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2009 Archive

December 20th, 2009

"What defines a 'good investment'... is to a large degree its rate of return in comparison with other investments. There is no obvious absolute standard that we can appeal to, so some amount of reflection on opportunity costs is probably essential. But not too much." - Barry Schwartz

I found this quote this week, near the end of Schwartz's book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. It really jumped out at me, because the next place I was going with my assessment of how the coupon affected my holiday sale was to put it in terms of investment. So while it makes sense to analyze that decision compared with how the other possibilities might have turned out -- i.e. versus the opportunity costs -- analyzing it too much is probably a bad idea (both for me and my readers!). But I'm going to anyways.

The thesis of the book is that while it's very important to have the ability to make decisions that affect one's life, too many choices actually makes people feel worse, both from the stress caused by the act of choosing and from excessive opportunities for disappointment and regret about the outcome of their choices. Strangely, research shows that this happens even when those outcomes are objectively pretty good, like choosing between eating at two restaurants. That fact is counter-intuitive, which is where the "paradox" part comes in and why it's a pretty interesting book. Schwartz makes a compelling argument for it, backed up by good storytelling and a layman's summary of lots of psychological data.

The benefit of thinking about opportunity costs is that analyzing a decision -- particularly an important one -- is a good feedback mechanism for learning how to make better choices in the future. With experience, we learn that every choice excludes other choices, and that those trade-offs cost us something. But doing this excessively means spending time and energy on things that are already past, and therefore out of one's control. (As Lady MacBeth said, "What's done, is done.") Schwartz also explains how this can create more regret and self-blame than is objectively warranted, leading to an unrealistic perspective and the possibility of an emotional downward spiral.

Perfectionists (Schwartz calls us "maximizers") tend to review a decision repeatedly, probing for any detail that could have been improved on, particularly if the decision fell far short of expectations. He writes about how this cycle, while stemming from the goal of making yourself more satisfied, usually leads to less overall satisfaction, plus increased fear, uncertainty, and doubt about your ability to make good decisions in the future. Not that I've been obsessively second-guessing that $25 coupon -- of course not! I read books like this only to see how they might apply to other people. It's just an interest in being aware of current research the field of psychology, not some attempt to solve any personal deficiencies.


OK, so I spun it around for a few days more than I should have, but just a few. Fortunately, that lead to some conclusions, which I think amount to more than just rationalizing the results. To recap, last week I wrote about the origins of my sales model, and how I decided to offer the promotional discount for my 10th anniversary sale. My first motive was to thank my previous customers for their support. While I meant that sincerely, it certainly wasn't an act of charity; I gave them a little something extra and unexpected, hoping this would reinforce their future interest and patronage. My previous customer base has been quite reliable over the years, and I feel fortunate that that's the case. My sales generally have a good turnout, with a consistently upwards trend. So this wasn't an attempt to stem a tide of fading interest. But I believe it's very important to keep those customers engaged for the long haul, perhaps more in my case than for other types of businesses.

The conventional wisdom -- that it's easier and less expensive to keep the customers you already have than find new ones -- makes good sense. For a niche product like mine, I think it makes even more sense. Handmade pottery appeals to a fairly narrow range of the general population. Add in the fact that we're in a rural location, and the potential customer base for my local sales is relatively small. So the customers I miss or lose are that much more important -- there's a finite number of new people to take their place.

I'm committed to this method of selling my pots, and I would very much like to expand and improve on it each year. That's only possible if I keep the customer base I have, and steadily add to it. With that in mind, I look for any extra incentive to give people good reasons to come back.

(Fortunately, there's some positive feedback built into the system: once people find my work, they might get in the habit of coming out to buy pots, perhaps appreciating the pots more with use, or sharing them with friends, and so on. But there's always some attrition at work, too: people move away, or fill up their available shelf space, or max out their family's interest in receiving pots as gifts.

Another factor is that shopping has become entangled with entertainment, to the extent that people can get tired of repetition, bored by the sameness of the experience. Modern retail seems to be about perpetually recreating the lure of the new -- as seen each and every holiday season! Building the illusion of a unique, interesting shopping experience, above and beyond the actual items or services purchased, creates needs to be fulfilled, which keeps money flowing into the system. There's a reason that new strip malls turn old ones into ghost towns, and that national retail chains invent a new marketing campaign every season, even though they're essentially selling the same old stuff.

While I think my typical customer is too savvy to take all that at face value -- and that my retail "experience" and product are a bit more genuine -- that's the prevailing societal norm. It has a strong influence on where and how people choose to spend their money.)

So my first goal was to thank existing customers and, hopefully, encourage more repeat business. The second, given all of the above, was to prompt some new customers to attend. I usually send out a few hundred cards to my "potential customer list", which is comprised of people I know or know of in our local area. Some have expressed an interest in my work or have a related connection, but most of them haven't. (On the internet, we call that spam; via snail mail it's more tastefully called "direct marketing".) Thinking that some people on the list who've never come to the sale might actually be interested, just not quite enough, it seemed like highlighting the anniversary and offering an extra incentive was a good way to get a few more of them to attend. I also take announcement cards around to local businesses, where it seems like their customers and mine might overlap -- restaurants, shops, the county visitors' bureau. I hoped the same thing would apply there; that the coupon might make the difference between someone just looking at the cards versus bringing one with them to the sale.

So what were the results? I said before, it certainly boosted attendance: near record turnout, some previous customers who hadn't been here in a while, and more new customers than usual. Many people walked in the door with the coupon in hand, and most seemed pleased to get the discount. That first hour on Saturday was just wild, with a palpable buzz in the air. Several regulars didn't bring the coupon, or resisted a bit -- I had to insist! Only a handfull of people took a free pot without buying anything else, which was fine with me. I expect at least some of them will be back for more. I've also come to think of every pot that goes out the door works in my favor, potentially spreading awareness that I'm here and what my work is like. If that's true, even the free pots pay dividends eventually.

In total, I redeemed about 60 coupons, which means the experiment worked, perhaps even a bit too well. (Rather than be coy and make you do the math, I'll spell it out: that's $1500 in discounts.) That's a lot, but I've realized there are some caveats that make it less daunting than it might seem at first glance. For example, that dollar amount isn't exactly the same as it's equivalent value in pots; it's not like I just handed it out in cash. Those pots would have sold eventually, but certainly not all this time around. And there's a big gap between my production costs and retail price, of course, so it's more like I'm forgoing the profit on them than giving away that full amount. And finally, I usually send first-time customers a $25 gift certificate, as an incentive to making a return visit, so a portion of the total was just giving them that amount up front (i.e. I didn't send out gift certificates this time).

Given what I know now, would I do it again? Yes, I think so. Maybe for a slightly less per coupon -- $20 probably would have had a similar effect to $25. (Then again, by the time my 20th anniversary rolls around (2019!), twenty bucks probably won't mean quite as much as it does today.)

In any case, I see it as an investment that will take time to fully evaluate. And it may be hard to distinguish the results of this experiment from the other variables involved. For example, if my customer base grows faster in the next few years, is it because I did this, or because my pots or marketing or the general economy got better during that same time?

In terms of opportunity costs, I could have put that money into many other things, and some of them might have paid a higher rate of return. But as with any investment, I think it's value is relative to a lot of other factors. How do I put a price on customer goodwill, or people leaving the sale with a positive impression? And Schwartz says it's good to evaluate these choices and learn from them, but not spend too much time on what might have been.

2010 Yunomis

Warm up


Otherwise, it was a slow week around here. I made up for some missed time at the office, and was still a little under the weather. I made a hesitant attempt at getting back to throwing, just some practice bowls that I recycled to use again later, but it proved to be more than my back could handle. Clearly I've been idle too long. That's a real bummer, but not completely unexpected. It's time to get back to the gym.

I've had a few visits to the showroom since the sale, so the inventory of pots is dwindling to levels that make me nervous. I sent my yunomis to AKAR for this year's show; all salt-fired porcelain, with the slip and dots pattern I had such good results from in the last couple firings. I'm really pleased with them and it was nice to not be crashing the deadline this year, for a change. I've also been invited to the Functional Ceramics 2010 exhibition, in Wooster, Ohio for the first time, which is a great opportunity, but also five more pots spoken for. (The associated workshop features three potters I really admire, so I'd like to drive over for it, but next April is sure to be bonkers around here as usual.)

I'm going to take my winter blog break next week, then I'll resume in the new year. Happy holidays, and thanks for reading.

December 13th, 2009

"Don't forget it all, I know I will" - Squeeze

Caught in the wake of the sale this week, I bobbed around gulping seawater and trying to remember which direction it was to shore. I always forget -- or manage to convince myself -- that the sale cycle extends a week beyond the sale itself.

So I packed and shipped pots to out-of-state customers, and started putting the house back in its non-sale arrangement. I made a first pass at cleaning up after the frenzy in the studio, and took the metal stack off the soda kiln and stored it away for winter. (It was in remarkably good shape -- very encouraging!) Then a variety of recordkeeping and maintenance tasks: banking, mailing list updates, website updates, etc.

I also took some of the remaining pots to a new co-op gallery -- the Gallery on the Square, in Danville, Indiana -- for a "guest" appearance until the end of the month. And while I had my usual aspirations to get right back to throwing pots, three days at the job took priority. The wheel will have to wait another week.

That's not much rest for the weary, but so it goes. It's good to get that stuff wrapped up quickly, instead of letting it linger. I'd really like to carve out a few good days of studio time in what's left of the 'oughts, and putting the sale to bed was a preliminary requirement.

Returning to the topic of my marketing experiment, from last week's post:

Sale card w/ coupon

Just as people who don't understand fire shouldn't go around playing with it, I would probably be wise to keep the business part of my endeavor simple, and save my creative impulses for the pots. As I've probably made abundantly clear in the past -- intentionally or not! -- the Business half of the Pottery Business isn't necessarily my strong suit. For example, I'm completely self-taught in the areas of marketing and accounting, just making it up as I go. Pragmatic things like, say, efficiency or profitability usually take a back seat to loftier ideals, like aesthetics and desire. I guess that's pretty typical of artists in general, and of business ventures that begin with love, then evolve towards commerce.

But there's a big difference between knowing better and acting better, and in this case I couldn't resist tweaking the biz side of the equation. I'd been thinking about this 10th anniversary sale for quite a while; it triggered my mock-belief in numerology, and if you're going to put symbolic stock in numbers, ten is about as good as it gets (such a well-rounded, digital integer!). But all joking aside, a decade of sales seems like a significant milestone, so I wanted to do something out of the ordinary to mark the occasion.

Let's step into the Wayback Machine for a moment, to revisit my first sale in December 2000. That event was the culmination of years of planning (admittedly vague, but still planning). Since I'd worked at Clary Illian's in the mid-90's, I'd wanted to copy her model: two sales per year, direct from my home/studio, intended primarily for a local audience. (I know now that this is a fairly common format for potters and other craftspeople, but I'm not sure where it originated. In any case, Clary was my primary influence, in this as in so many other aspects of making pots.)

Way back when...

St. Earth on College St.

Cindy and I had just bought our first house that summer, after her first two years of teaching at DePauw. It was a serious fixer-upper, but had space for my studio in the basement and two front rooms that were a nice place to display pots. We finally had a place of our own for the sale, I'd accumulated a reasonably large group of pots, between new work and things left over from my year in grad school. We also had a local group of friends and acquaintences, via the university, which was the seed for my mailing list, and I'd just finished a shiny new website to promote and document it all.

Right from the beginning, the sale turned out far better than I could have expected -- and perhaps better than it should have. The timing was fortunate in unplanned ways. For example, this was near the peak of the internet boom, when money was flowing fast and people were happily watching their 401k accounts booming. And I was standing on the shoulders of Richard and Marj Peeler, who'd worked around here for decades and built a strong local appreciation for handmade pots.

So ten years ago, I'd been wanting to try this studio sale thing for a long time, and hoped to make it the foundation of how I sold my pots. The early results were very encouraging, and I've slowly built it up from there; but there was never any certainty that it would work at all.

Clary's model is straightforward and direct in theory, but subtle and complex in execution. In the years since, I've probably found most of the ways to mess it up -- bad postcards, weird display choices, too few pots, too many stylistic variations, moving to a new location, random marketing plans, getting sidetracked by other projects -- and many others that just screw things up despite doing it all right, like Friday night snowstorms or Saturday morning monsoons. Some of the sales have definitely been better than others, but they've all been worth the effort. Through all the mishaps and experiments, people keep coming and buying pots, my customer base steadily grows, and the whole enterprise kind of has its own momentum now.

Looking ahead, my understanding is that Clary sold nearly all of her pots from her showroom and studio sales for the last 20 or 30 years. As I've written before, she's told me that her sales just got better every year, to the point where their success and attendance was almost out of control. (Some related photos here.) But as I've also said, she makes world-class pots, sells them at very reasonable prices, and has been steadily building a local following for decades. Those are very hard things to do, particularly all three at once. It would be a big mistake to underestimate those factors in trying to emulate her approach.

So for the anniversary sale, I decided to do something to thank my previous customers for their years of support; for making it possible for me to get this whole thing to this point. I considered a range of options, including funky things like printing free t-shirts or hiring a band to play at the sale. Even with my limited business acumen, I knew that if I didn't choose something that was meaningful to my average customer, I'd be better off spending those resources elsewhere -- like advertising or infrastructure. This was coming out of the bottom line, one way or another.

I eventually realized that people come to the sales, first and foremost, for a simple reason: they want my pots. Everything else, no matter how nice, is secondary. So the best way to thank them was to give them more pots, or a better value for their money. (That's pretty obvious in retrospect, but it took me a while to see it that clearly.) My first thought was to give everyone a free mug, but that meant making a lot of extra mugs, and probably adding confusion to which mugs were for sale and which were free, and that if I underestimated the attendance, I'd be writing a lot of rainchecks. All too complicated.

So rather than give each customer a free pot, it was simpler to give the equivalent of one as a cash discount, to be used on whatever they wanted. I settled on $25 for the amount. (A $10 discount just didn't seem like enough to get anyone excited. While $20 probably would have been sufficient, $25 covers most of the mugs or soup bowls I make, which would let someone come and just redeem the coupon, if they wanted.) That amount was also a good compromise between small enough that I wouldn't just be breaking even, if we had a huge turnout, while hopefully big enough to matter to each person.

And... whoa, look at the time! It appears that I've gone on too long with the preamble and extraneous historical bits, and have yet to get to analyzing the results of the experiment. I think I'll break this up into yet another installment and save that part for next week.

December 6th, 2009

"Season cycle going round and round" - XTC

The 10th anniversary sale is in the books, and it was a success. That's a decade of sales gone by, which is kind of hard to believe. My sincere thanks to everyone who has bought my work in that time, locally, from galleries and online. It's a great priviledge to make things I care about and to have other people want them, and it's gratifying to build the mechanisms by which that can happen over the years.

The last stretch of preparations went well and everything was ready on time without too much drama. Here's a panorama of all 300 pots in the showroom before the sale (click for jumbo version; stretch browser window if necessary).

Pre-sale showroom panorama

Finishing touches

A few held in reserve

By objective measurements -- x pots sold for x dollars to x customers -- it was my 2nd-best sale ever. (2006 was best; not coincidentally, that year I was full-time in the studio and had the more pots available than at any other sale). This year, I sold about 80 pots in the first hour and half my inventory the first day -- the busiest sale day yet! Sunday was quieter, as it usually is, but still good. By that point I was pretty well exhausted, so it was kind of nice to have the event to wind down slowly.

It also feels like a good one, from my subjective, internal perspective. It's great to have it done and the anxiety of a hard deadline gone; I can look back and breathe a sigh of relief. But as usual there's a post-sale hangover for a few days afterwards, this time exacerbated by yet another wicked cold. (Yes, sick again. At least the worst of it held off until Sunday. Perhaps I should switch to only mentioning my health when I'm 100% well?)

Sat AM: Are we ready for this?

The new soda pots practically sold out -- only a handful of them left. I'm glad I set a few aside, something tangible to learn from until the next batch. Photos are great, but it's nothing like holding the actual pot in my hands. Several other things are nearly gone, too, leaving empty shelves that I'll be happy to fill with more like them: nano bottles, teapots, domino mugs, porcelain bottles and oval dishes. As usual, a lot of pots sold that had been sitting idle for a cycle or two, including a couple that were almost ready to be tossed in a box somewhere. It never fails that just as I'm about ready to give up on a pot, someone takes it home -- perhaps it's true that there's a person out there for every pot, given enough time and a reasonable price.

The good turnout was due, at least in part, to an entrepreneurial experiment that I'm calling the St. Earth Stimulus Act of 2009. (There should be an emoticon for sarcasm.) This was a promotional coupon on the back of the announcement cards, good for $25 off any purchase at the sale. It was a calculated gamble; one which I had plenty of time to second-guess between sending the cards to the printer weeks ago and turning on the lights Saturday morning. My first impression is that it worked, perhaps even a bit too well: we had more new customers than usual, some previous customers who hadn't been here in a while, and many people seemed pleased with the discount. It will take some time to assess the results, and resolve what I think about them... more about that next week.

With my right-hand-woman's attention diverted to training my future special assistant in the ways and means of sale weekend, it's kind of a solo endeavor these days. But after 18 previous sale cycles most of the variables are well-known, and I can fake Cindy's areas of expertise reasonably well (such as arranging pots, flowers, food). It's mostly about execution, and leaving enough time to go down the list and check all the boxes. I usually forget one important item -- cups for cider or paper bags -- but this time it went off without a hitch.

