Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Preview

I've been firing like mad lately. And I'm as excited as I can be about the results. In the next few days I'll be uploading lots of pottery to my etsy site. Here's a preview.

I've also been mulling over some thoughts. The last few days, I've been streaming the ceramics workshops that are taking place at the NCECA conference. I'm itching to talk about 'em.

Here are some things that came out of the kiln this morning...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Big Flashes/Little Pans

Did you see Butler upset Syracuse to move to the “Elite 8”? Timely defense and a few cold-blooded three pointers at the right time sealed the deal. We Hoosiers love a great shooter.

Oscar Robertson (greatest player of all time -- averaged triple doubles for a whole season)
Billy Keller
Rick Mount (greatest pure shooter of all time)
Kyle Macy
Steve Alford

Those names represent the Hoosier pantheon of great guards.

Anyway, the last time Butler made it this far in the NCAAs was a trip down memory lane for me 'cause, sitting on Butler's bench (and I hadn't previously been aware of this) was Coach Todd Lickliter.

Todd was a kid from my side of town and, had I not gone to private school, would have been my classmate....
....but that's not the whole story.

Didn't we all grow up with a “best friend”? ...Mine was a friend from the 4th grade, all the way up until we went our separate ways to different colleges. Anyway, my best friend in high school topped the city scoring charts (basketball) both our junior and senior years...

...but we didn't play any of the public school competition. So, though my friend's name almost always topped the list of the top scorers in the city every Sunday in the sports section of the Indianapolis Star, it was as though there was this annoying "asterisk" applied to it. His place as scoring champion was made illegitimate by the apples-to-oranges of our competition -- my friend being the "apples" to Todd Lickliter's "oranges". See, Todd sometimes traded places with my friend at the top of the scoring list.

The summer between our Junior and Senior years, my friend and I got wind of a regular game at the high school Todd attended -- at that time it was the biggest high school in Indiana. One hot Saturday morning we made our way over to the high school gym to check it out.

Remember those first summers of freedom? My friend had pooled his summer earnings with a bit of help from his pop and bought a ten-year-old Pontiac Tempest that was our ticket to any game in town. We'd go see ABA Pacer games at “The Coliseum” – a facility so run down that we could buy cheap seats for $2 and steal our way down to the usually empty good seats and worship at the feet of Roger Brown -- the greatest player nobody but a Hoosier ever knew.

Anyway, back then they didn't air condition the schools in the summer -- certainly not the gyms. So the gym was as hot as the outdoors when we entered its doors (doors that were wide open in a vain attempt to ventilate the stale gym air), but I felt the chill of excitement....and dread. I was always a good playground player -- great with the guys I knew, but I choked when it came time to prove myself before strangers.

My friend obviously didn't suffer the same affliction.

After a long wait through "winner-keeps-the-court" games, we were finally able to put together a team to take to the court and challenge the current winners.

I was, as I anticipated, my usual cautious self and played utterly unremarkably -- just trying not to screw up. But my friend led our team to a VERY unexpected victory.

Suddenly the gym was abuzz with, "Who IS that guy?".

As it had taken so long to actually get into the game, by the time we finished our game, most of the rest of the group was breaking up to call it a day....

...until my friend and I were stopped in our tracks near the exit.

"Hey, ______! (my friend's name) Let's go one on one!"

The fellow who shouted the challenge across the emptying gym was Todd, who by then had finally realized that the gym ringer that day was the very same guy against whom he'd competed for city top scoring honors throughout the past year.

Apples and oranges......same crate.

Suddenly the mass exit of kids halted and every last kid returned to the gym and stood riveted to the sidelines, entranced by the competition. By then the whispers had made their way 'round the gym and everyone in attendance knew the stakes.

My friend was not exactly your typical jock type. He was an acne-faced homely kid with a vertical jump that made it appear as though he was trying to break the gravitational bonds of Jupiter. His shoulders were merely the narrowest of detours between a pin-head, a long skinny neck, and a surprisingly wide-assed stance. It gave him a sorta "Baby Huey" look. He sported a buzz-cut head at a time (remember the early 70's?) when hair couldn't have been more of a statement of "cool".

To top that off, my friend was even known to wear black socks in his Chuck Taylors. That was DEFINITELY not cool back then. Never has been on a lily-white Caucasian.

