Saturday, August 24, 2019

It Happened Down In Birdland




The fever of humid Hoosier summer finally broke yesterday and I’ve been enjoying the shop today with the windows pushed wide open.

Just now I had to turn off my audible book. As much as I’m enjoying the novel, the redbird in the burning bush thirty feet outside the window over my wheel is singing a song far more compelling than Leif Enger’s words. That’s saying something. Leif Enger is one of my favorite authors. But, God, how this bird can sing.

This morning the catbird stopped by for a visit. I was standing at the glass of the shop’s front door when I saw the little polyglot perched silently in the redbud branch a mere four feet and a pane of glass away. He dropped down to the sidewalk and hopped around a bit. 

I talked to him. I tried to convince him to stay. I pointed out the huge maples, the shrubs, the climbing hydrangea – all great places for a catbird to hang out. Then I confess it – I played the guilt card with him. 

“Look” I said, “I know I threatened to cut it down last year, but here it still is. I didn’t get rid of it. I saw how you liked it. You could still, you know, use it.”

I was talking about the crab apple tree that umbrellas my shop and drops fruit that makes a general mess of the driveway 8 months out of the year and barely makes up for that with a week's worth of blooming in Spring.

He was standing under it. Last year his family used it for nesting. It seemed to work out well for them. And for my part, I never had such a great selection of free music since the days of Napster.

I know it’s past catbird singing season, but I just thought if I could convince him to stay, he might start to think about this place as his regular summer home. Free music is something worth fighting for.

Monday, August 5, 2019

The By-Ways

It's become one of my favorite drives in this big country -- taking the cross-country, blue highway drive across Minnesota and Iowa.

The long way home.

Yesterday I followed the storm home (caught up with it just outside Chicago) and it gave me a light show to beat all. All the way across the prairie the sun dappled the fields with shafts of light through the breaking clouds.

If Ireland is green then Minnesota in summer must be Ireland.

There's a beautiful passage not too far south of the Twin Cities where the highway dips down into the Minnesota River valley and enters a little town called Henderson (pop. 874).

When life gets hard enough that I need to go somewhere pleasant in my mind, it will probably be to Henderson on a summer morning when the fog is still covering the low ground around the city park by the river, while the 150 year old brick main street rises above.

Henderson's Andy Taylor will have a Minnesota accent, but the same slow, deliberate style. The humor won't make me laugh. It will make me smile. And that for a very long time.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Hold the Dolby


I remember when I got my first cassette player with "Dolby® Noise Reduction". It was pretty cool. Gone was the hiss of the tape. Gone were the crackles and pops from the LPs I'd recorded into homemade cassettes.

But the polish came off that apple pretty quickly. Gone along with those vanished hisses, pops and crackles were the sounds of fingers on guitar strings, and breathing woodwind players, and sounds of picks on fretboard ends.

Dolby sucked the life right out of my favorite recordings. Perfect was, in this case, not perfect. Those extraneous noises were very much a part of the vitality of the recordings. The noise reduction that Dolby offered me came at a too high price -- lifeless listening.

Perfection, as a craftsman's goal is admirable. There's a strange balancing act. Always a balancing act -- achieving an end result that, in its perfection both appears to transcend the means of its production -- while at the same time leaving the hint of the humanity behind in the creation.

Craft has historically thrived when technology is perceived as a threat to our human expression. Man vs. Machine. The Steam Drill vs. John Henry romanticism. In this digital age when even much of our "art" is computer generated, there are still those of us who aren't ready to give up the hands-on exploration of human trial and accomplishment.

So, should thrown pottery be perfect?

Yes. In the sense of a craftsman's results coming close to meeting his intentions, yes. Perfection is a worthy goal. Control the medium. No excuses.

But just maybe that craft should also be a celebration of the idiosyncratic material -- clay -- a cussed substance that doesn't always stay where you put it, warps, shrinks, and cracks when handled poorly.

And just maybe the marks of the potter's hands as a reminder that process matters -- matters to lots of us humans -- should not be erased from surfaces, rather, be enjoyed as the part of a better whole.

It's not about celebrating imperfection or rationalizing lazy practice. It's not trying to accept a "it's good enough for..." mentality. The striving should always be there. The striving should always be evident.

I want my recordings to hiss and pop if it means I also still hear the squeak of fingers on strings letting me know that there was a living, breathing human behind the recording -- a human who was participating in the activity of filling the world with exciting, beautiful, thoughtful work.

