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October 12th, 2014

KTD, vol. 1,364,792

"...trapped in a slowly unraveling dream that never came true." - Todd Van Der Werff

Killing the Dream. Looting the body. Burying the corpse in a shallow grave.

Coming back occasionally, to see if it’s been disturbed, or overturned, or found out. It hasn’t. Your secret is safe with me.

I got away, scot-free, but I can’t escape. The sound of it spinning there, in the earth, with each new slight and insult, tears at my will.

Be careful, O Captain! my Captain; be careful what you wish for.

...

But also:

"Failure is great. I’ve failed before. I’ll fail again. Failure is a ladder made of bent metal. Failure is there to cut out the gutless and gormless, the lost and lazy, the easily dissuaded. Failure is a test — not a test of talent, no, but a test of determination. And failure is itself a learning opportunity. How did I misstep? Why? What can I do better next time? … Failure is a crucial first step.” - Chuck Wendig

So, hey kid, Don’t Let It Break Your Heart.

“It is some dream that on the deck,
                                                          You’ve fallen cold and dead.”

October 5th, 2014

between the beats

"Silence is the ability to live between the beats -- to be quiet, to be still." - Ze Frank

I don’t think I can write a post this week.

While ordinarily I run up to the Overshare membrane and just keep trucking — like it’s made of rice paper and I’m on fire like a stunt man in a movie — this week I need to be more circumspect about the details, because they’re not really about me.

Let’s just say, like the last time, that it involved doctors and hosipitals and complete anarchy in our routines and another painful chunk of sleep deprivation. Everyone’s fine, in the big picture, but man oh man. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you really tired.

Meanwhile, in the studio: silence. And not the good kind. Empty, quiet, long stretches of time in “between the beats”. I’m not very good at living like that; in fact, I’m terrible at it. I lack that ability.

The need for consistency and maintaining a daily rhythm in the studio is one of the things that drew me to making pots in the first place. The anti-pattern leaves me ungrounded, wallowing, weak. It makes me wistful all over again for that past vision of a future that will still never happen.

So I limp out there during a lull in the other action, and herd my greenware along the drying path; tidy up a few tools and scraps; look around longingly, thinking about all the stuff I thought I’d be making now. Most of the time, having the studio at home is ideal. But sometimes it just doubles down on the regret.

Speaking of which, whatever happened to Ze Frank? It’s like one minute he was there in full life, scorching the pixels off my monitor, and the next he was gone like a train. Where did he go?

September 28th, 2014

alms for oblivion, vol. 43

"Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, 
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion." - William Shakespeare

Despite my major in English Lit, which included an entire course in Shakespeare — in which we read every play and errata in a tome the size of a respectable Guttenberg Bible — I still can’t really make out what this quote means. But god damn do I love it. The phrase “alms for oblivion” is heartbreakingly beautiful even if it means nothing. (And maybe nothing is exactly what it means.)

It would take just a minute to Google it, and to settle for someone else’s more learned answer. But I don’t want to settle. Here in the midst of my 43rd year, finding myself in a dark wood, I’ve lost all faith in the power of my own resources. Yet something like this I’d still rather try to puzzle out for myself; turning it over in my mind like the tumblers in a stubborn, delicate lock.

I’m not sure which circle of Hell I’ve descended to, but it’s getting awfully hot in here. I don’t know that literature, or art, or blogs, or self-help psychotherapy can show the way back out [the only way out is through], but they might cool things off a bit in the meantime. Feels like it’s going to be a long hike.

"I’ll swallow my words just to keep on lying." // "I'll swallow poison until I grow immune."

September 21st, 2014

meanwhile, back in the studio...

"As you see things happen, then make them happen.” - Tom Turner

Post-show and post-sick week, I started back in on porcelain. (It’s Standard Ceramics #257, which I get from a supplier up in Battleground, IN.) I’m finishing off the last of the clay I bought, I think, early last summer. A batch lasts a long time when you take six months off to heal a back injury.

I finally got around to hanging my fancy brushes (or “axes”, as Podcaster Kline calls them). Not sure why that took 10 years, when it required hardly three minutes of hammering little nails into an exposed 2x6 next to my work table, but it did. It seems I’ve turned procrastination into an art form.

I bought the three smallest ones on the right from a booth at NCECA in Indianapolis (2001?); the mass-produced one in the middle just showed up in a box of tools one day (sorry Norton, whomever you are); and the three on the right were made by potter/master of many trades Brandon Phillips. One of those didn’t have a wire loop, so I made one from an old electric E string and some wood glue. Funny how switching to making something out of different materials, even for just a moment, turbo-charges everything in the studio. That makes me think I should keep a second “body of work” going — something, anything — to exploit that phenomenon. Wood carving, paper cutouts, painting, chiseling on a block of stone; something.

I’m testing black underglaze on that porcelain for the salt/soda kiln. It’s worked pretty well in the past, when I’ve applied it thinly and kind of hesitantly with a brush, but I want to find more dynamic ways of using it. I’m interested in getting a brasher, more graphical effect; maybe something like what Terry Gess is so great at, or more like the way Maggie puts watercolors down on paper — more splashy, free form, “loose”. Trying to exploit the kinetic power of that silky black on that glassy white.

I’m also thinking about putting glazes over all of that, which I’ve also tested and used, but just a bit. Under my copper celadon, the cobalt in the underglaze leaks out into the glaze coat, making inky, gravity-drawn halos around the marks I make with the brush. That could be pretty cool, done to excess. (I don’t have a good photo of that, but these might suggest what I’m talking about:

)

And I’m also thinking about coating larger areas with the black and carving back into it, similar to how I do my Domino pattern, to reveal the white body underneath. I used to carve into white slip on a darker clay body, a million years ago, those summers at Clary Illian’s studio; that was fun and seems to have untapped potential. (Also another thing I don’t have a good image of.) I experimented back then with making cartoonish imagery that way — wood kilns, faces, words — but I’ll probably keep it more in the geometrical comfort zone — if anything, I’m even more hesitant about putting representative images on my pots now than I was then. But that said, it could be abstract and also purposefully overkill, rather than reserved, as I tend to default to. We’ll see.

Which, in terms of testing new things, is all kind of overkill in itself. I’m constantly starting new lines of questioning, throwing my wild speculations at a group of helpless test tiles. But I’m terrible at following up on that. It’s like pulling teeth to make myself evaluate the results and formulate second order questions; to follow those random experiments to useable conclusions. I have piles of unsorted, unfiltered test tiles to prove it… some going back two or three firings; all waiting for me to evaluate and write notes about them. Just like how I bought all those brushes but failed to make a good spot for them in the studio, I’m good at starting the testing process and lousy at finishing it.

And I still take them straight from the kiln and set them on my main work table — despite knowing that it’s a useless motivation strategy. As if by cluttering up my workflow, they will somehow force me to deal with them. But no: there they sit, just barely pushed aside, millimeters from where I’m working on new pots. Instead of forcing me to process them, they instead force me to constantly renegotiate for more precious space on the table top. Weeks and months go by, and I repetitively condense them into a smaller and smaller area, like a test tile trash compactor; studiously avoiding the small effort it would take to just process them so they can go into storage, out of the way. Why the hell do I do this? This is no way to live!

Ha. <loop>

Ah, I think I know why. It’s because starting things is easy; it feels free. Open ended, wide margin for error, very little at stake… it’s just a test tile and some random ideas. Whereas taking the next step requires difficult evaluations — “what’s the difference that makes a difference” — and hard reliance on my “potter’s eye”; imagining these results on actual pots. Because the vast majority of those ideas are failures, and so facing them requires extinguishing the wild ambition and hope that prompted them. Because it involves finding old pieces of paper and deciphering hastily scrawled notes, putting on that analytical hat and making hard choices, veering perilously close to issues of glaze chemistry and random weirdness and mysteries I’m still no closer to unravelling about my kiln.

It seems I never learn. Awareness is half the battle, but what about the other half? I have to wonder now if I ever will learn, if that’s still possible. Or, more likely, if after two decades of reinforcing bad habits like this, I’m stuck with them for good?

September 14th, 2014

show cold, cold war

"Here's something dark I didn't learn until very late: for many of us,
the first step to success as a potter is to marry well." - Don Pilcher

I’ve been having a hard time drawing conclusions from our show last weekend. I can’t even sort out how I feel about it — it’s just kind of an ambiguous mush. Usually the post-event feeling — positive or negative; grateful or dissapointed — is distinct and impossible to negotiate with.

That lack of clarity is usually a sign of some bigger, as-yet unseen issue lingering. A mammoth trout below the surface, hidden but for the way it disrupts the currents around me, and sends the other insects scurrying for cover.

Can’t wait to find out what that is! Yay.

Or perhaps it’s just that I got a wicked cold immediately after the show. (I could feel that telltale crack in my throat as I hauled boxes of pots and display furniture back to the house last Sunday.) In the haze of snot and phlegm and 2.5 sick days, the memories from the show that were awaiting processing in my short-term buffer probably expired, before I could get around to working on them.

Ordinarily, after my bi-annual studio sales, I spend some time the week after doing the semi-meditative, compulsive journal writing, cosmic hand-wringing routine… staring into space, listening to melancholic music, tinkering around in the studio but not starting Back to Work yet. It helps sort all that new data out into its respective mental bins (or resignedly adding it to the towering stack of Known Unknowns).

So maybe missing out on that process this time is what’s causing that ill-feeling void; that omen that the other shoe is in mid-air on its way to the floor.

Either way, taking some time off helps. Naps help. Long talks with my art therapist, Dr. Gillies, help. Reading something easy and fun helps. Even while sick, just getting a little time and distance helps.

New pots for the show. Twenty-four bucks each. Not one of these sold! (hint, hint)

The show, the show. Well, here’s what I know.

Sales in dollars, as I said, were pretty good. I’ve got to wait three months to find out if they were additional or it they’ll just cannibalize my Holiday Sale. (If it’s slower than usual, that would be a logical conclusion.) I certainly hope not; if so, this show was mostly duplicate effort. Most of the pots went to my existing customer base, as expected, but there were a handful to new people, and a few people who haven’t been to my sales in a long time. So that was good. And there’s always the intangible benefit of getting out and waving the flag. Might result in a few more people making the epic 12 mile drive to my showroom.

Despite the extra effort and complications — we were seriously cramming to get ready at the end, which got pretty crazy — I’m glad we including Maggie’s paintings in the show. She sold a half dozen or so, some at the adult price of $5, some at the kid’s price of $1. When sales weren’t as brisk as she wanted, she alternated between giving people the hard sell — “Would you like to buy one of my paintings?” — and just taking them off the wall and giving them away to her friends. Pretty great.

And, from the parenting perspective, it seemed like a good experience for her. Not too ego-inflating; not an emotional train wreck; a lot of positive reactions and, I think, encouragement for her to keep making stuff. That’s really all I want; maybe: for her to not lose the native, naive belief that if you keep making stuff, other people will value it and reward you for it. Not yet, anyways.

(Which, I confess, sounds an awful lot like exhuming The Dream, mummifying it, and then hiding it in a secret compartment at the bottom of her hope chest. Thanks, Dad!)

Or, as someone much wiser than me once asked me, “Who’s innocence is it that you’re protecting?”

Choosing paintings from the archive

We had a table piled with art supplies for the kids during the Friday opening, upstairs with the Arts, and that was cool. Lots of gluing and scissoring and such. It was neat to have the kids doing that in the gallery/show environment, as opposed to in the classroom or on picnic tables at camp. (While the space isn’t quite the ‘white cube’, it was the next closest thing: the gentrified old building). Having a group of kids making stuff in the midst of the opening added an experiential aspect to the “Arts & Crafts” title.

And Maggie definitely got the battlefield-level view of what it’s really like to do a show: planning, setting up, hosting the party, selling work, tearing down, torturing yourself afterwards about what you could have done differently, etc. (Even though we did most of her setup for her. I hadn’t factored in the still-new regular school schedule to my plan for opening early on Friday.) She liked the crowd, and getting to be the star of the show for a bit, and taking home a fistful of dollars at the end. Oh, and all those trips to Starbucks.

Cindy and I showing together was interesting. It was hard to see it through the chaos, but I enjoyed the way her alternate world and mine collided for a weekend. Usually, our studio times and processes and experiences are sequestered from one another; both because clay and photo don’t mix well during the making phases, and because we each like to preserve despotic control over our respective little domain. (The funny thing about being married to another artist/artisan is that you talk about your work together a lot, but also learn when and where to stay out of it.)

Day to day, our studio domains intersect in those conversations, and we occasionally check out what the other person is working on — although not as much as you might expect. The two studios are always battling for a bigger share of the finite time and resources we can devote to them, so that’s more like an ongoing little cold war than a joint venture. (You take Cuba; I take Guatemala. Everyone loses but the defense contractors.) But, of course, we’d never had made it this far without genuinely supporting what the other person does in that half (or third; or tenth) of their life. We both want the other to be the best, most active artist they can be.

Anyways, this was the rare exception where the results of all that work shared the same space. I liked those Irish landscapes, scorched electrical outlets and ghostly ancestors lingering over my celadons and teadusts. I liked saying to dubious patrons, enthusiastically, “There’s more photos upstairs!” Some went up, some didn’t.

And having Maggie’s paintings and drawings hanging salon-style over my pots was great. Great! It felt like it almost always does at home, working on pots amidst the casual chaos of domestic life and parenting. Coffee cups next to piles of Legos; dirty dishes from dinner shoved aside to make room for homework.

Her four-year-old abstract watercolors — two brushes and a microphone — and more recent swerve into people (mostly princess-witches) added a bit of levity to my reserved, monochrome porcelains, and merged perfectly with the more casual, decorative pots that I hew from my salt kiln. It reminds me that everything is an influence; everything exerts a pull. “Read the scene where gravity is pulling me around.”

And it was cool to pull a sold painting off the wall, revealing the blue tape that had been holding it in place, and how that mirrors the empty spot on a shelf that’s created each time a pot finds a new home.

I suspect some of the people who came in off the street to have a look were befuddled by our three-axis combination. I think we managed to make it distinct — like three artists showing work, rather than like a garage sale or antique barn — but it was perhaps still a lot to take in. But that’s okay, too. It’s not an art show if you don’t send some people away confused or unsatisfied or wondering why they came in the first place.

