Monday, December 11, 2017

Messy Mercy

I fear I will always feel more kinship with those needing mercy and grace -- even when they don't realize or acknowledge that need...
... than I will ever feel with those who take delight in a justice they don't fear.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tales From The Future

I can remember back when pottery wasn’t regulated.  Anyone who wanted to make a pot was allowed to. 

Clay was for sale to anyone who had the money to buy some.  Worse, they could simply dig some up if they wanted.  They didn’t even have to secure a permit to dig for it.  There was no agency tasked with making sure that the environmental impact of such digging and foraging was minimized, much less restored.
Nobody had to submit their design plans to the approval agency for the pots they planned to make.  I know it sounds unbelievable now, but they could simply make anything they felt like making.  No market viability had to be proven or approved.  Even worse, there was no Aesthetics Panel to which designs had to be submitted.  In the name of creativity or even novelty, anyone could make whatever they could imagine out of clay. 

It took decades of dedication and public money to recycle all that material – at least, what could be recycled out of it all.  It kept the crushers busy 24 hours a day.  There was that much unauthorized pottery out there.  And it had been fired.  Some of those materials – now so rare we’d give almost anything to have them back – are fired into this rubble of their careless and unregulated use.
And these potters weren’t even educated as we today might expect.  A full 60% of them never had any formal university training in ceramics.  And those with university degrees often had such degrees in unrelated fields.  They had no business believing themselves properly trained for making clay work.  An audacious bunch they were, working out of garages and basements and back yard sheds – again, totally unregulated.  And blissfully unaware.  They’d openly share what they were working on together.  They had no sense that what they were doing should have been kept quietly under wraps.  So much so that with one of them openly making clay objects, so many others just assumed it was okay for them to do so as well.  Or as poorly, I should say.

 And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Or clayberg.  They fired totally unregulated kilns.  They used completely unregulated combustible materials to fire them.  They would even take wood from what used to be forested land and fire kilns with it.  There’s simply no way of calculating the cubic footage of wood burned, nor the volume of gas – natural and propane.  The kilns were totally unregulated.  The government never even had a sense of just how many of these kilns existed.  The kilns didn’t even have to be submitted to a governmental board for kiln plan approval.  I remember a guy who simply lined a garbage can with bricks, took some plumbing fixtures, and built a kiln that vented straight into the open air.

It took nearly a century to come to our senses.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Kiln Not Taken

When I posted this parody on my blog this morning...

Two kilns diverged and one fired wood,
And sorry I could not manage both
Be one potter, and still live good
And looked down one as far as I could
To where its bag wall bent in ashy growth;

Then built the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was gas and wanted ware;
Though as for that the firing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both their shelving equally lay
In wash, and without the first crack.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere potters and potters hence:
Two kilns diverged, gas and wood, and I—
I took the one more fired by,
And that has made all the difference.

Mark Fitzgerald responded with the perfect prose version of my parody. So I thought I'd share it here:

mug by Mark Fitzgerald


Some thoughts on your lovely poem and other random musings on this path we’ve chosen.
The best results of wood fired pots, the “racers”, make the allure of this technique nearly irresistible. Like so many potters, (and non-potters) many of my favorite pieces are those that have undergone the extended exposure to fly ash, intense heat and unique stacking configurations that are the standard of most wood firings. Even slight variations from one firing to the next, which, by the nature of the entire process are inevitable, yield results that are never exactly repeatable. Only similarity can be achieved. And therein lies the beauty. If expectations were always met and the results were consistently predictable, who in their right mind would subject themselves to the incredibly labor intensive process of firing a wood kiln? It’s precisely that unpredictability and those elusive “racers” that will make someone who is otherwise completely rational, risk weeks or even months of hard work just to bring about.

And I get it! I love wood fired pots. I love the process. And I admire the devotion that those who utilize only this process have to it. What completely mystifies me is how anyone but a very few, can make even a reasonably comfortable living this way. For starters, the loss rate is so much higher and the market is so much narrower for this type of work that one is starting a few steps behind from the outset. I understand that “artists” are not supposed to be market driven to make their work. But for me, reality has a funny way of intruding: materials, overhead and basic living expenses (not to mention planning for future needs) all have to be considered. These are forces that can’t be ignored.

I realized long ago that most of us who have undertaken this as a way of life are constantly on that thin edge between success and failure. I also realized that in order to have even a long shot at being successful, that I would have to make some concessions to the marketplace. After all, in the end, we are all (most of us, anyway) making work that needs a market.

