‘Let the Wheel Do the Work’: A Talk With Master Potter Guy Wolff

“People come in [to my shop] and say, 'You’re making the same pot over and over. How can you stand it?' But it’s a little bit like asking somebody when they’re doing the waltz step if they were thinking about one-two-three, one-two-three… How could they stand it?"
Ryan Stewart September 11, 2018

Connecticut is known for at least several things: When thinking of the Nutmeg State, Mystic Seaport, Yale University, and the luxury of Greenwich may immediately come to mind. But it’s also worth recalling that the state is home to one of the world’s great potters.

If you have a passion for pottery, or are generally savvy with clay and crafts, it’s likely you’ve heard of Guy Wolff. A master potter whose work has been featured on Martha Stewart’s titular television series and in her magazine, “Martha Stewart Living,” and purchased by celebrity patrons like Steve Jobs and the David Rockefeller, Wolff is a longtime resident of Connecticut, and has been making pottery in Litchfield County for many years.

guy wolff connecticut
Guy Wolff with his pottery in his Litchfield County home. (Ryan Stewart)

In addition to his wildly popular flower pots, he makes ceramic bowls and other vessels informed by his knowledge of English and early American pottery.

I met with Wolff at his home in Bantam, a bucolic borough of Litchfield, nestled in the green hills of western Connecticut.

I told him I was interested in learning about his life and craft, so, naturally, he began at the beginning.

Born in 1950, Wolff began his potter’s apprenticeship in 1966, at the age of 16. He attributes his choice to pursue pottery to the fact that he “didn’t have very good eyes” for reading and writing, and preferred to work with his hands.

Putting a pot in the kiln. (Ryan Stewart)

“I grew up in the middle of some pretty amazing things,” said Wolff, referencing a childhood and adolescence suffused with inspiration.

Wolff’s father, Robert Jay Wolff, an abstract expressionist, co-founded the Chicago School of Design, an American revival of the German Bauhaus art movement. Additionally, Wolff’s uncle, Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus-trained architect, was the designer of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Wolff was also submersed in the arts in his longtime home of western Connecticut.

“This part of Connecticut had a really amazing art community back in the day,” he said. “All the people who were in the arts back then—the whole community—everybody was sort of excited about what everybody else was going to do. The responsibility was that you … followed your path, and hopefully it was a truthful path.”

“I grew up in the golden age of people involved in that kind of search.”

From ‘the Flower Pot Guy’ to ‘Iconic Potter’

In 1971 Wolff opened his first shop, and in the decade that followed he mainly sold giftwares. By the mid ’80s flower pots were in high demand, and between 1988 and 1998 Wolff says he “got adopted as the guy for making flower pots in America.”

Wolff’s popularity snowballed: “It got very big… It went from being Litchfield County’s potter to Connecticut’s potter to New England’s potter to America’s potter to ‘iconic potter’ to all these ridiculous things. … The phrases kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Guy Wolff’s pottery.  People ask him whether he tires of making the same pot over and over—Wolff says it is a vital search for the truth. (Ryan Stewart)

Wolff reckons that his popularity peaked in 1999, after nearly a decade of support by Martha Stewart.
At the same time he was both making pots and training potters from around the world through his now-disbanded company, G. Wolff and Co.

“It’s been a crazy ride, I can tell you,” he said.

I asked Wolff what, if anything, inspired him the most about pottery. His answer was surprisingly complex, and revealed that the craft is more nuanced than it first appears.

“Everything in the arts has a beginning, and then you make a gesture, and then from that gesture you respond to that gesture, and then there’s a leave taking,” he said.

“If you’re talking about art, film, sculpture, pottery—anything—it’s sort of how you get from one place to the other. The ride in between is what’s so exciting … In pottery, it’s all about the vitality of motion. Potters have to learn a shape.”

Guy Wolff’s pottery. For Wolff, pottery is about the vitality of motion. (Ryan Stewart)

For “people who like throwing,” he says, the process of crafting pottery on a wheel, “for them it’s all-consuming. It’s very much like sport or dance for some people.”

One might think that the process of throwing and creating a similar piece over and over might be too monotonous to form a passion, but, as Wolff notes, nothing is further from the truth.

“People come in [to my shop] and say, ‘You’re making the same pot over and over. How can you stand it?’ But it’s a little bit like asking somebody when they’re doing the waltz step if they were thinking about one-two-three, one-two-three… How could they stand it? But when you’re flowing with the motion of the work it takes you. It’s the same with anything you love. The ‘vehicle’ you’re supposed to be riding in disappears in the action of doing. It lays you open for doing the magic.”

“You let the wheel do the work,” he said.

Guy Wolff’s pottery. (Ryan Stewart)

Video: This pot is inspired by the work of Frederich Carpenter in Boston and Daniel Goodale in Hartford both wonderful early 19th century New England stoneware potters. The pots are 2 pounds of wet clay made here in Bantam Connecticut. (Courtesy of Guy Wolff)