Wednesday, October 31, 2007

New Art Sudio Tour & Show Coming Up

Hi, readers!
I've thrown the last pot of the season. Still three glaze firings to go, and I'll be ready for my show November 17. I managed to busy myself all summer with throwing pots, adding a retail store and a gallery to places my stuff is for sale at, trying to start a new website with pictures of my pottery and hopefully a way to sell them online, and starting an art studio tour in the Socorro area, which will be the day of my own show (surprise....not!)
Check this link:
I'll be back in the blogosphere in a few weeks, stay tuned...

Friday, May 25, 2007

Dave Stewart Was a Serious Potter

Dave Stewart was a serious potter. He looked like an ordinary guy--middle-aged, slightly balding. But he was supporting a wife and three kids from his craft alone, and they were getting along. He had bad teeth--discolored for years from high fluoride in the water in Deaf Smith County, Texas (and probably his cigarettes, too)--but his smile was very real and appeared on his face at the drop of a hat. He was unpretentious. He read widely--Krishnamutri's works were engaging his mind when I studied with him--and was apt to burst out with a line or two from T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" in the studio. He hated going in to town for any reason, much preferring the solitude of the back country of Dulzura in San Diego County. And he was Marguerite Wildenhain's assistant every summer at her Pond Farm Pottery workshops in Guerneville, California.

He had been planning to become a dentist, and was in college taking courses at San Diego State when he saw Martha Longenecker throwing pots on a wheel (she was a new professor of art there). He came home to his newlywed wife Nyva and told her that dentistry was out, and that he was going to become a potter. She must have been surprised; but she supported his decision as he threw himself into the abyss...

This was many years before I met him. By the time I did, his youngest girl Leslie was thirteen and he had been Marguerite's assistant for nearly twenty years, a position he did not earn until well after that first meeting with Martha Longenecker! She, by the way, continued at San Diego State for thirty-five years. And Marguerite was almost eighty already when I came on the scene.

Early in his potter's struggle he would fill up the old Ford van with boxes of pots, and go traveling up the California coast selling them to shops. He'd open up boxes right on the pavement at their back doors, and shopkeepers would buy them right there and then. He'd sleep in the van, and come home when he was out of pots. That was 'fifties and 'sixties. Boy, it was different when I hit the scene! Almost nobody bought wholesale--they were tight with cash, and wanted the artist to leave their wares--unpaid for--in their shops, and would pay a consignment fee to the artist after the work sold. The lure was this: wholesale was fifty percent, but on consignment you could often get seventy or sevent-five percent of the retail price if you waited. These weren't "shops" anymore, either--they were Galleries. Oh, my. And, sorry to say, those lousy conditions of the 'seventies have been replaced today by this--get this--the galleries will just give you FIFTY percent now, no more, AND you have to wait to get paid.

Actually, Esteban's in Sedona still buys stuff outright at wholesale prices, as they did in the 'seventies. They are an "arts and crafts store," not a gallery. But there are darn few of them out there anymore. Worthington's in Springville, Utah right outside of Zion National Park (with a TON of tourists parading through, as in Sedona) also buys wholesale. I guess if you've got megavolume of sales, it still works.

About Dave. He'd gotten past the pack-it-up-in-the-van stage, and when I met him he had an annual show at his house. His invitation list was huge, and people would arrange their vacations to include the one day a year he broke out the wine and snacks, got wife and kids all working industriously taking money and packing pots while he got to chat nonstop with folks all day. The pots overflowed his studio, and were perched on rickety tables, logs, and rocks under the giant oak trees around his place.

Oh, let me digress about "his place" a second: a nice, rich older couple who owned a "house on the hill" in Dulzura with unknown acres and acres of surrounding land liked Dave, and liked his pottery. There was a small house on their property (at the bottom of the hill) with a shed next to it--probably from the 'twenties or 'thirties. They rented it to the Stewarts for $75 a month, and had been doing so for years. Nyva had fixed it up and kept it painted, the hardwood floors polished and covered with hand-braided rag rugs. Dave had turned the shed into a shop. The garden walkways were lined with pottery shards from earlier "seconds" he'd destroyed. Porches had been turned into sleeping rooms for the kids. They'd asked about buying it, but the owner laughed and told Dave he already had the bargain of the century (can't remember their names, but the wife wrote a book about recovering from her cancer using wheat grass juice). So Dave and Nyva just kept paying their $75 a month, and counted their blessings.

After I'd studied with Dave for two years on a once-a-week basis, and had gone on to try my luck as an independent potter in Prescott, Arizona, he and Nyva had discussed an offer that came up which changed their lives a lot: in San Diego there is an "Old Town," renovated adobe buildings in the shadow of the Presidio, a Spanish fortress on a hill overlooking the magnificent San Diego Harbor (for a good description of really "old" San Diego in the mid-1800s, read Dana's "Two Years before the Mast"). Within Old Town was the "Bazaar del Mundo," a wonderful assemblage of shops and restaurants. The Bazaar's owners had a vacancy coming up in a hole-in-the-wall shop right next to the main entrance, and wanted Dave to sell his pottery there.

The Stewarts realized they really didn't have much saved for retirement--it was all day-to-day. The kids were leaving the nest soon. Danny, the oldest, was heading for Cal Poly at Pomona to study landscape architecture. Gail was soon to be married. Bottom line: they took the offer. Dave stayed home in Dulzura and made pots like crazy. Nyva, Gail, and Leslie took turns manning the shop eight hours a day, every day. It was a forty-five minute drive each way to get there. But they did it. And they did this for several years. I don't know what the rent was, but this time they could take in 100% of the retail. And, with a bloody great amount of work by the whole family, they did put aside enough for retirement. Dave finally stopped making pots a few years ago, and he and Nyva have since moved into an apartment in Imperial Beach (Dave's bald now and doing oil paintings).

