Saturday, November 17, 2018


I've been the recipient of an out-of-the-blue act of kindness from a stranger.

The opening of the stranger's email began:

"___________ told me David Shaner was one of the potters who earned your respect."

...and what followed was the attachment of a cookbook of David Shaner recipes -- a collection passed on from the man himself.

It made my day. What a thoughtful kindness. It afforded me a new and encompassing sense of connectedness to the world of potters. It's a remarkable fraternity.

Oh, the "stranger" I'm referring to -- the fellow who sent me that email -- wasn't a stranger to me. I've known who Jack Troy was since I was a teenager reading Ceramics Monthly in my college library. I bought "Salt Fired Ceramics" in around 1980 and from there grew to appreciate a potter -- Mr Troy -- uncommonly able to communicate in written word the joys and trials of working with clay.

But I had no idea Mr Troy knew who I was, much less that he might know that I considered myself a debtor to the life's work of David Shaner. Apparently the internet has made the world just small enough to make such knowing possible.

But Mr Troy's generosity didn't stop there with that email.. A few weeks later I got a package in the mail. In it were two of Jack's books -- one I didn't even realize had been published called "inscapes" -- a collection of thoughts that David Shaner found meaningful enough to collect, all compiled and edited by Jack Troy.

I would never claim some personal connection to David Shaner. I never even met the man. But his were among the first pots to ever inspire me as a teenage potter. I had a photo of Mr Shaner hanging in my first 8' X 16' pottery shed, and carried it with me to my next studio.

I couldn't begin to count the number of pots I've made with David Shaner glazes selling their worth. Such pots were a collaboration in which I clearly drew the long straw.

But though I never met Mr Shaner, through Jack Troy's book I was allowed a glimpse into the man. That glimpse confirmed a kinship. Okay, a kinship as asymmetrical as the pots we made "together", but a kinship profoundly meaningful to me.

If you have any way to obtain a copy of Jack Troy's "inscapes", I highly recommend the book. You can easily read it in one sitting. But that won't be the last time you read it. I guarantee it.

I owe Jack Troy a huge debt of gratitude for introducing me to one of my lifelong heroes.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Mr Obvious

Funny how you can play the same chords for years and never hear the obvious song in the changes. 

You can eat peanut butter and you can eat dill pickles and you can eat the two separately for years and never guess how perfect they are together between bread.

I've used this clay and this glaze for years and never thought about letting the clay show through.

Friday, September 28, 2018

And I Quoth

by Edgar Plastic Kaolin

Once upon a midnight dreary
Eyes rimmed red, bloodshot, and bleary
Again my kiln is in no hurry
Waiting on the cones once more
So far I’ve barely bent cone 4
Only this and nothing more

Nodding off just kills my neck it
Dawns on me I ought to check it
Pull the peep hole from the back it
Shows a slightly bent cone four
Still a slightly bent cone four
Only this and nothing more

Maybe I’ll adjust the damper
This kiln's causing me to hanker
For a kiln I need not pamper
Computer-controlled so to ensure
I’d never again be stuck at four
Just cone four and nothing more

I’ll admit, I’m mildly pissed off
A month’s production will be kissed off
If this rocket never lifts off
But stays right here, stuck at cone four
Only four, and nothing more
It’s no wonder I stay poor

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sixty Minute Man

Quick thought: Can you make more than you can sell, or can you sell more than you can make?

That's a good question -- maybe the best question ever asked -- and you're the only person in 40 years who has ever asked it. It really has been one of the hardest parts about navigating this business. A concrete answer has been one of the most vexing things to come up with in my entire business life as a potter.

I could probably write nearly a book-length explanation, but to sum it up as well as I can, however incompletely: I've always had more market than product.

That's really being in the catbird seat of business, idn't it?

Well, no.

It's not.  It's because I've always shaded toward the near side of the invisible but abrupt line in pottery that divides "appropriately affordable" and "Priced like precious art".

In my 40 years I have seen more potters fail by jumping to the wrong conclusion about their raised prices. That is, as they raised their prices the pots still sold.....but they never did the math to see if, in the long run they were:

1. still making an adequate profit from that pot in, say, a year's time (they were pricing the pot as a one-off rather than a product. They were looking at each sale as an auction, not as a retail product.) And because they weren't looking long term, they failed to detect the lost of income per item. It was hard to detect because they still sold the item. It didn't stop. It slowed. Maybe imperceptibly unless they had some device in place to catch such things.

