Mud Woman in the Wilderness
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Her mother wasn’t happy when Linda Meyer moved into a cabin in the woods with no electric, phone or running water.
Surrounded by Black Hills National Forest, Meyer lives the spartan, solitary lifestyle of a backwoods Black Hills potter. Her home and studio sit a few miles outside Rochford (population, about 9 year-round) in a divot high in the North Central Hills, above Irish Gulch at about 5900 feet.
Nearly everything she has here — her cabin, studio — she built by hand. Four years ago, when a fire that started in her kiln room destroyed her studio, her work, portfolio and copious notes, she started the process of building it all over again, with some reference books, her hands, a hammer and nails.
Raised on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin by her German Lutheran grandparents, she was infused from birth with Weber’s Protestant work ethic. “On the farm you improvise,” says Meyer, who sometimes uses the handle Mud Woman. “If something broke, you fixed it.”
After a year at Lawrence University on a basketball scholarship, she transferred to Northland College, a small liberal arts school on the Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior. There she found a calling in the painstakingly detailed traditions of Midwestern stoneware pottery.
She graduated in 1981 and came to Rapid City to visit a friend. The Black Hills got into her blood. She found a job at a frame shop and stayed.
By 1991, she was an experienced potter when she approached Prairie Edge with some of her work. The relationship is still going 25 years later. With a relative dearth of potters in the Hills, the gallery can take them in as fast as she can make them.
When she moved to her mountain home in 1995, all that was there was an unfinished wood frame cabin. For the first six years, she had no electricity, working at night by the light of candles and oil lamps. She gradually finished the cabin interior, built cabinets, added a kitchen, and built a studio — all by hand.
She started throwing her work a foot-powered potter’s wheel, but has since refurbished and rewired an old electric.
Her childhood on the farm taught her some of the basics of architecture, woodworking and electrical work, but she is mostly self-taught, absorbing books and manuals.
In the beginning there was no road to the cabin. To get groceries in the winter she would walk to where she parked her truck in a pull-off on the main road, make the trip to Lead and back, then haul them in on a sleigh. Nothing perishable, of course.
“It is an introspective and contemplative journey,” says Meyer. “I need 80 or 90 percent solitude. It's easier to find people than solitude.”
Sometimes people find her out here. Mostly hunters.
One cold night, while she had gone to town for a couple days, a hunter got lost in the dark and panicked. He broke a window and sheltered in her cabin till morning. Fortunately he was a conscientious breaker and enterer. He left a note and said he’d pay for the window, and he did.
A self-proclaimed “coward and hypocrite” (because she’s an omnivore but can’t bring herself to hunt), Meyer is an occasional patron saint of lost or stranded hunters, a unique post on what Jack London would call “the trail of the meat.” She has helped free her share of marooned ATV’s. It’s impossible to know if they tell their friends how they were rescued by the mud woman.
Most hunters who cross her land are friendly enough, but some feel entitled to go wherever they will. She’s had to get surly at times.
In the end, her mother’s worries may have been misplaced.
Over the years, the potter has slowly nudged her colony of one toward technological norms, first running power from wind and solar batteries. As of a few years ago she’s on the grid, even has internet via satellite, but no cell phone and no plumbing. She has a hand-pump well and a freshwater spring for water. She heats with wood. She’s gotten handy with a chainsaw since the pine beetles started dropping trees.
“It is an introspective and contemplative journey,” she says, “a way of life, not a living.”
The self-sufficiency required by living here writes a long chore list that must be checked off before she can make time for the wheel. She’s up and running every day by five, just like her farm days, and there are no days off.
The fire set her back. She rebuilt her studio, getting help to raise one wall, but otherwise board-by-board with a hammer and nails. Without much yet in the way of storage space though, she works in a "state of disarray" which offends her inherited tendency toward rigorous precision.
Like her lifestyle, her pottery is soulfully austere, particular, utilitarian. She works with stoneware clay, makes her own glazes from natural ingredients, and everything she makes has a function.
“It’s very practical. You can use it every day. Because it’s made by hand it’s a little more of a ritual, and eating used to be such a ritual ancestrally. I like the idea that you can take something as common as eating… and enrich people’s lives with something as simple as clay.”
She incorporates the abundant Black Hills flora that surrounds her into her designs, making impressions in clay of spruce, aspen, grasses and sage; and casting ornamental pine cones. The local animals, like buffalo and wild horses, show up in the stoneware as well.
“I choose to live here because I can hear what my head and my heart is telling me without a lot of external static. I have a puritanical attitude about simplicity. Although, while on the surface it might seem simple, it’s a lot of work (laughs) to live simply.
"I try to live my philosophy. I grew up this way, so I was sort of bred for it. But then there was four of us. Here it’s just me (laughs). I can do the tasks, but it’s a yeoman’s approach because there’s not enough energy or time in a day.”
Though her work is still sold at Prairie Edge, Meyer started exhibiting at gallery shows several years ago to build a rapport with the people who love her work. And though she may not have indoor plumbing, she does have a website.
You can see Linda Meyer’s work now through Halloween at the Mathews Opera House exhibit Fired Up, and she’ll be one of thirty South Dakota artists at the First Lady's Prairie Arts Showcase during the annual Governor's Invitational Pheasant Hunt in Pierre October 23 and 24.