In the early 1990s, Tom Gilfillan took a year off as a junior high school art teacher in Wisconsin to learn how to be a production potter. After 10 months of training, he returned to teaching, but he was no longer satisfied with his career.
After looking into a few different locations to set up a pottery shop, he settled on Whitefish. He was drawn to both the skiing and the people, and in 1995, Gilfillan set up shop in Whitefish and wound up on Central Avenue a few years later, where it still is today.
For the last 25 years, Gilfillan has trained a string of production potters who work to create the Whitefish Pottery line, which he’s sold in his shop from the start, ranging from from mugs to saucers to pie pans. But since his most recent production potter quit back in March, he’s shifting the shop’s direction as Gilfillan moves into semi-retirement. Now, he’ll be discontinuing the Whitefish Pottery line and bringing in art from other potters and artists so he can focus on his own personal artwork.
“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” Gilfillan said. “But Whitefish Pottery has now enabled me to be able to take a step back and work on my own personal artwork which is what I’ve wanted to do for 25 years.”
Gilfillan already has five new ceramic artists with more on the way, and he’s bringing in different pottery and shifting the shop to more of a gallery style. While he’s selling off the rest of the Whitefish Pottery line, he says he will still throw some pots from time to time to sell. But he’s not prioritizing customer deadlines anymore.
“When you become a production potter, you take a ball of clay, make a mug, put it on the shelf,” he said. “You’re a factory because you get paid by the piece. Guys like me can make everything look like it came out of a machine, but it’s all made by hand because you get that good.”
In 1993, he trained to be a production potter in Ohio. He says if a potter couldn’t throw 100 savable mugs in one day after a month of training, they were advised not to pursue the trade. Luckily, Gilfillan hit that benchmark in three-and-a-half weeks. He says it improved his pottery skills significantly.
Gilfillan is now working on some sculptures and tossing around ideas that he’s had for a long time.
“I just want to sit back and relax and do what I want to rather than worrying about customer deadlines and wholesale,” he said.
Gilfillan was looking forward to throwing his 25th anniversary party this past May, but he canceled the event due to the pandemic. He’s thrown an annual customer appreciation party every year since he opened on Twin Bridges Road where the original shop started. Next year, he’ll combine the 25th and 26th anniversaries and already has it scheduled for May 14.
But in the meantime, Gilfillan is working to restructure his business after 25 years of Whitefish Pottery.
“I’m just heading into semi-retirement with the idea of being able to create my own personal art and still have a shop to sell it in,” Gilfillan said.
Whitefish Pottery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information, visit https://whitefishpottery.com/.