I'm probably overdue to hire a helper to pack pots during the early rush; even though people are used to standing in lines to buy things this time of year, I don't want that to be a defining part of the experience, if I can help it. Plus, when I'm wrapping pots as fast as my hands will go, I miss out on the opportunity to talk to my customers and pay attention to who's buying which pots. The day goes by in a blur, which isn't as satisfying a conclusion to all the hard work leading up to it.

It'll be fun when Maggie can help wrap pots. Or maybe I'll have her run the till and swipe machine. (Although, come to think of it, by that point we'll probably all have credit chips embedded under our skin or something, and the money will just fly around in digital space. In that case, she can manage the firewall and the virus scanner, or some other appliance that will be commonplace in ten years, but that we can't even imagine yet.)

It's amazing to think that last year she slept through most of it and hung out in the Baby Bjorn; this year she can toddle around the room on her own; soon she'll be talking to people and handling pots; and perhaps one day she'll drive up in her car and help her old dad set out his wares.

November 29th, 2009

"Sell, sell, sell" - David Gray

First things first, so I don't forget:

The St. Earth Pottery Holiday Sale will be this weekend, December 5th & 6th from 10am - 5pm. The sale will be at our home and studio near Fillmore, IN (Maps & Directions).

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Holiday Sale! I'll have some new porcelain pots, a few batches just out of the soda kiln, and a wide variety of forms: mugs, bowls, lidded jars, vases, planters, teapots, pitchers and more. To preview some of the pots, please see the Gallery. Please feel free to Contact me with any questions.

If you're within driving distance, I hope to see you this weekend; if not, have a look at the Gallery -- I just added 20 new pots from the recent soda firings, and there are some sweet ones, like those pictured below.

#39: before

#39: after

Top shelf

Middle shelf

Firing #39 turned out really well, despite the irregular firing schedule. I'm still not sure what caused that, but took a lot of notes so I can investigate before the next one. I did a rare evening unloading, to get them out and the kiln re-tarped before a storm; the "after" photos aren't very good, but it was fun to be pulling out toasty pots on a cold night under the stars.

That's a streak of three very good firings in November, about 75 pots in all. When the kiln is running this well, I really wish it was 3-4 times this size! But I realized recently that after four years and 39 firings, I have a much clearer idea of what I want from my next kiln, and of what the possibilities are for working in this manner. Seen that way, my "test" kiln has fulfilled its mission, even if not remotely close to the manner, or duration, that I'd expected of it.

Vases w/ slip pours & dots

Two-part jar w/ copper glaze

Dotted pitchers

Cane handles & pots ready to go

The rest of the week was running the sale prep gauntlet -- I'm already sick of making lists and crossing things off, but that's the only way I can keep the sequence straight in my head and not lose track of important details.

I shot the gallery photos above, just some of the best stuff from firings #37-39. It's always hard to squeeze in photos during crunchtime, but I've come to think it's an important last step in the process. The problem with firing right up to a deadline is that many of the best pots slip away without a trace. I forget what worked, or what didn't, and specific details of each pot, which means I can't learn as much from them later on. I also lose the chance to present them to a wider audience, like in my archive gallery. There's also value in seeing the best ones in the artificial perfection of a faded grey backdrop and ideal lighting -- it changes my perception of them slightly, compared with when they're sitting on a studio table or stacked together in the showroom. And, oddly enough, after keeping this blog the last few years, it can seem like things are only somewhat real until I've cataloged them here, the pots especially. (Is it just me, or do we all have these weird double lives online now? Vitual properties to maintain, acquaintences to keep, tasks to do. "O brave new world"!)

I spent a day cleaning up outdoors, grateful for what was likely our last bit of nice weather for the year. The homestead doesn't look quite as much like the "before" set of the Beverly Hillbillies now, but it still ain't great. Nothing says rustic like an old, half-collapsed barn and tall dead weeds in every direction. I guess I keep choosing to have good pots in a sketchy yard over sketchy pots in a good yard.

And I wove some long-delayed cane handles on oval baskets and teapots; cleaned and priced all the recent pots from the soda kiln; mailed out postcards and dropped them off around town; refined my email template on Mailchimp; did some other website updates; etc, etc, etc.

Wish me luck!

November 15th & 22nd, 2009

"The magazine she flips thorough is a special double issue..." - The Replacements

Things got crazy last week to the point that something had to be cut, and that something ended up being a blog post. I got sick for a few days (yet again), which ate up the last of the padding I'd accumulated for my sale preparations. With two weeks to go, it's going to be the typical frenzied race to the finish, but at least I tried! So to spare myself a little time, and the struggle to remember what happened and why, here's a brief two-week recap and a lot photos of the firings and new pots.

While I can't seem to catch a break with my health, the weather has been fantastic for firing. That's a pretty good trade off, if I had to pick one. Normally at this time of year, I'm freezing my fingers off while loading, and wishing I'd finished firing earlier in the season as I go back and forth to the kiln. This has been more like firing before my spring sale than the fall, which is much easier. (After a remarkably cool summer and warm fall here in Indiana, we're due for a shock when things return to normal.)

Seeing the writing on the wall, I abandoned my plan to keep making pots during November. It's a nice goal, to have less of an interruption to the throwing process for firing and selling, but not a very realistic one without a big lead time or lower expectations for how many pots I've have on sale weekend. Instead, I've done three straight weeks of glazing and firing the salt kiln, which isn't as much fun in general, but satisfying to really focus on, dig deep into the possibilities, and get really familiar with all the fine details of the process. I also ran some new slip and glaze tests, and remixed some batches that were getting low, so there's some planning ahead in there, too.

#37: After

Same colors to pots & bricks

Tumblers & bottles

Mugs & yunomis

Firing #37 turned out well, with good results considering the long break since my last firing in this kiln. I did #38 the next week, and it was even better -- the new metal stack made for another short firing, and the results were excellent from top to bottom.

I fired #39 yesterday and it's cooling today. It will be the last one of the year and, as usual, I saved all the best stuff for the end, so I have high hopes for this batch. The firing was slower this time, mysteriously stalling around 2000°, and I'm unsure what caused it. The weather was a bit worse, more windy and the bricks may have been a bit damp from a few prior days of rain; the stacking was a bit tighter -- I got a little greedy -- but not enough to make such a big difference. Maybe it was the two factors combined, or something I haven't thought of yet. Strange and puzzling, and now how I want to go into the winter firing hiatus, but maybe I'll figure it out when I open it up. In any case, it went a couple hours longer, and I coaxed it along by stoking small sticks into the ports, but in total it was still a faster cycle than with the old stack design. We'll see what effect that had on the pots shortly.

Ready to load again

Getting hot

#38: Before

#38: After

Start 'em young, I say

Celadon jar w/ dumptruck

Bottom shelf

Middle front

Middle back

Ready to load again

#39: back

#39: front

My sale postcard arrived from the printer and came out really well -- since I changed templates and did a new layout and larger size, the results were kind of up in the air this time. I did the bi-annual ritual of labelling and stamping, which after almost 700 cards gives me a preview of what it will be like to have arthritis one day. I'll mail them out in the next few days, so if you're not on my mailing list, you can sign up here and I'll send you one.

More new pots and sale madness next week!

November 8th, 2009

"I don't usually break many promises that I make,
it's just sometimes I could use a little shove." - Wheat

It's been a good week in the studio, and continues as I write this, with the soda kiln at about 1900°F and climbing. I took time off from the dayjob to spend the whole week in the studio, which worked out to be very productive: I replaced the metal stack on the kiln, glazed and loaded a batch of pots, mixed some slip and glaze tests, and set it on fire.

When I last fired this kiln in April -- how's it been six months? -- there was just enough rusty metal left in the stack to allow for an elaborate patch and one more trip to cone 10. Over the summer, the wind and weather finished it off for good: I looked out the window the other day to find it lying flat on the roof, completely worn through at the base. Now that's clarity!

Sale postcard #19

Soda kiln stack #3 (or 4? Or maybe 5?)

As I've mentioned previously, the stack on this kiln was an afterthought. It wasn't supposed to have one at all, just an updraft vent hole in the back wall, so I added it as a hack on the original design. (The phrase "mistakes were made" seems like good shorthand for what would be a long, harrowing tale. Perhaps it's one I'll tell another time.)

Since I wasn't sure at first that the stack would work at all, I started out with just a metal vent pipe from the local hardware store, intending to replace it with something more suitable and resilient later. But as seems to happen fairly often around here, the temporary solution worked just well enough that it gradually became a permanent fixture. The firings were still too slow and the draft too weak; the metal got blasted away by the heat, salt and weather too quickly; and it was a pain to set up and repair. But the pots were surprisingly good, for the most part, and each time I replaced it (every five firings or so), I was in too much of a hurry to spend time seeking a better option, or to risk accidentally making it worse.

This time I was determined to try something different. I'm not sure what prompted this change -- perhaps it's just a consequence of accumulating enough new information to have a sense of where to go next. (I imagine there's a complex series of switches that governs these things in my brain, and that this time they fell in just the right sequence to cause a new behavior. I'm all for self-knowledge, but suspect that if I understood that mechanism or could see it in action, it wouldn't work; that it's something that needs to happen outside of conscious thought.)

In any case, I've gradually realized that: a) the inner liner was doing no good, just melting to slag in the first firing; b) the outer layer was too thin to withstand this kind of abuse for long, and not worth all the time spent messing with it; c) the pipe needed to be taller or wider or both; and d) I'm not the first person in the world who's ever needed to vent a hot appliance with a piece of metal.

These things lead me to a fireplace and wood stove shop, which had a nice selection of heavier-duty, single-wall stovepipe in stock. I bought two sections, each 8" diameter by 36" long, and a stainless steel baseplate with a small collar. This cost a little more than the previous stuff, but seems like it will hold up longer and, more importantly, help the kiln fire better. If it does, it might prove that I've learned a few things about kiln design and firing theory which, for all the sweat and frustration I've put into it, would be very reassuring. The first test is in progress today...

While I was at it, I rebuilt the lower part of the stack -- a combination of loose-stacked hard and soft brick -- and added some angle bracing and a sheet metal skin to make it more airtight. I also changed the supports and guy wire attachments that hold the pipe in place, so it will be easier to modify or remove; I'm thinking I can get a few more firings from it if I take it down and store it under cover when then kiln is idle for any extended time. (Without a full shed over the kiln, firing in the dead of winter is a miserable experience.)

So this one is firing #37, and pretty close to the 4th birthday of the kiln. I got caught up in loading it and getting the door bricked in and forgot to take a Before picture, but I'll unload early next week and will have photos of the results. Here's hoping it fires off fast and well, and returns some good information and some keepers.

Planning for slips & glazes

Photographic reference

November 1st, 2009

"... the condition of one's nerves makes cowards or braves of all of us." - D.J. Toomey

I'm short on time this week, and under the weather yet again, so I'll let the photos do most of the talking. The firing turned out well -- including those celadon plates -- and the showroom is finally starting to look appropriately stocked for this time of year. I designed my sale card and sent it off to the printer, jumbo-sized to celebrate my 10th annual Holiday Sale. I think it turned out pretty well.

Then I did another bisque, perhaps the last one for the cycle, and made some porcelain mugs, which may or may not make the cutoff. As much as I'd like to keep making new pots, it's time to shift my focus to finishing the ones I've already started. There's also some deferred kiln maintenance to sort out and then -- hopefully -- a lot of soda firing to do.

Things are starting to get a little crazy around here.

New pots

Bowls, mugs, vases, teapots

Teadust in direct sun

Porcelain bowls


More mugs

October 25th, 2009

"Maybe it's for the best, maybe it's not for anything" - New Found Glory

I did a glaze firing this week and it pretty well wiped me out. Three days of mixing glazes, glazing and loading the kiln, then I fired on Saturday. It's slow cooling today -- I wait at least 24 hours before cracking the damper -- and will be ready to unload tomorrow. Cooling day is a strange combination of weary gratitude that it's done and uneasy excitement about the pending results.

Much of the glazing process is trying to hit the bullseye as often as possible. As my experience with each glaze increases, I learn what it can and can't do and what it does in the ideal scenario, when the application and placement and atmosphere and temperature are all just so. That's the bullseye, and once I find it I hope to hit it every time. It's a good goal, but a long shot; it requires taking risks, to the point that I sometimes miss the target completely. It also raises my expectations, which can lead to a lot of very good results that are still somewhat disappointing for not being perfect. Then again, the phrase "perfect glaze" is kind of an oxymoron.


Hit or miss

For example, this Woo Yellow glaze is at its best when it runs and drips a lot, almost like an ash glaze. But, of course, that risks having it run completely off the pot. When it's just right, it also starts to crack, like drying mud, to the point that it almost flakes off the pot. So it takes a precise application, including carefully measuring the specific gravity of the glaze slurry and the exact dipping time in the bucket. Arrow notched, bowstring back, exhale, aim, release. The difference between a direct hit and a near miss is huge, at least to my eye, and so well worth the trouble and the risk.

I put in a lot of small porcelain bowls to test my new glazes in quantity. My tendency is to rush a new glaze into production after just a few promising tests, before I've discovered its quirks and tendencies. That's often resulted in having a five gallon bucket of glaze that isn't quite what I'd thought it was, and then having to figure out how to use it. So with this series of porcelain glaze testing, I'm slowing the process by mixing a few intermediate-sized batches between the first 100-gram test and a 10,000-gram batch: one at 500g and another at 2000g.

I have three recipes at the 2000g stage now, and put about 10 small pots with each of them in this load. That should give a lot of information about how they respond to various spots in the kiln, different application thicknesses, and a range of forms and surface textures. If they come out of this one well -- and that's a big IF -- I'll start using them on larger pots and in greater quantity in future firings. Two of them originated from John Britt's Complete Guide to High Fire Glazes and are very close to the source recipes, with just a few minor tweaks. One is a clear that's almost completely transparent, letting the white body show through (Shaner Clear); the other is a very pale blue-green celadon, whose iron content comes from the ball clay (Limestone). The third is a semi-opaque matte white that I've used for years as a liner glaze in the soda kiln (Temple White).

I've got a few others that looked good in the first tests, but showed flaws at the next stage -- too much crazing, not quite the color I want, some crawling off of rims. I'm looking for a darker celadon or two and perhaps an amber one, also. I'll try a couple approaches to get there. One, attempt to cure the flaws in these other recipes. That's usually much easier said than done. Two, start with the above glazes -- which already have a good fit and working properties -- and, using them as a base, do line blends of various clays and coloring oxides. That should give a range of results, and hopefully I can zoom in on the exact color I want. If that works, the added benefit is that they'll share most of their composition with the others. In theory, that gives me greater familiarity with them as a "family" of glazes, and lets me use a smaller range of raw materials.

I had been planning to fire 12 plates for that dinnerware order this time, but when I went to mix up the glaze it seemed funky. Since I'd last used it (a couple months ago), it had settled in the bucket more than usual and the stuff at the very bottom was strangely gooey -- almost thixotropic, like porcelain. Too much epsom salts? Not enough? A problem with the bentonite? Something else I'm just not thinking of yet? Whatever the cause, that kind of unexpected change sets off a warning klaxon in my head. Over the years, I've learned the hard way to obey that tingling sense of paranoia, especially when glazing. I really didn't want to risk ruining the whole set of plates and having to make them again, so after flailing around with the dilemma for a while, I glazed just four of them and saved the rest for the next firing. I also mixed up a new batch of the glaze to test, just in case.

October 18th, 2009

"Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!" - David Bowie

This week was full of transitions. Getting back to our routine after last week's birthday festivities. Recovering from this long, terribly persistent cold. An unexpected dose of early winter weather, which prompted the last pass of mowing season, installing some attic insulation, and getting the wood stove going in the studio. Returning to throwing pots after two weeks away from the wheel. And the dawning realization that my next sale is right around the corner, and that I'd better start doing sale preparation stuff and switch from making to firing soon. As always, it's disappointing to see all the things I haven't crossed off the Make list yet, and to let go of the momentum I've built up at the wheel. I gradually come around to the fact that those goals were a bit too lofty to begin with, and that there's always another throwing cycle coming up after the break.

Porcelain yunomis


But I squeezed in one quick run of porcelain teabowls, with an eye towards the annual Yunomi show at AKAR (pots due in January!); I made a dozen of them, tall and fairly skinny, some with stamps, some with a pattern of soft finger pokes. I love that clay. I'm hoping to keep a little fire going at the wheel through the sale cycle, so it's not quite as jarring to return to it ice-cold in late December.

I also did the first real bisque firing with the new electric kiln guts and it went off without a hitch. That's a relief. Towards the end of the week I started planning my attack for the next glaze firing: mixing small batches of two new porcelain glazes, thinking about which pots to fire and how they might stack, and deciding how many plates for that dinnerware commission will fit, reasonably, in one load.

Still life w/ soft brick & elements


Elsewhere, it looks like Ceramics Monthly/Pottery Making Illustrated is stepping up it's online offerings, with a new Daily blog. (They're using Wordpress.) While the "Stuff We Like" list has some... ahem!... notable omissions, they lured me in with the offer of a PDF of some featured soda firing articles. I discovered later that they're all available on the site, without subscribing to the e-mail newsletter, but you have to hunt around some to find them.

