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’s 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’s their secret to a good partnership in work and marriage?
“We have separate workshops,” Sylvia said. “He works in his shop, and I work in mine.”
It also helps that they both love what they’re doing.
Sylvia would probably be throwing pots and making creative clay items even if she didn’t 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.
“I think one of the things that’s always intrigued me has been taking a common material — a lump of clay — and making it into something,” she said. “There is nothing precious about it until you do something with it.”
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.
“I helped Sylvia at art shows and was looking for something I could make. I saw the blacksmith and thought, ‘I’d like to do that,’” he said. “I’ve always loved tools, and blacksmithing is very tool oriented. A lot of tools I use in blacksmithing I made myself. The blacksmiths I know — and there aren’t many — do that.
“That’s 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.”
Sylvia creates everything from clay vessels to sinks in the basement of the couple’s farmhouse. The studio hasn’t 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’s forge is in a large workshop he built in 1998 with a dirt and concrete floor that looks like a farm shed. It’s 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.
“Sylvia would go crazy in here,” he said. “She likes her work area organized and clean.”
He fires up soft charcoal in the forge to 1,800 degrees — the point at which iron becomes red hot and can be pounded into shape. If he doesn’t 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’s 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’s 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.
“I’m a little behind,” Mark noted as he pointed to several shelves filled with pottery. Sketches and dimensions of what he will make are attached to each piece.
“My pieces take longer to make, and because of the shrinkage, you don’t know the dimensions until it’s finished,” Sylvia said. “He can put his work back into the forge to tweak it. I can’t do that. When it comes out of the kiln, it’s either good or it’s junk.
“Sometimes there are pieces I like, but there’s something technically wrong with them, so they becomes ours. I’m not into perfection. It’s more important to me that they’re interesting and look good.”
In addition to working with his wife’s 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