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.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Carryin' On

Kilns? ...they're just tools.

Yeah, right.

The potters I know seem to be divided into two camps:

There is the analytical type who views his/her kiln(s) merely as a tool, and whose firing approach reflects this concrete, rational, scientific approach. My friend Tom is this way. He’s famously methodical in his approach to his kiln and to firing it. I’ve had a mutual friend tell me that Tom can fire his gas kiln to within less than half-a-cone’s difference anywhere in the box. Amazing. And, like the methodical craftsman that Tom is, the structure of his kiln could most likely be entered into a competition and be displayed as a work of ceramic art on its own merits. The guy must have killed at LEGO as a kid.

These analytical guys chart every firing, log the temperature, the atmosphere, where the pots are loaded, even the weather of the day. The last thing they want is a surprise coming out of the kiln. They are applied science personified.

Not me.

I fall into a distinctly “other” camp. Oh, back in my school days I loved the sciences too. But I think I enjoyed them more like, for instance, I enjoy my wife. I enjoy her difference from me. I like that she sorta turns left where I turn right. I like that she’s blonde while I am black-haired. Stop laughing. I used to be black-haired.

And if I EVER understood her – ever climbed over that insurmountable mountain of “mystique”, our relationship would probably wobble out of the already crazy orbit that keeps it vital.

I like where teaching science meets story-telling. The “You’re NOT going to believe this, but…” aspect of scientific discovery.

But ask me to work my way through a dry manual or page after page of formulas and I’ll act like I didn’t hear you.

I’m sorry. Did you just say something?

My kiln is different. Oh, it’s part tool, no doubt about that. Realities of life don’t let me get too far from the fact that every dollar that I make in this life starts as a pot that came through that kiln’s fires.

But it’s also part magic, complete with a whole system of rituals, and decorated with talismans (talismen?). I realized somewhere early on with this kiln that I had stepped over that line from John the Potter to Harry Potter when I noticed that I had gone from merely closing the kiln door on a firing with my fingers crossed, to, well to:

One day, after a particularly good firing, I noticed that a hand-rolled bead that my wife had made had rolled out of its firing container and had come to rest directly in the middle of the kiln’s flue. I left it there. I left it there for at least ten years. Ten very productive years. With each good firing I found myself less and less able to remove that bead. Do I believe that the string of good years’ worth of firings are directly connected to the presence of that charm in the flue of my kiln? Of course not.

But why, y’know, tempt fate?

The house I live in was masterfully built by craftsmen of the 19th century. It’s a marvel of ceramic work itself – an Italianate style brick edifice with nicely balanced lines and facades that magically create the illusion of a size that is not there. A majestic place. Somewhere along the middle of the 20th century, the owners of the place finally had to repair the cedar roof. When they did, they replaced it with a metal roof.

Again, craftsmen who could have been strictly functionally minded – could have assumed the attitude that as long as the roof worked – kept out the rain –that would be enough. But they didn’t. Some anonymous craftsman of the ‘30s or ‘40s decided that such a majestic old place required more than just function. So when he capped the top ridge of my house, he did so with forty feet of ridge cap that was double-folded over, scalloped and pierced through every linear six inches with star and clover charms.

When I found myself, sixty years later having to replace that no longer functioning metal roof, I just knew that fate had made me steward to the continuum of the craftsman’s caring obsession. It was up to me to carry it on. So now a four foot section of that ridge cap sets atop my kiln. It’s part charm. And it’s part constant reminder that the happy man never stops at mere function.

I also share life with my kiln in the same manner I might spend time with a friend. We have our friendly rituals, the two of us. Some good times, some tough times.

The kiln and I mark the seasonal changes in the same way, year after year after year. It’s now been nearly twenty years with this kiln warming my back and hands through late night December firings. I’ve spent countless hours watching the stars and moon in the clear, cold winter sky – the heat of the kiln warming my back while my nose hairs bristle with each cold inhale.

And Springtime after Springtime I burn off the stinky mouse nests that have accumulated as I spend a few winter months at the wheel, dodging the worst of the natural gas prices by not firing ‘til closer to the start of the show season.

