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.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ways Out Of The Starting Blocks

1. Steal from the best. Listen to better music. Read better literature -- poems, prayers, stories, and lies (if you can listen to them it's even better). Good artists can take you to different worlds. Those worlds are a good stepping off place to create your own. You're not copying. It's just that it's much harder to get somewhere from nowhere.
Nephew, Stephen Bauman at work

2. Draw from life. When I was very young I loved to draw and paint. My family encouraged me by telling me I was talented. What they meant was that they could tell what I was drawing better than, say, what my dog Tippy might have drawn with the same crayon in hand. So I kept at it. I was never satisfied. My images made sense and looked like the thing I intended. Sort of. Then I took life drawing in college. Oh...

There's nothing like the illumination that comes when you realize for the first time that the reason your drawings were lifeless is because you weren't drawing them from life.

So there's that. And there's this: Art isn't really about art. You're going to do your best writing while you're driving. Or cooking. Or sailing. My mom wrote while she knitted. I write while I'm at the potter's wheel. I'm not saying anything about the quality of my writing. I'm just saying that that's when it happens most frequently.

What I'm talking about there is called "The Effortless Custody of Automatism". It's the converse of "The idle mind is the devil's playground". It's the observation that when doing practiced tasks that no longer require thought, the mind is free to create -- and often does with a greater facility than the mind of a body at rest.

There's a bit of a star-gazing phenomenon to it too. What I mean by that is: You ever notice that when you look into the night sky you can see stars in your peripheral vision that you can't see when you then turn to stare at them? Some things come better to us when we're not approaching them directly.

You also avoid the intimidation of the blank page.

A word picture within a word picture -- a thought within a thought: Perhaps if you become so proficient at the skill of guitar that you can be in its effortless custody, you can more easily add words while playing. If that's so, then you can have your cake and eat it to. You can write lyrics while you're playing music -- and not while driving or cooking or potting or knitting. Maybe.

3. Disregard everything I said before and realize that some art is about art. Some really good art. Noodle on the guitar. Write the next "Jabberwocky" by simply playing with words. Don't draw from life. Simply write down one word and follow it with the next one. Play one chord and follow it with the next one. Find a fit. Find a song.

4. Sit in the darkness and be somebody else. Write something in somebody else's voice. Write as if you are somebody else. Write "Angel From Montgomery" even though you're a man. Write "Millworker" even though you're a man and never worked a day in a mill. Oh, but get ready to be ridiculed because you didn't fact check your imagination.

5. Copy a rhythm first and then match chords and words to that.

6. Backwards engineer a song. Find a song and write a different lyric to it. Find a song and write a new melody to it.

7. "Muse" is what we call the 1000th visitor to the door we keep opening. We call all the other visitors "Attempts".

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Not For The Faint Of Praise

Frustrating, isn’t it?  There are few things quite so deflating as being "damned with faint praise".  But try not to be discouraged when folks seem to say the wrong things.  They really mean to be saying the right things.

When I wrote short bios of my potter friends as part of my social media push to amplify a pottery festival I was going to be part of, it was easy to do.  The potters I was writing about are all fantastic potters.  They are my heroes, my role models, my friends.  Their work is easy to promote for all I’m worth.  It’s some of the finest pottery being made by some of the most accomplished potters in the country today.

But I was (and continue to be) acutely aware of the danger of describing someone's work in a way that, though meant to be complimentary,  could be misunderstood as anything but. Maybe what I wrote would be read and taken as too slight – not superlative enough.  I may not have said enough. I might have praised the wrong aspect. I might even have mis-interpreted their work. I might have said too much about one and not enough about the other.
It's a real minefield.

Additionally, though I observe this at the risk of being misunderstood completely, I was writing those reviews at the height of the "Me Too" movement. For that reason, I wrote only one review of a woman potter.  My lack of reviewing women was the unintended consequence of a well-meaning movement, but a movement that had nonetheless  interjected just too much risk into writing about a woman. I could have written something TOTALLY intending to be complimentary -- but would be misunderstood because the default mood of the day had "offended" dialed up to 11.  On social media I’ve always intended to stay politically neutral and that made it additionally risky.  Ironically, anyone who knows me well has heard me say that my favorite potters are almost all women.

I only went down that particular rabbit trail to point out that, in addition to simple "damning with faint praise", there are other factors that play heavily into why what one means to be saying – or not saying -- is OFTEN taken the wrong way.

One thing I've noticed in the past 20 years -- since the inception of internet communication -- is how much trouble people have when trying to express themselves in writing. There may be one in a million people who, when they write, can actually convey well what they mean to be saying. And one in a billion who can say it in a way that also conveys something satisfactorily beyond some journalistic literalism. Those statistics might be inaccurate or exaggerated. My research is incomplete.

People generally just don't write well. They don't speak well either.
Additionally, we as creative people have our necks stuck out there by choice. We choose to put our works (and our dreams) out there and put to the criticism of strangers. We want our creative endeavors validated. But we're simultaneously scared that they won't be.

So we're hyper sensitive.

We want to believe the lies of validation. That's the strength of social media. There's always a facebook friend who will tell us what we want to hear.  And they don't mean to be untruthful any more than the faint praiser means to deflate us. They ALL want to encourage us. They just suck at it.

As long as I'm bloviating, would you indulge me one more observation about praise -- faint, absent, or misunderstood?

Experts don't praise experts for their expertise. They expect it. It's really not professional jealousy or competitiveness that keeps peers mum about our work. Oh, it might be that from time to time. But I think it's most often simply that peers expect the level of proficiency that makes one a peer. Peers don't find that proficiency praise worthy. Peers find proficiency to simply be the baseline.

You can wait until the day you die to get praise from your peers. Peers don't regularly praise peers. Peers aren't startled into praising what they expect.

I think we get a different kind of validation from our peers. I think the affirmation we get from peers comes in the form of inclusion, not praise.

So, if the artists you admire most aren't saying much about your work, you might just be receiving the highest praise possible.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Low Bridge -- Everybody Down

I pulled it old right from the kiln.
So hot I could barely hold it 

But it told a tale of ancient places it had been.

Of 16th century years, of tavern beers
Held in rounded shapes, peasants draped in capes
Landscapes of Renaissance paintings. 

Glazed like later years rolled ‘round and Albany brown
Dug straight from the ground the sound
Of barges down the Erie Canal

Low bridge!  Everybody down!
This mug, brand new
But with a soul so old
It couldn’t have come from my hand.

Maybe it came from my dreams.