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

Monday, April 29, 2019

Just So Much



 
“….it missed by this much”, he said. And to emphasize just how tiny and insignificant “this much” was, he thrust out his hand, holding his finger and thumb a scant quarter-inch apart.

Yeah, what of significance could possibly fit between fingers so closely spaced?

More than 100,000 pots. That's what.

Knowing the distance between two fingers – and how to set and hold them there, precisely at such a distance –is perhaps the central skill to being a potter. It’s not a “squeeze”. It’s a set-and-hold. And learning the feel of that distance and being capable of holding it -- whether thumbs may touch over a short wall for reference….or the fingers are completely separated and working on either side of a very tall wall that reaches to the elbow and beyond – that’s what a potter needs to learn to make a good, even-walled pot. It’s what a potter needs to know to make a pot light enough for function, but heavy enough for a lifetime of use and abuse.

When that skill became second nature to me, I found that my mind would venture off to a beyond well away from that starting point – well away from that focus on two fingers.

What starts with a slam of clay on wheelhead and a whirring motor, a few seconds worth of slip-slap-center …. fingers assuming their positions in that set-and-hold, soon (and inevitably) leads to my focus slipping right between those fingers right along with the clay…

…and wandering off.

Some of my most creative moments happen while I’m at my wheel with my fingers set on spinning clay. Since what is going on with my fingers has become automatic, my imagination is freed. Now not only do I create the pot presently on the wheel….I contemplate the next, and the next. I imagine new ideas, new pots. My imagination becomes as malleable as the clay I’m forming. I write essays and poetry (yes, at some point I have to wipe slip from my hands and type those thoughts out). I dream my best, most fruitful dreams with my fingers set “this much” apart.

Yeah, what of significance could possibly fit between fingers so closely spaced?

This potter’s life.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Leave It Like It Is

Now when the wet jar tipped
Off of the table
You watched as it started to fall
Though you tried to grab it

Still it fell and splattered
It went to flat from tall
Bright, white, a perfect monoprint
Across the concrete floor
You said, "Good God, look at that pattern
I've never seen that before"
Leave it like it is
Never mind the mop and sponge
Leave it like it is
It's fine
--apologies to David Wilcox

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Going 'Round One More Time

 I am continuing to make more big jars.  The carved stoneware came out so much to my liking, I decided to start making my white clay jars -- the ones I glaze with my Millring Red glaze.

Well, I started out with my new(ish) domestic porcelain.  As it came to me, it was WAY to wet to throw anything of any size.  So I had left some out to dry a bit.  I started out by wedging it but it became obvious with the first couple of pulls that even stiffened up a bit, it wasn't going to go big.  I tried 6 jars and watched each collapse before my eyes.

I was getting tired.

I gave up on the domestic porcelain and went to a bag of Turner porcelain I've had around the shop for more than 15 years.  It took some wrestling to get it throwable.  It didn't work either.  The usually foolproof porcelain just flopped all over the place.

I was getting even more tired.

Next I got some of the old Standard 182.  Man, was it stiff!  But I was determined.  I wedged it -- which consisted more of slamming than kneading.  It was too stiff to center.  So, before I went in for dinner that night I sliced several bags of the clay up into slabs and accordioned them in wet towels to leave overnight.

Yesterday I got the clay out of the wet towels, wedged it up and, voila!  It worked.  Tall white stoneware jars. 

 
 My handles are exceedingly polite and just a little bit shy. They don't want to go where they've not been invited.
So my pots are a veritable Emily Post of etiquette. They make sure there's a place set at the table for the handles

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Resembles

Why persist at the more difficult and tedious process of making by hand?

Because there is an inherent charm imbued upon objects that can never -- by virtue of the chosen method of production -- be identical. Even when made in series with an intent to purposely copy the previous, the most that will occur from piece to piece is a friendly family resemblance.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Jarring

I treated myself to an evening of throwing big jars.  I had decided a few years ago that even though I love making jars, they weren't an efficient use of van space for an art fair potter.

Heck with it.  I like making jars.

I did, however, start by trying to make them out of the domestic porcelain I've been using.  No dice.  The stuff -- even stiffened up -- will not make anything of any size.  Too flabby.  Pull it up 15 inches and you can watch it slump back to 12 before your very eyes.  I gave up and went back to my beloved stoneware.

The one porcelain jar I kept is going to be faceted.  When clay cheats you, you cheat right back.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Living Water



Pottery seems singular in this: The “competition” is so often one’s biggest inspiration and encouragement.

