Winter Downtime Spurred This Farmer and Ceramicist to Create Art
There’s something satisfying about serving food on a handmade plate, thin and delicate, with smooth edges and clean design. Its matte finish or sheeny pearly glaze can make the most humble take-out meal look elegant. You may have had the exciting experience of being presented with such a dish at Confluence Kombucha, receiving a mug of coffee that fits perfectly with the groove of your hand from Sump or Lola Jean’s, or spotting a yellow candle holder at Yellowbelly. All of these items were custom-made by YellowTree Clay founder Justin Leszcz, a St. Louis native who remains enamored with his hometown.
I walked into Leszcz’s studio in the Monkey Building Downtown on a chilly Tuesday night and was greeted with a warm smile, the peaceful smell of palo santo burning and a Phoenix radio station coming from the speaker. The walls and shelves had been painted completely white, with plants grown from clippings decorating each corner, giving the space a refreshing energy. During the day, the corner studio is full of natural light as two walls are windows, providing Leszcz with an entertaining (or distracting) scene any time of the day.
Thought it’s hard to believe, Leszcz used to sell luxury cars for a living and was less than fulfilled with his career and the community that surrounded him. After seeing a documentary on a sustainable farmer at the Tivoli Movie Theatre in 2007, he decided to begin a new career and incorporate intention and meaning back into his life. He began researching and started the process by trial and error. He eventually had biointensive gardens in the front and back yards of his home, and he leased land and helped out at Century Farms in Fenton. He cultivated Japanese seeds, obscure herbs, vegetables, ethically raised animals and even bees.
He soon became connected with the area’s most talented chefs and sold them his produce—sometimes tempting them with things they had never tasted before. Though he now lives in the St. Louis neighborhood of Tower Grove South and focuses on clay and wood instead of seeds and soil, Leszcz’s website is still under YellowTree Farm.
His artistic endeavors in ceramics and woodworking, a hobby he had enjoyed since a young age, began as a justification for working indoors during the winter. Leszcz would make himself tools like a spoon or a small table out of the desire for a well-designed utensil. He would find lath and pieces of wood in dumpsters and alleyways, and so he began collecting, cleaning and storing them to make pieces of art.
His commissioned work began when the owner of Sump Coffee walked into his old studio at the Lemp Brewery on Cherokee Street and asked for a collection of mugs. Leszcz will experiment on a single project for years, creating new shapes, designs, patterns and glazes until he gets it just right, and you can tell that the pieces were made with passion and intention. Inspired by ancient Korean and Japanese works of art, Leszcz will visit St. Louis City Library’s Central Branch and thumb through old pottery books for new ideas.
Though he is working on new projects for chef Ben Grupe and The Last Hotel, Leszcz will continue to sell his work at local pop-ups and shows like the May’s Place Night Market on May 8, the Mother’s Day Art Fair at Laumeier Sculpture Park the weekend of May 10, and Schlafly Art Outside on May 25.
To take a class from Leszcz, visit Intersect Arts. To make an appointment for a custom order, visit his website or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram at @yellowtreeclay to keep up with his creations.
All images courtesy of R.J. Hartbeck.