This master potter likes the idea of his hands making things to be used by other hands. He prefers making beautiful but still functional pottery such as vases, pitchers, pie plates, and mugs, rather than pottery to be set on a shelf and admired.

Jeff Walker has a passion for clay and throwing pots.

“I eat, breathe and sleep clay,” he says. “It’s a passion, and I find it relaxing. If I go more than a few days without throwing a pot, I need to get my hands back into the clay.”

Jeff has been the Master Craftsman at Hillcreek Pottery at Siver Dollar City at Branson for the past 13 years. He leads a staff of from two to five potters that help hand-make every item in that pottery.

Right now, he has a couple of openings, and he says the last couple of years have been crazy. They ended the holiday seasons with essentially no inventory left to start out the New Year. “We’ve always focused on quality first, and then quantity, but it’s unusual to end a season with only 126 items in the shop. Usually, it would be two or three thousand items left, and that provided a base to begin the next season. The pandemic changed buying habits. People focused on their homes, on things they think are important.” And that must have translated to obtaining beautiful and quality craftsmanship for functional items in the home.

Jeff has always preferred making functional items to be used, rather than just admired on a shelf. That yields pottery pie plates, pitchers, vases, mugs, and more. He likes the notion that his items are used frequently, held in his customers’ hands after his own hands created them, and even passed down to future generations’ hands.

He believes it was divine intervention that led him to Silver Dollar City, the 1880s-themed park at Branson. They happened to call him at a time when he was tiring of traveling to shows all year long to sell his work. “I used to throw eight tons of clay by myself,” he notes, adding, “If they had called me a few years earlier, I would have told them you can’t pay me enough to come.” But now he enjoys demonstrating his craft to the theme park’s visitors, being off the road, having time to take vacation, and diving regularly at Table Rock Lake. In fact, Jeff sometimes serves as a dive master there. “I love what I do,” he says.

Jeff learned he wanted to work with clay while he was still in high school. “I was lucky to have an art instructor who had a passion for clay, and then when I went to college at Central Missouri State University (now University of Central Missouri), another couple of instructors were functional potters,” he says.

“I liked the total control.” It doesn’t happen often these days, but when he was learning, if a pot got messed up, “I knew it was me. I would just throw the clay over my shoulder, grab a new lump, and start all over. It’s hard to explain. I like working with my hands, but I think you have to love it, having your hands in the clay.”

He says he can be proficient in other media. He can weld, work with wood, and he’s even blown glass. “I got lucky, and I made an ornament in front of people that turned out okay,” he says, “but it’s humbling to watch the real artists do that”—as it’s humbling to watch Jeff turn a lump of clay into an elegant pottery vase.

“I’m still learning, still constantly asking questions of other potters, studying their work, learning new firing techniques, and glazes,” he says. His signature glaze is a red glaze, one of the most difficult to make. Glazing includes mixing clay with natural compounds to create different glazes and different colors. The firing of the pot also influences the glaze.

Does Jeff have a favorite thing to make? “I don’t have a favorite,” he answers. “I love making pots. There might be days you can’t pay me to make a mug, and then the next day, I may want to make a hundred of them,” he adds. “What I like best is that other people like them. They cherist them. Customers call back and ask me to make another of something they’ve bought.”

What’s the hardest thing he makes? “An urn,” he immediately answers. “Not because it’s technically hard, but when you’re making it and you know your hands are making a pot that will carry the ashes of a loved one or a beloved pet, you’re thinking about that, their loss, and it’s purpose. And that’s hard, heart-wrenching.” He’s made urns for several customers, his grandmother, and a fraternity brother who was dying and asked Jeff to make one for him.

He much prefers making household items that will be used daily by the people watching him demonstrate at his turning wheel. He enjoys talking to the customers, learning where they’re from and what they’re interested in while he’s creating. It’s not always easy.

He recalls one time a visitor was telling his group, “That wants to be a bowl.” So Jeff made a vase. The next piece wanted to be a pitcher, the visitor said. So Jeff made a bowl. He is down-to-earth in his approach, and knows what he’ll be making when he starts.

Whatever it is, it will be a beautiful, functional piece of pottery, intended to last for generations.