Being open and accessible to the general public — for the first time in a long time — meant polishing up my +3 Chain Mail of Protection From Casual Comments. (Well, first I had to find the damn thing. Still fit!) Along with my Helm of Irrational Hope and my Gauntlets of Quick Wrapping, I make quite an impression.

Assistant to the Regional Manager.

Anyways.

“Wait I have an idea — let’s think about that comment every day for the next 37 years.”

September 7th, 2014

so tired

"I can't block 'em all, Daddy." - Crawford Ker

Show’s over. It went pretty well, but man… that’s a hard way to make a thousand dollars. (OK, technically it was about $1300, but that doesn’t make for as good of an opening line. And that’s gross, of course. I don’t even want to think about net.)

I’m tired. So tired. Burned out, worn down, blah blah blah. My back was right on the edge all week; hauling furniture and 225 pots and gear, setting up the show to the last minute, standing for six hours during the opening. Now, predictably, I’ve got a bad cold coming on. No rest for the weary, until you get sick.

My brain is looping back at itself saying, “Hey brain, you’re not working well enough to be writing this right now.” It’s probably right. So... Maybe I’ll be able to cobble together some more thoughts about the show next week. For now, here’s some photos I shot before the opening.

storefront

pots & paintings

celadon, teadust & migrations

upstairs [***Easter Egg***]

nice prints, nice wall

August 31st, 2014

Arts & Crafts

"You wanted Arts and Crafts. How's this for Arts and Crafts?" - Weezer

As I said the other week, I’m having a show this weekend in downtown Greencastle, with Cindy’s photographs and Maggie’s paintings. It’s a “pop up” show, at the relatively new and very nicely remodeled Apostrophe Art Space, on the Square in Greencastle. (That’s Indiana, in case you’re new here.)

The opening will be during Greencastle’s First Friday event, which is sort of a combo art walk/block party aroud the Square. We’ll be open Friday from 3-9pm, and also Saturday during the Farmers’ Market and into the afternoon, from 8am-3pm.

I’ll have a lot of pots for sale — like a slightly smaller version of my studio sales. Most of the other work in the show will also be for sale.

Apostrophe is a great venue — really nicely remodeled by the owners as part of the downtown Greencastle rennovations. It will be interesting — and challenging — to show away from home; I’m so used to only doing this at my bi-annual studio sales that I’ve practically forgotten how to play an Away game. I think the last time I set up a significant number of pots for sale somewhere else was… before we moved to Indiana? 1997? Wow.

This is the first time Cindy and I have shown our work together, in the 25 years we’ve known each other. It’s also Maggie’s “debut” as an artist. That started with us batting around the idea of putting some of her paintings in, just for kicks. She immediately latched onto it and insisted on being an equal participant — which surpsied me but also seemed pretty cool.

I can certainly see the reasons why that’s a potentially bad idea. It’s a little presumptuous to exhibit a five year old’s artwork in a public venue; even moreso to put pricetags on it. It might add an extra layer of chaos and confusion to the event, where people aren’t sure what they’re looking at or why. It might seem like grandstanding: “We’re capital A Artists and our daughter is a prodigy!” It might badly inflate her sense of self, or muddy her intrinsic desire to make stuff, or prompt her to one day compose overwrought artist’s statements about how she’s been exhibiting her work since she was five.

But on the other hand: why not?

After all, Maggie’s been drawing and painting literally since she could hold a pen or a brush. We’ve always bought her as many art supplies as she could use up, and encouraged her early on, but she hardly needs any prompting from us to go at it for a couple hours at a time. Lately she’s been drawing a lot — before dinner, in the car — and we often have to pull her away from it to go somewhere or do something else. It’s not like we’ve been cracking the whip, or subjecting her to a pre-K MFA course.

And a lot of what she paints, looked at as objectively as I can manage, is really compelling. On a typical Sunday afternoon, I’ll look at the papers she’s finished, spread out across the dining room table, and find at least one or two that kind of blow my mind; things I couldn’t just decide to sit down and do myself; things I didn’t think her mind or hands were capable of; things that aren’t just good for a kid, but are just good.

It helps that Cindy’s been methodically stashing away most of it, so there’s a huge pile of stuff to draw from. It’s more a matter of what to leave out — and how to approach the For Sale vs. NFS issue — than what to put in.

I like the idea of including her in this thing that both her parents do. She’s been going to openings and exhibits her whole life, putting up with my twice yearly home sales, dropping off work at galleries, hanging out in our studios, helping me check kilns… all of that is just daily stuff to her. Like morning chores and harvest time are to a kid on a farm. It seems to me that there are so many potential drawbacks to having artists for parents that she should get to enjoy the benefits, too.

Anyways, lots to do, lots to do. It’s going to be a crazy week. If you’re local, I hope you can make it to the show. Otherwise, wish me luck!

August 24th, 2014

redesign

"When you’re tired of racing and you
find you never left the start…” - Coldplay

I've started (yet again) on the long (long) awaited redesign of my main St. Earth site. This time it’s prefaced on the radical idea that it should just be a mirror of the layout and style here on tw@se. I've honed it pixel by pixel over the last seven years to be exactly what I want it to be just now — so why not do the whole thing that way?

And, more significantly, I’m coming around to the idea that lots of that 14 year old content is more like expendable junk than archival gold, and that I might just have to skip it in order to move forward. The obligation to wade through it all and make contingency plans for everything there has been holding up the whole process for far too long.

The redesign is just the main page so far — none of the subpages or other content are there yet. But the first page is always the hardest. It defines the technical bits, the layout, the template, the general style, the feel. It sets good parameters for what else will be in the new version and what should be left out. It’s a waypoint on the path to “good enough to criticize”; another attempt at getting started by just making “the garbage version of that thing, the one that's so bad it will make everyone hate you”.

I hope that sharing the garbage version now, much too soon, will goad me into finishing the rest of it. Next up are the second-level pages (the stuff linked in the top navigation: pots, process, about, etc.). If I just go for it and don’t get stalled with minor details, it could be done soon.

Like, maybe even this decade.

August 17th, 2014

cycling

"What I felt was that the collective body of work was representative of my enjoyment,
love and ambivalence about studio pottery." - Don Pilcher

Set of soup bowls, ready for glaze.

Quick dry.

Updating electric kiln firing notes.

I suppose perpetual dissatisfaction with my glazes is part of the gig.

Finally getting what I want from this celadon on a consistent basis. (Cue random, inexplicable change!)

From that faceting run.

I hate 2/3 full bisks.

p.s. Easter Egg mode is OFF. Unless zooming in on my to-do list counts.

August 10th, 2014

oh, we're going there

"You can't go there with a five year old." - Dana Gould

Me: What should we call our show?

Maggie: Arts and Crafts!

Me: Perfect.

"The great Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson explained the sudden, virtually cult appeal of the artist in terms of an emerging modern taste for "the ineloquent in art," by which he meant a turn away from dramatic illustration toward the aesthetics of conceptual design and candid technique." - Peter Schjeldahl

August 3rd, 2014

blkeye

"He had a black eye, he was proud of, like one of his friends." - Uncle Tupelo

“I don’t think it’s ultimately too important to humanity for me to communicate the issues of my personal life. I’m more interested in talking about the broader facts of existence that transcend individuals, but the way to get at that honestly and non-bullshittingly is through the personal part.” - Jonathan Blow

I aim for transparency here, yet my arrows often just barely catch the bottom edge of the target. Sometimes they miss completely. Perhaps with unintentional comedy.

There are some things I’d like to share, but can’t. Others I should but won’t. Others that I’d be happy to write about, but can’t imagine anyone in their right mind wanting to read. (I suppose I could write them for people in their wrong mind. Or, in that vein, at the least, I should write them for myself. It's OK to create words that just get stashed in a private digital drawer.)

Anyways, we do what we can with what we’ve got. Which also means we don’t do what we can’t for what we lack. In the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

High-functioning fatalist, indeed.

Aim high; settle for a low success rate. And lots of near misses.

July 20th, 2014

gratitude

"I can only do what my customers will let me do." - Matt Jones

Don't lose that gratitude.

It’s time for my summer blog break — another year gone by — so there won’t be a new post here next week. You’ll live. (Might I recommend that you spend that five minutes, instead, deciding, yet again, to someday soon take up meditation? Or perhaps considering what it would take to reproduce every iconic pot from the 20th century inside Minecraft? Or — better yet — asking yourself this question about that video I posted last week: “Sure it’s a metaphor, but a metaphor for what?”

Reaching the midsummer mark also means I’ve earned [dubious assertion] another of my somewhat-annual State of the Blog addresses. Get ready: here comes some more meta-reflection about this project/ongoing exercise in self-indulgent disaster.

Q: But Scott, you talk about the state of the blog almost weekly — sometimes it’s like you’re only doing this to write about doing this!

A: True. All good points.
Now shut up and read.

First;

Let’s clear out some quotes that I’ve been dying to throw over the transom at you:

That’s a pretty good summary of where my head is at lately, all the implied contradictions included. I start each post with a quote because: a) I love to collect and hoard them; and b) they’re great shorthand for all the things I hesitate to say more directly. Borrowed wisdom and skill with words I can still only aspire to.

2nd;

I’ve done some housekeeping up in the header, you may have noticed. Both aesthetic and Feature-Packed! For the first time in a long time (or maybe ever? I can’t remember), there’s a banner image at the top, rather than the previous word salad (you can see the previous version on any archived page). I wanted something that says, “Pots.” Kind of a declaration about what this is ostensibly about; partially a reminder to myself to not drift too far afield from that foundation.

I added or updated links to all the other places online where I sporadically flail out more stuff — The Dreaded Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, Vimeo and Tumblr. Some of what goes here gets repurposed there; sometimes those things offer a view of this that's slightly different; some things go there that will never loop back here, but might have a related interest. Not that you would, but you could.

At some point in the last year I totally broke the all-time index -- stupid computers! -- so I’ve updated and reformatted it into something a little easier to manage. (Plain HTML vs. XML/XSL, for you nerds keeping track at home.) That’s 350 posts, including this one! I only update that every few months; but the RSS feed is always current and contains every post for the current year.

I added a subscribe link, so if you’d like to get an email every time I add a new post, just hit it and sign up. I’m using Mailchimp for this, as I do for my bi-annual sale announcements/newsletters, and it’s still excellent and not too much of a hassle. (It has the added benefit of auto-posting to my biz FB page, so if you’d rather see it there than get an email, just become a “fan”. (Or whatever the hell they’re calling it this week.))

And, as always, there’s still a handy email link up there; I’d love to hear from you. (Especially you, person from Modesto. Who are you, person from Modesto?)

3rd;

I feel like I’ve been killing it here lately. That it’s been really good; that I am, indeed, jumpy on my bed, in my cwib. Like it’s growing into a mature thing. (That is, mature in the sense that it knows what it is, what it wants to be, and what there’s no chance in hell of it ever becoming, dreams be damned. Not in the the sense of me acting like a proper adult. Oh no, not ever.)

I mean, and you’ll have to pardon the hubris here, I honestly think the last year has been consistent but innovative; solidly interesting; weird yet engaging. At least, that’s what I hope it’s been. {Still way to obsequious with the semi-colons, bespoke punctuation and formatting, and overuse of italics for emphasis; but hey; what are you gonna do?} The new camera has added a lot of visual interest; my obsession with layering text over images has made for many fun, wasteful hours screwing around in Photoshop. I keep discovering or inventing new gimmicks, new ways to say the same old things, new <loops> to fall into.

These last 50 posts are quite possibly the best one-year run in the 7+ years I’ve been doing this, and that’s kind of a minor miracle. (Because, as you’ve probably guessed by now, everything else around here seems to be going steadily to hell.) So there’s a release valve here, a beacon over dark waters, one negentropic thing amongst a vast entropic emptyness.

4th;

And at the risk of sounding a little too Unicorns_&_Rainbows, this dumb little collection of web pages has become like a real place I inhabit, another space where I live. It’s both a cell I’m stuck in and a haven I can retreat to; a Sherlockian Palace of the Mind (minus the genius bit, of course). Seven years is long enough that I’ve become rooted to it like I am to our small hill in the country; like I am to clay; to family; to my stubbornly imagined, ongoing sense of a consistent self. That’s a good thing; a hard-won, not-everybody-as-one kind of thing. I’m proud of it.

5th;

Most weeks, I get excited about what I’m going to write next, especially if there’s some through-line or conceptual riff that I want to continue on from the previous week. I almost always, these days, have more options than room to explore them; I continue to queue up fragments and topics and outlines at a much faster rate than I finish them. This used to feel futile, wasteful, like kind of a shame. But lately, perhaps in half capitulation and half weary acceptance, it feels open-ended and honest and even somewhat generative.

I almost always run out of time, or run out of justification for using my time for this, before I run out of things I want to add here; sometimes the most fun comes at the end, adding the gold leaf on top of the overglaze on top of the glaze on top of the slip on top of the underglaze on top of the clay. So to speak. Easter eggs behind the image links; links to very flimsily, tangential things I’ve found or been reading lately; overly clever titles and ridiculous rhetorical flourishes. Often, I get so absorbed into that layer of stuff that I lose track of what I was originally going for, and decide to just shelve the whole thing for another week, to come back to it with fresh eyes. That’s usually where the silly videos of my daughter come in, or the over-reliance on other people’s quotes.

You missed six!

Here’s where — if I’d been a little more resourceful lately; and was a little bolder about just doing it; and a little less afraid of alienting you good people, and of the potential embarrassment of throwing a party nobody attends, and of adding a crass commercial veneer over top of what is otherwise still a rather pure core; (and if I wasn’t almost immediately going on vacation, during which I'll attempt another Internet sabbatical) — if all those things weren't true, here’s where I’d drop in the Call To Action; the fundraising plea, replete with tote bags; the entreaty to help me help you help me; the moment where I’d try to graciously and skillfully slip my hand into your wallet.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: what seems to be an increasing trend for fan-supported web stuff, an acceptance of the idea that people will pay for what they like, even without receiving a monthly bill from Netflix or the cable company, even in the scenario where there are almost limitless free (or ad-supported, or psuedo-free (like Gmail)) alternatives.