And in the Summers the door to the kiln room remains open wide, a fan under which I have to duck hanging from the door frame, sending hot exhaust outward so the room is tolerable enough to walk into long enough to check the cones.

Then comes the blessed cool of the Autumn again. And I almost never start a firing in the fall without first burning a small pile of dry maple leaves that blow into the bottom of the kiln, just so I can smell burning leaves – the aroma transporting me back to every past autumn of my life.

A potter lives with a kiln in a manner unlike any other tool I can think of. It can be such a constant thing to tend a kiln – every hour -- or even more often -- looking in on it, adjusting, judging where it is or whether it’s done or not. And the weather can suddenly change everything. A low pressure front can slow it to a crawl. Ironically, the coldest days are so oxygen-laden that it’s a constant watch to make sure the temperature doesn’t run away from me.

And there’s the heart-pounding start that occurs every day that I'm not firing … but forget that I'm not firing. OH MY GOD! I FORGOT THE KIl... ...oh yeah, I’m not firing today.

I think I come by my kiln fears honestly. With my first kiln I burned down my shop. In the middle of the night the neighbors came banging on my doors and windows shouting that my shop was ablaze. Nearly thirty years later and I haven’t slept naked since. Trying to step into trousers in the dark while the shop is on fire with a propane tank leaning against it will leave an impression.

The old kiln’s not looking so good these days. I’ve lost track of the number of firings we’ve done together. It’s a small kiln, so I’ve been known to go through a busy stretch of season (like right before Ann Arbor Art Fair) firing up to sixteen days in a row. I have figured out that I’ve fired at least 1.5 million dollars worth of pottery in that little kiln. It’s served me well. Been a good friend.

I built a new kiln a few years back. The new kiln is still just the bisque kiln. Still just a tool. It’s in the on deck circle. Some day the old one will fire its last load. Maybe then I’ll start some rituals and find a charm or two for new kiln. I think I’ll know what to do when that time comes ‘round. The new one will tell me just like the old one did.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

That's Saying Something

Satian Leksrisawat

If you've seen him at art fairs in the past few decades you're probably familiar with his porcelain and crystalline glazed pieces.

You also know what a fine craftsman he is.

I got these bowls some time in the '80s when he was still doing stoneware (I understand he might be doing some again now. Last time I talked to him, he hinted that he might make some functional work again).

I know the pitfalls of describing work with too many superlatives. Pot making is not a competition. But these small bowls are among the pots I prize most in my entire collection.

The subtle perfection of the shape, the contrast of matte glaze on stoneware that is magically both sturdy and elegant, and the simplicity of ever-so-slightly distorted squared off rims that wink just a hint of playfulness. When in use, they function perfectly.

I'll be making a bunch of bowls next month. I get to visit with my friend, Ron Sutterer and he's promised a day of bowl making and music listening while I'm there.  I can't wait. 

Whenever I make small bowls, though I've never tried to copy, these bowls of Satian's are never far from my mind.

How can something so small and "merely" functional say so much? Can I add to the conversation?

Monday, January 14, 2019

The First Aim Of Indian Guides

1. "To be pals forever with my dad."

I was 5 or 6 years old when I built this plywood tool chest in the basement of Little Turtle's (Todd McKinney's) house. It was a project for Indian Guides -- a YMCA pre-Boy Scouts program -- and Big Turtle (Boyd McKinney) had pre-cut all the parts so we could assemble them and get a taste of woodworking.

My dad faithfully took me to Indian Guides and we, along with a dozen or so other men and their sons, sat cross-legged on the floor and with the beat of the tom-tom called the weekly meeting to order.

Dar dug this toolbox out of the attic yesterday. I cleaned it up and put some teak oil on it. I'm going to use it to carry my clay tools to the workshops next month. Not because it will function better than plastic. It won't. But just because I want to.

The other morning I awoke with a start to the feel of a man's whiskers on my cheek. What an odd sensation. And what was further odd about it was that it was familiar.
It was Dad.

Oh, I don't mean he was really there. But it was as real as any memory could be of a father’s kiss. Maybe it's just that he'd been on my mind a lot in recent months. Over the past year I've met family I never met before. Conversations have turned to family history. After 50 years absence, Dad has found his way back into my conversations and my consciousness.

