In Spring Green’s Wilson Creek valley, nestled amid rolling hills, bluffs, wildflowers, and prairies, a unique story of love and art has been firing for the past half-century. This is the story of Wilson Creek Pottery, a woman-owned arts business, whose sustained existence is a testament to the power of love and a supportive community.
In 1973, Peggy Ahlgren bought an old cheese factory in Spring Green and refashioned it into a pottery studio so she could create and sell gas-reduction functional stoneware. She lived and worked there for 39 years, building a successful and beloved local business.
In 2012, Ashley Pfannenstiel and Shannon Porter heard from a friend that Algren was interested in selling. They agreed to check it out. Because they arrived at night, they had no idea what their surroundings looked like. They woke up the following early fall morning and found themselves nestled in one of the Driftless area’s magical valleys. They were surrounded by hills covered in trees beginning to turn yet still dotted with yellow and purple wildflowers. For Ashley and Shannon, it was love at first sight. The only problem: they were not potters.
They weighed the pros and cons. One, they were ready for new jobs and a change of careers. Two, they were both big nature lovers, who liked the idea that they would no longer have to take vacation time to take a long walk through the woods or canoe on a river. Three, they originally met at Farm Aid, but then a few years later, they “met” met at a startup in Chicago. The startup was an outdoor clothing company focused on sustainability that, unfortunately, did not make it through the 2008 recession. Thus, Ashley and Shannon were already familiar with the risks and rewards of maintaining a business. One big nagging issue remained; neither one of them were potters. Well, not yet, anyway.
Potter and Chief of Everything
Deciding that the positives outweighed the negatives, they took the leap. They traded in their city slicker lives in Chicago and purchased a little functional pottery operation in a bucolic setting in rural Wisconsin. They informed their family and friends, who were supportive (though they thought the pair were a little nuts).
Importantly, the two women made a deal with the original owner that she would stick around long enough for them to “learn the quirks.” She agreed to teach them all the idiosyncrasies of the place, specifically the temperamental kiln’s likes and dislikes. By the time the business transfer, aka apprenticeship with Ahlgren was over, Ashley was a professional potter, Shannon was a COE (Chief of Everything), and their family and friends were starting to come around.
These days Wilson Creek Pottery has a brick-and-mortar store they keep open. They have one employee, their production assistant, Katie, and call themselves a tight-knit trio. They continue to create Wilson Creek Pottery’s traditional products while adding some new pieces and glazes. Their color palate and forms are the visual equivalent of comfort food: warm and satisfying. You can come into the store any day to buy retail, or wait for their ordering windows to place orders online for handmade dishes in farmhouse white, pot kettle black, patina, Van Gogh, harvest gold, jack straw, wildflower, or a tricolor option.
If you’ve ever had a cup of coffee in one of their mugs at Spring Green’s General Store, you know there is a timeless sturdiness to their work. It’s almost as if their pottery has the same honest, earthy, practical, kind-hearted, Deadhead vibes that they and their community value. Each plate, mug, or vase promises to be the right vessel to hold the everyday things that ground you: your morning coffee, bacon and eggs, the flowers you grew in your garden, your grandparent’s rolling pin, a cherry pie.
Supporting Each Other
The couple’s influence extends beyond the walls of their studio. Over the years, they have played a pivotal role in their community. Shannon initiated and organized the painting of Center Stage, a large-scale trompe l’oeil mural in downtown Spring Green, created by her artist friend Eric Lee (E. Lee). When asked what the mural is about she explained that it celebrates, “the artistic vibrancy and natural beauty of the area.” She continued, “The intention was to celebrate the community, and the community has an open heart to art. It was really beautiful how he took the arts and nature and highlighted and intertwined them.”
Their civic involvement is not all arts related. As an out lesbian couple, engaged to be married, and coming up on 15 years of partnership, they also speak fondly of the area’s openness and inclusiveness.
They credit the history of the area, which has attracted a diversity of brilliant artists and thinkers to Spring Green since Frank Lloyd Wright built Taliesen there more than a hundred years ago. They mentioned the longstanding influence of American Players Theater. They also love attending concerts at the Shitty Barn. They are one of many creative sector entrepreneurs in the area who are committed to the tradition of rich and diverse cultural cross-pollination.
