Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Coincidence or Destiny?

Sometimes a series of events that are so inter-related occur in such a short period of time that it seems  like the Universe is speaking to us. Sometimes the message needs repeating 4 or 5 times to get our attention or to make sure we are listening. Within the past 2 months I have received those messages so loud and clear, I have no choice but to respond by taking action!

In August a dear friend asked me to make a set of baking dishes for a special event. The order was for a small casserole suited for a newlywed couple, a larger one for the brides parents, and an open long dish for baking.
Custom set of oven ware
While I was working on this commission,  I was reminded of how enjoyable it is to produce solid, well crafted functional pottery, and why I learned to work in clay in the first place. What joy I felt in producing three coordinated pieces with well fitting lids and decorative but functional handles.

A month or two before the casserole project information about a Potters Council workshop landed in my email box. Feeling for some time that I needed to trump up my skills in forming and surface decoration, I registered for the workshop and marked my calendar. More about the workshop later, but I mention it because it may have been the first in this series of messages from the great beyond.

My third synchronicity happened in the form of a conversation I had with one young potter Jordan Meyers. Jordan participated in our Open Studio Tour this year, and snagged a commission to make 90 cider tasting mugs for the "Cider Swig" event. At the event, he and I engaged in a congenial conversation about our common interest in functional pottery- agreeing that people will always need bowls and plates and mugs- so why not well made, hand made? Looking over Jodan's beautifully executed work, I silently committed to doing more thrown, functional pottery- I longed to get back to my roots.

The next message came in the form of a notice on a list-serve I subscribe to, for a talk by one Nora Vaillant. An American living in Canada, trained as an anthropologist, but a working potter for 20 years. Nora's subject was "On the Road with John Reeve's", someone I had never heard of- but the lead-in for the talk mentioned an overview of the Leach/Hamada ttradition in studio pottery

Warren MacKenzie
Bernard Leach. The farther of modern Studio pottery
  When I enrolled in a college level ceramics program in the early 70's, the American Studio Pottery movement was alive and strong. It carries an ethos that work should be well crafted, functional, and pleasing to the eye. My early training taught me "form follows function"- what good is a tea-pot that doesn't pour properly? Or a mug that isn't pleasing on the lips? Or a pitcher that is too heavy to lift and is unbalanced? My instructor, Bob Lundeen insisted on fine craftsmanship, teaching us how to trim foot rims and burnish bottoms and to be mindful of glaze applications.
Shoji Hamada
 Ms. Vaillant showed a bevy of slides of work by Reeves, Leach and Hamada. Reeves served as an apprentice at the Leach Pottery in St Ive's, England.He also became a life-long friend of Warren MacKenzie- another Leach apprentice in the 1950's. On our drive home from the talk, I told hubby that I had an epiphany- I had lost my way in my desire to be a good studio potter, and I was returning to my roots- ASAP!

Meanwhile, I had received an invitation to lunch at at friend's home to see her newly acquired set of beautiful hand thrown porcelain dinnerware. She was looking for some help in identifying it, and and I offered to take a look at it. When I picked up the first piece, I was so touched by that studio potter ethic shining through it. The potters signature on the bottom said "Leah".
With a little effort, my friend was able to identify the potter as Leah Boehm,  http://leahboehm.com/pottery.htmhttp://leahboehm.com/pottery.htm and she lives not far from here, in Federal Way. She also learned her ceramics skills at the college level in the 70's- the same as I!  We have exchanged a couple emails and talked on the phone. Next week I am going to visit her in her studio and in January take a few classes from her to top up my technical skills. 

NOW! Back to the workshop!
Attending this wonderful 2 day intense workshop hosted by Georgies in Portland, was just the push I needed to get back to my roots. Each of the four very skilled potters who demonstrated had new ideas for me on how to express my own voice in my pottery. I was reminded of skills and techniques I have forgotten over the years, and learned many new ones. 
Watching Randy and Jan MacKeachie Johnston pass the talking stick back and forth all day Saturday, left me with an intense emotion of the positivity in ones life that working with clay can bring. Randy shared how making templates for certain shapes can offer uniformity between pieces, and support during the drying process. He also discussed yunomi's, or Japanese tea cups, and the tradition and making of same- I plan to do a series.
 Jan's natural approach to appreciating the fluidity of our medium reminded me to allow the clay to appear soft and supple in the finished work. Her folded baskets, inspired by native birch baskets, and her handled baskets are a thing of beauty. Jan's strap handles set off a lightbulb in my head as a way to enhance my hanging birdbaths as well as my little relish dishes. Their six hour demonstration ( three hours in the morning, and three in the afternoon) was filled with joy and laughter and affection for each other, as well as for all of us in their audience.
Sunday was divided into two separate workshops- in the morning  we spent three hours with Sarah Pike, and in the afternoon with Martina Lantin. 
Sweet Sarah Pike makes pottery as lovely as she is. Her pieces are clean, well thought out, and precise. Sarah has given much thought to efficiency in her practice out of necessity to balance her busy life with her art. Sarah lives on a cattle ranch in Canada, and is very connected to the natural and aesthetic world around her. Her teapots are reminiscent of an old oil can, and she often decorates her pottery  with images from nature. 
Sarah demonstrated her technique for making multiple slab cups by setting up a production process. She rolls her slabs by hand, measures and cuts carefully, stamps her designs, and allows the strips to firm up a little on cement board. The use of cement board in the studio is a revelation to me... Home Depot- here I come! Her teapots retire 23 separate pieces- talk about commitment to a process! 
Sarah develops her own glazes, works in cone 6 clay and fires in an electric kiln. 


Martina Lantin comes from a background of production pottery, where making multiples of one item over and over again, exactly the same, was the order of the day. When she moved into doing her own work, Martina developed techniques for making her work her own in an organic, hand made evident, sort of way. She demonstrated a couple techniques I have never thought of nor seen done previously. 
First, Martina threw a cup on the wheel- typical enough- but THEN! she cut it off it's base, removed the cylinder to a bat, and sliced down the side. The next step was to reconnect the side, producing an evident seam, enlarge the base remaining on the wheel slightly, and set the cup back on it. Making sure the two pieces were firmly attached, she then cut the whole thing off and set it aside, allowing it to dry sufficiently before cleaning it up a little and attaching a handle. The result is a soft, fluid feel that makes you want to pick the cup up and hold it.
Martina also demonstrated making a bowl with an altered rim, by cutting the rim off, laying it aside, and reattaching it. Fabulous look. But the thing about her demonstration that jiggled my brain the most was her use of paper stencils and masks to decorate her pottery, using slips, stains and underglazes. I am still thinking this whole process through and figuring out how I may apply it to my work.  

Each of the four potters stressed three major points in their demos:
1. Be generous with your clay so you will have enough to work with in the forming, trimming and finishing stages of your piece.
2. Give your piece "air" and "volume", being ever cognizant of the space inside  of it as well as the aesthetic of the surface.
3. Allow your work to express your own voice, so that your audience will relate to you and your individual work. 

Additionally, there was mention in nearly every demonstration of the Leach/Hamada ethic and legacy. Practice, practice, practice in your practice. Only by making and making again will you refine your skills and express yourself in your work. Craftsmanship is paramount, regardless of your style. There is a demand for solid, functional pottery which can be used to fill the needs of everyday life.

So much of the need of my daily life is filled by my own work in clay. My little studio offers me sanctuary and solitude. Clay is a soft, malleable medium that soothes the soul when worked with the hands and it offers the imagination an infinite opportunity for creativity.
I cannot imagine my life with out clay in it- perhaps it is destiny? B