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.