It's nice to see a ceramics print-media organization putting more of its content online -- and it's about time! I hadn't been back to their site since it started featuring some of the magazine's content over a year ago, so I think it was smart for them to adopt a blogging and e-mail blast model. More frequent content can't hurt. There's also an RSS feed of the daily posts and features archive. Since a lot of the daily content is well outside my strike zone, I unsubscribed from the mailing list, then subscribed to the RSS feed in my reader. (That way I can occasionally view them as a batch, without cluttering my inbox.) This development means I can now read some of the CM content that I'm interested in, for free, while avoiding the scattershot quality and limited relevance of the monthly magazine (not to mention its obnoxious ads-to-content ratio).

I let my subscription to both CM and PMI lapse in the last few years; time will tell if this online tease is enough to get me to pay for them again. There are a few factors working against it. First, I find this cluster of sites confusing to navigate -- they've made the common, critical error of organizing the site's structure around an internal view of the organization, instead of towards an uninitiated, external view. A primary rule of designing web navigation is that most of your visitors are brand new to the site. A corollary is that if you don't make it very easy and compelling for them to stick around, they won't -- there are a million other options, and the back button is the easiest one to push.

Second, it's hard to figure out exactly how much archived content is available here. (Perhaps that's more deliberate than accidental?) On average, I see only one article per back issue available on the site, and it's not always the one I'd like to read the most. There's a features archive and an index by topic, but it's hard to tell what's what -- a simple structure of items archived by date, with category tags for filtering, might be a better interface.

And third, the online version retains some of the flaws of the parent publications, things that are probably built into the business model and editorial perspective, but that don't meet my needs as a reader. During the decade I subscribed to the magazine, I often found the writing quality lacking, perhaps in need of more research or a good, hard edit. Many of the artist profiles were overly-fawning or romanticized, like thinly-veiled promotional pieces. And for every good bit of critical analysis or perspective, like those by art historian Glen Brown, there was some corresponding fluff that was light on facts or insight.

Finally, even amongst the high-quality content, I'm only interested in some of it: stuff by, about and for studio potters. Certainly that's just my bias and personal interest at work. But because CM covers such broad territory -- everything from K-12 to professional artists, functional pots to conceptual sculpture, exhibition promos to calls for entry -- much of the output just isn't very valuable to me. That's not strictly CM's fault; it's a symptom of the fact that the wider the attempted appeal, the shallower the connection to any particular audience.

On the other hand, some of it is very good and relevant to me: the Potter's Life feature, this article about Terry Gess, or this one about kiln wash by John Britt. If they do enough like these, I just might give the subscription another chance. Better still would be if they put everything online, and offered the ability to view just a slice of it; say a particular category or a set number of articles per issue (at a reduced subscription rate, of course). Now that would be something.

October 11th, 2009

"I've managed to get some work done nearly every day of my adult life,
without impressive financial success." - Anne Lamott

Maggie had her first birthday this week, including a visit from her grandparents and two -- yes, two-- parties. She enjoyed it all, from playing trains with grandpa to crawling around in a pile of new toys with her little friends. I had no idea she was ready for blocks and Legos, but am really excited to dust off my building skills! (Cindy and I also celebrated making it to this point without accidentally leaving her on top of the car, or losing our capacity for rational thought, or dying of sleep deprivation along the way.)

Birthday girl

"there's nothing about the building block..."

So now I'm the father of a one-year-old little girl. She's not a baby anymore, but not quite a toddler yet, either -- she took her first hesitant steps on Day #364. We're still waiting for her first deliberate word, and it seems like it could happen any time. She makes all kinds of sounds, with her own vocabulary for things like "this is good food" and "where are you?", and seems to understand a lot of what we say.

She's in that strange, brief time where she can communicate her thoughts in a basic way, and interpret what we're thinking from our words and expressions and gestures, but hasn't quite adapted to using our words yet. I often find myself using her words, and think I see that sparkle of recognition in her eyes sometimes when I do. Maybe she's just waiting for me to figure it out.

Similarly, she wants to move around and explore constantly. She gets around by crawling and pulling herself up on things, and watches the older kids walking around upright with fascination. She's just starting to realize that letting go with her hands and stepping in the direction she wants to go might be an improvement.

Both talking and walking seem like very subtle connections for her to make, as if they'll require an intuitive leap to put the pieces together. At certain moments she almost gets it, then forgets again; it's a process of trial and error, building up those experiences in her memory until at some point they just stick. When they do, it will open up such a wider experience of the world to her that it's hard to imagine what that will be like.

One thing that hasn't changed yet is that Maggie's still our custom, homemade virus lure. We cast her out into the stream of daycare each morning and reel her back in each evening to see what we've caught. Lately, just about everything's been biting! My cold last week morphed into something worse -- as if the first one lowered my defenses so that the second could land the knockout blow -- so I was pretty miserable throughout the week's festivities, coughing and gurgling in the background.

Skutt's guts

But I managed to utilize my Dad's generous expertise to solve some nagging home maintenance problems, and he also helped me perform major surgery on the electric kiln. When I replaced the burnt-out power cord last year, the Skutt technician suggested I also upgrade the relays -- apparently they've redesigned that part of the system in more recent models. I forget what improvement that's supposed to make, but it sounded good at the time, so I bought them and they'e been sitting on the shelf ever since, waiting for me to decide if the task was within my abilities.

Fortunately, my Dad is a former electrician -- he worked on heavy mining equipment and Navy fighter jets -- so a tiny wiring job like this was pretty simple with his help. (You may recall our exploits last summer repairing the electric line to the studio.) Of course, the proof was turning it on at the end and having the control box come back to life; it was a relief to see the red glow of the current temperature reappear. Then I ran an empty test firing, which seemed to go to bisque temp without a hitch. That's just a little bit of progress in the studio for the week, but a little is a lot better than none.

October 4th, 2009

"This freedom of choice in the U.S.A. drives everybody crazy" - X

I've been thinking more about quantity vs. quality and how, with very rare exceptions, more of one means less of the other. This is fairly intuitive: rushing through a task usually makes sloppy results, while spending more time and attention on something slows the pace of output. Striking the right balance between the two is often key to success, as I learned twenty years ago washing pans at Pizza Hut. I still see that lesson in action every day in the studio.

Once a baseline of technical skill and knowledge is acquired -- through years of practice and repetition -- making pots is largely about making choices. Thanks to the information age, potters now have access to a vast array of materials, equipment and knowledge, and these can be combined in virtually unlimited ways. Choosing clays, forming methods, aesthetic styles, firing type, temperature range, glazes and so on sets the parameters for the finished pots. And choosing how much time and effort to put into each pot is a very significant factor in their quality.

Even for experienced potters, the quality of the work is almost always relative to the effort expended. Skill might allow things to go faster, or more efficiently, but it doesn't break this rule. (And sometimes increased skill just opens up new opportunities to slow things down.)

There are certainly happy accidents to be had in the making process. Stray marks and unconscious gestures can improve a piece, and casual neglect sometimes creates serendipity. But averaged out over time, any shortcuts or carelessness along the way will either detract from the quality of the finished pots or get zeroed out by dumb mistakes, like poor throwing, dropped wareboards, improperly mixed glazes, misfired kilns, or pots left out in the rain. (I would argue that the unself-conscious approach of a potter like Hamada wasn't carelessness, but in fact a more refined level of skill, but that's another topic for another day.)

Another way to think about quantity vs. quality is the "project triangle". This is a diagram where the properties Fast, Good and Cheap are set at the points, to show that they are inter-realted but at odds with one other. While each of these is a desirable goal, the catch is that for any given project you can only pick two of them, which means that you're also choosing the opposite of the third quality -- Slow, Bad or Expensive.

(I first heard this in a web project meeting, when my partner presented it to the client in a dry, sarcastic tone: "Well, you can have it fast, cheap or good -- pick two!" This was one of those times when not being able to laugh out loud makes the situation infinitely more funny. And uncomfortable.)

Optimists might take issue with the project triangle, but in my experience it's true for most projects, and even for most of the products we buy. (Stuff from Walmart = Fast, Bad, Cheap. Stuff from Apple: Fast, Good, Expensive. Stuff from St. Earth: Slow, Good, Cheap. (I hope.)) In any case, it presents an interesting way to think about the decisions I make in my work. Since I'm in control of all three variables, for the most part, at any given time I get to pick the two that I'm going to focus on.

Because one of my primary goals is to make good pots (i.e. to prioritize quality), Slot #1 is permanently reserved for Good. This means that regardless of which option I pick for Slot #2, it will determine speed and cost: either quickly making less expensive pots, or slowly making more expensive ones. And that goes directly to how many pots I can make in a year, and how I set prices for them.

But to play devil's advocate for a moment, I'm also aware that all of this is entirely relative. There is a vast expanse of territory towards the quality end of the scale from where I work. Potters like Lorna Meaden, Kristen Kieffer and Sam Chung make pots that are so complex and detailed that all my work is simplistic and quantity-oriented by comparison. I love that kind of work, and am in awe of that level of sophistication and commitment.



Short week

Bisk shelf

OK, enough theory. My time in the studio was short again this week, between catching up after a weekend out of town and then catching a cold from Maggie. So I continued with porcelain, and made more small bowls. The ones I'd saved under plastic last week made it through the break, so I finished them off with some shallow fluting. Then I did a few more with that double rim and some wet carving, poking, and sprigging -- that's a lot going on in one small pot! But I like all that detail and complexity, and I plan to glaze them with a glossy clear glaze, so the surface will be simple and the form can carry all the weight. I think these are getting somewhere interesting, and are about ready for a larger version.

Cindy pointed out that when the lower rim is bigger, they start to resemble ashtrays. I hadn't seen them that way, but now I can't stop seeing them that way. ("Once again, things that could have been brought to my attention yesterday!") So it goes. It's strange to think about what a mainstay form ashtrays were for potters a few decades ago, but most of us wouldn't even think about making them now.

I also made some globe-shaped bowls, which curve back in at the rim to contain the interior volume. We have a bowl by Blair Meerfeld that's a similar form, and is great to hold in your hands while eating from it.

September 27th, 2009

"...there's nothing about the building block that says anything
about what's going to be made from it." - Chuck Close

I spent just a couple days in the studio this week, then took time off to go camping by a lake in Illinois. With the greenware lineup starting to look pretty good for my upcoming firings, I decided to switch back to porcelain, so I can try some of those recent glaze tests on actual pots. I'm out of the Turner body, but have a few boxes of Standard #257 left. In my porcelain tests, it was the closest to Turner's, with a very similar fired color.

So for the first time since January, I cleaned my treadle wheel, throwing tools, and a few bats and ware boards. That's easier said than done, because over time the clay really does get onto everything, and requires some scraping and scrubbing to remove. It reminded me of the time, years ago, that my father-in-law came to the studio. A neat, fastidious person, he was surprised by all the clay splattered everywhere. Shaking his head in some mixture of confusion and concern, he pointed at my wheel and said, "Don't you ever clean it?" Not unless I'm switching to porcelain!

As clean as it gets

Porcelain warm-up

Also as part of the change over, I located a bucket of throwing slip I'd stashed away from last time, so I wouldn't have to start with plain water, wiped down the wedging block and some table space, and found a clean piece of canvas for the worktable -- there's no sense in using such a pristine white clay if I'm just going to gunk it up with stoneware.

I started with small bowls, referring to a few examples from the last firing that I'd stashed in the Library, and a couple from the house that we've fed Maggie with since she started on solid foods. I did three runs of eight -- not much, but it's a start. I love the sharpened awareness that comes with switching clays: the sudden whiteness, the surprising lack of grain or texture, and the difference in feel and tension. It was nice to feel a sense of familiarity with this alien material, to be less intimidated by it this time. Experience helps. I'm more confident that it will accept how I handle it, and probably make it to cone 10 and survive.

After that sickening experience with lime popping in my old stoneware, I'm gun shy about other clays now -- maybe even a bit paranoid. But I have fired test tiles of this batch of clay, set out where I can see them from the wheel, and they have some nicely-fitting glazes with no apparent defects. At least, that's what I kept telling myself. (That kind of nagging fear can suck up a lot of energy.)

Some of the bowls have a doubled rim, which was originally inspired by the type of lid that has a flange on it (rather than on the body of the pot). Those lids are typically thrown upside down, so it's easier to get the proportions right and to match the diameter of the flange to the required size of the pot. Then they're flipped over and the top of the lid finished by trimming, adding a knob or handle, etc. This means that after the initial throwing they're almost never seen upside down again, but I've always been intrigued by them in that orientation, and by the range of possibilites for the size and shape of the two leading edges. So why not try them as bowls?

I did iterations of the previous examples: different proportions and weights, various lug sizes and spacings, some with carving on the lower rim, others with light stamping. We had a lot of rain this week, and I miscalculated the drying time on the last group, so I wrapped them up tight over the weekend. If they're still wet enough later, I'll carve some shallow fluting on the first rim.

(I used to be in the bad habit of letting pots linger under plastic for days at a time, often just procrastinating until I felt like working on them again. But now I almost always start them one day and finish them the next, or as soon as they're dry enough. I think this continuity helps, and it enforces a resonable degree of planning. These days, I rarely start a batch of pots without knowing when I'll get them to the finished greenware state.)

Also in the studio this week, I fired a load in the electric kiln and then emptied and reloaded it, which cleared off some much-needed space on the tables and shelves. Now pots are starting to pile up on the bisque shelf, which always makes me feel optimistic.

In other news, over at Support Your Local Potter, Brandon demanded that I post TW@SE more often. That's flattering, and there were some nice follow-up comments there, too. (Thankfully, no one demanded that I post less!). While it's immodest of me to highlight praise of my work, I do so because it raises the issue of Quantity vs. Quality, which I find to be perennially interesting. And, of course, it applies equally well to both words and pots.

For example, Ron Philbeck said I'm "kind of like Studio Potter magazine," in that the blog is infrequent but worth waiting for. Now SP features some of the best writing about handmade pots out there, so I take that as quite a compliment. It also suggests that my initial decision to lean towards the quality end of the spectrum, by posting on a weekly basis, is working -- at least to some extent!

I chose this format in hopes of facilitating clearer thinking, better writing and greater depth. Two years later, I think there's evidence of those things in the results. While some weeks are less-than-memorable, for the most part I feel pretty good about this growing archive of quotes, ideas, photos and links. There are several that I'm quite proud of; things I managed to say in a way that will probably hold up over time. And every once in a while I luck into a great photo, like those below.

Evening light on small bowls

Practicing with the cheap stuff

As they say in show biz, finish strong and always leave them wanting more.

September 20th, 2009

"What I found is that one of the nice things [about] working incrementally is that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single day. Today I did what I did. You can pick it up and put it down. I don’t have to wait for inspiration." - Chuck Close

Things were a little off this week. Too many outside distractions have been creeping into the studio and I'm over-tired, so I wasn't terrifically motivated and my throwing chops were kind of dull. But I find that my mood and perspective almost always improve after running some clay through my hands. Getting started is the hardest part. After that, knowing what to do next gets clearer and the desire to do it materializes. There are few substitutes for working my way out of a lull like that, and I remind myself that making almost anything counts as progress, even if the resulting pots are awkward or wonky. It helps to scale back the ambition a bit and make forms I know well, at manageable sizes. I try to give myself plenty of little opportunities for success along the way.


Carved rim bowls

So I ended up making 12 bowls, most of them with carved rims, and 6 skinny vases. I've been wanting to try this vase is a form for a while, as tall and narrow as I can make them. These were each thrown in two sections, using about 2 1/2 pounds of clay total -- any smaller in diameter and I can't get my inside hand in far enough to pull up from the base. I like their proportions, especially the tallest ones, and am thinking about trying them in three sections to extend the height even more. These were tempting to leave alone, just that simple volume, but I went ahead and added small lugs at the rim, most of them in groups of three. I'm a real sucker for trilateral symmetry these days.

Skinny vases

I'm always a bit surprised when the pots end up pretty good despite struggling to make them; it's a good reminder that the conditions don't always have to be ideal to get some work done.

After much delay, I finally added new pots my site Gallery, about 25 of them from my summer glaze firings. I think it's a pretty nice group of pots, and it's always good to restock the online inventory. But it makes me anxious to get some stuff into the salt kiln so I can add new pots to that section, too.

I made a little change to the structure of those pages: now each smaller image is linked to a large version, just like here on the blog. That's been a long time coming, as I've always thought it was a stretch to expect someone to buy a pot from a single photograph, and a small one at that. I noticed in my site statistics that a lot of my visitors have switched from dialup to broadband internet connections in the past year, so even though the large images are substantial, I think they're within reasonable limits for most people now.

By the same reasoning, I increased the size of the smaller images a couple years ago, and am planning to do so again, but that will require changing the page layout to accomodate them. (The narrow pages from the previous web era seem quaint on today's giant monitors, the way they site there hugging the left edge of the browser window.) On the plus side, changing the layout may just be the prompt I've been needing to go ahead and redo the entire St. Earth site. I've been wanting to do so for a long time now. It launched in late 1999, just in time for my first studio sale, so it's now almost 10 years old. That's so ancient and creaky that I imagine dust puffing out people's speakers when they load the home page.

Nice shadow / Vase for tree

Finished vases

The conventional wisdom is that the hardest design job is when the client is yourself, and after dozens of failed attempts to reimagine the site over the years, I think it's true. Fortunately, when I started this blog in 2007, I deliberately gave it a new design, different than the rest of the site, and since then it's evolved to the point where I like it a lot. I can now see it as a direction to send the rest of the site towards. The minimalist framing and styling, intended here to emphasize the content of each entry, should also work well for displaying the pots and what I have to say about them. And, otherwise, I could easily stall for another decade trying to come up with something better. Time to abandon the perfect and go for the reasonably good.

