BAR HARBOR — It was 50 years and one month ago that Rocky Mann started making a living as a potter.
That was in Sunapee, N.H., at his first craft show after graduating from the University of New Hampshire, which he describes as having “an amazing clay department in those days.”
“I made enough money at that craft show to go to Denmark, where I apprenticed in a pottery for a few months,” Rocky said.
“When I came back, a fellow UNH graduate who was starting up a pottery in Tenants Harbor asked me to join him, and we did that for a year.”
Then he met someone who was looking to sell a farmhouse with 15 acres of fields and orchards in Cherryfield.
“I only had $600 and a pickup truck, so I wasn’t about to get a loan from a bank,” Rocky said. “But the owner said I could take six months to start paying him. So, in that time, I built a small studio, fired up my first kiln and went to my second craft show, a wholesale craft show, and from that I made my first payment to him.”
Rocky started going to major craft shows out of state and shipping his pottery all over, including to a gallery in Japan. Then he and a few other craftspeople opened a co-op in Milbridge. Later, Carol Shutt joined them. She and Rocky have now been married 35 years.
Carol was hired as the art teacher at Mount Desert Elementary School in 1991 – she retired three years ago – and the couple decided to move to Mount Desert Island. They bought two acres of land on Breakneck Road in Hulls Cove, where Rocky started building a house in 1995; he finished it at Thanksgiving in 1996. In 2000, he added his pottery gallery.
“That changed my life,” he said. “It allowed me not to do craft shows, for the most part. I love being able to meet the customers one on one. That’s how we make a good part of our money; a little bit online, too.”
Rocky’s pottery is also carried by a half-dozen galleries in Maine including Island Artisans in Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor.
Rocky was first bitten by the pottery bug when he was 16. His best friend’s father was a potter.
“One day I was over there, and his dad said, ‘Here, try the wheel,’” Rocky said. “So, I put some clay on the wheel and fooled around with it for about an hour. And he looked over to me and said something that changed my life. He said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good at that.’
“Hearing that from a non-parent made a big impression.”
Now, hundreds of thousands of pieces of pottery later – including 1,200 made just this past winter – Rocky is still at it and still loving it.
Over the years he has experimented with many different types of pottery.
“I’ll discover a technique that I’ll work at for quite a few years, and then I get tired of it,” he said. “Trying out new techniques and making different, exciting things is what keeps me going.”
One of his best-selling themes depicts the moon and stars in a dark blue sky above a green mountain and the blue ocean. Reminiscent of a certain Van Gogh painting, it’s called Starry Night in Acadia.
“This got to be really popular; it’s like a memory of Mount Desert Island,” Rocky said. “I didn’t want to get to a point where I couldn’t stand it anymore, but it made enough money to put two kids through college.”
Another of Rocky’s popular types of pottery is called mochaware. After several steps in the process of creating a pot, he applies a stain mixed with coffee while the surface is still wet.
“With the acid in the coffee, as it drips down, it feathers out and forms trees,” he said. “I did that for years and years, but I got tired of it and moved on.”
Not all of Rocky’s experiments with new techniques have been successful. Far from it, he acknowledges.
“As a potter friend of mine says, ‘You learn on the way to the dump,’ meaning there are lots of failures. If you’re playing it safe and not failing, then you never learn anything.”
Occasionally, someone will commission a single piece of pottery or a set of dinnerware. Rocky said a few of these commissions have been quite unusual.
“One day a woman came in with her husband’s ashes and wanted me to make a glaze with the ashes and use it to make mugs that she would give to each of her five children,” he said. “So, I made them, and her children loved them. They come back every year and talk about the mugs with their dad’s ashes in them.”
Rocky said he is thinking about putting together “a photographic book of my life and work,” with the title, “Fifty Years in the Making: A Potter’s Life.”
Six years ago, Rocky agreed to restart the pottery program at College of the Atlantic.
“I told (COA President) Darron Collins I would get the program back up and running for a year,” he said. “But I discovered that I adore teaching 20-year-olds. They are so full of enthusiasm, so full of life.
“I say that I’m not so much making pottery these days as I’m making potters.”
In fact, several of his former students are now working as potters. He thinks they will do well, but he doesn’t expect them to become wealthy.
“I tell my students, ‘If you want to be a potter, you’d better be very comfortable with being poor. You don’t make a ton of money; you just have a tremendous life.’ It’s a great life.”
Rocky Mann’s gallery, on Breakneck Road in Hulls Cove, is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.