Dan Bellow maps future in porcelain

Sunday October 30, 2011

GREAT BARRINGTON -- For most of his professional life, Dan Bellow's best assets were his words.

An 18-year veteran of the newspaper business, during which he did everything from cover the crime beat at the Schenectady Gazette to write editorials for The Berkshire Eagle, Bellow lived the life of the ink-stained scribe.

Hovering in the background, though, was the affection for his longtime artistic outlet -- pottery -- he'd harbored since his days lingering in the pottery studio at high school. After nabbing a major order for his porcelain cups and bowls, Bellow is now turning his attention fully to this pursuit.

"Even though I'm a good writer, my true expression is nonverbal, and even non-representational," Bellow said in his backyard studio one recent morning.

Dressed in a clay-smeared flannel shirt, wool cap and blue jeans, he was surrounded by pieces of his work at various stages of completion -- mugs fresh from the potter's wheel and left out to dry, prototypes for a line of butter dishes, a series of shelves stocked with finished coffee mugs, creamers, and various pieces of tableware.

"It feels so right that really there's no point in arguing with it. It's what I do, it's what I am," he said.

Bellow's work stands out in a few ways. He uses porcelain, which offers a clean white surface to take glaze, but is a notoriously temperamental clay. He fires everything in a hand-built, brick-lined kiln in the yard. Based on a 200 year-old schematic and heated by propane, this kiln requires mid-firing adjustments and contributes to the "box of mystery" factor Bellow identifies in the potting process, but yields a distinctive effect compared to a standard electric kiln.

And there's Bellow's particular aesthetic, favoring simple lines often highlighted by decorative ridges that pick up the glaze.

Potter Tom White was Bellow's teacher at Northfield Mount Hermon High School, and later took him on as an apprentice for a summer. Now the two show their work at professional fairs and galleries side by side.

"He's a fine, fine potter," White remarked. "He had a feel for it right from the beginning."

Bellow, who lives on Benton Avenue with his wife, Heather, and children Stella, 12, and Benjamin, 10, built his kiln in 2003 and left The Eagle two years later.

Be creator, not observer

He said the change was motivated by a sense of the newspaper industry's decline, and a desire to be a creator of things rather than an observer.

"I would go interview fascinating people. Everybody is doing what they do -- and you're standing off to the side," he said, miming the act of taking notes. He pivoted into real estate as an alternate source of income -- just in time to experience some initial successes and then run headlong into the collapse of the housing market.

Son of the late novelist Saul Bellow, he made other experiments in career change over the years as well. There was the Colorado detour to become a self-described ski bum, and the sojourn to Seattle to work in public relations for Greenpeace and then Microsoft.

"It's difficult to think what you are going to do for a living when you grow up and your father is a great novelist. Because even though you like to read books, and you like to write, you are not going to be a greater novelist than your father. You can just forget about it," he reflected. "I found what else I do."

Five years after leaving the Eagle, in August 2010, he truly threw his lot in with his fledgling pottery enterprise.

A veteran of the craft-fair circuit, with an online store and work in a loose network of 20 or so galleries, he brought a selection of his wares to New York's International Gift Fair. (Before any other expenses, the booth space alone is a few-thousand dollar investment.)

Ordered 1,600 bowls, mugs

A buyer for the international clothing and housewares retailer Anthropologie liked what she saw, but it was only after the August 2011 fair that Anthropologie ordered 1,600 tea bowls and coffee mugs from Daniel Bellow Porcelain. Before that, the largest order Bellow had received was for about 100 pieces. (He's in touch with the retailer about a possible next job; if it comes through, it'll trigger his first move to producing multiple pieces from a cast, due to the intensity of the work and the potential volume of the order. It would also firmly establish the pottery business as his sole source of income, he said. )

"Everyone' s really proud of him here," said Tim Heffernan of Sheffield Pottery, which supplies Bellow with his English grolleg clay. "It's kind of like an actor who's been doing local theater for 10 years and then all of a sudden gets a gig in ‘Lord of the Rings.' We're all super-psyched for him."

The studio's mascot is a metal pig suspended from the ceiling, a playful reminder of the naysayers who doubted Bellow's ability to be a full-time potter. It's clear that this lifestyle agrees with him.

He seemingly has a facility with words hard-wired into his DNA, but has found he can speak just as eloquently with his hands.

"I get up in the morning," he said, "and I'm out here, joyfully getting it done."


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