We all have to separate wheat from tares in our lives. We all have to make judgments about others for our own self-preservation. Maybe a little grace allows us to judge in the same merciful manner in which we'd allow as how we'd prefer others might judge us.

I think advancing age forces many of us to judge with a bit more of that grace. By now we've walked a few more miles and changed moccasins -- some we chose to wear and others we slipped on supposing they might protect our feet as we stumbled blindly around in the dark.

And by this age we've taken a few turns on the dance floor with hopelessness cutting in for a few numbers. But we’ve been fortunate far, still go home with the hope that brung us to the dance. Despite the rosy dance metaphor, hopelessness is never a kind flirtation. Hopelessness is an unstoppable force. The best that can be prayed for is that it only visits when it's supposed to. At the proper end.

But it doesn't always wait. It apparently didn't wait for Dad. It visited early. 

And it left his family mostly remembering him for his obvious failures. When you choose to leave life early, you don't get to choose who writes your biography.

And the biographies that got written are inconsistent to say the least. Six children who themselves span beyond the length of a common generation are bound to see the man differently. It makes sense. He wasn’t the same man for any of us.

So, some of his children will hold him in high regard. The idea of forgiving him would never occur to them. Forgive him for what?

Others will remember the cruelty of inappropriately high expectations meted out without a matching support of encouragement and instruction. It was all “do” and no “how”. No coming alongside to work with, rather, simply a dictate. No understanding. No motivating beyond “do it”.

A few will remember the cruelty of his constant disappointment at not meeting his standard….though much of the problem lay in not knowing what that mercurial standard actually was. So, we were supposed to get rich by some means that involves work and luck and then what?

A few will remember his cruel derision when he was disappointed.

But in most of those cases, forgiveness comes forth naturally from a fairly standard generational understanding. Fathers aren’t perfect. When the roles change and we are parents, we suddenly understand just how opaque the job of parenting is. We don’t know how to direct children. And just as we are discovering that our children’s personalities are so diverse that even if we could figure out a way to successfully direct one of them, the next in line presents a whole different circumstance.

But a few of his children faced or continue to face the need to forgive him for his desertion of us. Toward that forgiving end, it has lately occurred to me more and more often that in the battle, the deserter isn’t the one who dies. To the extent that the end result was his having deserted his family, it should at least be observed with the honest realization that he didn’t desert his family so that he could go off and build himself a better life. He didn’t go looking for hope in some other life with some other family. We weren’t deserted for something he saw as better. He simply gave up. 

It’s a painfully honest admission that that fact is ameliorating at all. It shouldn’t matter. I should be equally capable of forgiving even if his deserting us was for something he saw as better. But it does matter. It does help to understand the circumstance for what it actually was. Again, the result was desertion, but it was not the intent.

And it’s not lost on me. His children did fine without him. Arguably, the one child who had the least of him built the most successful life of us all. That says something.

I didn’t know Dad well. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand him. Honestly, I know myself well enough to know that any lack of forgiveness on my part is largely a very unflattering unwillingness to let go of a useful excuse for my own weaknesses and not face my own responsibilities. As long as I can build up this mythical father into something that I can tell myself caused me to be what I am instead of what I should be, it’s going to be really hard to forgive him.

But the whiskers on my cheek felt good. I was instantly happy to feel them. I was instantly happy to feel connected to Dad, if but for a second – and that second perhaps nothing more than a dream state. Maybe I’ll finally get something of a handle on this forgiveness thing.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

One Man's Devil/Another Man's Angel

There's an interesting story within the story of Warren MacKenzie's life. It's part of his lore, but I'm not sure how or even if it will be addressed because the overwhelmingly popular sentiment might be masking a greater reality. In other words, there might be just a touch of political correctness within the pottery world that is keeping folks from grasping an interesting reality.