I've made some decent progress thus far, starting with the Gallery. It's still just roughed in (i.e. not ready for public consumption), but seems promising -- there's a screenshot below. The other image was a random thing that happened in Photoshop as I was color-adjusting photos; one of those where you turn away from the screen for a minute and see it with fresh eyes when you look back. I like the zoomed in view of the glazes -- it shows their variation and texture nicely.

Gallery redesign mockup

Photoshop randomness

September 13th, 2009

"Mirror image, see no damage, see no evil at all..." - The Replacements

I made more pots for the salt/soda kiln this week, thinking about the shapes and sizes I need to round out a good load in the next firing. The top shelf in my kiln is always a cone or two cooler than the bottom, which makes glaze fluxing a real gamble. But my black underglaze and flashing slips work well there, if they get a good coating of salt, so I try to make some pots that will work within those constraints. To that end, I made 10 small bottles and five planters, with stamping and underglaze decoration to vary the surfaces. (The bottles just need a thin liner glaze, which doesn't have to flux perfectly since it's hidden, and the planters don't need a glaze at all.)

'Nano' bottles

I started calling this form "nano" bottles at some point, and don't really remember why. It doesn't necessarily have much to do with the actual meaning of the word, sort of like a codename. (They tend to be on the small side, but not that small!) Maybe it was because nano is currently such a cool word; there's an iPod model with that name, and nanotech will be the scientific revolution (and economic bubble) after biotech has entered every realm of modern life, like digital computing has in the last 25 years.

Anyways, it's another label I'm kind of stuck with, like "St. Earth Pottery" or "functional". (I'm not sure if that's a joke...) I use it to distinguish this particular kind of bottle, which I make by throwing the body and neck in two pieces and attaching them at the leatherhard stage. That makes a sharp change in direction where they meet, and can leave a nice edge at the seam if I handle it just right. I make non-nano bottles by throwing the neck directly onto the body, so there's less focus on the transition and more of a continuous, flowing curve. Since those are the default, they don't have a fancy name -- I just call them "bottles".

Planters in progress


With every year I make pots, and each time I return to a particular form or style, I get better at visualizing the fired object from the beginning, before I even wedge up clay. I still do more exploratory, unplanned throwing sometimes, and often play around with details of surface and decoration along the way, but most of the time I begin with a pretty good idea of what each series of pots is going to be like.

That comes in part from learning how to do it, through practice and repetition, and part from just making a deliberate habit of it -- thinking it through up front, instead of leaving things open-ended and figuring them out along the way. Taking lots of photos helps, and so does looking through them to select the ones I post here. I also started making prints of noteworthy examples (which is wonderfully easy via iPhoto) and using them for reference in the studio. It's a good visual refresher to look at past examples before starting a new series, and I like having those images around while I make decisions about each pot.

This might be an obvious point, but I've realized how adding this step to the process makes for better finished pots. It lets me plan out the making sequence, including how the details of each pot will interact. It lets me exploit previous successes and avoid prior mistakes. The pots are better because each one has a more organic completeness to it, where all the parts go together according to an internal logic. Call it layering or complexity or composition, it's the kind of thing where you know it when you see it, and it's almost always an aspect of the pots I really admire.

For example, I got a new bowl from Michael Kline's virtual kiln opening last month. It was love at first sight, and I bought it with barely a moment's hesitation. It's a fantastic pot -- each detail is interesting and compelling on its own, but the sum is greater than the parts.

When he was making them last spring, Michael wrote on his blog that he's been doing a variation on this bowl since 1991. (Incidentally, that's the same year I took my first ceramics class.) So that's about 18 years of practice and refinement, and dozens or hundreds of repetitions. I contend that all of that experience and skill are embedded in this bowl.

White bowl by Michael Kline

White bowl, in use

It's there in the thin difference in thickness between the two layers of crackle slip, defined by a pattern of vines and leaves in his excellent brushwork. It's in the size and shape of the handles, the way the runny greenish-yellow glaze pools in their creases, and the way that the glaze was selectively applied only to those handles and a small part of the body where they attach. It's in the texture and sheen of the glaze, the traces of wood ash from the firing, the gesture of the trimmed foot. It's in the variation between the interior and exterior curves, and the weight and balance of the form. And it holds a nice serving of salad.

I hope to make pots this good some day. Eating from it reminds me that everything I believe about the potential of handmade, useful pots is still true.

September 6th, 2009

"94 percent of college professors consider themselves to be
better-than-average teachers." - Daniel Gilbert

This was a productive week in the studio. I made 34 pots -- 16 large plates, 6 mugs and 12 tumblers -- which is a lot more than I've done in any recent week. The plates were the last form for my dinnerware order. I made them almost 12" in diameter, so that they'll shrink to about 10 3/4" finished size. At 6# of clay each, that was about 100# of clay to push around -- my wrists are still a little gimpy from all that wedging and centering!

Ready for plates

Fresh plates

Out of table space

Mugs & tumblers

All those plates also make for a ton of trimming. About a third of the clay I start with for each one gets trimmed back off, from inside the footring and under the lower part of the rim, where it adds support while the form is still soft. But trimming feet (aka "turning") is another one of those things that's easier to do with the repetition of working in a longer series. There's a groove available there, and once I get into it the work flows pretty well.

Between these plates and the bowls from last week, still drying slowly under plastic, I've used up just about every square inch of flat space in the studio -- shelves, tables, buckets, a risky edge here and there. I have to resist the temptation to just start laying ware boards out on the floor! I really need to buy or build a rolling cart, to add space for greenware while economizing on space.

I've got so much junk in there that's only marginally-related to making pots: tools, spare lumber, inherited glaze materials from the 70's, my old Lockerbie kickwheel, rolls of fiberglass insulation waiting to go into the walls, boxes of outdated test tiles, empty boxes, bags of packing material... And the existing storage space isn't well-organized, so lots of this is just stacked in piles on the floor. (This is shown with embarrasing frequency in the photos here.) It's kind of ridiculous how I keep working around this clutter, instead of making time to resolve it. I'm sure this is less efficient in the long run, but I tend to get mentally locked into the status quo and just leave things as they lie. It's hard to break away from making pots, even for things that get in the way and slow the process.

I've also fallen behind on processing reclaim clay the last couple years, and creating almost 30# of new trimmings from the plates made me to take a good hard look at the boxes of dry clay scraps stacked around the studio. I'd guess there's about 800# of bone dry clay there, waiting to be slaked and dried back to throwing consistency. This is yet another reason I can't wait to get the kiln shed built -- having an outdoor space under cover will let me set out the big drying racks and process reclaim clay in less time and greater quantities. Currently, I only have one small drying rack in the studio, and the slops take weeks to firm up indoors, especially when the weather is humid. A good fall breeze would be a great improvement.

I broke my "Sunday's Off" rule to shoot photos of the pots from my two August firings -- finally! I'm still getting them processed to upload to my site gallery, but here are a few highlights:

Woo Yellow vase

Teadust lidded jar

Reitz Green lidded jar w/ dots

Woo Yellow planter

After I've been using a glaze for a few years, I find exactly what I want it to do; the optimal results for my pots. For example, with the Teadust it's getting a balance between good crystal growth and the thinner amber highlights; with the Woo Yellow it's getting as many streaming drips as possible without it quite running off the pot; and with the Reitz Green it's getting the color just in between a greyish-black and a too-bright green, with a smooth satiny texture.

The trick -- as with most things in cone 10 reduction firing -- is that each of these results happens in a very short range, particularly with regards to glaze application. The effects listed above happen (or don't) with slight differences in thickness, such as a dip in the glaze bucket for 6 seconds versus 8. Even when I make careful notes about each glazing session, measure and adjust the specific gravity of the glaze slurry, and count out the time that each pot is submerged, the results are still highly variable. So some pots are right on, others are close, others are disappointing, because I see what could have been but wasn't quite.

In addition to glaze application, there are many other factors that effect the outcome: the thickness of the pot's walls, if it was in a hot or cool spot in the bisque firing, where it's stacked in the glaze kiln, the duration and final temperature of the glaze firing, the weather on firing day, etc. Surprises and a little random luck are nice, and they occasionally produce great results, but getting good, consistent glazes requires an awareness of all these variables, and that I control or accomodate them as best I can.

Lastly this week, here's a wonderful video of Warren MacKenzie throwing in his studio. Wow. The internet is quickly becoming one of the coolest things ever.

August 30th, 2009

"September's coming soon
Pining for the moon
And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit
Around the fairest sun?" - R.E.M.

Returning to my ongoing dinnerware commission this week, I made 16 medium-sized bowls -- the second form in the set. These are shallow, about halfway between a bowl and a plate, and have two opposing lugs at the rim. It's kind of an unusual pot for me, but I like them. And I like it that the customer chose something different to go with the more simple bowl and plate forms; it'll make for a more dynamic set.

The lugs are fairly large, so they seem exaggerated at this stage, before they've started shrinking (after the glaze firing they'll be 10-12% smaller). The rest of the pot will shrink too, of course, so the proportions remain the same. But at this stage they remind me of a face with oversized ears. Kind of endearing, like a little kid who hasn't quite grown into their features yet.

We have a couple similar bowls in our kitchen that I made years ago -- back when my carbon trap shino was at its peak! -- and they're excellent for pasta or a large salad. Cindy's been making pesto from our small, overgrown garden, so they're getting a lot of use here as summer winds down.

16 bowls

10 3/4 months

As I've said before, for an order I'll usually make double the number of pots I need to end up with (in this case, 16 for 8). This should account for a few irregular shapes and for potential mishaps during drying and firing. Ideally, I'll have the best 8 for the order, and then a second set of 4 or 6 besides. What constitutes a set (to me) is kind of vague, but I like them to at least stack well, and look nice when stacked together, and to seem closely related, but not necessarily identical, when set out next to each other. This is kind of like the "right" thickness of a wall or curve of a handle, one of those subjective details that fluxes over time.

Working like this continues my trend of throwing in longer series, and doing more repetition throwing. Once I get locked in on the form, say on number 5 or 6, the details start to happen subconsciously. I cobbled together a simple measuring tool -- a cross of two sticks taped together, which gauge height and depth of the inside -- and after a while I used it just to verify what I could see by eye. Likewise with trimming feet: for the second group of eight, I almost didn't have to check them to know when I'd taken off enough clay.

I think there's a fine line between repetition throwing and machine-like production. To some degree it's working on autopilot, but not so much that it's totally monotonous or unthinking. More meditative, I guess. It's a nice mental state to get into, back to that idea of Flow -- the pots start to feel like they're just happening. If I go with it and let my mind drift, the time passes in bigger chunks and then there's a table full of finished pots.

All of this is still new enough to me that differences are quite distinct, compared to making smaller groupings or one-offs. The repetition builds a different understanding of the form and how to get there. It helps identify the key variables that are at work in a particular pot, the small details that interact to define the whole. And I think it pushes granular bits of skill into muscle memory faster, or perhaps more effectively. It seems to sharpen my awareness of the bigger picture, while dulling my attention to the process in the moment. And best of all, it gives me time to mull over all this heady, romanticized stuff while still getting some work done!

Trimming bowls

Finished bowls w/ lugs

The rest of the week in the studio was filled by a variety of minor tasks: setting out reclaim clay to dry, softening more clay to a good consistency for plates next week, packing up my pot for the SFPN show, and trying to finish those cane handles. That last thing didn't go so well (as I'd sort of anticipated last week). I did one of them twice and cut it off both times -- neither attempt was good enough to keep. Then I realized that part of the problem was not having the right length of caning for the final layer, and fighting to try and make do anyways. I should know better! But unlike most things in ceramics, this material allows for multiple attempts, so I'll regroup and try them again later.

Perusing the statistics for this blog via Google Analytics, I noticed something interesting in the section where it shows visits by country. (I should mention that, as with all web stats, this is something that can be analyzed by network address and is therefore anonymous.)

Recently, I average about 120 visitors a week -- kind of a humbling thought! While 80% are from the U.S. and another 10% from Canada, there's also a small percentage from Germany, the U.K. and Argentina. But here's the cool part: it appears that I have exactly one reader each in Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Israel, Spain and Switzerland. So here's a big hello to my small international audience, particularly to those of you who are your nation's sole representative in the St. Earth audience. Keep reading, but don't tell your friends!

This makes me think about how communicating online is now such a mundane thing, with the moment by moment interaction via email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, etc. But I clearly remember the time before any of this was possible, so it's still somewhat amazing to see proof that people I've never met can check in from vast distances away to see what's happening in my studio each week. I never imagined I'd be broadcasting my thoughts and images all over the world from here in rural Indiana. That's pretty great.

August 23rd, 2009

"This is when I learned that mistakes are interesting and began planning a life that contained several of them." - Daniel Gilbert

I got back to the wheel this week, after a long time in glaze and firing mode, and starting making pots for the soda kiln. Mugs first -- that's a good place to begin when I already have a slew of teabowls on the bisque shelf. I made a short run of two different types of mugs; both are extensions or reworkings of previous ideas.

I often take a pot that has something new or unusual or particularly good about it to the house and try it out in daily use, to see how that affects my thoughts and feelings about it. I've found myself regularly reaching for these two prototypes (pictured in the background below). As I hope is the case when other people use my pots, I've enjoyed discovering their less-obvious qualities, and the details of things like the feel of the handle or the texture of the decoration. Actually drinking from them also gets me thinking about how they could be better when I make them the next time. I've heard some potters say that using your own pots is like talking to yourself, but I find it to be a useful part of the development process. (I also think that talking to yourself gets a bad rap -- it has its advantages when you spend 90% of your work time alone!)

Odd mugs

Funnel shaped domino mugs

So I took those two mugs back out of the kitchen cabinet and to the studio. One is pretty quirky, both form and surface. It was inspired by a mug that I bought at the Appalachian Craft Center about five years ago, potter unknown. On the sides and bottom the surface has stamped dots, black lines defining rectangular sections and selectively applied slip and glaze. The form has this ruffling at the base, which is made by repeated thumb impressions while the pot is still soft (done right after flipping them over). It's reminiscent of the technique often found on medieval European jugs, which -- thanks to a quick Google search -- I now know is called "basal thumbing".

"Basal thumbing had a technical function in addition to any decorative enhancement there may have been... Vessels with grouped thumbing or with irregular projections will distance the pots placed on them from any glaze running onto the base. As technical advances in glazing, kiln construction and firing practice become apparent in the late medieval and post-medieval periods, thumbing on the bases of jugs virtually ceases." -

Here's a great example of it on a jug from the V&A Museum site.

I had read about this long ago, but couldn't remember the source. My read_it list actually comes in handy sometimes: there it is listed in 1994: Medieval English Pottery, by Bernard Rackham. Seeing that instantly reminded me that it was one of Clary Illian's books that I read that summer, along with dozens of old issues of Studio Potter, the entire Bernard Leach ouvre, and a bunch of Philip K. Dick novels.

Anyways, that thumbing technique is a really robust, direct way of stylizing the foot. It's also fun to do -- poke, poke, poke -- which makes me suspect that I like the results in part because of how I get there. And it's interesting just as a decorative element, even without the technical need to protect against glaze drips in the kiln. I like the idea of taking a historical thing like this and re-using it for different reasons. Severing the thing from its roots is wrong in a traditional sense, but right in a postmodern sense, where it's perfectly acceptable to put various things in a blender to see what comes out.

On the other hand, knowing about the technique's historical roots makes me think again about tumble-stacking in the soda kiln. (That's where the pots are stacked directly on each other, with minimal use of shelves to separate them.) I used to do that pretty often, back when I was woodfiring in school, but at some point I switched to stacking in single layers on shelves. If those thumb marks protruded below the base, like on those historical pots, that could make for some interesting flashing across the base, and even onto another pot below it. Hmm... that gets the mental gears turning...

On those mugs I also used an alternate method attaching the handle, where its lower attachement is as thick as the top, and both ends connect to the body in the same way. It makes for a different feel, compared to my usual method. More sturdy and with a different curve; more symmetrical from top to bottom. I've seen many good mugs made this way and have always admired the results; I sort of associate it as a Mingeisota thing. But I get set in my ways pretty easily, so a relatively small thing like this feels like a big difference. Not that I'm planning to adopt it overnight, but it's interesting to explore new and opposite things, and think about how they might work for my pots.

The first few days back at the wheel are usually awkward and confusing as it is, so it seems like a good time to try things that are outside my "normal" range. May as well get all that discomfort out of the way at once! And as weird as it was to make them, it's funny how these mugs are already starting to grow on me. I like that funky looseness and the excess of all those lines of form and surface competing with one another. I enjoyed getting out the black underglaze and doing a little brushwork decoration for a change, too.

I unloaded the second firing this week and it turned out well -- a very high success rate and some nice glaze results, especially the teadust glaze. My ongoing porcelain glaze testing is going strong, with a couple particularly good leads on a new celadon. A few of the glazes that I'd mixed larger test batches of came out with more crazing that I'd seen on the original tiles -- some of the tiles had actually crazed more in the intervening week! So I did some reading to refresh my understanding of the causes and potential liabilities of crazing, and ways to go about trying to fix it, in case I decide to go in that direction. That's probably a topic that could fill an entire post of it's own, so I'll leave it at that for now, but it's interesting to revisit a perennial issue like this and consider it from a fresh vantage point.

Cleaning & pricing pots

Twist tie excess

I still haven't shot photos of the new pots (procrastination ain't just a river in Egypt), but here's a few of them on their way to the showroom. Cleaning, sorting and pricing after a firing can be repetitious grunt work, but it forces me to pay a bit more attention to every pot before setting it out for display, and encourages contemplating the batch as a whole.