And I want my pottery to have finger marks, double stamps, bent walls, irregular trailed lines -- not for their own sake -- not as added affectation to elicit calculated response -- but as evidence of process. I want those things that remind me that there was a striving human with lofty goals willing to risk time, talent, and not a small amount of hope that he/she'd be putting something of value into our shared world.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Me & David



Me and David*
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*David is and always was unaware our our 30 year "collaboration" and may or may not have approved. ;)








Sunday, June 2, 2019

Barnabas



This is a pretty good metaphor in picture. There's been no bigger encouragement in my life of creative endeavors than my sister, Jackie, pictured here letting me out of an antique Wells Fargo trunk.

I'm guessing it's fairly unusual to have a sibling as such an encourager.

I mean, our siblings are the ones we grow up with. Our siblings know our weaknesses better than anyone else in the world does. They grew up sharing the medicine cabinet in which we hid our Clearasil, they saw our tantrums, they smelled our gym clothes.

Similarly, our siblings look out at the world from a same shared perspective that sees all the accomplished, smart, talented, creative people in the world and measures our collective selves -- our family -- not quite as accomplished, smart, talented, or creative. If you're one of us, you must be as ordinary as we are.

Our families see the errors by which we learn. It's hard to see past them. We don't see those same errors that were the avenue to success in the accomplished others.

But somehow Jackie heard the 6-8 year-old me tooting melodies poorly on dad's harmonica and she was the first to buy me a Yamaha chromatic harmonica of my own.

Somehow Jackie heard the 10-11 year old me stumble through Paul Simon and Peter, Paul, & Mary songs on a borrowed guitar and heard enough good to think me a guitarist worth listening to.

And when the only way I could cope with the rhymes and words and thoughts that crowded my mind as I worked at the wheel was by typing them into a blog, it was Jackie who first called me a "writer". And then she even compiled some of my early musings into a book.

So, yeah, the image of her letting me out of the trunk is apt. It's a good metaphor. I wish everyone could have a Jackie in their lives who sees more good than bad in them, who sees something worth encouraging and nourishing in them, who would tell them that no matter what else the world was saying about their creative offerings, there is still at least one person in that world who sees great value -- and who opens up the trunk for them and unleashes them on the world.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

It's A Wonderful Life


I took a break from making these to go across town to the art fair and say hi to my friends exhibiting there.

While there I bumped into Mark. I see Mark once every ten years or so since we both graduated from college back in the '70s. Odd that in a town as small as ours I don't run into him more frequently.

Anyway, every time I see Mark I'm prone to wonder about how things might have been. See, when the potter who gave me my start back in '76 was looking for an apprentice to help him out, I wasn't the first student he called. Mark was.

When I see Mark I always wonder what I might have become if Mark had been more interested in making pottery. I might be a rich stock broker or a famous musician today.

Damn you, Mark.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Sun Magic



If you spend a lot of time in the woods as I do, you've probably at some point observed a phenomenon I witnessed this morning.

It was early morning, so the sun was just over the horizon, but it was a curiously burning orange ball. I could see the sun if I looked to the east and found a break in the forest. Mostly, though, I couldn't see the sun for all the trees surrounding me.

It was also just late enough in the morning that the sky overhead was a combination of open blue and slightly overcast gray.

As I walked through the woods, almost everything in my field of vision was lighted cool -- reflecting the blue and gray of the sky above.

But -- and here's the phenomenon I'm talking about -- as I rounded a bend in the trail, deep in a surround of heavy underbrush was what appeared to be a glowing-orange campfire blazing.

It wasn't a campfire. Obviously. But what it was was a small spot of brush that was being illuminated by the orange sun I could not see. Somehow, through one small tunnel in all the tree's umbrella and past all the underbrush, the sun had found a way to light up one small bush in the middle of the darkest part of the morning forest.

There should be a name for that phenomenon. I'll have to come up with one.

Anyway, curiously that sun is still orange at midday. I'm guessing there must be something huge going on to the west that has cast debris way up into the atmosphere. That's what this color sky usually means.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Honorable Work


The world's gatekeepers have lost control of the gates. In some ways an argument could be made that they served us well. In the examples that come to mind wherein one didn't get to be a gatekeeper without some special understanding of the thing he was keeping in or out -- either by education or seniority or some other meritorious route -- we were treated to a comfortably homogeneous menu from which we could pick the already culled servings. If we look at the best offerings on the menu, we conclude the gatekeepers did their job. If we look at the worst offerings, though....

We now live in a time where we can put creative products out to a world and leapfrog right over the gatekeepers. Josh Turner has done that with great success. He just started youtubing as a 13-year-old sorta prodigy and his videos caught on. People have been successfully self-publishing ebooks. The success rate is low. Josh Turner is one in a billion.

But really, exposure is the name of the game. There are still gatekeepers, but you're not going to get past them. Really. You aren't. Maybe you already know that. Maybe you know your song isn't pop enough for a recording studio to offer you a contract. Maybe you know that your book isn't of broad enough interest (maybe you write about pottery ;) )) for an actual publisher to take you on. Maybe you aren't going to get your paintings in a reputable NY gallery.

