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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
“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
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.
How often (if ever) do you find that you like the back side or the foot of a piece of pottery as much as you like the more prominent, more obviously visible parts -- the front, the top? I know it happens to me occasionally.
I've made shallow bowls for more than thirty years now, but about twenty years ago I had an epiphany. See, up to that point I had always finished the back sides of the bowls -- trimmed and footed them neatly and all. I was taught well. A well finished foot matters.
But I had never decorated the backsides. After all, the bowl was virtually flat -- virtually plate-like. Why would a fella decorate what isn't seen?
Then one Winter, Dar bought me one of Mark Nafziger's bowls for a Christmas present. I admired the beautifully detailed slip-trailed face of the bowl and I was smitten. Dar had picked me a beauty.
....and then I turned it over.
Mark decorates the back side of his bowls. I had my answer.
"Why would a fella decorate what isn't seen?"
Because it is seen. It's seen in the handling of it. And there's a pleasure to be had in such a hidden detail. It's almost like a message from the potter to the final owner. Every time that owner flips the bowl over to look at that hidden detail, it's like the potter gets one more chance to smile and say, "Made you look, didn't I?"
I decided I liked the rightness in that. I decided I liked the whimsy in that.
I decorate the backs of my bowls.
And now twenty years on, Mark's bowl still speaks to me. Front AND back.
Space: The Final Frontier..... or Why Some Folks Is Potters And Some Folks Ain't
The ability to grasp spacial relationships (as opposed to special relationships) is an interesting phenomenon. I once had a person in my shop who was going to help me drill the holes in the bottom of my colanders. I have a template that lays out the holes, so where the holes needed to be drilled wasn't a problem.
So I set this person to work drilling and walked across the room.
When I came back to their side, I saw that they had drilled all the holes in a manner that was keeping the drill bit perpendicular to the table top....and they were asking me how they were supposed to drill the holes marked further down the curve of the bowl.
I was stunned for a moment that they didn't simply intuit how they would be holding the drill bit (relative to the curve of the bowl, not the table it sat upon). I tried to explain to them to simply follow the curve of the bowl downward, always keeping the drill perpendicular to the arc of the bowl. No amount of wording or re-wording could get this person to understand the spacial relationship I was talking about.
I told this to my friend, Luke. Luke has cut my hair for nearly forty years. Luke said, "Oh, I've had exactly the same thing happen in my shop". Seems Luke was training a new hair stylist and was trying to explain to this young person that if hair was pulled out straight from the head and then cut off at the same length, the result would be perfectly feathered ends when the hair was dropped back in place. The apprentice couldn't understand this.
It's a brain thing. There are some things we potters seem to simply be born to grasp.