is a pretty good metaphor in picture. There's been no bigger
encouragement in my life of creative endeavors than my sister, Jackie,
pictured here letting me out of an antique Wells Fargo trunk.
I'm guessing it's fairly unusual to have a sibling as such an encourager.
I mean, our siblings are the ones we grow up with. Our siblings know our weaknesses better than anyone else in the world does.
They grew up sharing the medicine cabinet in which we hid our
Clearasil, they saw our tantrums, they smelled our gym clothes.
Similarly, our siblings look out at the world from a same shared
perspective that sees all the accomplished, smart, talented, creative
people in the world and measures our collective selves -- our family --
not quite as accomplished, smart, talented, or creative. If you're one
of us, you must be as ordinary as we are.
Our families see the
errors by which we learn. It's hard to see past them. We don't see
those same errors that were the avenue to success in the accomplished
But somehow Jackie heard the 6-8 year-old me tooting
melodies poorly on dad's harmonica and she was the first to buy me a
Yamaha chromatic harmonica of my own.
Somehow Jackie heard the
10-11 year old me stumble through Paul Simon and Peter, Paul, & Mary
songs on a borrowed guitar and heard enough good to think me a
guitarist worth listening to.
And when the only way I could
cope with the rhymes and words and thoughts that crowded my mind as I
worked at the wheel was by typing them into a blog, it was Jackie who
first called me a "writer". And then she even compiled some of my early
musings into a book.
So, yeah, the image of her letting me out
of the trunk is apt. It's a good metaphor. I wish everyone could have
a Jackie in their lives who sees more good than bad in them, who sees
something worth encouraging and nourishing in them, who would tell them
that no matter what else the world was saying about their creative
offerings, there is still at least one person in that world who sees
great value -- and who opens up the trunk for them and unleashes them
on the world.
I took a break from making these to go across town to the art fair and say hi to my friends exhibiting there.
While there I bumped into Mark. I see Mark once every ten years or so
since we both graduated from college back in the '70s. Odd that in a
town as small as ours I don't run into him more frequently.
Anyway, every time I see Mark I'm prone to wonder about how things might
have been. See, when the potter who gave me my start back in '76 was
looking for an apprentice to help him out, I wasn't the first student he called. Mark was.
When I see Mark I always wonder what I might have become if Mark had
been more interested in making pottery. I might be a rich stock broker
or a famous musician today.
If you spend a lot of time in the woods as I do, you've probably at some point observed a phenomenon I witnessed this morning.
It was early morning, so the sun was just over the horizon, but it was a
curiously burning orange ball. I could see the sun if I looked to the
east and found a break in the forest. Mostly, though, I couldn't see the
sun for all the trees surrounding me.
It was also just late enough in the morning that the sky overhead was a combination of open blue and slightly overcast gray.
As I walked through the woods, almost everything in my field of vision
was lighted cool -- reflecting the blue and gray of the sky above.
But -- and here's the phenomenon I'm talking about -- as I rounded a
bend in the trail, deep in a surround of heavy underbrush was what
appeared to be a glowing-orange campfire blazing.
It wasn't a
campfire. Obviously. But what it was was a small spot of brush that was
being illuminated by the orange sun I could not see. Somehow, through
one small tunnel in all the tree's umbrella and past all the underbrush,
the sun had found a way to light up one small bush in the middle of the
darkest part of the morning forest.
There should be a name for that phenomenon. I'll have to come up with one.
Anyway, curiously that sun is still orange at midday. I'm guessing
there must be something huge going on to the west that has cast debris
way up into the atmosphere. That's what this color sky usually means.
The world's gatekeepers have lost control of the gates. In some ways
an argument could be made that they served us well. In the examples that
come to mind wherein one didn't get to be a gatekeeper without some
special understanding of the thing he was keeping in or out -- either by
education or seniority or some other meritorious route -- we were
treated to a comfortably homogeneous menu from which we could pick the
already culled servings. If we look at the best offerings on the menu, we conclude the gatekeepers did their job. If we look at the worst offerings, though....
We now live in a time where we can put creative products out to a world
and leapfrog right over the gatekeepers. Josh Turner has done that with
great success. He just started youtubing as a 13-year-old sorta prodigy
and his videos caught on. People have been successfully self-publishing
ebooks. The success rate is low. Josh Turner is one in a billion.
But really, exposure is the name of the game. There are still
gatekeepers, but you're not going to get past them. Really. You aren't.
Maybe you already know that. Maybe you know your song isn't pop enough
for a recording studio to offer you a contract. Maybe you know that your
book isn't of broad enough interest (maybe you write about pottery ;) )) for an actual publisher to take you on. Maybe you aren't going to get your paintings in a reputable NY gallery.
The real gatekeepers still need to make money and you're not their
ticket. The only way you can prove your worth to them and the market is
exposure. And getting exposure has traditionally been a humbling,
For some reason it seems to make some of us
feel better to ridicule both the grovellers and the ones trying to give
them a hearing. Maybe such ridicule is a reflexive rationalization for
our own lack of facing that conundrum head on.
Sometimes that ridicule comes framed in the soft language of "Oh, I don't need validation." Well, while that one's being painted, color me skeptical.
Maybe what I'm saying is that the gatekeepers aren't gone. They still
exist and they still matter. But the system is tiered. And your only
hope for getting to the gatekeepers is this grovelling for exposure. Not
many are discovered anymore. Most people grovel. And I think such
grovelling is honorable. It's striving. It's trying.
So, God bless the open mic host.
And God bless the songwriter who walks through the door with a song to
share. He's not seeking fame. He doesn't want to feel important. He
wants to feel real.
Pottery seems to be a bit like speech. It comes in many different
languages -- even different families of languages (just as language has
Romance, Semitic, Indo-European families). And those languages
sometimes break into dialects and accents with their distinct
colloquialisms and conventions.
That's not particularly illuminating. It's obvious really.
What's interesting to me is the degree to which, just as I might enjoy the sound of a language without understanding a word of it, I can enjoy the look of a pot without fully "getting" it.
I can't do a convincing British accent, though I understand the words. Okay, I usually understand the words.
But, unusually, I can affect a reasonably good French accent,
though I don't understand a word of it.
But it's nearly impossible for me to produce a pot I don't understand....though, I don't fully understand the pots I make.
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
Try as we might with prose, poem, or song, we could never tell a story as desperately sad or cruel as nature herself tells.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
"Life is hard, but it's harder when you're stupid." --Jackie Brown
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?
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
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