Monday, March 24, 2014

Straight Rows, Crooked Branches

I heard it from the orchardman. He said it’s a rule of thumb. Green thumb in his case. I know. I saw his orchard.

He said, “Stand here on this mound.”

So I stood on the rise of the dirt road I’d just been traveling down before this sight caught my eye.

“Now gaze out over the trees.” He continued. “See those rows? Straight as, well, straight as the rows of trees in an orchard ought to be.”

“Well, yeah, I see ‘em. It’s one of the things that caught my eye in the first place. The tidy rows. But what really caught my eye…the reason I pulled out my camera in the first place was because of the contrast. It’s a stunningly beautiful vision.”

“The contrast? You mean the straight rows beneath crooked branches?


“I’m kinda tickled you noticed that. I’d like to believe maybe I’ve learned a little about how to live a happy and contented life by the way I’ve learned to tend this orchard.”

“How do you mean?” I asked him.

“Well, see, a well-maintained orchard is planted in straight rows. That’s done so’s it’s easier to measure a fella’s progress as he makes his way through the orchard several times a year, first tending to the pruning, again to spray, to more easily keep the grass mowed between the rows all Summer, and finally, when it’s picking time.

But just as a good orchard has straight rows of trees, it’s only the crooked branches that bear the fruit. The straight ones – the “suckers” --are what are pruned away so’s they don’t compete for the tree’s energy.

Straight rows, crooked branches.

And that pattern continues on after the picking. Once the fruit is picked, it’s a hurry-up to get it to market. To do so, we don’t waste any time. We take the most direct route – the straight roads. The rails. Shortest distance between two points, y’know?

But the tending and the mowing and especially the picking will have been hard and demanding work. And nothing makes me a whole lot happier after I’m done delivering the fruit than taking the long way home. The river road that meanders a good ten miles out of my way. Maybe it’s still warm. Maybe the windows in the truck are rolled down. Maybe I don’t turn on the radio, but just listen to the sounds passing by and the crunch of my tires on gravel. There’s a whole lot of joy and contentment in such a drive down a winding road. It’s the rows and branches again. Straight to market to keep life on track. And the crooked road home to enjoy the fruits of the labor.

Same deal with truth and lies, I say. No, really. There’s a good time for both of ‘em in a happy and contented life. I figure I just have to figure out which is the best time for either. I have to figure out which times to be straight and which times to be crooked. It’s just rows and branches again.

And, heck, it’s not that hard. I figure it falls pretty much along the lines of straight dealings and crooked tales. Deal the truth at exactly the times you expect it to be reciprocated – cutting contracts, selling stuff, commitments. The rows.

But, to be honest, a well-told lie makes for the very best tales. Sometimes it takes a good lie to tell the truth. Sometimes a fiction is the only way to make us drop our guard – our defenses -- and laugh at ourselves. And God knows, we need to laugh at ourselves. It’s how we ripen the humility that maybe makes us the kind of folks others can take joy in. Maybe, anyway. At least that’s how I see it.

Straight rows and crooked branches. That’s pretty much life in an orchard.”

I said my goodbye to the orchardman, took one last look over the orchard – the straight rows and crooked branches – hopped back in my truck and pulled away. I watched the orchardman disappear in my rearview mirror. I took the winding road the rest of the way home. I had some things to think about.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Flying Man

 He took in as much helium as his lungs could hold. He inhaled and he inhaled and he drew the helium deep into his lungs. And those lungs could hold a powerful lot of helium.

And sure enough...up he rose.

With his lungs full of helium he could float on air and he could fly around a room.

And people would look up at him and cheer, "Look at the flying man!" And they'd smile. They'd hire the flying man for parties and he'd fly around their houses. And the people would clap as he floated by. 

He got surprised looks from folks as he floated by airplanes. But they’d see him smile and they’d smile back and through their little airplane windows they’d wave at the flying man.

"But he talks funny." That's what he started to hear.

So he didn’t talk. He didn’t care for the criticism. Anyway, talking was a waste of good helium. He just flew. That’s what he liked to do. And that’s what people liked about him.

But eventually the helium leaked out. Helium does that. Helium is hard to hold and it can’t be contained permanently. One day he found that he could only float limply just above the ground. Then, finally, he came to rest on a park bench. No longer the flying man.

And there he sat on the park bench, dejected. His flying days were over.

A young girl who happened to be playing on a nearby swing set, hopped off her swing and walked over to the no-longer-flying man. “What’s the matter? Why do you look so sad?” she asked.

“Because I used to fly and now I can’t” he answered.

At the sound of the no-longer-flying man’s voice, the young girl got a big smile on her face. “Has anyone ever told you what a beautiful voice you have?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Eleven years ago, on the coldest night of the year, a tiny grey kitten slipped under a white picket fence, sneaked up to the house, and stole into the hearts and lives of the two people living there.

