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Helmut Schmidt, Published February 01 2013

Woman’s art a whole different animal

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – Ruth Nelson is in the memory business.

Hand her a hank of hair from your horse or dog or cat. Let her fire up her kiln to about 1,100 degrees. And stand back while she creates art that’s also a reminder of times past.

Nelson makes “horse hair pottery,” a unique art form that involves quickly dropping strands of hair onto fiery hot pottery pieces and allowing it to create beautifully random and intricate designs as the hair is burned and “absorbed” into the pottery.

“You will never duplicate” an item, she said. “It’s just kind of interesting to see what happens when you do it. Sometimes one little piece (of hair) will make a neat design.”

Nelson’s ceramics studio is at her home, Broken Pine Ranch, about 10 miles north of Detroit Lakes.

She first saw examples of horse hair pottery a few years ago in South Dakota, then decided she would try to make keepsakes for her daughters, both of whom have ridden horses since they were 3 years old.

Using tips garnered from the Internet, Nelson said she ended up with a couple dozen broken pots before she got the kiln and studio temperatures right.

“If you take them out too hot, they just bust,” Nelson said. “And if you take them out too cold, the hair won’t stick.”

But what started as a hobby became deeply personal when her own tiny dog passed away.

“I saved some of his hair and made a picture frame,” she said.

After that, others sought her out to make urns for their dogs’ cremains. She’s also made boxes for gifts, and as donations to be sold or raffled off to support various causes.

“You can tell how much they (customers) loved their pet or their horse. It’s very heartwarming to see how happy they are with it,” she said.

Ceramics is a passion, but at this point it’s just a sideline for Nelson. The 52-year-old’s full-time job is working as a corrections officer for Becker County.

Nelson has been able to indulge her passion on the cheap.

About 20 years ago, a number of people got into making pottery by pouring a mud-like clay into molds to make “greenware” figurines, jars vases, ornaments and jewelry boxes.

When the popularity of the craft waned, she picked up her kilns, molds, plus a great deal of unpainted product and glazes at steep discounts.

Making horse hair pottery is a multistep process. After she creates a piece of greenware, she must sand it, and then put it in a kiln for an initial firing at 1,800 to 1,940 degrees.

Then she re-heats it to about 1,100 degrees, opens the kiln, and takes out the piece with tongs, jacket and leather gloves.

She has the hair separated and ready, because “you have about 30 seconds to work with it,” applying it to the pottery.

The finer the hair, the thinner and more sinuous the lines.

A thick piece of hair will also smoke, which adds a brownish patina to the pottery.

After the piece cools, the excess hair is scrubbed off.

Nelson then lets it dry for a day before giving it six coats of wax.

Nelson’s made perhaps 100 pieces of horse hair pottery, she said.

“I don’t do a lot of advertising. It’s kind of word of mouth,” Nelson said. She can be reached at (218) 847-8648.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583