The local potter, using a lifetime of science and engineering to perfect his craft.
“Just sit down and do it,” Bill stated, “You begin to remember the details enough that you can sit down and put things together like a meal.”
Bill Mansperger owns Sunrise Pottery. He stands with his remarkable work each Farmers Market season, greeting customers with a big smile and a cheerful soul. His life brought him to this place, along a journey wrought in clay and chemistry.
A local tried and true, Bill attended Columbia College after High School. Upon chance, Bill’s life was staked in the moment a friend advised him to take a pottery class to fill one of his remaining electives. As a 22 year old student intent on mastering design, that was his focus. His electives were left for the end of his time at Columbia and the pottery class happened to have a seat for him. On the first day of the semester, he entered class knowing it was a difficult skill for his friends. Forewarned and expecting time to tell if he would pass the class, he sat down for his first try at spinning and molding clay.
To his surprise, and to his friends’ consternation, Bill was to clay as birds are to the flying; born to master it quickly and to never fail in reaping joy from each experience. “It’s easy,” he would tell his peers. Not one agreed.
That semester, Bill recognized that this was something he had to hold onto. He rented an old house in Sonora and looked forward to building his skills outside of the classroom. Bill’s father imprinted a lifetime of skills onto his son. With these skills and the help of a book to ensure precision, he built his very first kiln in that old rented house. Soon, he leapt from student to artist to entrepreneur when he opened a pottery shop within the front parlor of the home to display his hand-crafted work.
Around this time, Bill’s work was on display for a show at Columbia College. An older, experienced potter carefully scrutinized his work. “He was a grumpy old potter,” Bill recalls, “He said, ‘You’ve obviously made more mistakes than most people have tried.’ It was a driving force for me, and it became my motto.” What was once difficult, becomes easy.
Later, Bill opened a shop in the Oak Tree Center near current day Papa’s New Roost. For 17 years he built up his business and skills of the trade, embarking upon larger and more complex pieces. His grandiose kiln allowed him to create large ceramics including fireplace pieces. Bill continued to build kilns and formulate new clays and glazes through chemical formulas on his computer, ensuring that all of his work is his own ideation and unmatched from the foundation to the finished products.
Each mug, fountain and sculpture goes through the complex process of formula creation through a chemistry computer program. The database he uses breaks down the chemistry to compare and build upon recipes he has tried before. Each formula is tested and improved, allowing Bill to continuously make heartier pieces that withstand time. Glazes may bubble or pinhold. They may change color after firing in the kiln. There are many unpredictable outcomes that he has made predictable through this unique and savvy process. Glaze recipes are a large focus of his work over the last 5 years.
“I use stoneware for the clay because it gives me the best colors,” Bill explains, “I came up with the formula for translucent porcelain on my own.” Usually translucent porcelain is expensive and very difficult to work with, but his final clay formula works extremely well and is quite translucent for exquisite results.
Further proving that he has thought through every detail of this process, Bill constructed a kiln that is in use for current pieces. It’s computer operated to avoid any variable changes in the firing step that could affect the outcome or make it less predictable. For all these years, he has challenged himself to always carry a growth mindset for consistent improvement.
After owning his Oak Tree Center shop, Bill was recruited for a technical job in Palo Alto as a furnace operator. There, they created microwave tubes. He enjoyed the job until one of the furnaces combusted in an explosion. The chambers were full of hydrogen and had to be kept completely free of oxygen, but a mistake by another ended in disaster. Knowing the liability and safety hazards involved in staying, he decided it was time to move on.
Bill lived in Menlo Park for 7 years and would ride his bicycle wherever he went. “Anything goes in that area. I had a neighbor with a 500 pound pet pig! She wore a pink hat.” Throughout this time he balanced a few jobs in systems integration and high tech. A friend took a look at one of the kilns he constructed and offered him a job making night vision gear for the military. “He told me, ‘since you’re a bike rider, you’ll have the stamina to withstand the job!” Bill accepted the position and carried on his artistic endeavors outside of work.
Continuously rooting himself in the bliss of ceramics, he took another job as head of ceramics at the Palo Alto Cultural Center. He built a kiln for the center along with a personal kiln for his fifth studio, in Menlo Park. This 27 cubic feet, computer operated personal kiln is one of his greatest yet, being the one he still uses today, 30 years later. It’s portable, allowing him to take it apart and reconstruct it in his own backyard in Tuolumne County. Starting it up, it fires off of propane, but everything else is electric; running smoothly to finish off each and every masterful creation.
Today, Bill works in the greenhouse in his backyard. Leaving other chapters of the journey behind, his sole focus is ceramics, and all the intricate details within the steps of creation. “In the greenhouse, the temperature is about 85 degrees most days. I blast the music, and challenge myself to do the difficult things I haven’t done before,” Bill laughs. His affable spirit and hard working nature shine through. When you see him at the farmers market, stop by and say hello.
Bill's work is impressive and beautiful. His steamer pots are great for a quick veggie dinner and for making healthy homemade baby food. Throw some sliced vegetables in one of his handmade pots, steam them in the microwave (no added water necessary) for five minutes and either serve them with the seasoning of your choice or blend and jar them for fresh and yummy baby food. Mugs are favorite by customers, and you can find them in an array of beautiful designs and colors.
You can find Bill Mansperger’s ceramic art, Sunrise Pottery, at Peaceful Valley Farmers Market and Sonora Farmers Market each week in the market season. From dishware for your home, planters for your garden and even complex pieces like crystal glazed fountains and sculptures, our local potter and dear friend Bill has it all.