Tonight, on the coldest night of this year, a considerably larger grey cat slipped beneath a different fence.

“Well, hello little fellow.”


“Come on in. I’ve been expecting you."


“I knew you were coming. I fixed you some fresh fish. It’s on that plate there. I caught it myself. It’s what I do, you know?”


“That’s some really fine work you did back there. No cat has ever made two people laugh, or love, or feel as you did for John and Dar back there.”



“Will John and Dar be okay?”

“No, no they won’t. At least, not for a good long while. But you did what you were supposed to do. And you did it exceptionally well. You were just exactly what they needed, just exactly when they needed it.”

“Mmmm. This is really good fish.”

“Enjoy it. There’s always more.”

Saturday, December 7, 2013


He closed the big door, he turned out the lights
Even the one peeking through the floor.
From this tiny world he declared (In dark of night)
“Nothing surprises me anymore”

“I do not like that”, “See, that there’s not right”
“And that’s something I don’t care for”
“I can’t and I won’t”, “That’s not worth the fight”
“Nothing surprises me anymore”

Then she came along and flung the door wide
To toil and sweat to win dreams
To one foot in front of the first one tried
The surprise days of working redeems

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Jim Kemp

I was maybe 24 years old. I followed Jackie Lord – director of the sales gallery at the Indianapolis Museum of Art – back through the dimly lit maze of shelves that made a patchwork wall of oddly marked boxes, gallery kitsch, frames, and sculptures. We were carefully making our way to the section that held the extra inventory of pottery the museum shop carried at the time. Behind me I towed my cart that held boxes filled with oil lamps, honey pots, and little else. Certainly no pottery memorable enough to mention. It was just the work that was paying my way in the world – my entry into the world of functional handmade pottery. I was, at that point, flattered that the museum shop even wanted to carry my work.

But it was when Jackie stopped in front of a rack of open shelving, saying, “Go ahead and stack your things on this shelf….” that my eyes came to light on the porcelain pottery that filled the shelf next to mine.

The world tilted beneath my feet.

There in that dim light of a backroom storage area I saw the most animated, well-crafted porcelain teapots I had ever seen in my life. My heart started pounding. And I felt small. Both at the same time. I was witnessing greatness, and simultaneously wondering what in the heck I was doing trying to make a living in the world of pottery when there was the quality of this pottery loose in the world.

“Who the heck is that?” I stammered out. Barely.

“Oh, that’s Jim Kemp. Doesn’t he do fine work?”

“Fine work.” That comment still holds up well in my “Biggest Understatements EVER Hall Of Fame”.

I started noticing Jim and his work at a few of the art fairs I was breaking into – Broad Ripple, Talbot Street, Lafayette. And that same sense of awe and wonder that visited me in that dim, crowded storage room returned each time I saw Jim’s work.

Jim’s work is the most singular voice in Hoosier pottery -- probably for the past 30 years. It was strong and clear back then – animated, humorous, but with the constant of flawless craftsmanship so transparent that, though undeniably human to the core, each and every piece spoke for itself.

And then one year I saw Jim turn on a dime. No more the porcelain so light and airy that it fairly floated above the table on which is sat. No, in the space of one show season Jim entirely re-invented his work – reinterpreted it in earthenware. And, if anything, this work was even more whimsical. I couldn’t walk BY his booth, much less stand in the midst of it, without my autonomic smile system going off. I swear, I think I might have even laughed the first time I saw it – it was that joyful. It was that playful.

For the thirty-five plus years I’ve known him, there has been no more creative, inspirational, hard-working potter in Indiana. Certainly there has been no better craftsman.

I don’t write this as a friend of Jim’s. Oh, we were casual acquaintances, and we’d usually talk a bit about how things were going, ‘how’s the family’, ‘what’s new’ kind of stuff. To be perfectly honest? ….I admired Jim too much for me to be very much fun for him to hang around. Not Jim’s fault. He was accessible and friendly. I was just simply too enamored.

I’m glad I got the chance to tell him, though -- even if I generally stammered it out in nearly incoherent gushing streams – exactly what I’ve written here. I told him how important I thought his work was to the world of clay. I told him that I loved his work. I told him that my breath caught in my throat nearly every time I saw his work. And I told him often.

I’ll miss seeing Jim around. The clay world just lost one of its brightest lights. I doubt I’ll see anything brighter in my lifetime.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Kiln Time

He couldn’t waste a square inch of his kiln
So packed, when drafting, it whistled
As the flue warmed up, heated air hissed through
Flame shot out the base like a missile

It rumbled. It shook itself free from the ground
The controls, they came free from the socket
It pitched and it yawed, momentarily paused
It then just shot off like a rocket

It climbed through the air, it soared into space
It pierced the clouds with its chimney harpoon
And that’s how it happened, I cannot lie
That’s how his were the first pots on the moon.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Rhythm. The Rhyme

Someone recently asked on facebook “What do you potters want from a workshop?”  It was a timely question because I’d been thinking about that myself for some time.
In part I’d been thinking about it as a potential presenter.  “What is it about what I do, or the way I do it that would be compelling enough to attract clay-minded people for a day of listening to me?” was the thought circling my brain. 

