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 pow-wow 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. We are forever 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 thank 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.