I believe there’s an aspect to the pottery world that is a little like hidden groundwater. Most of our lives we walk right over groundwater and never note its presence. Then one day, perhaps for the first time, we notice an artesian well at the base of a hill. Or maybe a several day rain makes us aware of a rather high water table. Could be we're on a drive past a farm field while it’s being irrigated. Suddenly we’re made aware of that erstwhile invisible groundwater everywhere.

Potters are sorta that way. A few springs pop up here and there. An artesian (I’ll keep the cheap pun to myself) well or two – even the occasional pond of a potter --- a few obvious “bigg’ns” get some ink, get some notice.

But it’s the groundwater that keeps the whole craft going. It’s the groundwater of work-a-day potters who make the clay world go ‘round. And maybe, just maybe there’s a slight pressure on that working potter to spring out – to make a splash in the world of clay.

I think not, though. I think most of us are so at once charmed, and then trapped in this life. We love the material and the process. Then the pursuit of it and the demands of a potter’s lifestyle ensure that we never really escape it. 
 That is, if we ever wanted to escape it.

What other discipline but pottery allows an average Joe like me the great joy of sitting around the dinner table with Jim Ulmer, Brian Moore, Bob Reiberg, and Tom Bothe – a quintet of relatively unknowns in the “clay world” but with well over one hundred combined years with our hands and lives in clay – sharing a beer and laughing uproariously about the kiln disasters we’ve survived – the survival being the key that allows the laughter?

Where else but in the world of clay can I meet a heretofore stranger like Bob Briscoe at my pottery booth and have an hour-long discussion about mining creativity and recalling influences? ….or be driving through the mountains of northern Georgia and call Tom Turner on my cell phone to arrange a clay tour of North Carolina? …or email Pete Pinnell and talk about firing schedules, having both arrived at similar conclusions about thirty-year-old glaze recipes? In what other discipline are the “arrived” so open to sharing what they know and where they’ve been?

It’s a world that few have the honor of glimpsing – this groundwater of potters around the world. Some only see us on the surface – above ground. And some of us potters never make it there. But we’re all still part of that force that keeps clay surfacing through times when it might seem that we’re destined to our anachronistic fate. Together we push on through history. And I take no small pleasure in being part of that force. Knowing potters as I do, it is an honor.

There was a geyser in Wooster, OH over the weekend.

The Visitor






I'm not waiting on the muse. I think I've identified the muse, and the muse isn't something to wait on. I'm pretty sure "muse" isn't passive.

That's not to say that I don't believe that inspiration can't often follow something akin to meditation. It might. But to that point, I'm pretty sure that meditation isn't passive either.

But when I'm tied to the dock of Inertia, the muse is simply the one who knows how to undo those vexing knots in the mooring ropes.

When I'm anchored by procrastination, the muse is recognizing that anchor and weighing it. This is no time to heave to.

Starting is more than half done.

Mostly, the muse is the guy who drives the R&L truck that delivers my clay.

So, no, I'm not inviting the muse. Ultimately, R&L truck driver or second mate metaphor notwithstanding, I'm thinking that I am the muse.

What I am inviting, though, is the Visitor. I'm inviting that "third" who so often shows up, surprising me when I thought it was just me and the clay at the wheel.

The Visitor is the third who shows up when I thought it was just me and my keypad typing away at rhymes.

The Visitor is the third who shows up when I thought it was just me and my guitar.

The Visitor is (I think, anyway) why creative people continue to create.

I'm a real world kinda potter. That is, I've always made my living from clay. When push comes to shove, relative to the formulation of Muse/Visitor I've suggested above, survival has always been muse enough for me. If I don't weigh anchor and get sailing, I don't survive. There is no safe harbor. I can't wait on inspiration. I can't afford romantic notions of transcendent illumination.

And because potters like me have that survival motivation to be makers, we more often get to meet the Visitor. After all, if the Visitor only comes when bidden by productivity, the most productive are going to meet the Visitor the most often.

But correlation doesn't equal causation.

And there are obligate creators in this world. They seem to not require the push of the muse. Once they've met the Visitor, they go back to meet the Visitor again and again and again.

And the Visitor is why the poet goes back and reads what he wrote before. He's still startled by the presence of the Visitor. He wants to relive the pleasure.

The Visitor surprises the songwriter at every reprise.

The Visitor is why the potter unloads the kiln, smiles as he meets each piece as if for the first time. He walks away from the kiln, only to pirouette and return to the kiln for yet another look.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Circles Are Smaller Now

Circling

In the freeze frame that is my mind’s eye I can see you there. Coiled. Your four big strong paws spread wide across the ground. A low center of gravity. A stable pad from which to lift off.