Ryan Greenheck touches on the story in this bit of autobiography:

"As we all reflect upon Warren Mackenzie’s passing I wanted to share one of my most treasured experiences in my ceramics career with you all. I was so fortunate to have several exchanges with him throughout my life. Every single one stands on its own. This was our first encounter. This is also my first piece I ever had accepted into a national juried exhibition. (Linda Sikora-later my prfesdor @alfredceramics ) and @sandysimon were co-jurors. It was held the Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota, where Warren taught for years. I spotted Warren across the room and my mother proceeded to bring him over my ceramics hero. I was a bit star struck and pretty nervous. Then my mother without hesitation asked him why he no longer signed his work, I too wasn’t signing my in part because of Warren. Omg mother! I thought it was simply his affection for Mingei and the unknown craftsman. Nope! A guy was simply showing up to his studio and buying every piece that had his mark on and reselling it. I guess it was his form of payback ;) Shortly after I started signing my work, in the hopes of one day being as cool as Warren to not sign it out of spite! Thank You Warren Mackenzie for being the greatest teacher I never had"

Somebody was showing up at Warren MacKenzie's sales, buying pots as MacKenzie had them priced, and turning right around and ebaying them for multiples of the original price.

The practice was seen as some sort of scalping on this anonymous villain's part. 

But was it? In the long run, wasn't this guy facing a reality to which MacKenzie was blind -- either willingly, philosophically, or...and just as likely....simply because, being involved in academia, he really had no idea of the market for pottery? Couldn't this be seen as a service this anonymous villain did for MacKenzie?

I would love to know what the real value of my work is. Pricing one's work is a shot in the dark. It's trial and error. And when inventories are hard fought for by processes that just about guarantee a huge amount of loss -- glaze materials that vary, firing in combustion atmospheres, material/clay that by nature wants to crack and break as it dries -- every trial in pricing costs a great deal in inventory.

 Price too high, sell a few and you'll find that you've trapped yourself by the ill will of those who purchased at that high price, only to find that you had to lower it when the market didn't really support that price.

 Sell it at a too low price and find that you didn't sufficiently pay yourself as a potter.

I don't think I'd resent some guy buying my stuff to re-sell it. I think I would that God for his guidance in helping me see both the value that I was not recouping in my pricing, as well as the insight he was offering as to my place in the market.

But the curious thing is that if I were to express this in the world of potters, I fear I would likely be seen as equally villainous for not understanding that we're not suppose to profit from our labors.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Longest Shadow

He was one of the main reasons I made the drive to MN for last year's St Croix Pottery Tour. I wanted to meet him before he died. He was supposed to be at Jeff Oestreich's place. He wasn't.

His influence was greater than the sum of his pots. His influence was greater than some of his pots. Subtract the name from the work and you'd never guess any of the pots were by a famous potter, much less America's most famous potter. But he inspired others in greater number than any other potter.

I appreciated him for:

1. Back in the late 80s, Ceramics Monthly did an article on the recent recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts grants. In the next issue, MacKenzie wrote a gently scathing rebuke of the grants -- pointing out several griefs, not the least of which was that almost all the recipients: 1. Didn't need the money, and 2. Were already receiving public money as their professorial salaries, effectively double-dipping into a system that they had unfair access to in the first place.

2. The world of potters is divided -- not neatly, but divided none-the-less.

Some potters are carrying on an historical role in society -- providing their communities with work that fills the same niche it has filled for 4,000 years. Pots. Things people use. As such, those potters price their work accordingly -- according to the simplest laws of supply and demand without the psychologically steroidal notions of "preciousness". These potters make and sell more or less unself-consciously.

The other potters are shoe-horning clay work into the world of art with art's artificial and academically propped-up notions of value.

The latter potters deeply resent the former because the former is actually (capable of and willingly) communicating with the community in which it lives, and giving that community what it wants at a reasonable cost that more closely matches perceived value and community norms.

The latter potters are trying to sell work at premium prices that are essentially propped up on a shaky foundation of academic's and critic's skillfully obfuscating language as it describes these emperors and their new clothes. And they resent the former potters because they believe that every pot sold at a reasonable price decreases the probability that the public will buy their pots at exorbitant, inflated, "precious" prices.

And they're probably right, at least to some degree because the potters who make work in that former, historical vein are at least as skilled -- and often more-so -- at creating products that the world wants. In part this is so because those historical potters are more productive. And more production usually leads to better pottery at the functional level at which most end users live.

