Master potter Yerger André is obsessed. He’s tinkering with the cooling temperatures of the kiln to get his crystalline glazes just right. If the surfaces of his ceramics end up looking like scattered soap bubbles with subtle rings around them, are covered in halos, floating galaxies, or spotty snow flakes, he’s happy.
A computer, programmed by André, controls the kiln’s cool-down phase. It’s a precise art: Crystals form between 1,850 to 2,050 degrees Fahrenheit. Because crystalline glazes are viscous and easily slide off the pottery, André first builds a pedestal and glues it to each of his pieces before firing, with a catch basin for the runoff. Afterwards, it takes a blow torch to cut the ceramics off the pedestal.
He’ll try a new glaze or shape for a week or two. Left to his own devices, the 51-year-old would keep going in the same vein. Sometimes his wife, Laura Johnson, 47, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi, needs to remind him to stop.
But tinkering is what makes him good, really good. A regular at Oxford’s Southside Gallery on the Square and featured in the book “A Pottery Tour of Kentucky” by Joe Molinaro, the Jackson-native has won numerous prizes for his work, including the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi’s Heritage Award for excellence in craft in 2009. His work has been exhibited in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, and the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. Add to that numerous out-of-state galleries like the Artists on Santa Fe in Denver, Colorado, and the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation in Louisville.
But the route to pottery proved circuitous. First a physics major at Sewanee, he quit after two years. “We had to wear coat and tie to class,” says André, whose look is decidedly more tree hugger than banker. Next came classes at Millsaps College and Mississippi State before he arrived in Oxford to study philosophy at Ole Miss. Art was not even on the horizon.
His younger sister made him take an elective in pottery “because she thought I’d love it,” André says remembering. She was right.
After a philosophy degree (and a minor in art) from Ole Miss in 1987, André apprenticed for two years with master potter Emmett Collier in Brandon and won scholarships for ceramics classes at the Penland School of Crafts, in North Carolina.
“The moment I got to Penland I knew this is where I belonged,” André says.
Married for 22 1/2 years, he says his wife influences his work.
“Who else would talk to me year after year about my pottery?” André muses. “It would be awful if I could not talk things through with her.
Says Johnson, “We all [the family] have an intimate relationship with his pottery. And we cry over lost pots.”
The two are a team not just when it comes to his work. When Johnson won a Fulbright fellowship to Uganda in 2001, André turned project manager for his wife, entering data and managing research assistants and taking care of baby Augustus.
It was not the first time the couple had lived abroad. “I always wanted to travel, I really wanted adventure,” says André. “I wanted to go to the most remote place I could.” That’s why André and Johnson applied to the Peace Corps. In 1993, they were posted for two years to Ubaigubi, a tiny village in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. “I felt like I had won the lottery,” André says.
They lived in a bamboo building in a two-house hamlet up in the mountains, a 45-minute hike from the actual village. It couldn’t get much more remote than that. Before their posting, they received intensive training of the language spoken by the educated few, Melanesian Pidgin, a hotchpotch of Dutch, English, German and several local languages. Once on the ground, the female villagers asked the couple to teach them to read and write the pidgin.
Today, the couple still resorts to Melanesian Pidgin if they need to discuss things in private. The need for privacy arises in part from the family’s unconventional living quarters: The couple and their two children, Elsie 11, and Augustus, 15, share a one-room, 1,440-foot metal structure. Situated on about 40 acres of wooded land in rural Abbeville, the building was originally meant to house André’s pottery studio, custom built with large windows. A wood-stove provides heating, while “rooms” are divvied off with curtains, room dividers and cupboards. It’s not always an easy arrangement with a teenager and a pre-teen, the couple admits. The home has a distinctly relaxed, happy vibe, and is adorned with hand-crafted mementos from the family’s extended stays in Uganda, Johnson’s second Fulbright in Tanzania in 2013, and the two Peace Corps years in Papua New Guinea.
The outhouse, while heated and with music piped in from the main building, is reached by traversing André’s covered outdoor studio. Its walls painted a vibrant blue, the bathroom’s shelves are filled with more pottery, André’s seconds – work with small blemishes.
Look inside any of his vessels and you’ll find his signature symbol — a spiral that emerges from the center, an homage to the pottery wheel from whence it all sprang. His pottery style is organic. “It took me twenty years before I could feel that I had my own bowl [shape] and that I wasn’t just putting together pieces of my teachers and what they had taught me.”
With a smile he adds, “I have three lifetimes of pottery to make inside me. I can’t get it all out.”
I ask if his pottery pays the bills. “No,” he says. “But I can’t stop. Isn’t it obvious? I am obsessed.”