Joe Bennion’s Utilitarian Art

Peaceful yellow brick cottages line Main Street in Spring City, Utah. Some are beautifully restored. Some look as though they might tip over. Others already have. It’s the kind of place that makes busy city slickers long for slower lifestyles. There isn’t a neon sign to be found from one end to the other.

A low-key arts community has been developing there for decades now. There couldn’t be a more perfect location for a shop like Horseshoe Mountain Pottery.

By Conner Newbold

Photos by Kevin Kiernan

A Process of Discovery

A few blocks from the center of town, a hand-painted sign spans the shop’s beautifully restored facade, with cheery windows arching beneath.

The interior is a scene from the Old West: The floors, walls and shelves are made of natural, unfinished wood. The door is unlocked, but the lights aren’t on. There’s nobody at the counter, but a radio plays from somewhere in the back. Every surface of the small front showroom is covered in pottery of all shapes and sizes. Tall cups, short tumblers, serving bowls, baking bowls, cereal bowls, honey pots, jugs — it’s a kiln-fired kitchen supply store.

A yellowed, wavy paper tacked to the counter cryptically explains the shop’s “self-service” policy to potential customers: Take what you want, write what you took in the ledger, leave the money in the lockbox. (And don’t forget to add sales tax. There’s a calculator on the counter.)

The process of discovery is half the charm at Horseshoe Mountain, but most questions aren’t answered by a glance around the shop. Such as, who made the stuff? The owner really trusts people to pay for it? What if people steal things? Where’s the owner? What’s the story?

 

The Man With Answers

Joe Bennion is the artist and owner. Each piece of pottery lining the walls of Horseshoe Mountain is a work of art, each carefully considered and crafted by Bennion himself who lives nearby in Spring City. That is, when he’s not traveling or guiding river-rafting tours of the Grand Canyon.

His philosophy is that utility is a valid premise for art.

“The utilitarian ceramic vessel is the foundation upon which all other ceramic art stands,” Bennion says. “When I went to grad school, I made non-vessels for the first year. But one of my professors said ‘Isn’t it great that Joe is now making art?’ I rebelled against that because it said what I was making before wasn’t art.”

To prove his point, he went on to earn an MFA from Brigham Young University with a thesis on why utility is a valid premise for art. Incidentally, he didn’t start his education with ceramics in mind — it took meeting his future wife to convince him of that.

“When Lee saw how much I loved [ceramics], she said, ‘You should do what you love, not what you think you ought to.’ So I switched majors and started doing ceramics.”

In the end, both earned degrees in fine arts — Lee emphasizing painting, Joe ceramics. Though Lee is now a successful painter (her work can be found at David Ericson Fine Art in Salt Lake City), her only creation found at Horseshoe Mountain is Mom’s Stuff salve, an ingenious ointment she formulated to keep her husband’s hands from cracking and bleeding during long throwing cycles.

The answers to those questions? Yes, he trusts people to pay, and yes they do. “People respond positively to the invitation to be honest,” he says.