There are probably hundreds of people in Blount County whose cabinets are lined with pottery pieces created by Allen Monsarrat back in the day.
Just don’t ask him to make one more bowl or cup to resemble those he made for you 25 years ago while he was working as a potter in Friendsville.
He literally threw down his last batch of clay and never looked back.
“I haven’t touched clay in 20 years,” he said.
He remembers the day he sold his kiln. A young man, his wife and their newborn baby came from North Carolina to buy it. They were so excited, Monsarrat said.
“I felt like I was selling it to myself but 20 years younger.”
To say he grew tired is an understatement. This former Blount Countian, who now resides in Knoxville, said he grew weary of the same-old routine, day in and day out. He would get up in the morning and create clay pieces from orders he had received, glazing and firing them in his kiln. He estimates that grew to 30,000 pieces.
He had a number of shops that carried his work, so they placed orders. He also had to have a stock of finished pieces that he knew sold well. In addition, Monsarrat had to make sure he had enough inventory to stock the booths at shows.
“The pottery became very reliable and part of the problem was the pots were sold before I made them,” this artist said. “It was very routine and predictable. I could see the years ahead of me were going to be a repeat.”
One day after realizing how unhappy he was, Monsarrat quit, with no Plan B. He said he had to get a job, so he took one as a salesman, pushing ink ribbons for cash registers. It lasted three months and he was glad to make his exit.
Then he tried a stint hanging wallpaper and then it was on to Christmas shows. Eventually, Monsarrat found a place where he could at least use his creativity. He began painting decorative wall finishes. He got some training and launched his own business, in 2001.
He loved having a new outlet for his talents. It wasn’t the drudgery he fell into with molding clay.
“The results were very immediate,” he said. “I didn’t have to throw a pot, glaze it and put it in the kiln and wait to see what happened. Paint is so immediate. What you see is what you get.”
That lasted for a while, until the housing market tanked, in 2008. Monsarrat said he then switched to repainting kitchen cabinets and adding decorative finishes on those.
It wasn’t long before he fell in with a cabinet builder who hired him to do the finishes on all of his cabinetry. Monsarrat did some training to further his career in the field.
Next, it was on to Law and Hicks Millwork, located in Blount County. At this high-end cabinetry shop, Monsarrat said he got to be involved in some incredible projects. There Monsarrat stayed until he hit retirement age.
Laying the groundwork
With his days freed up, Monsarrat said he decided to get more into fine art painting. After all, counting his 25 years in pottery, it had been a medium he excelled in for years.
“I spent my whole life working with paint,” he said. “I know a lot about it.”
He trained with a man from France for weeks in Atlanta. His focus now is on the hyperrealism genre. The paintings he does look like photographs. The effect is accomplished by building up layers of paint.
He begins with his own photography. He studies the nuances of color, light and reflection and how they change against a surface. He works in both oils and pastels.
He’s now painting for the enjoyment of it instead of reproducing pottery over and over again. Monsarrat will have 10 of his paintings on display now through Oct. 8 at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Another artist, David Denton, also will be part of the exhibit. A reception will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 16.
Monsarrat is now 67, lives in south Knoxville and participates in some area art shows. He said he has talked about the possibility of coming back here to Blount County for a show. He is friends with Maryville College’s Carl Gombert.
When he entered art school, Monsarrat knew what he was up against. He said he was told that only one in 10,000 artists would earn a living from their artwork. That, he said, was a motivating factor for his perseverance.
He remembers something his dad told him years ago: that you will try 20 things before discovering one that’s successful. Monsarrat figures he’s proof of that.
As for requests for him to get back into pottery, Monsarrat said he hasn’t been asked to craft a bowl or pitcher since he left it all behind.
“It was a hard life and it was hard work often times under not the best conditions,” he explained. “Spraying glazes on pots outdoors when the temperature is below 40 is not fun.”
He has done some other juried art shows over the years and admits he’s not the best at marketing his work. He has even done shows at local brew pubs.
One particular piece of Monsarrat’s art always seems to be a crowd favorite, or at least gets the most comments. It’s a self-titled piece he called “I own these wrinkles.” His sense of humor on display.
It’s not everybody who can walk away from a lucrative business after 25 years and carve out a niche for themselves.
There were some lean times, Monsarrat will admit. But he has no regrets. He said it’s a pattern with him, to learn something new, pour his heart and soul into it and then move on for the next challenge.
“I look back and I am glad I did all of these different things,” Monsarrat said. “Life was pretty interesting. I got up and gambled every day.”