Story and photos by Ryan Dorgan.
The high and dry Split Rock country surrounding present-day Jeffrey City, Wyoming, has long been a pass-through corridor accustomed to being left behind, from Native Americans to migrants along the Oregon, Mormon and California trails. In the early 1950s, prospecting in the hills outside of what was then known as “Home On The Range” found uranium, which led to a booming town with over 4,000 residents at the height of yellowcake production. Today, residents estimate there are 40 or so of them left.
At 55 miles per hour, Jeffrey City whizzes by like a ghost town. Even a quick stop might not convince a traveler that anyone is around to keep the place up. As 1980 approached, the town was at the height of its boom and boasted bars, churches, a bowling alley, a doctor, lawyer, school, and its own newspaper. Now all that remain off the highway are a motel, a bar and an old gas station-turned pottery shop.
Byron Seeley was born in Lander, Wyoming – about 60 miles west of Jeffrey City – and owns Monk King Bird Pottery. He’ll tell you that people in Jeffrey City know him affectionately as the mad potter.
Byron’s Monk King Bird is the loudest place in town, with a unique paint job and all flavors of tow-behind trailers, tour buses, old Volkswagen Beetles and a hodgepodge of other creative pursuits-left-behind scattered out along the highway. Almost a decade ago, Byron decided to leave behind his downtown Lander pottery studio and bought the old Jeffrey City gas station and surrounding land from a potter friend for $5,000. Since then, he’s crafted his Monk King Bird brand there – working, living, creating, and partying – building a cult following of travelers-turned-friends curious enough to stop in to his funky shop.
Byron made his first pot in 1984 as a freshman in high school in Big Piney, Wyoming, on the west side of the Wind River Range. An art teacher who was a painter by trade led him to the craft, and he quickly took interest and showed promise. “She was happy someone wanted to take the initiative of doing it,” he said. “She showed me what little she knew, but she just let me go – let me be alone.”
Pottery consumed Byron during high school, so much that he turned his back on most of his other studies. He was held back a grade, and teachers for the most part gave up on him and let him spend his time throwing clay. After graduating, he worked in pottery studios in Austin, Texas, and Taos, New Mexico, before returning to Wyoming.
On a slow day in early April, Byron makes his way across the highway to the Split Rock Cafe. The Split Rock is the social hub for a few residents, and gives Byron a chance to meet new travelers and tell them about his pottery business.
Byron knew that moving his pottery business from Lander to Jeffrey City meant learning to live a more isolated existence. “I know I don’t want to pay rent again, so I’ve become very patient,” he said. “Sometimes that depression that sets in because of the lack of social interaction tends to make me just want to sit there in the chair. I call it manageable depression because I can handle it and I’m fine with it. I’ve learned to manage it pretty well.”
Never passing up a chance to swing dance, Byron pays tribute to Merle Haggard the day after his death with a quick dance, finding a partner in a traveler stopping through on a trip from Laramie to Lander.
Byron has developed some signature styles over the years, one being his “shot pots.” With a freshly-thrown pot of still-wet clay, Byron or an eager customer will shoot a hole through a pot or a mug with a .22 caliber bullet, which Byron will then patch from the inside, fire and glaze, creating a fully-functional pot that looks from the outside as if it has been shot through.
Above, Byron shoots four wet pots behind his Jeffrey City pottery shop. Three will be patched with a handle added to use as mugs. One will be shot multiple times and left unpatched to create a luminaria. Byron’s “shot pots” are some of his best-selling pieces.
Byron passes one of the many trailers on his land while returning to his studio with fresh shot pots. The area sees a healthy amount of hikers and cyclists throughout the summer – company Byron always welcomes. “I tell people, ‘If you’re nice, you can live here for free.'”
Byron’s “Red Canyon” wares are an example of agateware, and along with his shot pots, are some of his most popular pieces. The unique patterns are created by using three different colors of clay on the wheel, then carving reliefs into the pottery to reveal the tri-colored patterns beneath the surface.
“I think a lot of people would lose their minds out here,” Byron said. The loneliness and isolation he experiences as fall turns to winter and winter to spring are the prices he accepts having to pay in order to have his own place with very few regular expenses.
“It’s an hour from anywhere, no matter which direction they come,” Byron said of his Jeffrey City shop, which sticks out like a sore thumb and where the door is almost always open. “Most people are ready to stop, stretch their legs, let their dogs out, pee. When I was on Main Street (in Lander), lots of those people would just drive right by and not even know I was there.”
Above, left, Byron walks over to talk with Chuck Erickson and a stranded bicyclist named Tom, whom he allowed to stay in a trailer on his property until a new inner tube came via UPS. Byron met Chuck, who is a painter, not long ago and offered to let Chuck move his home to his Jeffrey City plot. The two support each other in their creative endeavors and have hopes of building Monk King Bird’s space into an artist commune.
Byron speaks with Chuck on their way to downtown Lander. The two take the occasional 120-mile round trip to town together to get groceries, or in this case, for Byron to see live music at the Lander Bar and deliver some pottery.
Byron and Chuck unload a box of pottery from Chuck’s truck in downtown Lander. There are only two places to buy Monk King Bird pottery – at Byron’s studio in Jeffrey City and at Global Arts in Lander. Byron has developed a great relationship with the art shop’s owner over the years.
Noelle Weimann-van Dijk takes a look at one of Byron’s new Red Canyon wares inside her Global Arts shop in Lander. “I’m so glad Byron brought over more pottery and I was so glad to hear from him – I was starting to think he was dead!” she joked. “With summer coming up, this box will probably sell out in six weeks.”
Byron peeks inside to see if his mother is home during a visit to Lander.
Byron looks around his mother’s garage in Lander, where he used to retreat to in order to stave off the loneliness of Jeffrey City winters. “I’d get up and go to coffee in the morning and then make pottery all afternoon until around four, then go get tuned up for happy hour,” he said. “She just doesn’t want me to do that anymore, and I don’t blame her one bit.”
Remnants of Byron’s winters spent making pottery at his mother’s home in Lander still remain as clay stains on the sidewalk and along the walls of her garage.
“My mom is the most important person in my life,” Byron said. Though his visits are less frequent, his mother’s home is still filled with reminders of her son, whose pottery dating back to his first pieces from high school adorn the walls and cabinets all over the house.
As the seasons turn, Byron starts to show a new air of rejuvenation and optimism. Red Canyon mug in hand, he greets old friends at the Lander Bar.
Visits to Lander offer respite from the isolation of Jeffrey City, where Byron can reconnect with old acquaintances and stretch his social muscles that often atrophy during the winter months. “To have that loving feeling again. To be in love with a woman again…” he says as his thoughts drift.
“THE NICE THING ABOUT JEFFREY CITY – THOSE DAYS WHEN IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL, BEFORE THE MOSQUITOS OR AFTER MOSQUITOS – THE CLOUDS AND THE BIRDS AND THE FACT THAT YOU’RE ON A MAJOR HIGHWAY – ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW HOW TO SPEAK ENGLISH CAN COME THROUGH AT THE SPUR OF THE MOMENT.
YOU’RE SITTING OUT THERE IN THOSE TWO WEEKS BEFORE MOSQUITOS AND TWO WEEKS AFTER MOSQUITOS AND IT’S JUST BEAUTIFUL AND YOU SIT THERE AND THINK, ‘MY GOODNESS, I’VE GOT IT MADE.’“
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Get to know photographer Ryan Dorgan, read about his personal journey west here.