Potter finds his niche in clay

Since Keith Rice began creating and selling pottery full-time about 25 years ago, he has become a master of “mug-ology”.

“I brag on my mugs,” he says. “I tell people they are the best in the world and I’ll show you why.”

Rice stands up from the wooden table where he has been sitting inside his large country studio. Although the day is overcast, light spills in from the space’s many windows. Rice walks to a shelf where dozens of his mugs are on display — his numerous pottery collections include mugs, plates, bowls, crocks, vases and soap dispensers in natural colors that bring to mind the beach, the desert or the lake. Other collections have a less abstract theme, featuring simple hand-painted wildflowers, prairie grasses or willowy branches.

Rice reaches for two of the mugs.

“I study ‘mug-ology’,” he says with a smile. “Men and women like different mugs. Women, when they hold a mug, they tend to hold them like this” — Rice holds the mug by its handle and cups his free hand around the curved base. “So I make the mug more rounded so it fits right there in the cup of your palm.

“Guys, they tend to grab the mug” — Rice grabs at a taller, less rounded mug — “and they like big finger holes.”

“I do think my mugs are the best thing that I make,” he says. “I don’t want to make just mugs. I want to make your favorite mug. A mug is a personal thing and so much is in the way it feels. You buy it originally for looks but, if you really love it, it’s because of how it feels.”

Mugs are Rice’s best seller at the moment, but the self-taught potter and entrepreneur is only about halfway through his selling season, and he knows from decades of experience how customers’ tastes can change.

Before mugs, Rice was selling out of his soap dispensers; before that, clients loved his crocks.

“It’s a guessing game,” Rice says. “I’ve come up with some (pieces) that I practically had to give away.”

The French butter pot, for instance, flopped.

“It takes awhile to understand what people want,” says Rice, who grew up in Denver, Colorado, the son of an art teacher.

Rice graduated with a degree in art from Colorado State University, where he was introduced to pottery during a class he attended as a freshman.

“I had a little (natural) ability and I thought, ‘Hey, at least I can pass this. I won’t flunk out’,” he says. “And it turned out I really liked it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

After college, Rice worked as a teacher, leaving the field after about 10 years to pursue pottery full time.

Times were “a little scary” at first, he says, but Rice’s Pottery enjoyed early success, and Rice seemed to have found his niche as an artist and businessman.

“However much (pottery) I make is how much money I will make. It’s really a direct relationship,” he said. “So you’ve got to know (how much pottery to make) to allow you to get by financially.

“It’s very cyclical. There’s really only two times to make good money as a potter — the middle of May to the start of July and in the fall,” Rice says. “Spring, because there’s nice weather and people want to get out (to the art shows where Rice sells his pottery), and, in fall, the weather is gorgeous and people are starting to think about presents for Christmas.”

The image of an artist leisurely honing his craft or waiting for a flash of inspiration doesn’t suit Rice. The inside of his studio has more of a one-man-factory feel.

Rice frequently creates 200 pieces of one item at a time in a series of small processes that takes him about one month to complete. He typically works on more than one line of items over the course of a month.

“I don’t work on just one piece at a time. I have to have 200 done to fire them (in the kiln),” he says. “Otherwise, you’re wasting all your space in the kiln as well as gas and money.”

The creative process comes into play when Rice experiments with variations on his successful collections, building on his past experience and know-how. When inspiration strikes, Rice also creates “art pieces,” he said, but those do not tend to sell.

“Sometimes you hit the nail on the head and you (create an art piece) that everybody likes and wants to buy,” he says. “But a lot of times I think (an art piece) is great, but nobody else likes it.”

An example of Rice’s more popular but less functional collections would be his “Expressions of Lincoln” pots. Each tall pot features a familiar face to most Illinoisans with a not-so-familiar look — grinning maniacally or smirking or laughing or with lips pursed and eyes closed as if whistling a tune.

“I wanted something that would attract attention,” Rice says, “and I’ve always liked figure drawing and face drawing and I’m able to do (faces) pretty well. Plus, it’s fun to make the different expressions.”

Rice created 20 “Expressions of Lincoln” pots.

“It became more and more wild, until the last one I did was a vampire Lincoln,” he said.

These days, Rice, the father of two grown children with his wife, Maggee, is nearing retirement and looking forward to slowing down his often hectic production schedule.

“It’s hard to be an artist — it’s hard work and it’s a lot of work. You have to make so much and then you have to sell it,” Rice says. “But I love making it. I love all aspects of (the process), and I have been successful at it, so I know the good parts.”