Paul Eshelman and clay are high school sweethearts. An early love of the craft led to an Illinois studio, where he makes boldly hued, clean-lined, purposely not-fancy pieces designed for regular use.
Quad of four colorful ceramic mugs and plates
Credit: Austin Day

If Paul Eshelman had been a little bit more into math, he would have been a biologist. Halfway through his degree, he realized pottery was his future. After coast-to-coast schooling, he and his wife, Laurel, moved to Elizabeth, Illinois, population 713, to open a studio and raise a family. Despite his out-of-the-way locale, his understated work is sought out and sold the world over.

You live and work in a farm town. Has that influenced your pottery?

PE: For sure, because it shaped my values. A concept of "art for art's sake" that kind of ignores the audience is pretty universal now. Many artists would subscribe to that. I don't. I see my art and pottery as service to people. When they're drinking a cup of coffee, rather than Styrofoam, they can use a handmade vessel that will enhance the whole experience and bring joy to their life.

How does a piece come together, start to finish?

PE: The original piece is a plaster form that I sculpt. From that form, I make plaster molds. I fill them with liquid clay, which is called casting slip, and let it sit in the mold for maybe 45 minutes. Then I pour out the extra so I'm left with a thin shell. I trim, dry and finish each one before firing, glazing and firing again.

You're not throwing on a wheel?

PE: No, slip casting comes from more industrial roots. I saw a show of work by Eva Zeisel and she was using this process. Russel Wright, too. Even later, I learned about Edith Heath, who started Heath Ceramics.  She made pots during World War II, when we couldn't get any from Europe. I was doing the process and learning about the people doing it—and that shaped my own aesthetic into what was common in the era they were working in, the 1950s and 1960s.

Paul Eshelman Pottery Cropped Birds-Eye View
Credit: Austin Day

Your saturated colors do have a midcentury vibe.

PE: My pots are kind of quiet, but the colors are not quiet. When I was using the brighter colors, I was thinking about childhood toys, like Legos or colored blocks, and that whole nostalgia sensibility—kind of the joyful, happy feeling I got from those up-key colors. All the glazes are my own formulations, and I mix them up from raw ingredients.

So you did become a scientist of sorts after all!

PE: There's science for sure; mine is more of a technical process. In plaster work, the forms look more engineered than a pot that came from a wheel.

Where do you find new inspiration?

PE: My work is straight ahead, one idea feeding the next idea in a single direction. But books are one thing I consciously go to. There's one I just got by Hilla and Bernd Becher. They're Germans who photographed mining equipment and blast furnaces. Those shapes are really dramatic and easy to see. I also have a set of the original Colorforms toys, the geometric shapes that you can play with and stick on a sheet that were done in the 1950s. If I can keep my mind open and not try to make a picture of a pot but just kind of play with them, that's good for sparking ideas. I do know that if you have your eyes open, you see things, and that inevitably influences the work.

paul laurel eshelman pottery couple
Credit: Courtesy of Eshelman Pottery

In a beautiful essay about you, your daughter, Hannah, wrote: "Craft is not romantic; creation is not mysterious." Do you agree?

My daughter has a master 's degree in poetry, and my wife, Laurel, is working on the same degree right now. I'm surrounded by poets! I think Hannah's right, and I think she got that from me, maybe. She worked in the shop, so she knows the humble processes I use. Once in a while I can step outside myself. For instance, if I'm looking at a board of cups that are ready to go into the kiln, lined up like soldiers, I get that sense of mystery and beauty, but the mind and my hands are mostly concerned with unromantic things.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.