Molding a new passion

Former law enforcement officer Jimmy Lichman slips into pottery business

Posted on Jan 2, 2017 :: The Business of Life
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

For some, making the transition from a long career in law enforcement to life as a potter might seem like a big stretch. But, for Jimmy Lichman, who owns and operates Pine Willow Pottery in Fond du Lac, it was a totally natural progression.

While Lichman had always been drawn to the arts and grew up surrounded by artists in his family, he didn’t immediately follow that calling. As a young man, he enlisted as a Navy corpsman—which took him everywhere from Florida to Italy. From there, law enforcement was a logical next step.

“When you start out in law enforcement, you do a lot of different jobs,” he says. And, that was exactly his experience. With positions covering everything from a beat cop to the motor unit to a sniper on the SWAT team, Lichman’s law enforcement career was undoubtedly varied.

But, eventually he found himself back somewhere he wouldn’t have suspected: the school system. Working as a liaison in a junior high and then a high school, Lichman worked with the school staff to present different subject matter. “It was a crime prevention, early intervention program, which was quite involved,” Lichman says.

As unexpected as it might be, that was where Lichman first discovered his love for pottery — thanks to a junior high art teacher. One day, she invited him to come into the school on a Saturday to learn how to throw pottery with her and some friends. “I was intrigued,” Lichman says. “So, I ended up going and I really fell in love with the process of making something out of a pile of dirt.”

When the school year ended, the art teacher sent Lichman home with 100 pounds of clay and a potter’s wheel and instructed him to make some pottery over the summer and bring the equipment back in the fall. “So, I did,” he says. “And, I really loved it. But, because of my job, I wasn’t really able to follow up on it at the time.”

And so, pottery was on the back burner — until Lichman found himself nearing retirement. “When I really got into pottery, my career was coming to an end and I knew that. I had a great career and I loved my job. But, it’s a young man’s game. I could retire, so I did. I retired at 55 and I’ve enjoyed the journey.”

It was when he was looking retirement straight in the face that his wife, Gale, asked what he was interested in pursuing. “I told her I wanted to be a potter,” Lichman says. “And she told me to get whatever I needed to do so.”

That’s where Lichman’s pottery story really begins. In 2003, he began pursuing life as a potter, operating his business named A Mudslinger’s Pottery — which became Pine Willow Pottery when his wife joined him in the business in 2016.

Lichman specializes in Southwestern art, particularly story bowls that embody a sentiment or inspiration influenced by nature and Native American art. He works out of a studio in his home (which includes a showroom for people who are interested in visiting), but he and his wife sell most of their pottery at different art shows throughout the state.

Pine Willow Pottery doesn’t have any employees outside of Lichman and his wife, but he’s hopeful that his grandsons will eventually take an interest in helping him in the business — particularly when it comes to the heavy lifting involved in setting up for art shows. He admits that those shows involve a lot of hard work, but they’re also incredibly rewarding experiences.

In fact, one of his most memorable and impactful encounters occurred when he was exhibiting at the Trout Museum’s Art at the Park. “A gentleman was interested in purchasing a bowl I had done,” he says. “I told him that it was a showcase piece and was quite expensive, and he said, ‘I don’t care about that.’”

When Lichman asked the man’s name, he responded by saying that he was Monroe Trout — of the Trout Museum of Art. “I was flabbergasted, because I’m a hobbyist,” Lichman says. “I’m not a trained potter. I do the research and I’m self-taught. So, I was very honored that he bought one of my pieces of pottery.”

While that interaction was undoubtedly a highlight for Lichman, his entire experience as a potter has been incredibly rewarding, which is why he invests so much time into his craft and passion. From teaching veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to throw pottery in order to calm their minds to being able to share his work with people who truly value its meaning, Lichman always feels fulfilled by his choice to become a potter.

“For me, it’s not about the money,” he says. “It’s about creating something that starts conversation and makes people think. It’s about telling a story.”