I finished the week adding cane handles to some baskets, while enjoying the beautiful weather outside the studio. This summer has been the coolest one in memory, and what looks like a freakishly-early autumn is making it hard to remember where we are in time. After avoiding it for ages, I finally gathered my vast collection of caning material from various storage spots around the studio. There were a few kinds I'd forgotten about, and others that I can't imagine why I purchased in the first place, as they seem completely useless. I guess that's a hazard of buying certain things online -- not being able to hold it in your hands leaves a lot chance. (The same goes for pots, much as I hate to admit it.) But I found some that had come pre-stained, and others that I'd dyed at some point, so there's a nice range of colors and shapes and sizes. I like the contrast of light and dark reed mixed together in the same handle, and how that relates to the various glazes. It emphasizes the layers that go into making the handles, and also the change from one material to another.

Cane handles

Early fall, behind the studio

I typically make them in two phases. After soaking the caning for a day or so to make it flexible, I weave the core of the handle through the pot's lugs and then attach some additional straight pieces to add bulk. I secure all that in place with twist ties. (I tend to get a bit excessive with the twist ties.) Then I let that sit overnight, to let it dry completely and shrink back tight. The second step is the hardest one: wrapping the core in a top layer that is wound as tightly as possible and has both ends securely attached within itself. I've gotten better at this over the years, and learned some tricks to doing it, but sometimes it's still kind of a shot in the dark. I'll finish these baskets next week and then do the same to some teapots.

August 16th, 2009

"After bread has been secured, leisure is the supreme aim." - Peter Kropotkin

I did another glaze firing this week, which is cooling down to door-opening temperature as I write. It's a nice cycle to glaze and load towards the end of a week, fire on Saturday, let it cool undisturbed -- no cracking, no peeking! -- while I take the day off on Sunday, and then have a batch of new pots to look forward to on Monday.

Provided this one comes out well, it will make for about 120 finished pots between the two loads. After three months of throwing since my last firing, it will be very nice to have some new pots around! Should be a good infusion into the showroom and my site gallery, too.

The best pots from the first firing are boxed up, waiting for me to do a photo shoot, but here's a couple photos of some others from that load. I like having finished pots stacked up in piles like this, but the harsh fluorescent lights of the studio make for pretty unflattering images! The next step for these is cleaning and pricing, then I'll tote them across the driveway to the showroom.

New pots


I finished reading Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness while monitoring the kiln on firing day. I recommend it if you're interested in the built-in limits of human psychology -- things like flaws in your memory and in the ability to predict your emotional responses to future events. While it's not an easy read -- particularly because it's conclusions will probably challenge your existing views -- the author is largely successful in distilling a wide range of scientific data down into accessible language and concepts.

I was particularly interested in the last chapter. It starts by explaining how certain beliefs (which Gilbert calls "super-replicators") gain traction in a given culture and persist over time -- and how this can even happen with beliefs that are false. He uses common beliefs in our culture about money and happiness as an example.

"Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter. Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year. People who live in poor nations are much less happy than people who live in moderately wealthy nations, but people who live in moderately wealthy nations are not much less happy than people who live in extremely wealthy nations."

I think that's fairly counter-intutitve. Most people I know, including me, assume that if they had a little more money then life would be easier, and therefore better and happier. And also that if they had a lot more money, then their quality of life would improve proportionately. But Gilbert says the data, collected from people in each situation, disagrees.

Here's another interesting quote:

"As Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776: 'The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage, and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary.'"

And Gilbert continues:

"Market economies require that we all have an insatiable hunger for stuff, and if everyone were content with the stuff they had, then the economy would grind to a halt."

I'd assumed that this was a more recent idea, not one going back to the foundations of capitalism. These two quotes combined say that money and things won't necessarily make you happier, but people always want more of them anyways.

As a maker of "stuff" which could readily fit Smith's category of "conveniences and ornaments", this makes me somewhat uncomfortable. In my bleaker moods, I wonder if my pots can fulfill my hopes for them -- if they can add actual meaning to peoples lives beyond just trying to fill up the limitless void of consumerism.

That fear is reinforced later in the chapter:

"So what motivates people to work hard every day to do things that will satisfy the economy's needs but not their own? Like so many thinkers, Smith believed that people want just one thing -- happiness -- hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy."

"In short, the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy, which serves the needs of a stable society, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth. Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being... this particular false belief is a super-replicator because holding it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it."

I'm a sucker for a challenge like this. Do I "believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being"? Well, yes -- to a certain extent. In terms of producing, that's essentially why I make pots. That also sounds to me like a pretty accurate description of the Protestant work ethic (in its secular version). As for consuming, it's easy to see other people as guilty of thoughtless mass consumption, but one's own purchases as necessary, well-considered and personally gratifying. But I suspect that we all try to buy ourselves happiness, in one way or another.

So do I accept that these ideas about making and buying are a false belief, as the author and the evidence suggest? That making pots as a "route to personal well-being" is a delusion, an impossible quest? And that when people buy my pots, they can never be more than mere "conveniences and ornaments"?

Despite Gilbert's well-supported argument, I guess at the end of the day I don't believe that. Or I accept it in theory, but think that there must be exceptions to the rule (for things like handmade pots, of course).

But then again, that's exactly what the self-replicating false belief would want me to think, now isn't it?

August 9th, 2009

"Come out to the edge where it is quiet,
Where the ink will drain right out of you" - A.A. Bondy

This was kind of a catch-all week in the studio, tying up loose ends and some miscellaneous tasks. I tend to do this right after a firing, at the transition from one phase to the next. So I made lids for some previously-thrown jars, loaded and fired a bisque, sorted studio clutter and planned out the next few weeks on the calendar, then spent some more time on developing porcelain glazes.

I tested several whites and celadons from John Britt's book in the last firing, and had some really promising results -- a far greater percentage of recipes that I want to explore further than I've had from any other source. Instead of running lots of tests and easily dismissing most of them, as usual, it was almost the opposite problem: I now have more good leads than I can follow. That's an amazingly great change. The next step for the promising ones was to mix 500 gram test batches, which I'll try on more test tiles and teabowls in the next firing. If they're still good after that, I'll mix a few as larger batches and start easing them into my glaze rotation. I also mixed two runs of oxide tests, looking for color variations in a couple base glazes that seem like they could make good celadons. Exciting stuff.

Reviewing glaze tests

Applying test glazes to tiles

Lids and jars

Teapots ready for bisque

Year Pots made
2003 420
2004 442
2005 163
2006 599
2007 507
2008 346
2009 327...

I've had this chart of my yearly studio output waiting in the wings for a while. I'm somewhat hesitant to share it, but what the heck... let's throw it out there.This is something I think about a lot, so maybe others will find interesting or informative.

The chart lists how many pots I've made each year for the last six-plus years. Some of my hesitation is that the entire idea of using these numbers as a meaningful indicator is kind of a loaded proposition. They suggest so much about my efforts, skill and dedication as a potter over that time, but could easily be misinterpreted or over-emphasized.

Back in March, I wrote about The 10,000 Hour Rule, as described in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Later, I posted a chart of my estimated studio hours for each year, going back to 1992 (when I first started in ceramics). I hedged that those totals were just estimates, and waxed on a little about how one year compared to another, what it suggested about the other things going on in my life in any given year, and how I regretted that some of them were so few. Two hundred hours is a lot of time, but a pretty disappointing total for a year's work!

I've also mentioned previously that I keep a "Made list": a running tally of all the pots I make. I started that in 2003, on something of a lark, and then got into the habit, for better or worse. The upside is that it helps me remember useful details -- like how much clay I used for a particular size and shape or when I last made teapots -- and gives me a way to quantify my output in the studio.

The downside is that I tend to obsess about these numbers and to put too much stock in the final total for a given year, as if it were an absolute measure of my efforts. It's not, of course, because at the end of the day it's only a measure of quantity, and says nothing about quality. (Let alone the size, complexity and difficulty of each pot, or the effort that went into them).

But with those caveats in mind, I think it's a useful exercise to think about what these numbers suggest. Given a large enough dataset, the Law of Large Numbers says that the irregularities would average out, allowing for meaningful year-by-year comparisons.

And I see some signs of this -- to a large extent the totals match my memory of each year. For example, given how crazy 2008 was for me, it makes sense that it was a three-year low. And the all-time high in 2006 synchs with when I was closest to being full-time potter, without a regular job outside the studio. Even so, it's strange that I only made 599 pots that year -- it seems like I should have been capable of a lot more than that! That number pales in comparison to what a lot of potters can do regularly, so I have some misgivings about it, to say the least. Another low mark was 2005. But that year we moved to our current house and studio, which included mountains of renovation work and building a kiln, so I'm kind of surprised that I managed any pots that year, let alone 163. This year I'm on pace to break my own record, and have almost matched last year's output already. And so it goes.

As I've said before, I aspire to make not just more pots every year, but better pots, too. That may be an unrealistic goal, but seems worth aiming for anyways.

August 2nd, 2009

"The sacred geometry of chance" - Sting

I had a pot juried into the Strictly Functional Pottery National, which was a nice outcome given my reservations about entering these kinds of shows. Of the three pots I entered, the one that got in -- a small lidded jar from the soda kiln -- was the one I least expected to make it. So much for predictions!

Lidded jar w/ copper glaze and wire handle

Current status of the greenware shelf

The statistics they sent back about the selection process are kind of staggering: of 1152 pots entered by 514 potters, only 105 pots were accepted (there was a maximum of one pot per person). That's an acceptance rate of just 9% (by piece) or 20% (by artist). Now I'm all for competition -- it brings out the best in people -- and I'm happy to see so much quality and activity in my field. But those are pretty severe odds, and I'm uncomfortable with the fact that for every person that gets in, there are four others who pay to subsidize that opportunity.

Clearly an event like this is in high demand, and it probably costs a lot of money to organize and produce the show. The SFPN has been going strong for 17 years, and has built a great reputation, so the people behind it deserve to come away with a profit for their efforts. But I'm still not sure that a $30 entry fee is a reasonable amount, especially for younger potters (or anyone else who's struggling to get by in hard economic times). I guess this relates back to what I wrote about pricing and relative value last month, in that the show organizers have to find the sweet spot for pricing their product (in this case, a space in a competitive exhibition). If 500 people apply at the current price, what's the incentive to charge less?

But since that's the case, I'd like to see a wider range of options for exhibitions of this kind. Most people will view the SFPN show on the web, so it seems like online-only shows are an obvious alternative -- like AKAR does with their annual Yunomi extravaganza. While eliminating the physical venue wouldn't reduce the cost to organize, jury, produce and publicize the show, substituting a web server for a gallery space might make it possible to charge, say, $10 per entry instead of $30. I think that would cast a wider net, and result in the best work making it into the exhibit, with less risk for each artist who applies. (You might be thinking, "Thirty bucks is thirty bucks -- what's the big deal?" Granted, that's the price of a good mug or a meal out, but how about when it goes to $40 or $50? The significance of the dollar amount is relative to each person, but I think the principle applies in any case.)

Another option would be to make it a non-profit/academic venture, perhaps sponsored by a university or arts organization. (It's been done before -- the Virtual Ceramics Exhibit is now 15 years old (!), dating back to the earliest days of the World Wide Web.) For example, I think an organization like Studio Potter would be a perfect sponsor, and something like this would be right in their wheelhouse: promoting a critical view of good pots to the public.

But then again, maybe the key to the web is that there is no shortage of exhibition space -- just of human attention. With access to easy publishing tools like Blogger, Wordpress, Flickr and Facebook, perhaps the need for juried scarcity is on its way out. Now that every potter can make their work accessible to any potential audience -- for a lot less than $30 -- maybe the good stuff will rise to the top, filtered by social networking and automated systems like Google's Page Rank. If so, it would reduce the need for gatekeepers, organizers and hierarchy, and eliminate entry fees, applications deadlines and opening dates. That might be a better solution than trying to graft the old analog model onto the brave new world.

In any case, I expect this year's SFPN show to be a good one. Pete Pinnell's juror's statement was excellent (I have it on paper; hopefully it will be on their site when the show opens). He described how he took the show's "Strictly Functional" title seriously, but that he is "willing -- in fact, interested -- in challenging our notions about what can be functional or not".

Pinnell went on to say:

"I don't think of function as a destination, but as a very powerful vehicle that allows the artist to transport us to some other destination. If function were the sole goal of our work, then all of these entries would have tended to look like plastic travel mugs (or their ceramic equivalents)."

Then he made a very compelling case for the role of function in art:

"Function is the tool that allows a work of art to play an active role in the events and processes of our lives. Function pushed art out of the role of critic and outsider, and into the rold of participant and insider. As viewers, we expect art to provide us with a strong visual and intellectual experience. Function provides a way for us to also appreciate these objects for their tactile and experiential qualities, and to accept them as intimate partners in our lives. Function allows art to stop being passive, and begin being active."

I think that's really well-said, and I couldn't agree more. I'm glad we have potters like this who do such a great job advocating for the role of pots in the larger contexts of academia and the art world.

Closer to home, I did a glaze firing this week -- it's slow-cooling today and I'll unload it tomorrow. It was a lot of work, as usual, but all seemed to go well. I was generally pleased with the pots on the way into the kiln, so hope to have snapshots of some good results next week, and a batch of new pots in my site gallery soon after that.

July 26th, 2009

"A.M., the F.M., the P.M., too
Churning out that boo-ga-loo" - The Clash

17 bowls


With a few more batches of freshly-softened clay on deck, I started on my new dinnerware commission this week. It's for eight place settings of three pots each: a medium bowl, small plate and dinner plate. Starting with the bowls -- the simplest form and the one I'm most familiar with -- I did a few for practice one day, then locked into the groove the next morning and turned out 17 of them. That should be enough to cover a few mishaps and odd ducks along the way! Then I started exploring the second form -- it's a shallow plate/bowl hybrid with lugs, and a bit more complex. And I took another shot at those two-part lidded jars, which are coming along nicely.

The weather has been weirdly great for this time of year, like a second springtime or a ridiculously early fall, which are my two favorite times to be in the studio. No wood stove to stoke, no heat to hide from. Just walk in the door and get to work.

Outside, looking in

Inside, looking out

Seventeen of the same pot in a morning is more "production" throwing than I usually do... perhaps more than I've ever done! But as I wrote back in May, I've been trying to work in longer series, so this commission dovetails nicely with that goal. The idea -- admittedly an optimistic one -- is to see if I can increase my productivity a little, while also developing my skills through iteration and practice. I've found two ways to go about this: either making a few more pots in each series, or returning to the same form multiple times in a row. Both are proving to be useful approaches.

Making more at once -- like nine jars instead of five -- lets me get reacquainted with a form and then put that fresh awareness to use. The pots at the start of a run are more awkward and hesitant; towards the end they usually get better, and start improving from where I left off the previous time I made them. (Back on the topic of memory, more repetition also reinforces the lessons learned by my mind and hands, so it's easier to retain them until the next time around.)

Making a second (or third) batch of a similar form works best when I get the first group to its completed greenware state -- including trimming, assembly and decoration -- before starting the next. That way, I can see and handle the finished results, and try to put what I learn from them into the next ones. Ideally, this approach lets me explore the strengths and subtle details of the first batch while correcting for errors and omissions, such as the curve of a belly, size of a trimmed foot, or placement of a spout. I've done this recently with pitchers, vases, fluted bowls, teapots and lidded jars, and feel like each of them has improved from the experience.

A serendipitous consequence is that this also adds a bit of clarity to my workflow. With less variety of pots around the studio, in various stages of dryness and completion, there are fewer tasks to complete on any particular day. That makes it easier to organize and plan my workflow, with less mental overhead required to keep track of it all. More opportunity to focus.

I should emphasize that all of this is a reaction to my past habits and tendencies. I used to dabble more, two of these and three of those, and rarely got into a particular form long enough to explore new possibilities. But there are reasonable limits to going in this new direction, too. The idea of "production throwing" has, in my opinion, justifiably earned its negative connotation. Too many of the same form at once, or too many times in sequence, and the pots can get static and dull. There's a fine line between immersion and boredom. Finding a meditative flow is good; callously turning the crank to maximize output is not. As Michael Simon said, "You have to keep yourself stimulated; it's really crucial." It seems to reason that if I lose interest and settle into rote repetition while making the pots, then I can't expect anyone else to be excited about them when they're finished.

More jars

Trimming bowls

Lastly this week, the new issue of Studio Potter arrived. This reminded me that I've been milking the last issue a bit too slowly -- I'm still only halfway through it! After scanning the table of contents of the new issue... Ahh, the happy buzz of anticipation... I dug back into the previous one. Coincidentally, having just citied Joe Bennion's blog last week, I found his article there, "The Body: Intimacy and Intuition." (Unfortunately, it isn't available online, but it sounds like SP has something in the works for their site.) Bennion writes as well as he pots, and says things with a wisdom and clarity that I greatly admire.

If, for some crazy reason, you care enough about pots to read what I have to say about them each week, but don't yet subscribe to Studio Potter, I can almost guarantee you'll love it. Yes, it's $70 a year ($35 for students). Yes, that's for only two issues. Yes, it's worth every penny.