So, I’m a production potter who makes a lot of pieces, not all of which are my favorite things to make…but many are. And I fire a gas kiln because I know I can achieve somewhat predictable results and I have developed a market both locally and regionally that seems to still like what I make. Do I drool over a Jack Troy wood fired bottle or tea bowl? You bet! Do I hope to someday make more “one offs” and fewer production pieces? I do, and I feel that I’m gradually moving in that direction. For now though I’ll continue the process with the already established rhythms and maybe occasionally participate in a communal wood firing as I have done a few times. But I’ll sleep better knowing that when the gas bill comes and a couple of tons of materials need to be purchased I can meet those expenses.

Thanks for the stimulating poem.

Mark Fitzgerald

Sunday, October 15, 2017

If Poets Were Potters -- Installment #4

Two kilns diverged and one fired wood,
And sorry I could not manage both
Be one potter, and still live good
And looked down one as far as I could
To where its bag wall bent in ashy growth;

Then built the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was gas and wanted ware;
Though as for that the firing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both their shelving equally lay
In wash, and without the first crack.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere potters and potters hence:
Two kilns diverged, gas and wood, and I—
I took the one more fired by,
And that has made all the difference.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

There But For Fortune

Crisis of Faith.

The restaurant put three fortune cookies in my carry-out last night. They knew full well that there were only two dinners in there, but they cavalierly threw in three fortune cookies.

Like it doesn't matter?

I'm beginning to question the ordination process by which restaurants are commissioned to dispense fortunes in the first place. 

 It's like having sat down with the Oracle of Delphi and hashing out your future for an hour or two....and just as you're walking out the door, confident in your future, she says, "Or....."

Really, it makes me wonder. They made it seem -- with one careless act on a busy night at the Great Wall restaurant -- as though one fortune is as good as another. As if they could that simply dispense multiple probabilities to define my future? 

How would that work?

"You will be coming into a great inheritance" coupled with "you will be happy in your work"? What if one had said I'd be meeting a blonde and the other a brunette?

Like one wouldn't, like, totally cancel out the other?

We have to teach children very early on that just because one is good doesn't mean that two, three, or one hundred is better. If we didn't teach them that principle, our hospital emergency rooms would be inundated with children overdosed on Flintstones vitamins.

They weren't, therefore, doing me any favors by tossing in an extra fortune. They were crushing my faith in the entire religion. How am I to ever again find direction for my life if just any old fortune will do?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Double Your Pleasure-Double Your Fun

Upon being presented with the proposition that adding a new glaze combination to your current ones would double your sales -- presumably because you'd now have twice as many options....

Your sales will only double if you're magically able to make twice as many pieces.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend who makes VERY fine sculptural raku vessels. For years and years he made them the same way -- white crackle glaze with areas of bared, smoked clay.

Then he started being influenced by an extremely talented painter who encouraged him to add color to his pieces.

The friend was right insofar and his work was at least as striking, and perhaps even more decoratively appealing, given that it might fit a more colorful setting.

But I happened to be discussing with him a problem I was facing -- that variety was KILLING my inventory. That is, I was noticing that if I had, say, three pitchers but each one was decorated differently, I suddenly didn't really have the same inventory. I suddenly didn't really have three pitchers. I suddenly was sold out of an item upon the sale of one pitcher....though I appeared to have two left.

Get what I mean?

And when I said this to my friend, he got that look of dawning horror that you get when you realize you should have left the haunted house at the BEGINNING of the movie, and not after you first hear the chain saw start up.

It suddenly dawned on him the problem he had been facing all year: He hadn't increased his income by tripling his color choices. In fact, he had done just the opposite.

And if he happened to have chosen exactly the right percentages of exactly the right colors, well, then he was okay. But what had ACTUALLY happened was that he created the metaphorical un-meshed gears. That is, he was placing the moving target of the right color combination against the moving target of the random tastes of his audience....and realizing they were spinning at two different speeds. He was selling less and keeping up worse.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Out On A Limb

This is a very old but good article. 

Hey, Kid: Thoughts For Young Oddballs 

I might only add...

If you think you're really onto something special but the feedback you get is lukewarm at best (or even negative)...

with one ear listen well to the critics (the feedback might be good). But keep in mind that maybe the fact that you haven't yet fully realized the concept yourself, you may not be presenting it well enough for others to "get". You may have presented it too early. You may not have fleshed it out well enough for communication.

You also might not have presented your idea to YOUR audience. Family and casual acquaintances are relationships of fate, not selected as your likely audience by virtue of similar tastes and values.
Also, the people who think they know you  may or may not. People pigeonhole you. They need to. And nobody really fits in the pigeonhole imagined by others. Haven't you ever presented something to others, only to have a look of shock register in their eyes? 

" mean you created that?!" May be the most accurate feedback you're ever going to get. You just exceeded expectations

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Storming The Gates

For anyone who regularly has the guts to submit the hard work of your intellect, vulnerably bared the depths of your soul, or presented the skilled work of your hands to the gatekeepers of the art world....