For example, I love Ben Carter’s Red Rambler Podcast; it blows my mind that we now have (three!) NPR-caliber shows dedicated just to potters and making pots. The Michael Simon episode alone was an epic achievement — because he’s probably my favorite potter ever, listening to that hour sealed the deal for me: I have to support this. Coincidentally, a short time after that he did a Kickstarter campaign, to help fund the upcoming season. So it wasn’t even a question of whether I’d contribute, just deciding how much. (I settled on $20, but could have just as easily rationalized $50 or $100… how do you put a price on something that means that much? In retrospect, I was probably too cheap, but hopefully there’ll be a chance next year, too.)

And, in my online travels, I keep seeing references to Patreon, a similar system, but centered around the idea of (smaller) payments to support ongoing things, rather than big projects: blogs, web comics, video channels, etc.

Anyways, those things seem to be finding their place in the culture and in the content-economy; it seems like we’re finally crossing over the “micropayments” chasm into a place where small scale, a few True Fans kind of stuff doesn’t have to be a 100% non-profit charitable endeavor. That doesn’t mean that I’m going there with tw@se; just that I’m thinking about it. As I’ve said at least a hundred times here now, you’ve been warned. Maybe later; maybe never. Just thought I’d mention it.

Instead, and for now, let me simply say thanks. Thanks, as always, for being you. And for letting me be me.

I’m grateful.

July 13th, 2014

I jumpy on my bed. In my cwib!

"The father’s father’s father tribe erased the parts they didn’t like.
Let’s try to fill it in." - R.E.M.

It’s a metaphor:

July 6th, 2014

real artists ship

"I’m not kidding when I say I’m a potter.” - Michael Simon

Untitled. Scott Cooper, 2014. Found ceramic objects, pulverized stone and sand.

What is the meaning of pathways; of passing through? What separates clay from stone? “What’s this war in the heart of nature?”

This work is an attempt to create a dynamic neo-grammatology of identity and location; an heuristic modality which underscores my relationship to the earth, architecture and time; hybrid crossover of my faith in solidity with my ongoing belief in ethereality.

Having set this as a site-specific installation in the home-space milieu conjures notions of ownership, belonging and proximity, merging Kent Rydon’s ‘sense of place’ with Gertrude Stein’s intuited longing for discovering a “there there”. I do the needful; things which are required are completed. The collective impact of the associated concrete, structures and foliage provides a useful context and multiplies the possible meanings of the piece.

Much as with reader-response theory and a textual work, I often aim to synthesize the entire vertical of meaning; a decontextualized reworking of the aesthetics of trespassing and human labor, seeking out our shared human condition. (I hope my work responds to histories, locations and narratives in a way that is not bound by specific materials or methods of expression.)

I have chosen to work with found objects because of their duality in time; existing in both past and present, they make reference to Duchamp’s insistence that Art is not only made but also found. They help formulate a personal ethnography which I intend will prompt the viewer to contemplate such dichotomies prevalent in their own lives, inasmuch as they engage the work in a participatory manner.

::

* This project was completed with a partial funding grant from the estate of Scott Cooper and Cynthia O’Dell, and with generous support from Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers.


June 29th, 2014

rehash

"I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw
cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench." 
- Kurt Vonnegut

I'm trying to edit myself less here. Not the actual text — less editing of the thoughts that I allow to roam into this space. There’s a strange, permeable membrane between public and private, appropriate and inappropriate. It constantly shimmers and shifts, so I have to dance with it, trying to ride it like a wave, going through and back, trying to remember which side of it I’m on and why.

My Guru advised me once that it was perfectly OK to write a post from the perspective of what I was thinking in the moment, even if I wouldn’t be able to defend it, or might think differently, later. So last week’s post was kind of one of those. A core truth wrapped in a bunch of potentially confusing vitriol. Sometimes you’ve got to veer way off into the weeds in order to see the borders of the yard from a proper perspective.

And of course it's fun to rant; to bark my Yap at the world. I doubt there’s ever been a potter who didn’t occasionally daydream about all the things they’d like to say to these ridiculous requests and the poorly-worded assumptions of "civilians".

One technique that I’ve gradually discovered is to write the first draft in kind of a fever dream, let's-just-go-with-this, “the garbage version that will make everyone hate you” zone, and then deliberately avoid smoothing it out too much in the editing. That’s produced some of my favorite posts — like this and this and this and this.

That's kind of my alternate voice now, my Yang, my Dark Half. It’s interesting to see what he thinks on occasion. It even surprises me. And it's tremendously engaging to both give him free rein and also post it publicly, damn the consequences.

But a side effect of doing that is it often creates more confusion than I intend. For example, my Guru read more despair into that resolve post than I felt or meant.

While rehashing is rather boring, and can quickly lead into a recursive loop, I feel the need to clarify a bit. (Or, to attempt to clarify. Big difference!) If my response to “isn’t it just so… relaxing” suggested that I’m in a bad place in the studio — I'm not! In fact it's been going really well: learning the new wheel; usually hitting my weekly "quota" despite a million distractions; enjoying getting reacquainted with porcelain; and even uncovering a few gems and zany new ideas in these recent runs of pots.

So I do appreciate you worrying about me, if you were worrying about me. Ha! You should probably all be worried about me all the time — I could explode at any moment! (See, there’s that membrane again… Sometimes I just fall through it like the local gravity momentarily surged or failed. It’s not my fault!)

Uhm…

And/or/but, I guess I’ll state “for the record” that I intend to write here each week from whatever specific, momentary point of view I have that week. That’s one of the beauties of writing — of requiring myself to write — fifty times a year: the x reveals all the various facets of the y, like turning a pot with many different sides around in your hands. None, by itself, can stand for the whole, but all of them, together, are it. So rather than each post being part of some ongoing, monolithic dissertation or mission statement, each is much better read as a conditional, non-universal, temporary stab at an idea, a view, a belief. Many esteemed minds have championed the importance of being able to change one’s mind. I like using this blog as a tool for doing that, albeit with the added hazard of doing it in public.

I do worry that a post like that could be interpreted as advice; as if I'm trying to tell other potters how to handle their business, or lecturing them for taking orders that pay the bills. I’m not. (If for no other reason than the fact that all that stuff is intensely personal, and conditional, and rationaliz-able. I certainly understand making short term compromises that facilitate longer term goals.)

To me, the beauty of a personal blog — and one of the things that still keeps it distinct from a Facebook feed or a business-oriented newsletter — is how well suited it is for saying, "this is how it is for me, right now.” Which is practically the opposite of saying "this is how it should be for everybody, all the time".

But that worry is probably unfounded. My readership is intensely small; my credentials as insubstantial as the public-private membrane. And, come to think of it, there’s a built-in safety valve here, too: anyone who’s read this blog at any depth and still thinks I’m a good source for career advice kind of deserves what they have coming. (cf. Killing The Dream; et al.)

June 22nd, 2014

resolve

"They want you dead, or in their lie. Only one thing a man can do: find something that's his.
Make an island for himself." - Mad Sergeant Welsh

In related news, few things strengthen my resolve to keep making exactly the pots I want to make, exactly the way I want to make them like being asked to make a batch of commemorative mugs for Corn Days 2014 or some such shit.

Or when someone, genuinely and without meaning to give offense, compares what I do to their “hobby” — woodworking, knitting, knolling, whatever — and then waxes poetic about just how goddamn relaxing it is. Um, yeah… but no. Making pots for me is a functional, financial, psychiatric, emotional necessity; it’s a constant charge up a hill that can never be taken, a lifelong quest into the unknown, a journey from which there’s no return. So no, it’s not relaxing. Unless grinding your soul into a fine powder in a desperate attempt to make one fucking good thing before you have to give it up or die, all the while trying to save yourself from impending despair or insanity is your idea of relaxation.

That’s what I’d like to say, but of course I never do. I usually just smile and nod, smile and nod. If a reply is required, I do it as nicely as I can. “Uh huh. Yeah. Yes, it’s a lot of fun.” Blah blah blah.

But seriously, twenty-plus years in, this kind of nonsense makes me want to punch a wall. Really hard.

"Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?"

June 15th, 2014

Soldner on

"I’m on my feet I’m on the floor I’m good to go.” - Jimmy Eat World

My new wheel arrived this week. I got it off the truck, unboxed, into the studio and up on blocks. Then I cleaned up the studio a bit, to make the switch from stoneware to porcelain — the shiny new hardware seemed like a perfect spot for the transition.

I was tempted to try it out while it was still down on the floor, throwing from a sitting position, but I’m almost certain that that way lies madness. Or, at least, the madness of a worsened spine.

“The seated throwing position alone accounts for the single most damaging practice of potters.” - John Glick

So I reset “the garbage version that's so bad it will make everyone hate you” cinderblocks, and made it just stable and level enough to get started. Holy mother of anticipation. Hesitation, boiling excitement, dread that maybe I was about to find out I’d made a terrible choice. (If it’s possible to overthink something en route to actually doing anything about it, I will. My morning stretching routine is great for the body, perilous for the mind.)

The first thing I made was a wareboard of small bowls, just like I did the last time I got a new wheel:

First pots! 2014

First pots! 2001

<loop>

The similarities and differences in those two photos are mind-boggling to me. So much has changed; so much has stayed the same. This could be a 5,000 word essay unto itself.

I made the first day’s pots with the pedal on floor — mostly curious how that would work and if it was feasible. Rather than continuously leaving my foot on it, I tapped it to adjust the speed periodically, as I’ve been doing with the Brent pedal by hand. (I’m wary of keeping one foot on the pedal, because it causes a similar posture shift to the treadle wheel. Keeping my hips parallel to the floor and body weight balanced on both feet seems critical, even at the expense of the ability to make subconscious, fine changes to the wheel speed while my hands are on the clay.)

That worked OK; a little better than expected, but not great. While this was a very short test, it seems harder (or less fluid) to pick up a foot and find the pedal to tap it up or down than it is to do the same thing by hand.

(An alternate arrangement, which John Glick and Kristen Kieffer use, is to throw standing, but leaning back against a wall with some sort of lumbar support. My impression is that this would take some weight off your feet, and allow for keeping one foot on the pedal continuously.

But for me — at least with how my back is now — leaning forwards at the hips from a mostly vertical posture seems best, while keeping the bent-over-the-wheelhead time to a minimum. I can imagine the benefits of leaning back, like they do, but I'm weakest (and probably most vulnerable) when my hands get out in space away from my torso. So anything to get my core closer to the center of the wheelhead is likely best. This is certainly in flux, and I’m trying to stay open to all the possibilities, because the last thing I want to do is create a new, different problem of a similar magnitude to the one that chased me off the treadle wheel.)

So the next day I switched the pedal up to tabletop level — currently a stack of milk crates next to the wheel’s built-in tabletop. (Talk about the garbage version!). On my request, the good people at Bluebird Mfg. customized the pedal with a stick shift, and it worked really well - much better than the Brent foot pedal, and even better than expected. Yeah!

(You can see it in the image above: a 12” metal bar that’s threaded through the face of the pedal, with a plastic ball at the top, like an old VW stick.)(I’ll have to swap that plastic out for something more customized later; carved porcelain or unicorn horn or a block of pure platinum with embedded rubies or something.)

Anyways, the challenge with controlling the pedal by hand is that I throw with a rather thick slip/slurry (like Michael Cardew). So when I go to adjust the speed down at the end of centering, or after the first few pulls, both hands are coated in slop. Stopping to wash or wipe them off would completely break the flow of making the pot, and would be counterproductive, as I’d just have to lather my hands back up to resume throwing.

With the Brent, I solved this by putting a small towel over the pedal, to catch the slip and prevent it from drying up and caking into the tread on top of the pedal. After a throwing session, I’d flip or wash out the towel, and while this was a minor annoyance, it worked pretty well. And any extra mess was OK, because the pedal is self-contained, with all the important bits attached to the bottom of the wheel.

But the Soldner pedal has a lot of the fancy business — including the power and directional switches — in a catenary-shaped metal housing directly attached to the pedal. So while this seems designed to resist water somewhat, I’m wary of blasting it with slip. To my plesant surprise, with the added length of the stickshift, I can set the pedal box clear of the slip blast zone and still comfortably reach the stick. And I quickly realized that the little ball on top lets me move the stick with the inside of my wrist, a relatively clean spot, rather than my hand. Even better, the pedal is sensitive and accurate enough that a tiny nudge with my wrist usually got the wheel speed right where I wanted it.

So: silver linings. I’ll take them wherever I can find them.

Adjusting to the non-friction-responsive motor will be a different issue, especially after almost six months on the Brent. But I think I’ll adapt pretty quickly, because it’s similar to the manual wheels I’m most familiar with — the Lockerbie kickwheel and Leach treadle — where any friction you add at the wheelhead slows down the power you’re providing by foot. Now it’s just that the power is coming from a motor, so I need to learn where to set the speed in anticipation of how much it will slow when I grab onto the clay.

And if those last eleven paragraphs make any sense at all, you’re definitely my kind of clay nerd.

Onwards, claywards.

Trimming plates -- love the big tabletop

Porcelain mugs with stamped texture

Keeping track of where I've been

“Don’t don’t don’t let’s start. Why did we ever part? Kickstart my rock and roll heart.”

June 8th, 2014

blog on

"There is this old man who has spent so much of his life sleeping
that he is able to keep awake for the rest of his years.” - Pixies

Seven years to make a blogger.
Some gave up,
But I'm a slogger.

My baby turned seven this week:

No, not that baby. She's still 5 1/2. This one; tw@se; the blog.

And because I cleverly started this project on one of my birthdays, I rolled over another year on the odometer this week: 43.

Sorry to say that I feel a lot older than that lately. I guess having a bad back is like living in a house with a shakey foundation. You’re never quite sure what’s going to cave in and when, so you walk around gingerly all the time. That adds some years to how it feels, going through the average day. Ah well. Plenty of other people -- most other people -- have it worse than me. Give up or suck it up.

“Are you gonna waste your time thinking,
how you broke up or how you missed out?” - Jimmy Eat World

I just noticed that in that first ever tw@se post, there’s a photo of some just-finished planters with cut feet. And here, coincidentally, seven years later, are the last pots I finished in the studio this week:

I don’t know what to make of that, but it sure is interesting. They’re sitting on the same table, in almost the exact same spot in the studio. (But with slightly less junk and clutter in the background — yay progress!) Everything is all at a vastly different point in cosmological space now, and yet relative to one another they seems unchanged. Funny how our perceptions can lie so well that we trust them implicitly, even when we know better.

