The Tool as Art

Troy Bungart with his handcrafted ceramic mugs featuring a handle styled as a rabbit.
Ceramist turns talents to making tools and brushes for artists

Like many creative people, ceramicist Troy Bungart’s artistic path has not been linear. He was studying photography at Northern Kentucky University in the 1980s when an elective ceramics class captured his delight and cemented his direction.

“I was awful at it, but it didn’t matter — all that mattered was how much I enjoyed it. I didn’t think that clay would become a career path. I was just doing what I loved,” says the 59-year-old, adding that “if you live and do something 24 hours a day, you are bound to get good results, just from the fact of your persistence.”

Before long, Bungart sidelined his camera and ended up with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in ceramic arts. He later added woodworking to his passions — “a little furniture, a little frame-making, some boxes” — which eventually led to his making tools and brushes for working with clay. Laid off from his job in the roofing industry four years ago, he is now a full-time artist.

“I don’t know whether I would have made the uncomfortable leap myself without that push,” he admits.

For a couple of years, Bungart complemented that career change by working part time doing marketing and promotion for the Schaller Gallery in Baroda, in Berrien County, which carries his artwork. He spoke by phone from his home in St. Joseph County, west of Three Rivers, a compound of creativity set on 26 acres.

“If you came up the driveway, you would see a mess, with a sawmill right there, piles of lumber, a woodshop in the pole barn that was supposed to be a garage,” Bungart says. “Down the hill is the original garage, which is now where my pottery studio is, which has a gas kiln and four electric kilns.”

Many of his ceramic designs include wildlife — fish, ducks, pigs, turtles, crab, even an opossum — but lean rabbits in motion seem to be the most prevalent. Some of the titles reveal his sense of humor, like “Bird Speaking Privately with Worm” and “Fish Joy Riding with Rabbit.”

“I’m most happy exploring different avenues,” Bungart says, explaining his foray into making tools. His tools are made from various colorful woods, including osage, lacewood, purple heart, padauk and pink ivory. His brushes feature bristles from squirrel, coyote, fox, deer, skunk and possum, each of which provides a different feel and performance and is sustainably sourced from local hunters.

“I don’t like the idea of killing something just to use it just for the hair,” he says. One of the places his tools and brushes can be found is on Etsy, where many satisfied customers suggest they are works of art themselves.

Bungart teaches brush and tool-making throughout the U.S. and occasionally abroad (as far away as Indonesia).

“I like teaching workshops,” Bungart says. “You get to go in and be the special person for a day or two and you’re the superhero. Everybody loves you, they’re excited to be there, you get to do fun stuff, meet fun people, and then go home.”

He taught in January in Kalamazoo, where ceramist Julie Devers enjoyed his one-day workshop. “We spent the day hearing about his background, making brushes and smelling a lot of glue,” she says, laughing.

“I’ve known Troy for many years, since the fraternity of potters all have just few degrees of separation. Plus, he’s a fellow pyromaniac and likes to wood-fire,” she says, referring to the large outdoor kilns that take up to a full week to heat up, fire the contents and cool down enough to remove the work.

“Tools made by an artist who also works in the medium are always thoughtfully crafted. The brushes tend to be a little more personal. The craftsmanship is a bonus, because they last longer. The mark a brush makes is the personal part. He is very artistic in his approach to brushes, especially when it comes to the handles.”

After a pandemic lull, Bungart’s travels are picking up. He was in Wooster, Ohio, in April as co-sponsor of the Ohio Designer Craftsmen Functional Ceramics Workshop, and this month he’s at the North Carolina Wood Fire Conference. He will be on the Michiana Pottery Tour Sept. 24–25 and will teach a weekend class at the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina in October. He plans to launch online brush-making workshops and explore more art fairs.

Also firing him up is his new equipment — a CNC (computer numerical control) router and laser engraver that he uses to carve stamps and designs to press into clay — and his plans to build a new raku kiln this year.

“Raku is a much more immediate process,” he says. “It’s gas-fired, and you put a few pieces in, fire it, lift the lid, take the pieces out at full temperature. There’s a lot more heat and danger and immediacy to it, which makes it fun, and it’s a completely different look.”

When we spoke with him, Bungart had just loaded a kiln with some test glazes, put handles on mugs and talked with a colleague about a collaboration during a day that began at 5 a.m., which he says is a later start than he used to get.
“Sometimes I work for a couple hours and come back and sleep, but sleep can be elusive,” he says, adding that his days sometimes go 12 hours or more, given that he’s doing what he loves.

Katie Houston

Katie Houston is a Kalamazoo-based writer, communications coach, and marketing consultant.

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