For you potters out there, note one conspicuous absence: I don't know that Dave ever wasted his time going to "Arts and Crafts Fairs." With the exception of time on the road in his Ford talking directly with shopkeepers, Dave spent his time MAKING POTS, not selling them. Today, you need to shell out big bucks to go to these fairs; you need to shell out for fancy tarps and tents, and of course the big van to carry all that. Can you make money? If you man the show yourself, when do you have time to be an artist? In this arena, I can see only one option: be VERY good at pottery. Be VERY good at slicking yourself up through brochures, a list of prizes you've won, etc. Be accepted at the THE Laguna Beach six-week long summer art show! Pay a huge amount for electricity, tent, the whole shmear to be there for six weeks (including an RV to sleep in). Accept Master Card and Visa. Hire others to sit your booth. Be prepared to make the same thing that's "in" over and over again. Be of the temperament to still love yourself after tagging your work with exorbitant prices, and have a straight face when you talk your customers into believing your stuff is worth every penny. In this one instance, at this one show of shows, doing an Arts and Crafts Fair is probably worth it.

Otherwise: again, be VERY good at pottery. Go to Sedona. Go to Worthington's. Go to New York, San Francisco, maybe Atlanta. Find the places with unbelievably high traffic, and find the shops--NOT the galleries--which will buy your ware wholesale. Accept the wholesale prices: it pays to have someone else be the shopkeeper, and NOT to have your stuff on consignment, having to keep track of it all the time. Believe me, your time is worth a lot--and you'll fritter it away every moment you're not on the wheel. And how do you think you can BE a good potter if you're not constantly improving yourself on the wheel?

Today, once you've established wholesale outlets, you can ship stuff to them instead of showing up in your van. You can send them pictures via email. You can try to sell stuff via website, but something as hands-on as pottery will be difficult and time-consuming to sell--except to existing customers.

So, another "otherwise" to Art Fairs: as Dave did, sell from your own studio once a year. Be part of a studio tour or not, that's a different story. Be patient. Tell all your friends to come, make nice invitations. Keep a record of every person's name and address who ever bought a pot from you. Make it an annual event. Have refreshments. Have someone help you with the cash box and wrapping pots so you can schmooze.

IF good fortune smiles on you as it did on Dave through the Bazaar del Mundo offer, be prepared to have multiple trustworthy people helping you out. Pottery is not the high seller as it was in the 'seventies. People expect more. There can be NO LEAD in your pots--Dave worked with lead, and it wouldn't fly today. One of his students, Peter Deneen, says he works with lead and gets it tested regularly, and has no problems. This IS possible, but people are still leery and it takes time and energy to convince them. Easier to skip the lead, though some beautiful glaze possibilities will be lost to you. Your work must be flawless. You must be dedicated and tireless. But, if you can get a shop--your OWN shop--IN THE RIGHT PLACE, you can fly.

I'll talk about Dave's glazes and his forms more at another time.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Everyone Has Plan B Days

Everyone has Plan B days. It is a matter of integrity, but also--I suspect--a matter of gaining maturity, to recognize a Plan B day as such, to admit it to oneself, and to drop Plan A without irritation or embarassment.

This morning I had it all planned out, ha ha. The weather being not so good for tennis on my tennis Wednesday, I figured I'd spend a great day in the pottery making large bowls and plates. By noon, however, I had two medium-sized bowls of barely-acceptable form, three saucer-sized plates, a couple of cereal bowls and (in desperation) a reasonably good mug. Plus, several goofs that would need recycling. For me, in two hours, this is terrible work.

I packed it in. Plan A (well, maybe tennis had been the real Plan A) wasn't panning out after all. Didn't even clean up after myself, just covered the eight miserable little beggars with plastic and left the shop. Walking the quarter mile back to the house, I thought I'd scrape some more flaking paint off the front door jamb to prepare it for primer (I've been working on the same door for two years now). The damp weather was mild enough to work outside an hour or two. It would be mindless, but how could I screw up?

However, I decided to put that level of mindless labor off until this afternoon--if I've got energy left then. On a Plan B day, you should go directly back to bed, do something mindless, or try yet again to do something "satisfying" (but not as ambitious as your first objective) before the whole day is shot. I decided to blog. At the point where my aging mind hits the wall, then I'll see about scraping paint. The pattern here is to assess your limitations and re-prioritize your activities.

I still have no idea why it was such a poor day on the wheel! But, I don't have to have an explanation anymore as much as I used to. I know that a month ago I sat at the wheel and churned out eight really nice dinner plates, followed by eight really nice lunch plates. With only one goof. A remarkably good day--and I had no idea why it was such a good day, either. Actually, I had a great day on the tennis court last week, as well. Everything clicked. And I know that I will have days like that again in the future. It's taken me a lifetime to believe that, but it's true. I ain't finished off yet--there's still plenty of Plan A days to look forward to.

I'm sure both women and men have days like this--it's not just PMS. I just want to point out that, once you know you're having such a day, you can move on to Plan B and skip the raging irritation or the embarrassment or name-calling at yourself ("Idiot!" "Jerk!" and so on--yes, I know you do it, too), or the panic that you'll never be able to accomplish the good stuff ever again.

So what do you do when you've got to stick with Plan A on a Plan B day? Your boss needs the final report NOW, or the pot has been promised to be delivered on a certain day? Well, that's when you have to tough it out and perform. And it hurts to be on overdrive, yes. There's integrity, too, to keeping promises made. So yes, there are days when Plan A must not give way to Plan B--days where you've just got to suck it up and bear down hard, spend the extra time, focus, and finish the job.

But, I hate days like that, I really do! I hate that feeling of forcing. No amount of grim satisfaction at accomplishing Plan A under Plan B duress has ever made up for the loathing I have for being in that situation. And, since I've been a person all my life who frequently found I had an unexpected Plan B day on my hands, I'm someone who decided at an early age to avoid making too many plans, overcommitting my time. I prefer spontaneous days. I prefer self-employment. I do NOT do "commission work" well as a potter. Sorry, you who have nice Plan A lives, for me the threat of waking to yet another Plan B day has been quite real, pervasive, and intimidating. And, since I have been a person of some integrity, I've cut myself off from many possible futures that involve the hassles of commitment. Because I'd much rather NOT promise to do something at all, than to promise to do it and NOT come through.

