Potter's Spotlight - Justine Stelmach - Forest Inn Pottery
Updated: Jan 20
My search for the great American pot continues today with a fantastic conversation with Pennsylvania potter Justine Stelmach of Forest Inn Pottery. I discovered Justine’s work through Instagram. Her clean lines, beautiful glazes and exquisite lotus-style pots caught my eye and I knew I had to learn more about her and her work. We had a great discussion on pottery challenges, women in bonsai and the world's largest general store! It was a lot of fun, what follows is a (slightly) edited version of my interview. I hope you enjoy it!
PeaceLoveBonsai: Which came first for you, the tree or the pot?
Justine Stelmach – Forest Inn Pottery: I don’t really know. They both kind of developed independently. When I was a little kid, like 10 years old, I started making Claymation videos. Not that I did pottery, but I had a background in the clay itself. Then about five years ago, I started getting into bonsai because I started getting really bad anxiety. Like it was keeping me up at night. So I started watching videos of trimming bonsai trees and it calmed me down. I learned more about it and got into bonsai.
PLB: So did the pottery start from there?
Justine: Well, yes, after that, I was like “I can’t find pots!”. And I always loved clay and actually I wanted to go to college for it, but decided that it wasn't the right decision for me. So I had a friend tell me to go get some clay and try it out. And as soon as I got the clay and started making things, that was it. I had to do it.
PLB: So have you had any kind of formal pottery education? Classes or the like?
Justine: I have not taken any formal training or anything like that. Just the internet! I would also say just from other potters online giving their knowledge. I’ve used them as a resource and that has been incredibly helpful.
PLB: So tell me about the name Forest Inn. What’s the story behind that?
Justine: Well, I now live in Forest Inn, Pennsylvania, which is a very tiny town. It's not on a map. We don’t have a post office, or a school, but we do have the worlds largest general store, so that cool!
PLB: That’s awesome. So, what sort of bonsai pottery inspirations do you have? Do you have other artists that you look at and think, “I really like what he or she is doing”?
Justine: I do follow Ron Lang on Instagram and I absolutely love his work. There's so many other potters that are on Instagram that I follow that are just doing incredible things.
PLB: I agree. So what do you find is the most challenging aspect of making bonsai pots?
Justine: I think just dealing with all the unexpected problems. There's so many variables involved that once you fix one problem, another one shows itself. And so you're constantly tweaking things to adjust and try to prevent these problems. A lot of times, it’s the glazes that will run and destroy pots. There’s a lot of destruction in pottery.
PLB: Hahaha, yeah, it's kind of amazing to me, actually. I started this blogging journey with zero knowledge around making bonsai pottery. I still don’t know much, but I find it fascinating. Speaking of which, I saw a post on our Facebook page, I think, where you were using some sort of computer program. You had all these little plastic cups everywhere. What’s up with that?
Justine: Yeah, there's a computer program that you put in all the chemicals that you're adding up and it will total out what elements those chemicals are made of. And then, yeah, I have to number them all. And oh my gosh, there’s so many! I test the styles so I can look at them and remember which one is which. There’s constant adjustments because when it goes into the kiln, it never looks anything like when it comes out. You never really can guess what to expect.
PLB: So do you work with unglazed pots or do you prefer to stay on the glazing side?
Justin: I do unglazed pots, too. I just don’t leave the bare clay. The clay I use isn’t the best front facing by itself, so I use something like a stain. I’ll use manganese or copper. Just to darken the clay body. They tend to sell out quick though because I feel like I’m low on them!
PLB: So how has your work evolved?
Justine: I think for the most part, it’s gotten to the point that I like to do more more carving. I’ve also starting making more styles, like the lotus shape. I like those a lot.
PLB: They are gorgeous, by the way.
Justine: Thank you. I think because I am a female, I tend to gravitate towards the feminine styles for feminine trees. And over time, it's just kind of trying to stick with the same style to better refine them. I'll come up with something that I like, and then say, “OK, how do I make that better?” I’m constantly trying to refine it, add more detail and really get it right.
PLB: Absolutely, that makes sense. I’m glad you brought up the female aspect. How does it feel to be a girl in a male dominated sport, so to speak?
Justine: I've never had a bad experience with anyone in the community whatsoever. I am used to a male dominated situation. Prior to doing pottery I was in the automotive industry. I worked in auto parts for 13 years. I’m very familiar with being in a male dominated area for sure.
PLB: Oh wow, so yeah, nothing new for you. I wonder why there isn’t more females in the bonsai world.
Justine: I don't know. I really have no idea. I've tried to figure that out before, too, because it just doesn't make any sense. I have no idea. I can't think of any reason that that would be the case.
PLB: Really, me either. Well, maybe that’s subject for me and the PLB readers to explore in a future blog post! So, what are your thoughts on American bonsai today? What direction do you think it’s going and is there anything you’d like to see more of?
Justine: I think the US, in general, is growing. I feel like I see more potters now than I did before. I think Americans tend to bend the rules and traditions. I’d like to see more Americans continue to explore that in their own art. You know, find our own American style for pottery.
PLB: I agree with that, for sure. Sort of like making the American version of the lotus pot, so to speak? Something as unique as we are as Americans.
Justine: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
PLB: So do you consider yourself more a craftsman or craftswoman or more of an artist?
Justine: I see myself more of a craft person.
PLB: And why is that?
Justine: I don't know. I have a hard time seeing myself as an artist. I mean, people tell me that, but I don’t feel that way. I guess everyone's an artist in some kind of sense, but I don’t feel like that person.
PLB: Well, there’s no question you do great work. I appreciate your time today. That was awesome! One last question, you are from north of Philly correct? Tell me and the PLB readers where we can get a great Philly cheesesteak sandwich?
Justine: Oh wow, I've only been to Philly two or three times, actually, but I know that the Reading Terminal Market has absolutely amazing sandwiches. But I wouldn’t consider myself the authority on Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches!
PLB: Awesome, well I appreciate that. And If I’m in the Forest Inn area, I’ll meet you up at world’s largest general store!
Justine: Yeah, it's called the Country Junction. It’s pretty big, big enough to get lost in there!
PLB: Hahaha, great. So how’s the best way to find you and purchase some of your great work?
PLB: Yeah, right on. Great site, by the way. I love it. Thank you. This has been fantastic.