Tuesday, December 15, 2015

If You're a Real Potter, Don't Move

Casa Loma studio

Looking back at thirty-plus years of making pots, I have to admit that every time I got a new studio going it took an inordinate amount of time to restart and get back up to speed. I have had four studios: Rocky Road Pottery in Prescott, Arizona; Desert Willow Pottery in Borrego Springs, California; Desert Willow Pottery (again) in Cedar City, Utah; and Casa Loma Pottery in San Antonio, New Mexico. Let me describe them a bit.

Rocky Road Pottery: I lived in a summer cabin in Prescott, but I lived there year-round. The pottery had been a woodworker's shed, very rustic. It was eight feet across and sixteen feet long, with a concrete floor and a roof that thankfully never leaked. It had wooden but uninsulated walls, a window to gaze out from my wheel, and an 8x8 covered "porch" at the front end. Inside, I had my homemade kickwheel, an old kiln that had maybe two cubic feet of space in it, a new Crusader 5 cubic foot kiln, an old wringer washtub that I made clay in, shelves, racks, and bags and jars of chemicals. There was no heater.

Actually, the cabin only had minimal wood heat, and when the fire died down during the winter nights, there would be a skin of ice on the cat's milk bowl. INSIDE the house. I'd open the refrigerator and feel warm air coming out. My winter routine would be to get up and dressed warmly, heat water for coffee, go out to the shop and turn on the electric space heater, pick up a load of wood and come back into the cabin to start up the fire in the Ashley stove. After two and sometimes three cups of coffee I could face going out into the barely-warm-enough studio to start work. I learned that "they ain't NOTHIN' colder than the cold, cold clay, honey." Though the electric heater had warmed things up tolerably,I had to bring hot water from the house to throw with. And still my hands would get so awfully cold!

I learned that it is no good for greenware to freeze! I did enjoy the summers, though. And while I was working on pots in Prescott, I endlessly tested clays and glazes (I made my own formulations), prepared for to shows, learned how to build my own displays,went to shows,  collected sales taxes, tried to network and to find shops to carry my work, and learned to juggle utility and food bills. This was during the recession of the mid-Seventies, and many people told me they liked my work but had to feed the kids.

Aaaagh! Those were the hardest days. I was really alone, and David Stewart had told me to "go forth and pot," that he'd shown me everything I needed to know to get started on my own. That I shouldn't try to be a potter in California (I believe he thought Arkansas would be the best place but that was too far from my family for me). That I should let the rubber meet the road, and see if I really had it in me to be a potter. Well, Prescott taught me that I had guts.

But, I wasn't making it financially. I had to slink home to California, and give up the Prescott cabin, and pottery for awhile. A hiatus ensued where I got a "real" job as an advertising manager for a newspaper, followed by a short marriage, followed by a stint working at a radio telescope, then as a florist. I turned to art--my watercolor-and-inks--and spent awhile at art shows making slightly more money than I had as a potter. I believe I made money making stained glass objects and windows, too.

Then, I married Mr. Right, and he had a job that paid pretty well (met him at the radio observatory). He urged me to restart the pottery. So I claimed half of our one-car garage (which was somewhat more space than I had had at Rocky Road Pottery). All my pottery stuff that I'd dragged back from Prescott got dusted off (okay, that's a joke, because there's not much BUT dust on everything a potter owns), and began again. The setting-up part required reconfiguring a garage; shelving had to be set up the way I wanted, 220v had to get the right shape plug for the new kiln (I'd sold the Crusader, now got a new Aim kiln, again about 5 cubic feet. Had decided I would get pre-pugged clay from Aardvark instead of struggling to make my own. Needed to figure out where to put it (outside the garage under a tarp). More tests. Shrinkage tests, glaze tests--all of this has to be done since I'm now at a different altitude, I have water that's full of calcium, I have a new clay body that doesn't quite work with the old glazes.

I sat for hours in the living room, with a calculator and note paper, titrating chemical glaze formulae, substituting ingredients. Making notes, testing several new iterations of glazes each time. Making a kilnload of test pots, knowing that they all might look like crap, but that I couldn't go forward until I had good stuff. And not really able to fire a half-full kilnload for testing, because the results aren't the same.

