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


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.


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 


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.


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

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Parting Weighs

My last post was shared on social media among "clay buddies", so I think I'll continue the discussion.

One of the obvious follow-up questions to my previous observations regarding S-cracks in the bottom of pots is:  Why do the cracks occur far more often in a broad-bottomed pot (like a shallow bowl or plate) than they do in a narrow-bottomed pot (like a mug or pitcher)?

You could do an experiment to illustrate why those cracks occur more frequently, but you can probably do that "experiment" in your mind:

1. Make two slabs that measure .25" in thickness, 2" wide, and 2" long. 
2. Butt the slabs together so they meet.
3. Fix the non-meeting ends (opposite where the two slabs meet) in place (use a needle tool to pin the opposite ends to a board).

4. Once dry, measure the distance that the two slabs have shrunken away from each other.

Now repeat the exercise, this time with two slabs measuring .25" thick, 2' wide, 10" long.

Once dry, measure the distance the slabs traveled from each other as they shrunk.

In the case of the first two (small) slabs, you will find exponentially less of a gap than you will find between the longer slabs.

When you follow bad drying practice and you allow the perimeter to dry first, the bigger the circumference and diameter, the greater the force the shrinking is going to have on the center.  Quite often that force is slight enough on a narrow piece that no special care is required in drying.  But most of the time on a broad piece, the forces will pull too hard to get away with any kind of careless drying.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

No Part Of Nothin'

I'm gonna get all kinds of controversial in this post.

I thought about posting an image of Glenn Close submerged in the bathtub-- you know the one? of the scariest moments ever committed to film?  ....even gives the Psycho shower scene a run for the money?  You think Glenn Close is finally dead, just before she comes back to life and jumps up from the water.

Some things won't die.

I was going to post that image, but it was just too ugly for my blog.  I didn't want to look at it.

But like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction -- the idea of "compressing" the bottom of a pot to keep it from developing an "S-Crack" won't die. 

But (to borrow from Bill Monroe of bluegrass music fame), "Compression ain't no part of nothin'"

Seriously.  Compression isn't a thing.  I don't know what potter first came up with the idea of "compression".

Smoothing the bottom and shaping its contour is a thing.  A good thing.  Making the bottom appropriately thick or thin is a thing.  A good thing.  Even changing the alignment of the particles of the bottom is a thing.

Compression isn't a thing.

The issue of S-Cracks is a simple problem of physics.  The thing that causes S-cracks is that when clay shrinks, if all the clay that surrounds the center is already dry, the center (where the S-crack develops) clay will be physically pulled apart as it shrinks.  And it will be pulled apart at its weakest point.

The idea behind "compression" is the supposition that you can make a bottom without a weak point to be pulled apart.  It's not bloody likely.  The particles are aligned the moment you slam the clay to the wheelhead.  What you do to the clay above that contact point is not going to change that very clay that meets the wheelhead.

Now, if you're talking about compression as Richard Aerni does it in the bottoms of his monumental molded pieces, we're talking about a bit of a different problem he's solving.  And when he's doing that compression, he is pounding the bottom with a wooden post because he knows he embedded a very weak spiral at the bottom of that pot.  He enclosed the top of a cylinder, inverted it, and made it the bottom of the pot.  He has a particular weakness he needs to repair by pounding the clay into a more homogeneous mass.

But that's nothing like "compressing" as it's described by those who wish to prevent S-cracks.

Sometimes what we do that we call "compression" does solve the S-crack problem.  But that's not because we compressed the bottom.  That's because when we did what we call "compressing", we actually simply made the bottom thinner.

And a thinner bottom will crack less frequently -- but not because thick bottoms are inherently weaker or more prone to cracking.  They're not.  In the end, they're stronger.  A too-thin bottom isn't really good for a pot either. 

No, the thinner bottom cracks less frequently than a thicker bottom for one simple reason -- and that reason is the only thing one can do to minimize S-cracks.  That reason is that a thinner bottom is more likely to dry first -- or, at least, to dry before the surrounding clay becomes rigid and pulls the bottom apart.

The only meaningful way to address clay that is prone to S-cracking is to make sure the center of the bottom isn't the last part of the pot to dry.  If the center of the bottom dries first, it simply will not S-crack.  It will already be at a fixed, fully-shrunken state when the clay around it dries and tries to pull it apart.

Don't believe me?

Here's an experiment that should convince you:

1.  Cut ten "coins" from the end of your pugmill.  As the clay is extruded, cut discs that are about as thick as you imagine the bottom of your pot should be.

2.  Let those "coins" dry.  

If your clay is like mine, almost every one of the coins will develop an S-crack.  10 out of 10 with S-cracks will probably be the result.

