This spring, we spoke with potter and fisherman Jeff Szarzi. Since moving to Alaska in 1987, Jeff has mastered an impressive array of skills through his work in fishery science, guiding, coaching hockey, and teaching math, science, carpentry, and ceramics. He currently lives in Homer and creates pottery “inspired by Alaska” in his home studio. Learn more about Jeff’s background, artwork, and passion for fly fishing below!
What brought you to Alaska?
I moved here permanently in 1987 and went to the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. I got my bachelor’s degree in biology with an emphasis on marine biology and fishery science and worked for the Forest Service as a trail ranger and a fisheries technician. My wife and I met in 1988 and got married in 1989. She got her master’s degree in fishery science, and we moved to Glennallen in 1991.
What role has fishing played in your life?
Our life was always built around fishing. When I worked as a fisheries technician, I had a volunteer from Colorado who was insane about fly fishing and he got me turned onto it. From that point, I loved fly fishing and I spent my days off hunting for spots to fish. Once we moved to Glennallen, I tied flies in the winter and found places for grayling fishing.
I got a job with the Bureau of Land Management as a fishery technician on the Gulkana River. On one of our first jobs, I went up to the middle fork of the Gulkana and snorkeled through creeks to see how far the Steelhead went into upper tributaries. The Steelhead up there are the northernmost known population of Steelhead. The next two summers I did lake census work with volunteers. In 1992 I took on the Head River Ranger position, which was great because I was always fishing. Fishing has just always been a big part of my life.
What is your most memorable fishing story?
One memorable and kind of goofy story was on the Arolik in Southwest Alaska. It’s pretty magical out there—we fish with surface patterns for rainbows. It’s extraordinary to throw them into the bank, pop them off the grass, and watch a rainbow come up from below.
The bends in the Arolik have typical characteristics – there are big bends, cut banks, and big pools that riffle out. When the red salmon are packed in there, there are also hundreds of Dolly Varden below them.
One day I was sitting and eating a bagel with cheese, and a chunk of the bagel fell into the water. All of a sudden, a Dolly Varden came up and swallowed it whole. We all looked at each other and said “maybe we should make a bagel pattern now!”
How did you find your way back to the classroom?
I left BLM in 1992 and got my teaching certificate. I came back to Glennallen and worked as a middle school teacher and hockey coach for four years, and fished more remote rivers during the summer. My wife got a job in Homer, so I left my teaching position after the fourth year and got hired by River Wranglers. I became one of their fly fishing and river rafting guides—it was a great lifestyle and a really special time in my life.
After that, I did carpentry work in Homer for a while, and then got a teaching position at an alternative school in Homer with three teachers. I became the math and science teacher due to my science background. We taught the kids other skills, too, so I used my carpentry and woodworking skills and built a woodshop with the kids. We got several grants and built rustic furniture, which sold really well at craft fairs. I taught there for sixteen years.
What drew you to pottery?
We have a great program called Artists in the Schools. Local artists or people from the state come and spend two weeks with the kids. In my fourteenth year there, the kids explored ceramics with our local potter Paul Dungan, and they worked in the wood studio. As the supervising teacher, I worked along with them.
I remember looking up and seeing all the kids engrossed and the room was silent. I thought, “maybe we should do woodworking half the time and I can pursue this clay passion with the kids.” I took hand building and wheel throwing classes, and we bought wheels, a kiln, and other tools with the money we had saved up by selling the wooden furniture.
Soon after, it was my last year of teaching and I was like “what am I going to do?” I liked what I was doing with pottery and I had a garage space I knew I could convert to a studio. I contacted a ceramics professor named Jeremy at the University of Alaska Southeast. Jeremy suggested I pursue an eight-week concentration program in Penland, North Carolina at Penland School of Craft. I did, and my skill just shot up. When I got back, I remodeled my garage and everything fell into place.
Early on I loved carving grayling. I also carved flies and fisher-persons, and my Instagram went viral—there were a lot of folks interested. Then I had the confidence to pursue a fly fishing theme. That was about six years ago and now I’m doing all kinds of different aspects within the craft.
How does your scientific background influence your pottery?
Biologists are naturally curious. The birds, the moose, and the fish in the bay and the rivers are all big inspirations. I know the science behind the birds and the fish really well and am always curious to see what they’re doing. In the studio, scientific knowledge comes in with glazes, believe it or not. Glazes are calculated to the molecular weight of chemicals. My woodworking experience comes in, too, because clay shrinks, and I have to take that into account when shaping pieces. All that stuff helps out immensely.
You describe your pieces as inspired by Alaska. What does that mean to you?
It’s the world around us—King Salmon in the bay, the mountains bright with snow, transient pods of Orcas coming back in, the cranes flying overhead, Denali National Park. Alaska is just so darn intense.
For example, I go to the Kenai peninsula once the red salmon start to lay eggs, and as I walk along the shore I see salmon carcasses. Some of them are beautifully dried skeletons. Those inspired me to pursue a Dia de Los Muertos screenprint mug with salmon skeletons.
It’s also the town of Homer. We have painters and ceramic artists, sculptors, and musicians. It is a wonderful little bastion of creativity. We’re all in our studios doing solo journeys, but we’re in communication. Three years ago we started the Homer pottery tour. Sometimes I’ll go over to somebody’s place and see what they’re working on and ask questions.
Last year one of our potters made Native American pipes for a women’s group down in the Northwest somewhere, and she wanted to fire them at a certain temperature. She couldn’t do it with her kiln, so I gave her the clay and she made the pipes and fired them at my studio. There are wonderful collaborations that happen.
What are your goals for your artwork?
My art always goes with me, and I am always thinking about what I can put on a surface next, whether it’s textural or more an animal’s biology.
In my most recent show, my theme was “coming together.” I made a lot of sets—whisky sets, tea sets, and a grayling set with flies on it. I really enjoy making them for the purpose of bringing people together. People who share that fly fishing passion can sit around and enjoy drinks and tell some stories.
That whole narrative is what I appreciate most about being a ceramic artist. I want people to know that I really love doing custom work for them. I know that once it gets out there, the whole gathering narrative starts again with the piece’s new owners.