Woodbridge Artist's Fire Produces Perfect Pottery, Flaws and All

Photo by jeffbeckerphoto.com

 

On first impression, Trevor Youngberg’s house looks like any other in his Woodbridge neighborhood that is somewhere between rural and suburban. There are children’s toys strewn about the yard, a few pieces of lawn furniture and an old barn in the back. The property looks like a thousand other homes in the suburbs around New Haven. But first impressions can be deceiving.

Upon meeting Youngberg, the potter who lives here with his wife and two young children, and getting the tour of his property, the typical suburban veneer begins to rapidly fall away. While the barn has the look of enduring centuries of hard work and labor, it is only a few years old. Youngberg built it himself in 2009. Several of the pieces of lawn furniture look as though they have been cut out of a tree, with atypical shapes and textures. The chairs and table have a rough-hewn, unprocessed charm. Youngberg made them, too. And the children’s toys? They are perhaps lying abandoned because the children have the luxury of a tree house, modeled after a style of medieval Norwegian structures known as stave churches. Was it built by a boutique custom tree house construction contractor? Not exactly. The children’s replica stave church is another work of the mind and hands of Youngberg, a potter, teacher, house builder, metal worker and philosopher. (The last word is this writer’s characterization.)

A tree house made by Trevor Youngberg, modeled after Norwegian stave churches. Photo by Trevor Youngberg


The solar paneled-roof of the barn hides what is perhaps the property’s most distinctive feature: a wood-fired, Japanese-style anagama kiln. (Youngberg built it, too.) While he constructs barns and tree houses, does a little metalwork, it is pottery that really excites Youngberg. His main creative outlet, the pottery — like the barn, lawn furniture and tree house — has an organic and earthy feel, a humble grace. Youngberg’s pieces have the real look of the artisan craft style so often imitated by large chain stores trying to tap into the “authentic” aesthetic. It is easy to find mass-produced items passed off as unique items. Youngberg’s pieces are the real deal. Because of the way he built his kiln, each piece of pottery has different coloration. The mechanics of every firing of the kiln means each piece could not have been made at any other time. Every piece is a product of that specific firing, never to be duplicated. Like the tree house which still has chunks of bark on its support beams, and likely would not pass quality control in a tree house factory, his pottery is characterized by the imperfections that give the pieces vitality and soul. The kiln is an extension of himself, and he occasionally uses the first-person plural “we” when referring to it.

It’s a process that makes perfect sense when talking to Youngberg. Like his kiln and his pottery, Youngberg’s life is the process of experimentation, failure or setback, and ultimately, a non-boastful meditative success. “I’ve always tried to use time to my advantage, in that I just pace it out, and work hard, and take that broad swath,” he says.

In listening to Youngberg describe the barn, kiln and tree house, it’s clear he thinks of physical spaces as venues for creativity and self-exploration. It’s a lesson he tries to impart to his children. He has a 5-year-old daughter, Lynnea, and a 3-year-old son, Soren. The four-sided shape of the tree house comes with four different views that Youngberg attaches to four corresponding values: the view of the house represents family, the barn represents creativity, the woods represent nature, and the neighbors’ house represents the outside world.

Professional potter Trevor Youngberg tosses a piece of wood into his kiln at his Woodbridge home in early July. The event requires a 24-hour watch, stoking the fire and adding wood in 10-minute intervals to maintain the required 2,400 degrees in the large stone kiln. Photo by Catherine Avalone


THE KILN

This means the glaze is unique to this part of Connecticut, Youngberg says. “This is a wonderful place to be doing wood firing because there are so many trees,” he says. “It’s a way to naturally put your local imprint on your work. It’s our combination of ash and glaze from trees in our area.”Trevor Youngberg’s kiln is a Japanese-style anagama kiln, an ancient type originally derived from cutting into a hillside. (Anagama is a Japanese term meaning “cave kiln”). Unlike most kilns, the anagama style has no barriers separating the “firebox” — the burning wood — from the pottery. “It’s designed to be in direct contact with the burning flame. … All the ash flies through, and when it gets hot it gets sticky. The ash sticks and we get so hot that the ash actually melts to form a glass on the surface,” he says.

There is both a high risk and a high reward to putting one’s pottery in this style of kiln. The anagama style is more “violent,” according to Youngberg. “There is so much exposure [to flames], and there is so much potential for damage and loss,” he says. “But also there’s so much potential for amazing stuff.”

The kiln requires roughly six cords of wood per firing. The shape of the kiln is the result of a set of fairly precise calculations about the relationship between various spaces in the kiln. The firebox must have a certain distance from the chimney, which must have a certain distance from the pottery in order for the heat to move through the kiln in the correct way.

