Monday, July 20, 2020

Legacy Tools

"If you don't have a wedging table, you don't have a pottery shop" -Me

Back in 1978, my friend (and at that time, employer) Doug Hively moved from Winona Lake, IN to Salem, Oregon. When he did, he left behind a wedging table -- the first official piece of pottery making equipment to become part of my shop.

At that point, I still didn't have a wheel, a kiln, or even my first ton of clay. I had yet to finish building my 8'X16' shop (in a trailer park).

But I had a wedging table.

The way this wedging table looked when Doug left it to me, it was simply four 2"X6" legs holding up a 2"X4", plywood-bottom frame that was then filled with plaster.

It was maybe ten years later, I added supports because the legs were wobbly. Some short time after that I remodeled it. I cut off the legs by 5" so that I could then put it up on wheels. That allowed me to move it around the shop if I wanted, but also allowed me to box in the bottom with plywood, and still have room for my feet to go under it while I was wedging.

The cut off wire is a guitar string strung between two screws that I bored through. One screw stays stationary, embedded in one of the wooden uprights. The guitar string's ball stops at it. The other screw is in the opposite wooden upright and tightens the guitar string as it is screwed in.

My old cat, Hobie, used to sort of "bleat" whenever clay passed through that guitar string causing it to twang. I never new if she was singing along or complaining.

Today I fixed the plaster and put a new canvas on the old girl. She should be good for another forty years.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Mutts and Glazes

Legacy chemicals. 

I inherited this box of soda ash from my friend, Dave, when he made his final move to FL. It's marked: "Sugar Creek Art Products" -- a company that hasn't been around in more than 30 years (maybe 40). 

I finally broke into the box yesterday to mix up a shino glaze. Some of the soda ash has petrified into stones that would have required mechanical breakdown (they'd need to be re-crushed) in order to be incorporated into a glaze. 

As I screened and re-screened the glaze, I ended up with rocks I had to throw out. I then re-introduced more soda ash by guessing how much I had thrown out in the rocks.
I'll probably end up with a mutt glaze.

"Mutt glaze". 

That's not a bad thing. I've noticed that some of the most remarkable dogs I've known in my life -- both by their beauty and their behavior -- have been mutts. And each time I noticed such mutts -- whether the "Tippy" I grew up with, or the "Bear" I met recently on the trails -- I couldn't help but sense the bittersweet nature of such a dog. That is: there's no duplicating it. 

The mutt is a treasure....but once gone, you can never again have it.

Oh, I get it. No dog is duplicate-able. But at least a breed will put us in the ballpark of looks and behavior. 

But a mutt is its own unique being, so often for the better.

I hope this mutt glaze I created yesterday is more than I hoped for. If it is, I'll name it "Tippy" and enjoy every pot I make with it.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Table

Troy is the guy who welded up my kiln frame and a half dozen ware carts. Nearly 30 years ago I had him weld me 16 corners of 3" angle iron drilled to thread bolts into. They are made to affix to 4"X4" posts as legs, and those are used to create sturdy worktables. I have two of them in the shop and I have had this one outside the shop for nearly 30 years now.

This old table has seen a few million dollars worth of pottery ground, tagged, and boxed in preparation for art fairs over the years. It stands at the back of the shop on a wide concrete apron beneath a 40 foot maple tree. It's a wonderful outdoor workspace in the summertime.

But we learned as soon as we put it up that the dogs all loved it too. When they were young they could easily leap up onto it. When Bear (our first) got older, I built him steps so he could still access it. It allowed the dogs a view into the shop through the window above it, and a vantage point to stand sentry over the back yard. It also provided a nice bit of shade to nap under with the cool concrete adding comfort.

As you can see, it's finally rotted away. Today I disassembled it (Keeping the angle iron corners and the post/legs). The table is now a pile of ashes. 

It's an odd thing to feel sentimental about, isn't it?

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Gates and Keepers

To some degree there have always been both avenues toward success/survival for all artists/craftsmen who have tried to survive by their creativity.

I remember when I met David. I was doing an art fair in Toledo and though I couldn't see them behind my booth, I could hear some really good musicians -- a hammered dulcimer and a guitarist -- who were hired by the art fair to provide ambiance.

