BETHEL — Bethel’s reputation for arts and culture was fueled in part by Bonnema Pottery, a lively Main Street business run by Melody and Garret Bonnema for nearly 50 years. They retired in 2021, but their passion for art continues and evolves.

Melody and Garret Bonnema have been making pottery in Bethel since 1973. Rose Lincoln/Bethel Citizen

In the fall of 1968, newlyweds Garret and Melody Bonnema were crossing the country in a Volkswagen bus they had converted to a camper.

Garret says they didn’t think of themselves as hippies but recalls, “we couldn’t get served in a dairy bar in North Carolina – my hair was too long.”

By 1973 they had found Bethel and their signature Victorian house and barn in Bethel Village.

From the start, they were busy. Besides their Bethel retail business, they were part of a Freeport based artists’ co-op that Garret and Melody co-founded with eight other craftspeople. For 14 years they traveled back and forth to the coast. They sold pottery wholesale, too, shipping it through UPS.

By the late 80s when their child, Leah, was a toddler, they decided to drop the wholesale business, then they gave up the co-op, too.  “I was scared to death,” said Melody.


But selling their pottery solely from their Bethel shop worked. They sold out by the end of August most years. Summer customers were tourists or participants at the National Training Lab spending long stretches in Bethel annually. Winter brought skiers, and locals came year round.

Melody Bonnema’s paintings inspire her tiles. Rose Lincoln/Bethel Citizen

Different mediums

These days, Melody paints and sketches in a room at the front of the 1870 house. Three magnifiers with bendable arms are attached to her desk. A watercolor she is working on is nearby, and more are displayed on the walls. She faces Main Street and a large framed print, that reads, “Practice Reckless Optimism,” a gift from their daughter, Leah, who is a stand-up comic living in L.A.

Melody is funny, too, like when she says, “One of your problems talking with me is my brain damage, I lose words… Who knows what I’ll tell you?”  and “Garret and I are like 77 and 76, We’re kind of on the other side of a whole lot of stuff.”

The brain damage Melody refers to was the result of a very serious car accident in 2008.

Melody was visiting her ill mother in Pennsylvania when she and her father crashed. It was a T-bone crash and Melody was in the seat with the most impact. With Garret and Leah by her side and her church friends praying, she survived, but it was touch and go for a long time. The first month following the accident, she was in a coma and for seven weeks was in the ICU.


When she finally came home to Bethel, people were in the driveway waiting. A sign read, “Welcome Home.” She and Garret were parishioners at the Bethel Congregational Church where Melody had always worn a hat to Sunday service.

Melody Bonnema paints in this room. Rose Lincoln/Bethel Citizen

When they returned to church the entire congregation welcomed her home by wearing hats. Melody pulls out a photo album:  the children in the Sunday School are wearing hats, even the choir members have on hats.

In her studio, Melody is explaining that she lost part of her eyesight in the accident and has struggled to do the trim of her pottery with even edges. “It’s divine intervention” to get it right, she says. Rather than continue with pottery she switched mediums.

What they say is, “‘Are you making any pots?’ I haven’t made any pots, but tonight is figure drawing in Norway,”  says Melody. On Thursdays she meets her plein air group to paint landscapes.

While Melody paints, Garret hikes. He says there are 48  New Hampshire mountains that are at least 4,000 feet high. Hike those and you join the “4,000 foot club.”

The next step is to join ‘The Grid,’ where the hiker must hike each of the 48 peaks in each of the 12 months of the year. Garret did that, too, summiting 576 times all together.


At age 76, he is not interested in re-doing the grid, but says he would like to summit all 48 mountains again.

A display of Garret and Melody Bonnema’s pottery. Rose Lincoln/Bethel Citizen

Art everywhere

“We’re influenced by the places we live,” says Melody as we peek in at their first floor shower adorned with several of her hand-painted, landscape-influenced tiles.  Elsewhere, other artists’ work is on display.

A lamp from a trade made at a craft fair hangs over the kitchen table. A snowscape by photographer Steve Traficonte, is centered above the fireplace. Mugs, pots, dishes and plates have the signature Bonnema style.

A Toshiko Takaezu vessel, was a gift to the Bonnema’s when they built and fired their first kiln. The vessel is enclosed around a rattle and chimes when shaken. After attending art school Melody had been Takaezu’s apprentice.

She and Garret recently returned from a reception at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for Takaezu’s apprentices. While Melody learned pottery beside Takaezu; at Pratt Art Institute in NYC; and from summer courses at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina –Garret learned from Melody.


The studio

With a craftsman’s appreciation, Garret points out the pick-cut beams overhead in the former horse stable that became their work space.

The large 60′ by 40′ work room behind the entry includes a 1988 addition. Despite the ping pong table, Garret said he doesn’t want people to think of their studio as a game room. Even with tendonitis, he plans to continue throwing and Melody hopes to continue making ceramic tiles.

In the shed behind the barn, is the propane-fired kiln Garett built on sliding rollers. It is so large, he can stand inside it. We came from the Renaissance  background. “If you’re going to do it, you learn to do everything,” he says.

Their last kiln load was in 2021, during COVID. Almost everything was sold in a week. “People knew,” said Melody. Former employee Tim Kavanaugh came to help them shut the door to the kiln.

In their heyday they fired the giant kiln 20 times a year.


It’s been a good life, says Garrett “and it’s not over yet.” He shows me their latest “kiln,”  a wood-burning pizza oven.

“When people say, ‘how long have you been together?’ I try to explain that it is way more than the years, because we spent all the time together,” says Melody of her life with Garret who she’s known as long as she can remember and has worked alongside since they were in their twenties.

This year marks 50 years since the Bonnema’s chose Bethel.

A long time together.

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