Pitner Ave., Evanston, IL 60202
Michigan Potter Fires with Green Energy
Khnemu Clay Studio on Fernwood Farm
Dawn Soltysiak, Owner Artist
A visitor to Fernwood Farm, about forty-five miles southwest of Grand Rapids, Michigan, would likely note the usual collection of barns and sheds clustered about the typical Midwestern rural farmhouse. A walk down the drive past the house, however, would reveal something unusual about the long barn that extends into the back pasture. All along the pitched roof lay 78 solar panels, absorbing sunlight and converting it to just under 25,000 kilowatts of electricity each year. Owners Dawn and Rob Soltysiak operate the 30-acre sustainable farm where Dawn, a ceramic artist, runs Khnemu Clay Studio and fires her kilns on solar power.
Twelve years ago, Dawn Soltysiak was selling real estate in Grand Rapids and “doing art” in her spare time. When her husband Rob’s work took the family out of the city, Dawn tried to maintain her business career by commuting. She recalls, “I have always been around ceramics. I practically grew up in my mother’s ceramics hobby shop. I made the transition to hand building and throwing while in high school and have always taken whatever classes are available. When Rob was transferred down here, I knew if I didn’t start being a full-time artist then, I would never do it.” The couple purchased a small farm and made the commitment to live a more sustainable lifestyle. They raise much of their food, including grass-fed beef and pastured poultry.
Because the farm had so many barns, converting one to a studio was a natural plan. The restoration created a beautiful and useful space that today is equipped with five wheels, three electric kilns, a raku kiln, slab roller, extruder, pug mill, and a wide selection of tools and glazes. Dawn named her studio after the Egyptian god of creation Khnemu, who was believed to have fashioned both man and gods on his potter’s wheel. She says, “Khnemu Studio is a place of creation, where one-of-a-kind vessels are molded and sculpted on the potter’s wheel.” The years of living close to the cycles of the land have made their mark on Dawn’s artistic vision. She explains, “I see preservation, nature, and knowledge as key to my life’s journey. I enjoy exploring the interplay of organic forms, unique firing techniques, and natural processes. My work is the result of these explorations.”
Khnemu Studio on Fernwood Farm is part of a cooperative of small art studios that dot the Michigan landscape off the western shore of Lake Michigan. Organized in 1990, Blue Coast Artists consists of twelve artists who work in various media. Since 2002, they have opened their studios for a local annual tour, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at their work and workspaces. Dawn cites the organization as instrumental in helping her establish a following in the area. “Even though we are very much off the beaten path,” she says, “you’d be amazed at how many people find their way here.”
Dawn’s expertise in marketing has served her well in sustaining a viable business. She developed a popular instructional program at her studio, with classes offered in a continual year-round cycle. She uses a unique “punch-card” system, which provides the student flexibility of schedule. Students purchase a set amount of classes and can use their credits whenever classes are offered. This relaxed approach harkens back to her mother’s hobby studio and works well for her students. For more advanced instruction, the studio offers raku workshops and hosts two visiting artists each year for weekend workshops. Just last month John Britt offered a weekend course on glaze chemistry and firing.
With Fernwood Farm well established in its sustainable agricultural practices, Dawn started to think about alternative energy sources. She says, “I’m a pottery junkie. I have eleven kilns and have always loved alternative firing methods like raku and pit firing. I had an opportunity to buy a used gas kiln and experimented with downdraft firing.” Intrigued by alternative energy sources, she wrote a proposal to the USDA’s Rural Energy for America program and was awarded a grant that provided up to 25% of the cost of renewable energy for rural small businesses and farms. Her north/south positioned long barn offered the perfect place for solar panels and installation of the 17.94 kilowatt-hour solar array of 78 230-watt panels was completed in December of 2012. The electricity produced by the system is used to power the studio and all the kilns. The daily average production is about 68 kilowatts a day, with a yearly average of 25,000. Dawn says that the average household uses about 10,000 kilowatts per year, making her output more than ample to meet the high energy demands of her kilns. She explains that the production is managed on a credit system: if on a given day, her production exceeds her needs, she earns credits. The energy is channeled into the nationwide “grid,” and is not stored in batteries. Dawn says, “If I make more than I need, why shouldn’t I share that with my neighbor? I would rather share it than store and potentially lose it – storage is limited and eventually lost.” On days when Dawn uses more than she produces, her credits make up the difference. For the most part, the system has met her needs, except for periods of excessive firings, for example, to meet a large commercial order. She estimates she will recoup the $53,000 cost of the system within five years, including the grant funding.
Work on Fernwood Farm starts at daylight and continues well after dark as Dawn turns off the lights in the studio. Along with farm chores, teaching, and accounting, Dawn finds time to develop her unique artistic expression. Her works are displayed and sold in the onsite gallery, along with an eclectic collection of other artists. She is a member of the West Michigan Potters Guild. When Dawn proposed leaving her real estate career, Rob jested that they would be eating nothing but macaroni and cheese. Over a decade later, they are eating the healthy bounty of their own hands, and Dawn is finally a “full-time artist” – and a teacher, farmer, conservationist, and businesswoman. In her studio, her supplies are stored in old wooden kitchen cabinets handmade years ago by her father. She and her students sit on chairs that her mother’s ceramic students once sat upon. At the end of a day, she surveys her homestead, recalling helping her grandfather on his farm, and exclaims, “I have all of these things around me that are my life – I have made the best choice ever!”