Blacksmith Mark Mondloch may forge a part for a broken farm implement one day and the next day create artistic metal cattails to enhance one of his wife Sylvia‚Äôs clay wall hangings, or he may make a stand for a pot, bases for benches and tables or a garden sculpture.
The Mondlochs have worked together at their Silver Creek Pottery & Forge, west of Random Lake, since Sylvia opened a studio in their farmhouse 36 years ago.
What‚Äôs their secret to a good partnership in work and marriage?
‚ÄúWe have separate workshops,‚ÄĚ Sylvia said. ‚ÄúHe works in his shop, and I work in mine.‚ÄĚ
It also helps that they both love what they‚Äôre doing.
Sylvia would probably be throwing pots and making creative clay items even if she didn‚Äôt sell them. She took a pottery class in 1977 at the University of Wisconsin-Washington County in West Bend and fell in love with the medium.
‚ÄúI think one of the things that‚Äôs always intrigued me has been taking a common material ‚ÄĒ a lump of clay ‚ÄĒ and making it into something,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúThere is nothing precious about it until you do something with it.‚ÄĚ
Mark, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 1988, had a similar experience when he saw a blacksmith working at an art show.
‚ÄúI helped Sylvia at art shows and was looking for something I could make. I saw the blacksmith and thought, ‚ÄėI‚Äôd like to do that,‚Äô‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve always loved tools, and blacksmithing is very tool oriented. A lot of tools I use in blacksmithing I made myself. The blacksmiths I know ‚ÄĒ and there aren‚Äôt many ‚ÄĒ do that.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs what the blacksmith did long before there were hardware stores. Every village had to have a blacksmith to make tools. He was a very important man.‚ÄĚ
Sylvia creates everything from clay vessels to sinks in the basement of the couple‚Äôs farmhouse. The studio hasn‚Äôt changed much since it was set up in 1977.
Sylvia knows when a piece is finished on the wheel by feel as much as by sight. She fires her pieces only once, not knowing how they will look until they come out of the kiln. The clay shrinks 12% in the firing process. Glazes are applied before firing so they are fused into the clay. Most potters do an initial firing before applying glazes, she said.
Mark‚Äôs forge is in a large workshop he built in 1998 with a dirt and concrete floor that looks like a farm shed. It‚Äôs filled with wood and metalworking tools, many of them more than 100 years old, and metal pieces he may need some day. Very rarely is anything thrown out, Mark said.
‚ÄúSylvia would go crazy in here,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúShe likes her work area organized and clean.‚ÄĚ
He fires up soft charcoal in the forge to 1,800 degrees ‚ÄĒ the point at which iron becomes red hot and can be pounded into shape. If he doesn‚Äôt like the piece he made, he can put it back into the forge and change it.
A large car kiln, so called because it rolls on wheels in and out of a gas-fired kiln, is in a room attached to Mark‚Äôs workshop.
The couple made the kiln, which rides on an old trestle track Mark found. The kiln has several shelves and can fire dozens of clay pieces at a time, depending on the sizes.
The large kiln replaced Sylvia‚Äôs outdoor brick kiln, which could hold only one piece at a time. That is now their pizza oven.
When the couple collaborate on a piece, Sylvia makes her pottery first. The finished pieces are set on a shelf in the kiln room for Mark to complete.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm a little behind,‚ÄĚ Mark noted as he pointed to several shelves filled with pottery. Sketches and dimensions of what he will make are attached to each piece.
‚ÄúMy pieces take longer to make, and because of the shrinkage, you don‚Äôt know the dimensions until it‚Äôs finished,‚ÄĚ Sylvia said. ‚ÄúHe can put his work back into the forge to tweak it. I can‚Äôt do that. When it comes out of the kiln, it‚Äôs either good or it‚Äôs junk.
‚ÄúSometimes there are pieces I like, but there‚Äôs something technically wrong with them, so they becomes ours. I‚Äôm not into perfection. It‚Äôs more important to me that they‚Äôre interesting and look good.‚ÄĚ
In addition to working with his wife‚Äôs pottery, Mark creates iron sculptures, signs, railings and other pieces.
The couple sell their work from their home or on their website. Their gardens are filled with their outdoor pieces.
Their shop at W6725 Hwy. 144 in Silver Creek is open in the summer and early fall from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays or by appointment by calling (920) 994-5658.
Image information: Sylvia and Mark Mondloch held a pottery bowl with a forged metal stand and handle. In the inset photos, Mark worked at the red-hot forge in his workshop while Sylvia threw a pot in the basement studio of their home. Photos by Sam Arendt