Potter Donovan Palmquist builds kilns to fire others' creations

Kiln building
Donovan Palmquist and his wife Colleen Riley work outside the gas-fired kiln building at their home studio in Eureka Township, Minn. Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Donovan Palmquist remembers how, as a beginning potter decades ago, he needed a studio and kiln. So he struck a deal with another potter he knew.

"You're welcome to rent space," he remembers the man saying.

But there was a catch: "If you want a kiln you have to fix it."

So he did — despite the fact that he had no training, or repair manual — while somehow managing to dodge any unplanned pyrotechnics.

"It's hard for me believe," he said, looking back on those DIY days when he thought his passion for fly fishing might translate into a career as a biologist or veterinarian. "I ended up running gas pipes through the building, drilling a hole in the side of the building, running it throughout into the courtyard where the kiln was, fixing the kiln and then learning how to fire that kiln."

Click for more photos of Palmquist's studio and kiln

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Now, nearly 40 years later, Palmquist and his business partner and wife, Colleen Riley, have a kind of art compound surrounded by farm fields on 14 acres near Farmington. It's a far cry from his early years, stretched thin by the financial reality of his calling. And it's made possible because he now builds and sells kilns to other potters as a way of underwriting his art.

Custom-built kilns can cost from $10,000 to $50,000 depending on size and function. Palmquist remembers asking his first customer for a down payment — and the reaction on the customer's spouse's face.

"His wife said, 'How can you send $5,000 to someone you don't even know?' "

" 'He's a potter and a trout fisherman and there's nothing more honorable than that,' " the husband replied.

That was 17 years ago. Palmquist has built 370 kilns in 40 states, including ones for some of the country's most famous potters. And this year, he's built kilns for Harvard University and Red Wing Pottery.

Two of Palmquist's own seven kilns are gas fired; there are several electric and then a brick behemoth: A two-chambered 17-foot-long, 7-foot-high, 50,000-pound wood-fired kiln with a chimney poking through the roof of one of his metal sheds.

Used only a handful of times a year, the wood fired kiln takes two days to heat up and consumes four cords of wood that Palmquist and helpers split. He considers one of the payoffs from his work to be the way the days-long wood kiln firings turn into a social event.

"We eat out here, we're here around the clock," he said. "There's people stopping in to see what's going on, so there's the community sort of neighborly kind of factor in this that I find also really intriguing."

You can view Donovan Palmquist's pottery and kilns this weekend as part of the south central Minnesota Studio ArTour.

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