The assembled crowd's snickering derision about his appearance was not lost on my friend. It never was. Though I knew that deep down inside it bothered him, from outward appearances, he seemed to revel in the reaction his backwards appearance invited. He did, in some manner, seem to be able to turn the other kid's ridicule to his advantage.

Todd, on the other hand, was the son of the coach of that high school -- he was the well dressed, well connected, country club, cheerleader-for-a-girlfriend type.

What my friend did have was brains (he was our class valedictorian), very quick hands, and the ability to psych his opponent better than anyone I've ever played with. And he could shoot the lights out.

Hoosier kids don't play "make it take it". We play one-on-one the hard way -- even taking the ball back to the free-throw line between possessions. And I gotta tell you, that was one hard-fought contest. To his credit, my friend remained ice. Todd was getting hot -- he had SO much more to lose.....AND.....he was in front of his "home crowd". It took a few "overtimes" (Hoosier's also play by the God-given rule that real men win by (at least) two points)...

My friend beat Todd.

And that day my friend walked out of that gym, asterisk settled in his mind.


Well, so I found out what happened to Lickliter. He coaches division I NCAA basketball.

And, on the other hand, my friend got very deeply into political conspiracy theories -- Illegitimacy of government -- illegitimacy of the IRS. He disappeared. Went underground. I hear some of my Naptown friends mention seeing him pop up now and again but nobody I know even knows where he lives.

Guess I should have left the story with the happy ending? If it had been fiction, maybe I would have.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Carter Gillies/What Potters Talk About (continued)

Fellow Potter, Carter Gillies...

...responded to my series "What Potters Talk About" last month. As these posts get trapped on back pages in favor of current topics, I thought I'd bring this to the fore in hopes of continuing the broad and ever-expanding topic.

Carter asks:

"Just a quick follow up thought: your comparison to musicians seems to be very enlightening. Thinking about a song as work in progress allows for considerable freedom in exploration. Rather than being wedded to a narrow range of expression and glacial innovation as potters seem to be, thinking of our creativity as fundamentally 'unfinished' takes the pressure off, and avoids the requirement that our art end up expressing just this one 'style' or 'voice' or what ever. Musicians seem to have an inherent adaptability and can easily fluctuate between vastly different modes of expression. Potters, on the other hand, strain to preserve the parameters of their style as if THIS were the goal. Potters are so serious about this dogmatism that very few of us have experienced the artistic freedom and improvisation that musicians seem to find a natural facet of their creative expression. How do you feel about this comparison?"

Very interesting comments, Carter. Lots to think about.

I'm a guy whose first love is most likely music. This is probably and mostly true because as a musician I was never talented enough to even think about making a living from music. And we humans (driven as we are to seek the greener grass--or at least believe there is such a thing) are often tragically, cussedly, and quite comically attracted to the unattainable. Ain’t that the truth?

But because I have no financial interest in my music, I can thoroughly enjoy it without the restrictions to expression that making a living from music would put to it. It seems that any endeavor in the arts that turns into a livelihood soon becomes "work".

But because of my love of it, I often think of clay in comparisons to music.

I see many parallels in the things we're talking about. Just think about it....

If you're making a living from either, you are probably going to limit your style a bit for practical reasons if no other. In music, the larger the repertoire, the harder it is to stay sharp on the performance. In clay it's the same if for no other reason than the difficulty of mastering the materials necessary for change -- new glazes, new clay, new firing schedules. The loss of work during the learning curve can be immense.

In that regard, as a potter making a living, I've often found myself in some ways envying many part-timers or students I know who can play around and experiment more. Loss doesn't really cost them anything. (And, to touch on the comment and response between me and Conner Burns, if you are going to make it IMPOSSIBLE to market your experimental work, you're going to tie your hands even further from experimentation. And I don't think that's a good thing)

But in a way, I find music more fluid than pottery. It's definitely more immediate. As an amateur musician, I can change styles and often do. As a guitar player, I'm pretty eclectic -- bluegrass, rags, swing, jazz, pop, and fingerstyle stuff.

Even trying to be that versatile in some corresponding manner with the pottery would be difficult -- might require different materials, different kilns, etc.

On the other hand...

That's exactly why I work as I do -- I work in both stoneware and porcelain. AND, I also work in fairly distinct (even if evolving) "patterns": Certain ways I brush or trail slip; Certain stamps for texture; Certain carving patterns.