3.  Now cut ten more "coins" and, rather than simply letting them dry, wrap the perimeter of each coin with plastic in a matter that allows only the center of each coin to get air. 

4.  Allow the ten wrapped coins to dry.  You will find that if there are S-cracks, they will be very small.  But you should find most, if not all of them will be virtually crack free.

(that should also be a hint:  Don't be tempted to use the extrusion as it comes off the pugmill as an "already centered" ball of clay to begin with.  That shortcut to centering will almost certainly invite whatever S-cracking you are still going to experience -- even if you do dry the pots properly.)

The experiment with the pugged coins should amply demonstrate that compression isn't a thing.  It isn't the solution to S-cracks.  Proper drying is.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

So, I'm Like...

Something I enjoy is taking a day trip – a ride in a car with a good conversationalist. I have several conversationalist friends. Three such friends spring immediately to mind: Kevin, Greg, and Jim. A drive through the countryside with one of them is one of life’s great pleasures for me.

Kevin and I share a theological background and can talk almost endlessly about the intersection of theology, science, faith, and knowing.

Greg is interested in history in a way I enjoy discussing it – to imagine this Hoosier countryside and what it must have been like in the distant past. He’s knowledgeable about the people and events that made Indiana look the way it does today.

Jim taught archeology for 40 years and has an academic’s perspective on so many subjects I find interesting. And one such drive-through-the-countryside conversation with Jim sprang to mind today.

I just spent an hour listening to artists talk about their “aesthetic”.

Jim once told me about a book he found interesting in his last years of teaching. I don’t remember the title of the book, but I do remember a concept Jim shared from his reading of it. It seems the author hypothesized that art actually pre-dates language in the human experience. Certainly art predates written language. And maybe it does predate formal language.

But the interesting conclusion the author drew was that as language developed it began to eclipse art as a means to communicate. Language became better and more accurate than art at communicating so much of what we needed to communicate in our human experience.

But there remained important things that language never did sufficiently convey. There are still things art conveys better -- more accurately. Those things remain the exclusive purview of art. We express with art what we cannot express with language.

That may be why many of us bristle at the disconnect between art criticism and the works themselves.

And it may be why today as I was listening to artists struggle to talk about their “aesthetic” I mused that it might be because they’re attempting what is impossible in the first place. Their attempts were as useless as describing a taste to one who has never tasted it, or a color to a blind person, or a song to the deaf. 

If there were words, we wouldn’t have reached for the method of first resort – art.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Lecture Me

Here is a fun bit of my Virginia trip. Seeing this poster plastered all over the halls and walls of the School of Architecture of Virginia Tech.

Imagine. Me, a lecturer.

btw. Our future seems to be in the hands of some bright young people if those architecture students are any indicator. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with them.

Martha Sullivan is the brilliant woman who runs the ceramics department within the School of Architecture. She came up with a wonderful plan to teach product design and clay work in a seamless whole -- she created an empty bowls project for her students to complete -- clay work, product design, and social conscience all rolled into one. Bravo.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Virginia is for Workshops

Audacity. That's the word for it. I mean, what Hoosier would go to the Hulman Center (where Larry Bird played his college hoops) and offer a clinic on shooting a jump shot?

But there I was last week at this time, walking into the ceramics department of Hollins University -- right where Rick Hensley and Donna Polseno (two of America's finest clay aritists) teach, and offering up a workshop on how I do stuff.

Bold move for a Midwesterner.

But here's a secret (so don't tell anyone). I figured out why potters offer workshops. It's so we can learn from everyone who attends them.

Anyway, as if presenting a workshop where Rick and Donna teach wasn't bold enough, just the thought of a Hoosier driving to the epicenter -- the geographical ground zero -- of the finest potters in the USA was a "coals to Newcastle" proposition if ever was.

I just gave away my age. "Coals to Newcastle". It's an old metaphor. It's like "Refrigerators to Eskimos" only more literary.

Consider this Newcastle: 
Tom Clarkson, 
Nan Rothwell, 
Rick Hensley, 
Donna Polseno, 
Ellen Shankin, 
Silvie Granatelli 
(the 16 Hands folks) 
...and the next generation of...
 Josh Manning, 
Andrea Denniston, 
Seth Gusovsky
….and that incomplete list is not even taking into consideration crossing over into the North Carolina potters of the same region.

That part of Appalachia positively gushes with superlative clay work. How could anyone live around such talent and not absorb it?

Well, the workshop -- arranged by my friend Ron Sutterer -- and presented to the Blue Ridge Pottery Guild was just SO good for me. I met about 30-40 passionate clay enthusiasts and we talked methods and materials non-stop for two 5 hour days. I learned SO much.

At the end it was just the BEST kind of tired a potter can be.