Labor of Love

Labor of Love

Marvin Bjurlin and Christina Rausa

Marvin Bjurlin and Christina Rausa’s dining room showcases teapots by Bjurlin’s students as well as by masters.

Sean Shanahan

An accomplished potter and a craft show director have surrounded themselves with works by people they care about.

Marvin Bjurlin and Christina Rausa have differed on what to call the color of their house; they finally settled on what Bjurlin describes as “a warm gray.” It’s one of the few artistic divisions between the couple, however, and craft clearly unites them: He’s a veteran potter, she’s the executive director of western New York’s Crafts Alliance. Even their wedding celebrated their shared passion: It took place in early 2010 at Teotitlán del Valle, the famous weaving village in Oaxaca, Mexico.  

At home in the States, Bjurlin and Rausa live in a small, 108-year-old bungalow on a quiet street, with a backyard that abuts SUNY Fredonia, a small state university about 45 miles southwest of Buffalo. Bjurlin bought the house in 1970; he had arrived in Fredonia two years earlier, freshly minted MFA in hand, to fill in during a faculty member’s four-month maternity leave. 

He ended up staying for nearly four decades. Bjurlin liked teaching, and the steady job afforded him a chance to pursue pottery without having to worry about selling it – at least not every weekend. 

Yet because Fredonia was only a day’s drive from New York and Boston, and a couple of hours from Toronto, he could easily travel to major shows and galleries. “Even though it’s a little town you’ve never heard of,” Bjurlin says, “it was a wonderful place.” Earlier in his career, he was best known for making large-scale thrown vessels. These days, his focus is on slab-built terra-cotta sculptures with a marine theme, which he fires at an off-site wood kiln he shares with other potters. Many are fish heads, which can be hung anywhere; one of the earliest he made still greets visitors by the door to his converted-garage studio, like cheeky faux taxidermy.

The house itself has undergone many renovations over the years. The property is a quarter of an acre, enough space for his extensive organic garden; this year it included an array of crops, such as heirloom peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes. American Craft visited Bjurlin and Rausa to see their home, filled with his students’ creations, pottery collected from around the world, and works that represent other artists who exhibit at the Crafts Alliance shows, held twice each summer on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution.

How has the house evolved?
Marvin Bjurlin: I bought this house for $15,000, and I’ve continued working on it ever since. What you see is a labor of love – tweaking, modifying, and de-signing. The house has almost no resemblance to what it was.

Is “arts and crafts bungalow” still a good description?
Bjurlin: Yes. When I bought it, it was bare rafters upstairs. Now it’s the master suite, with an outside deck and features that are unique [including a sauna, a nod to Bjurlin’s Swedish forebears].

The foyer area houses a collection of masks.
Bjurlin: They’re from Mexico, where I’ve traveled quite a bit. When I first lived here, I designed a Mexican kitchen, with orange and green and so forth. My dad and I built all the cabinets. He would come out from Minnesota, and we’d just tear into the house. [That original kitchen has since become a second kitchen devoted to canning.] When we renovated the downstairs bathroom last year, I found beams with his writing on it. The bathroom is the newest renovation; that was just last winter. I wanted to contemporize it.

The art and furniture in the living room area appear to be mostly Asian or Asian-inspired.
Bjurlin: A lot of what you see is Chinese because, although more recently I’ve traveled to Mexico, I’ve also traveled many times to mainland China. That platter on the wall – I duct-taped it to the back of my backpack. It rode in buses and cars and trains.

Christina Rausa: It’s a reproduction, made at Fuping Pottery Art Village.

And what is the story about the two-story wall covered with shelves and shelves of teapots?
Bjurlin: The thing about teapots is that they can be absolutely functional. Here’s a Warren MacKenzie, just designed to brew tea. That might be close to the most famous piece I own. There’s also a Ken Ferguson and a John Glick. There are a few others by people who feature in the middle echelon of the clay world, but most of the rest are made by students. The point was that with a teapot, you could do [something traditional] or you could do something that is totally nonfunctional. With my students, I had a deal that they would make a teapot to add to my collection that was in the spirit of their work as undergraduates.

I would also give “teapot talks.” I’d have students come over to the house and ask them to pick a teapot. I would use it as a teaching tool, and talk about the technique and aesthetic and timing and the geography involved. It was my way of engaging students.

You’ve also collected functional works in your kitchen.
Bjurlin: This is the Tina kitchen. When we renovated it, we tried to make it really something special and really user-friendly.

Rausa: A good kitchen is imperative to my existence. I call it my 360-degree kitchen, because I can pretty much do everything by pivoting. Marv did the design, but all the woodwork is by Crafts Alliance artists. John Sterling designed and built the table and chairs out of sycamore, cherry, and walnut. Joe Flikkema built the window table and shelves and our countertops, and Scott Sober designed our sideboard and built it out of wood from our neighbor’s barn, along with a curly maple plank that had been sitting in a neighbor’s garage for 40 years. Joseph Graham built the tall chair.

How did you go about commissioning all this kitchen woodwork?
Rausa: It is always a really long thought process on our part. It’s not just a matter of what works in the space. First we have to be attracted to the artist, then we have to be attracted to their personality. We want to own works by artists who will feel welcome in our home.

And whose pottery do you use in the kitchen?
Rausa: Our everyday tableware is Marv’s garden pattern, and many works on the shelves are by friends who also wood-fire, such as Julie Crosby and Ron Meyers, along with kiln colleagues Fred Herbst and Cary Joseph. 

Elsewhere, you also have lots of contemporary pottery around.
Bjurlin: I’ve gotten pieces from people whom I’ve crossed paths with, so there’s a story involved with those, too. One of my good friends who also fires at my kiln is Tony Clennell, an Ontario potter. I am also an avid collector of my dear friend Ron Meyers. I love his work for its quirkiness. I told him I need a piece of his polychrome work for my bathroom. I just said it has to have a fish on it. He laughed and said he might have a few.

Rebecca J. Ritzel is an arts journalist based in Alexandria, Virginia.