So, in a way, I satisfy my intellectual curiosity and my need for change and expression by keeping several lines concurrently evolving.

I'd be willing to bet there are a number of other potters who approach this conundrum in much the same manner as I.

I enjoy arranging for guitar. It's just a hobby, but I get pretty deeply into it. I have to laugh at myself a bit because one thing that takes me the longest in trying to arrive at an arrangement is deciding the direction I want to take it. For every song I’m learning, I’m a kid in a candy store. Every possible way to play a passage is too good to pass up and to simply decide on only one way to finally play the darn song.

I’m not sure why I add that little coda. Maybe it’s just a way of saying that I can see lots of parallels between my musical universe and my pottery universe…

…but in the long run I always end up in the same wonderful place: With more questions to creatively explore than answers to conclude.

Know what I mean?

One of my favorite lyrics in the entire universe of music is Tom Waits’ “Foreign Affair”. In it he has the line:

Most vagabonds I know
Don’t ever want to find the culprit
That remains the object
Of their long relentless quest

The obsession’s in the chasing
And not the apprehending
The pursuit, you see?
And never the arrest

Fire, Glass, Soft, and Hard

I've been up to my ankles these days in trimmings. The 80+ bowls of the last few weeks have finally been turned upside down, turned round and round and had their shoes put on.

It's one of the more enjoyable tasks at this time of year. Especially enjoyable because at this time of year I have the luxury of time to keep the bowls under plastic for several days. When I can do that, the moisture content in them gets evened out to such an extent that turning them is a pleasure.

During the hurried pace of the rest of the year, with the next show right around the bend, I'm often trimming bowls when they are too soft or too hard or...the very worst....too hard on one side and too soft on the other.

Here's a band I happen to like a lot. They call themselves "Crooked Still"

You may ask, "What's Crooked Still got to do with Bauman Stoneware?"

Good question.

I've often related to my customers that when stoneware and especially porcelain are at the peak temperature to which I fire them, they are temporarily in a state that is a bit less stable than "solid".

"Get OUT!" is what they reply.

And I patiently say, "No, really. At 2300 degrees fahrenheit the clay is sort of glelatinous. Like a Church Potluck dessert. If I stuck my hand into the kiln at that point of peak temperature and poked a pot with my finger, I could dent the side of a pot."

My customers then ask me not to do that reaching-into-the-hot-kiln thing. My customers are a compassionate lot who watch after the welfare of my hands.

Anyway, here's what can happen to a pot that's just a little weak on one side when it goes into that gelatinous state at 2300 degrees...

This pot was crooked when I took it out of the kiln, and it's crooked still.

There is only one human being alive on this planet who I think might see nothing wrong with the casserole in that picture...

David Caruso.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

More Wildlife On The Trails

Springtime's just around the corner! I took this panorama last Spring. It is a huge male mulberry tree (its umbrella spans more than 75 feet) that stands at the entrance to the trails I run daily.

I had just run down the side of the ridge. All along the top of the ridge I had been mentally noting how multiple, how tame, and how slow the squirrels were as they just barely ran out of my path. It was one of those rare times -- I was running without one of the dogs.

I reached the bottom of the hill, hopped over the new artesian spring that had been leaking across the trail, and noted (just barely) another big squirrel not getting out of my way.


That wasn't a squirrel.

My mind is so quick, my powers of observation so keen that I had barely gotten 20 yards further down the trail when my brain registered what my eyes had just seen. (Truth is, I think in longhand cursive. It's slow and I often run out of ink).

I backed up the 20 yards and, sure enough, there was one of the coolest sights I've ever been privileged to witness in nature....

Two fox kits so engrossed in wrestling with each other -- their necks a black shiny mess of each other's saliva from the open-mouthed biting, slobbery play -- that I stood over them watching for probably five minutes. They never did spook off or even show any recognition of my presence. I finally ran off, leaving them still engrossed in their play.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dealing With It

When I was a younger potter I used to take rejection as a challenge. I always assumed that it was a sign of something I wasn't doing -- something lacking in my work and/or vision -- and I would redouble my efforts to "fix" it.