Selena Warsaw-Lane, orchardist, culinary creator, and owner of The Frozen Local, a store whose mission is to sell “locally sourced treats while supporting our community of small farms and artisan producers,” describing the women’s work as “unique, hand-crafted, exemplary pieces of art.” Warsaw-Lane added, “We all feel very blessed to have such amazing creatives who can support each other.”
“Supporting each other” seems to be a core value of the region. The way Ashley and Shannon describe it, it sounds like the simple practice of being neighborly. They rely upon the generosity of their neighbors routinely, and were especially reliant on the kind-heartedness of strangers when they were new to the area and were less self-sufficient when it came to tasks like unearthing trees and fixing things around their property. Their neighbors were generous with their time and knowledge. According to Ashley and Shannon, the sharing of resources and ethic of care and responsibility for one another is holding out in spite of the country’s political and religious divisiveness.
Several years ago, for example, a gay neighbor whose lawn mower died rode down to their place on his four-wheeler to ask to borrow their mower. Shannon followed him back up the road on their tractor mower to lend it to him. Another neighbor, seeing them following each other up the road, asked what was going on. Shannon quipped that it was “the world’s littlest gay pride parade.” The idea stuck, and for the next four years, prior to COVID, the folks in their valley celebrated the area’s LGBTQ diversity and inclusion annually by holding the The Biggest Little LGBTQ Pride Parade in the World.
The parade route started at Wilson Creek Pottery and extended up the county highway about a quarter mile to their gay neighbor’s home. The event appears to have included sharing candy and beaded necklaces with a host of cisgender and heterosexual neighbors. But the neighbors weren’t just spectators in lawn chairs perched along the parade route cheering on the valley’s four queer marchers and Ashley and Shannon’s dog, Mildred. “Spectating was available, but 95% of the attendees joined the parade,” they said. They also boasted that the Biggest Little LGBTQ Pride Parade in the World included drag performances in addition to the tractors.
Continuing a Legacy
Wilson Creek Pottery is the couple’s home, studio, and retail space. Their business is not just about creating beautiful stoneware, it is about preserving a legacy that resonates with their values of environmental sustainability and hard work. People have found ceramic shards from woodland Indians dating to 1000 AD in the valley, establishing that potters have been there for a very long time. Ashley and Shannon feel a connection to that ancient heritage. They take pride in knowing that though they have been there a relatively short time in the long span of the area’s history they are part of continuing the legacy.
Their products, born of earth, water, and fire, are not just beautiful objects; they are symbols of nature’s dynamic beauty. Ashley uses her hands to shape the clay, but then she lets go and the kiln’s powerful fire takes over. She likens it to a conversation. Fire is its own capricious character in this story, and each unique piece mirrors the fire’s moods and energy.
This year, as they celebrate Wilson Creek’s 50th anniversary, the couple’s commitment to craft and community stands stronger than ever. For a little over the last decade, Ashley and Shannon have been at the helm of the company. Like the farmers around them, their work follows the same seasons. Pre-pandemic, they spent much of the summer producing inventory and taking it on the road to sell at arts and craft fairs. Like many others, they were hit hard by the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, and like many others, they adapted through online sales. They also used that time to write and receive a grant from River Valley Arts that helped them be able to afford to drive across the country to purchase another kiln so that Wilson Creek Pottery can continue to grow slowly and steadily for the next 50 years.
As we look back at its 50-year history, Wilson Creek Pottery is more than a story of a small stoneware business. It is a testament to the power of a shared dream and a symbol of the power and importance of kindness and inclusion. Ashley and Shannon use the tagline, “Shared across generations, for generations” to describe their wares. The narrative they have woven around their lives and their pottery is one of love, inclusivity, neighborliness, and perseverance.
And in that spirit, this September, Wilson Creek Pottery will celebrate 50 years of being in business—and we are all invited to their golden anniversary celebration. On Saturday, September 30, they will have an open house complete with tours, demos, and a toast. Then there will be a venue change to Homecoming, a local restaurant, for food followed by a silent disco, of course. (For more information, see their social media.)
Karin Wolf is an arts administrator, freelance arts writer, and consultant. She likes to get deep and try to understand complex art, people, and ideas. Writing about them is her favorite way to do so. She has a M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and undergraduate degrees in History, History of Cultures, and Afro-American History.