• Karl

Emily Kiewel And The Art Of Zen: Tombo Studio

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

CHARLES CITY, IA (September 2019) - I loaded the camera bag into the backseat of my car and headed south on a two-lane road and I...

I met a gravel road flanked by Cedar and Hickory trees on one side and a cornfield on the other, the corn was tall enough to get lost in, then I...

I followed the gravel road until it dead-ended at the Cedar river

and then I made a turn down an almost-hidden driveway, then ...

as the driveway curved through the thinning woods, a house and some outbuildings came into view and...

one of the outbuildings was a 2 car garage and the door was open and boxes of clay were piled up 5 high and 2 deep and...

music floated from the open door and...

that's where I found Emily Kiewel of Tombo Studio.

Emily is the master.

She may balk at that title, but I say it anyway.

I watched as she pounded out some clay, shaped it up a bit, threw it on her wheel and then proceeded to throw numerous perfect bowls, the same size. Bowl after bowl, perfect. It looked easy. She was like a machine.

Just feast your delightful eyeballs on this magical wonderment. Let your corneas dance across these low res jpegs of Emily throwing her magic, casting her pottery spells.

Once upon a time, I took a pottery class at the local art center taught by Emily. It was my first time ever dealing with clay and a pottery wheel. It was much more difficult than I had imagined it would be. More, no matter what I made, whether it was a bowl or a bowl-like bowl, once it was fired they were all transformed somehow into shitty ashtrays. I made a really nice coffee mug with a handle, it was nice. But it came out of the kiln as a shitty ashtray with a NASCAR logo on it. Not sure how this happened. No one there had ever seen anything like it before. I threw it against the wall and stormed out crying.

Sure, I kid. But, the point is, making a nice bowl or dish or serving platter or anything, is much more difficult than you probably think. Watching Emily throw bowls was like watching someone do what they were intended to do on this Earth. It was a pleasure to witness. Like watching Al Pacino yell.

Emily had to learn and work at it, though. It takes time.

I asked her how she got interested in the art form.

"Well... It involved a young man and late nights in a studio at the U of South Dakota. He worked on his sculptures and to keep occupied I would play on the wheel. I was an English Major at Briar Cliff in Sioux City and had some free time so took a throwing class, and another, and another... The young man and I went different ways but I would never part with clay."

Emily grew up in the Clear Lake area, but her pottery skills were really raised in Kyoto, Japan where she moved to teach ESL and to experience living in a different culture. She thought it might be a good place to learn a more traditional approach to the skill of throwing pottery as well. She found it.

Her sensei.

Where she learned, they threw pottery on the floor sitting cross-legged. There was no splatter-bowl around the wheel, just long boards roughly 12 inches wide by 4 feet long. They would set their bowls or whatever they were making on these boards as they made them. Then, when the board was full they would simply carry the boards full of wet pottery to the shelves to dry. Emily recalled her sensei carrying many of these boards full of bowls etc.. on his shoulder up a narrow staircase without the slightest bit of concern.

"He was a third generation production potter. The street he lived on looked like a regular residential street on the outside, but many of these homes were production potteries with living quarters that were generations old. He was very talented, kind, generous and strict. His wife would make me tea and snacks in the afternoon (tea break everyday at 3pm)."

Emily still uses a similar set-up to the one she learned on in Japan. There is no splatter-bowl, just the boards. She still carries them to her rack, like her sensei taught her. One difference, she no longer sits on the floor. I don't blame her at all - if given the choice between a chair and the floor, most people choose the chair. I do. Chairs are nice and we make them for a reason.

Here is her set-up:

First WeGotCorn photo to include my feet. I hope you all have popcorn to munch on while you gaze at them.

Another remnant from her time studying in Japan are her tools, she makes them all by hand. She has some red cedar (I think that's what she said - I don't take notes) on hand and when she needs a new tool she just cuts one out of her supply and shapes it how she wants.


Do you even meditate, bro?

Story continues after this short break:


Thanks for reading and putting your eyes on my photos. You can donate to support this blog if you want. Buy a T shirt or a coffee mug.

Or not.

I don't care.

I enjoy doing it.

Here come all the words and photos that you haven't seen yet because they are just happening now.


