When Kristi Downing first learned that she suffered from breast cancer at age 55, the counselor and rehabilitation consultant had a typical reaction — she was scared.
But fear soon morphed into something much more powerful.
“She was the traditional career mom up until she got this cancer,” said daughter Kyia Downing. “The cancer set her free to recognize the precariousness of life. She wanted to work on her art in earnest, dedicate herself to the craft. You couldn’t help but be infected by her passion.”
Downing’s passion was pottery, and over the next several years, she firmly established herself in the arts community of Grand Marais as a popular artist and teacher.
Although Downing held the cancer at bay, it returned and took her life earlier this month. She was 77.
Born in 1936 in Wisconsin, Downing graduated from high school in Eau Claire and later attended St. Olaf College. After working as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines and as a high school teacher in Bloomington, Downing decided to earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She was running her own practice when doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer.
Downing decided to retire and move to the North Shore to pursue her dream in pottery. She bought a small, rustic cabin and floated it in to a beachfront lot on Hut Point, her family’s land northeast of Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior. She named the cabin KK Sera, reflecting her “what will be will be” philosophy of life. At first, Downing’s decision did not sit well with her children, who worried about her financial security.
In the end though, they realized “she had to follow her path,” Kyia Downing said.
A few years later, Kristi Downing built a studio next to the cabin. She called it KKD Pottery. Downing specialized in raku pottery, an intense firing process developed in the 16th century. She would glaze the pots and fire them up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After 45 minutes, Dowling removed the pots, placed them in a garbage can filled with newspapers, wood shavings or dried leaves, and then finally cooled her creations in a pail of ice cold Lake Superior water.
“Holding the pot gently and turning it in my wet hands, I marvel at the magic that has happened,” Downing once wrote. “No two pots are ever alike.”
Dowling’s work attracted the attention of local news outlets and she eventually built a loyal following. For years, she displayed her work at the Crossing Borders Art Tour and taught pottery classes at North House Folk School in Grand Marais and Grand Marais Art Colony.
“To her, pottery was more than just a work of art,” Kyia Dowling said. “She connected to people through it. Everyone who visited her would leave with knowledge and maybe a pot.”
Kristi Downing is survived by daughter Kyia, son Christopher, brothers Oz, Joel and Mark Anderson, and 13 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Services have been held.