By: Cindy Martin
Grounded by the stillness and beauty of their surroundings and set into motion by the energy of the earth, award winning master potter, Jeff Diehl, and his wife, Donna, are creative artists and visionaries. Moved by the majesty of the rugged landscape and the promise of an idyllic lifestyle, they purchased the two-room Lockbridge school house to make it their home and workplace.
“We were ready to buy another place in Summers County, but when we came for a final look, the realtor told us he’d just had a schoolhouse come on the market and asked if we’d like to see it,” Diehl explained. “So, when we got here, the front door was open and ‘God loves you and Zorro was here’ was written on the blackboard. I said, “This is it!”
Many of the neighbors who had attended the country school as children pitched in to restore and renovate the structure, which was re-christened Lockbridge Pottery. One of the old classrooms became Diehl’s studio.
Rooms were added. Repairs were made. And using stones from abandoned local buildings, the Diehls constructed the buildings that house the kilns outside where the stoneware and porcelain mugs and bowls, teapots and pitchers, dinnerware and trays, and custom sinks, fireplace surrounds and fountains would come to fiery life as finished pieces. They employ a variety of firing techniques, including salt, crystalline, reduction, and wood.
For over four decades, Diehl has spent countless hours transforming mounds of clay into purposeful pottery. “Most paper plates and plastic cups function very well,” he said. “I create pots that elevate the eating, drinking, and serving experience to a beautiful art form. My customers tell me the coffee tastes better in my mugs and the food being served is more beautiful on my trays and plates. I strive to create beauty in function and for the pots to function beautifully."
Diehl considers having his pots on the walls, in the kitchens and in the hands of his customers as being his greatest achievement. “I am honored to be a part of their everyday lives on such a personal level,” he said.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and great-grandfather who were both potters, Diehl followed the road less traveled while honing his skills and perfecting his art. After attending high school at Woodrow Wilson in Beckley, he studied at Berea College in Kentucky, where he served as Apprentice and Graduate Apprentice in the Ceramics Apprenticeship Program. Diehl also spent a year training in a studio in West Germany near his great-grandfather’s pottery.
Diehl draws his creativity from myriad sources and his work has been described as “unusual, unique, and amazing.” “I am inspired by historical pots, contemporary potters, natural landscapes, customer requests, dreams, or by emails from the bank indicating low balances,” he said smiling. “Iconic British potter, David Leach, came to Berea College while I was a student there and lit a fire that has had a profound influence on my work.”
Diehl has traveled extensively and visited potteries and museums in Germany, England, Wales, Korea, China, Singapore and Greece. Every culture has a clay tradition and potters are eager to share their skills and traditions. “As an American, I am not bound by tradition,” he said. “But I can use the world’s traditions as a springboard for my work.”
“What if?” is Diehl’s mantra. In his mind’s eye, questioning continually keeps the door open to endless possibilities. After reading “The Hidden Messages in Water” written by the Japanese scientist, Masuru Emoto, Diehl discovered playing musical arrangements while pieces were being fired in the crystal kiln produced very distinct patterns in the finished pieces.
Diehl’s work has appeared in many prestigious collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Korean Craft Museum, multiple Juried Exhibits and the Museum at the Cultural Center in Charleston. He has been the recipient of numerous accolades for his pottery and has taught workshops in Korea, China and many colleges and universities in America. Most recently, Diehl was awarded the 2016 West Virginia Governor’s Award for the Arts.
In addition to creating commissioned work, Diehl and his wife host several shows each year, where you can purchase his latest creations in pottery, as well as, traditional pieces from his extensive functional line.
Prior to leaving the nest, the Diehls’ sons, Erik and Andrew, were on hand to provide live entertainment for the shows at the studio. Erik now works for Steinway Pianos in New York and Andrew lives in Chicago, performing with his blues band, Andrew Diehl and the Nightmen. During the Labor Day Show in September, friend and fellow potter Nathaniel Krause assisted visitors in creating bowls to be sold to show support for the Empty Bowls campaign, an international initiative to raise awareness in the fight to end world hunger.
“We have had untold hours of help from family, friends, and neighbors to make this dream a reality,” Diehl explained. “We are constantly amazed and appreciative of the support we receive from friends far and near to keep these wheels turning.”
Lockbridge Road in Summers County winds for several miles through rolling farmland, past houses and grassy meadows, before arriving at an old, two-room schoolhouse. The school sits well back from the road on tidy grounds. Clusters of flowers bloom around the broad front porch, and the school's canine mascot naps on the stone walkway. In the large field that stretches off to one side, you might expect to see a set of swings and a metal slide, but at this school, potter Jeff Diehl and his family have created their own sort of playground.