July 19th, 2009

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." - Polonius

Finished teapots

I spent just a couple days on pots this week: assembling that second batch of teapots and making some two-part lidded jars, with a swelling double-curve. Last spring, I really pushed the limits of how large a jar I could effectively throw from one piece of clay. At about 7-8 pounds, I started losing control -- torquing or slumping where too thin, the clay not evenly distributed through the wall, or just having to compromise on my intended shape. At that size, I also started losing an unacceptably-high precentage of them to base cracks during the drying phase. (Potentially-relevant details: I throw on a treadle wheel and use a relatively smooth, soft clay.)

I plan to return to that problem later, but for now I'm taking a different approach and making them in two parts. I throw the base first and let it stiffen overnight, then attach a thick, thrown ring and throw the top section onto the base the next morning.

The two methods -- throwing in one piece or two -- have different strengths and weaknesses, require different skills, and each is better-suited to a certain range of forms. As much as I'd like to be able to wrestle a ten- or fifteen-pound chunk of clay into one big jar, I acknowledge my current limitations and do what it takes to arrive at a well-thrown pot. Process and technique are both very important to me, but the end result matters a lot more than how I get there.

Two-part lidded jars

Over the last few months, I've started paying more attention to the consistency of my clay, it's relative stiffness/softness. I've gradually realized that a small difference in consistency can have a big effect on my throwing, including the size of the pot, its corresponding wall thickness, and its ability to hold an overhanging curve or complex shape fresh off the wheel. With that in mind, I'm working on a numeric rating system -- a way to quantify the consistency of each bag of clay. (This also means keeping notes about which stiffness was used for which pots, so I can put the information to use and learn from experience. To that end, I've added a column to my Made list, and am geekily happy to have one more data point to track.)

A 5-point scale seemed a bit too vague; like the legendary Eskimo vocabulary for snow, I think I can tell the difference between more than five gradations. But a 100-point scale would suggest an absurd level of precision: "Oh yeah, that's a 78 for sure -- 79 tops!". So I settled on a 10-point scale, which roughly equates to the following:

  1. 1: too soft to throw - sticky
  2. 4: for plates - soft
  3. 6: for large bowls - medium
  4. 8: for tall cylinders - stiff
  5. 10: too stiff to throw - cracks when wedged

The main benefit to this is it refines my awareness of the material, and a encourages a closer relationship between process and intent. The cost, as usual with my "systems", is more effort expended on keeping track of yet another detail. It also make for more piles of bagged clay, now with magic marker scribblings on them: "New - 8 - soaking" or "Reclaim - 4 - 7/08". But it seems to facilitate getting the clay just as I want it for a particular form, and saves time unwrapping and rewrapping bags to figure out how stiff their contents are.

So this was all fine and good until I recently restocked my supply of Amaco's 38M white stoneware. After driving an hour each way to buy it and then hauling 400# of it into the studio, I discovered that it was all too stiff! My plan is to use it for a dinnerware commission, which needs the clay to be about a 4-6 on the scale above, but this stuff was more like 7-9. Drat! I considered calling Amaco to complain, but even if they would exchange it, I wasn't wild about the idea of loading it all back in the car and spending another half day doing so, with no guarantee that a replacement batch would be any closer to what I need.

It bears mentioning that it's easy to get clay stiffer -- just set it out to air dry -- but much more difficult to get it softer, especially without a clay mixer or pug mill. (I don't have either.) When you add more water to clay and seal it up in a plastic bag, the water tends to just linger around the outside, gradually making the edges sloppy while the center stays too hard. I've tried variations on this method -- poking holes through the block; slicing the block with a wire and wetting each slice; wrapping the block in a wet towel; etc. -- but none has worked very well, or seemed worth all the hassle.

And so, in search of a better way, I went to my source of first resort for technical advice: the Clayart archives.

There I found a post by David Hendley, which explains why it's so difficult to get pre-mixed clay that's just the "right" consistency:

"As a potter who has also worked for a clay company, I can tell you that even if 'the person looking at the clay coming out of the pugmill' IS a potter, when clay is shooting out of a pugmill at 10 pounds a second it's a fine line between making the clay too stiff, too soft, and just right. It really is a skilled job that requires experience. I promise you, the clay company does not want to sell you a product that you don't like.

"I can also tell you that for every call the company gets complaining that their clay is too hard, there is a call complaining that it is too soft. It is truly impossible to please everyone... If the clay from your present supplier is always and consistantly too hard, switch suppliers. "

This lessened my frustration with Amaco somewhat, and other people on that thread mentioned that their supplier will mix clay to a custom consistency, given some lead time and a large enough order. That might work in the future, but it doesn't help my current situation much.

Then, at the end of a thread called "throwing out hard clay", was a post by Diane Rae which described a method I'd never heard of before:

"For lack of a better term, 'reconsituting' hard clay is actually a snap! Learned this from a gifted fourth grader and her science fair experiment. It works best for large lumps or bricks of clay. Put it in a strong plastic bag, pour a couple cups of water into the bag. Twistie tie the bag tight. Immerse it in a bucket of water so the water fully covers the lump of clay in the tightly tied bag. The optimum time is 12 hours. You can leave it longer but the best results come out after 12 hours. She called this 'hydrostatic pressure' and I've used it consistently for good results. The pressure from the water outside the bags pushes the water evenly into the clay."

This seemed like an odd, overly-optimistic idea. But I was intrigued by the term "hydrostatic pressure," and the fact that it came from a 4th grade science fair project added a weird authority to it. (Perhaps this explains why it wasn't in the standard trove of potter's lore -- it's actual Science!) So despite my reservations, I gave it a try and I'm pleased to say that it worked brilliantly!

The first batch went in as an 8 (on my scale) and came out 24 hours later at about a 6. That's a pretty dramatic improvement for such a short soak time. There also seemed to be less difference between the center and the edges than with the methods listed above, which means less sorting and wedging. This gives some validity to the claim that the pressure from outside the bag "pushes the water evenly into the clay." Another key factor is that the setup is simple and quick: for clay that's already bagged, it requires only a spare bucket and some water. That's a great improvement on the hassle of some of the methods listed above, lke slicing and dicing stiff clay or wrangling with a wet towel. I've only done a few batches this way to date, but so far this is the best method I've tried. It makes the boxes of overly-stiff clay sitting around my studio seem a lot less daunting.

Lastly this week, I read a very interesting post by Joe Bennion, a potter I've admired since I first started in clay. It's titled "Community and Commerce" and is somewhat related to my rambling post about pricing the other week. He writes about how he's developed a local market for his pots, rather than relying on galleries and shows to sell his work. His experience reinforces much of what I suspect is true, and encourages the parts I still have doubts about. The lead paragraph is so great that I would happily read an entire book on this topic, if there was one:

"Nineteen years ago I had my work in 15-20 different galleries across the country. The work was all on consignment. I got checks when the work sold but not until they did. The checks trickled in. I sold at a few craft fairs and at my studio on selected open house days. I was slowly starving to death. I had just quit my part time teaching job in hopes of making it on pottery sales alone. It was not working."

For more about Bennion, including the philosphy behind how he makes and sells his pots, see his site. And if you haven't seen The Potter's Meal, the short film about him, I highly recommend it.

July 12th, 2009

"Punch the keys, for God's sake!" - William Forrester

After writing last week's post, I realized that I did not in fact buy two mugs from Clary Illian in 1994 for $5.50 each. She gave me the first one, and I bought the second. Which makes my debate about whether to buy one back then even more stunning! Youth is wasted on the young, money is wasted on the old, and memory fades as it accumulates.

I was surprised to remember this so belatedly; it seems like it should have been there at first glance. But, as I'm learning from the book Stumbling On Happiness, memory is a tricky thing. The author argues that our memories are strongly influenced by our mental and emotional state in the present moment (when we're in the act of remembering), and that we're typically unaware of this tendency for our brains to rearrange "the facts." As mine apparently did about those mugs. Research shows that the human brain has built-in mechanisms for filling in or removing details from stored memory. It also suggesta that memories are actually reassembled on the fly each time they are recalled, which gives plenty of opportunity for this kind of subconscious alteration to happen.

All of this is contrary to common sense, which says that our memories are retrieved from secure mental storage as needed, and therefore can be trusted implicitly. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the need to trust in your own perception is basic to survival: "Hmm... that looks like a rhino charging through the trees..." Furthermore, one's sense of self is largely built on the mental narrative of what you've done and thought about up to now. So the idea that this foundation is biased -- possibly to the extent of not matching objective reality -- is really unsettling. If you can't trust yourself, who can you trust?

To accept this premise enough to use it as the basis of a change in behavior could be quite challenging. All that second-guessing would consume a lot of calories. But I imagine that putting this kind of reflexive self-doubt into practice could also save a lot of dumb mistakes over the years: flawed assumptions, overly-optimistic estimates, false certainties.

Small fluted bowls

Fluting a larger bowl


More teapots

Speaking of faulty memory, I made teapots this week and had no idea when I'd last made them. Fortunately, I had three sources of outboard memory to lean on, and they readily provided the answer. (I think we've previously established that I'm a bit obsessive about these things.) The first was a greenware teapot, tucked high on a shelf where it had set since that last group of them, awaiting a properly-sized lid that never materialized. Inside the footring was a cluster of seven dots, which means it's from 2007. The second was my "Made" notebook -- a list of every pot I've taken off the wheel in the past several years. It reports that my last teapots were, in fact, made on July 22nd, 2007 -- almost two full years ago! And the third was this blog's archive. It was just six weeks old at the time, but I mentioned them briefly in the weekly tally.

Perhaps I don't remember these things anymore because I don't need to, just like people seem incapable of remembering phone numbers these days. All that data is stored at your fingertips now, freeing your mind to focus on things like Deadliest Catch and where to go for lunch. But that lack of use also lets the ability wither away, like knowing just where to place the spout on a teapot body, or how big to make the lugs for a cane handle.

2007 teapot

Assembled teapots

On a more serious note, I was sad to hear this week that one of my long-time local customers died recently. He was a passionate collector of pots, and seemed to love them as much as a potter does (which I always find pleasantly surprising and inspiring). His collection will be featured in an exhibit at the Richmond Art Museum called "Down to Earth: The Philip Sartore Collection" later this summer, including one of my soda fired oval baskets.

Lastly this week, I can finally point to an RSS feed for this blog. To subscribe it, just follow the link and then bookmark it or paste it into your feed reader of choice (Google Reader, Firefox, Safari, NetNewsWire, etc.).

As I wrote last month, I cobbled this system together the hard way -- edited by hand -- and had to do some research to sort out the protocol and how to implement it. For various reasons, it will announce each week's post but not duplicate the entire contents, so you'll still need to follow the link here to my site. I know that's not as seamless as it could be, but hope it's an improvement on trying to guess at my semi-random publishing schedule. And if you don't know or care to know what RSS is, it won't change anything else here, so just keep doing what you're doing!

July 5th, 2009

"If I charged $100 for a mug, there would still be zero
possibility of getting rich from it." - Aaron Sober

This week's pots: vases and small fluted bowls.

Vases bases

Vases tops

Finished vases

Now with that out of the way:

Ron Philbeck started a great discussion on his blog last week about how potters spend their money and, by extension, price their work. He makes an interesting connection between things a potter values enough to pay a premium for (good shoes, gourmet food) and how to go about convincing other people to do the same for their pots. As usual, the Potter-Blogger crowd jumped on that like white on rice, myself included. (If there's one thing we like to discuss more than glazes or Art-vs-Craft, it's pricing.)

The many excellent comments there really got me thinking about this issue. To start at an arbitrary entry point, Joe from Windy Ridge Pottery wrote about buying his first mug from Clary Illian when he was young and broke, and how it's $9 price influenced his decision to buy it.

I bought my first pots from her too, when I worked at her studio in the summer of '94, and I distinctly remember that her mugs cost $5.50 each. (That decimal place really made an impression. Not $5.00 or $6.00: $5.50!) Even at that price, it was a stretch to my budget to buy two ($11 plus tax). But thankfully I did, and I have loved using them and learning from them for 15 years. They were out of her new soda kiln, and ahve a great loose gesture, bare clay with a nice gloss and color, and a simple clear liner glaze. Like Joe, I've tried to copy that mug many times and never really gotten close.

Eleven dollars seems like a laughably small amount of money now. But at the time, just out of school and trying to get started as a potter, it was a big expense. If they had cost what I sell a mug for today ($24 to $32), I probably wouldn't have bought even one. So I completely agree that how you price your pots can affect who does -- and doesn't -- buy your work. I'm bothered by the idea that someone in that same scenario today might look at my pots and stay away because the price is prohibitive.

Of course, I wish I'd bought dozens more of Clary's pots back then. (She would have frowned at this, however -- my sense is that she doesn't like it when people take advantage of the price to buy her pots in bulk. We eventually acquired a good number of them, anyways.)

Joe also said:

"...I believe the more you charge for you functional pottery the less functional it becomes. People are going to think twice before pulling down that $60 dinner plate for a dinner party."

I think that's well-said and exactly right; it's a commonly held belief among potters descended from the Leach/MacKenzie school of thought. The definition of "functional pottery" includes price; if the price is too high, the pot ceases to function, as it becomes too precious to risk using. A functional pot that never comes off the shelf is, for all intents and purposes, a non-functional sculpture that just happens to have the form and potential of a utilitarian vessel. There's nothing wrong with that -- I own and love several pots that fit that description -- but they belong to a different category than the pots I eat cereal from, and I think that distinction is an important one.

A further complication is that the point at which price prohibits use for any given pot is different for each person, based on their income, spending habits, how much they like that pot, etc. If the price seems too high, they'll choose not to buy it, or to buy it and tuck it away in a safe spot. But too low and it can make people think less of the same object, perhaps also to the point of not buying it. (Price almost always influences perception, thanks to modern advertising and branding.) So putting the belief that functional pots require functional prices into practice requires a lot of interpretation -- it can make putting price stickers on actual pots a baffling task.

As to how he chooses to price his work, Joe said:

"There is nothing wrong with selling pots for large amounts of money if the market is there. Personally though I’m happy selling my pots for what may be a little bit less than the market can bear."

And Aaron Sober said:

"As I’m following this thread I’m struck by all the things potter’s ought to be doing. We should be pricing our work affordably, or pushing the market to its limit, or living humbly, or making as much money as possible."

I strongly agree with these ideas, too. They emphasize that in this post-modern era, where everything is and must be relative and conditional, there's little room for the Price Police to go around throwing the moral stink-eye at potters who aim at the high-end gallery and collectors' markets. But, as per the above, it's useful to make the distinction between a $600 teapot and a teapot that will actually get to contain tea. And at the other end of the spectrum, it's silly to suggest that potters must charge a certain minimum, as if prices like Clary Illian's are somehow unfair or anti-Capitalist. Just like each potential buyer, every artist has an economic history -- and a series of choices -- that influence what they make and what they're willing to sell it for. The idea of a "fair" art market that somehow levels out these inequities is a fantasy. It's easy to lecture others about what they should do, and hard to ignore this and find your own way.

In practice, the actual price of a mug sorts itself out between the extremes. Simply following the market -- that is, perpetually charging the maximum amount possible -- seems like a bad idea. Treating the business of art like just another business -- maximizing profits, cutting costs, fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders, etc. -- is like a trap waiting to spring shut. Take too much of the romance out of the process and what's left? But adhering to prices that are too low to support yourself enough to keep making pots is either unsustainable or an act of charity -- no matter how noble in principle. I suspect that the people who've made a big mistake in either of these directions are no longer making pots, or won't be soon enough.

When I was a student at ASU, Kurt Weiser, who directed the Archie Bray Foundation and saw a lot of people come and go over the years, told me that the potters he'd known who'd focused on making money never did, but the ones who focused on making good work usually came out OK. That was also 15 years ago, and I can still remember where I was standing when he said it.

June 28th, 2009

"...but mainly he wanders in circles aggravated with the need to
start from nothing again." - Carol Lollis

Things at St. Earth were kind of in the suck this week. After enjoying ideal California weather, we returned home to an early blast of suffocating Midwestern heat and humidity. As the afternoon temperatures in the studio climbed near 100 degrees, I realized that I'd procrastinated too long on yet another maintenance project: repairing the gaping hole in the styrofoam ceiling. (That's right: styrofoam. It's ridiculously fragile, totally uninsulated, and needs to be completely replaced at some point. But suffice it to say that this was the least of the problems with my studio building when I inherited it, and thus it's still pending.) The hole was another weird casualty of the storm (tornado?) that took down the barn 18 months ago. It left a long break in the panels all along the front of the building, like a giant hand gave it a karate chop from above -- which suggests the force of the wind as it shot through the small vents into the attic. Fortuantely, the fix required use of hammer and nails, a box knife, and some duct tape, which are mostly within the limits of my technical abilities. It was a nice change of pace to do a building project, albeit a minor one, that didn't require elaborate research, planning, or professional assistance.


These holes were made for patching

Since the lawn never takes a vacation, I also spent extra hours on mower duty trying to catch up with it, acclimating my blood to the new season and attempting to break the tedium by listening to podcasts (via noise-cancelling headphones -- a wonderful invention).

All that hot grunt work made me want to just hide out in the house (preferably lying down near an A/C outlet), but I managed to slowly get back to making pots. I've got plenty of teabowls in the queue already, so I started with mugs and moved up to some two-part vases. I wasn't too rusty, given a few weeks away from the wheel, but there was the usual discomfort and awkward groping to rediscover a good touch on the clay.

The shelves were packed full of greenware, so I ran a load in the bisque kiln. Then on Friday I made a clay run to Amaco for 400# of white stoneware. I just took on a new dinnerware commission -- a setting for eight, three pots each -- which I'm planning to start soon. As usual, I'll probably have to throw about double that to end up with good, consistent groupings, and to cover for any firing mishaps, which means about 50 pots total. That should get me back in the groove!

