John Mills
Master Potter

by Rachel Perry

John and Beth Mills and their Brown County Pottery have returned to the same building and business on Franklin Street after seven years away from their Nashville location.

In the yard, rough wooden slabs display various bowls and luminaries while creating a down-to-earth, inviting entrance. The sign on the shop door states, “Shoes and Shirts NOT Required.”

This straightforward approach to the business of making and selling pottery seems consistent with the character and philosophy of the shop’s proprietors. “What this is, is mud and work,” John Mills declares. “You can add florid names but that’s the rock bottom reality.”

Watching Mr. Mills use the potters’ wheel, however, can easily mislead spectators to assume that shaping clay is effortless. “It’s a little like a violinist playing his instrument,” he explains. “The repetition that I go through to make the same form tens of thousands of times is a little bit like him practicing his music until he knows it by heart…At that point, your mind and your hands disengage with each other. Your hands do what they do automatically. They do it unerringly, unfettered by your mind’s control. And your mind observes, encourages and then applauds what’s going on. And these two things are interlinked by this autopilot connection that you’ve learned by doing so terribly many of them. When it reaches that point, things come out so much better then they ever could by carefully directed effort.”

“I’m trying to make unembellished ‘simple pots’ where the form and the material are the aesthetic elements,” he continued. “And without applied decoration as an afterthought. The aesthetic elements of the pottery grow out of either the forming process or the materials and the shapes.”

The entire process of creating these ‘simple pots’ involves several steps. “Throwing pots is one tenth of what I do,” John Mills admits. The dry clay powder is personally purchased and transported by the Mills from outlets in Missouri and Ohio. The powder is mixed with former scraps and wash water, then dumped into an auger machine that thoroughly integrates the dry and wet ingredients. Mr. Mills can tell by feeling the mixture when it is ready for use. After he throws the pots, they are allowed to dry for about half a day before finish work is added (for example, Beth cuts slits into the luminaries, and John evens, signs and dates the bases).

When the pots are fully dry, they go into the kiln and are fired to 1600 degrees. This prepares them for glazing. “If you didn’t do this, the water in the glaze mixture, as it soaked into the clay, would cause the clay to swell unevenly and make it crack,” Mr. Mills explained. The pots are then coated in different glazes and returned to the kiln for heating to 2300 degrees. Final touches are added after they cool.

The glazing process is also labor intensive. Mixing and applying the glaze concoctions involves trial and error, since the final appearance is seen only after the last kiln heating. “You never know about glazes,” Mr. Mills said. “Each trial is different.” The colors currently being offered by the Brown County Pottery are a matt off-white, matt blue, gloss brown and satin earth green. “My wife says I should make up florid names for the glazes to appeal to women but I call my colors what they are,” he smiled.

Many long-time tourists and natives of Nashville recognized John Mills’s trademark pottery displays as soon as he returned to Indiana early this year. He had operated the pottery from 1968 to 1994 before leaving to live and work in Victor, Colorado, and in Arizona. The old mining town of Victor perched on the southwest end of Pike’s Peak, where the Mills bought an early 1900s storefront building and converted it into a pottery studio and shop as well as a Bed N’ Breakfast. During their seven years out West, the Mills marketed their pots at art fairs in the area.

John Mills had spent the first nine years of his life in Colorado. “I remembered it in an idyllic sort of way and wanted to go back to the mountains,” he said. “Now it’s out of my system.” The son of a college professor, John became a Hoosier when his father took a job at Purdue University in Lafayette. He earned his Master of Fine Arts at Indiana University with a major in photography and pottery as a second medium.

“Graduate school was preparing me to teach in college,” he acknowledged. “I put out three hundred applications to colleges and universities and started driving around. I discovered this place was vacant and rented it from Alice Weaver. Initially, she tried to make me into what she thought I ought to be and I resisted. We found just exactly what each of us wouldn’t do and, once we got past that, we got along fine,” he laughed. “I was going to do this for a year of ‘real world experience.’ By the third year I forgot all about going back to the ‘ivory tower.’ By the fifth year I realized there was no way in hell I was ever going to go get a real job.”

Last year, John Mills discovered that Andy Huddleston (the interim tenant of the Nashville pottery building) was getting ready to leave. Mr. Mills took over the lease and moved his two daughters and wife back to Indiana. “We moved back to the same house and same shop. You’re not supposed to be able to do this!” he exclaimed. “When I’m eighty-five I’ll still be able to walk to work ‘cause it’s down hill.”

Items for sale in the Brown County Pottery include bowls of all sizes, luminaries, poled bird feeders, wall pockets, garlic keepers, honey pots and hummingbird feeders. Signs assure visitors that “Kids and Dogs Welcome Inside,” and “Checks OK From Any Where.”