In his more than 20-year career as a full-time potter, Diehl has developed both a thriving studio and a lifestyle as beautiful, unique, and functional as his pottery. In 1980, Diehl and his wife, Donna, established Lockbridge Pottery by turning the abandoned country schoolhouse into a ceramic studio and home. Neighbors who had attended the school as children helped the Diehls remodel the beloved building. 'We have great neighbors,' says Diehl. 'They all went to school here. They have been invested in the care of the property and interested in our lives since we moved in.’
One of the old classrooms serves as Diehl's studio, where he spends 45 to 50 hours per week throwing clay. 'I always have fun in here,' claims the award-winning potter. Metal shelves filled with fresh, unfired pieces line the spacious room that also houses Diehl's potter's wheel and office. A collage of photographs, memorabilia, and artwork fills one wall and reflects his three loves: family, ceramics, and kayaking.
The Diehls added bedrooms and a kitchen, bathroom, firing room, wood shop, and newly finished gallery to the school. From the porcelain sink basin in the bathroom to the intricate kitchen counter tiles, evidence of Diehl's handiwork appears in every corner of the house. The Diehls have also used the building to raise and home school their two sons, Erik and Andrew. Both teenaged boys are accomplished potters, musicians, and kayakers. The whole family assists Diehl with glazing and firing his pottery. 'My family helps out tremendously,' says Diehl. 'They are a critical aspect of the operation.'
The family also helped Diehl construct one of the most unique features of the property is the traditional, German salt kiln. Using rocks salvaged from dilapidated local buildings, the Diehls constructed a round outbuilding to house the kiln. The practice of salt firing originated in Northern Germany, where potters used driftwood for wood-fueled firing. Sea salt from the driftwood left unique patterns on the finished pots. Potters in Southern Germany eventually refined the process into an established art form. During a single firing, Diehl uses up to 100 pounds of Morton table salt to achieve beautiful salt-pattern surfaces. He is among the few potters in the United States trained in the art of salt firing. Although Diehl fires a majority of his work in a gas reduction kiln, he feels a special fondness for his salt-fired pieces. 'I love the magic of salt firing. The finished product looks a lot like wet clay. It keeps the liveliness going.'
Diehl himself molds liveliness into his work. Wavy and slightly tilted bowls, tureens with elephant trunk ladles, and teapots with porcelain wheels are just a few examples of the way he blends elegance and superb craftsmanship with humor and, well, funkiness. Out of his wide repertoire of vessels, Diehl most enjoys throwing teapots. He explains that teapots demand the greatest range of skills to create an attractive and serviceable end product. He prides himself on the utility of his pottery. 'I want my pots to be appealing to your hand, heart and eye. I strive for beauty in function,' he says.
Diehl draws inspiration from a myriad of sources, including his family, customer ideas, animals, dreams, and other cultures. He occasionally decorates pieces with ancient Chinese Sung Dynasty peonies and lotus patterns. The idea for a wheeled teapot came from Han Dynasty rolling figurines. Diehl has looked to Anasazi and other Native American earthenware for patterns and such specialty items as rattle mugs. The exquisite glazes Diehl creates from raw materials make his finished pots true masterpieces. His ceramics appear in collections worldwide at such prestigious establishments as the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. He has won eight best-of-show awards at the Appalachian Arts and Crafts Show in Beckley, a merit award at the Mountain State Arts and Crafts Fair, a craft fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, and a professional development grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
''I was born with clay in my blood,' states Diehl matter-of-factly. His great-grandfather worked as a potter in Germany and his grandfather had a studio in New Jersey. Diehl remembers playing with his grandfather's discarded pot shards as a child. His formal ceramic education began at Berea College in Kentucky. He studied in the college's ceramic apprenticeship program for four years and apprenticed for a year in Germany, near where his great-grandfather lived.
For the past six years, Diehl's national reputation, along with his large following of patrons, has enabled him to sell his work almost exclusively through home-studio shows and commissions. The Diehls host four studio shows per year that are a festive combination of games, music, pottery lessons, food, and, of course, an opportunity to purchase Diehl's work. Erik and Andrew jam jazz and blues tunes on piano and harmonica, and guests rove amid clay-throwing contests, golf-chipping games, and canoe rides. Diehl encourages his visitors to try making a pot themselves. He has developed special clay that allows for immediate glazing and firing in a fast-firing raku kiln. Guests can take home their own 'masterpieces' the same day.
'After 22 years, pottery is still exciting for me. It's never like a job,' muses Diehl, as he surveys a shelf stacked with beautiful vases, platters, bowls, and fountains. In those years, Diehl has built a successful studio, a loving family, and a legacy as one of West Virginia's best-known potters. And clearly, he is still having fun.