The real gatekeepers still need to make money and you're not their ticket. The only way you can prove your worth to them and the market is exposure. And getting exposure has traditionally been a humbling, grovelling activity. 

For some reason it seems to make some of us feel better to ridicule both the grovellers and the ones trying to give them a hearing. Maybe such ridicule is a reflexive rationalization for our own lack of facing that conundrum head on.

Sometimes that ridicule comes framed in the soft language of "Oh, I don't need validation."
Well, while that one's being painted, color me skeptical.

Maybe what I'm saying is that the gatekeepers aren't gone. They still exist and they still matter. But the system is tiered. And your only hope for getting to the gatekeepers is this grovelling for exposure. Not many are discovered anymore. Most people grovel. And I think such grovelling is honorable. It's striving. It's trying.

 So, God bless the open mic host.

And God bless the songwriter who walks through the door with a song to share. He's not seeking fame. He doesn't want to feel important. He wants to feel real.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Speaking In Tongues



Pottery seems to be a bit like speech. It comes in many different languages -- even different families of languages (just as language has Romance, Semitic, Indo-European families). And those languages sometimes break into dialects and accents with their distinct colloquialisms and conventions.

That's not particularly illuminating. It's obvious really.

What's interesting to me is the degree to which, just as I might enjoy the sound of a language without understanding a word of it, I can enjoy the look of a pot without fully "getting" it.

I can't do a convincing British accent, though I understand the words. Okay, I usually understand the words. 

But, unusually, I can affect a reasonably good French accent, though I don't understand a word of it.

But it's nearly impossible for me to produce a pot I don't understand....though, I don't fully understand the pots I make.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Nature


There’s a laugh we blurt out upon being surprised. And there’s a laugh we do to keep from crying. We know that one too well. But there’s even a laugh that springs unbidden from revulsion. Much of modern comedy goes for that cheap one and counts on our confused emotions to keep us from sorting the categories sufficiently to realize we’ve been had. We’re laughing, right? Must be funny then, right?

Maybe. But maybe not really.

Dar was on a trail in the woods and Breeze and I were about 20 feet away on a parallel trail when I heard her loud, “Eww!!! “…followed by an uncomfortable laugh. Then she hollered, “Come here, you gotta see this!”

So Breeze and I cut through the brush and made our way over to Dar’s side. She was looking down at what appeared for all the world to be the hind end – butt and tail – of a pine squirrel that had managed to only get halfway into a hole of safety before getting smashed flat.

That’s what it looked like.

Upon rolling that squirrel half over with my shoe, however, I realized that it was ONLY the hind end of the squirrel. Some owl or hawk had been dining on the squirrel high above and had dropped the latter half to the ground. Serendipity had arranged the optical illusion of the burrowing squirrel sticking half out of a hole.

Later this same morning, while walking three abreast on the paved portion of greenway that parallels the creek just before it flows into Winona Lake, we were startled by the loud flutter of two mallards – a drake and his missus – that cleared our heads by only a few feet as they flew past us.

And just as quickly as we saw them fly past, we watched as they pitched into the creek twenty feet away. In quick succession – one, two, they hit the water. And they did what I’ve never before seen a duck do. They hit the water diving. 

The creek was high, flowing fast, and opaque with silt as it had been raining for days. We couldn’t see the ducks as they dove beneath the muddy surface of the water, but split seconds later the drake popped to the top.

The missus didn’t.

I kept watching. Waiting.

Still the missus didn’t surface.

I reluctantly walked away. Nothing could be done. But our walk had us circling back. A half hour later there sat the drake in the same spot creekside. Waiting.

Try as we might with prose, poem, or song, we could never tell a story as desperately sad or cruel as nature herself tells.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Life's Scratch Offs


Life's worthwhile pursuits seem to come with a sufficient covering of that silver stuff that's on scratch off lottery tickets. Nobody would ever buy a losing ticket hoping for a winner if it didn't have that silver stuff covering it. And nobody would attempt to pursue an endeavor if they knew ahead of time the degree to which they might fail at it.

But we'll pursue things even if we know we won't be the "best" at it. For one thing, in the arts there is no "best". There are things like "favorite" and "successful", but not "best".


And in sports there are so many levels of satisfying achievement that even if there is another participant who is better, there still remains small victories like personal records.  There are even those times of elation when you managed to pull together a game that bested those players and courses and games you never before defeated.

In most pursuits I suspect that it's just as Tom Waits sang, "...the obsession's in the chasing and not the apprehending; the pursuit, you see, and never the arrest"

So, perhaps it's in the not knowing if we'll fail or succeed that we find the faith to plod on and practice.  We can still hope for success and we grow to understand failure as mere stepping stones that lead in new directions.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Peeking Behind The Curtain


I'm still and always mystified by how some people can see or hear or feel the world in such a way that is something beyond most people's ability, and can convey that sound, that sight, that feeling -- translate it -- back at us. It's a magician's trick, really.

