MSUM alumnus makes a splash with his functional pottery
James Wolberg’s art takes a while to sink in.
Some of the 38-year-old Fargo resident’s “functional pottery” is designed to handle beard stubble, soap and toothpaste — that comes with the territory when making bathroom sinks that look good but still work like a normal fixture.
“I’ve spent plenty of time painting and making sculpture as well, and they become these precious objects that you can’t really touch,” he said. “As an artist, to have a viewer or your customer or user interact with your piece is just another level of communication between the maker and the person who owns it.”
Wolberg has created about 40 sinks that are installed in residential bathrooms around Fargo-Moorhead, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and California.
The Dickinson, N.D., native first got into the field after graduating from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2003 while working with a former professor on a large mural. The artists found technical advice in a book by architectural ceramicist Peter King, and Wolberg said he was “fascinated” with art that’s meant to be a practical part of an environment.
He soon attended a one-week workshop with King and came back to Fargo inspired and ready to create.
Wolberg has learned along the way and said sinks are relatively easy to make. The vessels all start out on the pottery wheel. He runs a slab of clay through a press and forms it over a plaster mold, creating the basic shape of a sink before he cuts a hole for the drain.
Then the real work starts. Wolberg uses coils of clay to build up layers to the sink, distorting the overall shape as he works his way up. The sink is fired in a kiln before it’s sanded and refined to remove any flaws.
Wolberg then starts the glazing process, which can vary from a simple glaze to several layers that give the finished product its unique color and appearance. It goes back in the kiln one more time before it’s ready to be installed.
After the kiln process and glaze coating, the clay has become vitreous, meaning it’s glass-like and ready to handle water. Still, Wolberg said it’s not quite as tough as industrial-strength porcelain fixtures, which is why he only makes sinks for the gentler conditions of a bathroom as opposed to the tough pots-and-pans-ready basins that go into a kitchen.
“It’s meant to be an art object as well as functional, so you do have to take care of it, just like anything else,” he said.
The finished product can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,200, but Wolberg has made it a point to keep the price as reasonable as possible — an important consideration because pottery pieces tend to not get used if they’re too expensive, he said.
Fargo resident Cassie Wiste first met Wolberg eight years ago through a home design center in town that displayed his sinks. Years later, her own family was working on a remodeling project at home and said they decided to splurge by buying a Wolberg original for the bathroom.
While art is always a conversation piece, according to Wiste, not everyone appreciates it or even knows if it is an original or mass-produced in a factory.
“With this sink, anyone can enjoy it and use it,” she said. “I get so many great comments and it always amazes people when I tell them that I had it custom-made by someone local.”
Wolberg keeps busy with other projects, especially his job as a studio manager at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo and designing murals, backsplashes, sculptures and other pottery in his free time.
But whenever a customer washes her hands or rinses down some toothpaste, he knows they’re making good use of his one-of-a-kind pottery.
“I think there’s a philosophy that comes along with making functional pottery in that it’s meant to be used every day,” he said. “It’s meant to be part of the experience of your life.”
To see more examples of Wolberg’s work, visit www.jameswolbergart.com.
Originally published in InForum.