So, for example: I envisioned this blog to be cohesive, chapter by chapter--full of anecdotes, to be sure, but leading to a conclusion supported by nice, well-rounded essays on pottery and artistic integrity. But what have we got here? Summer's almost here and I would rather be potting than writing. There's a two-week journey to Vancouver, BC to visit the in-laws coming up. I've had to spend extra time herding my computer through the pitfalls of a new anti-virus software, plus being the bug-reporter (on the phone for two and half HOURS) to the satellite internet provider Wildblue (seems like they had system problems that they hadn't noticed until I called).

What we have here is a "creative" attempt. It's interesting, but often tangential. Nothing will finish. I will just blog away without deadlines and without apparent direction. Perhaps I will go fix myself a cup of Rooibos tea and return when I

Saturday, April 28, 2007

What is Art?

What is art?

The questions "What is beauty?," "What is truth?," "What is good?," and "What is art?" make an appearance in high school classes, and elicit year by year the same arguments, same thoughts, and by and large the same decisions in young hearts and minds. Across cultures there are some differences, but by and large the students and their answers in every culture can be grouped into two camps:

First group: individuals who believe that beauty is related to harmony of form; truth and error are discernable to anyone with common sense and a wise heart; good and bad are likewise discernable; and art is man’s attempt to convey beauty, truth and good to others. In the USA, these folks are usually labeled idealists by their teachers and classmates. I will take a flyer here and guess that among these, many believe in a God.

Second group: people who believe that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder and therefore one man’s beauty can be another man’s ugliness; truth and error are relative, cannot be dictated, and probably cannot ever be discovered by mere common sense; good and bad are also relative and not absolute or unarguable; and that art is anything the artist feels like expressing, like it or not. In the USA, these folks are usually labeled realists and are often encouraged by teachers and peers. They are also labeled ethical relativists by some--and again, risking censure, I guess that many are agnostics or outright atheists.

So who is right?

And so what?

If you are an atheist you may glom onto the second question, mutter an expletive, and move on to another blog. Bye-bye, and thanks for stopping.

If you wonder--or care--who is right, you may be a seeker of truth, no matter what your religious stance. To you, it is important to know why you believe what you believe, and what in the world to call that meaningless (to you) and garish splash of paint others are “oohing” and “aahing” at, which occupies a prime spot in the gallery you got dragged into and carries a price tag that could get your car completely fixed AND repainted.

Is it art?

Can you read between the lines to see which camp I’m in? Art conveys beauty! But--there are meaningless-looking odd splashes of paint that are just right to convey a feeling, and if that feeling is one someone wants to permeate his living room, I say by all means, “Buy it.” Why? Because feeling is at the heart of art, whether the art is representational or not.

Now, some artists claim that getting even a feeling of revulsion looking at a work of “art” qualifies it to be called art; the piece has stimulated a gut response in the viewer and that is sufficient--the piece has done its job as artwork. I disagree: personally I think that if we're talking about feeling here, getting only a good feeling from a work of “art” qualifies it to be called art. I know many artists disagree with me, and especially those who make a lot of money selling, well, stuff that would revulse me out of my own living room.

But philosophers and non-philosophers alike have argued about beauty, truth, good and evil, and art for millennia; this debate is not new at all. The endlessness of this debate itself leads me to wonder, where do we get our opinions from? What guides us to our beliefs, anyway? And why do people believe strongly such different things? If there is a universal truth, why don't we all agree on it? Does the sheer endlessness of disagreement prove that there is not a universal truth?

When I sought answers in my youth--and yes, I was one who always wanted to know the why and how of things--I was confronted by the many differing answers that adults gave me to the same questions; and that fact led me to wonder early on: how in the world can one discern who is wise and who is “blowing smoke,” if one does not already possess some wisdom with which to measure and discern? It is the chicken-and-egg problem! But as a kid I sure wanted to be able to tell which adults were trustworthy and wise truth-tellers and which were the jerks--BEFORE I got into trouble following the advice of the jerks. Yes, I was spanked for misbehaving! Thus you may guess I had plenty of motivation to find wisdom, and quickly. And I quickly found that I "knew" the difference between trustworthy and untrustworthy information; among adults that I met, I could size up the phonies pretty fast. Adults marveled at how smart I was about that, for a kid.

When I met David Stewart, I knew he was no phony. He didn't look like an artist--no long hair, hippie beads, existentialist stance. He was, as I've mentioned before, balding, middle-aged, and a good provider for his wife and three kids. All he smoked was cigarettes! He didn't fit the mold for "artist;" but when he talked about beauty, truth, art, good and evil, he made sense. He was classic. What he said, Raphael had said, and Michelangelo, Rodin, da Vinci, and Wildenhain. When I looked at his pots, there was nothing "tweaked" about them. Dave's teapots held tea. They poured tea obediently, and without dribbling. They were well-balanced in the hand. They were not expensive. They were real teapots, meant for real people to use. They were honest. They were beautiful. Dave talked the talk, and his pots walked the walk. I believed him. I liked him. I trusted him. And I determined to learn all I could from him.

Looks like I got off the topic of "what is art?" a bit, here. But, actually, I don't suppose I can fully tell you. You may have your own already-formed certainty of truth. But, not being able to tell you does not mean that I believe art is incapable of being described (as believe the second group of individuals, see above), or that art is anything you want it to be.

Art is the expression of beauty, truth, and good. I think I will return to this topic at a later time; there is still much to express.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sand and Grog

I have had a heck of a time over the years struggling with sand and grog. Without knowing it, problems I’ve wrestled with for years such as “bumpy” clay and glazes, and ware cracking, have originated from trouble with these two clay components.

Sand is what? Tiny granules of silica, ideally. Geologically, rocks of various kinds weather down, eroded by abrasion, until small grains of the very hardest component--silica--are all that remain. Everything else the rock is made of weathers down faster and blows away or is washed away. Deposits of silica sand are mined for construction-grade use, and are sold by the bag. Beach sand has shell parts, salt, feldspar, mica, iron, and organic debris included--which can cause unwanted chemical complications. Impure beach sand should NEVER be used in making clay, even though it is a lot cheaper than silica sand.