With the solstice gone by, I'm due to time-shift my studio days into the earlier morning hours. I've done this the last couple years, and it really helps get the bulk of each day's work done before it gets crazy-hot in the studio. There's also something nice about getting up at first light, but without having to trek across an icy driveway to start a fire in the wood stove -- a reminder that summer, for all its flaws, also has its priviledges.

Greenware shelf


June 14th & 21st, 2009

"I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long" - Tom Waits

We spent the past week on vacation in San Diego, my hometown from 1971-89. Most of my family still lives there, so Maggie got to see her grandparents and meet her aunts and uncles. We dipped her feet in the Pacific for the first time and got sand between her toes, which reminded me of summer days as a kid spent on the beach: breathing sea water, getting sunburned to a crisp, making castles and digging for sand crabs, never realizing that's about as good as it gets.

So It Goes

The week before that I caught up on some missed days at the job, so it's been two full weeks since I was in the studio -- hope to have some progress to report on that front next week. We also celebrated birthdays: my 38th year and Maggie's 8th month coincided on the same day. (It all just keeps coming back to parenting these days. I'll insert a couple family vacation photos and then get back to writing about pots.)

Before we left, I applied to the Strictly Functional Pottery National (here's the 2008 show). It's usually a great collection of pots, and I really appreciate the show's concept. I've been in it once before -- so long ago that it's no longer on their website (*sigh*) -- and have applied a few other times without success. My reservations about the pay-to-play aspect of juried shows, where the losers finance the winners, has gradually increased over the years, to the point where I'm very selective about rolling the dice on a $30 application fee. Perhaps I'm now overly-cautious about this, or just getting old and cranky, and I'd probably change my tune if my work selected more often. And, of course, it's possible that my pots just aren't good enough to compete!

Blue Skies

In any case, I'm trying to maintain a thread of activity in that area, and if I'm going to apply to one show a year it may as well be the one that explicitly asks for utilitarian pots. I was also prompted by their choice of juror this year: Pete Pinell. I've admired his pots and generosity as a teacher for a long time. He did a workshop when I was in grad school and gave me a thoughtful, helpful critique. Subsequently, I've learned a lot about glazing and firing from his articles and handouts, and have used several of his glaze recipes with good results.

Also this week, I started reading a new book, Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. I first heard him give a talk on the TED conference podcast (an amazingly good archive of lectures on a range of topics). I was so taken by his content and delivery that I've listened to a half dozen times, and wanted to know more.

The book's main premise is that we humans use our imaginations to predict what will or won't make us happy in the future, but that this function is spectacularly flawed. It's written more from a scientific perspective than a typical self-help book, with lots of evidence based on psychology experiments. Gilbert attempts to explain why we're often unhappy even when we get what we wanted -- and vice versa! The details of this are unsettling, because they question an assumption most people take for granted: that you can trust your own perception, memory and ability to predict what you want.

I think this issue pertains directly to artists. We spend so much time envisioning things that don't yet exist, and building mental models during the making process. This is particularly true in ceramics, where you have to be able to imagine how things will change from one stage to the next: shrinking, drying, decoration, raw glazes, and the pots hidden in the kiln during the firing. I think making pots actually improves and refines this imaginative ability, through what Michael Kline recently called "triangulating experience, speculation, and blind luck". But even so, it's hard to accept that this skill starts out far more flawed than I'd thought -- and that there may be unalterable limits that prevent it from ever really working well.

Another reason Gilbert's thesis is so interesting is that it challenges not only what we do believe about our own thinking (meta-cognition), but also what we want to believe. Most people want to trust their instincts, believe their senses, rely on their memories and think that they have a good idea of what they want and how great it will be when they get it. But if it ends up that your internal narrator is unreliable -- perhaps to the extent that you can't even guess at what will make you feel happy -- that changes everything. One plan starts to become about as valuable as any other. The sense of being able to control your own fate looks more like an illusion. And the struggle for that control no longer seems worth all the effort. Freaky.

Despite this new awareness, I'll be stumbling towards the (theoretical) happiness of finishing the book over the next few weeks, so might have more on this topic coming up.

June 7th, 2009

"It's no good for men to work in cages" - The Clash

I had three fairly productive days in the studio this week. Four series of pots: vases, planters, oval baskets and batter bowls. Fewer pots in each series, but more complex forms; the baskets and planters have a lot of steps in the assembly and finishing stages. These forms were on the Make list with an eye towards filling in gaps in the showroom; I haven't done the last two in a long time, so there are none currently on the shelves. It's interesting to observe the demand for different forms over time (all other things -- like quality of execution, glazing and decoration -- being equal). Some things I can never have enough of, while others take a while to clear out.

Vases with lugs

Planters with cut feet

For example, I probably sell large bowls three to four times more often than baskets with cane handles. I imagine that often comes down to the simple fact that everyone knows what to do with a bowl, or could find a use for one, while it's less obvious what one would do with a ceramic basket. But I enjoy making both, and am challenged by them in different ways. I like giving my customers a range of choices, from the popular to the esoteric. Clary Illian once told me, on the subject of satisfying customer demand, that she could probably make nothing but bowls. But she said it in a way that I took to mean, "They would all sell, but wouldn't that be a disappointing way to go about being a potter?" It's interesting how a single thought like that can stick in memory and grow in significance over the years. Maybe it's because we're constantly changing, so we find new ways to reinterpret old ideas.

I also like going back to a form I haven't made in a while, after I've forgotten my assumptions enough to see new possibilites. (I realize this is a direct contradiction of all my griping about losing momentum after a break and having to start over again. I guess it's different with forms where I'm comfortable enough with the basics that I'm interested in more options. For example, I don't know how many oval pots I've made over the years, but it's a lot. The challenge with them now is less in the throwing and more in assembling the parts into a good composition.)

Oval baskets

Batter bowls

The vases ended up bigger than I expected, because after throwing all those big jars last spring I unintentionally started them with more clay. That in turn suggested larger decorative lugs, which are pleasantly chunky, like my daughter's baby legs. The oval baskets got a bit larger than planned, too -- perhaps all that practice throwing vertical forms lead to pulling the clay more taut than usual.

Unintentional variations like that in the making process remind me of biological evolution, especially in the way that one new form suggests another, and then another. It creates a positive feedback loop that can be very effective. It also resembles natural selection, in the way that each change gets evaluated for whether it should be repeated or scrapped, although in this case the environment that determines fitness to survive is in my head. Or -- to put it in a way that might disturb my religious friends -- the Intelligence behind the Design is me, the Almighty of the Studio. "I kick the wheel and you are the clay," or something like that. (If that's the case, I think we'd have to call it Semi-intelligent Design.)

But back to the analogy. This iterative process of developing pots is also like evolution in that there's no skipping ahead -- each generation matters, and just thinking or sketching an idea is not enough to evaluate it. The repetition of making is the foundation of the entire process. Some might see these variations as errors, or the process as unacceptably inefficient, and try to correct for them. I see it as an excellent, organic way for my pots to gradually go in new directions.

In the studio on Saturday morning, during a lull in the music, I was listening to the cacophony of birds outside, and thinking about all the places I've made pots where you couldn't see or hear the outside world, let alone smell freshly-cut grass on the breeze. The hermetically sealed art buildings at ASU and Edwardsville, surrounded by the concrete campus at Iowa and Colorado. And then in my own basement studios -- Indiana St. and College St. -- where a small glimpse of daylight was the best I could hope for.

I complain when my studio gets too hot or too cold, about the maintenance it requires and my inability to clear out the junk and get it organized. But at times like this I'm reminded of how amazingly great it is. The Clash got it right -- it's not too much to ask to have a window you can open, a view to the outside world, and a tentative connection to the elements. I'm very lucky to have each of these in spades, and am grateful for it.

Speaking of clearing out junk, I did some long-overdue web maintenance this week. The most significant was breaking up the blog archive so that each year has it's own page. So now 2007 and 2008 each have a permanent home, and the current page is just 2009 to date. (There are links at the bottom of each page.) I'd neglected this task so long that there were two years of posts on a single page, and it was getting ridiculously long. So now it no longer loads half a megabyte of text each time you load the page! And that's not even considering the images. My sincere appologies to any readers still on a dialup connection.

That little project is a continuation of my resistance to migrating this thing to a proper blogging system -- like Wordpress or Blogger -- where things like archiving would be automated. I've been making websites for about 10 years now, which means I started in the days when you still couldn't completely trust software to spit out good HTML. Back then, most people who cared learned to code everything by hand; if you couldn't see how it worked, you didn't use it. That's still a very useful skill, and a good general principle, but it also means I'm probably a bit too suspicious of automation and new-fangled "Web 2.0" developments.

I guess that makes me kind of a techo-Luddite, "in the know" but behind the times, happy to clunk along with my funky, home-grown ways of doing things. The downside is that my site is always a generation or two behind the times, because it takes so long to add the features that most people already take for granted. (In web time, things go from brand new to completely standardized in, oh, about 6 months.)

The best example of this, and the project I'm currently mulling over, is an RSS feed -- the sweet technology behind subscribing to things like blogs, photostreams and podcasts. Several readers have asked for it, and for good reason -- it's not very user-friendly to expect people to remember to come here to see if I've posted anything new, when they could receive a notification in their browser or RSS reader instead. I've been an avid RSS consumer for years -- it's built into iTunes and the core of the podcasting boom. More recently I've switched to reading blogs with Net News Wire, instead of jumping from site to site. But I don't have any experience as a RSS creator and that's where things get technically tricky, if you're not going to let a pre-built system do the work for you. Given what I said above, I'm not inclined to. So I have an idea of how I might put one together and implement it in a way that doesn't add a lot of extra work to each post, but I still have to learn a few things and work out the kinks before offering you a handy Subscribe button. I'm not saying it will happen soon, but I think it will happen!

Also online and long-overdue, my 2008 Archive Gallery: the best pots from last year. I'm really pleased with these as a group. I see improvement from previous years and exciting potential in them, especially the stuff from the salt kiln. Stronger forms, interesting decorative developments, and a handfull of new glazes to pin my hopes on.

My birthday is coming up, and with it the 2nd anniversary of this blog, which seems like a good time to take a summer break. So no post next week (try getting advance notice from an RSS feed!), but I'll return with more the week after. In the meantime, how about seeing what Michael Kline and Brandon Phillips are up to these days? I highly recommend them, if they're not already on your radar.

Two years -- imagine that. Thanks for reading.

May 31st, 2009

"It's not healthy to run at this pace..." - Sting

Last week's cold kept gaining momentum, and this week it was just bad enough that I felt consistently terrible. But not so bad as to warrant spending all day on the couch, so I plowed ahead as best I could. I also made up some missed hours at the dayjob, so my time in the studio was pretty limited. I trimmed that group of 12 scalloped bowls, then made and finished a second group of eight; circular rims this time, less complex.

Scalloped bowls

Another group

When I'm sick like that, it magnifies the perpetual dilemmas of the self-employed: How much work is enough? When should I take time off? Is there something else should I be doing instead? Do I have enough fuel in the tank to do quality work right now?

It's also more difficult to decide what to make. If the end result isn't something that will be worth firing, then I'm just raising the level of the slops bucket. With my enthusiasm, focus and stamina reduced, many things are just out of the question -- most of the pots I make require my A game to do well. So I tend to go back to small and simple, pots I know well from hundreds of previous repetitions. Fortunately, there are a few things like this that can succeed by drawing from experience, when those other abilities are temporarily unavailable.

Like these bowls. Looking at them after the fact, as my head starts to clear, they seem reasonably good. Not my best, of course; there are some weaknesses and details I'd like to do over. But acceptable. They're just this side of the boundary line -- murky, grey and shifting as it may be -- that separates the "good enough" from the things that I'd be embarassed to send out into the world with my stamp on them.

In other news, Cindy and I celebrated our 13th anniversary this week (if "celebrated" is the right word; I was half-underwater all day). And this Fall will mark 20 years since we met, during out first year of college. That's now more than half our lives ago, which seems kind of amazing. She remains my best friend, the strongest supporter of my work as a potter, and my partner in this crazy 8-month-old parenting endeavour.

Lastly this week, a couple links to some ceramics stuff I've been enjoying. The first is a web-based network of salt and soda glaze potters. It started about a year ago and seems to have some legs -- now over 200 members and the forums are accumulating some good info and interesting conversations. Here's my profile there. If you're interested in that sort of thing, I recommend you check it out.

Likewise with the second item, a podcast called The Firing Log. It's a series of 8 podcasts by an anagama potter in Washington state, focused on interviews with other woodfire potters. I've listened to most of them and really enjoy the depth of the conversations, even though it's been almost 10 years since I last fired with wood. Maybe that's what I like best about them, that it's kind of a nostalgic, vicarious journey into that way of making pots. There's one episode, recorded during a multi-day firing, that really captures the essence of what goes through a potter's mind while their work is in the kiln, including all the questions, hopes, doubts and anticipation. (And on the scale of a really large kiln, all those things get magnified proportionally!)

There's a wealth of other stuff on that site, too: lots of photos, technical info about woodfiring and an interesting blog. For example, next time I have a bad firing I'm going to refer back to this quote for some perspective:

"What I failed to consider was that when the kiln gets to temperature, the shelves become soft and then warp and bend. When the unsupported corner of the shelf drooped, the weight distribution changed, and it tipped forward. When it hit the shelf in front of it, it caused that one to tip forward, and the ensuing domino effect ensured that almost nothing survived the 6th firing."

May 24th, 2009

"We were raised by wolves, and we are still wild..." - A.A. Bondy

My efforts in the studio this week were hampered by a sick baby and the resulting lack of sleep, and by the weekend I was starting to get under the weather, too. I'm a much better potter on eight hours sleep than I am on six; on four I can go through the motions for half a day (hoping for instinct and luck to make up the difference), but that's about it. The same goes for when I'm not 100% healthy -- everything drags along in slow motion. So I didn't get as many pots made as I'd like, but those I did are pretty good: lidded jars, more pitchers and small bowls with scalloped rims (12 + 6 + 12 = 30).

Lidded jars, just off the wheel

Lidded jars, dry

It was interesting to go back to lidded jars again, after making so many of them earlier in the year. The form felt very familiar, and the details -- like making the flange for the lid and shaping the curve of the body -- came back quickly. It's nice to feel experience accumulate like that, slowly but noticeably.

I've always found pitchers to be a challenging form, primarily because the walls must be thin enough that the total weight is still reasonable after the pot's full of liquid -- too heavy and they're awkward to use. As with almost all pots that have a flat base (i.e. no footring), I leave pitchers as they come off the wheel, without trimming off excess clay at the leatherhard stage. That makes them a real test of how much volume I can get from a certain amount of clay, and how well I can distribute that clay throughout the form.

I also find it tricky to get a well-proportioned, narrow neck, relative to the lower part of the body. For this style of pitcher, that's important because it allows for a good negative space inside the curve of the handle. With smaller amounts of clay like this (2 1/2 pounds), it's a tight fit for my inside hand during the final stages of shaping and finishing. Then there are the dynamics of pulling the spout and handle so that they look as good as they work -- that's always challenging, with many subtle decisions to be made on the fly.

More pitchers

Series of bowls

I made 12 bowls in a series, with a shape and rim treatment that's become kind of a standard of my repertoire the last few years. As kind of an ongoing experiment, I've been attempting to squeeze a bit more efficiency out of my studio time by working in longer series: 8 instead of 6, 12 instead of 10. The idea is to see if I can get a few more pots made in the same amount of time, but without compromising the quality of any of them. (Perhaps this is edging a little closer to "repetition" or "production" throwing while hoping to avoid the negative connotations and outcomes of either). This might seem like looking for a free lunch, but I think there are a few good reasons why it might be possible.

For example, once I get warmed up with a particular form, I tend to get into a rhythm where each pot comes a bit faster and requires less fuss to get the details right. Parts of the making process get passed off the the hands -- and/or the subconscious -- through the repetitive actions that go into forming each pot. I think a little less and do a little more, and when things are going well the results are the same. My experience in IT means I tend to think of my brain like a computer, so I imagine this process being analogous to loading some data into RAM and then processing with it as long as the current task continues, saving the overhead of repeated trips back to the hard disk. (A binary file with hash values for this algorithm can be provided upon request.)

(Not really.)

Alternately, and from more of a Humanities perspective, I think this working method is related to getting into a state of Flow, where the mental chatter quiets down and the inertia of making starts to work in my favor. That's a topic I seem to keep brushing up against lately, and something I'd like to address directly one of these days. It seems to me that it is very closely tied to doing manual work, and is perhaps a key part of learning to make quality things through satisfying, sustainable means.

Another example of the benefits of working in longer series, and perhaps a more obvious one, is that the setup and preparation are essentially the same whether I'm making one pot or a dozen. This includes things like arranging the workspace, getting tools ready, preparing clay and throwing slip to proper consistency, making trimming chucks, decorating, and managing the drying process. Each of these is a small thing in and of itself, but together they can eat up a surprising amount of the workday, so even a small efficiency gain would add up to a substantial difference over time. The quest for more pots and better pots continues...