Meditation is something I picked up recently as a way to make my brain shut-the-fuck-up about some stuff that wasn't really important. It relaxes me, despite my use of profane language just now. I find this peace in the quiet time that I set aside, but also find myself becoming more present and in-tune with other activities where at one time I would not.

My cellphone is a dick. I am picking it up less and less.

Zen AF.

Emily finds herself feeling those zen feelies as she is working. The repetitive nature of making bowl after bowl. She finds the process of it all quite soothing. Her "ZEN."

For me, its the process of disengaging from reality and entering into this strange space of creativity. The stillness and awareness that happens when you allow yourself to do that. Maybe that's it for her, too.

It can be life-altering.

She will often sit and make bowls and just chill - process her day or things that are going on in her life at that moment and time. Potters high, like a runners high. Zen-zone. Being in the moment.

The ideas.

Most of her inspiration and ideas come from daily life.

"... from all sorts of things, dinner, images, dreams, insects, fungus on a leaf, decor trends. Before I throw I have a complete finished idea. When I sit down at the wheel I already know what I will be making and from what, how I will be decorating and at what stage (wet, leather hard, or bisque), and what glaze I will be using. I use high fired stoneware and porcelain to make functional pieces. They are very different materials and what I make from them calls for highlighting their different qualities. I mostly use stoneware for everyday tableware, I have about 10 glazes that I use. Porcelain has a refined and pure feel when finished. I don't usually use a colored glaze on porcelain (unless its pink because the white porcelain makes my pink glaze really bright). I tend to carve or just throw thin (thin porcelain is translucent) and add clear glaze."

I am no pottery expert but from what I can tell, her pieces are flawless. Perfect. Beautiful. A great amount of experience and information goes into each piece that she creates and the "wheel time" shows.

I snagged some photos from her website, with her permission. See what I am talking about, don't just take my word for it.

Tombo means dragonfly. Something I just knew off the top of my head.

Like I said, I am no expert. And I have no idea if she considers these her best work or not, but they certainly are beautiful. Bottom left photo is a stack of porcelain bowls. Porcelain, from what I understand, is a bit more difficult to work with.

Incredible work to my eye.

This following is a photo of my latest work - a beautiful floral vase that took me 3 and a half weeks to artfully and carefully shape and form:

There is a method to all the madness. A recipe involved. One does not simply make a bowl and fire it without keeping a few notes, not if one intends to keep things consistent. Emily keeps her studio organized. It's not always so simple.


"The hardest part is firing. I fire in a reductive atmosphere (starved of oxygen or excess fuel) which causes brown iron to turn to gorgeous blue celadon and copper from pale green to rich red. I'm making carbon monoxide which wants to become carbon dioxide. The carbon monoxide does this by taking oxygen molecules where they are available, from the minerals in the glaze. It's a mysterious chemical reaction that I don't have a lot of control over. Each firing is different and I keep a firing log with extensive notes so I can try to reproduce firings with good results. Its dependent on so many things (many I'm sure I don't even know) like humidity, temperature increase rate, how the kiln is stacked. Firing the same kiln over many years really helps but every once in a while I'll have a complete failure for one reason or another."

After talking and watching her make a few bowls she showed me around some of the property and introduced me to her chickens, they roam free, and I also met a dog and a couple horses.

I learned that chickens don't need a rooster to lay eggs, just to fertilize them. As an Iowan, I am ashamed I did not know that. I feel like I learned that before, but my brain had since kicked that info out. Happens.

Her favorite hen lays blue eggs. I told her that means its just a big Robin and not a chicken at all. Then I tripped over a rock and fell on a pile of horse poop. Not really.

I also met a couple horses which are gigantic imposing creatures.

I wasn't skittish of them at all and if Emily tells you I was, she is a liar! OK... maybe I didn't get real close to them.

The big horse is a legit Swedish horse that her husband/boyfriend/partner (I never asked..) brought over with him. His name is Par, pronounced like pair. Its supposed to have a couple dots over the a.

Anyway, I am a Swedish. I like Swedish stuff. This was a big horse, though. It only eats meatballs. Not really. (I can say that because I'm Swedish.)

Horses are giant, odd looking dogs with long faces.