I guess those two photos say I’m still making pots; still making rather humble functional pots, like planters; still interested in exploring details like cut feet; still fascinated by faceting; still using that same bisque stamp. (It’s probably my favorite stamp ever.) I think these latest planters are better pots — quite a bit better, actually. That might just be Pride In The Most Recent bias at work. But at the least I think the faceting adds a lot to them. I sure hope they’re better pots, seven years of experience along, seven more trips up the hill behind my rock, seven more <loop>s.

So much has changed, so much has stayed the same.

I don’t know what to make of that seven year span, how to corral it or sum it up. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”; I’m not sure I’m even very much closer. But I’m a better potter now. I’ve done some things and seen some things; posted a lot of photos and written a lot of words on this wall. Maybe I understand myself, my place in the world, and even the world itself a little better because of them? I’d like to think so.

Of course, as I’ve said before, I am the primary beneficiary of this blog, both in the doing and in the having. This repository of what I’ve made, things I’ve done, what I was thinking, how it felt, the lyrics in my head and the quotes I picked up along the way is a pretty powerful tool, and it accumulates more power with each yearly iteration. I occasionally go back and skim through the archives, reacquainting myself with my past self, remembering “important” details I’d already forgotten, enjoying photos that have since been lost amidst the daily sea of images, often getting a good laugh from the dumb jokes tailor-made to my sense of humor.

I feel a similar pride about these accumulated years of my personal history as I do about my girl. Not to the same magnitude, but both feelings comes from a similar place; born of consistent care and sacrifice and unfailing dedication. Both with open-ended futures. Both still with more room to grow than the space already used up.

“Are you looking for the mother lode? Ha! No. No, my child, this is not my desire.”

June 1st, 2014

have heart, my dear, and we'll run for our lives

"Pursing a kind of excellence in obscurity." - Sarah Lewis

Sunday morning facetting

Chasing plastic

Small vases

Teabowls (aka yunomi)

I’m all the way down the rabbit hole, now. I hit my self-assigned quota of 20 pots this week — trying to average 20 pots a week for eight weeks in this making cycle — and almost all of them got faceted.

It’s great to single-task for a change; to riff on just one thing for a while. (Which, of course, is a polite fiction: even the TLD of “faceting” includes dozens of sub-domains, -ideas and -techniques.) That focused approach to a whole run of pots allows for a different kind of mental focus during the actual making. It tunes out some of my usual brain noise. I so often resort to (or allow myself to fall into) a scattered, frenetic, 'trying to cover all bases' approach, despite knowing that it’s playing to my weaknesses and probably not very effective. At best, it produces short term gains at the expense of longer term rewards. Not smart.

I'm thinking about how I can throw these pots faster (or perhaps I should say "more efficiently”; see also: Oestreich’s ‘getting away with murder’), so I can have more of them to cut; so more of my studio time can be spent with the faceting tool in hand. It goes too quickly!

There's a path to meditation there, in the steady pattern of cutting and turning. It requires my best concentration, but it also has to have a flow to it; tight and overwrought is just bad. When I find it, that flow can lead to Flow, which is kind of the whole point, really… aside from the desire/need to also have some new objects a the end of the day, and the end of the making cycle. At the rare times when I hit that state of mind; with the challenges and rewards equally balanced, the wire going shuutt shuut shuut through the clay, the excess rectangular panels dropping off and marching into a line across the tabletop, the world momentarily shut out except for the feel of the wind and the sound of an occasional passing train; when I finally get to that place, I just want to keep going — I want to cut up a hundred pots, not a half dozen. It’s sad to come back out of it, like waking from a great dream. Running out of pots to facet mid-dream sucks. (That’d be like ending a writing jag because you forgot to buy enough ink or paper.)

But/so: I think I'm almost ready to move on to something else for a bit. I'm about out of this batch of reclaimed white stoneware — a few hundred pounds of clay that I ground and screened and mixed and slopped and reconstituted last summer — and there are a few other, non-faceted things I'd like to make with it for the next firing. I might still take a run at some faceted planters to end this sequence, then move on to the more obligatory plates and such. (I’m sure there are good ways to facet plates sitting just over the horizon, but I haven’t hiked over there to look for them yet.)

I’ve been thinking of all these faceted pots as Teadust, but the very best ones will probably get salt instead. My recent tests with a new black underglaze that goes on bisk, instead of green, will make it awfully tempting to layer black brushstrokes over all those vertical faceted lines.

After I run through all the stoneware, I plan to switch to porcelain -- the batch I bought last summer, which has been lingering since I had to bail on my entire fall making session for Backapalooza '13. It should be good and aged now! Fortunately, my experience with Standard’s clays is that they ship pretty wet and stay soft in the bags for a long time, so hopefully its all still good to go.

Once I switch clays, I’m looking forward to taking what I've learned about faceting the last few weeks and doing it in porcelain, too. The white clay is so dense and smooth and homogenous that the wire cuts it like a laser, leaving hard-chiseled edges and pixel-perfect details. And I've got a couple test tiles with glazes that look spectacular over it.

Let’s see… something else happened this week. Oh yeah — I ordered a new wheel. A Soldner P100. Boom.

May 25th, 2014

the sacred geometry of chance

"I love to cut clay." - Marj Peeler

Hey, I did it. Bypassed my usual caution, ignored the Make List -- the predetermined stuff that I thought should be making now -- and spent another week faceting away. Thirteen pots (five small bowls, four large ones, four vases) and all of them got cut up. 1

Anyways, it was grand. All of it: the actual making, the engagement of focusing on one thing, the blatant act of defiance, and the results. I took some risks, ran down some blind alleyways and, at the end, the pots weren't too terrible. I even learned a few things. Things which I could probably elaborate on now, in my best professorial tone, with faux confidence and a veneer of newfound certainty, but I think I'll let them gel and evolve and see what comes of it before I go shooting my mouth off and making a big deal about them. Old blogs, new tricks.

Some of all this is motivated by the anarchic satisfaction that comes from deliberately doing something that I know I "shouldn't" be doing. Temporarily suspending calculation and reason and "best practices". Spending precious time on things I know I don't have time for; making more and more and more of pots I know I won't need more of anytime soon (aka: be able to sell in a reasonable time frame); ignoring the endless parade of Shoulds and Musts in favor of some Wants and Why The Hell Nots. Sometimes if I don't allow myself to just say FILDI 2, I think the whole crazy edifice of my (supposed) adult life will come crashing down under its own proper, rational, evaluated and measured weight.

Perhaps there's a subtle wisdom in knowing when to fly upside-down in the wrong direction for a while. What if being responsible, in the bigger picture, includes allowing yourself to be irresponsible on a chaotically semi-regular basis?

I will "pay for" that time and those reps at the wheel later, one way or another -- delayed firings, missed obligations, limited inventory, dissatissfied customers. The question is: Will I regret it?

Somehow, I don't think so.

1 That's it? Only 13? It seems like I was out there for days. I guess the studio time was interspersed with a few other projects, and I take a lot of breaks these days to protect my back. And no one ever said R&D was efficient -- once I start carving on a pot, there's almost no limit to the amount of fiddling that's possible. But sheesh! Thirteen pots a week is hardly going to get me where I want to go.

It still blows my mind, how fast virtually everyone else seems to be, and how comparatively slow I am (and/or how small my output). Other potters, as seen via Facebook and the like, seem to be working (and/or able to work) at a pace and/or stamina that I'm just not even familiar with. Even when I'm giving it my damnedest, trying to crank away with discipline and focus! I guess part of that is that I take frequent breaks, for fear of throwing my back off the cliff, but still... Ugh. Even at Penland, when I kept my nose on the wheel 8-10 hours a day, it seemed like I was a slug. So weird. I might have to film myself sometime, to find out if there are, like, long narcoleptic pauses happening that I'm not even aware of. That would explain a lot.

Now I'm imagining myself slumped over at some hideous angle on the treadle wheel, my left foot still cranking away in a fever dream, my cheek scraping against the spinning wheelhead; music on the iPod just cruising along until I wake back up. Weirdly, that would be more reassuring than having so many work days go by with so little to show for them.

2 "And let me remember that my courage is a wild dog; it won't just come when I call it. I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can." - Ze Frank

May 18th, 2014

spare us the cutter

"When you alter a piece, you can get away with murder." - Jeff Oestreich

Bowl parade

Faceting practice/tests

I'm really digging this combo of cutting and stamping

Trimmin' on the loaner

A rare Sunday afternoon finishing session, after these suckers just wouldn't dry earlier in the week.

I've long aspired to get better at faceting. Some of my favorite pots, and most revered potters, have wonderfully cut walls, feet, and attachments. (Wait -- the pots have cut walls, etc., not the potters... you get the idea.)

I love both the finished effect and the process. (Often, it's one or the other -- a great effect but a tedious process; a fun process but a mediocre result. Both at once is the sweet spot.) There's an amazing range of ways faceting can be done, tools that can be used, results with different clays, or with the same clay at different consistencies. As a process, it's such a dramatic contrast to the fluidity and roundness of throwing; all hard, sharp edges and planes. I think the combination of the two in the same pot is one of the nicest things in ceramics.

But, as is fitting for all that blue-sky potential, faceting is a tough nut to crack; a hard skill to acquire, let alone master. It's pure "workmanship of risk" territory; brilliant when it succeeds, into the scrap bin when it fails. If I've made 10 or 20,000 pots in the last 22 years, how many of them have been faceted? Less than 500? Only 300? That's somewhere on the order of 3%. And most of those reps came in concentrated runs -- a few series of pots at a time -- with long lapses in between. Sometimes long enough that I essentially forgot what I'd learned about it the last time. That's no way to get great at it; certainly no way to get this great.

I'd like to do a run where every pot gets cut, one way or another. An entire making session of just hammering on this one technique for a few months, exploring that range of variations and applications. But I don't. Or, at least, I haven't yet. Why?

Probably for fear of how that affects the inventory for the next sale, the next group of pots on display for the next "big" event. The possibility that my potential customers won't like the effect anywhere near as much as I do is scary. But it seems like with a near-record number of pots in the showroom after my recent sale -- good output and low sales numbers -- now would be the time to go for it. But the cautious part of me whispers, "Maybe not quite yet. Next time. Build it up a little more first. Or just mix it in some, but not so much." Fear of failure, or fear of success? Or maybe just plain ol' undifferentiated fear of doing something different? Hard to say.

It's all fine and good to hear Ze Frank's wisdom about separating the making from the selling, and parroting it back when it's convenient. It's nice to write "This can be ANYTHING you want" on an index card and display it prominently in the studio. It's terrific to tell people that I make what I want to make and follow my instincts, with a certain amount of trust that it'll lead someplace good. It's quite another thing to actually put those into practice when it counts.

 

 

"Conquering myself until I see another hurdle approaching.
Say we can, say we will, not just another drop in the ocean."
- Echo & The Bunnymen

May 11th, 2014

onward, clayward

"These men dream of glory but achieve, in its place, long, dull 'stretches of competence'
that, more often than not, feel closer to failure." -
The New Yorker

To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, the results of my sale were 'just quite a bit closer to zero than I'm comfortable with'. And while it's tempting to dwell on that fact, and to write about it here at length, I doubt there's much value in it -- either for you or me. And while in my head I can the difference between processing that disappointment and just whining that things didn't go my way, I suspect that from the outside it would look like just whining, and that's not the message I want to send. Things with me are often "in the suck" these days, but at the global scale of the Internet, things with me rarely suck enough that I deserve the right to complain about them here.

(Not that this moment of clarity will prevent me from doing so in the future, of course. You've been warned.)

I watch a lot of pro football, and if it's taught me one life lesson,1 it's that there are advantages to not spending too much time thinking about what just happened. The best players, as the pundits would have it, are able to focus on the next play, and not dwell too much on the last one, regardless of whether it was a success or a failure. Now, I see a fine line between that approach and a harmful lack of personal reflection, but as my thousands of words here over the last seven years show, I'm rarely lacking in inwardly-focused CPU cycles. Particularly after my sales, and particularly now that they seem to be on a steady decline, it's probably smarter for me to aim at forgetting and moving on.

And so, onward I go.

Getting back to work with wet clay in the studio is a good mechanism for this. Keeping my hands busy let's me aim my mind in a useful direction. Having wet pots that need specific attention at specific intervals of time is a responsibility that bumps me out of that mental rut. And the intrinsic rewards of seeing new pots just sort of magically appear on the wheel are evergreen. (Especially with the near-instantaneous centering provided by the faster, effortless power of the electric wheel. I still get a little giddy to look down and have a half-formed pot 10 seconds after I smack the clay down on the wheelhead. Acoustic is still nice and all, but there's a lot to be said for blasting out the occasional windmilling power chord.)

I'm starting into the new making session slowly and hesitantly, as I always have, but not as slowly or hesitantly as I used to. More pots at one go, and more ambitious forms -- steering away from the past habit of throwing four or six teabowls and then calling it a day, or going to mow the yard. Which, considering that I'm still in the early stages of adapting to this new wheel and setup, seems like a nice little victory.

I've been gradually creeping up on backfilling handles, trying to find both a method and a result that I like and that technically works. (Those damn seam cracks still plague me, and especially with this clay body.) For years, I've loved it when other people do it -- the way it adds both a visual and tactile dimension to the bottom attachment on a mug or pitcher -- but could never really find my own way into it. It's not how I was taught -- the Leach-standard flat strap attachment is what I learned and have always used. So this is uncharted territory, with all the potential excitement and hazards that that kind of exploration entails.

I find doing this kind of R&D difficult. It's hard to sacrifice, for lack of a better word, the studio time and otherwise-good pots to rolling the dice on one aspect like this. Improvement is iterative and spotty, and requires lots of fussy tweaking of little details. There's an obligation to fail and not get sidetracked by it; to throw the occasional long bomb and not give up when it's picked off. As these examples show, I'm not there yet -- there's a lot left to be desired. And I'll face the bisque-time decision of whether they're just good enough to fire or belong back in the slops for another try in a future year.2

But I persist, as much as I can, because I believe it's absolutely critical to do so. If I'm ever going to discover anything new or show any substantial growth, aside from the random accidents that happen to me, then I have to go seek it out and be willing to risk a lot of not finding it along the way to eventually finding it.