I actually did pretty well in Borrego, with Desert Willow Pottery. I had annual shows at my house, the way Dave Stewart did; people knew me and would call me to see if they could come over to pick out, oh, a wedding gift or something. I had two local shows I was in, and two or three our-of-town shows I went to. That was busy! I must admit, I liked the heat of the desert better than the freezing cold of the mountains. I did call it quits in the summers when drops of sweat were falling off my nose down into the pots on the wheel, though. 115 degrees in the shade is just too much.

My husband's work came to an end, however, and here is the potter's dilemma: if you're a "REAL" potter, it's YOU who makes the money (such as it is). You may have a wife or helpmeet of some kind but YOU do the work. You are not a "REAL" potter if you have a partner who makes sufficient money to make what you earn look like a kid's allowance. You are not a "REAL" potter if you have to pull your studio up by its roots and move somewhere else where you will (happily) have enough money coming in by your partner but you have to start from scratch.

In certain get-togethers with other "Pond Farmers" (students of Marguerite Wildenhain who had the opportunity of attending her summer schools a her studio/school Pond Farm), I felt a slight snubbing by some potters who were smoothly living their lives with studios that were entrenched for years in the same location. I was seen as a wanna-be, I guess, because I have had multiple studios, not enough "cred" in the marketplace.

I didn't care, as I loved and still love my husband very much, and I know that whatever I did I was doing it gung-ho, and as honestly as I could. But, beware! The dilemma is real, and the choices you make are truly life-changers, in the long run.

Back to the story of my multiple studios. We found ourselves in Logan, Utah, in a house with a beautiful warm , finished basement but too darn nice to get covered with clay dust. The garage was big enough, but unheated, and Logan was gonna be colder than Prescott in winter. I decided to give up on the pottery and basically sold all my equipment and tools and supplies.

"Time passed, as time does" (quoted from the movie Enemy Mine). We moved from Logan to Cedar City, Utah. I had designed my home in Borrego, and I designed our home now in Cedar City, with a heated three-car garage, one bay of which was separate from the other two and fully loaded with built-in shelves and 220v for my new pottery. I had the design for my kickwheel in my head, and this time I asked a neighbor who was a fantastic woodworker to build it for me. He built it so stout that my every kick translated 100% into flywheel motion--there was nary a wobble or one lost erg of foot energy lost. I got a new kiln, dang if I can remember what kind, this time. It was 6-plus cubic feet this time, and now they made them with a lot thicker walls and extra insulation. By golly, they had digital controls now, too--no more getting up every hour all night long to go check on the cones! I spent bucks for that but, oh, so worth it!

Now I had warmth, I had the equipment, I had saved a few good glaze recipes and I moved forth hoping to avoid a complete reboot. There weren't many shows locally, but I started out with a first annual show/sale at my home, which was pretty nice. I guess I spent most of a year getting up to speed, and then ...

My husband lost his job. We stayed several months, thinking we could hunker down and that we had enough to "retire early" on. But, in the long run, it wasn't to be. I had built a dream home. I had my dream studio. Sigh. But (and here is wisdom), if you have married someone you really care for, their happiness is at least as important as your own. If they start showing signs of, hmmm, existential depression? Then you've got to deal with it. He could get some sort of "job" for money, but his training and love was in computers, science, physics, astronomy. He was too young to be put out to pasture, his brain still needed to engage in difficult problems. He was grinding, mentally. I suggested he look nationally for some work, and told him I'd be willing to move. Hardest dang decision, but I saw the handwriting on the wall. And I knew from living with husband number one what it was like to live with someone who was not a happy camper.

A dream job showed up, at an observatory in New Mexico. We moved, and after renting eventually found a good place to live, with an outbuilding that was the size of a two-car garage (unbelievably large space for me to pot in)! It took me a while to get over losing the dream home, but such lis life!

