FARMINGTON – It was in the back of his fifth grade art classroom, covered up and forgotten. But the pottery wheel caught the attention of then-11-year-old Don Ellis. After asking his teacher about it, “He handed me a book and said look at this and read it. When you’re ready, you can try it,” he said.
Ellis, now a professor and Fine Arts Division chairman at San Juan College, travels the country teaching pottery workshops and is renown in the field, yet he still remembers the initial time he touched a pottery wheel. And that first bowl Ellis made? “My mother kept it forever,” he said.
Choosing artWhile Ellis originally started as a painter, he found his way back to pottery when he was in his early 20s, but it was a winding journey.
“I had art scholarships coming out of high school, but I turned them down because I didn’t think there was a living to be made in art,” Ellis said. Instead, he took a track and football scholarship but eventually dropped out at the end of his first semester.
He worked for a few years after but decided “this is no fun at all, so I might as well be doing something I want to do.” Ellis returned to McMurry University in Texas, where he got a degree in education. He then went to graduate school at North Texas University, which boasts one of the largest art programs in the country.
Although Ellis said his father never really understood art, he told him, “‘Whatever you want to do, do it. Just be damn good at it.’” It was a lesson he carried with him as he decided to pursue a career in the arts. Ellis, who describes himself as “pragmatic,” made the decision to transition into pottery because it seemed easier to make a living as a functional potter.
“Not everybody owns a painting, but everybody owns a mug or a bowl,” he said.
An expanding pottery programBefore joining San Juan College, Ellis and his wife, Donna, owned a shop for 20 years in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, where he routinely led workshops across the county, including in New Orleans and upstate New York. Ellis has continued teaching many of the workshops during the summer, and he has led one at Lake Tahoe for 20 years that has routinely sold out early.
Although Ellis specializes in raku, a Japanese style that involves removing the pottery from the kiln while it’s still red hot, he enjoys teaching because it allows him to explore the different styles his students might be interested in.
It’s this flexibility that has many students returning again and again.
“Don is the most versatile as far as techniques,” Ann Fourr said.
Fourr has been taking pottery classes on and off for years. She said she remembers a time before Ellis arrived when classes with more than 10 students were considered full. Now, classes average more than 25 students and Ellis estimates he has more than 100 students currently enrolled in his courses.
Throughout his time teaching – over 13 years with San Juan College – Ellis said he’s still surprised by the people who take his classes and excel.
“The person who’s going to succeed is the person who’s just so darn mean they refuse to let a 1-pound ball of clay beat them. It’s not usually the best person that sits down,” he said.
Kellie Bowers, who has taken pottery classes for the past four years, said she’s still deciding her own unique style but has developed new skills in the time she’s spent in the art studio with Ellis.
Throughout the year, Ellis and his students also work to create bowls and mugs for the college’s annual charity bowl drive, which raises money to benefit a local nonprofit in the area.
With so many students returning year after year, Ellis said it’s been rewarding to watch their craft grow. One former student, Matthew Bahe, is now an adjunct fine arts professor alongside Ellis. Bahe, whose background was also in painting, was first introduced to pottery through one of Ellis’ beginner classes at San Juan College in 2011.
“I caught on after a while and started taking a liking to it,” Bahe said.
Even now, after working with clay for more than 35 years, almost seven days a week and averaging about 10 pots a day, Ellis said there’s always room for his own style to change and for each of his pots to improve.
“My theory is each one is just a learning experience to the next one,” Ellis said. “And so the next one is always going to be better.”