2. Considering the differing markets that make up a typical pottery business. We sell in multiple markets -- not just regionally, but also types of market. 

For example, almost every potter I know has to put together a show schedule of varied shows from "A" shows (those juried shows that are nearly impossible to get into, but when you do they afford a potter the very best in markets and a premium price is almost expected), "B" shows (those juried shows that a potter may not get into every year, but of which there are many alternatives such that doubling up on jurying for several on a weekend will likely net you at least one entry. Those are where your price is probably going to be more realistically set for a general public), and "C" level shows (maybe a local show that, due to the lack of overhead, they still are worth it for at least a few shows in a schedule. Sometimes these shows turn out surprisingly great. But often, just as the "A" price would prohibit sales at a "B" show, "B" prices would probably slow sales at a "C" show).

3. ....and then there's internet sales.

Anyway, as I saw the accidental attrition that hit my fellow potters as they started believing their own press, I decided there wasn't a season that I could really afford not to sell well. So my prices have always been on the conservative side.

Even saying that, though, I'm still fuzzy on it because I look at my current prices and, yes, most of the time my contemporaries think I'm underpriced (and some are even a little angry about it. Competition, you know. I outsell most of them most of the time)....but my prices are what I would have considered "precious" just 20 years ago. I'm priced at the level at which 20 years ago I saw the first exit of overpriced potters.

But it's mostly guesswork. And the hard and fast rules that apply to retail have a bearing, but they're not nearly as easily applied when:

1. you aren't just the retailer -- you are the manufacturer.

2. what you make isn't -- I never remember the word for something "duplicatable" as opposed to something made one at a time -- like the difference between being able to write a book (a one-time endeavor) but then getting royalties from the copies vs. making each individual pot one piece at a time.

3. you are in a field where notoriety (small group fame) can influence price.

It would be easy, for instance, to look at my situation of perpetually selling more than I can make and simply conclude that I need to raise my prices. And there's a cold-and-calculating aspect to that too. That is, if you aren't getting enough for the work then you simply shouldn't be doing either that particular body of work or that career.

Easy said. Not so easily done. There aren't a whole lot of other offers out there. I'm looking, but have been for some time now.

Some of the advice has been to take a job -- any job. I get that. Declare bankruptcy. Sell the house. Rent. Kill the dog and cat. Send the wife off to live with her sister. I get it. I've listened to Dave Ramsey.

Maybe it will come to that. I don't know right now. I'm navigating in the dark. Without a rudder. The other tough reality is waking up at 62 and realizing that my entire life has been dedicated to skills that don't make money -- even if I happened to be better at those skills than the average Joe. That's a tough one. Especially for a cocky guy like me. I'm suddenly the frat boy who is getting his comeuppance at the end of the revenge of the nerds movie. I don't know Jack, but I've always thought I was smart. Guess again.

Additionally, I know I'm going to have to sell this house -- in spite of the fact that when I lose this house, I lose the ability to make a living as a potter (this is where the kiln is).

And like most of my problems, it isn't quite a simple one. For instance, I may or may not be upside down on it. And not knowing that makes it difficult to know exactly how to approach selling it.

See, on the one hand I could paint the very best picture -- if this house was anywhere else in the county (any place other than the industrial park in which it sits) it would easily be worth north of $200K (rural Indiana housing market isn't like big city real estate prices. A million dollars really buys you something around here). And it is one of the most unique properties in the whole county -- it is zoned I-3 BUT it also has a variance for is grandfathered in as a residence. That means unlike almost any other acre in all of Warsaw, a buyer could come in here and do any kind of business they wanted AND live here.

Additionally, it is a very attractive property with its historical house, decorative fences, mature trees, nature conservancy across the street. It's got curb appeal.


Knowing that the next occupant of this property might very well be an industry that levels the buildings and rebuilds, we've felt somewhat hesitant to improve the place. Add to that the fact that the house is going through the 20 year thing -- needing new furnace, roof, water heater,'s just not that attractive to look at as a ready-to-move-into residence.

I don't know how to solve that. Since I'm in debt I can't really do the improvements anyway....but if I can't then, sadly, I lose even more in the sale.

