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Potter recalls exacting work

Hannes Kuehn speaks at the Red Wing Collectors Society Convention Friday about his experiences working as a modeler at the Red Wing Pottery in the 1950s.

Hannes Kuehn was a modeler and mold maker at Red Wing Pottery for only one year. But the 71-year-old has been forming things with clay and making models for most of his life.

"It was a family tradition," Kuehn said.

Kuehn shared his experiences working at the Red Wing Pottery at the Red Wing Collectors Society Convention Friday.

"It's exciting for the society that this mold maker contacted us," Stacy Wegner, executive director of the Collectors Society, said. "It's been a while since we had a former employee speak at the convention."

Kuehn, who was born in Germany, began working with clay when he was just a toddler.

"I'm told when I was 3 or 4 years old, I started making figurines out of clay," he said, describing the miniature squirrels he formed.

By the time he had started an apprenticeship with his uncle at age 12, he had already spent years working with a pottery wheel. He said he "could have taught other people (techniques)."

Kuehn's father was killed in World War II. Following his father's death, the Lutheran church sponsored his mother and two brothers to go to Northfield, Minn., despite the fact that 16-year-old Kuehn would rather have moved to Canada.

"I wanted to be a forester. I didn't want to be a potter," he said, referencing wolves and other wildlife that live in the northern country.

"But when you're 16, you have little choice," Kuehn said. "You go where your mother goes."

When he arrived in Minnesota, Kuehn had already spent more than two years working with his uncle in the pottery in his German hometown. It was enough experience to get him hired at Red Wing Pottery.

He said he received a note from a manager that said, "Come to Red Wing. We will have a job for you."

Kuehn started working at the pottery in 1956, just five days before his 17th birthday. He worked under designer Charles Murphy.

"It was his way or the highway," he said. "And rightfully so."

Kuehn's job was to take the designs that Murphy drew and make the molds that would be used to produce the final pitchers, pots and other pottery.

"You have to develop molds that will work in production," Kuehn said. That means forming handles that won't sag, for instance.

"It was not easy to do. To make it work and it had to be exact," he said.

Kuehn worked to improve and modify existing molds. He was also able to work on some original pieces, including a commemorative tile for Minnesota's centennial.

After one year, Kuehn's mother decided to move the family to California.

"I would have liked to stay," he said.

But, Kuehn ended up getting a job in dentistry, which he said isn't as different from the pottery industry as it would seem.

"It's really the same kind of thing," he said, "only in miniature."

Kuehn ran his own dentistry lab from 1958 until 1988, when he became the director of the University of California - Los Angeles Dental School.

And, even though he retired from UCLA about 12 years ago, the former Red Wing Pottery modeler keeps sculpting: He carves wood figurines and tiny gold casts.

"I noticed that I keep doing things," Kuehn said. "I can't stop."

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.