Now hubby was happy, and yet again I spent time fixing the shop up (adding 220, insulation, electric heaters, water supply, shelving, etc. etc.) New clay bodies to test (although by this time Laguna Clays were available here too so I had familiar clays to play with). I got a fantastic book by Hesselberth on Cone 6 glazes and how to make sure the glaze FITS the clay body. I got his glaze-making program, GlazeMaster II, which allowed me to do the titrating without hand-computation, so that I could conduct tests faster. I actually used one of his basic glazes, and tweaked it a little, instead of making up my own from scratch. It was SO much easier!

At Casa Loma (our ranchette in New Mexico) I finally got some steam up and forward progress in my pottery life. I was able to hold shows at my studio, more than once! I was able to put pots into local shops. I decided to skip shows, I was getting older and they were too tiring. And my glazes got good enough and reliable enough that I dared to think about approaching the gift shop people in the Albuquerque Airport with a "line" of simple gift ware, each stamped on the bottom with a stamp I had made saying "Handmade in New Mexico." How great was that day when the buyer and her committee looked over my work and with big smiles said to me, "we can do business!"

Now I learned what it was to make a commitment for several hundred dollars' worth (wholesale) of pots every six months. I had set it up so that I could DO it, and not overreach, but still there was the pressure that in earlier chapters you heard me eschew. I left plenty of time for myself to do just "whatever I want to" pottery and sculpture, though. I actually felt I was in a heyday, and this lasted me for a couple of years.

Then something happened, but it wasn't quite like a sudden job layoff.  Something about being done with a project, and other people around my husband getting laid off. The project was going from a research/prototype stage to a care-and-feeding stage, and it just wasn't the same. My husband was finally feeling the burnout and time-to-retire melody. We happened to drive through a nice place in Arizona on our way to my California family, and both got the distinct impression to move there.

What can I say? I guess I really must not be a "REAL" potter after all. We have been living in Arizona now for five years and I decided that their (very nice) group studio here was just not enticing enough for me. I have no place to make pots at home, and I have finally lost the driving urge to push hard against the clay. I have loved making pots, and I have loved doing lots of other things.

If you have the chance and the temperament to stay in one place for a long period of time in your life, then you may well become a renowned potter, no matter how talented (or not) you are. All of that judgmental stuff about whether your work is "good" or not is just that, after all--judgmental stuff. You do it because you want to, because you are enchanted by the clay, because you have to do it, because you are an artist, a seeker of truth, you strive to make beautiful things, because it GRABS you. Being in one place and sticking to it gives you the advantage of not having the frustration of starting over time after time. But, if you have the temperament of a nomad, or a partnership with other humans including children, your potting life will be more erratic. Have no fear, though--that life is just as fulfilling! But it's not according to the ideal pattern set by Marguerite and Dave--the noble potter grown like a tree with deep roots into the earth, ever with your eyes on the clay.

I have to end here with a deep bow to Rol Healy. Rol was a Pond Farmer, but like me, he felt he was snubbed by several in "the group." He was a gentle and very creative soul. His pots "flopped" more than he wanted (glaze chemistry was really not his thing). He made saltshakers that looked like monks, a clay umbrella stand that looked like Noah's Ark, and he loved to garden. He made lovely planters, homes for his plants. He taught English to make ends meet. About being a potter he remarked mildly, "I get up and have breakfast. Then I go outside and see which way I turn." Meaning, his studio was in one direction and the garden was in the other. I have the utmost respect for him and for his laid-back take on life and art. Potters do, after all, play with fire. A weaver can get up and leave the loom for days, without a care. So can an oil painter, or someone who knits. Potters, once they've thrown some pots, MUST tend them through their drying state or they may crack. Once the kiln is fired up, it MUST be tended to avoid failure. There is not nearly the opportunity to just walk away and have a day in the garden, or at the beach, or whatever. What I'm trying to say, I think, is that you do have to have a certain amount of "driven-ness" to be a potter, you do have to have time-commitment capability. Rol was only just on the edge of that, and I guess so was I. We did our best, and our best was just fine.

Stay put if you can, and if that's your "thing." It will help you get better-known. But if you're a nomad at heart, and still want to be a potter, I say go for it. You will have quite the adventure!

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