Grog is what? Clay that has been fired once in the kiln, then crushed into fine particles. Grog can come from low-fired clay--such as bricks (sweepings from brick factory floors is occasionally bagged and sold cheaply as grog)--or higher-fired clay. Grog can be ground and sieved carefully and sold by size of particle. Grog can be red (as in brick grog), tan, or white.

What does sand or grog do to clay? Either sand or grog are added to clay to separate the platelike clay particles from each other. Mechanically, the rounded and rough clay or grog particles keep the flat and smooth plates of clay from sticking together. The result is twofold: a clay body with sand or grog added will dry out faster than a clay body without sand or grog, because water can exit more easily (think: pure sand in the garden drains water very fast while pure clay retains water a long time. Mixing the two gives you something in between). Secondly, adding sand or grog makes the clay body more able to “stand up:” higher pot walls can be thrown without collapse, therefore larger pieces can be created. Sculpting clay has a great amount of sand and coarse grog added. The reason sand and grog allow greater strength in clay walls escapes me, but thus it is.

What’s the difference between using sand and using grog?

Anyone reading this who'd like to fill me in, please add a comment. I am still not sure, beyond my understanding that grog absorbs water and sand does not. But I've had a bad experience with sand, and so now I prefer grog (fine gog). Here's the story:

I used to make up my own clay bodies from scratch. Without the addition of either sand or grog, my large pieces would inevitably warp or crack. I tried adding whatever I could get cheaply, but I would get new problems, without understanding that my choices came with prices. Sand (and large-size grog) abrades my hands and wears my fingernails to the quick. Though grog is more expensive, it is available in SMALLER particle size than sand does, and it still does the job of “opening” a clay body. Now I know that I can avoid the price of raw hands from the abrasion of sand, by adding very fine grog instead: I get the “open” clay, and increased pot wall height, without the abrasion.

I decided to buy clay ready-made from a supplier. It's not that expensive (clay is, after all, "dirt cheap"). Years ago I decided this was altogether a better solution for me than mixing my own. Some potters get very excited about digging their own clay, and preparing it; but for me it was too much exhausting work, and I finally gave in to buying it ready-made.

However, I encountered another hellish problem for years, and only recently found out that bagged clay was not infallible. Through two competitors giving me information, I heard that the maker of my favorite clay body was adding beach sand instead of more expensive silica sand to their proprietary mix. Not good! I would have smooth, very smooth bisque ware, but then discover after the final firing that my clay was now mysteriously bumpy. These rough bumps were quite noticeable on the unglazed undersides of my pots, but also made my should-have-been-smooth glazes intolerably bumpy as well. After looking at the clay with a 10x loupe magnifier I discovered bubbly whitish “zits” to be the culprit--and it was explained to me that these were feldspar blemishes caused by impurities in the sand.

When I switched manufacturers, the zit problem disappeared; my naked clay is now smooth and the glazes are smooth as they should be. I must assume that impure beach sand indeed was being added to that commercial clay body. But finally! I've got clay that stays porcelain-smooth through cone 6, yet has enough "tooth" due to the addition of fine grog to hold up in nice, thin walls rather than collapse.

When I want to make the occasional larger piece, I've got a supply of fine white grog in my studio--I just throw a handful on the wedging table and wedge it in to that chunk of clay I'll be using to make the larger piece. The glaze still fits, everything's still smooth, no cracking or warping. Bingo!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pot Aesthetics

What I find desirable in a pot is its ability to snuggle happily in my hand. That’s anthropomorphism, of course, but since my pots are a lot like children to me, you’ll forgive me. What makes a pot “right” is very elusive, and it’s taken me years to get my mind around it. Marguerite used to talk about pots that “sang”--I believe she was describing a similar “rightness” about certain pots. Here are insights clarifying this desirability, this feeling of rightness, happiness, singing, tactile satisfaction, contentment in holding a snuggler:

A pot that is too heavy for its size doesn’t feel right to me--it feels dead. This judgment of correct weight comes from semi-consciously assessing what volume ought to be contained inside a pot’s “skin,” I suppose, based on hefting many pots. I don’t care to hold onto dead pots very long.

A pot that feels too light for its size (a rare occurrence) makes me assume it is fragile, and that I must be careful with it--which makes me less confident holding it--and I’ll soon put it down. I believe pots are meant to be held, not just looked at; and many of my customers approach my pots hesitantly until I tell them it’s part of the process of finding the pot they want. Once encouraged, customers are very happy to pick up pieces and heft them, caress them, turn them upside down, get to know them better. It helps if they have the proper weight.

A pot whose dimensions, proportion, shape, or outline is not pleasing (“bad form” as Dave Stewart referred to it), doesn’t seem right either. My eyes will not rest easy on such a pot--they “fret,” and keep sweeping over the pot, repeatedly getting stuck on the visual error. There are pots too fat, too skinny, too saggy, too tired, too exaggerated. Pots must stand with poise, grace, and confidence. Curves must not be hesitant; they must be bold--yet not overstated. The balance which creates good form is VERY difficult to see--and to achieve.

A pot with decoration--texture or color--placed too low, looks like a man with his pants ready to fall down. A pot decorated too high is not as bad, for some reason. A pot with too much decoration is garish, like an overdressed woman--especially if the form is bad as well! But a well-balanced form can do well entirely devoid of decoration--again, much as a well-proportioned human looks good stark naked.

Tactile pleasure in holding a pot is very important to me: a warm mug cupped in both hands feels vaguely like a baby’s bottom. If the clay is smooth, and the glaze is matte (not shiny), the feeling is like bare skin. If the glaze is glossy, the feeling is as though the baby’s bottom is swaddled in silk.

When one stirs the liquid in a mug, or moves a fork across a plate, there should be no grating sound! Some clay is inherently far too rough and should never be used for ware seeing everyday use--though rough clay has its place in sculpture.

