Meet potter of Front Avenue Pottery & Tile


Drawing inspiration from Como Park wild life and her Wadena childhood lake country, Mary Jo Schmith creates unique, stoneware dinner, serving ware and commissioned tile installations at Front Avenue Pottery & Tile Co. in South Como,” according to her website. Fish, wolves, birds, bear and other wildlife move through trees, skies and water, artistically depicting nature at its most evocative. Each of her pieces is food, oven, microwave and dishwasher safe.
One might not expect to find this nationally juried and award-winning, clay work artist on Front Avenue in the South Como, District 10 neighborhood. But here she is, and when I sat down with her recently, she told a most unusual story.
Mary Jo comes from a family of entrepreneurs – both of her parents were self-employed – mother an accountant; father owned a service station. The family’s German heritage included functional art – quilting, baking, sewing – and a strong belief in creations that were useful in the world. With a BFA diploma from the University of Minnesota, and a love of working with raw clay, Mary Jo opened her first studio in NE Minneapolis, in 1992.
By 2000, Mary Jo was a single mother with a baby daughter, looking for a living space and a much larger studio that allowed her to install the needed gas kilns and expanded work space. She found them both in 2001, when she talked herself into a long shot loan and a five-year mortgage at 895 Front Avenue in St. Paul. Front Avenue Pottery & Tile company was born. The rest is history and a lot of hard work. Today, her daughter is grown and Mary Jo’s design and clay work production business includes three employees, five sales reps, and roughly 500 national customers.
It typically takes several processes to create a pottery piece. Mary Jo makes her own food-safe glaze of ground earth oxides in water. The glazes are dipped, hand brushed or airbrushed in decorative motifs, often repeated in sets, which makes each piece unique. Many hours of drawings precede the final product, which Mary Jo creates for each clay work series. Most pieces are wheel thrown, although some are hand built from rolled clay. Dinner sets, cups, bowls, serving plates and casseroles – her inventory is wide and varied. Several years ago, she added pho bowls to her stock.
With an open-door policy, Front Avenue Pottery & its retail gallery is open to visitors during studio working hours, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.- 5 p.m., and gladly by appointment. There are times when the studio is closed, exhibiting elsewhere, picking up supplies or just “gone fishing.” Mary Jo encourages people to just stop in to browse or ask questions. Calling ahead is always a good idea.
Mary Jo’s stoneware has won juried prizes at numerous art shows and exhibits, and has been purchased by national entities such as Yellowstone Park, Cold Water Creek and Caribou Coffee. Galleries in four + states show her work. She will load 24 tubs of pottery in a van and travel most weekends May to August, attending various shows and exhibits. Stoneware sales are cyclical and seasonal, so summer is her busiest season.
A quote on her website best describes her philosophy of clay art, which, like farming, Mary Jo calls a lifestyle:
“A love for the beauty of craft, the science of raw material & the unpredictable forces of fire keep every pot a new challenge!”
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