Most people are lucky if they find one thing in life they enjoy and can get paid to do.
St. Anthony Park resident Chuck Solberg hit the jackpot. He has two gigs—both of them offering outsized pleasure to his creative nature.
At his day job, Solberg is an award-winning potter with a national reputation and works displayed in the permanent collections of museums from the Twin Cities to San Francisco. When evening comes, he’s a blues and jazz musician who has played with some of the greats and still performs regularly in his own trio.
Solberg refers to his double life as “two distinct worlds. They’re day and night, literally. Music is nightlife. But the thing with pots, I come to work every day. I like the physicality of throwing pots. Music is more ephemeral.”
Visitors will get a chance to see what Solberg has been working on during the daylight hours when he holds his annual sale this month. Solberg is one of 22 artists who have studios at 2402 University Ave. (the Crittenden Eastman building). All studios will be open to the public on Nov. 21 and 22. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. on Friday, November 21, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, November 22.
Pottery emerged relatively late in Solberg’s life, but music has been there forever. In the 1960s and early 70s he was a pianist touring with jazz and blues legends like Luther Allison and B.B. King, but the most famous musician Solberg ever knew is one he never played a lick with.
When Solberg was a kid, his family lived briefly in Hibbing, across the street from the Zimmerman family. Solberg and the Zimmerman boy sometimes played marbles together, even though there was an age gap of several years between them.
“Bob had blond hair, blue eyes,” remembers Solberg. “He was very frail, but just an ordinary kid.”
Years later when little Bob Zimmerman had reinvented himself as Bob Dylan, no one was more surprised than his old marbles buddy, Solberg. By then a Chicago-style musician himself, Solberg says, “I thought his first album was horrible. Later, it made total sense to me.”
Solberg spent most of his youth in the tough environment of Chicago’s Southside, where, he says, “you aim for the Marines — or jail.” Solberg took a different path. By age 15, he’d begun playing piano in jazz clubs, where he was frequently the only white in the place.
“Sometimes I was warned, ‘Don’t leave the stage,’” he recalls. “There were mean guys out there who didn’t like whites.”
When Solberg was on the road, the ultimate accolade from his fellow musicians was “You play good for a white guy.”
Still, life as a touring musician was hard. An early marriage didn’t work out. “Blues music is a rough, rough world,” he says. To make ends meet, he started driving a truck. He calls it “my experiment with straight life. It ended about 30 years ago.”
But not before he delivered himself into a new world along with a load of modeling clay.
“I thought it was a garden shop,” Solberg says of his destination that day “But here were these guys throwing pots.” He had, in fact, stumbled on the workshop of Milwaukee potter Abe Cohn, who became his mentor.
Becoming Cohn’s apprentice was a life-changing event. At 30, Solberg was ready to stop touring. The one-time high school dropout went back to school and eventually completed a master of fine arts degree at the University of Minnesota. In 1995, Solberg opened his own studio in St. Paul.
A fine layer of clay dust on every surface gives his work space a hazy monochrome look, as if it were an atelier located in a far suburb of Ancient Pompeii. For obscure reasons, all clocks in the studio are set 20 minutes ahead, on what Solberg calls “kiln time.” The only spots of color are furnished by the impressive collection of ribbons mounted on the wall, representing the many awards Solberg’s work has won.
In the center of the large but cluttered space, Solberg sits massive and bare-armed, ready to bend the clay to his will. His large, sculptural-looking pieces reflect their creator’s sensibility: rough-hewn, glazed in tones of brown, russet and ochre, marked by ashy striations created by the wood-burning kiln in which they were fired. Solberg compares them to the making of good music.