Another thing I look for in a “good” pot--a bowl, especially--when I flick the rim with my finger, it should ring like a bell. A cracked pot or one whose glaze does not fit right will sound dull. Pots that ring melodiously are special to me--it’s a secret treat they reserve just for me and other finger-flickin’ pot ringers.

What makes the nicest glaze differs with each potter, and the personal preferences I have are strictly my own. I have always enjoyed picking up rounded river rocks of various colors. Not the highly polished ones you can buy in tourist shops, but smooth matte pebbles from a river bank or a beach. I believe that one reason I loved Dave Stewart’s dark red matte glaze with black speckles at first sight is because it reminded me of river rocks--jasper, maybe. His pots looked as though they were carved from jasper. Maybe the “stone look” makes a pot look more indestructible and timeless to me, I don’t know--I’m on very intuitive ground here--but the glaze I now prize as my best creation is a smooth, semimatte turquoise with black speckles--it looks like turquoise granite, and I love to look at it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Right Tools Make the Job Easy

I learned to ski in the late ‘60s on rented wooden skis with cable bindings and square-toed lace-up boots. The first skis I owned were metal and longer than my arm’s reach above me; my boots were still lace-ups, and I skied for years with that system. Eventually I rented new, short skis and step-in boots--and discovered that miraculously I could parallel beautifully and go down difficult slopes with ease. Wow! The lesson I learned that day? THE RIGHT TOOLS MAKE THE JOB EASY.

But a second, hidden lesson also lay behind my newfound ease in skiing: IF THE JOB CHANGES, THE OLD TOOLS MAY NOT STILL BE THE RIGHT TOOLS. In powder snow on ungroomed trails, long skis buoy you up by virtue of having more surface area--better than short skis. But short skis make it a heck of a lot easier navigating modern, mogul-ridden, well-packed, steep slopes. As packing more people onto a smaller skiing surface area became ever more profitable for ski resorts, skiing changed (surprise!) from traversing or “cross-country” to downhill; and the tools changed to manage the new job better. Skis got shorter.

The potter’s wheel is an ancient tool; and though there are many variants in many lands the basic kickwheel hasn’t changed much. However, the “job” of pottery has changed significantly, so--is the old tool still the right tool for the new job? Today, if you want a utility mug or bowl or cheap dinner set you can go to a superstore and get mass-produced stuff, for pocket change. No studio potter can compete with that! Like the local cobbler, blacksmith, and tailor, the potter who once made containers for the local villagers is obsolete. The rise of the electric potter’s wheel reflects an attempt to “stay viable” in the craft. Is an electric wheel the right wheel for the job now?

That depends on what the new job of potters is. Since making a living selling the neighbors their dinner sets is gone, potters have turned in one of two directions. On one hand, they gear up to make vast quantities of pots--”production pottery”--which they sell at low piece-rates, often to others who resell their wares (since these potters are so busy throwing and firing, they have no time to run their own storefronts, too). Some potters do well becoming part of this mass-production drive, staying ahead of Wal-Mart by adding some little signature “extra” that costs little time to throw in, and gives them brand recognition.

On the other hand some potters knock at the tightly-closed doors of the art world. They create fewer pieces--because more of their time is spent selling themselves and their work in the ferocious arena of art galleries--but often, these pieces are more outrageous, less functional, more dependent on the “look” of glazes, more dependent on fashion (“Sorry, but I can’t sell brown pots anymore; bring me mauve ones this year and we’ll talk”) than traditional pots. These potters worry about their portfolios and resumes; they fight endlessly to get their work shown in glossy magazines and in the “best” galleries.

Now, you may detect that I dislike both of these alternatives. I do, and I’ll explain what’s happened to me in another chapter. As for the electric wheel being better than a kickwheel for the potter of the new age, consider: the electric wheel allows the potter to make more pots in less time; it saves his energy kicking, so (theoretically) he can spend longer hours sitting at the wheel making more pots. In addition, the electric wheel also allows one to make larger pots more easily--and for the art world, the larger the better (rich people have huge houses, and a six-foot pot in the foyer is just right). So far, both directions of the new age of pottery are well-served by the new tool.

But electric wheels are costly. I made my first kickwheel with $75--for lumber, a maple cheeseboard wheel head, a steel wheel shaft, and Volkswagen wheel bearings to spin the plywood flywheel and the wheel head. At the time, an electric wheel cost more than $300--cash I didn’t have.

Instead of removing each piece from a wooden wheel head after it’s thrown--a process requiring delicate touch--an electric wheel sports a metal wheel head. This head doesn’t warp over time, but is murder on the fingernails and the sides of your hands--so it requires a flat wooden or plaster disc called a “bat” to be anchored to the metal head; the pot is thrown on the bat instead, and then the whole bat-with-pot is removed to dry. Less requirement for finesse in removing the piece. More room needed in the potter’s studio for the bats to sit side by side while drying, and for storing them between uses. More money required to buy the bats in the first place. More money must be charged the customer, to cover costs of the larger studio and the “necessary” equipment.

Pueblo Indians reading this must be laughing their heads off by now. They use no wheel, no fancy glaze, no fancy kilns. Their work is slow, patient, and lovely. Almost as nice as the museum pieces of their forefathers...

Electric wheels make a constant annoying hum. The studio must have electricity to run them. These wheels force you to sit, unmoving, in one position for hours (kickwheels force you to exercise, breathe, and to sit back occasionally to take a good look at your work). Dave Stewart said he could spend more time sitting on a kickwheel, enjoying his work, than he ever could on an electric wheel. He felt “machine-ized” by the electric wheel, and they made his back ache and his ass fall asleep. He liked the "flow" of work on a kickwheel. And I agree with him very much.

If you want to compete with the mass-production pottery industry, then by all means an electric wheel is the way to go; but expect dehumanization by your tool as well as by your goal. If you want to compete in the “art” world by throwing huge vessels, an electric wheel will require less strength in your legs and possibly less throwing time on your part. It’s a firm “maybe.” If you work in a noisy environment, you won’t appreciate a kickwheel anyway.

