Featured Story

Shelter Island Profile: Megan Hergrueter, living a life of kiln and kin

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Megan Hergrueter with her work. The white and black vessel is an example of a raku technique — applying horsehair to red-hot pottery to create a singed effect.
Megan Hergrueter with her work. The white and black vessel is an example of a raku technique — applying horsehair to red-hot pottery to create a singed effect.

The week leading up to Shelter Island’s ArtSI open artist studios event, Megan Hergrueter had her hands full. As in full of clay.

A potter whose studio in the Heights has been a popular stop on the studio tour for years, Megan spent part of the week working near an outdoor oven heated to 1,200 degrees, with a garden hose at the ready, and a buddy on call, in case of conflagration. In spite of this burst of production — and fire-suppression precautions — before the end of the first day she had sold most of her one-of-a-kind vases, bowls and art objects.

The hand-built, wheel-made and raku-fired pieces Megan creates are not all utilitarian objects for home and kitchen. Many pieces are etched with carbonized cracks and ridges formed when super hot pottery is removed from the kiln and suddenly cooled. Therein lies their charm.

“Raku is dangerous and it stinks,” Megan said. “And how it will turn out when you open the kiln, you never really know.”

Organic shapes of birds, scallop shells, blowfish and sheep find their way into her pieces as an expression of her personal natural history, and the fact that she’s spent every summer of her life on Shelter Island, and calls this place home.

Born in Cranford, New Jersey, Megan was the youngest of five in a family that has summered on the Island for generations. Megan’s 94-year old mother, Elizabeth, (Betty) Hansel lives at Peconic Landing and is in possession of so much obscure and fascinating family history, that Megan would only agree to discuss it after her mother had briefed her.

Megan’s great-grandfather visited the Island during a trip to Montauk on business in the late 19th century. “He worked for the railroads,” Betty Hansel told me, emphasizing the “s” in railroads, and thus clarifying that his work did not involve stoking an engine or taking tickets.

Megan’s grandmother started the family tradition of finding true love during an Island summer when she met her husband-to-be at a party and became engaged in 1917. Two World Wars later, Megan’s parents, Charles (Cap) and Betty Hansel took a cottage in Montclair Colony.

Starting in the 1960’s the extended family occupied a pair of houses near the North Ferry, one of which was generally rented out. These were beloved homes to Megan and her four siblings as well as 19 first cousins and various aunts and uncles. Known to all as “the red house” and “the brown house,” they stand to this day, although no longer red and brown.

The summer Megan was 16, she met Charles Hergrueter, whose family had long had a summer home on the Island. Megan’s brother worked with Charlie at the Bohack, the Island’s grocery store, and although Charlie and Megan noticed each other, they didn’t date until three years later, when Megan took a break from Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire to spend a winter here.

Charlie was also spending the winter on the Island, working for George Costello at Costello Marine.

In 1974, Charlie and George decided to go to Alaska and work as crane operators on an oil platform in the Bay of Alaska, the experience of a lifetime, and a sure way to make money. Megan, who was back on the Island, and Charlie had to communicate primarily by letter. She claims to have saved every one he wrote, so he must have been pretty good at it.

Megan waitressed and worked as a chambermaid during the summers, but said the best job she ever had was the fall she worked as a culler for Chip Edwards during scallop season. Up at 4:30 every morning, by 5 a.m. they were on the water, and were back by 11 a.m. with their limit of “many bushels,” in time for Megan to work the lunch shift at The Dory.

She remembers scallops so plentiful that they came up near the surface, jetting upwards like aquatic butterflies.

In 1978, Megan and Charlie got married at Hay Beach. “Right on the beach,” Megan said. “That’s our favorite place.”

The couple studied biology at Stony Brook, and while Charlie went to medical school in Boston, she went to work as a buyer in the ski business. They settled in Newton, Massachusetts and Charlie became a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Megan and Charlie’s children, Gretchen 31, Anja, 29, and Charles (Gus), 25, grew up spending summers on the Island. In May on Shell Beach, Anja will marry Edward (Ted) Barber, whose mother, Betsy Dinkel, is related to Megan’s by friendship and marriage since Megan’s sister Kathy married Peter Dinkel decades ago.

“We are a close family and extended family,” Megan said. “Shelter Island brings and keeps us together.”

When she was a student at Colby-Sawyer, she took ceramics and fell in love with making pottery. From the very start, she knew she loved hand building, a process by which the potter pinches, smooths, bends and burnishes the pot with her hands instead of a mechanical device like a wheel. “I prefer it because it’s challenging, and extremely satisfying,” Megan said. “Making pottery is a tactile craft. An art, really.”

On the Island the summer of 2000, Megan was working with friend and fellow-potter Harriet O’Halloran when she realized she had created a pot too large to transport safely back to Newton.

Harriet suggested she take it to Barbara Wright at Shelter Island Pottery, a studio on Manwaring Road. Wright agreed to fire it, and was so impressed with Megan and her work, that she invited Megan to teach a hand building course.

Megan taught for 10 summers, and when Wright closed her studio, Megan continued the group in a donated garage space they made into a pottery studio. “Every summer I do my best work,” she said. “I have such a connection with these women, we’ve had it since 2009.”

After a trip in 2002 to the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico to learn pottery techniques, Megan returned to the Island fired up — so to speak — and ready to dig a pit. She had long been fascinated with native American pottery, which is usually hand built. But the firing techniques she learned, creating smooth black-on-black surfaces by firing in a low oxygen environment, captured her imagination.

She announced to her pottery group that they had to try it and convinced a member of the group to allow the digging of a pit on her property. They lined the huge pit with sawdust and filled it with pots they had treated with more sawdust, banana peels and other organic matter.

The fire burned all day, slowly down to embers, whereupon they smothered the burning pit of pottery with more sawdust, depriving the fire of oxygen until it burned out completely. All that was left were blackened pots looking like ancient relics of an archaeological dig — a thrilling sight.

Megan said she closes her eyes every time she opens a kiln, full of the thrill of discovery that comes from seeing her creations come out of the fire, “Creating something beautiful from a lump of clay.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  I document everything with the camera in my phone

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Hay Beach. My sanctuary.

Last time you were elated?  When I opened the kiln up today. It’s like Christmas.

What exasperates you?  Impatient people honking their horns.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  Thanksgiving. We always have a crowd and that’s pretty special.

Favorite movie or book?  “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Favorite food?  Fresh flounder.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  I totally respect Jane Leighton, a woman in my pottery group. She started when she was 88, saying she had always wanted to learn pottery. Now she’s 96.

Most respected elected official?  President Obama. He brought some civility to our world.