Alum achieves success as professional potter

Drake Kizer

Bowling Green resident Mitchell Rickman, 57, has been a professional potter for over 30 years, and he owns Rickman Pottery, a pottery store in Bowling Green. He has crafted countless items, and his dedication to producing quality products has never wavered.

Rickman was born in Murray, while both of his parents were attending college at Murray State University. He said his family moved to Bowling Green when he was 4 years old and he has been a fixture in the community ever since.

Though Rickman’s parents were not artists, he said his mother and father could do anything with their hands. Before his sophomore year at Bowling Green High School, Rickman had never done pottery of any kind, and had it not been for a random chance, he may have never gotten the opportunity.

“I was a sophomore sitting in a standard art class, but I had gotten wind of the cool stuff going on in the clay class,” Rickman said. “After Christmas, it turned out that no one had signed up for Mr. Chris Grinstead’s ceramics class. He came down and wanted to know if anybody would like to join him, so I gave my paints to the girl next to me and followed him upstairs.”

Rickman immediately fell in love with pottery, and he credits Grinstead with teaching him a lot early on. He continued to make pots throughout his high school career and enrolled at WKU after graduating in 1978. During his time at WKU, Rickman found a close group of friends that further fueled his passion to create and helped him nurture his passion for the arts.

“I wasn’t an art major, but you could fill your electives with pretty much anything you wanted to,” Rickman said. “So, I took every ceramic class they offered at WKU. There was a bunch of us that hung out together and played music, and one of those friends from back then was actually the first person who ever bought a piece of pottery from me.”

Teresa Christmas, the owner of Art Matters Community Studio and Gallery, a community art studio and gallery in Bowling Green, has known Rickman since she was 19 years old. She said they became part of the same friend group due to their like-mindedness, and the bond the two shared has remained strong ever since.

“Even back in college he was making pots, and I still have one from way back then,” Christmas said. “It is a really beautiful vase, and I insisted on paying him for his work.”

Christmas said she was the first person to ever purchase Rickman Pottery.

“We are supportive of each other, and I always speak highly of Mitchell,” she said. “He’s made a name for himself as a really good person and artist.”

Rickman received his sociology degree from WKU in 1983. After attending 18 months of graduate school, he decided to drop out and blaze a new trail. He did landscaping work for a short period of time, but it was not long before pottery came calling his name once again.

“A friend of mine had gone to work for a gentleman in Nashville named Roy Overcast,” Rickman said. “I needed a job, and they needed someone to make pots, so I moved down to Nashville and became a production potter in 1986. It wasn’t the largest studio, but at that time every Cracker Barrel location in the United States carried Overcast Pottery.”

In 1990, Rickman moved his family back to Bowling Green and began working for himself. Rickman Pottery started out in Mitchell’s home garage, but he built a workshop on 14th Avenue and has been there ever since construction was completed in 1998.

“I needed more room, and it needed to be accessible to the public,” Rickman said about his company’s expansion. “People can walk in off the street and buy stuff out of here. I’m not real high traffic, so some weeks I might not have three or four people come through. There are also days where five or six people stop by, so you really never know.”

Though his physical store has varying traffic, Rickman said he has managed to stay busy doing other projects. At one time, he participated in many arts and crafts shows across the region, but an increase in custom orders from both small and large clients has significantly slowed his travels.

“I’ve done as many as 20 shows in a year,” Rickman said. “Last year I only did three shows, but fortunately I do large projects for PBS and WKYU three or four times a year. I also deal with many clients individually, and generally I don’t make something unless someone has ordered it and I think I can sell it to them.”

Rickman classifies himself as a functional potter, which means he mainly creates functional pieces like bowls, plates and cups. His pottery is designed to be used on a consistent basis, and that fact is what drives Rickman to maintain such high standards.

“I try to take pride in each and every piece, but I know that some of them are better than others,” Rickman said. “As a whole, I may have a beautiful batch, but when someone gets their piece home, they’re only going to have one of them. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re creating a lot, but I am intimately acquainted with all of my work.”

Rickman does not have a website, but there is a Facebook page for Rickman Pottery which his wife operates. He is mainly worried about fulfilling orders for his various clients in a timely manner, but he takes special care not to get caught up in the day-to-day workings of his business.

“There are a number of artists and potters, but there’s not a whole lot of what I term ‘working artists’ out there,” Rickman said. “Anyone who is a ‘working artist’ sometimes loses track of what they’re actually doing because it gets to be routine and everything is a money grab. I try not to lose track of the fact that inevitably, somebody is going to be holding that piece I made in their hands.”

Hands have been important to Rickman ever since he noticed customers consistently grabbed multiple coffee mugs and tested them out before they decided which one to purchase. Rickman said he was always baffled by the practice since all of the mugs he makes are the same in theory, but he eventually figured out why people did it.

“I’ll never forget years and years ago when I was at an art show with a rack of mugs, I had a lady up there checking each one,” Rickman said. “I said, ‘Ma’am, just curious, what are you looking for there?’ and she says, ‘I’m looking for one that fits.’ Now when I see them doing that I realize that they’re looking for something that feels good in their hand.”

Bob Love, the owner of Love Art Gallery in Bowling Green, is one of the numerous merchants across Kentucky that buy Rickman Pottery and sells it in their stores. Love said Rickman’s coffee mugs are the only ones that he sells in his shop, and customers cannot get enough of them.

“The two designs I carry in my gallery have a map of Kentucky or a running horse,” Love said. “They always move pretty well. People can be kind of particular about the way [mugs] fit in their hand and the way the lip is to drink out of, and he’s got that shape and size down to an art.”

Rickman is a Kentucky Crafted Artist, and he said he has been juried by the Kentucky Arts Council. According to the Kentucky Arts Council website, “Kentucky Crafted is an adjudicated program that provides assistance to Kentucky visual and craft artists through marketing and networking, promotional opportunities and arts business training.”

However, despite all of his personal accolades and successes, Rickman said that making each one of his customers happy has always been what matters most to him.

“I’ve been a professional potter for almost my entire adult life, and it’s still humbling when someone is willing to lay down their hard-earned money for something that I’ve made,” Rickman said. “I’ve been fortunate through my life that this is what pays my bills. I’m not getting rich by any means, but I’m okay. I get up and I make pots for a living, so I’m not complaining.”

Features reporter Drake Kizer can be reached at 270-745-2653 and [email protected] Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.