But if you want to hear the birds, think about what you’re doing as you’re doing it, oxygenate your lungs while you work, and feel the satisfaction of tiredness at the end of a working day, then a kickwheel is for you.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Clay is Frustrating

Clay is frustrating. All my big ideas, my great plans for how a pot will turn out, hinge on so many little details of execution, that only in my later years have I made what I have imagined actually come to pass predictably. Pottery requires discipline and attention to details. I am primarily a “big idea” person, a visual-spatial learner, one for whom generating fresh ideas is no problem at all, but for whom the execution is tough, keeping track of sequential details is boring, and finishing projects is never easy.

But this is not strictly my fault! It is also a result of the inherent difficulty of the craft. Clay responds to the laws of physics and chemistry, and makes exceptions for no one. Only my determination to try, try again has led me past seemingly endless disappointments.

Anyone who has watched a potter throw on the wheel knows how easy it looks--it’s like watching gymnasts in the Olympics. But the reality behind the wheel demo is “practice, practice, and more practice.” Not just practice in throwing pots: good pots appearing on the wheel also require a good clay “body”--the composition of the clay lump itself--as well as proper aging of the clay, wedging, a stable wheel to throw on, and probably a dozen other details. Then, too, the clay must dry right, and survive a first or “bisque” firing; the application of glaze must be consistent and correct (not too thick or too thin); the clay body and the glaze must match in expansion coefficients; and all must culminate in a good firing (not too hot or too cold, too fast or too slow). All these areas require meticulous note-taking, and years of practice before they all “sing together” (as Marguerite Wildenhain would say).

Too many students exposed to pottery classes in college think that in a semester or two, working a few hours a week, they will be able to master clay. This United States assumption was one of Marguerite’s pet peeves: in Europe (and probably Asia as well, although I am not certain), it was expected that seven years of full-time effort could turn a novice--with talent and determination--into a Journeyman, who could then branch out on his own and eventually attain Master recognition. When Marguerite trained with Max Krehan at the Bauhaus in Germany, she and six other pottery students were not allowed to show or sell any of their work for two years at least.

When I studied with Marguerite, her students were not allowed to keep ANY of their work during the six week course; in fact, we didn’t fire a single piece--we focused only on throwing. Without true perspective on how hard this craft is, would-be students of pottery in college become completely discouraged at what they think is their own failure. And they stop right there, and see no way to get to their dream.

This state of affairs is a shame, and I know of very few places in this country which really take pottery seriously enough to provide adequate support and training in the craft. All the good potters I know have gray hair! Where are the kids, the young adults, who want to risk all to become excellent in an “outdated” craft? I think college pottery classes have been killing their dreams. There are exceptions, but too few.

Is apprenticeship the answer? Many people have asked me to teach them how to make pots. I have responded by asking them if they just want a private demo, or if they want to “take home something” that they’ve made, or if they really want to become potters. So far, none have really wanted to become potters. Dave Stewart saw that I really wanted to make pots. He taught me at his home once a week, and let me pick up what was useful out of college classes on the side. I would do the same for some younger person--but so far, I have taught no one.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


It was the smell of something that connected me for a moment with my entire life. Something familiar. Something without a name, but with a strong feeling of belonging on the planet. Perhaps the smell had to do with lying in the dirt under a pepper tree as a kid, listening absently to birdsong and digging little roads for my brother’s toy cars to travel. Or maybe it was something else--but at this moment of smell-recall, I relaxed completely and a smile broke out on my face.

I was home.

In the flat hot light
Of a cloudless noon,
Desert distance is

But bright clouds in cerulean skies
Casting shadow-dotted distances,
Illuminate desert vastness.

So too with sound:
The desert quietude
Enshrouds tightly;
But distant bird song
Rips its fabric, freeing
A deeper vastness of silence.

Wonderful, those moments of clarity, of feeling like I'm home! Smells bring these moments on--and so does birdsong, occasionally. I want to write a bit about how I've begun to attain more clarity, felt at home for longer stretches of time. But first, I need to contrast clarity with how I have usually felt in my life:

“I used to think I was indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.”

As far back as I can recall there have been times of self-doubt, sometimes in very long stretches. A psychologist would doubtless try to analyze what caused this self-doubt: was it my father leaving when I was a month old? Was it my mother’s loneliness and alcoholism? Was it the unremitting pain of congenital skin lesions (caused by incontinentia pigmenti) that plagued me for the first three months of my life?

It might as well have started with that first spank on the butt to get me to breathe--I actually don’t think it matters what “caused” the condition, if anything “caused” it at all. Temperament comes with us, from a time before this life: some babies are cranky and grow up to be cranky adults, while others smile and coo contentedly and remain sanguine their entire lives. I was (and still am) colicky, sensitive to stimuli, perceptive, and optimistic. I may also have been born with self-doubt! Be all this as it may, self-doubt has been an integral part of my mortal landscape, and understanding that it’s just a piece of the fabric of my being is more helpful than knowing where it came from.

Now, wrestling with self-doubt has been and still is my greatest mortal challenge. Knowing what I can control and what I cannot is my second-greatest challenge.

. . .

Clothing challenges of the self-doubting (women, perk up; this will sound familiar):

1. Milo Predonovitch called me up to go to a movie. I had met him while rockclimbing with Linda Crabtree at Lunch Rock near Tahquitz peak, felt at ease with him, and had given him my phone number despite much giggling from Linda. I recall spending about two hours staring at my closet wondering what to wear on a warm summer’s evening. I decided on a white button-down shirt, with rolled sleeves, worn untucked over madras bermuda shorts. Probably I wore penny loafers without socks. I was clean, my long hair brushed, my legs shaved. I was sixteen, a senior in high school.

Milo, who lived two hours away in Manhattan Beach, came for me, got introduced to my parents, and took me out to the Loma theater in Point Loma to watch “The Sound of Music.” He wasn’t exactly wearing a suit, but he was more dressed up than I was, and the moment we looked at each other, I knew I should have chosen a dress! I felt embarrassed and ill at ease all evening. Probably he did, too. It was my first and last date with Milo.

