Interview with Paint It! Pottery Shop - manager Debra Wolterstorff, clay thrower instructor Joshua Haney, and owner Randy Thompson

The Paint It! Pottery Shop is a create-your-own studio that provides the opportunity for Dells residents and visitors of all ages to make one-of-a-kind gifts and keepsakes. Open year-round on the downtown strip, owners Randy and Nicole Thompson started the shop in 2003, and for the past nine years has given people with any artistic ability the chance to create unique pieces of art.

Recently, I spent a morning at the shop with manager Debra Wolterstorff and clay thrower instructor Joshua Haney, where they showed me around and walked me through the ins and outs of transforming mud into my very own masterpiece (well, at least my grandmother thought so.) I also had the opportunity to ask Randy about his experiences owning this ever changing studio.


How long have you two been working for the Paint It! Pottery Shop?

DEBRA WOLTERSTORFF: It took Randy and Nicole about six months to open the business, then that following fall is when I came on.

JOSHUA HANEY: I’ve been working here since 2009, so about three years now.

Have you always like working with pottery, or was this something you learned when you got the job?

DEB: My mom had a kiln, so I’ve been doing ceramic since I was twelve.

JOSH: Well I’ve been doing it since high school. That’s pretty much where I picked it up at. Freshman year, I just started playing around with the wheel. It’s kind of funny because in Baraboo they don’t really have any teachers that know how to throw, so I would go back there and throw with the upper classmen and go there in my free time. Eventually, I just kind of picked it up, and then by my junior and senior year I was teaching the wheel throwing class. That’s how the pottery shop heard about me. They found out from a teacher at Baraboo High School. So I just come in here anytime they have a wheel class. Besides this, I also have a full time job. My father and I own a lawn care business.

How many employees work here?

DEB: In the summertime we have about ten or so, depending on part-timers. Then in the winter it’s pretty much a skeleton crew, running with just a few people.

Has the shop always been located here on the strip?

DEB: This is our second location. Our first location was down by Starbucks. This location is a lot bigger. We were able to add the wheels. We want to eventually be able to do warm glass, where you can fuse glass and make pendants and stuff like that. We want to be more of a well-rounded studio where you can do a lot of different things.

I noticed melted bottles on the walls, do you create those here?

DEB: Yes, bottle melting is where we take regular bottles, peel the labels off, and then fire them in the kiln at a temperature that melts them. We then have molds to make them into cheese trays and things like that. Then we put the labels back on, or like you can see, we have the funny labels. They’re really fun. A lot of people really enjoy them. We also can paint on the bottles. So for instance, if people went out for their anniversary and ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon or something, we can melt it for them, and then paint the date on there if they wanted.

I noticed you guys have a lot of rather unique things like that on the walls. When I first walked in, I wasn’t expecting all this. I got hit with a good smell, it’s a lot cozier then I expected – I thought it was going to be more like a high school art room or something, but it’s really got a nice ambiance.

DEB: Yeah, and that’s how a lot of other studios are. Kind of a like a back room type of a thing, and not nearly as large. We had three kilns when we got to this location and I told Randy, it would be really great if we had to use all three (at the same time), and we ended up having to do that. We’ve had pottery backed up, so it’s a good thing we had them.

So, what’s the best part of your jobs?

DEB: Helping the customers. Sometimes they have an image in their mind what they want to do, but it’s really hard for them to communicate it in a way that they can get you to understand what they‘re seeing in their head. So, helping them realize it is nice. For the most part, every one of our customers, when they come back to pick up the piece, is just amazed at how beautiful it turns out. Because the glaze is kind of flat and dull when they first get done painting it – it’s the firing of it that makes the colors pop.

JOSH: Just seeing people enjoy it, seeing how much fun they have throwing on the wheel. At first there like, oh it looks so hard, but then when they start doing it, they end up having a lot more fun than they think.

I read you got over four hundred pottery styles that people can paint. Where do you get it all?

DEB: We get it from all over. Mexico, England, we got a lot of stuff from Italy, a lot of vases and stuff.

What is the most popular?

Deb: Well, a lot of people enjoy the plates, doing the plates and bowls, but I’d have to say the figurines are the most popular. People go through phases though where all of the sudden they want mermaids, then all of the sudden its dinosaurs, so it kind of varies. But we have a few pieces that we try to keep in stock always – butterflies and things like that.

Do you get a lot of breakage around here?

DEB: Yeah, we don’t like to talk about that too much – but yeah. (laughs)

What’s your favorite or least favorite aspect about working in a pottery shop?

DEB: My favorite part of the job is taking things out of the kiln, because I get to see the finished project. We get to see the pieces when they’re done, and that gives us more ideas we can use.

