ELIOT – Robert Ellis is turning his well-crafted art into a start-up business.

His art is ceramic pottery – specifically stoneware pottery and a technique known as horse hair raku. His work is sold commercially and is displayed in galleries.

His new business is Perpetual Custom Remembrance Urns (www.perpetualurns.com). With it, he merges his potter’s craft, honed from almost 50 years of experience, with the business proposition that pet owners will want an art-quality urn for their animal companion’s ashes.

What makes this urn so unique is that the raku technique he uses fuses the pet’s DNA right into the urn itself.

“The pet owner, if they decide to have their animal cremated, they send me a few – 15 to 20 hairs – of the pet, and I decorate the urn with the animal’s hair. Now they have the DNA of the animal in perpetuity carved into the pot,” said Ellis.

His experience as a potter dates back to college. He went to the University of Illinois as an English and philosophy major. He came out of college upon his graduation in 1973 totally immersed in ceramic pottery.

“I went home for break. My old high school teacher – I never took any art in high school – said there was a new guy in town who was teaching art, so we went over to his house and he showed me how to make a pot,” said Ellis. “I was immediately addicted, and I went back to the University of Illinois, and I started taking ceramics courses along with my other ones, and ended up with 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access to the studio. I was there all the time, all the time."

The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen attracted Ellis to New Hampshire after graduation with his then-wife.

“They were the biggest organization of their kind, and they did a lot for artists with craft fairs, etc.,” said Ellis.

They settled initially in Barnstead and established a studio. His medium was stoneware pottery, and he sold his art nationally.

They left Barnstead for Portsmouth in 1990, and the pottery took a hiatus in favor of Ellis earning a living as a house painter.

“I took a 17-year hiatus, a sabbatical, didn’t touch pottery for 17 years to paint houses,” said Ellis. “And I still do it. That’s what puts food on the table.”

A move to Rye gave him the chance to establish another studio. “In 2005 or 2006, I started in again,” said Ellis. But painting had taken a physical toll; he had three shoulder reconstruction surgeries.

“I was loading big kilns with big heavy shelves and big equipment, and I decided I wanted to continue in the pottery world but in a different venue. So I came across this horse-hair pottery,” said Ellis. That was in 2013.

With this technique, according to Ellis, horse hair (or other animal hair) is applied to the red hot surface of the pot immediately after it comes out of the kiln. In its application, the hair immediately burns and fuses carbon lines along the surface of the pottery, creating decorative art that is beautiful in its randomness.

This raku firing is an ancient Japanese ceramics technique, and the work isn’t as physically taxing.

“It’s a smaller kiln, and a much easier process, so I’ve continued with that,” said Ellis. “We do a few galleries in the New York area, and we’ve done very well with that.”

With the stoneware work, said Ellis, “not only the loading of the kilns, but the firing schedule was sometimes 20 hours, firing to get it to 2,350 degrees – it was a lot more labor-intensive. Plus I was simply tiring of that type of firing,” he said.

“So I came across this, which is essentially raku pottery. You still make the pot the same way, but there’s no big kiln loading. I take each pot and put it in a smaller kiln, bring it up to about 1,400 degrees, take it out with tongs, then I lay each of the individual horse hairs.”

While Ellis can choose the area of the red-hot pot where he uses tweezers to place the horse or animal hair, the intense heat just grabs the hair, forming the random carbon patterns that make the technique so visually appealing. And he has a special burnishing process he uses to give the pottery a glossy luster that other pots don’t have.

He posited the idea of creating urns for pets’ ashes to friends. “Everybody thought it was a grand idea,” said Ellis.

“I started doing some research. I could find no one else doing this. They’re doing the horse hair technique, they’re making urns out of that, but nobody’s using the hair of the animal,” said Ellis. “And in the art world, to find something original, is like – wow.”

The market is certainly big enough.

“There are 69 million dogs alone in this country, and my guess – and I couldn’t find real statistics – is that maybe half cremate their animals,” said Ellis.

The business website offers two types of urns in two sizes. Prices range up to $265.

Once an order is made, Ellis asks that an envelope with the pet hair be mailed to him. The finished urn is then shipped. Each urn also comes with a lid. It’s up to the owner, once they receive the urn, to place the ashes into it and seal it with the lid.

He moved to Eliot two years ago, just up Bolt Hill Road from Sanctuary Arts, an arts institute that is celebrating its 20th year. He was asked to help fire up the large kiln there, and was invited to teach and use a basement as his studio and classroom. He took up his artistic residency there almost a year ago, and his pottery classes are among the 24 courses offered during three trimesters at Sanctuary Arts.

“I’ve met all the artists here, it’s a working community, and it’s a great place,” said Ellis.

“They’ve been wonderful,” he added. “I didn’t know if I was going to do pottery again because there have been so many attempts and so many stoppages. I brought my equipment down, we have seven wheels where we can teach seven people, and everybody seems to be happy.”

With the help of family and friends, he’s feeling his way right now as a business person.

“I’m a pretty accomplished ceramic artist, but I’m a really under-accomplished businessman,” said Ellis.

He’s hopeful that the appeal of a hand-thrown work of art, decorated with patterns produced from the animal’s hair will appeal to people looking for a way to honor their pets.

And it doesn’t have to be limited to pets. Though he’s not promoting it directly, people can order urns patterned with the hair of a loved one who’s passed away and been cremated.

“It would be done exactly the same way. People may be turned off by the whole process, but, then again, those people wouldn’t contact me,” he said. “It’s just that I came up with the idea of animals here, and then I came up with Per-pet-ual, so that’s where it started. But I think the website says ‘custom urns’ – it doesn’t say for humans, but that makes it quite evident.”