When Mark and Pam Braunwarth’s only child, Jedd, went off to college about 15 years ago, Mark decided he needed a new hobby. Back in high school, Mark liked working on the pottery wheel. “We got him a wheel,” Pam says. “But, I couldn’t tell anybody because he is a well driller, and well drillers don’t do pottery.” Mark, who owns Braunwarth Well Co. in Waconia, shakes his head and laughs. “That’s her line,” he says.
As Pam recalls, Mark “really took to the wheel,” teaching himself the pottery skills—from shaping the clay, glazing it and then firing it in a kiln—that serve as the backbone for the Waconia couple’s business, Oliver Clay Co. “He tinkered,” Pam says. “Mark is very tenacious. He figures stuff out.”
Named after the family’s Westie, who died in 2015, Oliver Clay’s cups, bowls, plates, serving trays and decorative pieces, such as candle holders or ornaments, are vibrantly colored. Being self-taught has helped give Mark’s pottery a unique look. “It’s lightweight as compared to a lot of other pottery,” Pam says.
According to its Facebook page, Oliver Clay Co. strives “to create pottery that will lift your spirit and add beauty to your life … every day.” After Mark finishes the pottery, Pam paints decorative drawings or uplifting quotes or symbols on some of the pieces. Inspired by Pam, Mark etches the word “Love” on the bottom of all the pottery.
Turning Mark’s pottery skills into a business came about by accident. Mark had made the serving plates, bowls and cups used when the couple opened Mocha Monkey coffee house in Waconia—which they ran for four years before selling it in 2011. “Customers started asking if they could buy them,” Pam says. The couple has been churning out the pottery ever since. “It gets my mind off the other work,” Mark says. “Work is stressful. This is relaxing.”
Long after teaching himself pottery, another potter noticed that Mark turned the wheel the wrong way for a right-handed person like himself. “I still go the wrong way,” he says. “All the other potters I know laugh at me. They say, ‘Why don’t you turn your wheel the right way?’ But it works for me.”
Recently, Mark and Pam moved the studio into the basement of their new home on Burandt Lake. Oliver Clay Co. had been in a commercial business they own in Waconia, but Mark likes the convenience of having his wheel and kilns in the house. “I got home about an hour ago, so I made a bunch of cups downstairs,” he says. “Now, tomorrow morning, they will be just perfect to put on handles before I go to work.”
Oliver Clay Co. pottery is available in Waconia at Main Street Floral, where Pam works as a flower designer, and Regalia Men’s Clothier. It can also be bought at the Mama’s Happy shops in St. Louis Park, St. Paul and Independence; the General Store of Minnetonka; Everett & Charlie gallery in Minneapolis; WatersEdge Trading Co., in Tofte; and Waters of Superior gallery in Duluth.
Pam thinks their pottery business will be a “great thing to do into old age.” Once Mark retires from his well digging company, they plan to sell their wares at art fairs. “I think so, but I haven’t done that (getting old) yet,” Mark says.