JOSH: My least favorite is cleaning up!

DEB: Yeah, he gets some messy people! (laughs)

Speaking of the customers, any neat stories you have about them, or have any done something that stands out?

DEB: Well, some of the customers can be rather interesting. We had one guy stand on his chair and squirt paint down onto his piece to create art . . .

Like an abstract type thing?

DEB: Oh yeah, he was interesting. (laughs) We also had a customer who called up saying she was going to be having an anniversary. Her husband had thrown all throughout high school and college. They ended up moving because of his job, and he couldn’t throw anymore, so it was her idea to surprise him. To come to the Dells, and she was going to take a class with Josh, and her husband was going to throw on the wheel next to them. This was their anniversary thing, and her husband was amazed how much Josh taught her in one class. And this was a guy that had been throwing for a long time.

So that’s why we're very glad that we have Josh, because he’s very valuable and also easy to work with kids. We had one boy show up to class and he had gloves on . . .

JOSH: Because he was afraid to touch the clay.

DEB: And after a little bit, he took them off, but his mother said that it was because he was so obsessive compulsive, that it was a big thing for him to be able to do that.

That’s pretty cool that you made him comfortable enough for him to do that. Well, I’ll wrap this up with one last question. I have to ask, has anyone been comfortable enough to request to do reenactments from that love scene in the movie Ghost?

DEB: All the time! (laughs)

JOSH: Yeah, for instance I always set up shop in the park for Wo-Zha-Wa Days (a huge festival held in the Dells every September) – and like two years ago, right after Patrick Swayze passed on, I heard that all day long! I was sitting out there throwing all day, and people would be like, all you need is some Unchained Melody and Demi Moore sitting on your lap there! Pretty much heard that all day long. (laughs)

DEB: Then we get calls from ladies – can we like, um, can we like throw together on the wheel? There not saying Ghost, but definitely asking Ghost, and I’m like oh my goodness. I’m trying to explain to them that you really can’t do that with two people, because you’ll basically wreck it!

Sounds like you two definitely fun jobs. Thanks for showing me around, and answering my questions! 


Tell me a little about your history. What brought you to the Dells? Did you always want to own a pottery shop, or was this something you decided to do over time?

We moved to the Dells area just after college, almost twenty years ago now. When our kids were young, we visited a pottery shop during a vacation to Colorado, and we spent three hours there making what would become our most cherished keepsakes from the trip. We couldn't help but think about how perfect the Dells would be for a similar studio. We spent much of the seventeen hour drive home from Colorado talking about what it would be like to have a shop of our own, and we filled a whole notebook with ideas. One thing led to another . . . and three months later, we opened Paint It!

What year did Paint It! Pottery Shop open? How did you come up with the concept, and the store design?

We opened Paint It! in November 2003, so this is our 9th anniversary year. What we wanted to create most was an inviting and supportive atmosphere for artists of all ages. We knew we wanted it to be family friendly. We also knew we wanted to include spaces that would be good for special gatherings. We love hosting parties, from birthday and holiday celebrations to bridal and baby showers.

What’s your favorite aspect about owning a pottery shop? Least favorite?

I think what we enjoy most is just providing an opportunity for people to get back to the basics: spending quality time with family and friends, and then walking away with a one-of-a-kind keepsake that hold the day's memories for years to come.

We've seen a lot in our nine years, from flooding in the Dells to the more recent nationwide recession. Probably the most challenging thing is that, at the end of the day, this is still a business . . . and we have to find a way to overcome whatever obstacles come our way.

What’s the most memorable thing that has happened in one of your stores?

A few years ago, we had some very loyal customers who enjoyed their studio time so much they asked to get married here. Of course, we said yes! Having an in-studio wedding was really the ultimate realization of what we had intended nine years ago. It's all about connecting with people and making memories.

Anything planned for the future?

We are always looking for ways to enhance the studio experience for our guests. We change our inventory based on seasons and trends. The studio we are today is different in many ways from the studio we were when we opened nine years ago. It is no doubt different than the studio we'll be in ten years. We can’t wait to see where time will take us!

Anything else you care to add?

Just that we try to be very responsive to our customers. If there's anything folks would like to see in our studio, we want to know about it! We may not always be able to do it right away, but we're always looking for new ideas. Be sure to check us out on the web and social media for lots of great project ideas and discounts.

Thank you Randy for taking the time to answer my questions and letting me play with clay on the wheel in the shop - I had a blast!

The Paint It! Pottery Shop is located at 517 Broadway, Wisconsin Dells, WI. For more information please visit