Julie Dickinson (left) and Janet Hero Dodge began Pioneer Pottery in 1972.
Pioneer Pottery near Roscoe, Montana is so isolated that bears smudge the windowpanes with nose prints. The sound of the East Rosebud River flowing past the red two-story building breaks the silence. Rising up past the forest, the nearby Beartooth Mountains form a barrier against the bustling modern age.
Janet Hero Dodge and Julie Dickinson began Pioneer Pottery in 1972. They each had a Master’s degree in art and had studied under renowned Bauhaus Marguerite Wildenhain at her California studio.
They converted a horse stable built in 1910 into their busy pottery studio. They added windows, finished the interior, and built a staircase to the hayloft, which became the pouring room.
Janet and Julie planned to fire with a propane kiln; in the meantime, they bought a Paragon square K-6H electric kiln, the brand they had seen in graduate school. But they were so satisfied with the Paragon that they never converted to propane firing. Over the years they just bought more Paragons and have been firing them ever since.
“The glazes I developed for the electric firings had the softness and subtlety I had hoped for with propane,” said Janet Hero Dodge. “So I never quite got around to building that gas kiln.”
“A Paragon 8-sided A-88B became our bisque kiln,” she continued. “In 1978 we added a Paragon K-6HS square kiln so we could glaze fire back to back when necessary. This allowed us to move pots steadily through the firing cycle and fill special orders quickly. In 1980 we added a square Paragon K-6A to our kiln collection. All the kilns are still functional. We eventually replaced the A-88B with another one of the same model. But we still use the original A-88B as a converted raku kiln.”
They fire their glazes to a flattened cone 9. At this temperature, their matte glazes soften and absorb iron from the clay. “Some of the glazes are quite bright for electric firing,” said Janet.
“We’ve been real happy with our Paragons,” said Janet. “They’ve held up well and produced good results. Obviously they’ve given pretty long service.”
Have they been reliable? “Quite.”
“You can’t deny that gas firing is exciting,” said Janet Hero Dodge. “But as a production potter who also does my own specialty pieces, I need the reliability of electric. And I like the fast turnover I can have with the electric kilns. Because if I get a special order that I have to get out fast, I don’t have to wait to fill up a big gas kiln.
“Electric is more reliable because you have fewer variables,” said Janet. “You know pretty well what results you are going to get out of the kiln, which is good for your production. You don’t have quite the same mystique of waiting for what is coming out of the gas kiln, because there are more possibilities of variation with gas firing.
“I use a copper barium glaze,” Janet said, “and part of the reason I started doing that is I had less control over it. So I get some of that same ‘I wonder what I’m going to get when I open it’ feeling.”
Pioneer Pottery sends out invitations for their annual open house. Customers view pots and mugs in the sales gallery against a backdrop of rustic wooden walls. Sun streams in from an open garage door, bathing the pottery in natural light. Customers often see a wild turkey or a deer watching from the nearby woods.
In the gallery, customers note the two styles of pottery. “Some of my pots are textured and have the feel of bark or stone,” said Janet. “Some have patterns abstracted from plants, seed pots, water, or mountains. Some show the movement and form of birds or animals.”
Julie Dickinson carves geometric patterns into her pottery. “Since early childhood I have drawn decorative designs using leaf, water, feather, and other natural shapes,” said Julie. “These natural resources continue to serve as my creative inspiration for the decorations on my pots.” She first sketches guidelines onto the leather-hard clay, then traces over the guidelines with an X-Acto knife. She carves the final designs with a homemade metal hook. Julie decorates the ware with colored clay slips, iron oxide wash, and glazes.
“Studying with Marguerite Wildenhain was exhilarating yet exacting,” said Julie. “Marguerite helped me realize that all of one’s self—skills, heart, and spirit—are the source of the life of the pots.”
“We’ve been real happy with our Paragons,” said Janet. “Obviously they’ve given pretty long service.”