The first thing you notice when meeting potter Guillermo Cueller are his hands. Years of crafting clay pottery and using his fingers to mold shapes from rough materials have worn the soft skin on his hands, and a fine layer of grit is left on your palm when you remove your hand from his firm handshake. The rows of plates, pots, platters and pitchers surrounding his studio, each made by Cueller, prove that these hands have been busy.
The large kiln outside his studio was just starting to heat up with the most recent additions to his showrooms when Cueller poured himself a cup of tea, from a teapot he had made, and began to talk about Venezuela.
“The native Indians of Venezuelan tribes have a cooking pot that they all share from,” Cueller said. “It is fragile, and has to be carefully transported in a special place in their canoes. They can afford to have a stainless steel one — they have cell phones — but they prefer their traditional pot. The entire group will eat from this pot during their three-hour dinners. That’s the inspiration for my pottery — they are things that can be used.”
Cueller was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 1951, and grew up in the capitol, Caracas. In the early 1960s, he traveled to the United States to complete high school. He later studies ceramics at Cornell College in Iowa, graduating in 1976, with his now wife Laurie.
“We went for a vacation to Venezuela for a week,” Cueller said. “We ended up staying 30 years.”
Cueller set up a studio in 1986 in the village of Turgua, an hour southeast of Caracas, where he made pots for 16 years. He also worked as a guide and would interact with the native tribes in Venezuela.
“Warren MacKenzie was teaching in Caracas in 1981, and I was his assistant,” Cueller said. Cueller not only became friends with MacKenzie, but also shared a professional admiration for historic pots.
“I draw a lot of inspiration from old pots,” Cueller said. “I don’t do a lot of decorating. I look at the way you hold a cup and how it feels in your hand.”
Cueller worked with MacKenzie, Linda Christianson, Clary Illian, Randy Johnston and Jan McKeachie, David Leach and Mark Pharis, teaching and assisting with pottery workshops in Venezuela.
“I knew a lot of Minnesotans, but I didn’t know until I moved here how important Minnesota is to pottery in the world,” Cueller said.
He and his family moved to Shafer, Minn., 22 miles north of Stillwater, and he set up a studio in 2005. Featured in his studio are two potter’s wheels, driven by a foot-powered mechanism, that were built by MacKenzie out of Venezuelan hardwood.
“His design is based on an old English potter’s wheel,” Cueller said. “I think you have more control and are able to let the clay work with you, which you don’t have with an electric motor wheel.”
In 2006, Cueller was invited by Christianson to be a guest potter at her studio during the Minnesota Potters of the Upper St. Croix River annual pottery tour.
“People come from across the country and around the world to come and see the artists in the tour,” Cueller said. “I don’t know if Minnesotans know how famous this area is for pottery.”
In 2009, he started as a host of his own stop on the pottery tour.
“We had a count of how many people would show up that year,” Cueller said. “We had about 3,000 people at the studio that weekend.”
Cueller said he has food, drinks and “sometimes a fire if the weather is right,” but he wants people to feel comfortable when they come to his studio.
“The tour is a good way to meet the person that made the pot,” Cueller said. “Each pot I make ends up a little different, and each person picks up a piece that speaks to them. You can see rough spots in the clay, or a different coloring in the glaze.”
Cueller said the tour is a good time to ask questions and learn about styles of pots and how to care for them.
“I’m always surprised by how sophisticated the average person is, and the questions they ask,” Cueller said. “People really care about it.”
Cueller said his mother lives in Peru now, and he will lead wilderness trip to South America a few times a year as a chance to visit. Around his home, there are subtle nods to the country where he got his start: the yellow, blue and red flag in the hallway, and a native Venezuelan tribe’s cooking pot in his living room.
“You see the clay is black from use,” Cueller asked. “Some people put their pots behind glass like a museum. I make pots for people to use, to share a meal from.”
Cueller is one potter featured in the 22nd Annual St. Croix Valley Potter Tour May 9-11. There will be 51 potters from across the country at seven studios in the upper St. Croix River region. For a list of all the potters included in the tour, studio hours, and a map of all of the locations, visit minnesotapotters.com.
Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]