Take heart. They may be omnipotent in our world, but they're not omniscient. They may dictate your market value, but they don't determine your worth.

I love this story from 2013.

The Gatekeepers

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Special Requests

He prayed for the rocks. He prayed that they would remain hard. Solid. He prayed that boulders would remain heavy and pebbles would remain light. 

He prayed that there would be rocks almost too big for a man to climb over and grains small as sand. He made his request to God that rocks would exhibit the full spectrum of colors made possible by the elements and minerals therein. 

He pleaded with God that whatever changes occurred in rocks might occur by slow erosion over time so that any changes that might occur would be nearly undetectable over the average human lifetime. 

At the same time, he requested that the effects of that erosion -- and of heat and of cold and of time might make rocks as beautiful as sculptures, as pretty as paintings. 

He never prayed for cats. He couldn’t handle the disappointment.

Friday, August 25, 2017

A Time Beyond Today

Last night's vivid dream:

...became a dream within a dream. I dreamt that I was playing at the Goshen Old-Timey Music Jam. I couldn't get my guitar re-strung in time so I started "da-da-da-da-da-da-daaaa-ing" through the first fiddle tune. 

It was "Shove The Pig's Foot A Little Further In The Fire"

Anyway, the fellas closest to me heard my da-da-da-ing and they stopped playing instruments and started da-da-ing along with me. Then all the musicians in the circle stopped playing instruments and joined in the impromptu acapella fiddle tune.

Soon the entire farmer's market joined in as well. 

Well, anyone who's been to the Goshen Farmer's Market (where the music jam is held once a month) knows that there's a significant majority of Mennonites buying and selling there on any given market day. And anyone who knows Mennonites knows that Mennonites know harmony. In fact, ain't nobody knows harmony like Mennonites know harmony.

So there I sat in my dream, surrounded by an otherworldly chorus of da-da-da-ing in full-throated harmony. It gave me chills.

Then I woke from the dream and started telling the woman I was standing next to about the whole dream. Except I was still dreaming.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Outside Looking In

My friend, Jeff Miller, made this comment during a discussion last year: 
"If you find yourself thinking that the only possible explanation for someone else's perception that differs from your own is based on their having a negative framework (ie, "racist", "sexist", "hateful", etc.), you have more than likely inadvertently absorbed a piece of perceptual framework that someone else has planted in you in order to manipulate you.

As a general proposition, start with the assumption that everyone is operating from a perspective of positive intentions, even if doing so violates your framework. Even if you are wrong (and you very well may be), the result is positive". -Jeff Miller

I found it apt and I think about it often as social media constantly offers up propositions I don't think I agree with. It's very hard (as Jeff suggests) to afford the alien point of view the benefit of the doubt that they are wishing for the same or better outcome as I wish for -- instead of retreating to a safe zone of demonizing them so I don't have to listen.

I try to ask myself if I can find ANY way that I might find points of agreement with the alternative pov. Said another way -- am I absolutely sure I even know what they are saying? Do I fully understand their pov? Could I describe it back to them accurately and without prejudice?

And I try to ask myself if it is really logical to believe in demons? -- That is, I try to ask myself if this (for instance) social media meme presenting me with a demon is as likely to be a true characterization of its target...

... as it might be to instead assume better of that person/target and, from there, figure out what that person/target is really saying?

Sunday, August 6, 2017


This is what I ultimately came up with.

It's hard to convince yourself to leave well enough alone with only a few pots because part of you keeps niggling at you telling you that some juror is going to see pots on the display that sway him/her in a way that the individual images did not.

That makes SO little sense that it's hard to believe it holds any sway when composing a booth slide, but it does. I think it might do so because most shows ask for SO few individual images. I wish all shows would ask for 7-10 images of individual work.

I do believe there is a HUGE range of options for presenting images that are still honest while not strictly journalistic. That is, we all know that the images we present need to be visually interesting in and of themselves.

Sure, many of us still try to make the images visually interesting and still honest, but the reality is that most images that get potters into the A shows don't really represent the pot as seen in a real-life 3D situation.

Part of the reason for those dolled-up, super-dramatically lit, high-contrast, overly-saturated images is an attempt at compensation. That is, we are only TOO aware of the disadvantage with which we are saddled when presenting 3D work in a 2D format. So we understandably compensate.

I know potters whose work I don't recognize when I peruse the online images of Cherry Creek, Des Moines, St Louis, Fort Worth, etc. But I understand why they present the images they do. Quite often, as good as their work might be, it's simply too subtle to present journalistically. 

Someone suggested the idea of shooting one side only as if in the booth. I've often thought of that. I've come to believe that there are two basic reasons a booth image is required: 1. To see if the individual images are really representative of the body of work, and 2. To envision what the booth might look like as viewed at a show (will it fit in with the rest of the exhibitors?)

