Digging in to stand out
TWO HARBORS, Minn. — Somewhere in the Sax Zim Bog between Duluth and Hibbing, a man parks his pickup, grabs a fishing pole, a bucket and a shovel and heads into the woods near the St. Louis River.
It's one of the first few warm days, and the trees and plants have exploded into brilliant greens with the white and yellow blossoms of wild strawberries.
The man walks into the woods with a purpose and it isn't long before he's swallowed by the deluge of green and white. His name is Daniel Paulson.
He is an artist living and working in Two Harbors, making ceramic and glass art in his garage studio. Paulson goes out to dig his own clay from along the banks of the rivers and streams that run through the Sax Zim Bog.
Before he tries to catch a little dinner, Paulson starts digging into the river bank. Before long, he holds up a handful of the clay and barely visible in the brownish gray clump are shiny flecks of iron.
"You see that, that's why they call it the Iron Range," Paulson said. "You get some really cool blues, greens and reds out of that."
With his 5-gallon bucket filled, Paulson heads back toward his truck, but not before stopping for a few minutes to cast out into the river and see if he can get a nibble or two before settling in for the drive back to Two Harbors.
Once or twice a year, Paulson drives to the Sax Zim Bog to dig for clay. Normally, he takes a few days and camps out and enjoys some of the wildlife, particularly birds, that normally find their way into his art. Paulson said on trips out to the bog he's seen numerous owls and heron and those are just some of the animals that have made their way onto the side of mugs, plates and other pieces of art. Owls have become trendy subjects for artists and in popular culture the past few years, but that's OK with Paulson.
"I think it's OK to have trendy symbolism, as long as it means something," he said. "Art should reflect life. If it doesn't reflect life, what are the intentions."
Paulson first started going out to the Sax Zim Bog when he was first living in northern Minnesota after moving from his parents farm near Mankato, Minn. He enjoyed the similarities the bog shared with the cornfields and open prairie of southern Minnesota.
"When I first came here and I was missing the farm, I would go out there because it reminded me of home," he said.
Paulson started as a glass artist, using his torch to make wine goblets and other glass art just after high school. He traveled the country after high school demonstrating his skills at Renaissance fairs and other festivals as far away as North Carolina. After arriving on the North Shore, he started to study business at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Paulson also took a couple of ceramic classes at UWS, and it wasn't long before his focus shifted from business to pottery.
While he was studying ceramics, Paulson received a grant from the school to search for different sources of clay along the lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota. The clay on the North Shore contains a higher percentage of limestone, which tends to make the clay breakdown when being fired in a kiln. Further away from Lake Superior, with the glacial lakes and the sediment left when the glaciers receded during the last Ice Age has a lower limestone content and clay much better suited for ceramics.
Finding good clay or "clay-dar," as Paulson calls it, requires a knowledge of the geological history of the area, but also an understanding of the chemical makeup of the clay and the colors the elements contained in the clay will produce. Red and blue come from iron while black comes from magnesium heavy clay and that connection between art and science is central to what Paulson is trying to accomplish. He has given talks at the Duluth Art Institute about the nature of the relationship between science and art and hopes highlighting this side of his work will help give science-oriented people a better connection to his work.
"I hope it gives people who have more of an appreciation of math and science a better connection to art," he said.
Paulson also hopes his knowledge and habit of harvesting a relatively small amount of clay at a time will help make his pottery business a little more sustainable than if he were buying from a company that uses tractors or other equipment to harvest clay tons at a time. What's more, Paulson still makes glass art in his studio and is working to develop a glaze using the waste glass from his goblets and other products.
With his digging, his passion for the science of ceramics and a growing pottery business, Paulson is carving out a unique place among the numerous artists the North Shore has to offer.
"People ask me 'how much time did that take,' but it's hard to say," he said. "When something is your passion, you don't really clock in or clock out. I feel like when your passion, your hobbies and business all connect, it's a good place to be."