel in the new RDO Tower.
Locally made dishware is another way in which the Rosewild will reflect the "hyper-local" emphasis of its menu, says Kylee Brisch, director of operations at the Jasper, which is slated to open in June.
"When we come into a community, we really love to support the local artisans," she said. "It's a way to support something that's truly local and truly a unique touchpoint for Fargo."
Brisch says the Rosewild will specialize in comfortable, unpretentious farm-to-table fare from regional farmers, ranchers and vendors.
The dishware will boast simple lines, raw textures and a minimal aesthetic, which should form the ideal backdrop for Executive Chef Austin Covert's locally-sourced ingredients and "rustic Nordic" preparations.
The good news is that the potters' approaches already matched the Rosewild's style. Although Williams only started selling her work fairly recently, she has gained an enthusiastic following for her earthy, substantial pieces. Her mugs, vases and bowls typically rely on a raw clay look, highlighted with white or colored speckles and simple, sturdy silhouettes. In some cases, she will juxtapose the raw-clay look with bands of shiny, desert-inspired glazes in terra cotta, sand and jade.
"Honestly, it's just my own personal aesthetic," Williams says. "If you looked at the clothing I wear and the decorations in my home, it's all wood and plants and natural textures. That minimalism just transferred into my work. A big part of my work is focused on functionality: My handles are comfortable and big enough so you can slide multiple fingers into them, and they hold many ounces of coffee for the coffee lovers who want 16-ounce cups."
Swanson has a more colorful and whimsical approach, but was happy to coordinate with Williams' off-white, speckled mugs, bowls and bud vases by creating 400 sturdy, ridged plates with speckled glazes. He has also been commissioned to design decorative vases as well as dog bowls to be used throughout the canine-friendly hotel.
As an added perk, hotel guests who take a shine to one of their pieces will have the opportunity to buy them, Brisch says.
"I think Kelsey and I both have that in common," Swanson says. "We more so enjoy seeing our work out there and being used vs. producing a very precious sculpture that sits there."
Raw clay, clean lines perfect for Rosewild's style
So how did the Jasper, part of the Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group, find two up-and-coming F-M potters?
That credit goes to Tanner Tweten, director of lifestyle at the Jasper. A native of Fargo-Moorhead, Tweten used his established contacts in the community to find appropriate local artisans. That included connecting with Ashley Morken of downtown's Unglued handmade gift shop to find makers whose work jibed with the hotel's approachable elegance.
Through this network, Tweten zeroed in on Williams, a Davies High School teacher who recently started selling her work through her Rising Dawn Ceramics studio to supplement her income during summers, and Swanson, a Plains Art Museum teaching artist who runs his Livin' The Dream studio out of his Moorhead garage. The two studio potters also sell their work at the Red River Farmers Market in downtown Fargo.
Williams and Swanson "are so good at what they do, and so passionate about it," Tweten says. "Bringing their work into the Jasper is absolutely a thrill."
The potters also had to meet with Rosewild staff to bring samples of their work, assure them they could fill orders for hundreds of pieces and find ways to make the dishware as sturdy as it is attractive. This means extra measures such as firing pieces at 2,300 degrees and clear-coating them to make sure they are dishwasher and microwave-safe. They videochatted with Chef Covert, who had very specific questions about the proportions of the pieces and wanted to make sure they couldn't stain from ingredients like beet juice. The dishes also had to be easily stackable and able to withstand the daily wear and tear of restaurant use.
"I tried to think of any way this plate, in use, could be chipped, and then made sure that was not going to happen," Swanson says.
For both young artists, it's been an exciting opportunity and a big challenge. Swanson figures he has to throw at least 20-30 plates per day to meet the Rosewild's deadline, along with his other commissions.
Williams says she's also working her way through the large order. "I set a schedule for how many pieces to do in a day. It has been very doable, creating 10 pieces a day. Teaching is still my full-time job, so I've been very aware of the possibility of burnout and very intentional about how much I can do in a day. The last thing I want to do is turn this opportunity into a chore."