But, yes. We're going to have to sell the place. We can't afford to live here. If I owned it outright I wouldn't even be worried. In fact, if I'd gotten this place paid off before the crash of 2008, I'd be looking at a pretty comfortable retirement of making a reasonable number of pots per year and playing music at the Goshen Jam on the weekends. But that's wishful thinking. That didn't happen. The pots still sell well but the amount of money needed to maintain this level of debt load is just not possible.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Taking a Flyer

With a HUGE helping hand from Nancy Gallagher (who virtually did all the layout work) and my friends who helped with proofing and advice -- Bonnie Blandford, Julie Kradel, Jon Hecker, Don Ament, L.J. Mattingly. And to Sara Laitala who got the ball rolling on the whole thing (whether she knew it or not).
I just got these from the local printing company.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Blowin' Away

You ride the wind right up until 
it suddenly dawns on you that you're chasing it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

We're IN With The IN Crowd

Dar and I had recently been discussing the fact that we're pretty happy living in Indiana. Oh, we don't have anything really tying us to the area except for a lot of inertia.

We don't have family in Warsaw. There are a few friends we'd miss if we moved away, but being self-employed potters has kept us relatively isolated -- not lots of free time for socializin'

Besides that, though, Indiana
is a safe place to live. You could say that Indiana lacks the spectacular extremes. We don't have mountains. Our "coast" is Lake Michigan, not an ocean. We aren't the hottest in summer or the coldest in winter.

We do have pleasant hills and hardwood forests with dazzling autumn colors. We do have prairie with its wide open spaces and big skyscapes.

But we don't have dangerous, poisonous, vicious animals. One of the few places Dar and I have considered moving is western North Carolina. But we intend to run (optimistically) or walk (realistically) our dogs until the day we die. And I confess it's an intimidating thought to round a bend with a dog on leash and come face to face with a bear.

So, I'm thinking Indiana is a safe and happy place to stay.

Until this morning. While running in the dark along the greenway I heard the rustling of some small animal re-positioning itself on the ground about four feet from me. I'd darn near stepped on it. Flashes of white were all I could detect in the darkness.

I am an old man but I instantly turned into Usain Bolt. Nothing like the threat of a skunk to get you moving in the morning. I went from 0 to 60 instantly.

Today I got lucky. But Indiana is a very dangerous State to live in.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Doppler Gangers

Rolling Stone Magazine posted yet another "10 Greatest Albums Of The Rock Era" lists.  Nobody agrees with it.

There are only so many ways to express the reality that it is nearly impossible for any popular art form to register the same to any generation other than the one that produced it. 

If it does, it is with a doppler effect of distortion advancing ahead and trailing behind it. Even if a next generation embraces the art, it won't be for the same reasons. The art won't elicit identical feelings down the line. 

And it will be re- and re- and re- interpreted if the original art said much of anything at all to begin with

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Scales Fall Off

Sunday afternoon I was set up at an art fair in Milwaukee and talking pots with fellow potter, Brian Beam.  For a long time it has vexed me that I lacked a way of explaining what I find so visually pleasing about Jeff Unzicker's large pieces that I don't find similarly appealing in equally large pots.

Thinking out loud with Brian, I think I finally found a way of explaining it. It's the same thing I find so appealing about Jane Graber's work -- as ironic as that may sound if you are aware of both Jane's and Jeff's work.

See, they represent total opposite ends of the size spectrum. While Jeff's pots are monumental, Jane's are miniature. 

But what I find so appealing about both of their pots is that they are proportioned so perfectly that scale is somewhat incidental to the aesthetic appeal. They'd be good pots at any size.  

And neither making a piece huge nor making it tiny will magically transform a poorly considered shape into a beautiful piece of pottery.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Novel Consideration

If Ross Poldark had been a potter
He would have, of course, lacked
The time to ride horseback
(To the swelling orchestral soundtrack)
Up and down the Cornwall coast waters

If Ross Poldark had been a potter
I can hear fair Demelzam
As she ups and tells ‘im
The fate that befells him
“You’re workin’ harder than you oughter”

If Ross Poldark worked with hands in clays
He’d have been quite enthused
If his mine would be used
To find cornwall stone fused
With the copper to color his glazes

If Ross Poldark made pottery too
Fair Elizabeth might ask
Putting Ross to the task
To make her a flask
“But, Ross, do you have it in blue?”

If pottery was Ross Poldark’s work
The need would be rare
(Though we like him to bare
His chest full of hair)
For Ross to go and strip off his shirt

If clay tested Ross Poldark’s mettle
His hat would be cool
For holding his tools
But he’d still have to fool
With a wheel that he had to pedal

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Straight Rows/Crooked Branches

The jury is still out on whether or not it saved me time. It can't be proven one way or the other. I can't have chosen one road and simultaneously know what might have happened had I chosen the other.