When they stopped playing and I had no customers, I ventured around behind my booth and found the two musicians taking a break. I introduced myself and complimented the guitarist -- David. After some conversation, I asked him what he did for a living. "Music", he said.

I felt kind of silly. I mean, for 15-20 years to that point, I had been making a living as a potter in a sub-culture, niche market "Wild West" of art fairs that had developed as a work-around to the twin gatekeepers of academia and gallery.

Why it hadn't occurred to me that there were parallel means of making a living from other creative pursuits and their gatekeepers, I don't know. Probably because I worshipped the world of music and the musicians that the gatekeepers of record labels and radio had presented me. At that point in time I was only a decade or so into collecting more homemade music and meeting more and more musicians of a decidedly NOT pop kind. At that point, though, even those musicians I was learning more about were still the "product" of record labels and contracts and distribution infrastructure. It was just smaller labels like Red House, SugarHill, and others.

But David was completely independent. He played in (at that point) four different bands, had his own recording studio, and would accompany just about any musician in need at a gig or recording studio.

Now we're all Davids. We're all finding our own way. Many of our favorite musicians are those we find on youtube. The Universities told some of our favorite authors/writers that they weren't any good. Thankfully some of them were simply obligate writers who couldn't not write.

In this digital age the braver among those rejected by academia and publishing houses took a chance. Even if those educated in our Universities to have contempt for the simple and the beautiful had rejected them, perhaps they could cast their bread on the water of the internet and see if there were any souls among the 4 billion with computers and kindles and phones out there whom they might touch and be touched by. And they found us. And we found them.

There will always be gatekeepers. And there will always be a majority who will look to them to tell us who and what we are supposed to like and dislike.

And there will always be obligate artists who do what we do. The shift is that there is now a much broader path around the gatekeepers.

Sometimes the gatekeepers want a piece of some of those self-made artists, and agreeable deals can be made.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Some Handles

SOME HANDLES look like the sweater you just got back from your big sister after she borrowed it. They’re stretched out and worn-looking before you ever even put them on. You think you can smooth out the wrinkles or stretch out the bulges, but the more you work at it, the worse they look.

SOME HANDLES are a hand offered to shake, but maybe we feel that shake as a warning: The coming kiss of the rim is bound to be just as rough as the touch to that hand. 

But some other handles are the hand offered – palm up – that you take into yours with the promise that you are going to be gently walked -- hand in hand – to a very pleasant encounter with a waiting rim.

Some lugs are bugs. Some of those bugs are parasites. Ticks. And like ticks, they appear to have dropped onto the pot in a seemingly random manner with no aesthetic consideration of balance or composition. From there they parasitically and immediately suck the life from an otherwise healthy pot. 

But some lugs are symbiotic, and to those lugs the pots take a liken. They share the pot’s surface and the whole of the pairing is greater than the sum of either part. They enhance the glaze in ways the surface couldn’t have done without them in place. 

SOME HANDLES were following too closely when the pot in front of them jammed on the brakes. Sometimes the ensuing wreck is catastrophic. Other times such a fender bender can create interesting results. Without that accident we may never have known that the bumper could even fit there.
SOME HANDLES are like your favorite rich butterscotch topping….on your favorite fettucine. 


Switching metaphors mid-stride here, I have a friend who once told on her husband, “He came downstairs wearing a plaid shirt over plaid pants. I asked him ‘Howard, why in the world are you wearing that shirt and those pants together?’ He answered that they were both his favorites.” Well, duh. 

But I see it with handles all the time. Fettuccini w/Butterscotch. We like ‘em both. Not so much together. Beautiful pot. Beautiful handle. Terrible match.

SOME HANDLES are like….
….Remember that junior high Health Ed book wherein they had a picture of two stick figure men standing side by side – a big man with a little fig leaf and a little man with a big fig leaf? So the publishers of the Health Ed book tried to make it clear (bless their hearts), much to the relief of a few 7th grade boys, that size doesn’t matter.

But it does with handles. And proportion means even more.

SOME HANDLES are invited by their pot to a seat at the table. In the case of these handles, the pots exhibit a concave to which a handle might offer a convex echo. Those pots have an empty visual space inviting a handle to fill it. And for their part, the handles observe the formality of the setting with its full complement of silverware paraded in its proper place, the linen napkin, the china plate – and those handles shape themselves into the proper dressy attire before sitting down to dinner….

