Keep calm, spin on

Jim Young of Vanhollow Pottery

Jim Young ’64

Not everyone has the chance to play in the mud for a living. But clay is a calling for Jim Young ’64. Most weekday mornings, the founder of Vanhollow Pottery welcomes a half-dozen friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers into his Rogers, Ark., studio to learn the craft, engage in creative exploration, and find a little present-moment awareness.

“A spinning mass of clay helps you park at the door anything that needs to get parked,” he said. “You can pick it up when you leave.”

Young’s vocation started as an avocation in the early 1970s, when he was an executive at Procter & Gamble. Managing sales in the northeastern United States, he lived in a beautiful suburban-Buffalo, N.Y., home with a white picket fence. But he was intellectually bored. Young missed the creativity of painting class at Colgate and the scientific exploration of the psychology courses that formed his major.

“The family was growing and doing well,” he said. “We had all of the stuff that most people would really want or care for, but there was this itch that could not be scratched.”

In 1972, an acquaintance invited Young to join him for pottery classes at the legendary Roycroft campus in East Aurora, N.Y. Practicing with the clay, week after week, Young suddenly found a way to channel the frustration of his daily routine.

“The earth itself was a key to my heart,” he said. “So the hand, heart, mind connection happened for me through clay.”

While he developed his pottery skills at night, Young took a new day job, moving to the publishing arm of CBS in 1976. He hoped that the fresh environment would be more creative, but he ended up doing the same marketing work he was hired to do at Procter & Gamble. After six years, he left to start his own publishing house, but the overwhelming workload took its own toll on his life and relationships.

Once again, clay rescued Jim Young. The constant craving for creative expression led him to New Mexico in 1989. There, he began teaching ceramics, and enrolled in a master’s program at Southwestern College. “I was romantically caught up in this thing, and I took a degree in art therapy to try to understand some of it a little bit better,” he said.

In 1999, Young moved to Arkansas’ Ozarks, on the banks of Beaver Lake, and opened what he calls a ‘therapeutic studio.’ He spends part of his time sharing knowledge, and the other part gaining it. He has traveled through Europe, Latin America, and Asia in search of new techniques; the experiences and experimentation have transformed his work and shaped his outlook on life.

“Most of our life is a ‘neck-up’ existence,” Young said. “Technology has accentuated that, so having a passion that is essentially an in-the-body experience is extremely valuable.”

Reinforcing the message for a new generation, he flew members of Colgate’s Clay Club to Arkansas for a crash course during the 2014 spring break. Together, they explored various ways of firing and glazing pottery. Back in Hamilton, club president Avalon Bunge ’15 is partnering with Young to revitalize and redesign the university’s own studio.

Young’s words to his students, gathered at the wheel and around the kiln in Vanhollow, could just as easily apply to his own artistic coming-of-age: “What you’ve participated in here is your own power of self-expression,” Young has said. “It’s in you, and boy did you release it this week.”

— Mark Walden