Born in northern Minnesota and mostly raised in Connecticut, Youngberg is the son of a United Churches of Christ minister. While he says he mostly tried to chart his own path in terms of religion, he has grown to like the open-mindedness of the UCC. After high school in Woodbridge, Youngberg went back to Minnesota for college, attending Bethel University in St. Paul, where he studied ceramics. Upon graduating he took a job on a small framing crew with friends from college building houses. He eventually moved back to Connecticut to work with a more commercial building crew, and found it less to his liking, more constrained than the experience he had with his college friends. “It was not my cup of tea,” he says. But it was important, he adds, because he learned to build houses, a skill he still uses.

As a young man, Youngberg says he had wanted to move out West, thinking the wild expanses of a place like Colorado would better suit his enterprising, unconstrained spirit. He found the Connecticut suburbs of his childhood and formative years restricting. In suburbia, there was “very little to get excited about,” he says. As we inspected his model stave church tree house, he says that in adulthood he decided, rather than move to Colorado, he would stay.

“I decided I would like, kind of, stand my ground, and make something interesting out of something that wasn’t,” he says. Youngberg has had to rely on being able to try, and fail, and try again. He says it was the moment he learned to accept, “without resentment,” that making a living as a potter — his true love — might not come to fruition. It was right at this moment of acceptance, he says, that he got the opportunity to work as the potter-in-residence at a Fairfield nursery, working on an electric kiln. Youngberg was making large-scale pottery, creating stone troughs and flower boxes.

At the Fairfield nursery, Youngberg had reached what many would consider the ultimate success for someone involved in the creative arts: gainful employment, making his art. He says he was very fortunate to find work as a potter, and where he put in his 10,000 hours and perfected his craft on the kiln. But he wasn’t fulfilled in the role. It felt rote, and repetitive. But where some might feel complacent and chronically dissatisfied, Youngberg pivoted. He began substitute teaching in the early 2000s. The move changed his life, he says.

He teaches pottery still, at Trumbull High School. He has taught at a variety of schools, including middle schools in Stamford and Harding High School in Bridgeport. He describes a moment when he asked a class of students how many of them had seen someone shot. They all raised their hands, he says. He found the moment shocking, but says he made deeper connections to the students at Harding than in other teaching environments. The poverty and hardship children faced in Bridgeport left his students hungry for the experience of mentorship in his pottery classes there, Youngberg says.

The philosophy of trying and failing and creative problem solving Youngberg has developed over his life plays a massive role in his teaching, he says. Just as he stresses to his own children that failure can be its own success, he teaches his students to experiment. He describes a classroom as a respite from the pressures many teenagers face. “One of the biggest things for me is just embracing that error and just taking that as information,” he says of his own learning process.

Community Spirit

The firings of Youngberg’s kiln — the final moment of creation for his work — seem to resemble a party rather than anything like labor. He fires the kiln twice a year, and invites the wider community, along with current and former students, to come to his house for the three-day event. Each firing produces hundreds of pieces of work, which he then sells. Anyone who has helped with gathering the massive amount of wood for the firing, or has helped in any way, is welcome to fire their own work in the kiln. He has one sale a year at his house, where the public is welcome to purchase his work.

His pottery has caught the eye of the interior designers at Eleish Van Breems in Westport, where his work is on display through the fall. The store describes its aesthetic as trying to achieve “natural balance” through design that looks fresh, elegant and simple. For the store’s interior designers, Youngberg’s pottery drew them in because of its creation process. “The markings of the living potter meet the life of the fire, creating an alchemy of a moment that is rendered indelibly into these incredibly beautiful and fascinating vessels,” co-owner and interior designer Edie van Breems says in an email.

Photo by jeffbeckerphoto.com


Youngberg’s life is the product of a long and winding path, of many skills learned. It has allowed him to develop what he calls a “broad palette of form” for his pottery, a description that could just as easily apply to the shape of his life.

“I’ve always wanted the glazed or finished quality of the piece to have depth, variation, integrity, interest to the eye. And so that’s a long path,” he says of his pottery. It is a life that has been shaped by gentle pressure applied in certain areas at certain moments, and a calm acceptance at others — but all the while moving, working, pushing. Just like working the pottery wheel he loves.

Youngberg will preview his work and host a meet-and-greet from 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 4, and he will sell his work from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 5 at his barn at 255 Ansonia Road in Woodbridge. His work is on display throughout the fall at the interior design showcase at Eleish Van Breems in Westport. For more information, and to view pottery, go to trevoryoungberg.com.

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