….Or maybe the handle observes a casual setting and therefore adopts a more easy-going style. Either way, the handle wasn’t an afterthought. The pot was made with the handle ever in mind. The invitation was sent, the handle arrived in time and in place.

Some handles have nice pots attached to them.

Saturday, May 2, 2020



1. Framing (construction), common carpentry work
2. Framing (law), providing false evidence or testimony to prove someone guilty of a crime
3. Framing (social sciences) a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies, organize, perceive, and communicate about reality.
4. Framing (visual arts), a technique used to bring the focus to the subject
5. Framing (World Wide Web), a technique using multiple panes within a web page.

I woke up early this morning. At 3:40 AM (that's "3:40 ayem-in-the-morning" if you're a Hoosier) I awoke with a start. The chilling fear that I might have left 20 porcelain mugs open to the heated air of the shop last night popped me out of bed faster than the sound of a hairball retching cat.

That's fast. Abrupt, even.

So, after making coffee I've been out in the shop (turns out I did remember to cover the mugs after all) and I've been watching a series of very inspirational potter's videos -- all stirred up on a perpetual youtube playlist by initially following Cary Hulin's link to a Svend Bayer video.

Because I was watching the videos one right after the other I began to notice the framing:

Contemporary MTV-style cropped imagery that made even a plastic tub of water seem somehow as pastoral as a Millet painting.

Eerie, emotion-stirring instrumental musical accompaniment to the video imagery.

Disembodied narrative, well-rehearsed. Phrases from the canon of sayings that potters have rehearsed, repeated, and handed down from potter to potter in our family since the time I first ever touched spinning clay.

... Phrases so well-used that -- like the old joke about the comedian's convention -- we could simply attach numbers to in order to save time in the re-telling.

But I wouldn't want to save that time. I want to hear the stories. The phrases. I like to hear them told over and over and over. They are like hymns.

"Today we will be reading from Leach. Turn if you will to page 77. 'It seems reasonable to expect that beauty......"

I know the hymns. I know the stories. I still love to hear them anyway. They inspire me.

And a few contemporary creative souls are adding to that hymnbook: Dick Lehman, Tony Clennell, Tom Coleman, to name a few. Souls generous enough to take the time to explain what they're thinking as they're doing it so that I might approach what I am doing in a more inspired way.

Well, in typical fashion, I couldn't wait to interrupt myself with that rabbit trail. But back to the subject:


The videos reminded me that the framing isn't the work. (see definitions 3 and 4 above)

I remember the first time I took a pot out of the frame of its presentation and brought it home -- only to discover that I had been seduced by the frame and not the pot.

For the longest time I wondered -- beyond timing and marketing concerns -- why I didn't like to enter my pots into exhibitions with other potters. It's because in doing so I lost control of the framing. I don't like to lose that control.

Upon that self-discovery, I began to realize that it belied a lack of confidence in the work alone. If forfeiting the power of framing bothered me so much, it was a tacit admission that I thought the work inherently weak.

I don't know where that introspection has left me, but I'm forever conscious of trying (even if mostly failing) to make pots strong enough that they need neither the additional support of framing, nor the excuse of explanation.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Someone Wrote Me A Kind Letter

Thank you so much for your order, but especially for your note. At this particular time, you have no idea how much your words mean to me. 

We potters have formed quite a community over the years. Our interdependence was only made easier as I find so many of our number to be such engaging, friendly, and interesting people.

On some level I think we potters are at least vaguely aware of the anachronistic nature of our craft/art . It's a dangerous game we play to have our livelihoods tied to the production of something that folks don't actually need to buy in order to survive.

Except that they do. They do need what we make. They do need beauty.
And we hold steadfastly (if foolishly) to the conviction that the human condition requires creative input that transcends the merely functional, the merely utilitarian.

We haven't been proven wrong yet, though with each wave of change, each demographic shift, each cultural transition that brings a different vision to the fore and marginalizes another in its wake, we have our fears.

Mostly, we know that come what may, we need to be creative. We need to make objects. In that human game of juggling our need for significance and our need for security -- ever striving to keep both aloft, we always drop a ball or two.

But we pick them back up again. It's who we seem to be.