2. The summer before that senior year, I had spent five weeks at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California, with a group of other kids from around the country in a National Science Foundation summer school. I’d bought a red sweatshirt with the Humboldt State logo on the front, and paraded it--like everyone else there--inside out. It was the thing to do. But when I wore it to Grossmont High that Fall--nicely, over a white, mandatorily-knee-length skirt, I discovered that NO ONE ELSE wore sweatshirts at school, let alone inside out. I was stared at. I was mortified. I changed it during break to right-side-out, but it didn’t help. I felt completely outcast--as usual.

3. Sometime in my junior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I saw a cute minidress on sale and bought it on a whim. It was made of that old double-knit polyester, a thick fabric with the unflattering drape of neoprene. It was also bright Kelly green. I had no accessories to match, as green is NOT my color. I wore it once, maybe twice. Again, the stares of others (real or imagined) made me feel ill at ease, a complete nerd.

I’ve always enjoyed wearing jeans and a tee shirt, however, with maybe a loose big shirt over the top with rolled-up sleeves. I feel comfortable in that style. I feel like I can be myself around others. Nobody's staring at my assets. But so many times I have made wrong clothing choices, not believing in myself, buying and wearing clothes that I think others would like to see me in, instead of the ones I want to be in. There are of course times when more formal attire is appropriate, and even there, I KNOW what looks good on me and what doesn’t--yet I have often “bought against my better judgment.” I feel uncomfortable in the outfit, and thus it winds up unchosen and unworn in my closet--representing a waste of money and a hanger upon which COULD be hanging something better instead.

So how do I know what is right for me? That feeling of comfort, and of feeling that I can be “me,” is the guide. Looking in the mirror when I'm wearing something RIGHT, there is a moment of "being home," like when I smell the familiar smells, or hear the silence and peace of the desert. I can be me. I smile. The problem is that I have so rarely felt the feeling of “me” that I barely recognize it when it does pop up. The old joke about the guy who was asked why he kept banging his head with a hammer comes to mind--he answered, “Because it feels so good when I stop!" If he'd just quit with the hammer thing, he might eventually discover that his head can feel good WITHOUT the freakin' self-abuse...

If I spend so much time dressing the way I think would please others, I never get enough instances of “me” feeling to recognize it--NOR do I build any momentum to get to the next step, which is saying, “Hey, I like how this feels and I want to spend more time feeling comfortable. I think I’ll buy more clothes that make me feel like myself.”

These examples of clothing angst show just one way I've felt uncomfortable on the planet. Realizing that I am the one making choices that result in discomfort, and that I can feel better if I can just make different choices, are the first steps I took in becoming more at home, more relaxed. Then, the more time I spent feeling comfortable, the more I noticed when I DIDN'T feel comfortable. The more I noticed my discomforts, the more I thought about them. The more I thought about them, the more ideas I got about how I could change things.

All this sounds simple, but it has taken years for me to figure out.

This really does have something to do with my pottery, by the way: an artist who "isn't herself" can hardly be expected to create original art! She will only copy those around her. In the same way that I have broken through the fashion barrier to create my own style in clothing that I wear, I have finally been able to break through an art-fashion barrier too--and I now make what I want to, what comes from within, what makes me smile.

I am home.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Meeting Dave Stewart

I can’t remember if I saw Dave Stewart’s pottery first, or met him at Mom’s pool party first. I know that when I saw and hefted his work the light went on in my head--“Aha,” I said to myself, “pottery doesn’t always have to be heavy, shapeless, and uninviting to touch!” It was 1975, and most of the hippie rush to be creative had resulted in a glut of crap (this sentence is written in hindsight, of course: at the time, I thought what was on the market was the best a potter could do). But every Stewart pot I saw was in the “Ooh and Ahh” class.

The first time I met Dave, I thought “This man is a regular guy--he doesn’t look like or act like an ’Artiste’ at all.” He was friendly, down to earth, appreciated Mom’s ribald jokes, took an interest in my words, and wasn’t bent on impressing everyone with his status as a master potter. He was middle-aged and slightly bald, had a wife and three kids and was supporting them entirely from his pottery. His son Danny, who was in Mom’s geography class at school, was with us in the pool, too; and Mom, my brother Paul, and I had boisterous fun with Danny and Dave--making waves, splashing each other, and having a good time. Completely unpretentious, both Dave and Danny. Comfortable, bright folks. I liked them.

That evening, Mom excitedly told me that Dave had offered to teach me pottery once a week at his studio in Dulzura. Wow! I couldn’t believe it--until I confirmed it with him myself. I thought it would be great adventure. I didn’t realize, at the age of twenty-five, that this invitation would redefine my future. Nor did I realize at the time that Dave had already spent over twenty years as Marguerite Wildenhain’s assistant at her annual summer pottery workshops in Guerneville, California, nor that he had never before taken on a student of his own.

Let me backtrack: at a very early age I began drawing people. Mom claimed that at the age of eighteen months I had drawn Daddy--merely a wiggly line with an ovoid head and an arm and a leg or two--but I identified it as Daddy and it sure looked intentional, and somewhat representational. Soon afterwards came “kitty on the fence,” which is still in my trunk of early work somewhere (seventy-five pounds of early work that Mom lovingly kept).

I continued to scribble through early art lessons and public school, learning along the way how to do watercolors and oils, what the color wheel was, and how to get an A in art class by doing whatever the teacher wanted to see. At home I scribbled the way I always did--a single line, maybe two, showing the general gist of a person, sometimes just an arm, just a face--always with character overpowering the line. I still draw this way; I don’t bother with shading or color, I don’t take the pencil off the paper much, I am finished in a matter of seconds. The people are in my head, and as the pencil or pen moves along, I see at the time where I need to go next. When I’m done, THEN I discover whom I’ve created. Suave liars, pompous teachers, perplexed girls, bird men, doglike idiots.

