Bill Gossman had a way with clay. Whistling, he’d dig his thumbs into a big hunk of it and, in minutes, form it into an elegant vessel. Then he’d gather friends and fellow artists to stoke the kiln in his backyard, filling its chambers with his work and theirs.
Each of his bowls bore marks not only from his own hands but from the fire they built together.
In this friendly, generous way, he shaped his community, too. As mayor of little New London, Minn., Gossman made the city an arts destination, encouraging artists to set up shop, attracting grants and, in the end, setting the bricks himself.
“You can see his fingerprints all over the town,” said Dave Eliason, who played in the Green Lake Bluegrass Band with Gossman. “He used his powers of embracing and welcoming to make people feel heard and to influence them in ways that were positive and to promote growth.
“New London probably saw more growth, more new business, more of everything under his leadership than I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime.”
A beloved mayor and musician, Gossman died May 26 of squamous cell cancer. He was 67.
Residents of the central Minnesota city of 1,250 will remember him as their “harmonica-playing, pottery-creating mayor with a mustache like Water Days cotton candy,” as bookstore owner Heather Westberg King once described him.
Growing up in Rochester, Gossman spent time at a nearby creek, clay squishing through his toes. He long wanted to be a potter, remembering “very clearly” the pinch pot he made in kindergarten. After a few years at Mankato State University, he quit and got a job at a production pottery shop, honing his throwing skills.
He moved to River Falls, Wis., and then in 1979 to Denmark, to visit a young woman — “his first Danish wife,” said Janne, his second Danish wife, wryly.
Janne and Bill met after he got divorced and moved back to Denmark from Swaziland (now Eswatini), where his first wife had worked as an agronomist. Janne was attracted to his creative, easygoing spirit, she said, as well as his ability to play the kalimba, an African thumb piano. They rented a place in a village with “like-minded people — old hippies, academics, teachers and nurses,” Janne said.
There they had the first two of their three children, Siri and Jais, followed by Leah. In 1990, they married and moved to New London.
They bought an old house along the Crow River, where Gossman built a kiln fueled by firewood and a bright studio lined with pots and plants. He welcomed friends, apprentices and visitors. People always seemed to be meandering through the kitchen.
“We don’t get rich,” he once said, “but we lead a rich life.”
Though he didn’t have much money, “he was incredibly generous,” said his son, Jais, 32. “I don’t know if his profession as a potter allowed him to be generous or if he was drawn to that profession because of his generosity.”
In 2008, after a few halfhearted write-in attempts for city council, he surprised friends, family and maybe himself by running for mayor. “It’s funny that a free spirit like him embraced a government job,” Eliason said.
When Gossman took office, “everything was going down the toilet,” he said in 2018. The recession had weakened a local economy in flux with the consolidation of family farms. The grocery had closed, and the hardware store was about to. For-sale signs hung in Main Street windows.
With an eye toward the arts, he helped turn that around. He embraced his role as town ambassador, donning a top hat for parades. He pitched in on art projects and helped build pizza ovens for camps and parks.
His pottery reflected what a good man he was, said Sarah Millfelt, former executive director of the Northern Clay Center. “The pots were so honest and thoughtful and the surfaces were so lovely. ... He truly was one of the kindest, most generous, humble, amazing humans.”
Services have been held.