If the only question being asked by the jury, relative to the booth image was #1, then a partial booth would not only serve the purpose, it would arguable do so even better than a full booth.

But if #2 is the primary reason for the booth image, then the partial booth won't work.

I wish a show would state their purpose for a booth image. If they did then a potter could equip himself with either/or booth images, depending on the show.
I do kinda wish  (I say with great regret. Yesterday's attempt took all day) that I had taken a few shots with only a few pieces on the shelves.

Maybe I ought to pay a photoshop master to take the pots off the shelves via digital magic. 

 When I've sat on juries I've noticed how much I depend on the booth shot to tell me the real story. I'm not nearly so seduced by hot single image shots as I am turned off by horrid booth shots.

Pottery booth shots taken at shows are quite often terrible. Even if the potter has taken the time to "neaten things up a bit". The lines are crooked, the wrong things show, and the lighting is usually bad.

I know I should score them high points for integrity, but I admit that I don't.

And I was just getting ready to get on a soap box about how we artists owe it to each other to show up at art fairs with the best looking booths we can manage. When we let our booths lapse -- need to be repainted, Pro-Panels frayed and shabby, canopy no longer even close to white, assembly wobbly and off plumb... we aren't just hurting our own chances at that art fair -- we're hurting every other artist at that show.

That's how art fairs work at their best. We artists trade on the work, weight, and reputation of all the other artists in that show. We owe it to each other to clean up our acts.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

John's Booth

I had a beautiful day to work outdoors. A project that has been on my mind now for a few years, I finally have the perfect day to accomplish.

Except I don't.

The sun is making too much contrast. I can't get the lighting right -- even with my studio lights in front filling in.

I don't like this task anyway. I'm relatively comfortable with the rest of my jury images. The booth shot has always made me edgy.

Art fairs don't really want potters. Art fairs want artists. That makes sense. But I'm a potter and I know it and I don't intend not to show it.

But the only way I'm going to get a booth shot that won't keep me out of the A shows (rather than scoring them every once in a while) is to start taking stuff off the booth and re-shooting.

Making a booth shot is principally different from setting up for a show. Setting up for a show I go through the boxes of pots and say "Oh!....I love that one. I'll put it out" followed by "Oh!....I love that one. I'll put it out" followed by "Oh!....I love that one. I'll put it out" etc.

Making a booth shot I should be saying, "That might be one of the twelve pieces I put out to make the display look as gallery-like as possible." Any more than that and I start to look like a potter.

It's editing. Everyone could use an editor. 'Specially me.

Here the clouds rolled in and allowed for a little better lighting.  I removed about a dozen pieces but it still looks like a pottery.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


I work almost daily with a very talented young sculptor from the Czech Republic.

His English is better than my Czech like, say, a bird is a better flier than a pig. But by the end of the day I end up speaking and thinking -- not Czech, but Czech-like.

Some of the quirky linguistic adaptations he makes as he translates his thoughts into my language roll 'round and 'round in my mind -- both the way they sound and often the significance of meaning intended and unintended.

For instance (and my favorite): "Dis moment"

When Misha (the young sculptor) and I are talking about a piece we're working on together, he will point at the curve of a pot's shoulder, or the turning of its foot and say, "Dis moment will make shadow below..." or "Dis moment here sit well, make stable base..."

"Dis moment"

I found myself wondering at the words he must be thinking about, and the hows and whys that led him to translate words that probably intend to mean "this passage" or "this part" or "this section".

"Dis moment".

I'm sure it was arrived at as a sort of parallel. A moment is a defined part of time just as the shoulder of the pot is a defined part of that whole. Just as the foot is a defined part of that whole.

"Dis moment"

I like it. My mind expands on it. I imagine the lovely thought that the moment in time that I conceived and made permanent the curve of a shoulder or the arc of a handle or the geometry of a trimmed foot...

...some future user of that pot will relive that moment in dawning realization. They'll "get" the inspiration I had for that shoulder. They'll understand the reasoning behind the foot. They'll feel the intent in the arc of that handle -- each of those moments relived and translated....

....from the intention of my mind, to the work of my hand, to the perception of the end user -- all in a shared moment.

A shared moment. Time and time and time again. For the life of the pot, from the life of the potter, to the life of the user.

Dis moment.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Getting Ready

I don't much care for turning my blog into a simple photo share, but I've been having really good firings getting ready for my show in Minnesota next weekend.  Here's the kiln load I opened last night.

carved vase, radially carved bowl

Oak leaf carved two quart pitchers

utility crocks carved and stamped

oval top bakers, slip trailed, carved, and stamped

carved 2 quart casseroles with thrown acorn knobs

slip-trailed casseroles, 2 quart

radially carved bowl 14"

carved handled bowl 15"

carved handled bowl 15"

herringbone carved handled bowl 14"