And as admired as Warren MacKenzie was, there was at least some resentment at the unique niche he filled in the world of pottery, and at where he stood in that pricing/value conflict I described. MacKenzie didn't believe in the "precious" pricing of pottery. He believed in functional pottery.

But as the world so often turns, the backhanded irony of the MacKenzie phenomenon is that few if any other potters achieved (or are capable of achieving) the stratospheric pricing that became the market for MacKenzie's work. MacKenzie had to deal with a unique reality -- sharks were attending his annual sale and buying pots for the expressed purpose of putting them up on ebay. They would buy pots directly from Warren for <$50 and turn around and ebay them for >$500. The MacKenzie name became the value of his work.

It isn't a market that others can create for themselves. 

Like pushing string.

Like stargazing -- the more direct the focus, the fewer the stars.

Friday, November 30, 2018


As I stand here watching you crossing the field
Something of my singularity is revealed
For the moon above you stays stuck in that tree
It doesn’t follow you.  It only follows me.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Black Dogs

I once had a conversation about depression with a good friend. He was worried about me. He said that the "black dog" had visited him from time to time. Most of the time, maybe a "black puppy". A melancholy. Tolerable. Even useful to the creative mind.

But the art world is geared toward feeding the darkest of dogs. I think it's a false sense – a vestige of what used to be, shared mostly by folks who are not in the arts -- that the arts are a search for beauty. That may have once been true. It is a rapidly diminishing reality. 

What the art world values today tends more toward the negative, the naughty, the cynical, the dark. I remember listening to “Tales of a Red Clay Rambler” podcast interview Ben Carter did with Stephen Hill. Carter said one of the most telling things about contemporary culture and the arts…and he did so in the most off-handed manner that it belied a truth deep and accepted, but a truth that seems to have crept up on us unawares sometime in the last century. 

The observation Ben Carter made in his interview with Hill was this (and I paraphrase): “You seem to be one of the few well known ceramists who actually, intentionally tries to make beautiful pots.”


Such an honest evaluation. And how true.

But we’re surrounded with negativity in the art world (not so much in the craft world where the community of potters has somewhat successfully fended off “art”). We have been unwittingly forced as creative people to believe that there is no meaningful distinction to be made between the twee of Thomas Kinkade and the grandeur of Frederic Edwin Church. To the contemporary critic, both are compressed – flattened -- into one naïve “pursuit of beauty”. And “good art” doesn’t go there. Art has moved on. Art explored beauty and found it wanting.

But if our compulsion is toward hope, if we want to pursue the positive, if we remain – counter to culture – hoping to believe it possible to grasp some truth in beauty, we’re probably going to need some help. Some support.
And we’re probably going to need to pick our feet up out of the mire from time to time and find some high and dry ground from which to gain fresh perspectives – especially when the coincidence of the dark world so perfectly coincides with social media.

My friend’s " black puppy" metaphor is pretty good. I’ve appropriated it for its usefulness. It pretty much describes my not infrequent melancholy.
But I've also got a vile temper that's easily provoked when my sense of entitlement to a good life gets threatened. As long as I can keep feeding that delusion of entitlement I'll probably be safe from dangerous depression. Maybe.

Family is, for me, not the thing to lean on. My family has suffered me the most. Depending on me has proven an exercise in pedaling a bicycle that has no chain. Still, for some reason -- possibly a dearth of alternatives – that family somehow continues to furiously pedal our tandem, in spite of an obvious lack of forward progress.

Over the past few years the dawning realization is this: I have lived a fairly solitary existence insofar as my livelihood didn't involve co-workers of any kind, rather, it involved days and months of solitary shop work. I'm a social guy but I happen to love that solitude -- my own music, books, thoughts. But that extravagance of solitude came with a downside: When I needed the help of "networking" it wasn't there. Social climbing -- even if but for the sake of financial security -- favors and always will favor who you know and not what you know.

That's one reason I've leaned a little too heavily on my connections with friends on the internet forums, social media etc. I felt a little less vulnerable and a little more connected to the possibility that I had the ear of at least somebody with life experience that might help me through mine.
Of course, I've also learned that most of that connectivity is pretty delusional too. Social media isn't a terribly honest communication. At its best it's friendly. But at its worst, that friendly is nothing more than telling us what we want to hear.