I thought about workshops I’ve attended and tried to figure out what I’d gotten from them, what I’d come away with, what I enjoyed, and maybe even a little of what I thought had been a waste of time.  I concluded that even though I couldn’t point to immediate pottery-changing inspiration(s), on balance I came away from each workshop with a good feeling.  And it was a feeling that tended to linger a bit.  Maybe it was inspiration.  I don’t know.


Then a couple of weeks ago I had the World Series playing on the TV in the shop.  Though I’ve had the television in the shop for a long time, It’s rarely ever on.  I learned a long time ago that I’m too easily visually stimulated to be capable of working while the TV is on.  It’s hard for me to use TV as simply background noise.  I’ll too often stop what I’m doing to watch.

But during the series it was exactly that – background noise.  I could follow the score.  I could anticipate if there was something worth stopping work to watch.  Heck, through the magic of instant replay, I didn’t have to miss a thing, even if I couldn’t immediately tear myself away from the wheel.

But there was something very compelling and familiar about that background noise.  Those modulated announcer’s voices.  The cadence of the count.  The sing-song repetition of familiar phrases uttered in good stead for rhyming patterns.  It struck me:

I was listening to poetry.  I was listening to music.

It could have been any game.  The music would have been the same.  The cadence.  The count. The phrases.

Poetry.  Music.

It was as familiar as church.

Please turn in your hymnal to number 355.  A Mighty Fortress .  All stand.

The count is two and oh.  Brock will take a pitch. Runners on first and third.

There’s comfort in the familiar.  We return to the songs we love.  We buy albums and wear them out.  We listen to them so many times we not only learn the lyrics, we learn the song order.

We read Robert Frost even though we know his view on fences and roads not taken.  We want to hear about them again.

And we go to workshops.  We like to hear the familiar.  We want to see others who participate in this song of our life.  Maybe hear a new verse or two ….or not.  The new doesn’t matter as much as the poetry.  The cadence.  The familiar phrases with those words like kaolin and silica and ball clay and feldspar.  They don’t rhyme, but they do.  Said often enough, they do.

 Please turn in your hymnals.  cone 10.  A Tenmoku Glaze.  All stand.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Leaves, Singing, and Dancing

It’s Saturday morning and as I’m typing this there are three Street Department workers out in front of my shop raking my huge piles of leaves into their heavy-duty Sucktronic® leaf mulcher.  And they’re singing as they work.  Sometimes, even on a gray, overcast November day the world is just too beautiful for words.

I just walked a tip out to them.  They made my day. I want to encourage the magic.

My acre has five Norway Maples – each with an umbrella of greater than fifty feet.  When we clear our yard of leaves, we end up with an immense pile streetside (now that we no longer burn them.  Oh how I miss the smell and the dreamy wonder of a good leaf fire.)

Yesterday a heavily bearded thirty-something man in dirty work clothes pulled into the two-track side of my circular driveway.  He was towing a trailer.  He walked the rest of the way up the drive and caught me as I was walking between the house and the shop.  “May I have your leaves?” he mumbled.  I didn’t catch it at first, but then I realized he couldn’t speak clearly.

My first thought was to wonder why he wanted the leaves in the first place.  My second thought, though, was an uncharitable one.  Knowing as I do that the city’s Street Department was going to soon be picking up the leaves, and that the city makes a very clean job of it – leaving nothing behind – I worried that this fellow would leave just enough of the leaves on the ground that: 1. I would have a mess, and 2. Now there would not be enough of a pile of leaves for the Street Department to bother with.  They would leave them.

“As long as you don’t leave a mess behind – rake up after yourself – you’re welcome to them.”  I said.

When did I become a crabby old man?

“By the way, what do you want the leaves for?” I couldn’t help it. I wanted to know.

“I garden” was the simple reply.

Anyway, the man walked back to his truck and trailer (which, as it turns out, held his gas-powered mulching machine).  Upon his return, a young, maybe eight-year-old boy I hadn’t noticed before got out of the passenger side of the truck.  Then together the two of them worked in quiet concert gathering the leaves.  Father and son sharing labor.  It may be one of the most beautiful dances in which mankind engages.  They took about half of the leaves and raked the grass beneath as clean as a whistle.

Dar is such a sap.  She was so touched at the tableau of father and son working together that she went to her storage box of porcelain ornaments and walked out and handed them one of her snowflakes.  They’d made her day.  She wanted to encourage the magic.