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 up 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?

Monday, May 28, 2018

Sitting In The Catbird Seat

 It's quiet in the shop at 5:30 ayem-in-the-morning. Except that it's not this morning. I opened the front windows to the social media chattering, whistling, popping, and general vocal mayhem that is the catbirds nesting in the crab apple tree that hangs over the shop.

It's nice to have company.

To Dance

He was a graceless man. 

The neighborhood kids called him "Plug". It fit him. He was stubby like a fireplug. If he dressed well, I never saw it. And he was too much of a character actor to ever be called "handsome". He passed his anachronistic military haircut on to his sons -- one of those sons was my friend growing up.

He shouted. Or he growled. That's because it's hard to shout around the stub of a cigar.
His wife tamed the family. Good thing, too. There were daughters.

Growing up, one rarely speculates the romance that brought our parents generation together. The world starts the day we are born and everything that came before just was.

And then I saw them dance. Plug and the wife out on the floor at a family wedding. The transformation was almost shocking. How could Plug and the wife suddenly become Fred and Ginger? How could they move so beautifully together? 

Dancing is an intimacy that even the most staid and modest are not embarrassed by. We know what's being acted out and yet we witness it with joy and without a blush. 

Plug will always be Plug. I'll still remember him puttering around his lawn. But I know now that he's not without grace.

 Abundant grace.

When Soft Happens

The clay I'm throwing today is so soft that I can plunge my hand into a 25lb slug of it and as quickly as I withdraw my hand the clay fills the void.

I inadvertently set a 25lb bag of this clay over a crack in the concrete floor of my shop for a few seconds. By the time I reached for it again it had slipped almost entirely into the crack. If it wasn't for that little twist tie that closes the bag, I might not have recovered the clay at all.

When I threw it down on the wedging table it splashed.

 I can only assume that when the clay factory was mixing this batch of clay up they did so as your typical one-part-per-million holistic apothecary might add his placebo into solution. I'm sure they added clay into the water when they were making this batch. I mean, I assume they did. It's not JUST water. It's at least cloudy.

The only way I've been able to throw shapes out of it at all is by joining it in hypostatic union (a term I appropriated from my college theology classes for its useful ambiguity. Don't worry, though. The theologians won't be offended at my pilfering their term. They don't understand what it means either)...
....anyway, I joined the clay in hypostatic union with a cloud of dust that I keep swirling above my wheel.

So, this lump of clay is lying on a psychiatrist's couch and he says, "Hey doc, I can't help but feel I'm being manipulated."

I'm torn with my choices regarding this wet clay. I may have to leave it to air dry for a while and then wedge it back up. Or I might put it in a very large tub and soak in it for a while while I ponder the problem.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Care & Cleaning Instructions for Pete's Shirt

The discussion on pricing continues.  Tony added this post into the mix.

Most potters I know who are trying to sustain their life in the clay world aren’t wondering that a mug can sell for $50 or even $100…or even $1,000.  They know that a shirt can sell for $1 (Salvation Army), $25 (L.L.Bean) or $1,000 (Purchased from the Elvis Presley estate auction) .  And they know that they’d treat each of those shirts with commensurate care.
So, they’re not wondering that a mug can sell for a lot of money.  What they are wondering is more specific:

1.  What makes a mug worth $50?
2. And they are asking question #1 with a mind toward the follow-up question: “Can I make a mug that sells for $50?”
3. After answering questions 1 & 2:  If I know what might make a mug sell for $50, and I do make that mug that sells for $50, am I getting paid a reasonable sum – not for the value of that one mug – that one piece -- but toward a goal of making a reasonable living from the profits gained by selling a mug for $50. 
4. In other words (question #3), “Can I sell MUGS (plural) for $50 and make a living from those mugs?  Can I sustain a market for $50 mugs for a reasonably extended period of my clay career?
5.  And will making $50 mugs advance my career?  Will I make only those mugs or will I make other things?

6.  And if I’m making other things of which mugs will be but a part of my inventory…am or will I be able to pay myself equally (or nearly enough so) for, say, my pitchers, or my bowls, or my doo-dads, or my what’s-its?
Most potters will never be able to avail themselves of the stratospheric “collectible” market.  Their phones aren’t jingling with calls from Charlie Cummings or Garth Clark to put on a $50 mug exhibit.  Most potters aren’t going to be asked to present a workshop at NCECA or Wooster or Ella Sharp or anywhere else for that matter. 

In fact, though there are any number of potters who aspire to that end ("...oh, please, please, please Charlie...won't you give me a call?!"), I suspect there are just as many or more who aspire to the seclusion of their potteries and their kilns and their production, and who relish the interaction with the open market of pottery consumers  – those who want to live and use the stuff.