In my ’teens I contemplated my future, and decided: 1. I don’t want to live off a husband--I’d rather be unbeholden financially to my true love, so I need to make a living myself. 2. I don’t want to ruin my love of art by forcing myself to make money at it. 3. I’d better go into science for a living (my family is full of engineers and doctors, and I’m fairly bright at math and science too), and leave art for fun. 4. I never want to wake up to an alarm clock and be in the 9-to-5 rat race, so I’ll go into research.

Based on this soberly idealistic analysis I started college, switched majors from German to Psychology, and wound up at the age of twenty-four with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psych. After doing my internship, dissertation, and ten months of postdoc at a prison for drug addicts, I burnt out, depressed. I bought a one-way ticket to Hawaii and spent my time hanging out on the beaches, contemplating what the hell I was to do, since I felt awful being who I was.

Eventually, I found that I really missed reading, learning, being with other thinkers, and doing creative stuff with my hands. Watching sunrises and sunsets every day got old. After five months, I realized that I couldn’t split myself after all: I couldn’t work in science all day and save art for evenings and weekends. I was an artist, twenty-four hours a day, and that had never changed since I was born. No matter what I “did” for a living, I would always “be” an artist. “Art” is after all a way of life, a state of being--a calling if you will--and not an occupation, a job, or a profession. If I had to forego a life doing psych research or being a shrink (and the money that went with it) so be it. I was done with psychology.

I returned to San Diego resolved to make a living at pottery: pottery too, was art of a sort, but somewhat more tangible and (hopefully) saleable than drawing or painting. I enrolled in a pottery class at Palomar Community College and started in earnest to learn a craft I’d been exposed to before throughout the years. I had six thousand dollars saved, and thought I could last two years on it before I had to make a living as a potter. It was during this time that Fate brought me under the wing of David Stewart, master potter.

Clay is Strange Stuff

Clay is strange stuff. It is not mud, dirt, or silt. As gardeners know, clay takes a long time to saturate, and when it finally does, it is not something fun to step in. Clay also takes a long time to dry out, and when it finally does, it is not something fun to shovel.

Clay will hold shapes, while dirt or sand will not. Detectives in novels race the clock to analyze footprints in sand, but they can take their time if their quarry walked on clayey soil. Children know that clay is much better for making mud pies than is typical dirt. At the beach, damp sand is great for sand castle, but when it dries out (if the tide lets it survive that long), the castle collapses. However, a castle of clay will remain standing long after it has dried out. Even the wind won’t blow it down. Why? What makes clay different from dirt or sand?

The potter’s answer lies in the fact that the shape of the clay particle is flat—as mica is flat—whereas the shape of even the finest particle of the finest silt is round. This elongated flatness creates a slight electrical attraction between clay particles, causing them to tend to stick together. When water molecules do manage to squeeze in between the clay molecules (which takes them a long time), they get caught in the attraction and tend to stay put. Hence, the long time in the garden for clay to absorb water, and the long time for clay to give it up again. And hence the characteristic “stickiness” of clay: if you ever wet-mounted glass slides in biology class, you know those long, flat plates of glass stick together using nothing but water as “glue.” Or, if you ever tried using chopsticks to pry half an almond (flat side down and covered with sauce) off your plate, you know firsthand that wet flat things stick together!

This is the same property present in clay, that makes it more sticky than dirt. This stickiness or adhesion is what allows walls of clay to stand up tall, too—–enabling a potter to create a tall vase (or a small castle).

When I was learning the potter’s craft, I had to learn how to properly “wedge” clay. Wedging means taking a softball-to-cantaloupe-sized lump of the stuff and pushing on it with the hands in a rotating motion—VERY much like kneading dough for bread. Wedging continues until a “done” state is reached (and, as with kneading, it’s tough to know the feel of “doneness” except by experience). I understood years ago that wedging was supposed to eliminate air bubbles, which cause annoying problems in throwing clay and disastrous explosions in firing clay. Wedging tables have a taut wire strung next to the table where potters can periodically slice their lumps of clay during the wedging process to inspect a cross-section of the lump for internal air bubbles. (Actually the wire is used primarily for injuring the less-than-alert potter’s fingers, rendering further pottery work impossible until the wound heals. Eventually, I learned to avoid the wedging table altogether, using other surfaces for wedging. I don’t even own a wedging table today).

Twenty years later I learned about the flatness of clay particles, and the electrical charge thing. I found out that the purpose of wedging is really to align clay particles. The motion of forcing the clay around and around in a spiral imparts a spiral alignment to the lump. Thus—air bubbles lacking in each case—a wedged lump of clay throws better on the wheel than an unaligned, unwedged lump of clay; the circular motion of the throwing teams up with the alignment of wedged clay to build taller, stronger, thinner clay walls on the wheel than is possible with unwedged clay. More alignment. More adhesion. Nicer, thinner pot walls. Happier potter.

“Ageing” clay also makes sense to me now. Aged clay throws better than new clay. Oriental potters of long ago knew this fact, mysterious though it seemed. Now I know that the longer clay gets to age in its wet state, the more time is available for those flat little plates to align themselves in the lump. And they do align themselves! Thus, aged wedged clay throws better than newly processed wedged clay. Learning about the properties of clay particles has helped me--an artistically-gifted anomaly in an extended family of engineers and doctors--better appreciate what I can and can’t make clay do. I can daydream all day long about making large and sturdy--but lightweight--water pitchers (much easier to heft than heavy pitchers), but when it comes to throwing time, I’d better make sure my clay is aged and well-wedged, so I can make those walls go up tall and thin without collapsing. All those clay platelets are holding hands, singing together. I’ve helped them “do their thing.”

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Preface to "Clay in the Potter's Hands"

"Clay in the Potter's Hands" is a series of essays, which will appear here more or less weekly except during the summer when I am busy making pots. These essays will alternately share this potter's practical insights and tips on the mastery of the craft, and let you see into her mind as she chronicles her life's struggle with the concept of ARTISTIC INTEGRITY.