Robert Blue sells beautiful, functional pottery to galleries and art lovers around the world. Enter his creative process as he prepares for Autumn Drive, one of McHenry County’s biggest events of the year.
Robert Blue owes his long career in pottery to a bet he made in college. Though he’d been drawing his whole life and taking correspondence courses in high school, he’d never considered a life in pottery.
“I thought the best way to make a living would be in advertising, because I knew I liked drawing,” Blue says. “My roommate challenged me and said, ‘Well, you have to take some electives. I bet I can make better pottery than you can.’ I touched the clay and it was all over.”
For nearly 50 years now, Blue has sold his functional pottery to galleries and art lovers around the world. His works are found in all 50 states, 17 foreign countries and a variety of nationally distributed publications.
Despite the widespread attention, Blue remains deeply tied to his Chicago roots, working from his modest studio and gallery in the pastoral area between Marengo and Woodstock. The owner of Blue Eagle Pottery studio and gallery, 16105 Garden Valley Road, excels somewhere between the worlds of craft and art.
“Someone at one of my galleries, Bespoke, in California, told me, ‘We really like your mugs. In fact, your mugs are our go-to mugs at home,’” recalls Blue. “That’s what I like to hear, as opposed to hearing that this is the fastest-selling thing on your shelf. I like that they brought some of these mugs home for themselves.”
Each piece Blue produces is safe in the dishwasher, microwave and oven – every tumbler, bowl and plate, and every serving platter, casserole dish and vase. Blue used to make a variety of pieces, selling them at art fairs around the country. Over time he limited himself to just 30 favored pieces. Each handmade creation reflects attention to detail and a respect for everyday use.
Blue keeps things interesting by producing only one kind of pot each week. After 30 weeks, he returns to the beginning of his list. On this particular week, he’s throwing tumblers, which each begin as a one-pound ball of clay.
Blue slaps the ball onto his electric potter’s wheel and wets his hands. The water helps the clay to slip through his palms, as he ever so gently crafts a flat, wet lump.
“That helps me to center it,” he says. “I open it up by putting my finger through the center, locking my fingers together and guiding it up.” As his finger probes into the center of the clay, a tumbler arises. One more pass and it’s a smooth, rippled cup.
But you don’t want to drink out of it yet. The clay will spend several days drying before Blue fires it in the kiln. He’ll then cover the tumbler in his homemade glazes which, after being fired again, create his colorful and durable signature finish.
Blue’s Southwest glaze mixes sky blues, reds and blacks with tan, earthen colors. His deep, rich “oil spot blue” gets its name from a unique mottled finish.
Blue used to sell his work at weekend art fairs, which took him around the country some 30 weekends each year. Since 2010, he’s sold almost exclusively wholesale. His relationship with Caitlin Mociun, owner of Mociun gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., has put Blue’s work into places like Bon Appetit magazine and about 10 other high-profile galleries, including some in Austin, Texas, and San Francisco.
“Caitlin is my patron, basically, because she supports me, advertises for me,” Blue says. “I’m so grateful that the Mociun gallery has become part of my life.”
These days, Blue enjoys a little company in his studio with his wife, Susan Blue Galloway, an accomplished potter in her own right. The two met in the early 1980s when Blue arrived in McHenry County on an arts grant. Galloway was teaching pottery at McHenry County College and leading the local clay workers guild.
Since retiring in 2009, Galloway has spent more time developing her craft and clientele.
Though the two have different styles and approaches, they feed each others’ artistic endeavors.
“At first, there was a lot of back and forth,” says Galloway. “There were lively debates on what size a knob should be and what the rim of a plate should look like, because we have our own styles and ideas. But I’ve noticed that our work is more similar now than it used to be.”
It’s grown similar enough that, on occasion, Galloway will create a custom-ordered piece that’s glazed in Blue’s signature colors. But she also retails her own lineup of snack servers, yarn ball bowls and other functional work.
Blue and Galloway both sell their artwork in Woodstock, but for one weekend every year, they open their studio and gallery to the public as part of the annual Autumn Drive, now in its 29th year.
Scheduled for Oct. 14-16, the event will involve 23 artists, farmers, antiques dealers and other vendors located on and around the rural Garden Valley Road. Nearly 18,000 people are expected to show up for what’s become one of McHenry County’s biggest traditions. It’s as much for the neighbors as it is for the out-of-towners, who come from as far away as Georgia.
“A lot of neighbors have met other neighbors because of this,” says Blue, who was one of the first participants. “I’ve known 40 or 50 people just because of Autumn Drive. It’s shown me that neighbors will help neighbors. It takes a village, because neighbors all pitch in and do what they can to promote Autumn Drive.”
Visitors this year will find several farms selling you-pick and fresh-from-the-field produce. Those same farms host fun activities like tractor rides, apple chuckers and corn mazes. Other neighbors will sell antiques and homemade crafts; still others, including Blue and Galloway, will display their artwork.
To find a map of this year’s Autumn Drive locations, visit autumndrive.net. Locations are scattered in an area about 5 miles from the Woodstock Square, roughly between Kishwaukee Valley Road, Deerpass Road, Illinois Route 176 and Franklinville Road.
Just outside Blue Eagle, Helping Paws Animal Shelter will bring pets for adoption and the Woodstock High School dance team will sell baked goods. Community organizations including the Boy Scouts will set up at other destinations.
“Red Cross is out there sometimes and some people bring their church groups out for fundraising,” says Blue. “It’s our way of giving back to the community.”
Autumn Drive began in 1987 when Fran Stake, a watercolor artist who lived down the road from Blue, gathered together several nearby artists and farmers for a neighborhood garage sale of sorts.
Blue recalls, “Fran got the neighbors together and said, ‘whatever talent you have, you can do it during this event. We’ll pool some money together and bring a bunch of people out here. If you’re an artist, sell your art, if you’re a farmer, sell your corn and pumpkins.’”
Blue has found it’s a pretty small world. So small, in fact, that one of the event’s founding members, Henry Boi, once farmed the land behind Blue’s boyhood home in Des Plaines.
“I think it’s been fun getting to know our neighbors over the years, finding out about Henry Boi, and learning that we live near Trudi Temple (founder of Market Day),” says Galloway. “Our neighbor down at Grace Farm Studios was a Chicago corporate lawyer, now in private practice, and also does weaving and felting. Her husband tends the animals and the farm, and together they grow organic raspberry bushes. There are a lot of charming stories like that.”