Process vs. Product. Wanting vs. Having. Seeking vs. Finding.

Onward.

1 ...amongst all those hours of virtually value-free entertainment, combined with an obtuse lack of real concern about these men giving themselves future head injuries for my current enjoyment and their own short-term shot at glory...

2 I'm so often just trying to squeeze out enough pots to fill the next kiln or the inventory for the next sale that I can't really be trusted with this decision. I need an impartial review panel to come in and sort the winners from the losers. Most likely, I'll talk myself into the idea that, with a generous coating of Teadust glaze to hide their weak spots, these will be OK enough to keep.

May 4th, 2014

Sale 28

"There's a difference between the craft of the creative work that you do
and the craft of making money off of that creative work." - Ze Frank

This might be the best sale display photo I've ever shot. The new table in the middle helps a lot. The iPad camera amazes me sometimes.

Maggie and I doing our traditional pre-sale portrait. Pretty soon she'll have to hold me. Archive: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

It's always a toss up between arranging the pots by form or by glaze. I'm inclined to go with form, but I think most people see and think glaze/surface first, in which case putting all the mugs together would just be confusing. I like to surprise my customers, but try not to confuse them.

The shelving is -- to put it generously -- an ecletic mix, so much of the layout is dictated by putting lighter pots on darker shelves and vice versa.

This is the shelf you see as you come in the door, so I always put the best, most recent pots from the salt kiln here. Weirdly, very little sold from here this time. If I'm out of Domino Mugs, everyone asks for them. When I make a bunch, they mostly hang around. Go figure.

Here's the second shelf in Showroom One (aka our dining room the other 50 weeks of the year), and also the one I look at most of the weekend, from my vantage point at the checkout table. So I usually put pots here that inspire confidence. The flowers in that vase with the cut feet are killer.

Great morning sunlight, popping over the old barn and through the glass door. I really like stacking these bowls that were fired rim-to-rim together; suggesting that they might make a nice pair.

"No one notices the contrast of white on white." OK, technically not "no one", but very few. And, it probably goes without saying, I really, really like those people.

April 27th, 2014

#58 & time to sell

"I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us." - Tim Kreider

It's sale time again. You know the drill. Yadda yadda.

#58: before and after

Firing #58 was a monster. I picked the wrong day to fire; trying to prevent unloading from drifting into sale prep week, I forced it into this week despite bad firing weather. The wind was relentless all day long, and none of the adjustments I made to the kiln could overcome it. It stalled badly about four cones shy, and I wasn't about to risk the entire load to a mild cone 7. So: out came the sticks for a couple hours of treating that thing like a baby anagama. Which is absurd, because it barely has enough draft and combustion space for the gas going in -- stoking it with wood shouldn't work, it should just choke it more. But it doesn't, so it does. Go figure. Over eight years of tweaking and 57 firings, I've concocted such a weird bastard of a kiln that almost none of the normal rules apply, and all sorts of ridiculous, counter-intuitive things are required to make it work.

That's what I get for going against previous experience, I guess. Note to self: don't fire into an oncoming storm.

The stall also caused me to make the mistake of salting too early; I should know better by now. Too late is probably a lot better than too early, but I got a little desperate when it was still hanging below 2200° after dinnertime. So I salted and sprayed soda, but then as it had to run for several more hours to get to temperature, it all fluxed down into smooth, shiny, uniformly boring glass. I'd probably have been better off to salt at the last minute and just turn it off. Hopefully another lesson learned on that count for the future.

For all that, the pots turned out OK. Not great, and not as good as the previous firing, but good enough. Only one waster and a couple seconds out of the two loads, so about 60 brand new pots for the sale, which is pretty gratifying regardless of what it took to get there.

Dots, dots, dots

Two new patterns on small plates and some rare bowls, stacked rim-to-rim

Lots of mugs this time: dominos

Amber and black dots

Dots & lines

So, another making cycle, such as it was, complete. Time to sell. As weird and disconcerting as it was to switch to throwing at the electric wheel, and standing up, I managed to make a couple loads of pots and get them fired. That's a vastly better status than where I was in November, before my last sale, wondering if and when I'd be able to get back to throwing at all. So, at least this time I can look ahead, past the sale cycle, to getting back to making again.

Can't wait.

April 20th, 2014

#57

"That's my daughter, she's a potter. Everything she knows I taught her. Everything she knows.” - Louden Wainwright

Yeah, I know that's not how the song really goes. Allowances for creative expression, etc.
Here are the before and after shots for #57.

Maggie's first pot out of the kiln. With some help from me, but mostly hers. Like anyone who really knows pots, one of the first things she looked at was the foot.

Impromptu critique. We set this little vase on the table for Easter dinner, and I couldn't stop looking at it and thinking about which parts of her style I was going to steal.

Recalling how she made those great marks with a rib.

Teaching her how to read a test tile. There were six or seven new slips, glazes and effects in this load that I'm excited to chase after in the future. I finally got around to testing some of the magic that I brought home from Penland and so far so good.

The best (front) and the rest (back).

I love the spots where the white slip poured out over the rims. I had thought about cleaning it off, but left it there on a whim. Great highlighting on the edges of the slip from the salt. These were stacked rim-to-rim, so they have nicely paired wad marks, too.

Dots and slip variations; porcelain and white stoneware.
Who needs a backdrop and a softbox when you've got a white t-shirt and a flawless day in April?

Domino and glaze pencil

Black underglaze variations. Also, note to self: broken wadding stuck to a pot is sharp! Duh.

That cat's eye drip on the left kills me -- so great. I guess I got a little ambitious with that flowing green glaze. Debating whether to grind it off or keep it. How much wobbliness is OK for the sake of beauty? On the right, I'm liking the interaction of the celadon and the black underglaze. Super brash and glitzy, but in a way I might be able to live with. You can't see it here very well, but in the drips over the domino panels it goes a deep cobalty blue that I actually like.

Espresso cups. If the coffee doesn't wake you up, the pattern will.

Bowl with four panels

New amber celadon on porcelain. Nice fat(ter) handle.

April 13th, 2014

The Magician King

"It seems to me that the nature of ceramics is optimism
in the face of unrelenting failure." - John Britt

"To me the way to manage is not to have 50 versions of yourself — I do this thing, and the next time you’re going to hear me is the next time I do another one. As soon as you crack your knuckles and open up a comments page, you just canceled your subscription to being a good person."
- Louis C.K.

"You might not actually be doing awesome, but the key is that you talk like you’re doing awesome, which means that prestige will just naturally come your way. It’s a fallacy, but one that almost all television and art has both replicated and endorsed."
- Anne Helen Petersen

"This, now, this stopped him. He'd known that adventures were supposed to be hard. He'd understood that he would have to go a long way and solve difficult problems and fight foes and be brave and whatever else. But this was hard in a way he hadn't counted on... You couldn't fight it. You just had to endure it, and you didn't look good or noble or heroic doing it. You were just the guy people felt sorry for, that was all. It didn't make a good story -- in fact he saw now that the stories had it all wrong, about what you got, and what you gave. It's not that he wasn't willing. He just hadn't understood. He wasn't ready for it."
- Lev Grossman

So I'm having another sale, I guess? Looks like it. There's a stack of fresh postcards and stamps here, which one half of my brain seems to have put together while the other was distracted with other things. Weather. Back problems. Dayjobs. Tonsilectomies. I guess I'll make some labels and send them out and see what happens -?

This will be my 14th spring sale, and it seems that all but one or two of them have been a crazy rush job; a desperate sprint to the finish line of ~300 pots and the first weekend in May. Doing the promotion stuff at the same time as the tax returns and starting into the year's outdoor work. (Our gentleman's ranch of rural acreage is lovely to look at, but a hell of a lot of work to maintain.) The scheduling vagaries of Cindy's school events, volunteering for the local arts organization, random stuff with Maggie. Firing the (still unsheltered) salt kiln in between office days and rain showers. This is April for me, and it's always a pain.

I'm hoping to get two loads through the kiln in the next three weeks. The first batch is glazed and ready to load when the next spot of decent weather happens. The second load is picked, planned and sorted -- ready for glazing. I have enough pots to do a third, but will certainly run out of time before getting to them, so they'll have to wait for the next cycle. That's okay. Two should fill out the showroom well enough. More is always better, but attendance has been weak enough the last few sales that 30 more pots probably wouldn't make much of a difference. It's more that once I get the kiln rolling, I want to stay in that phase of glaze and load and fire and getting to see brand new pots come out. That's a lot more gratifying than the sale cycle, but it doesn't put any cash in the account by itself.

How's that for promotional excitement?

EVERYTHING'S PERFECT -- COME BUY HANDMADE POTS AND HELP SAVE THE WORLD!

Ha. I can hardly even work up an optimistic sales pitch anymore. Good thing these musings don't, like, go on my website. That'd be bad for business.

April 6th, 2014

3rd planet

"It's like they're from another planet.
You should be writing down everything they say.” - Alex Pappademas

Sometimes I think our girl is a freaking genius:

You guys just don't understand underwear jokes.

— Maggie Pixel (@MaggiePixel) February 9, 2014

March 30th, 2014

on changing into someone else

"In order to supply the unique amount of care that children demand, we have to enter into a contract in amnesia where neither side is entirely honest about the costs. It we ever totted up the debt, we would be unable to bear it." - Adam Gopnik

"And I asked the doctor, you know, like: Kids go through this?
And he said, "Yep. And you know it's going to be a lot worse for you; they're back on their feet in a couple days."
"What -- their pain receptors aren't as strong or something?"
"No, they've just got a lot of other things on their mind. So it doesn't bother them as much." - Ze Frank

 

March 9th, 2014

unreliable narrator

"Where you’re inside out, dreaming of mercy..." - Peter Gabriel

It's going to get busy around here for a while. I can see a bunch of crazy coming up in the middle distance. And so, rather that let tw@se slip through the cracks, I’m going to take a spring blog break for the next couple weeks — either in place of my usual summer layoff, or maybe in addition to it.

I think I’ve earned it; seems like I’ve been on a pretty good roll here this year so far. Stock & Flow. Just keep killing that dream, baby.

But just in case I haven't, or in the unlikely event that you find yourself jonesing for more from me in the meantime, here's something I've been working on at Flickr: all 1,215 photos that have appeared here on the blog. This includes all the 'easter eggs', too -- the images I sometimes hide behind the link from a smaller image. (Usually with annotations or extra-snarky editorial, lingering below the surface. Water bugs, trout below.)

I was never much interested in Flickr in the past — it was too restrictive unless you paid a chunky subscription fee — but they've made it really compelling now. The new(er) interface is pretty great, and the Terabyte of free space is amazing. That's a lot of photos.

I like how the images play off one another in the tiles view. I like the insanity of the infinite scroll, especially on a large screen. And, for this tw@se set in particular, I like how the random order that it generated when I uploaded them en masse adds sort of a curatorial mash-up to the history of the blog in images. Like an echo of my past coming back at me through some unknown filter.

Also, I'm thinking that for people who are more interested in pictures than in my endless flow of words, this could be a nice alternate view of the blog and my studio activity. So I'm planning to update it regularly, and hope to expand some of the other sets there, like the archive of my pots.

So: until then... One must imagine Sisyphus grimacing and wishing he could go hide in a corner, but making a self-deprecating joke and trudging upwards instead.

March 2nd, 2014

Killing The Dream

"It's difficult to know, when you look at someone's life, what you should give the person
credit (or blame) for and what you should put down to luck." - Michael Frayn

I picked up the dream of being a full-time potter almost as soon as I'd learned to throw, then carried it around with me for almost a decade before trying it.

During that time, I acquired additional training from two summers at Clary Illian's pottery, solo work in various co-op studios, a brief stint in graduate school and then several years in my own studio. I stumbled into a job making and managing web sites, which turned a into provisional career. Over the next six years, it helped lay the foundation for my dream: paying down debt, buying a house in the country with space for a studio and showroom, and building my first kiln.

While working full-time at that job, I kept the pulse going in the studio -- evenings, weekends and vacations. I gradually built up a local customer base, got my pots into some shows and galleries, and taught some ceramics classes at the local college.

Then, in early 2006, I made the leap.

Things didn't go as planned. Almost immediately, I hurt my back, strained by overwork. Distractions and side projects crept in, stealing precious studio time and limiting my output. An attempt at renovating our old barn into expanded studio and showroom space was foiled by a tornado. Teaching opportunities, which I'd hoped would ease the transition away from paid employment, dried up. So I took a few freelance web jobs -- the guaranteed income was good, but further slowed my progress in the studio.

Sales improved, but not enough, and I started worrying about money in ways I never had before. My anxiety about how to pay the next month's bills became constant, and was more paralyzing than motivating. All in all, the x factor I'd been hoping for when I quit -- some sort of multiplier that would make the numbers add up to something sustainable -- never materialized.

Here's what I didn't know about being a full-time potter before I tried it: it's much harder than it looks.

I also hadn't planned on an offer to return to an improved version of my old job. Although it came just 18 months after the start of my experiment, I took it. It's hard to say exactly why. I gradually realized I'd been too impatient to get started. I should have saved more money, built a bigger kiln, made sure I was physically and mentally prepared to give it every waking moment. And perhaps those 18 months revealed what was really required to succeed: further sacrifices to my health and relationships; a tightened budget; compromising my love of making pots for the dull demands of the marketplace. The tradeoffs of a day job, as harsh as they can be, seemed preferable.

I clung to The Dream, as I'd come to think of it, for a few more years, hoping for another shot at it. But as my circumstances changed -- transitioning to a part-time job, parenthood, oncoming middle age -- I gradually realized that it wasn't doing me any good. In fact, it was weighing me down. Unfulfilled dreams fester into regrets. So on my 40th birthday, I decided to kill The Dream; to focus instead on what I can do with the life I've actually earned.

Here's what I didn't know about The Dream before I gave up on it: life without it isn't so bad.

In fact, it's pretty good. I only get to spend half my working life in the studio, but that time is much freer to be what I want. I get to make the pots I really want to make, in the ways I want to make them. I can slow down when I need to, and can take more chances while worrying less about their outcome. The money I earn from pots is still important, of course, but not desperately important. And there's a whole range of unpleasant things I don't have to do: wholesale, unappealing commissions, hauling pots across the state to weekends spent sitting at a booth, compulsively re-listing items on Etsy.

