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Ramsdell creates unique pottery from home

Cherie Ramsdell, of rural Mitchell, demonstrates how to throw a clay pot recently at her workshop. Ramsdell creates, among other things, custom horse hair pottery. (Candy DenOuden/The Daily Republic)

A soft whir fills the air, punctuated periodically by the sound of water sloshing gently as a hand dips into a bucket.

As a once-formless lump of clay takes shape, Cherie Ramsdell explains this part -- “throwing” is the term -- is one of her favorite steps in the process.

“It’s almost meditative,” she said. “It just kind of centers your soul.”

Graphic designer, artist, professor, wife and mom, Ramsdell jokes that she has “several full-time professions.” Her horse hair pottery creations, though, comprise most of the inventory she has neatly organized in her rural Mitchell workshop.

She discovered horse hair pottery almost by accident, while traveling about 15 years ago. When she asked how the piece was created, no one would tell her. So, she started researching.

“At the time, horse hair wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now,” she said. “There really wasn’t anything out there.”

Undeterred, Ramsdell began experimenting on her own.

“I broke a lot of pots, went through a lot of propane, burned a lot of fingers,” she said with a laugh.

She’s OK with that, though. Ramsdell said she thinks her pottery is unique, at least partly, because she had to develop her own process through trial and error.

Set up in two buildings at her rural Mitchell home, Ramsdell has stations set up for each part of her pottery process. In one building, there’s the table to prepare the clay, there’s the wheel to throw pottery, the sink with a water tank -- there’s no plumbing -- to scrub, the oven to dry the freshly scrubbed pots and the final station to prepare items to be shipped. In another building are the kilns, one of which Ramsdell built herself out of a garbage can.

After a pot has been thrown, Ramsdell carefully transports it to a kiln. During the firing process, she puts the hair -- usually horse, sometimes buffalo -- onto the still-hot surface. As the hair sizzles, it leaves what she described as a carbon pattern. Each piece must be fired separately, making each one unique.

“It’s almost like Christmas every day,” she said.

Ramsdell then transports the piece back to the sink and scrubs off any residue from the hair. After drying the piece in an oven, finally, she coats the dried pot with melted beeswax, which she said seals and finishes the work.

“Obviously you wouldn’t want to eat spaghetti out of here,” she said with a smile, noting the works are meant to be decorative.

A Wagner native, Ramsdell -- her maiden name, which she kept for business purposes -- said she has always been driven to create. She received her bachelor’s degree in graphic design, then later obtained her master’s degree in art education.

Primarily working in raku pottery before discovering horse hair, Ramsdell said the horse hair pottery seemed to better define who she is -- her family has horses, for instance, and her daughter, Torrie Michels, rodeos.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than a well-trained team,” she said, speaking of a horse and rider. “They’re just so graceful.”

She put things like a master’s of fine arts in graphic design and extensive traveling to shows on hold so she can stay closer to home, and her family. Her other family members include her son, Sam Michels, and her husband, Jeff Michels, who she described as her constant.

“He’s the silent backbone to my success,” Ramsdell said.

Always looking for new challenges, Ramsdell is now experimenting with creating new forms to display her pottery. Set up with her own website, dakotabones.com, and an Etsy shop, Ramsdell said she keeps careful track of which items are displayed online, and which have been custom ordered.

“I like the creative aspect more than the business aspect,” she admitted with a smile.

Also a part-time professor of graphic design at Dakota Wesleyan University, and the designer of the Corn Palace murals, Ramsdell said she loves the balance working with pottery gives to the technology-driven graphic design work she does.

“I love the tactile feel, the ability to make something out of nothing,” she said. “I love the computer, but a lot of designers are too limited by the computer.”

“And the fire. I like playing with fire,” she added with a laugh.

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