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Turning to peace on a potter’s wheel

Article originally appeared in the Watertown Daily Times, written by Steve Sharp. Original article can be found here.

It was just another day in October of 2014 and Milwaukee criminal defense attorney Scott Obernberger had finished his fourth court hearing of the morning.

He was entering an elevator when he had a transient ischemic attack — a mini-stroke.

After about 15 minutes, Obernberger felt a little better and pushed on to another hearing. He got away with it, but a week went by and he still felt the ill effects.

Obernberger’s doctor informed him that this dangerous occurrence was a warning shot and he had a 40% chance of suffering a major stroke if he didn’t make significant changes in his life.

“I quit the law right there,” Obernberger said.

A life-changing dive into pottery was to follow.

The 52-year-old is now happy, relaxed and thriving, having just relocated his pottery business, Twice Baked Pottery LLC, to a historic building in downtown Jefferson from its previous location of about seven years in his hometown of Racine.

“I always found pottery intriguing,” Obernberger said. “I was always interested in how potters could make functional art out of spinning, wet mud.”

A friend purchased a night class for him that ran once a week for a couple of hours and Obernberger was hooked.

“I absolutely loved it,” he said. “Everything about it was relaxing and, given the fact that I was no longer enjoying my very stressful career as a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee, this was a great outlet and way to relieve stress.”

Obernberger described his first pieces as being, “big, heavy, doorstops, although I thought they were bowls. But I had a blast making them.”

Obernberger kept taking classes and eventually started traveling to North Carolina to gain more pottery experience and knowledge through intensive, week-long sessions.

“After throwing for a few years, I started doing several art shows a year,” Obernberger recalled. When the mini-stroke hit him, “That was when I decided to try to be a potter full time.”

The arts and crafts movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s has been an inspiration to Obernberger.

“When you talk to most people about the arts and crafts movement, they think of it as a ‘style,'” he said. “While it certainly is distinguishable in its forms and themes, it was really a belief system. Art should surround you and be functional. Your everyday life should be filled with beauty – the door to your home, the mantle of your fireplace, the clothing you wear and the dishes you use. This concept appeals to me. Art should be for everyone and fill everyone’s life.”

Within the arts and crafts movement, Obernberger is partial to Vienna’s Secession movement, which featured Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele — his landscape paintings in particular — architect Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann of furniture design fame, among others.

“Since most of the classes I have taken have been in the (Great) Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, my style largely reflects the Appalachian style of the area,” he said. “I like the simplicity of form, its connection to the organic. It feels as though it is one with the environment and I like the functionality. It fits in well with my belief that art should be functional, affordable and still beautiful.”

Most of Obernberger’s work is wheel-thrown, though he does do some hand-building of lamps, trays and other objects.

“The clay I use is a brown stoneware with manganese frit in it – I love the texture, the plasticity of the clay, and the color range I get with it is imbued with earth tones because of the darker clay body,” he said.

Amazingly, there is no painting involved in Obernberger’s colorful pieces.

“All of it’s glazing,” he said. “I usually dip, then layer additional colors of glaze over one another to get some very interesting effect. Because I use a brown clay body, most of my colors come out very earth-tone. I like how you can get all different colors and still have a nice earthy hue.”

All of Obernberger’s pottery is fired twice and that is how his business, Twice Baked Pottery, got its name.

“Most pottery is fired twice. The first firing is from greenware to bisque,” he said. “I fire to just under 1,900 degrees. This is what hardens the clay and turns it to stone. Afterwards, we sand the pieces to get rid of any rough spots, wax the bottoms and glaze them. The second firing is to just under 2,200 degrees. This, essentially, turns the glaze into a glass coating and makes the pieces water-tight and food-safe.

Although it nearly killed him, Obernberger said his practice of law imbued him with certain qualities he needed to be a success at the potter’s wheel.

“I don’t think analytical people ever stop being analytical,” Obernberger said. “I practiced law for about 18 years, from 1996 to 2014. Most of my practice was focused on criminal defense, state, federal and appellate. While I don’t miss practicing law, I use many of the skills I developed while being a lawyer in my business — calendaring, marketing, selling, developing themes, observing people and what they gravitate to, to name a few. These are all skills from my previous life which have come in handy with my present business.”

