Ceramic artists Carl (he’s in his 90s) and Jean Saake (late 80s) are thought to be the oldest active potters in WNC, and maybe in the entire United States. Assisted by Carl, Jean crafts fruit, animals, and ornaments — bright, solid pieces that ignore the general theory of vessel making (i.e., that thin and hollow is the way to go). The couple, who are also painters, pack and ship their own orders to wholesale customers. Asheville Made caught up with them to talk about their long road-less-traveled.
You’ve been at this for a while, haven’t you?
Jean: He was doing architectural work and I was a secretary. It was just an ongoing thing, on the side. I kept thinking, “I’m going to quit my job and just do ceramics.” Then we started doing it full time when we moved from Hawaii to Asheville, during the blizzard of 1993.
Carl: Well, I was still designing homes. I did that until I was 80.
Jean: He said he didn’t want to live past 90. But now he’s past 90.
Carl: Yeah, I had to rethink that plan.
How did you start making these objects?
Jean: Have you seen the marble fruit they make in Italy? It’s just like it’s real! That is probably where I got the idea.
Carl: People really like the pears and apples. Those are her real teeth marks in the ones that have a bite out of them. [Jean bites into the soft clay through plastic wrap.] Jean: Of course, when you put a bunny on top, they’re gone from the shelves. Everybody likes bunnies, and birds.
You love to work with your hands, don’t you?
Carl: When I talk to young people, you know what I say? I ask them, “Do you do anything with your hands?” At least if they use their hands, that will give them a shot at getting older like us.
Jean: That’s why we love gardening. And the molds we use for ceramics weigh three pounds, and we lift them about 40 times a day. You get quite a workout.
What advice do you have for younger artists?
Jean: If someone’s starting out they better get something different that nobody else is doing. I get excited about doing something new.
Carl: That’s the secret. We’re always thinking how to reinvent ourselves
Jean: Nobody else does what I do, because it’s against the laws of making pottery to make a solid thing.
So you’re an outlaw?
Carl: She’s an outlaw!
Jean: I am. Who would want to do what I’ve done for 25 years, painting the little windows of the Grove Park Inn on [my ceramic] ornaments, with a magnifying glass? Nobody’s that crazy! But I’m that crazy. I love doing it.
You have to find your own brand of crazy?
Jean: You have to.
Jean: I paint for five hours every night.
Carl: But it really is a great feeling when you see something on your work table that’s totally all done. You look back at it and say, “Gee, I did that?”
Carl and Jean Saake do live demonstrations of their work at Mountain Made gallery in Asheville’s Grove Arcade (1 Page Ave., #123). Their next demonstration will be during a special reception on April 6 from 1-5pm. For more information, see mtnmade.com.