Having two jobs is complicated, but they reinforce one another, balancing out the competing demands of time and money, security and risk. I spend the first part of each week in a climate-controlled office at a computer; the rest in my studio, mostly at the treadle wheel.

In retrospect, my version of The Dream was more fantasy than plan, flawed by unrealistic ambition. Perhaps it was a youthful attempt to escape hard truths of time and money, labor and stamina, art and commerce. Some things can only be learned by running into them head first.

But I'm glad I did.

February 23rd, 2014

Dr. Strangethrow, Or: How I learned to stop sitting and love the Brent

"You have to love your tools." - Merlin Mann

For all my complaining about electric wheels and ranting about the superiority of my Leach wheel, I have to grudgingly admit that there are some things I really like about standing up and going electric. Some things that might even be -- gasp! -- better.

(That gasp because, in my (former?) role of converted, partisan, expected-to-be life-long unplugged treadler, this would be heresy of the highest order.)

Don't get me wrong -- lots of things about standing up at an electric wheel suck. But I've discovered that the thing that sucks the most is the simple fact that it's not the same as sitting at a Leach wheel; that it's not what I know. Old habits die hard, old expectations die harder.

And some of the differences aren't really better or worse, they're just interesting because they're different: the changed view out the window, using unfamiliar muscle groups, getting tired in new ways during a throwing session, how the pots in progress move around the studio.

But there are other differences that are just as good as the old way, or perhaps even better.

I like being able to just step away from the wheel as needed -- to retrieve a tool or set aside a freshly thrown pot or change the music or check the stove or wipe slip out of my eye -- without having to stop cranking and dismount it first.

I like how easy it is to adjust my posture on the fly, and how when I slip into a bad position it's more immediately noticeable. I like how there's less of a tendency to hunch over, especially as I get fatigued. That has to be a big part of the longer term wear and tear -- the way that I gradually slope over until my nose is mere inches from the wheelhead. It seems like avoiding that tendency could be good preventative medicine. Standing also encourages resetting my posture between pots: stepping away for half a minute, shaking out muscles that have been in a fixed position, stretching upwards and backwards before smacking down the next ball of clay.

And I've discovered that when I do need to get my nose close to the grain of the clay 1, I can momentarily kneel down to get my view at that level. Whether I'm shaping the underside of a flaring rim with a rib, adding a bevel at the foot before cutting off with the wire, or cutting the transition where a footring meets the outside profile of a bowl, it makes a lot more sense to do that work at eye level, where I can actually see that section of the pot, instead of from up above, where I'm basically just guessing. (No one ever admires a trimmed foot by placing the bowl on its rim and looking straight down at it, right? They pick it up and get it close to their face to see the details. Why shouldn't I do the same thing while I'm making those details?)

The same goes for seeing the full profile of a form, which usually requires the most killer of all throwing postures when in a sitting position -- that hard lean and twist to the right. (And it's even worse on a treadle, because if you want to both see from that angle and work on it at the same time, your left foot has to keep pumping while you're leaning in the opposite direction.) Conversely, when standing it's easy to just crouch down or step backwards to assess any part of the pot from a different perspective. It adds the option of sitting on a stool or stepping up on a riser as needed, to get down near a wide flaring plate or up at the rim of a tall sectional form. And an unexpected bonus is that with the increased freedom of movement, these things just happen fairly organically, without needing to be all that conscious about them. (If anything, it's my long years of habit of not being able to move around like this that prevents it; a mental limitation rather than a physical one. Once I rewire those habits, sitting at the Leach wheel will probably feel uncomfortably constrained.)

So with 60-70 pots made on the new wheel over the last six or eight weeks, I'm starting to feel these little things adding up. Collectively, it seems like they might make a big difference.

As much as I dislike a really fast wheel (a relative definition, of course; "really fast" means something different for every potter), I confess that it's pretty great how quick and effortless the preliminary stages of throwing can be, without changing the final result in any significant way. I've always been a very careful wedger, working each piece of clay on the butcher block before taking it to the wheel. In part that's a result of how I learned, but also in part because on the treadle the extra revolutions to wedge by coning take more effort than they're worth; it's more efficient to wedge on the table. But on the electric I can get those last few bits homogenized and coiled for action, letting the motor do most of the work. Given that I've probably already put too many reps on the particular muscles and tendons in my hands and wrists that take the brunt of hand wedging, this could be another pain-limiter/career-extender going forward.

Also with the fast wheelhead, centering and opening can happen almost before I know it, especially with the smaller forms I've been making. I hadn't anticipated how getting that preliminary stuff out of the way, almost without having to think about it, helps keep the flow of ideas and impressions going from one pot to the next. Just like with preparing all the clay for a series of pots before -- I was going to say "sitting down at the wheel" -- starting at the wheel, this facilitates getting into a throwing rhythm; sorting out the successes and failures from one pot to the next, focusing in on their details instead of just the broad gestures. It adds a few more percentage points to the odds of getting into a Flow state, which, if the magic ever happens, is where it happens. 2

I like refining a tricky detail or getting through the difficult part of a pull with my entire lower body in a fixed, strong position -- only my hands and arms moving. I like being able to lean in on the (horrible, wretched, tacky, 1970's Harvest Gold colored plastic) splash pan. I like just letting a pot spin in circles for the hell of it sometimes, while I step back for a sip of coffee or to shimmyto a good song for a second. Sometimes, to quote my clever wife, "waste is a luxury I need". And with electricity that's cheap enough I don't really have to think about it, it's also the rare kind of luxury I can actually afford right now.

I still hate these damn plastibats -- they're the only ones I have that fit the pegs on this Brent -- but I like how small they are -- how economically they use the always-scarce horizontal space for wet pots. My normal 12" bats, much as I love them otherwise, are pretty ridiculous with a single mug or skinny vase on them. (Yes, Carter, I still like to keep some smaller, liftable pots untouched when they're wet, so I don't lift them off the wheel onto a wareboard even though I could. Sometimes that's to leave a blank canvas for stamping or brushwork, other times it's to preserve that exact millimeter and microsecond of trailed throwing slip, or the mark of a tool, or the one fingerprint that I think I'll prefer over the ones that would record if I touched the pot again. I know: Crazytown. Anti-Meyersesque. I never said it was smart.)

Conversely to what I said about wheel speed above, I also like that the possibility of going too fast provides the opportunity to resist the temptation. I like being able to exercise that kind of restraint. I tuned the pedal downwards, so that it's a little closer to the slow treadle wheel speeds I'm accustomed to, but on full throttle it's still frantically, manically fast, especially with only a pound or two of clay on it. This is verging into true esoteric weirdness, but deliberately keeping the motor away from that high whining sound is something of an aesthetic decision. Part of the performance; a more beautiful work environment; a harmonious lack of bad noise... even though it I'm the only one there to witness it.

And I like the way that all those perfect, consistent, ceaselessly free revolutions of the wheelhead are, already, encouraging me to mess with the pots more: poking at them, tweaking them out of round, adding a little warp or torque on the last slow pass of the rib, leaving more variations in the wall thickness. As this new tool brings the possibility of that stale "perfection" closer -- reliable uniformity, bland symmetry, ill-considered details -- it also reminds me to look harder for ways to avoid it.

cf.

"Perhaps there are peaks above perfection that can be achieved only by accepting a certain amount of imperfection.” – Julian Baggini

"You have to function like perfect machines" - Ferran Adrià

"Your job is not to be perfect, your job is only to be human. And nothing important happens in life without a cost." - Jacqueline Novogratz

Huh. It would be pretty ironic if needing to switch to an electric wheel ended up making me a looser, zanier thrower. If it brought me closer to that Meyersesque approach, handling the pots to show proof that they were handled; messing them up a little bit just to add some chaos; seeking out more contrast to my intentions.

Anyways, yeah. So far, I like a lot more about it than I'd even imagined was possible a couple months ago. I could learn to love it. And that's still with this clunky old loaner. A Soldner Special might just blow my freaking mind.

1 Now in my early 40's, my closeup eyesight is fading fast. Stupid goddamn reading glasses. I put them on the other day while trimming -- for the first time ever -- and just as I discovered with reading and working at the computer late last year, I had to grudgingly -- very grudgingly -- admit that I could see what I was doing better. Gah. Getting old sucks.

2 I originally had something here about not "wasting" kicks on the bar to those less-important parts of the process, and how I imagine myself now like an aging pitcher, being on a lifetime "kick count": the number of reps left I have on the treadle before I've got to retire from it for good. Why use them up on something as mundane and basic as centering?

But that was from the perspective of assuming that I'd still be throwing on the treadle wheel -- a few weeks ago when I wrote that -- and now I'm not so sure that I ever will. It's hard to waste kicks if I never kick again, now isn't it?

Related, this whole idea of efficiency or conservation vs. waste while making pots is a strange philosophical minefield. It makes little sense almost any way you slice it. For example, thinking in terms of saving reps on the treadle bar or at the wedging block is pretty anti-Zen; it flies in the face of the "pottery is a meditation" approach. (With no disrespect to the amazing Will Ruggles, whose quote about this in an ancient issue of CM still rumbles through my mind on a regular basis.)

But it's starting to seem like that approach is a luxury I can no longer afford -- not if I want to keep doing this. Expedience rules the day. I guess I'd rather be somewhat more workman-like/efficient and keep making pots than stick to those abstract principles and in the process wear out my body to the point where I can't anymore. Something's gotta give, and I really don't want it to be my spine.

But of course, on the other hand, I'm well aware that this kind of thinking is a classic slippery slope. If it's "wasting" effort to hand wedge or center slowly, why not use a jigger and jolly instead? And if that's OK, then why bother throwing clay at all -- let's just jump ahead to the logical conclusion and make everything in molds. And once the pots are coming from molds, is it really all that important that _I'm_ the person handling the clay? I'm the brains of this operation -- the artistic voice! Let's hire some college students and ramp up production! Or better yet, fire the CADCAM files off to China and tool up for mass production! It's still "hand made", right? It's still "my work", right?

(Wrong and wrong.)

February 16th, 2014

progress is progress

"And now the Internet's media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free.
No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding.
There is always something more." - Alexis C. Madrigal

This week's obligatory studio photos

The gradually accumulating parade of greenware

A very fancy cup stand

Bowls and small jars, for stacking rim to rim

Mugs with black underglaze

Mugs with backfilled handles

This week's recommended reading

2013: The Year 'the Stream' Crested
Apparently, I'm not the only one with Facebook Fatigue. I particularly like the "stock and flow" metaphor; an intriguing way to think about creating online content.

Tony Clennel's trip to Athens, GA
This is pretty much what blogging does best.

tn@se: Day 16, parts 1-3
Last year's heartbreak. Still pretty funny.
"I’m stubborn and dumb and just want my wishes to magically come true in fired earth. Is that so wrong?"

This week's recommended listening

Brian R. Jonescast: ep.#46: Jeff Oestreich
JO is one of my all-time favorite potters, so this was a treat. Great format, a good interview style, and fine audio quality -- other than the lack of pledge drive spots, you wouldn't know it's not NPR. Which, I mean, NPR for potters? Come on, how great is that! "All this and heaven, too?"

Tales of a Red Clay Rambler: Kline, Carpenter & Philbeck
This was the third episode of the RCR podcast that I've listened to, and they've all been very good. Looking forward to feasting on the rest. The one with Matt Long was so chock full of compelling ideas that I'll have to sample it again sometime.

Anyways, I know Michael and Kyle and Ron a bit, so it was a lot of fun to hear them interact here for an hour and a half; reminded me of an amazing evening I once spent in NC. They really get into the meat of making a living as potters, and are as open and sincere and insightful about it as you'd imagine.

February 9th, 2014

wheelie

"I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing
was to aim at what excellence I could within them." - Somerset Maugham

It's starting to feel not completely wrong to make pots standing up at the electric wheel. I mean, I still kind of hate it, but maybe I hate the need to change more than the change itself. It seems pretty clear that it's a better posture for my fragile, screwed up back -- I could feel the difference almost immediately. And if it ends up that this is the only viable way forward, the only sustainable method of continuing to make pots on the wheel, then I should embrace it. I should be grateful, perhaps, that an alternative even exists.

After 3-4 months away from wet clay, it took about two dozen pots to knock the scaling rust from my hands and to rediscover those old, well-worn pathways in my brain; the ones that know how to do this autonomically. The best pots seem to come from that state where I'm not burning a million calories a minute on consciously thinking about each little step in the process. There's a mind-body connection that happens when you're into the flow of it, but it has to get warmed up, activated through use. You can't just think your way back into the process.

But it came back much faster than I'd expected -- especially considering how many of those old habits have to change to accomodate the standing posture. Getting back to that state feels like arriving home after a long, hard journey; regaining that feel for pulling and shaping, for the finest differences in pressure and direction, for that unique collection of gestures and postures and movements that push the clay into a desired form. And it's like the world and everything in it make more sense somehow, when I'm elbow-deep in slip, and tending the drying pots like babies, and swirling ideas for decoration and patterns and future slip and glaze hopes through my mind. It's really gratifying to be back in the hunt.

Some of my surprise at that quick return to form is probably due to drastically lowered expectations. I'm just relieved to be making stuff at all. There were times last fall, the darkest times, where I wondered if I might actually be finished as a potter. Burned out before my time. Overfired. That was, and is, a terrifying prospect. Terrifying enough that even those first few clunky hesitant bowls in January seemed to come off the wheel with a burst of light and celestial fanfare playing in the background.

Huh. So much for dreams, right? 'If you just keep lowering your expectations, someday you'll be happy.'

So now I've been using the electric and standing to throw -- with only occasionally sitting at the treadle to trim -- for about five weeks now. I'm squeezing as much work time into each studio day and week as I can without redlining my back. (Or, at least, not too much; I've cut it pretty close a few times). With the added overhead of warming up, paying careful attention to posture and position, taking frequent breaks and so forth, it hasn't resulted in as many pots as usual. (Or, perhaps I should say, as it used to.) Which is frustrating, but even so... they're slowly starting to fill up the table in the center of the studio. And that's tangible progress towards the next bisque, the next salt firing, the next sale. I live for those little scraps of progress these days.