For instance, I’m often complimented on my facebook postings. That's one of those delusions I liked to have fed by social media. My smarter me doesn't listen, but there's still at least a vestigial adolescent in me that craves affirmation in the valueless pursuits -- music, art, writing -- that define me.
Anyway, the social internet is of great value if you can find a small group – especially one that crosses often into the 3D world – and especially one that fosters differing opinions and eschews our tribal instincts to cloister. Such groups are harder – harder to find and harder on our egos. But they often get honest. I love that honesty when I'm not hating it and I hate it when I don't love it. 

The slough of despond that the art world is constantly shoving us into doesn’t end well, and the honest hand that reaches down to help us out of it is quite often not welcome. It might be to our advantage to maintain the bridges we’ll need to go over it. It will always be there. The helping hands might not be.

Saturday, November 17, 2018


I've been the recipient of an out-of-the-blue act of kindness from a stranger.

The opening of the stranger's email began:

"___________ told me David Shaner was one of the potters who earned your respect."

...and what followed was the attachment of a cookbook of David Shaner recipes -- a collection passed on from the man himself.

It made my day. What a thoughtful kindness. It afforded me a new and encompassing sense of connectedness to the world of potters. It's a remarkable fraternity.

Oh, the "stranger" I'm referring to -- the fellow who sent me that email -- wasn't a stranger to me. I've known who Jack Troy was since I was a teenager reading Ceramics Monthly in my college library. I bought "Salt Fired Ceramics" in around 1980 and from there grew to appreciate a potter -- Mr Troy -- uncommonly able to communicate in written word the joys and trials of working with clay.

But I had no idea Mr Troy knew who I was, much less that he might know that I considered myself a debtor to the life's work of David Shaner. Apparently the internet has made the world just small enough to make such knowing possible.

But Mr Troy's generosity didn't stop there with that email.. A few weeks later I got a package in the mail. In it were two of Jack's books -- one I didn't even realize had been published called "inscapes" -- a collection of thoughts that David Shaner found meaningful enough to collect, all compiled and edited by Jack Troy.

I would never claim some personal connection to David Shaner. I never even met the man. But his were among the first pots to ever inspire me as a teenage potter. I had a photo of Mr Shaner hanging in my first 8' X 16' pottery shed, and carried it with me to my next studio.

I couldn't begin to count the number of pots I've made with David Shaner glazes selling their worth. Such pots were a collaboration in which I clearly drew the long straw.

But though I never met Mr Shaner, through Jack Troy's book I was allowed a glimpse into the man. That glimpse confirmed a kinship. Okay, a kinship as asymmetrical as the pots we made "together", but a kinship profoundly meaningful to me.

If you have any way to obtain a copy of Jack Troy's "inscapes", I highly recommend the book. You can easily read it in one sitting. But that won't be the last time you read it. I guarantee it.

I owe Jack Troy a huge debt of gratitude for introducing me to one of my lifelong heroes.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Mr Obvious

Funny how you can play the same chords for years and never hear the obvious song in the changes. 

You can eat peanut butter and you can eat dill pickles and you can eat the two separately for years and never guess how perfect they are together between bread.

I've used this clay and this glaze for years and never thought about letting the clay show through.

Friday, September 28, 2018

And I Quoth

by Edgar Plastic Kaolin

Once upon a midnight dreary
Eyes rimmed red, bloodshot, and bleary
Again my kiln is in no hurry
Waiting on the cones once more
So far I’ve barely bent cone 4
Only this and nothing more

Nodding off just kills my neck it
Dawns on me I ought to check it
Pull the peep hole from the back it
Shows a slightly bent cone four
Still a slightly bent cone four
Only this and nothing more

Maybe I’ll adjust the damper
This kiln's causing me to hanker
For a kiln I need not pamper
Computer-controlled so to ensure
I’d never again be stuck at four
Just cone four and nothing more

I’ll admit, I’m mildly pissed off
A month’s production will be kissed off
If this rocket never lifts off
But stays right here, stuck at cone four
Only four, and nothing more
It’s no wonder I stay poor