5...4...3...2....

Potential about to become kinetic. Ready to spring. Mischief in your eye

The crouching posture and wild eyes say that neither you nor I have any idea in which direction you intend to launch. Only that wild hair tickling your butt and some fanciful flight -- only they know which way you’ll go when you finally launch yourself

But launch you do. 0 – 60 covered in but seconds. By the time your rear paws have leapt past your front paws … by that first bounding progress you’re up to speed, effortlessly covering 

Feet
Yards
Acres
Miles


With reach and drive and precision, four paws leave but two prints. The back paws land in the front paw’s print with target sure accuracy.

Your feet dig in with such purchase I could almost believe this illusion: Your powerful legs are driving the Earth's rotation.

Suddenly I see it. It’s no longer you gliding across the surface. Instead, the Earth is a wheel beneath you. And it is your powerful paws digging in, keeping all in spin
.
The backyard is too small for you. Fences alter your course. You turn. Your circles barely clear the chain link but you take in the whole of it. Lap after lap. Figure eight after figure eight. Your butt bunches. Your back is cocked. It explodes with each bound…
…then just as suddenly your back is arched. Your airborne front paws are above your head. Your airborne rear legs are fully extended behind.


You are flying. 

And now…
In the freeze frame that is my mind’s eye I can see you there. Coiled. Your four big strong paws spread wide across the ground. A low center of gravity. A stable pad from which to lift off.

5....4....3....2.....

Potential about to become kinetic. Ready to spring. Mischief in your eye.

But now the crouching posture and wild-eyed look says you’re grabbing the Earth. Hanging on for dear life. As though the world is spinning out of control. You widen your stance. Dig in for stability.

Neither you nor I have any idea in which direction you intend to launch. Only that wild hair tickling your butt and some fanciful flight -- only they know which way you’ll go when you finally launch yourself.

But launch you still do. Mostly forward now. Not bounding. Your mind is still young and mischief still there. We have outlived our bodies, you and I.

The circles are smaller and fewer now. The fences aren’t in the way. The fences don’t even come into play. But some day. Some future day we will leap them.

Selling Blue Skies





.


Just a bit of musing: The American culture is one that values the individual in ways other cultures don't. That's not to say we value him/her more, but we value the individual differently.

In our culture we seem to bend over backwards to not fold the individual into the group. That gets expressed in various, sometimes ironic ways.

To a much greater degree than other cultures, we seem to have more difficulty accepting the "anonymous craftsman" concept. Sure, the phrase became popular in the 50s and 60s, but ironically, it is the artist/craftsman America that may have adopted it the least.

I had a conversation with one of the fellows who founded the immensely successful Rock Hard Pottery.  The conversation circled around the conflict going on back then in the art fair world between the individual artist/craftsman and the studio potteries.   The art fairs quite often had restrictions against production studios. The art fairs wanted potters who produced and sold their own work.

This fellow potter was observing that this kind of restriction – this sense that there should be some sort of distinction made based on the process by which the pottery was created – was almost uniquely American.  Everywhere else (especially Asia where the finest pottery the world has ever known has been made for millennia) the notion of such a distinction by means of production is almost unheard of.

And as the discussion went on both of us observed from our own art fair experiences that it has quite often been the case that some of the very best pottery sold at art fairs was the result of potteries that employed numerous anonymous craftsmen to produce the work:  Bill Campbell, Deb Vestweber, Rock Hard Pottery were just a few that sprang immediately to mind.

Meanwhile, though the American craftsman has been loath to accept the anonymous craftsman (as the art fair rules would indicate), the American corporate world adopted it wholesale.  The individual is subsumed into the machine as but a cog in getting things done.

And time and again -- just as the art and craft world of everywhere else in the world demonstrated -- the specialization of anonymous craftsmen actually led to superior products. And with ego in its proper house, the community was better served.

Many of us (myself especially) had trouble accepting what we perceived as the meaninglessness of serving another's creative vision.

But some of us still perfected our craft in some sort of apprenticeship situation -- again, subsumed to another's vision.

But we're learning the hard way that things created by anonymous craftsmen serving another's creative vision are producing work that is in many intrinsic ways superior to our own.

We, meanwhile, are finding creative ways of selling our stories in lieu of that intrinsic value. Others are finding ways to stay ahead of the creative curve.

We're all just finding our way
No matter how much pushing and shoving
We're all just finding our way