Five weeks in and it's starting to feel normal. Normal enough that it's weird that it feels normal. I'm adapting to the changes, I guess; acclimating to the new reality. Taking ownership of both the new tool and the new method, instead of approaching it like some kind of punishment inflicted on me from the outside.

Which, come to think of it, is probably half the battle: approaching the work with genuine engagement and some amount of optimism, despite the obstacles. Accepting that it's always a gradual series of changes and adaptations, even in the best of times.

"A life, Jimmy. You know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come." - Bunk Moreland

And if I can't do it that way -- as a life, as part of what happens instead of as hoped for moments -- then why try to do it at all?

February 2nd, 2014

two for one

"Earth defined, I can't advise, I can't been sign in the begin;
Sitting time for the begin, a waste of time, sitting still."
- what I used to think Michael Stipe was singing

Here's the current version of my new wheel setup, a slight improvement over "the garbage version". I've used the Leach wheel a few times for trimming now -- without instantly turning my spine into kindling! -- which makes me think it may still have a limited future in my studio. So the catch now is making room for both wheels. The last time I did a major rearrangement of the studio, it was with the assumption that I'd always have just the treadle, and with it being in that particular, ideal spot. Aimed out the front windows, in close proximity to two work tables, wedging block, stereo, etc. Then I put a lot of that related furniture into what I thought would be permanent spots, so that most of them are either bolted onto the walls or buried in piles of pots, reclaim clay and junk.

So it will take some serious rethinking of the whole space to find an arrangement that allows for both wheels. And it will probably require a preliminary project of pruning away a lot of the "stuff I might need someday" that's accumulated in the studio in the last nine years. It'd make sense to finally move/sell/haul out to the barn my old Lockerbie kickwheel, which would probably be only marginally better for my back now than the treadle. It's a nice wheel as they go, and probably a good one for, say, an aspiring young potter to start on, but it's been unused and in a really inconvenient place for as long as I can remember. (For someone who deliberately "killed the dream", you'd think I could let go of a dumb old furniture arrangement more easily than this.)

Also, I should probably try the John Glick/Kristen Keiffer setup at some point, with the electric wheel backed up to a wall and with some sort of back support built onto the wall to allow for a semi-standing, leaning posture… I'm not sure how well that would work, exactly, or if it would be a real improvement over just standing in space as I am now. But because my studio is just one big, undivided room, there isn't really a good, free wall space to do that -- there are too many doors, windows, and fixtures like the wood stove, wall furnace, and water spigot to work around.

Which leads back around to another remodeling idea I've had, of subdividing the space into two or three smaller rooms. It'd be nice to have a designated area for bisqueware and raw materials storage that was away from the dust and activity of wet clay, and that didn't need to be heated (and cooled) as much as the main work area. And I'd love to section off a little tool room, if for no other reason than to just get them out of the way and out of sight. (It's kind of a bummer to spend all day with old paint cans and piles of random supplies in my peripheral vision, and I seem genetically incapable of organizing and decluttering it. Constantly working around it can't be helping my ability to focus on the pots.)

And then if I'm going to be framing up new walls, it would make a ton of sense to finally get around to improving the ceiling situation; that leaky, gradually failing patchwork of wallboard, foam panels and duct tape that currently seperates the inside from the outside. Funny how those larger projects always seem to link one to the next, so that they linger forever on the Someday, Maybe list.

For now -- to get it off my Now, Definitely list -- I've left the two wheels in roughly the same spot, and rotated the Leach wheel 90º, so that both wheels can share the little utility table where I put my bats, throwing tools, towel, etc. One nice aspect to this, provided that I only use the treadle for trimming, is that I can keep each wheel setup for a specific task. With only one wheel, that's a minor but very frequent mode switch that slows things down and gets rather tiresome.

+

Let's see… Somehow, despite January being just brutal on the weather front, I managed to make a few batches of pots last month. Simple stuff -- mugs and bowls -- but so far I have about three dozen that are probably worth firing, and my brain is gradually slipping into that intoxicating mid-throwing-session state. That's certainly more than I expected to accomplish by now.

The real drag about working with wet clay in the dead of winter is the threat of accidentally freezing pots in progress before they're bone dry. I've lost a few small batches of pots that way over the years, so I'm completely paranoid about it now. (After randomly dropping wareboards on the floor, that's probably my most despised way to lose pots. Such a waste. At least when they bite it in the firing, they had a chance.)

I bought a new wood stove last fall, in part with the idea of using it more often than the old clunker, to minimize the amount of time the propane furnace runs. But with consistent sub-freezing temps for several weeks -- and some crazy nights in the -20's -- I've been working overtime just to stay on top of the firewood supply and keep the stove going. It's like a(nother) part time job! It's one of those classic exchanges of labor for dollars and, as is usually the case with solid fuels versus gas, I think there's a significant savings to be had. But the labor gets pretty wearying at times. Some days (and nights) I just punt and let the thermostat take over. But most of the time I've kept at it, and it's getting to be a new habit. An unexpected fringe benefit is that tending the stove gets me out there at least a few -- and usually several -- times a day. (The studio is about 50 yards from the house.) That keeps me a little more mentally engaged in the studio even on days that I'm not working there; let's me see the recent pots in passing; forces me out of the envelope of the home momentarily and into the outside air, even on the coldest days; and seems to ease the weekly transition from office work to studio work a bit. It reminds me of Penland, too, going out there into the dark to put the studio to bed before I crash for the night.

And anything that reminds me of Penland has to be good.

January 27th, 2014

NC dream

"…our hero is faced with an elemental choice: stay or go?" - Anthony Lane

A year ago today I started my Adventure, my journey away from the reliable comforts of The Shire, my potting sabbatical. Damn.

February at Penland. It was so ethereally great, like living inside a dream for thirty days straight. As this winter drags on, month after frozen month, I'm overwhelmed by the contrast between now and last year at this time. So much of the year since then has been more like a bad dream, a sequence of little nightmares. February was the amazing high point in an otherwise low, hard, disappointing 2013.

I'd practically kill to go back again. To pack up our stuff and just run away for another month inside the dream. I mean, it really was that great. (I've got the alterna-blog to prove it. And, I must say, as bittersweet as it is, I'm enjoing the hell out of reading it now, following along one day at a time with the posts from a year ago. "I feel like one third of a Brandon Phillips" still cracks me up.)

Living the dream

Looking at those pictures now, I'm foolishly nostalgic for even the little things. Like those bare wood floors and funky olive green shelves; the light through those windows in the afternoons; clacking away at that funky treadle wheel. Daily trips to the coffee shop; Jacob's magic hand gel; the ebb and flow of conversation in the studio; the ritual of swapping my hiking boots for sneakers each morning before starting another day of making.

Last year at this time, fueled by that sabbatical trip, it seemed like there was still a tiny little space left in which to dream. But so many things have broken badly since then that now it's like my cable keeps getting bound up in the damn track, yanking me out of even the faintest daydream. The sepia allure of the craftsman's life and the hope of escape from this indentured, everyday grind are mere illusions. Nobody's coming to set me free.

<loop>

January 19th, 2014

I'm not going to take this sitting down

"Body's at home, but my heart's in the wind." - Tom Waits

I've heard it said that the kiln is the heart of the potter's studio. But for me the kiln is more like the intestines. The wheel is the heart.

And the studio -- by which I mean the ongoing activity of making pots there -- is the heart of almost everything to me. Almost. That is, it's not quite everything, but without it everything else feels like a whole lot of nothing. The wheel is the heart of the heart, if that makes any sense. It's the fundamental part; the most meaningful, the most rewarding.

So when I torched by back last fall, worse than I had in seven years, the most disturbing, problematic part was that it seemed strongly related to throwing. And not just to throwing, but to throwing on my treadle wheel in particular. When I demonstrated that posture and motion to my amazing physical therapist -- sitting, bent forward, arms extended, left leg pushing at the knee, right leg holding all my upper body weight, twisted to the right at the waist -- the look on his face said, "Yeah… maybe you shouldn't be doing that anymore."

Kind of a

"It hurts when I do this, Doc."
"Then don't do that."

scenario. In other words: Bad News.

After about two months of patiently letting things heal up and sort themselves out, plus a long, boring list of changes, new routines, attempted exercises and so forth to try to keep it from happening again, I probably could have climbed back on the treadle in mid-November -- cautiously -- and made a few pots. I don't think that would have failed completely. I might be able to make all those other changes and still get by with that as my wheel, at least for a while. But then again, I might not. If two more lost, painful months are what it costs to find out, I'd rather not find out that way.

In any case, it didn't really matter. The timing of my recovery, so to speak, was terrible, because by that point I needed to be well into the sale cycle. So I essentially cancelled my fall making session -- Hello, world! This is what I look like as a heartless zombie! -- and instead spent those spine-hours firing the kiln, setting up the showroom, and doing the 8,000 other little tasks involved in having a studio sale.

Then: a trip out of town, the holidays, blizzard hell, sickness, delays, dayjob, etc, etc. (In other words: January.) So it wasn't until a couple weeks ago that I could even start to approach this problem. All that time, waiting, I tried to cut myself some slack for the fact that I was walking around with no heart in my heart, and with no idea if and when I might get it back. Keeping it together. Faking it. But there's only so much you can do in the cutting yourself some slack department. Ice cream and video games, it turns out, aren't really a cure for anything. Hence: In The Suck.

I mean, god damn. If I had known that my mid-life crisis might include having to give up my treadle wheel, I'd have just bought a convertible and starting drinking to keep it at bay a while longer.

Anyways.

So here's my first shot at a provisional solution; "the garbage version that's so bad it will make everyone hate you", where, in this case, everyone is me. It's definitely the garbage version that's just good enough to hate:

That's a loaner Brent on a pile of cinder blocks, with my Leach wheel sadly jammed into the corner. Don't get me wrong: I'm very lucky to have this electric wheel, to try out the throwing while standing up thing. That's a huge plus. But it's just… it's just that almost everything is wrong about it. My workspace is extra cluttered and out of sorts; the wheel is beat up enough to add an extra layer of unneeded frustration; and this quick-and-dirty setup, which I put together one morning in a desperate attempt to stop delaying the inevitable, is wobbly and clunky and dumb. Add in the fact that, unlike most potters I know, I've thrown on an electric wheel, for all of about 1% of my potting life, and all of that sitting, and that I have strongly disliked almost every minute of it -- the motor noise, the gas pedal, the lack of reversibility, the harshness of stopping and starting, the disconnect between the speed of the wheel and what my hands are doing. Blah.

Also, after almost five full months with barely a lump of clay on the wheel, I'm more rusty than I've been in almost 20 years, and I hate being rusty. I'm completely incapable of being rational about it, to the point that it kills my already fragile confidence. Next to not making pots at all -- which is the absolute worst -- making pots those first few times after a long stretch away is the worst.

So there's all that to get past, too. And the standing thing is… just plain weird. Where do my arms go? How should I reach for my tools? What's this stupid splash pan doing in my way? Wow, that's a lot of slop water cascading onto the floor. Where should I put the pedal, and how do I go about adjusting the speed with a half-formed pot on the wheelhead? And on and on.

I mean, it works; as awkward and aggravating and bizarre as it seems, it works. Pots were made. And the posture was immediately, noticeably different and -- I have to admit -- better. Less strain in the wrong places, and obvious use of those core muscles that I've been trying to train up. But woof… I'm not sure if I'll ever get used to it. Even with a better wheel, a good setup, and a lot of practice. Maybe not being "used to it" is as good as it's gonna get.

So I've made a handful of pots the last couple weeks. So far, my back hasn't collapsed into kindling. I haven't quit in frustration. The pots are coming off the wheel round and not-terrible. (Certainly not good, either, but I can't expect them to possibly be good yet.) They're at least something -- some new objects, some wet clay in hand, some use of those mental routines and neural pathways that are just desperate to be activated. A bit of progress, a glimmer of hope.

But there are lots of questions ahead. Hard decisions. Do I buy a new electric wheel, and if so which one? How much to spend? (eg. Is this a long term, permanent investment; a tool I'll use every week? Or a short-term, occasional patch on the system?) If I go big -- say, a Soldner -- how do I pay for it? Raid my ever-shrinking war chest, the one was was supposed to go to the new salt kiln? Maybe. I guess. If that's what it takes.

I mean, what good is a new set of intestines if I'm walking around with no heart?

January 12th, 2014

you have notifications, pending

"It's good for us to think about why we get bored, why we need something
to be happening all the time. Or it's good for me, anyway." - Alex Pappademas

I've been away from Facebook for about a month, and while I'm sure I've missed some things during that time -- things it'd be nice to know, status updates from people I care about, links to interesting stuff -- I can't say I've missed it. If anything, I've anti-missed it. I was probably overdue for a break.

And now that I've been out of that loop for a while, I'm not feeling much attraction to going back in. I'm sure I will, eventually. But it's not like I'm champing at the bit.

It probably helped that I didn't plan it in advance. It wasn't some overwrought New Year's resolution, it just came about by circumstance. We went to my parents' in San Diego before Christmas, which made an obvious time to try out a different pattern. I didn't even track down the Wi-Fi password for a week, each day feeling less and less interested in finding out what was happening in my inbox and the rest of my online "life".

In part that was because Maggie never shifted her internal clock to Pacific time, so we were up each morning way before first light, and the last thing I want to see at 5am is the spam that somehow still gets through the filters and a bunch of invites to events I'd never dream of attending, even if they weren't seven states away. In part it was because I've been neglecting actual, paper books for so long it was starting to feel like a thought crime, and once I summoned the will to crack one open -- my first shot at a Neil Gaiman novel -- it pulled me in as easily and completely as The Feed ever does. Also in part because I've plugged a few good games into what seems to be a mandatory quota of weekly iPad time, in those interstitial moments of downtime where reading isn't practical or I'm just too tired to do it justice. And in part it was because I miss my old winter morning routine, pre-iPad, of drinking coffee and just staring out into the darkness until it stops being dark. California sunrises, after more time away from them now than I spent with them, back when they were the only kind I knew, are now foreign and kind of entrancing. At home, the sun bangs up over a flat, empty horizon, each day when it's not strangled by leaden clouds; blinding in it's sudden brilliance. At my folks' house, it creeps up behind the hills, on the backside of the house, the yellow gradually sliding down the valley to the west, all fake-winter sunshine and relief.

