Inside a dusky 102-year-old cabin in the remote town of Trego, Casey Fuson tells stories with clay.
She embeds the spirit of Montana in her hand-hewn pottery, pressing stencils of buffalo, moose and other creatures into the crockery. Fuson is the apprentice-turned-owner of Earthstones Pottery, and the next in line of an artistic legacy pioneered by veteran potter Karin Lamb.
When Fuson talks about her work, she speaks of clay with a kind of reverence, reflecting the respect she has for the medium that seems to come to life between her hands.
“The clay has a memory. When you’re working with it you have to respect it. You can’t overwork it — you can only manipulate it so much,” she explained. “It has a life of its own.”
She crafts dinnerware, mugs, vases, and more from plain slabs she then fires and coats with colored slips and glazes. The front faces feature natural elements set off in color, while the backs are decorated with a corresponding texture — Netting for fish. A circular lace for turtles. A lily pad pattern for herons.
The pieces are organic and elegant, and no two are exactly the same.
Much like the malleable clay Fuson works with, her own journey has taken unexpected twists and turns, landing the 24-year-old with no formal business or artistic training at the helm of a successful studio.
It started when she encountered Lamb at a folk music event.
“She just ran up to me and said, ‘I hear you’re a potter,’” Fuson recalled.
Sure, she’d taken a handful of ceramics classes in high school, but those were just for fun, a hobby, nothing more.
But Lamb was in need of an apprentice. After more than 20 years, she was ready to retire and wanted the business, and her art, to live on through another.
“When she first asked me — ‘Are you interested in this?’ I was like, ‘Hell no — I don’t want to be a starving artist,’” Fuson said.
She had a mortgage and dreams of one day starting a family with her now-fiance, Andrew.
But Fuson eventually reconsidered.
While she originally intended to pursue a career in forestry, Fuson soon discovered the realities of the work were much different than she had envisioned. A subsequent journey into wilderness education didn’t fulfill her fully, either.
Suddenly, a potter’s life didn’t sound so bad after all.
“I thought it would be a shame because so many people like the work, to put all the stuff in a box and put it away,” Lamb said. “I was really happy to find somebody who was enthusiastic about it, who was young, who really wanted to do it. She got it right away — it just worked. I feel she will make it her own and she will really run with it.”
Fuson spent 2018 learning from Lamb how to manipulate and fire clay and use stencils, glazes and textured materials to turn a blank slate into usable art.
“Karin’s a local legend,” Fuson said. “Every home I go to in this area has a piece of Karin’s work, which is an incredible testament of who she is as an artist … Her pieces connected with so many people.”
Fuson took over the business Jan. 1, 2019, and continues to use many of Lamb’s original designs, along with her own.
“My first one that I ever made was this little alien,” said Fuson, who has also crafted beaver and bee stencils, among others. And demand is as strong as ever — she sells her work in a handful of stores from Whitefish to Sheridan, and has a full list of custom orders yet to be completed. And while Fuson has added her own designs to the mix, she has no plans to deviate from the hand-built style Earthstones is known for.
“Why hand-building? It looks different. You can go to an art fair and look at a wheel thrown piece and I can somewhat recreate it,” she said.”With wheel throwing, you are basically restricted to what you can make with a spinning wheel. The thing I love about hand building is I can make anything.”
In step with the primitive style of her pottery, Fuson crafts each piece in a provincial log cabin. The homestead was built in 1917 for Madeline and Bill Opellt. During the 1980s, their son also constructed a larger, main house on the property, where Fuson resides today.
As a workspace, the cabin is a far cry from the modern loft studio Fuson had envisioned for herself. It has electricity, but lacks running water. To make do, Fuson fills jugs at the spigot in her garden and lugs them to and from her workspace. The cabin also sits on rocks, rather than a traditional foundation, so Fuson has wedged tiles and bits of wood to help level her furniture.
But for all its quirks — including an underground cellar and some seriously wonky flooring — the rustic building has a certain appeal. Much like Earthstones, Fuson and Trego, it’s delightfully eccentric.
“I think we just found our people here,” she said. “There’s people here who don’t give a crap where you’re from or who you are, and they’ll just take care of you because you’re another human being. It’s like having another family.”
In Trego, she’s discovered community and in her work, a purpose.
When she turns a bowl with green-blue hummingbirds in her hands, there’s a glint in her eye, like she knows a secret that the rest of us haven’t discovered yet.
And perhaps she does — perhaps the clay is alive after all, each piece carrying a little part of her in it.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at (406) 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Discover Earthstones Pottery at these retail outlets:
• Purple Pomegranate, Whitefish
• Dragonfly Dreams Cafe, Eureka
• The Grizzly Claw, Seeley Lake
• Kindred Spirits, Sheridan
• Hockaday Museum of Art, Kalispell
To learn more about Earthstones Pottery from the artist herself, watch the exclusive video on the Daily Inter Lake’s Facebook page.