And I'm at least vaguely aware that just like a magician's trick, it can be learned.

I first realized this tiered world existed when I was very young. My first instrument was the harmonica. Without anything but instinct, I could play melodies on the harmonica. I was immediately aware that I couldn't play just anything. It had to fit on the harmonica's scale. But other than that, I could play it.

But then I started to hear people who could bend notes. That's fine. Explainable, even. But then I noticed they could improvise a heretofore unheard melody. That's what I couldn't grasp, and mostly still can't.

On the other hand, when I first saw my nephew's paintings I had that same sense of someone improvising on a harmonica. How did this happen? He must have been born with this vision, right?

....and then I went to the website of his school. On the one hand, my bubble was burst. It's not that the process was de-mystified for me. But it was immediately evident that what appeared to be intuitive or inborn was actually just a skill that was taught.

And once the skill is taught and caught, the "miracle" of it gets layer upon layer. Once someone has the requisite skill, then they can take it in another direction, further from the root. So, if your first exposure to a work happens to be a leaf, you will most likely be unaware of limb, branch, trunk, root. It's easy to believe the leaf was a spontaneous generation. That's what the artist counts on.

And sometimes having the miracle de-mystified ruins it for us. Sometimes we'd prefer the magic to the look behind the curtain. But we're just still dying of curiosity.

How did he DO that?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Illusion of Ease


He had such an easy way with clay. Effortless. No apparent strain of muscle or countenance. Watching him at his wheel, it was almost as easy to believe that the wet clay erupted spontaneously up from the wheelhead and his hands just happened to be there as witness to the miracle. His hands appeared not to be shaping, but as the exploring hands of a blind man as he learns contours and textures the only way he can.

I continued to watch as he filled a wareboard with pottery. The illusion never resolved. I continued to see the creator and his creation in reverse order. I continued to see the potter as witness, the pottery as something foregone that had merely leapt into dimension before my very eyes.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

221B Baker Street

Everyone loves a good mystery, right?

Last year I mentioned (when it first happened) that I was experiencing a strange anomaly in my kiln: Cone 11 was melting faster than cone 10. Of course, it was then falling into cone 10 and keeping it from melting properly.
This happened in both the top and bottom cone plaques. It had never happened before, though I had fired this very kiln with that very set-up of cones for almost 30 years.

Even odder? ....it continued to happen. Since last autumn, every firing has had the same thing occur. The cones go down in reverse order.

I got by. I know this kiln, and I figured out what to watch and I got by. But I remained curious.

As any potter knows though, problems never present on only one front. They always come in multiples just to keep life interesting. And this was no exception.

At the same time the 11 and 10 started acting up, my 010 started breaking off instead of bending.

Strange, huh?

The two things can't be related, right? I mean, they're in the same firing, so you have to suppose it has to do with where I've set them, right?
Except, as I said, I've fired this same set up for 30 years. Same cones.
Now my inner Sherlock starts wondering what, if anything, changed?
Though the two cones' situations don’t seem like they could be the same factor unless it WAS the kiln placement causing one to break and one to melt early, right? And, again, that could be it.

But here’s the strange thing. Against all reason, except the elimination of all other possibilities – or in the words of Sherlock Holmes himself, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

…the one thing that changed after 30 years of doing the same thing is this: I made my last set of cone plaques out of Miller 900. When I make cone plaques, I set up my extruder and then go about making an entire box (50) of all my cone plaques at one time. I line up my high fire, my reduction, and my bisque cones and make them all in one sitting. And I’ve always used whatever stoneware I had on hand.

Well, up until last year, the stoneware I had on hand was Standard 153 or Miller 850. Last year I had Miller 900. It was the ONE thing that had changed.
So, finally realizing this, I went about experimenting to prove this unlikely phenomenon to myself. Yesterday I put two 010 plaques made with Miller900 in my bisque kiln (something I’d never done) to see If, in a different kiln, the cone would melt or break off.

They broke off.

Further, I made new kiln plaques out of Miller 850 to put in my high fire kiln.
For the first firing since last Autumn, cone 10 and 11 went down in proper order.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Simply Put


My seventh grade literature teacher taught me that no good literature is ever written without conflict -- man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. clay, glazes, fire, and water.

No good life either, I suppose.

I wonder what kind of paradise there could ever be in the absence of contrast? An eternal bliss without struggle? I don't know how that would work. It sucked for Midas. But then again, life sucked for Sisyphus too.

"Life is hard, but it's harder when you're stupid."  --Jackie Brown