Anyways, kind of like with an accidental beard -- where I reach up one morning to discover that I'm two weeks in so why not give it a month? -- after a week away from FB, the most appealing course was to just keep staying away. And that's just snowballed (ha ha; hilarious) since we got home.

Somewhere in there, ironically delivered by the web hive mind from one source or another, I came across this post, The Builder's High, which is quite good and particularly resonated for me in the section "A Day Full of Moments":

"Why am I spending so much time consuming other people’s moments?”

I think that's a sneakily big question. And examined in that framework, where the individual bits of content that Facebook specializes in are shared and consumed moments, I get some insight into why that bedraggled feeling of Facebook fatigue feels like it does. Too much of The Feed too often and it starts to seem like I'm living inside two dozen other peoples' heads, all at the same time. I lost track of who I am, and what I'm doing; the thread of my personal narrative gets entangled with all those other virtual threads. Which, to some degree, is a good thing; these interactions are the foundational blocks of empathy. But too much and… sizzle. I walk into my studio, and can't remember where I am in my making or firing cycle, images of all those other kilns flickering through my short-term subconscious, thoughts of all those other pots that were being thrown, trimmed, decorated, glazed while I was off doing other things. It eats up tons of the available bandwidth in memory and attention, and there's not that much to go around these days as it is. As great as it can be to chat around the virtual water cooler, to check in with those dozen or so peers on a semi-daily basis, I'm starting to think it's just not worth it.

For as desperately as we seem to want to connect, I submit that we're not wired for this; not capable of making those connections in this particular way. (Or, that if we once were, back in the dim dawn, that we've evolved away from that capability.) The problem with an over-crowded cocktail party is that you can't hear a damn thing.

I've seen a few pop-science things lately that suggest whales and dolphins and elephants can probably do it, and certainly bees. They might spend good chunks of their awareness thinking as the network, the collective mind, rather than as just individual nodes on the network. But, with the usual notable exceptions, I suspect we humans only have room for one OS on our built in drive, and that attempts to partition or dual boot it will likely lead to quick and certain hardware failure. (For the two people out there who actually liked that analogy: you're welcome.)

So it occurs to me now, from this rarified, monk-like perspective on the thing, that the perpetual rush of waves and particles through the online fluid that we spend most of our days marinating in, or simply dog paddling through; it occurs to me that that rush is much more appealing when you're caught up inside of it than when you're looking at it from the outside in. For all the torrential power of the Now and the Instantaneous, it's all pretty shallow and transitory. It almost has to be, because there's so much coming through the dam behind it, one way or another.

My hope is that this is kind of an inter-generational phenomena; something that mostly afflicts those of us old enough to be tweeners of the digital age. We can remember adult thoughts and life patterns before the web, but were still malleable and daring enough to dive in feet first when it first washed up on our shores. My hope is that for Maggie's generation, these will be mostly non-issues; that it will just be like TV was to us. An addictive, narcotic distraction, but not something impossible to resist or turn off for most of the day, when it's time to get some crap done. Anyways, yeah. Hope.

The funny thing about actually reading a real, live, paper book is that, if it's even remotely good, it's pretty easy to dive into the next one. And easier still the third one, and so on. So after needing almost six months to plow my way through Middle Passage, I devoured American Gods, then the pamphlet-sized Quack Like This, and am now almost through the fun, breezy The Magicians, and I'm eyeing the stack of accumulated purchases on my bookshelf more with anticipation, for a change, than regret. Maybe Spook Country, or Life After God, or even, dare I dream, Infinite Jest will be next?

So I'm not necessarily recommending that you try this, if you don't or haven't already. For some people, I imagine taking away Twitter would be like turning off life support, and they'd have to send out regular updates just so people wouldn't worry that they'd died. I gradually, somewhat grudgingly returned to email -- the potentially least shallow of the online ponds to frolic in -- but I know (and can remember being one of those) people who couldn't afford to ignore their inbox(es) for a day, let alone ten. And I suspect this is completely YMMV territory; that what is recharging and beneficial to one person could have the exactly opposite effect for another. But I do recommend you at least think about trying it. Or post a status update about why you're not going to. Or something.

It does make me wonder again, for the thousandth time, what all this stuff is doing to our brains. And to marvel at how relatively new it all still is, and despite that newness how amazingly fast it's worked its way into our most ironclad routines and most intimate spaces. I don't want to be totally offline, but I don't want to be completely online either. And no; it's not lost on me that for me to write this and you to read it, we're both at least half plugged into the very thing I'm questioning.

Anyways; if you got through all of that, maybe you'll care to know that I've decided to stop linking to tw@se posts over there on my St. Earth FB page. I'm not that interested in promoting this anymore, and god help the poor soul who wanders into this in year seven and tries to find their footing. ("Not User Friendly" would be another pretty good tagline.) But also because I only started doing it halfheartedly in the first place; and I dislike the implied obligation to say "Thanks!" to the occasional well-meaning comment; and because it's never felt like the right fit, even as just a blurb and a link. Worlds collide. Also, I'm completely unmotivated to play the shell game of guessing where the potential audience is hanging out from season to season -- Twitter, Tumblr, G+, Pinterest, Future Thing 1, Future Thing 2, etc. And I'm morally opposed to those "tools" that spam every post out to a dozen aggregator/broadcaster services, most of which I've hardly even heard of, let alone used. Telling everybody in every possible way seems weirdly equivalent to telling nobody. No signal, all noise.

However! If you're still geeky enough (or technologically stuck in the mid-2000's enough) to use RSS feeds, I'll keep that updated; if for no other reason than it's still the most elegant option, easy to update, and a de facto standard at this point. And, I've recently started an email notification list, so if you'd like to get an email when there's a new post here, just and I'll be happy to add you to it.

So, uhm… yeah. Seeya on Facebook, I guess!

January 5th, 2014

the garbage version that's so bad it will make everyone hate you

"Doing nothing can be the wisest choice,
although strangely often the most difficult." - Arngeir

<loop>

Aside from an extremely nice trip to balmy SoCal for the holidays, swapping the old calendar for the new hasn't changed much around here. Nothing changes -- at least, not for the better -- unless we change it.

Same old winter, same old snow; same old pile of random junk getting in between me and meaningful studio time; same old flakey back. I am a strange, downward loop.

So if you're looking for sunny pottery optimism in this new year, you've come to the wrong place. I'm sorry for that, but not necessarily apologetic about it, if you get the subtle distinction between the two.

This blogging thing -- and particularly my commitment to a weekly format -- raises the problem of what to do when things are going badly. It's quite the conundrum.

On the one hand, there's no shortage of doom and gloom in the news and everybody has their own problems, many far more dire and dramatic than mine. So I don't expect many people to tune in for more of that, and certainly not week after week, no matter how well they know me or might like what I do.

But on the other hand, the dual commitment to saying something every week and trying to make what I say as honest and sincere as I possible doesn't leave a lot of good alternatives when everything is seriously In The Suck. I could skip the honesty and just lie -- "Everything's great!" -- but to what end? And how would you trust me later when something genuinely good happens? And, for god's sake, to what end? Keeping a smile on my public persona so no one gets uncomfortable? Nah.

I could stick with my previous tactic, of mostly editing out the sad parts and then filling that void with something else. But the trick there is that's a lot like a job; just another obligation. Why write about something I'm not really engaged in or able to do justice to in the moment? Certainly not for the Likes.

I suppose I'm clinging to the belief that blogging still has the potential to round out our collective sense of what other people's lives are really like, and that that's somehow worth something. That this medium can convey not just the personal perspective, but that perspective with more than just the highlights kept in the final edit. I'm suspicious of the times the camera comes out to record a happy moment. I want to know what's outside the frame, what happened before and after, too.

Recording, parsing and sharing both the highs and the lows; the hope and the despair; the brilliant successes and the dismal failures -- that seems more worthwhile and meaningful to me. Why hide half the life that the blog is, at best, a reflection of?

I dunno... that's perhaps a too ambitious goal. It might take a thinker or writer more skilled than me to pull it off. And it just may be that I'm rationalizing my desire to moan and groan by dressing it up in some fancy idealism. Looking for a defensible way to keep blathering out my objections to life such as it is into the public space. It might also be that I've simply lost my mind, and am trying out any available route to finding it again.

In reponse to one of my downer posts last fall, my friend and fellow potter/blogger Carter said that not everything that goes on a blog needs to be a definitive statement, a polished conclusion. That it's OK to explore. That if I'm even just thinking about something, mulling it over, it's (potentially) worth noting and sharing. I think that's a good guideline for the perpetual "do I share this or not?" dilemma.

Lately, here in the deep snow, with a dozen new reasons for taking the fatalisic view, I've considered going all in on the despair this year. Making a theme of it. Grinding it to a fine philosophical powder. Getting deep into the angst, frustration and occasional agonies of trying to squeeze some pots out through this mortal coil… I even know what I'd call it: Alms for Oblivion. ("Good title.") Most likely, that would drive away all but the most hollow of souls in the process; all those except for my fellow perpetual rollers of stones up hills. One must imagine Sissyphus happy, I suppose, because imagination is for those things that aren't, in fact, real.

And, as I've confessed before, I'm drawn to the idea of finding an audience and then, actively or otherwise, finding a way to alienate it. Luring them in with sweets and then serving out ugly, boiled, tasteless vegetables night after night after night until they (you) just can't take it any more. In the same way that most good comedians have a dark past that helps fuel the jokes, I think many good writers secretly want to be despised. Read, and appreciated or admired. But not liked too much, or too easily. Only contrarians chain themselves to words and spend all that time alone, trying to figure out what they think.

"I hadn't learned yet that the most important thing about writing anything is just writing the garbage version of that thing, the one that's so bad it will make everyone hate you." - Alex Pappademas

That dovetails so nicely with my former epigram -- "A rough draft of the blog I hope to write someday" -- that I don't even feel the need to elaborate on it.

Anyways, the good news is that committing to a whole year of The Notebook of Doom theme would require more proactive motivation than I have just now, and probably more operational discipline than I could maintain for twelve whole months. (My kneejerk reflexes would probably undo the whole idea pretty quickly. Usually, as soon as I've declare my undying pessimism here, I start to feel better, and by the next week have found all sorts of sunshine and rainbows to chase down and wrangle into text.)

So I'll spare you all that, most likely, and instead just allow the bleakness to seep in when and where it wants to. Judging from the response I've had to it so far, that will be sufficiently offputting to trim the readership back to the All-22 that I'm comfortable with. (Each time I hear from or about someone new who reads/has read/is aware of the existence of tw@se, I get that wiggly, face grimacing, momentarily stomach churning sensation; the one that's more generally reserved for the gross out scene in a cheap horror flick. I won't even begin to pretend that I understand this reaction to what should presumably be good news.

(Also, given the general decline in people actually reading stuff online -- in favor of wallowing in endless tweets, updates and shapshots -- it's a problem that will likely take care of itself even if I do nothing -- the best kind!)

So it goes.

Last fall, a reader who shall go unnamed (let's just it rhymes with Cycle Twine), wrote to me:

"I sense that tw@se is heavy in your backpack. But I hope you will continue at some level."

I like that backpack metaphor, and it stuck with me. And after giving it probably too much thought, I guess it's true to a certain extent. Certainly when things get busy, like in the November rush to sale season, or too awful, like when there are just zero pots happening and a bunch of chaos in their place, it'd be easier to just skip it. To drop the backpack and run like hell. As you've probably noticed, I often end up doing some variation of this: putting out the bare minimum to fulfill my weekly quota. That's where my shift towards photo compositions came from; and the same goes for my increasing reliance on quotes by other people to say what I mean for me. Many weeks, especially when everything here is breaking bad, I can manage that more easily than writing.

But... I also have to wonder if it's true the other way around just as often: that "the life" is weighing down the blog's backpack? Know what I mean? Seen from a different set of starting assumptions, it's the blog that's getting loaded down. Hampered by back problems and illnesses and other work and poor planning and, too often, mere distraction and outright lazyness. It's not tw@se's fault that everything outside it's parameters is a complete mess! It could be so much more if those other things would just stay off it's back.

I dunno. Maybe this is just my idealistic part asserting itself again; the part that refuses to submit to the mountain of evidence against it. But I can't shake the sense that these personal, non-marketing, not-for-profit blogs -- as few good ones are there are left -- still have the potential to be so much more than a burden on their respective authors. Maybe like pottery, they just need space to roam without the weight of sustainable profitability and rational justification dragging them down.

I hope that I -- and those potter bloggers I just linked to, and anyone else who has the potential inclination to give it a shot -- do write more. I hope I can keep making it more, even if those words come out colored in the darkest shades, or more sporadically, or too weird for even my staunchest supporters to grok.

But of course, I also think it's completely reasonable if I, and they, don't. It's not like being a potter isn't hard enough already. Making time and energy to also write about it is asking a lot. It's not that surprising that so many people try it and let it fade out. Sad, but totally understandable.

Let me try to sum up with this:

"Writing about ceramics is a way to bridge what we make and the effect that making has on us." - Jack Troy

Now I hesitate to slurm Troy's intended meaning here, and I confess to having lost the context that this quote came from. But, in my interpretation, it's noteworthy that he didn't necessarily say writing about ceramics is a good way to communicate information about ceramics to others. Or to spread some good out into the world. Or to gain followers, get gigs, or increase your Q rating amongst whatever little segment of humanity you care about impressing. No. Instead, I read it as saying that the first reason to write about ceramics, perhaps even the best reason, is to gain understanding about what doing ceramics does to you, the maker; to explore the change it's made in yourself. That, to me, is a revelatory idea. Start by writing to understand; if you come up with something worth sharing, then fine, but even if you don't… also fine.

And this, I think, gets to the secret about blogging; at least, about the kind of blogging I described above: You have to do it for yourself. For what you, personally, get out of it. Because otherwise, it's just not worth it. The ancillary benefits are nice; the extrinsic rewards can be gratifying. But unless you're doing it mainly for you, it just takes too much effort and brain sweat and time that could -- and probably should -- be spent elsewhere.

Then again, what do I know? I'm just some guy on the Internet with a fancy text editor and 321 posts on my back.