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Bill Knoble in his studio in Chestertown in 2011.  Photo courtesy of Jim Carnahan.
Bill Knoble in his studio in Chestertown in 2011. Photo courtesy of Jim Carnahan.

Remembering potter, farmer Bill Knoble

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Last week, one of the North Country's most celebrated artisans passed away.

Bill Knoble spent much of his career in Chestertown in Warren County and later moved to Dekalb in St. Lawrence County. He was a nationally-renowned potter.

He was also a respected outdoorsman, a farmer, a scholar, and a businessman. Brian Mann has our remembrance.

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A few days ago I walked up through meadows and sheep folds in Dekalb in St. Lawrence County.  The land was hidden from the road. 

But it had been cleared and turned to use with a kind of grace you don’t always see on North Country farms. 

A stone for sitting had been placed by a small pond.  The apple trees had been pruned to shape.   

Things that work really beautifully, they're also generally beautiful themselves.
"He loved the land and he loved the animals," said Pierre Nzuah from Cameroon.  He’s talking about Bill Knoble, who owned and worked this farm the last few years along with his wife Ellen Rocco. 

Nzuah says at the end of his life, Knoble fell in love with farming.

Bill Knoble with lambs.
Bill Knoble with lambs.
"I spent a summer with him and sometimes we'd be like, 'Where's Bill?'  And he like went up to chill out with the sheep — and he fell asleep with the sheep," Nzuah laughed.

I first met Bill a little more than a decade ago.  He was already long-established as one of the country’s best potters. 

His Red Truck Clay Works down in Chestertown was a place of pilgrimage for people who cared about making beautiful, useful things.  I went down and interviewed Bill and was captivated.  

"Things that work really beautifully are also generally beautiful themselves," he told me.  "They work in people's hands when they're holding them."

Click the play button above to hear Bill talking about his work and techniques.

When I listen back to that story now, I think it captured a lot about Bill, but it missed a lot too.  He was also an incredible outdoorsman, a Winter 46er who spent every free moment in the mountains.

He was a devoted father.  And he also wasn’t always so serious. 

Bill loved storytelling and jokes and conversation.  In 2005, he talked with Gregory Warner about his effort to find a nude model in tiny, rural Chestertown.

Bill Knoble with the "Red Truck."
Bill Knoble with the "Red Truck."
"I find myself on the phone with a woman I'd never met," he recalled, laughing.  "It was one of the more unbelievably complex situations and embarrassing situations I've been in."

Bill's life as an artist and Adirondacker would have seemed complete and rich enough for remembrance. 

But half a decade ago, he reinvented himself.  Already in his sixties, Bill moved north. 

He married Ellen Rocco, went back to college at St. Lawrence University to study geology, one of his passions – and he became a shepherd.

Mike Cerasaro is from New Paltz and studied at Paul Smiths College.  He worked on the land in Dekalb with Bill for two summers.

"Being able to come up here to more of a pastoral setting really reflected his trajectory in life," Cerasaro said.  "I think it was really a great bookend to his experience outdoors."

Bill Knoble and grandchildren on the tractor.
Bill Knoble and grandchildren on the tractor.
So maybe it’s not right to say that Bill reinvented himself.  There were principles of work and utility and beauty that ran through his passions – from planting apple trees to birthing lambs to painting pots.  

"The idea that a paintbrush could be something like a chain saw or a tractor or a rototiller or a hoe or a shovel and to think about Bill's art background and then to look over this place and see how he manipulated it with those tools.  He really had an eye for the aesthetic but certainly with the understanding that this was a working landscape."

Bill Knoble was sixty-seven years old.  He passed suddenly last week after a day spent working on the tractor.

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