And most potter’s experience in the world of potters-selling-to-other-potters looks a bit more like potters-trading-with-other-potters.  It’s a zero-sum game, not a business model. 
I’m one of the lucky ones and I thank God daily for that.  I couldn’t appreciate the kindness of my fellow potters more than I do when they honor me by buying my pots.  They’ve pulled my butt out of the fire several times with timely purchases, even. 

But in my world of clay, as much as I love my fellow potters, I don’t see them as a sustainable market for my work. In fact, I mostly see them as partners-in-life who I absolutely need to survive this perilous but utterly fulfilling life in clay.  

No potter is an island entire of himself.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Who Is In Charge?

Here's my estimation:

If a potter is making a living by selling his pots -- no other source of revenue, no family money, no supporting spouse, no trust fund, no government grants....

...then the only consideration a potter should make relative to the prices other potters put on their work is whether, when stood beside those other potter's work (whether those other potters are the rankest of beginners or the most famous among us), the pottery we are offering the world will be perceived as being of lesser, equal, or greater value.

I have yet to meet the potter whose mug was inferior to mine simply on the basis that they had only been making pots for a year (compared to my 40) -- and plenty of beginning potters who proved quite the opposite. And I've met few famous potters who were putting significantly more value into their mugs (though several are playing the dangerous game Tim Mather once described to me as "putting more value into a piece than can reasonably be recovered in an open market")

There is value to be had in brand. Some of our number get to be well-known. But that particular aspect of price requires a few things in order to be a serious contender in the "What Can I Charge?" sweepstakes:

1. Does your "fame" -- your life experience, your name recognition -- extend beyond the world of clay? If not, then your market is the cloistered clay world of academia, workshops, and select galleries. If that is the case, a potter might be able to generate a living income from that small group....but the perverse thing is that the price structure allowed (even encouraged) within that cloister are the very prices that almost guarantee failure in the open market where the name recognition/brand/fame isn't obvious.

2. If that fame does extend beyond the world of clay then perhaps the world is your oyster. A friend of mine once pointed out to me that we might often be playing to the wrong audience.

For instance (he pointed out), if you are writing an article about your work, is your first instinct that your target reader is the Ceramics Monthly/Clay Times/Studio Potter reader....

...or are you submitting to The Smithsonian/Architectural Digest/Parade Magazine readers of the open market?

 We clay people often wonder why there are so few of our number who are ever truly famous in the open art world (or fame is almost exclusively within our medium). Maybe it's because we don't play to the open audience. Maybe it's because we like each other too much :) . Or maybe it's because we're just scared.

More pricing issues for later blogs:

1. Does our pricing allow us to be making the pots we want to be making (instead of what pays the bills)?

2. Does our pricing allow us to make the pieces we most want to be remembered for (if remembrance seems at all likely)?

3. Can we make pottery that we can make a living from?

4. Is there anything inferior about being an amateur potter -- either by way of pursuit OR quality of work?

The subject seems endless....and very subjective.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Kiln Opening 4/26/2018

 I'm happy with the way firings are coming out these days.  Here's a table full of small (1qt) casseroles in ash and red.

Pumpkins are never out of season.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Promises, Promises

In an effort to put together a brochure (I can't type the word "brochure" without hearing the Bucket woman in my ear pronouncing it "BRAAA-sher") , I thought it might be valuable to include some testimonials in the brochure -- words from attendees at previous workshops.

Toward that end, I promised the folks at the last workshop that there'd be a mug in it for anyone who'd send me a written review.

Now, I know that sounds sort of ethically squishy. Payola. But in my defense I did ask for the bad and the good. And I got some good suggestions for improving.

Anyway, here are some of the mugs that will be wheeling their way northward after I glaze fire them tomorrow.

Kiln Opening 4/24/2018

This one is the future.  It's a white stoneware formulated by Royce Yoder and reformulated by Sunstone Pottery out in Utah, then mixed in Ohio by Laguna.

My red glaze glows on it like it used to on porcelain and B-mix (before the bubbling started).

I'm really excited to start producing in earnest with this clay.

 This has leaves falling down the slip-trailed spiral.  I intend to repeat this pattern more this year.

I sprayed heavily so the gold ran into the spiral in the center of the bowl.  I like that it makes it look deeper.

 I used to carve my green glazed pots and stamp my red and gold glazed pots.  The way the red was firing, the carving just turned the whole thing dark.  No more.  I'm now getting a good sunburst through the carving.

Here's some carved red on a more vertical piece.   I'm still getting lots of red and gold.  The acorns have never looked better.