Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Simply Put

My seventh grade literature teacher taught me that no good literature is ever written without conflict -- man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. clay, glazes, fire, and water.

No good life either, I suppose.

I wonder what kind of paradise there could ever be in the absence of contrast? An eternal bliss without struggle? I don't know how that would work. It sucked for Midas. But then again, life sucked for Sisyphus too.

"Life is hard, but it's harder when you're stupid."  --Jackie Brown

Monday, April 29, 2019

Just So Much

“….it missed by this much”, he said. And to emphasize just how tiny and insignificant “this much” was, he thrust out his hand, holding his finger and thumb a scant quarter-inch apart.

Yeah, what of significance could possibly fit between fingers so closely spaced?

More than 100,000 pots. That's what.

Knowing the distance between two fingers – and how to set and hold them there, precisely at such a distance –is perhaps the central skill to being a potter. It’s not a “squeeze”. It’s a set-and-hold. And learning the feel of that distance and being capable of holding it -- whether thumbs may touch over a short wall for reference….or the fingers are completely separated and working on either side of a very tall wall that reaches to the elbow and beyond – that’s what a potter needs to learn to make a good, even-walled pot. It’s what a potter needs to know to make a pot light enough for function, but heavy enough for a lifetime of use and abuse.

When that skill became second nature to me, I found that my mind would venture off to a beyond well away from that starting point – well away from that focus on two fingers.

What starts with a slam of clay on wheelhead and a whirring motor, a few seconds worth of slip-slap-center …. fingers assuming their positions in that set-and-hold, soon (and inevitably) leads to my focus slipping right between those fingers right along with the clay…

…and wandering off.

Some of my most creative moments happen while I’m at my wheel with my fingers set on spinning clay. Since what is going on with my fingers has become automatic, my imagination is freed. Now not only do I create the pot presently on the wheel….I contemplate the next, and the next. I imagine new ideas, new pots. My imagination becomes as malleable as the clay I’m forming. I write essays and poetry (yes, at some point I have to wipe slip from my hands and type those thoughts out). I dream my best, most fruitful dreams with my fingers set “this much” apart.

Yeah, what of significance could possibly fit between fingers so closely spaced?

This potter’s life.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Leave It Like It Is

Now when the wet jar tipped
Off of the table
You watched as it started to fall
Though you tried to grab it

Still it fell and splattered
It went to flat from tall
Bright, white, a perfect monoprint
Across the concrete floor
You said, "Good God, look at that pattern
I've never seen that before"
Leave it like it is
Never mind the mop and sponge
Leave it like it is
It's fine
--apologies to David Wilcox

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Going 'Round One More Time

 I am continuing to make more big jars.  The carved stoneware came out so much to my liking, I decided to start making my white clay jars -- the ones I glaze with my Millring Red glaze.

Well, I started out with my new(ish) domestic porcelain.  As it came to me, it was WAY to wet to throw anything of any size.  So I had left some out to dry a bit.  I started out by wedging it but it became obvious with the first couple of pulls that even stiffened up a bit, it wasn't going to go big.  I tried 6 jars and watched each collapse before my eyes.

I was getting tired.

I gave up on the domestic porcelain and went to a bag of Turner porcelain I've had around the shop for more than 15 years.  It took some wrestling to get it throwable.  It didn't work either.  The usually foolproof porcelain just flopped all over the place.

I was getting even more tired.

Next I got some of the old Standard 182.  Man, was it stiff!  But I was determined.  I wedged it -- which consisted more of slamming than kneading.  It was too stiff to center.  So, before I went in for dinner that night I sliced several bags of the clay up into slabs and accordioned them in wet towels to leave overnight.

Yesterday I got the clay out of the wet towels, wedged it up and, voila!  It worked.  Tall white stoneware jars. 

 My handles are exceedingly polite and just a little bit shy. They don't want to go where they've not been invited.
So my pots are a veritable Emily Post of etiquette. They make sure there's a place set at the table for the handles

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


Why persist at the more difficult and tedious process of making by hand?

Because there is an inherent charm imbued upon objects that can never -- by virtue of the chosen method of production -- be identical. Even when made in series with an intent to purposely copy the previous, the most that will occur from piece to piece is a friendly family resemblance.

Saturday, April 20, 2019


I treated myself to an evening of throwing big jars.  I had decided a few years ago that even though I love making jars, they weren't an efficient use of van space for an art fair potter.

Heck with it.  I like making jars.

I did, however, start by trying to make them out of the domestic porcelain I've been using.  No dice.  The stuff -- even stiffened up -- will not make anything of any size.  Too flabby.  Pull it up 15 inches and you can watch it slump back to 12 before your very eyes.  I gave up and went back to my beloved stoneware.