Obernberger throws approximately 12,000 pounds of clay per year and participates in 30-35, mostly juried, art shows, and runs his store.

“The experiences I took away from being a lawyer and running my own practice come in handy, everyday, as I build my pottery business,” he said.

As Obernberger took Family & Friends on a tour of his new headquarters — which sits, somewhat ironically, directly kitty-corner from the Jefferson County Courthouse — his enthusiasm for, and comfort with, his new life was easily perceptible. At one point during the photo-shoot for this story, the former suit-wearing attorney had to change into a flannel shirt to feel properly dressed.

Obernberger’s renovated, 1870s-era building’s high-ceilinged front room, which receives direct, bright light from the east, is already filled with pottery creations, such as glazed plates, bowls, mugs, magnets, cups and even lamps. He closed on the location in October of 2021 and began work immediately.

A well-used work area in a middle room displayed evidence that Obernberger was creating beer steins — about a dozen dried on a rack near his potter’s wheel. Among the next stops for these vessels would be one of several kiln sat the rear of the structure.

Obernberger had high praise for Thrive Economic Development of Jefferson County and for Jefferson’s municipal leadership. Both entities made his move from Racine to Jefferson a smooth one.

“I wanted to remain in southeastern Wisconsin and I did a multicounty search for a new location,” he said. “After speaking with Deborah Reinbold at Thrive, I was very impressed with the people and the area. Deborah put me in contact with Jefferson City Administrator Tim Freitag.”

After meeting with Freitag and a number of other city leaders, including Mayor Dale Oppermann, Obernberger was immediately impressed.

“Everyone was very welcoming and encouraging,” he said. “I saw how the city leaders here are making things happen and do what they say they are going to do – something you don’t see from many governments. When I was considering locating in Jefferson, a group (from the city) came to my store and studio in Racine to talk with me about relocating and to see if this was something that would make sense for everyone. When we started talking about ‘day-trip tourism,’ beautification and preservation, I could see that we all connected. I knew immediately that I liked these people and their approach, and I was sold on Jefferson as my — and my company’s — new home.”

After exploring a few options in the area, Reinbold put Obernberger in contact with the previous owner of the brick building that is now his shop, as well as contractor Chris Topfel.

“And I am now the very lucky owner of 235 South Main St.,” Obernberger said.

Obernberger sees Jefferson and its surrounding communities as places with much going for them.

“The people are friendly and hard-working, the area is beautiful, and the historical and architectural interest of downtown has very few matches,” he said. “It has all of the charm of a small town and is still close to anything that I need. Being only 40 minutes from Madison and about 30 minutes from Waukesha places me in a great location to develop these markets. At the same time, I will still be one hour from my Milwaukee customers and less than two hours from my Racine and Chicago area ones. Proximity to the highway is a plus, because I am on the road for shows quite frequently.”

As they were with his pottery endeavor in Racine, Obernberger’s parents are frequently present and supportive of his effort in his new location.

“Mom and Dad are great. I am truly blessed to have them in my life,” he said. “Dad and Mom have been helping me in the store ever since I opened in Racine about seven years ago. Dad and another friend, Al Albright, helped me renovate both my Racine store and now my Jefferson store. Mom and Dad both help in the store when they can, and with some of the work in the studio — sanding, pricing, preparing the store floor and other things. I am extremely lucky to be able to spend time with them in the shop. It has allowed us to get to know each other even better and I have so many great memories of our time together. We are very close. I am grateful to them for their love and support. I couldn’t have done any of this without them.”

Just as Obernberger is thrilled to be in his new location, Jefferson officials are pleased to have him in the heart  of the city. His shop is a perfect fit for the city’s vision for the future of its downtown.

“We are thrilled that Scott has chosen to relocate his business and residence to downtown Jefferson,” Oppermann said. “He will, undoubtedly, bring new customers to our city who will hopefully also shop at other local businesses. His renovation of the property on Main Street has already made a noticeable improvement in the downtown business district. He and his business will help Jefferson become more of a shopping destination. We welcome Scott and Twice Baked Pottery with open arms.”

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