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Omaha Magazine

Molding Lives & Clay: The Half-Century Career of Ceramist Thomas Hamilton

Mar 01, 2022 11:48AM ● By Kim Carpenter
thomas hamilton in his ceramics studio

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Conservationist and sportsman—that’s how Thomas Hamilton lists himself on his business card. The artist of over five decades lets his work speak for itself and, while known for the stoneware pottery he creates in his Pine Pottery Studio in Council Bluffs, the 78-year-old is as likely to tell people about his love of pheasants and restoring antique cast-iron pans as he is to describe his ceramics.

Clay isn’t a surprising medium for Hamilton. Artists with a deep and abiding love of nature are frequently drawn to the material. He grew up in the Echo Bay area of Okoboji, Iowa, on a “great big ravine,” where his father built a home in 1947 and taught his son to appreciate nature and conserve wildlife.

That love of nature is evident in Hamilton’s pottery, which often includes nature-themed names in his titles and is especially distinctive for his glazes, all made according to his own top-secret color recipes. That kind of approach to color makes sense. The artist initially studied painting at Minnesota State University, Mankato, but a pottery class changed the trajectory of his degree, and career. 

He made a container with a domed lid for his first assignment and was immediately smitten with the material’s malleability. “Right then and there in that class, I knew clay was my medium,” Hamilton recounted. “I called my fiancee [now his wife of 50-plus years, Kathleen] and said, ‘I just changed my major.’ I never regretted that.”

He quickly graduated to working on what he then called the “spinning thing,” earning his bachelor’s degree in 1967 from MSU Mankato, and then a master’s in 1971 in psychology and clay from the University of Northern Iowa. 

In the meantime, he began his teaching career in Council Bluffs at Lewis Central High School, where he taught for 34 years, retiring in 2002. Over the decades, he taught the basics of art and design, and two of his students were awarded the elusive Scholastic Gold Key Award for art. (Even one such award is considered a rarity over the span of three decades.)

Teaching, for him, was akin to pottery. “It’s like molding clay,” Hamilton observed. “You work on it and refine it—and it turns into something.”

Callie Parrott-Bower was one of the Lewis Central students Hamilton molded. Today, she’s age 49, and an art instructor in Kansas City who was formerly an artist with Hallmark. She considers her former teacher a mentor—and a friend.

“I still call him Mr. Hamilton,” she said with a laugh, crediting him with turning her into an artist. “He provided a really strong foundation in visual art. He had such a passion for art, and it was clear that he wasn’t a hobbyist. He found a way outside the classroom to be engaged in the creative process while teaching full time. The one fed the other.”

For Hamilton, it was the clay that fed his passion. “It’s the push and the pull, the cutting and the tearing,” he explained. “And it’s not done until you say it’s done.”

The ceramist often makes art in multiples, such as his “Mysterious” series, which pays homage to nature’s wonders such as sunsets and waterfalls. He created  “Mysterious Sunrise,” for example, on a dull March day. The piece is dark along the edges, but features a bolt of white peeking out from the more somber colors.

There is also his “Square Fare” series, which includes different designs on five-by-five-inch ceramic squares. “I just fell in love with the form,” Hamilton said. “Sometimes it’s about the surface, and sometimes it’s about the texture. They are miniature glaze experiments.”

Glaze remains of preeminent importance for the artist. “People refer to me as the ‘glaze potter,’” he chuckled. “My peers know. They can recognize my work.” Indeed, one collector broke a piece during a move. He brought it to a different potter to see if it could be repaired, and that potter immediately identified its maker. “He looked at the man and said, ‘That’s a Hamilton blue!’” recounted the artist.

Friend and colleague Marcia Joffe-Bouska has known Hamilton since 1978, when both joined the fledgling Artists’ Cooperative Gallery as founding members. She deeply appreciates his distinctive approach to color. “He considers glazes to be key,” she said. “As a mixed media artist, I can relate to his love of color and his unique mixtures. It’s a methodological approach to the surface.”

That talent works well in other areas of Hamilton’s life: restoring vintage cast-iron pans. He and Kathleen run a side business called the “Cast Iron Guy and Gal,” for which he maintains a Facebook page. “I’ve cooked on cast iron my whole life, and I started doing this about 15 years ago and have cleaned and sold around 6,000 pieces,” Hamilton said. He and Kathleen sell their wares on Craigslist and offer them at several flea markets throughout the year.

Hamilton also still teaches from his Pine Pottery Studio, situated on five acres in Council Bluffs. He leads adult classes and workshops, offering instruction for beginners and more advanced pottery students alike. “I’m still teaching,” he said. “It’s a payback for the community.”

Joffe-Bouska agrees with her decades-long friend. “He’s a real resource for the community and has touched a lot of people and made art so accessible for so many. He’s larger than life.”

Visit thomashamiltonpottery.com for more information. 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.