But as I headed toward Minnesota last weekend, I couldn't help but notice that the oncoming (eastbound and southbound) lanes of the highways I traveled were parking lots. Tens of miles long traffic jams.

I determined to travel home on blue highways only.

And even if I thus lost the time battle, I won the battle to fill my life and my eyes with more beauty than I can now convey.

Henderson MN might be the most beautiful small town I've ever driven through. At least, its main drag is in the running for that title. Especially in the dawn hours with light fog filling the river town with added atmosphere.

I bypassed Chicago by going south -- latitudinally level with home - and driving, first through the winding county roads that thread back and forth through the Kankakee River valley...

...and then on straight-as-an-arrow county roads, at once walled off by head-high corn, and then opening up to ten mile vistas of green. Off in the distance every sneaker creek gives itself away by growing tall white sycamores to lace it.

And there are the culvert-size "bridges" and old rail crossings that come up unexpectedly, launching the van nearly airborne.

All the homes tell stories to an imagination like mine. There are those of new construction that tell me that though I haven't seen a town in 50 miles, I'm surely close to one...

...and the hundred year old places that remind me that the road I'm now racing down at 60mph was once -- and not that long ago -- not much more than a dirt trail.

Take the long way home. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Home Court Advantage

 Got an early start on the day -- out in the shop at 5 ayem in the morning making vases. After 40 years of doing this you'd think I'd have learned something. I have. I learned that after 40 years I can still have a bad day at something I've done a million times.

I couldn't throw the vases at my boss's house on her wheel with her lighting and her stool. Making anything else I can sort of adjust to her equipment. But the vase form is just too demanding -- especially in porcelain. Porcelain de-laminates. If pulled to fast, it separates into "sheets" of clay that come off in your hands. But if you play it too safe, you can't get the height. Or you get a twist.

Her wheel has a pedal with a very un-smooth throw. Imagine a car with an accelerator pedal that sticks. You're in a parking lot and you are inching into your space but you need to accelerate just a tad....except that the pedal sticks so that the force needed to un-stick it is too much and you run into the car ahead.

It's like that without the hitting-the-car-in-front-of-you thing. If you're sensing a twist in the clay, you decelerate the wheel immediately but gradually. A sticking pedal decelerates it too completely and then the compensation for that is in speeding back up too rapidly.

I tried nine times and failed. That's the most failure since the months in 1976 when I was first learning.

So I got out early.

   My wheel. 
       My stool. 
           My lighting.

Monday, June 18, 2018

What If

But then, what if this?

What if yours is the very voice listened for?
What if it is this very fact: You can't carry the tune?
And your drummer isn't quite in time?
What if it is your sound that, though you try,
Never comes out twice the same?
What if it’s your part in the whole
By which he enjoys your congregation?

Oh, I see.
You thought it was an offering
Spotless. Without blemish
Then perhaps you’ve not yet heard
This bit of good news
The offering was already given and accepted
Join in the gift
We’re unwrapping it now

But then, what if this?

What of your inability to paint inside the lines?
Or your inability to escape them?
In all your color-blind
Can’t-draw-a-straight-line skills
Or can only draw them straight foibles?
What if it’s your part in the whole
By which he enjoys his creation?

Oh, I see.
You thought it was an offering
Spotless. Without blemish
Then perhaps you’ve not yet heard
This bit of good news
The offering was already given and accepted
Join in the gift
We’re unwrapping it now

But then, what if this?

What if you don’t throw hard?
Or can’t shoot straight?
Or won’t run long? ...or much longer, anyway?
Or can’t jump far?
Shank ‘em? Toss up air balls? Choke?
But what if he enjoys watching you try
As much as you do?
What if it’s your part on the team
By which he enjoys your vocation?

Oh, I see.
You thought it was an offering
Spotless. Without blemish
Then perhaps you’ve not yet heard
This bit of good news
The offering was already given and accepted
Join in the gift
We’re unwrapping it

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Square Pegs & Pots

A true horseman
Expert in the saddle
In his nonchalance

He appears born to it
Clearly doing just what
He oughter

Take, for instance,
A ship in a bottle
You just know
It didn’t sail into there
So how did I end up
A potter?