As I've aged, I've lost some of that youthful optimism. Now I deal with rejection by setting what I hope will be ambitious but realistic goals -- some of those goals focused on the craft aspect of business, and some of those goals focused on the business aspects of my craft. In a business model with so much out of my control (juries, trends, weather, etc), I take some encouragement in what I can do -- what I can control.

I try not to find others to commisserate with. It's a horrible temptation to do so, but it tends to bury me deeper in discouragement. As comforting in the short term as it might feel, it just can't be a wise practice to find encouragement in the similar failings and discouragements of others.

And just when one finds comfort in those fellow sufferers, that's when they find their way out of that "slough of despond", leaving one even more discouraged.

Instead, I try to look to the successful and see what they may be doing differently. If it's something simple that I've overlooked, it will have been worth the learning. If it's something inherently "them" that could never be a part of me, I still try to see if there could be any correlation to my view of the world (sometimes worthwhile parallels aren't immediately obvious).

And, as in my youth, I try (though I find it harder now) to be willing to change. And change anything.

Good songwriters don't necessarily think of their songs as ever finished. That is -- even when a song is complete enough to be worthy of recording, it is still fodder for revision -- and each revision can be good, meaningful, vital.

I can sometimes get so entrenched in something that "works" on some level, that I fail to see that it's not "done" -- it's just another step on the long journey.

Discouragement is goal-oriented. Living is journey-oriented.

That's how I see it, anyway

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Cool Mug

ANN: Oh my gosh, who IS the new guy?!

ALICE: New guy?

ANN: Yeah, who is that GREAT looking new guy over there by the coffee machine?

ALICE: You mean the guy holding that cool green mug?

ANN: Yeah, him. Who IS that guy?

ALICE: Why, he's not new. That's Bob.

ANN: Bob? Are you kidding me? THE Bob? ‘Bob’ the perennially-overlooked-for-advancement? Shows-up-at-the-company-picnic-alone Bob? THAT Bob? Are you kidding me?

ALICE: Yeah, that’s him. Amazing the difference a simple new mug can make.

ANN: Has he always had such white teeth? ….and his hair looks so shiny and manageable! Has he always been such a smart dresser?

ALICE: I couldn’t really tell you. Nobody ever noticed until he got that mug.

ANN: I’m asking him to the NEXT company picnic.

ABBEY: Get in line, sister. I noticed him first!

Bob’s cool new stoneware mug holds 14 ounces of coffee, tea, or whatever else Bob is drinking at the time. It’s not just got that cool herringbone hand-brushed wax resist pattern on the outside, it sports an even darker oribe green glaze on the inside.

Sure, it set Bob back $28………but not really. Bob bought four at once and only paid $88 for them. Shipping was included.

Don’t be uncool forever. Be like Bob. Stand out in a crowd for once in your life. Own the cool mug.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Influential Potter Series #3: Dick Lehman

Dick and I started our potteries at just about the same time. And we met while doing art fairs back in the late 1970s.

Dick appears a very soft-spoken guy -- very philosophical. Yeah, he can project a mien that appears studious. And if he struck you as "thoughtful", you wouldn't be wrong. But when you get to know him, it’s the great sense of humor you remember. And some of the serious stuff.

He's a man as complex and interesting as the glazes he favors.

In the early eighties Dick and I were doing a local show together (we live about 25 - 30 miles apart). I had just paid good money to have a sign painter friend work up what I thought was a very cool new sign for my booth.

So, the morning of the show’s opening I walked over to Dick's booth and asked him if he wouldn’t maybe come over to my booth and tell me what he thought of the new sign. And he was his usual quiet, gracious self as he kindly complimented me on it.

The next morning as we were setting up, Dick pulled his old lemon-custard-yellow Ford van right in front of my booth. I barely looked up because our booths were fairly close to each other -- just across a wide, grassy aisle -- with his set-up only about forty feet beyond mine. I just figured maybe someone was parked directly in front of his booth and he was waiting for them to move.

Instead, Dick got out of his van and walked over to me. He appeared a bit sheepish as he asked, "I hope you don't think I'm copying you....I know this doesn't seem like a coincidence, but, really, it is."

I said, "Huh? What are you talking about?"

He continued, "...but I actually just had new signage done too."

"Really?” I said. "Cool! Can I see it?"

Dick said, "Sure. In fact, one reason I parked where I did is that I could actually use a hand with it."

hmmm. Could use a hand with it? But I dutifully followed Dick to the back of his van.