The one porcelain jar I kept is going to be faceted.  When clay cheats you, you cheat right back.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Living Water

Pottery seems singular in this: The “competition” is so often one’s biggest inspiration and encouragement.

I believe there’s an aspect to the pottery world that is a little like hidden groundwater. Most of our lives we walk right over groundwater and never note its presence. Then one day, perhaps for the first time, we notice an artesian well at the base of a hill. Or maybe a several day rain makes us aware of a rather high water table. Could be we're on a drive past a farm field while it’s being irrigated. Suddenly we’re made aware of that erstwhile invisible groundwater everywhere.

Potters are sorta that way. A few springs pop up here and there. An artesian (I’ll keep the cheap pun to myself) well or two – even the occasional pond of a potter --- a few obvious “bigg’ns” get some ink, get some notice.

But it’s the groundwater that keeps the whole craft going. It’s the groundwater of work-a-day potters who make the clay world go ‘round. And maybe, just maybe there’s a slight pressure on that working potter to spring out – to make a splash in the world of clay.

I think not, though. I think most of us are so at once charmed, and then trapped in this life. We love the material and the process. Then the pursuit of it and the demands of a potter’s lifestyle ensure that we never really escape it. 
 That is, if we ever wanted to escape it.

What other discipline but pottery allows an average Joe like me the great joy of sitting around the dinner table with Jim Ulmer, Brian Moore, Bob Reiberg, and Tom Bothe – a quintet of relatively unknowns in the “clay world” but with well over one hundred combined years with our hands and lives in clay – sharing a beer and laughing uproariously about the kiln disasters we’ve survived – the survival being the key that allows the laughter?

Where else but in the world of clay can I meet a heretofore stranger like Bob Briscoe at my pottery booth and have an hour-long discussion about mining creativity and recalling influences? ….or be driving through the mountains of northern Georgia and call Tom Turner on my cell phone to arrange a clay tour of North Carolina? …or email Pete Pinnell and talk about firing schedules, having both arrived at similar conclusions about thirty-year-old glaze recipes? In what other discipline are the “arrived” so open to sharing what they know and where they’ve been?

It’s a world that few have the honor of glimpsing – this groundwater of potters around the world. Some only see us on the surface – above ground. And some of us potters never make it there. But we’re all still part of that force that keeps clay surfacing through times when it might seem that we’re destined to our anachronistic fate. Together we push on through history. And I take no small pleasure in being part of that force. Knowing potters as I do, it is an honor.

There was a geyser in Wooster, OH over the weekend.

The Visitor

I'm not waiting on the muse. I think I've identified the muse, and the muse isn't something to wait on. I'm pretty sure "muse" isn't passive.

That's not to say that I don't believe that inspiration can't often follow something akin to meditation. It might. But to that point, I'm pretty sure that meditation isn't passive either.

But when I'm tied to the dock of Inertia, the muse is simply the one who knows how to undo those vexing knots in the mooring ropes.

When I'm anchored by procrastination, the muse is recognizing that anchor and weighing it. This is no time to heave to.

Starting is more than half done.

Mostly, the muse is the guy who drives the R&L truck that delivers my clay.

So, no, I'm not inviting the muse. Ultimately, R&L truck driver or second mate metaphor notwithstanding, I'm thinking that I am the muse.

What I am inviting, though, is the Visitor. I'm inviting that "third" who so often shows up, surprising me when I thought it was just me and the clay at the wheel.

The Visitor is the third who shows up when I thought it was just me and my keypad typing away at rhymes.

The Visitor is the third who shows up when I thought it was just me and my guitar.

The Visitor is (I think, anyway) why creative people continue to create.

I'm a real world kinda potter. That is, I've always made my living from clay. When push comes to shove, relative to the formulation of Muse/Visitor I've suggested above, survival has always been muse enough for me. If I don't weigh anchor and get sailing, I don't survive. There is no safe harbor. I can't wait on inspiration. I can't afford romantic notions of transcendent illumination.

And because potters like me have that survival motivation to be makers, we more often get to meet the Visitor. After all, if the Visitor only comes when bidden by productivity, the most productive are going to meet the Visitor the most often.

But correlation doesn't equal causation.

And there are obligate creators in this world. They seem to not require the push of the muse. Once they've met the Visitor, they go back to meet the Visitor again and again and again.

And the Visitor is why the poet goes back and reads what he wrote before. He's still startled by the presence of the Visitor. He wants to relive the pleasure.

The Visitor surprises the songwriter at every reprise.

The Visitor is why the potter unloads the kiln, smiles as he meets each piece as if for the first time. He walks away from the kiln, only to pirouette and return to the kiln for yet another look.