Mike Smieja’s journey in becoming a North Shore potter has been anything but straightforward. It has been a journey full of twists and turns, highs and lows, with breakthrough moments and the occasional bump in the road. It has been, and continues to be, an adventure.
Smieja’s artistic story began in the Twin Cities, where he grew up in Minnetonka and attended Hopkins High School.
“I graduated from Hopkins high in 1992,” says Smieja. “That’s where I first learned pottery from Mel Jacobson; its where I fell in love with the craft.”
Initially, Smieja wanted to pursue a career in pottery after high school, but he was deterred from that dream by his mother who had him convinced that there was “no money in becoming an artist.”
Instead, Smieja set his sights on becoming an entrepreneur, and went on to own and operate 15 different businesses over the subsequent two decades, including a marketing firm that he owned for 10 of those years before selling it in 2007.
“After moving on from the marketing firm,” says Smieja, “I decided it was time to go back to school and take my career in a different direction, so in 2008 I attended the University of Minnesota where I double majored in agriculture and marketing.”
Smieja followed up his degree in agriculture and marketing with a masters in horticulture that he used to start the nonprofit We Can Grow—an organization focused on creating and installing affordable raised-bed gardens for low-income households.
It was during his journey with We Can Grow, fresh out of grad school, that Smieja was reconnected with the craft of pottery during a chance encounter with a friend at the Powderhorn Art Fair.
“I was actually on a date at the time,” says Smieja, “when I ran into a friend who was throwing bowls outside the park building for empty bowls. My friend asked if I wanted to throw some bowls and I was like, ‘absolutely.’”
“In hindsight,” continues Smieja, “I probably did it to show off to my date that day, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with clay again, it felt right. So when my friend encouraged me to take a pottery class at the Powderhorn I jumped at the opportunity.”
Despite being heavily involved with his nonprofit, Smieja began frequenting the studio at Powderhorn to make pots and explore his craft further. Shortly thereafter, he took a job working for Continental Clay in the winter when the nonprofit demanded less of his time.
“It was working at Continental Clay and making pottery that made me realize that this was what I really wanted to do,” says Smieja, “so after buying my own kiln and wheel I became a full-time potter.”
Smieja started his career as a potter living and working in Northeast Minneapolis. However, all of that changed in 2015 with the passing of his father and the resulting decision by his mother to sell their family cabin in Grand Marais.
“I had been spending a lot of my time each summer in Grand Marais, living at my family’s cabin and selling my work at the farmers market” says Smieja, “so I was devastated when my mom told me that she planned on selling the place.”
“I couldn’t afford to live both in Grand Marais and Northeast [Minneapolis],” continues Smieja, “so I decided to make the move north and start a life on the Shore.”
Today, Smieja lives, creates and fires his pottery in the home that he built shortly after moving to Grand Marais in 2016. He has two brands of pottery—Grand Marais Pottery and Zilla Pottery—both of which you can check out on their respective Facebook pages.
“Grand Marais Pottery,” says Smieja, “focuses on pieces that are functional, affordable, and that are mostly electric fired. I like to refer to it as ‘everyday use pottery for the table.’”
“Zilla on the other hand,” continues Smieja, “is where I display and promote all of my woodfired, more sculptural pieces. There are still a lot of functional pieces there, too, but it has a completely different feel than Grand Marais Pottery, it’s dark and gloomy.”
While Smieja fires a lot of his pottery with a more conventional electric kiln, his true passion lies in his wood-fired work. He plans on building two new kilns this summer—a gas and soda kiln and a wood-fired kiln—to better explore this avenue of his work.
“I am proud of all of my work,” says Smieja, “but wood-fired pottery is my passion.”
“It’s way more labor intensive, a large percentage of your pieces don’t survive the process, and not everybody likes the aesthetic,” continues Smieja, “but people who like wood-fired pottery, really like wood-fired pottery.”
You can find Smieja’s work at a number of Grand Marais retailers, including Joy & Company, the Betsy Bowen Gallery, Yellow Bird Fine Art, Eight Broadway Art Gallery, and Mike’s Holiday Stationstore.
Smieja will also be selling his work at the Cook County Makers Market this upcoming summer. Information on the Makers Market can be found by checking out the Cook County Makers Cooperative Facebook page.