First he pulled out a huge, full-sized street sign that read: NO STOPPING AT ANY TIME, and proceeded, with mini sledgehammer in hand, to pound it into the ground in front of MY booth.

Then he calmly and wordlessly walked back around the driver’s side of his van, hopped in and pulled forward just a bit, got back out and proceeded to pull out another huge street sign. This time it was an ATTRACTION AHEAD sign.

He continued this way, slowly and wordlessly pounding in signs, returning to the front of the van, pulling forward a few feet, and repeating. I don't remember all of the other three or four signs, but I do remember that by the time he pounded in the RIGHT TURN ONLY sign in front of his own booth, he had a crowd of uproariously laughing artists gathered and watching the spectacle.

But, of course, this is a series about potters I know and how they have influenced my pottery over the years...

Dick is as responsible as anyone for making me aware of the value of being connected to a broader world of clay – other potters, other methods, other approaches.

Up until I met Dick, my clay world was pretty small and I was mostly consumed with making a living. I remained fairly oblivious to just how, working in isolation as I was, I was making that pursuit much more difficult than it needed to be. I watched as Dick approached being a potter along a much different path than I had chosen.

I noticed from my very first meetings with Dick that his education had already placed him within a circle of many potters -- potters who knew each other and shared ideas and information.

But with Dick it went beyond just that – beyond just where the fate of school choice had placed him. I sensed Dick’s voracious appetite for ceramic knowledge. It appeared his path to that discovery was in the acquisition -- first hand -- of whatever anyone was willing to share.
Dick exudes the joy of learning.

And within a very few years of our meeting, Dick was putting his wealth of acquired knowledge back into the ceramic world – submitting informative and inspirational writings in several clay publications. At the same time, Dick also opened my eyes to the world of workshops, the world of other potters who were sharing their ideas.

What a beautiful way to learn. Learn and share. Take and put back.

Additionally, Dick is a master of presentation. I can think of few other potters who show the same level of care in the packaging of the work they sell. Observing how Dick presents his work is a master's lesson to any potter. Dick’s attention to such detail adds even more to the sense of value in the already very fine pottery that he produces.

As a producing potter, there was always value in asking myself “How would Dick present this?”

And that sense of conveying value is on display in everything Dick does. He has the finest short video I have ever seen on what it means to be a potter. You can watch it here, or in better resolution and fidelity on his website "my story" page.

Adventurous discovery
Clay world connectivity
Going-the-extra-mile presentation

...That’s how Dick Lehman has influenced my pottery.

You can read more about Dick here on his website where you can also order his pottery.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Back On The Trails

Well, Mister Picture-of-Health here has spent the last three nights sleeping in a fetal position with a pillow between my knees just trying to find some position where my lower back doesn't hurt like hell.

On the positive side, Breeze and I have had some great nature runs now that the trails are open for running again.

Monday, the chilly air throughout the entire woods was a mist of sparkling fog crystals dancing in the morning sun. We rounded a bend and started to make our way along a passage of the trails where to our left and about fifty feet off is an abrupt 20'-30' rise to a clifftop, and to our right is a creek rapids gurgling loudly.

And as we rounded that bend, standing between Breeze and me and that cliff was a herd of ten deer staring at us through the foggy mist. It was eerie. They were standing stock still -- their bodies all facing random directions, but their heads alertly looking our way.

We stopped and stared back at them until seconds later they bolted in unison. Breeze nearly took my arm off.

Then on Tuesday's run, just as I was griping to Breeze that because we were following a mountain biker through the woods, we weren't seeing any wildlife, Breeze's ears went erect and he bolted toward a pasture that borders the woods . I couldn't see what Breeze saw, but I continued to run. Hard. Finally as the trail turned parallel to the pasture's edge, there it was....a fox. Running with it's quick-legged gait just ahead of us, looking for some advantageous place to finally break into the underbrush.

Then, on this morning's run, in exactly the same spot where we saw the fox on Tuesday, a deer broke across the trail no more than twenty feet ahead of us. And it was followed in quick succession by three more deer. And they weren't doing that normal deer woodland conga line gait -- trit-trot, trit-trot, hop, hop -- trit-trot, trit-trot, hop, hop -- trit-trot, trit-trot, hop, hop. No, they had their heads down, their backs flat and level, and they were running for all they were worth.