Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

Medieval Magic
Melissa Hogenson's pottery brings
dragons and wizards to life

by Jarrett Medlin
Melissa Hogenson, a former art teacher from Ethel, sculpts medieval pottery in her basement. She and her husband, Jim, have sold whimsical pottery for 25 years.

Melissa Hogenson begins with what appears to be a typical clay vase. She carefully scrapes horizontal lines across one side, then adds legs and arms. She places a ball of clay on the vase’s top and attaches a nose, ears and horns. After forming two small indentions in the clay, she inserts two white balls of clay as eyes. In a matter of minutes, an average vase magically transforms into a cartoonish dragon picking its nose. She dubs the small creature Booger.

Melissa sits back and smiles at her creation. After a moment, she laughs and says, “I’m not sure I should have made a Booger today for my demonstration. Now my neighbors really will think I’m crazy.”

Admittedly, the former teacher and her husband, Jim, do have unique jobs for a couple living in the rolling pastures of northern Missouri. For 25 years, the Hogensons have sold clay dragons and wizards that they create in their basement.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. At first, Melissa and Jim were on track to live average Midwestern lifestyles. Melissa grew up near New Cambria and Jim moved to the area when he was 13. In high school, she was a cheerleader and he was a basketball player.

“Neither of us ever dreamed we’d end up doing this, traveling everywhere and selling dragons,” she says.

After earning a master’s degree in art education from Northeast Missouri State University in 1979, Melissa taught art for grades K-12 while Jim worked as a carpenter. But Melissa longed for more than just teaching pottery. She wanted to sell it.

Melissa began selling mugs likened after cats, frogs and pigs at local art fairs. Then, she started appearing at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival and attending more art fairs.
In 1980, Melissa quit teaching and instead produced pottery full-time. Having never taken a business class, Melissa learned by trial and error.

Merwyn, a 12-inch wizard, holds his pet dragon and motions toward the heavens. This oil lamp, which sells for $125, is one of Melissa’s many creations. Photo courtesy of Jerry Anthony

“I knew I could make pottery, but making a business out of it was a whole new thing,” she says.

Melissa wanted to produce what would sell, and she heard increasing demand for dragons at Renaissance festivals.

Dragons were ideal because Melissa could shape them into anything from candles to mugs. Also, they were in demand. Most importantly, they were fun to make.
“I didn’t want to be stuck doing something that’s not fun 60 hours a week,” Melissa says.

Using her own imagination, as well as tips from craft magazines, customers and her husband, Melissa expanded her pottery to a wide array of medieval items that ranged in price from $15-$300. She sold dragon oil lamps, with flames flickering on the creature’s tongues. She sold dragon incense burners, with smoke rising out of their nostrils. She sold dragon drinking vessels, with the winged creatures hiding inside or clinging to a mug’s side to form a handle. And she sold decorative figures that featured wizards, castles and, of course, dragons.

Lisa Sopko, a long-time collector from Paola, Kan., who now has close to 100 of Melissa’s pieces, remembers the first time she saw the dragons at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. Right away, they stood out.

“We shop around and look at other dragons and most of them are pretty gruesome,” she says. “Melissa’s dragons have a nice, whimsical look. They’re kind of her own style.”

Jim and Melissa Hogenson hold a dragon mug and oil lamp while standing in their basement. Their pottery ranges in price from $15 to $300.

Although dragons are typically considered ferocious, Melissa’s fire-breathing fellows are harmless, more resembling Puff the Magic Dragon than a fierce beast.

“My dragons have always been pretty friendly,” she says. “That’s my personality. I can’t really make mean dragons.”

Booger, Wixem, Patch and Seymore. Those are just a handful of her dragons’ names.

“Jim and I do a lot of brainstorming to name these dragons,” Melissa says. “We usually try to make it associated with what they’re doing.”

For instance, Patch is trying to quit smoking so he has a nicotine patch on one arm. Wixem has a candle wick on his tongue. Booger, well, you can figure out where he gets his name from the picture above.

Not only do Jim and Melissa collaborate in naming the characters, but also in making them. Ten years ago, Jim hung up his tool belt and took up his current job as the second half of Clay Images, the Hogensons’ business. The couple works around the clock. Each year, the Macon Electric Cooperative members produce about 4,000 handmade pieces. Melissa sculpts every piece while Jim is responsible for glazing, loading and unloading the pieces in a downdraft gas kiln, and doing most of the traveling.

Wixem, a small dragon with a flame flickering on its tongue, is just one of Melissa's ingenious oil lamp designs. Her functional designs bring the pottery to life.

“We sure don’t have a 9-to-5 job,” Melissa says. “Really, it’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle. You do what you’ve got to do to get the job done.”

The Hogensons now sell their pottery all over the country. Jim spends about 120 days per year on the road, traveling to art fairs and Renaissance festivals in Arizona, New York, South Dakota, Illinois and other states. Sometimes he travels alone while other times the couple travels together to shows.

“You’d be surprised how many dragons you can get in a suitcase,” she laughs.

While on the road, Melissa is always listening for fresh ideas. Since she tries to add at least one new character each year, she’s always open to creative ideas while talking to collectors or reading fantasy novels. Somehow, Melissa never fails to dream up new dragons.

“I’ve pretty much specialized in dragons for 25 years, and there’s still new ones in my head,” she says. “I guess that’s what my talent is.”

To buy or view Melissa’s work, visit www.clayimages.com.

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