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Potmaker putting his thumbprint on history

Everywhere Don Macdonald goes, a trail of fine gray dust follows. It's imbedded in his fingernails and covers his beard. It coats the seats in his pickup truck, sneaks into his kitchen cabinets and clings like cake flour to his dogs, Weezie and Baby.

You can bet the Anasazi never had to hose down the family pets after an afternoon of potmaking. But that's a chore that Don often faces after a day with the dogs in his Circle Pottery School of Clay Arts.

A master potter for 20 years, Don doesn't mind not owning a clean shirt because he says he is lucky to work in the "world's second oldest profession."

"Clay is soft and sensual — you can do anything you want with it," he says as his hands quickly form a perfectly-shaped bowl on one of a dozen pottery wheels in his studio. "I was born in the wrong era. I'd love to go back in time and watch the Anasazi do this."

While other people have cupboards filled with Tupperware and dishes stamped out by machines, Don's shelves are full of handmade clay plates and bowls, beautifully glazed and perfect for display on the coffee table as well as holding corn flakes.

Hoping to share the life of a craftsman, Don, 44, joined me for a Free Lunch of Philly cheese steak sandwiches at his Salt Lake school, tucked off State Street next to an auto repair shop. A few blocks away is his Circle Pottery gift shop, where Don makes and sells everything from butter dishes to bath sinks. A few of the objects bear the paw prints of his cat, Norma Jean, who has a habit of curling up in Don's bowls before they've been fired in the kiln.

"The truth is, a pot can be anything you want it to be," says Don, sitting on a dusty chair to eat lunch while his dogs wind around his legs, hoping for a handout. "So many people will come into the shop, pick up a pot and say, 'What do you use this for?' It has to have a daily function, like a cookie jar or a vase. It can't just be a nice pot."

He bites into his sandwich and laughs. "Some people will pick up one of my mugs and say, 'What's so special about this? I can buy one for two bucks at Kmart.' They're also the ones who ask, 'What's your real job?' "

Somehow, Don has managed to make a living with clay for more than 20 years, ever since he decided he wasn't suited for a life that included timecards and neckties.

"I haven't worn a tie in 25 years, and I'll bet I haven't shaved more than a dozen times in my life," he says. "I've always been fanatical about arts and crafts. In high school, I'd macram the hair of the girl sitting in front of me."

A self-taught artist, Don feels an obligation to pass along what he knows. That's why he opened the pottery school last year. "I don't want to take this to the grave," he says, motioning to the 10 students spinning blocks of clay into bowls behind him. "I fought and struggled to learn this. I want to share it with somebody else."

In the Eastern part of the world, he says, "potters actually obtain the status of national treasure. But in the West, we're just artists and repair people. I'm the guy a carpet cleaner comes to when he breaks somebody's lamp."

Even so, Don can't help wonder if his own pots will be dug up by archaeologists in 3,000 years and put on display.

"It's a good feeling to know that what I'm doing will endure," he says, wiping another layer of clay on his overalls. "My pots will be in shards by then. But they'll still have my thumbprints."


Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.