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Creative in the country: Rural barn houses ceramics studio

September 18, 2017

Decades ago, every small town had at least one ceramic studio, offering decorative figures and classes teaching patrons to paint and seal their creative endeavors.

Now such a place is a rarity, although one is alive and doing well in a barn at N9475 Jersey Road in the town of Trenton. The owners, Todd and Amy Bader, are breathing new life into what some considered to be a dying art.

The barn came first.

“We moved out here in 1992 and it was just a hobby,” Amy Bader said. “We had our own kiln and molds, but we would go to other shops and buy the green ware, and clean it and fire it at home.”

For the uninitiated, figures are made of slip (liquid clay) that is poured into a plaster of Paris mold and then poured out leaving a uniform layer of material. “Cleaning” it involves removing mold marks and other imperfections.

Amy would paint the figures and sell them to friends, co-workers or family members. Seasonal decorations were particularly popular.

The business started in earnest in 2006.

“We did this as a side thing and things started falling into our laps,” Amy said. “People knew we were doing this and called us up saying ‘Hey we’ve got some molds. Would you like to buy them?’ Or ‘We’re giving them away; do you want them?’ It was for friends and family until we decided to try it as something bigger.”

The Baders were loyal customers of Moody’s Ceramics (owned by Pat and Gary Moody) when it operated in downtown Beaver Dam.

“I helped them run the shop when Pat was sick. That’s when I learned how to do the pouring and all that,” Amy said.

Eventually the Moodys offered to sell their business and Todd and Amy agreed on a price.

“I called my sister and said, ‘Hey, what you doin’? We gotta get the hay out of the mow.’”

They cut a hole in the side of the barn and pushed the hay out to make room for close to 20 loads of molds. A year later, Amy bought the stock from a woman in Oshkosh who had two full storage units.

The couple still buys new molds, which are constantly being released to reflect current trends and themes. More than 10,000 of them are arranged according to seasonal appeal and subject matter.

“The whole upstairs is full,” Amy said.

Pouring and unmolding also takes place there in an area once that was once a granary.

Todd was responsible for remodeling a barn that had holes in the roof and was sagging dangerously. The house and the barn were built in 1925 on an 80-acre parcel. It was found by accident.

“She was driving around and got lost,” Todd said. “She saw a for sale sign.”

Amy reported back to Todd, but added, “I don’t know how to get there though!”

They eventually managed to find it and bought it along with three acres of land. But time had taken its toll on the future home of their business.

“The barn posts rotted and were pulled out when they were raising pigs here,” Todd said. “The whole structure needed attention, and we worked on it until we got it to where we needed it. It took a lot of wood and a lot of insulation.”

“We did one section at a time,” Amy said. “We wanted it to look rustic, but at the same time artsy.”

On the ground floor, crumbling stone walls were repaired and were covered in paneling. Old cow stanchions were removed and the gutters were filled to provide a level floor. New shelves now display bisque figures and work tables are filled with painting supplies for groups and individuals.

Kilns stand in an as-yet-unfinished section of the ground floor, awaiting Todd’s attention.

“I’ll get to that,” he said. “It’s another thing on the list.”

“It pays for itself,” said Amy. “As we make money, we put it back in.”

All of these resources were largely unknown until the Baders held an open house about a year ago.

“Nobody knew we were here until then,” Amy said. “We had been working on it as time allowed and this was going to be my retirement. I got hurt on my job so that all changed. Our retirement plans got moved forward.”

Now the owners offer classes, individual time, paints, brushes, fired (bisque) figures, firing paints and glazes (for food safe items) and more.

“We have painting parties for all kinds of groups,” Amy said. “It’s a five-hour event and people can bring snacks and something to drink — soda or whatever — and people can paint. Last time, we had a taco party. We’ve had bachelorette parties and birthday parties. We’ve done things with the Arc (special needs group). We do things with Scouts, and St. Katherine Drexel students for their annual auction.

“We’ve been very busy, which is great.”

With so many molds, picking which ones to sell might be a challenge. The Baders rely on their customers, however, and stock the things that their customers request, in addition to an already vast selection.

“It’s hard to anticipate what people are looking for, so we make sure there are always a lot of choices,” Amy said. “We often ask what they are interested in, and if they like unicorns and fairies we make sure we have some. If people ask for cats, we make sure we offer some of them. We often ask people if there’s something they like, or something they’re looking for, and that’s how we decide what to stock.”

Prices average around $20. Paints and fixatives (finishing coats) are extra.

“We have something for everyone, and offer a lot of fun for everyone,” Amy said.

For more information call 920-319-9127, visit countrybarnceramics.webs.com or email countrybarnceramics@yahoo.com.