In other news, Maggie is crawling now -- refusing to let the various ear infections and colds get in the way of progress. (I take that as a good sign!) While I have little basis for comparison, she seemed to figure it out surprisingly quickly. It was interesting to watch her put the component pieces together, and learn each stage in sequence (just like a beginning potter at the wheel): first rolling over, then getting her knees tucked under; rocking back and forth, then scooting backwards and in circles until the right combination of muscles asserted themselves in a forward direction; sorting out how to alternate hands and knees and stay on balance; and finally build up some speed and coordination. Now it seems so easy for her to see something, decide she wants to go after it, and then shoot across the floor to get it, like she's known how all along. It also gives us a better idea of what she's thinking -- being mobile means she can assert her desires in a lot of new ways. And I imagine how this process will continue and accelerate, from standing to running to asking for the car keys, probably all before we're quite ready for any of it to happen.

May 17th, 2009

"There's the right way, the wrong way and the Norwegian way." - Edgar Hansen

This was a really good week in the studio, both productive and fun. I continued with small vertical pots, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds each, and made them in groups of six, just to add kind of a numerical theme. After 4 days of work, I'd mostly filled a table with teabowls, mugs and small pitchers (6 + 30 + 6 = 42).

That's a good quantity for me in terms of output and -- if you're slightly geeky -- an auspicious, meaningful number, too. It's also an average of about 10 pots started and finished per day, which doesn't sound like much, but seems to be about my limit when I'm working at a steady, comfortable pace. (I'm always amazed by potters who can turn out dozens of pots in a day, especially when it's done without sacrificing quality!) My output depends a lot on the size and complexity of each pot, how familiar and fresh I am with that particular form, the time I spend on things like preparing clay and decorating, and the number of outside distractions that pull my attention away. This week was mostly free of them, which helped me start getting back into the groove. So I listened to a lot of Bill Frisell and gradually filled up the ware boards, put on a few dozen handles and did some domino patterns, stayed focused and learned a few new things along the way.

Teabowls & mugs

XL Mugs & SM pitchers

Speaking of getting in the groove, I've been watching the new season of Deadliest Catch -- the best show about process on TV. Despite some overplayed sentimentality and the various shortcomings of "reality television", I still really enjoy watching those guys work, and thinking about the parallels between catching Alaskan king crab and making pots. As I wrote last year, for the crab fishermen it's all about finding a good place to drop their traps, and when they do, they say they're "on the crab". It's like being in the zone, in rhythm, or in a state of flow. I get a vicarious thrill when they're on it, bringing up pots stuffed with crab, yelling and laughing as each one comes up over the rail and they imagine filling their quota (and the size of their next paycheck).

But it's equally compelling when they're on a dead spot, pulling up dozens of empty pots and doing all that back-breaking labor for nothing. I can really empathize with that, even if the correlation to making pots isn't exactly to scale. When I'm at the start of a making cycle after a long time away, like I was last week, everything's harder; patience is in short supply, normal tasks and patterns feel uncomfortable, uncertainty and self-doubt run rampant. I'd do just about anything to get back in synch, and recover where I'd previously left off.

A week's work

Fortunately, it usually comes back faster and easier than I fear, and always by one (and only one) method: sit down and start throwing. The more pots I make the easier it gets; my mind and hands warm up and start to know what to do, crowding out all that introspection. Soon there's a momentum going, and the making starts to feel right again.

But I hate how the cyclical nature of making/firing/selling means losing that momentum at each phase just as it's really starting to flow. I often wonder about how I might structure my working patterns differently to minimize this. The way I do things now is driven partially by deadlines, some by necessity, some by habit. There are certainly other options.

For example, I was talking to Jeff Unzicker, another local potter, at my sale. He and his brother Tom fire an enormous anagama -- just the two of them -- which means much longer cycles in each of those three phases. In fact, he'd just finished firing almost a year's worth of pots! I can't imagine having all that work on the line in a single firing, but I also can't imagine having cycles that stretched out for months on end. That would certainly make a dramatic, interesting difference, and would probably affect the pots in significant ways. Not that I'm even considering building a huge wood kiln -- it's just fun to contemplate.

May 10th, 2009

"And someone with strengths, for all the little things you make" - Wheat

Things were out of sorts this week, starting with several sleepless nights with Maggie. It's awful to have her suffer through teething and ear infections, with only so much we can do about it -- poor kid! It seems like evolution would have ironed these things out by now, but I guess it doesn't necessarily work that way.

Beyond that, the week right after a sale is usually kind of a random mess, and this one fit the pattern. Out of my normal routines, tired, with lots of small tasks to put the sale cycle to rest and other chores to catch up on. As I was getting the studio back into making mode, I came across my calendar and sale plan from the last month, now nicely altered and marked up almost beyond recognition. How's that for obsessive?

The sale plan

This kind of planning and record-keeping is actually a new thing for me. I've always made lists -- for outboard memory, prioritizing things to do, and the satisfaction of crossing off the nasty stuff when completed -- but often neglected planning ahead or keeping good notes. Then, some time in the last year or so, the consequences of that gradually overwhelmed my reluctance. I realized that running out of time before a deadline (and rushing pots through drying and firing) or forgetting how I'd achieved a good result have a high cost to them, and that the frustration and wasted effort aren't worth it.

So I've been making an effort to develop a system of upcoming deadlines, "To Make" lists, glazing notes, kiln loading diagrams, firing logs and post-firing results. While these take time to maintain, and I'm still unsure about the optimally-productive level of detail, there are definitely benefits. For example, my sale preparation this time went off without a hitch. All the little things that have to be done weeks in advance were on the calendar, which made it easier to knock them out in sequence and with less panic. I realized that I needed to cut my last hoped-for bisque and soda firing before I'd started making the pots for them, instead of half-way through. The first morning of the sale everything was in place, without the sinking realization that I'd forgotten something until the last moment. The same goes for getting a good combination of pots made for the next kiln load and getting them dry before the bisque without heroic measures. And for remembering the amount of clay I used for a certain form or how I mixed a glaze or salted the kiln the previous time, and so on.

Like any set of rules or limitations, at first glance this might seem like it would bleed all the fun out of the process, or eliminate any spontaneous activity. But I'm starting to think that it's actually the exact opposite: the systematic stuff creates a framework that allows the fun, creative, random things to happen, within a protected boundary -- like putting endangered animals in a nature preserve so they have a chance to survive.

Starting over

Near the end of the week I finally got back to the wheel. After almost two months away it felt odd and uncomfortable, like I didn't know what I was doing or forgot how to use my hands in the interim. So I started with teabowls -- small and simple. It helps to get my mind out of the way while my body warms up, reacclimating the muscle groups used for wedging, the posture at the wheel and the refined gestures of throwing. So I listened to Radio Lab, and tried not to think too much about what I was doing as the first wareboard filled up with pots.

When it was done, everything seemed slightly but significantly different, like things were back where they belonged, and I'd found the trailhead once again.

May 3rd, 2009

"It's your big day" - XTC

Another sale is in the books, and a very good one at that. By the metrics I keep track of -- attendance, new customers, pots sold and sales in $USD -- it was one of the best yet. (As I've mentioned, I tend to be a bit obsessive about these things. I guess it's because there's a certain satisfaction in seeing almost 10 years of history distilled down to the rows and columns of a simple spreadsheet.)

Firing #36: After

Sale setup: soda pots & porcelain mugs

The lidded jars sold really well, perhaps helped by the fact that I haven't made them in a while. The second set of four celadon jars (from that commission) sold as a group, which was great. I hesitate to price pots in groups, even if they make a nice set, because I want my customers to buy them in whatever quantity they like, and marking every pot individually allows that. But it's nice when they are chosen that way, particularly when a stack of bowls or pair of bottles had that greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts thing going. That's one of the little things I notice during the blur of running the sale table: the pots that were made one right after the other, shared space on a ware board, decorated in sequence, fired together. It's interesting how some maintain that subtle bond, like siblings headed out into the wide world together, while most just scatter.

The new porcelain pots seemed to go over well. The white glazes really popped on the shelves, surrounded by the darker teadust and celadons. I like the variety they adds to the range of pots as a whole, in addition to their individual merits, and this is still just using my existing glazes. So much potential!

Sales from the web site were good, too; the promotion tends to make this the busiest time for shipping pots out, too. It's interesting to see where the orders come from each time, particularly for new customers who've just found me online. This time they included California, NYC, Iowa, Minnesota and Texas. That's a pretty good range.

After doing a one-day sale and minimal promotion several times the last few years -- barn, full-time job, teaching, baby -- it was great to go all out again and see a positive result from it. I mailed about 700 postcards, put more out at local businesses, sent a few hundred email announcements and advertised in the local paper -- which apparently is still actually read, because several new customers saw it! Having grown tired of the hassles of manually sending bulk email, and wanting a reliable way to design an HTML email message, I tried Mailchimp, an email marketing service. It's great! Easy to use, nice template wizards but completely customizable, automated list management, detailed reports and the price was just right (e.g. free). Yes, they offer a few hundred free credits as a trial, which is a smart move since after one try I'm hooked. Prices after that on the pay as you go plan seem reasonable, too: about 3c/email. Chances are I'll switch to it for good come December. (The icing on the cake is their mascot's a monkey, and the instructions are actually funny and kind of snarky. That's my kind of branding).

New mugs

Sale setup: lots of white pots!

The firing I squeezed in last week (#36) came out pretty well. It added enough pots to top off the Saturday morning inventory, which was the main goal. I love it when the showroom is packed to capacity like that. My improvised patch on the metal stack held together well enough -- the firing was slow but made it to temperature. There were some great results from the porcelain, including a couple more white bottles with subtle salt texture over the bare clay; two new decorative patterns on mugs that I really like; and three nice large jars. I lost a couple others: one where the little handles pulled away from the body and another that had some amazingly severe cracks where I'd incised lines around the decoration. Both are new errors, completely unexpected, so that's this month's ceramic heartbreak.

That suggests and reinforces two things: one, the amazing forces at work on the pots, as they shrink from the heat and get blasted by salt; and two, that just because something works at one scale is no guarantee that it will at another. Larger pots are like putting the proverbial eggs in one basket -- they increase the possibility for both risk and reward. I was very happy with the ones that survived, but regret the lost work, potential, fuel and stacking space of the ones that didn't. Live and learn.

Sale setup: jars hot from the kiln & porcelain

Maggie dressed festive for the big day

As is usually the case at the end of a sale cycle, I'm worn out but can't wait to get back to wet clay. It's been too long since I sat at the wheel or had a day of my regular studio routine. Rest and getting back to throwing are sweet rewards for the last month's work.

April 26th, 2009

"janky: (adjective) inferior quality; held in low social regard; old and delapidated; refers almost exclusively to inanimate material objects, not to people." - Urban Dictionary



This week was the beginning of (crazy) sale prep mode: trying to squeeze in one last firing, get the promotion engine running, prepare the pots, rearrange the showroom and coerce our wild landscape into a more presentable condition. There's one week to go and I think I can make it!

After the last firing, the metal stack on the soda kiln was in a little better condition than I'd feared, so I decided to see if it will hold together for one more go before the sale. It took a pretty janky patch at the base, but some hose clamps and a new piece of metal seemed to hold it together pretty well. It will get a very literal trial by fire soon.

I glazed and had the kiln loaded by the end of the week, but then postponed the firing. Here on our little hill, surrounded by miles of fields in all directions, the winds come fast and crazy this time of year. My kiln really struggles in those conditions, so I decided it was better to wait for a break in the weather than battle it all day long. I'm hoping one will come this week, so I can get those pots out in time for the sale.


#36: Before (and waiting...)

But if not, I already have over 200 pots done and I'm pretty happy with their variety and quality. It's great to see the collective results of another making cycle lined up on the shelves. Even the small amount of porcelain I've done lately makes a big difference in the showroom -- that pristine white surface really holds it's own next to the teadust and darker celadons. All the larger lidded jars will arrange nicely amongst the smaller pots, and there's also a good range of bottles, vases, serving dishes and so on. It's exciting to think about them getting ready to make their way out into the world.

So, I'll close with one last pitch for my sale this weekend: May 2nd & 3rd, from 10am - 5pm. Elsewhere on my site are more sale details, maps and directions and a preview of some of the pots.

April 19th, 2009

"...the salt kiln was making surfaces that I really liked. I didn't feel like they were mine, and they didn't feel like they were a mistake; they were -- I liked them. I could just appreciate them without -- they seemed like they were part of the big world. It changed my attitude about the pots somehow. I don't know what it was." - Michael Simon

#35: before

#35: after

With two weeks to go until my spring sale, time is getting short and I'm a little anxious about all that's left to do, so I'll keep the posts brief this week and next.

After doing some post-winter maintenance, I fired #35 in the soda kiln. (It's occurred to me that perhaps I should stop calling it that. Without intending to, I've drifted into using more salt than soda over the last couple years -- it's now about 75/25. Maybe I should just call it a salt kiln? "Sodium kiln"? Urg... that's clunky. And for that matter, I'm also stoking a bit of wood along the way, so perhaps it's a salt/soda/propane/wood kiln?)

The results were good, with lots of nice new pots, but it was kind of a battle to get to temperature. I didn't have the right size pots for top level -- too many small ones -- so I squeezed in an extra shelf of short teabowls there, which ended up being a bad idea. (This is the kind of detail that I forget with 4 months between firings.) I suspect that made it too tight near the arch and flue, constricting the flow through the kiln, because it really crawled above 2000 F. But other contributing factors may have been the weather -- kind of a high pressure, windy day -- and the fact that the metal chimney is past due to be replaced. After being subjected to a long, cold winter it's more rust than shiny metal, and is starting to perforate down at the base when the heat and salt hit it the hardest. When that starts leaking in cold air, it compromises the pull of the chimney; less draft makes it harder to combust new fuel from the burner and climb in temperature. At least, that's the theory as I understand it -- what's actually happening could be something else entirely!

Too tight!

Mugs from the bottom shelf

The bottom shelf has always been the sweet spot in this kiln, and as the walls gradually slag downhill and the pool of molten glass builds on the floor, it's getting better and better. My best flashing slip gets an orange peel texture on the wet side and cool metallic highlights there and the glazes get blasted by the salt and do really interesting things. I've got to remember to put the best pots there each time! In this load, I also had nice results from the celadon, some refires that improved the second time around, and more promising porcelain tests. Unloading a good group of pots like this makes me excited about the next one, and sparks a bunch of ideas for the next making cycle.

A good variety

Two lidded jars

I'm hoping to get one more firing in next week for the sale. I have some big domino jars and more porcelain bottles that I want to get done, but it will depend on if I can patch the chimney together well enough to make it to cone 10 one more time. If you're on my mailing list, I'll send out announcement cards for the sale this week. You can also preview the pots in my site Gallery and here's some more general info about the sale.

April 12th, 2009

"And love it don't die, it just goes from girl to girl" - A.A. Bondy

I was hoping to get in another throwing session, and run one last bisque, before switching over to firing mode but after re-evaluating the schedule that looked a little too crazy to pull off. I'm trying to get better about estimating how long things will take, and not putting myself into such a bind that it's all drudgery and cramming for the next deadline. There were a few last year that got pretty ugly, so I've started actually looking at a calendar on occasion, and making a rough outline of how many pots and firings I can do every few months. Hopefully that works out to be the better part of valor.

So I glazed pots for my next soda firing this week, lots of mugs and small porcelain tests, with big jars waiting on the shelf for the next one. It's been four months since the last firing, so I spent some time studying my notes and getting the variables loaded back into memory: the number and size of pots that will fit, what the slips and glazes have been doing, which surfaces go in which parts of the kiln. After the last firing I stashed away a group of lidded jars that had come out exceptionally well, and that held a lot of new information for patterns and glaze application. They were very useful as reference for glazing this batch, which yet again reinforces my belief in the value of keeping a library of recent work on hand. I need to do some post-winter kiln maintenance, but then if the weather's good I'll load it up and fire next week.


Reference pots

I also shot photos of pots for my website gallery -- something I should do more often, but usually procrastinate on. They're sitting on my hard drive, waiting to be processed and uploaded, but I hope to have them done soon. So there are now about 20 new pots in the Gallery. I've been shooting my own photos for something like 12 years now, going back to the painful days of slide film and chemical processing, but always with just enough technical skill to barely pass muster -- and often not even that much. (Readers with a basic knowledge of photography should feel free to start laughing at any time.)

The irony is that my wife is a photography professor, and has offered to teach me the basics of aperture and F-stops any number of times. Yet I've muddled by on Auto mode all this time, usually because I wait until the last minute to shoot, when there's no spare brain capacity or margin for error. It hasn't helped matters that I'm pretty good with Photoshop (from my time as a web designer), and I've become comfortable with a "fix it in the mix" approach to making up for all the defects in the original image. It's interesting how digital tools are often both salvation and crutch.

But I've become increasingly frustrated by shots being tinted yellow, or the back rim being too out of focus, or wild fluctuations in brightness. So I gave it a little extra time and effort this time around. With Cindy's assistance, I switched to manual mode, which gave more white balance control and -- I think -- better depth of field, especially on a wide pot like a large bowl. With the quality of the displays on good digital cameras now, it's easy to see the effect of changing various settings before even snapping the shutter, which makes experimenting with camera settings vastly easier than in the "old" days. Not only that, but the bad shots are just memory space on a flash card, so there's no wasted expense of developing and printing all the mistakes. Even better, with a computer nearby it's easy to download the images during a shoot and see them on a big monitor, which gives instant feedback and reassurance that I'm not mucking up the whole session. In fact, I realized that I'd avoided making this transition for so long because, at least in part, I was imagining what it used to be like, and underestimating how much it had all changed. Pretty great. And of course, the key is that the results seem better -- fewer of those errors, less to fix in Photoshop, better images. Now I just have to figure out how to capture these new white porcelain pots. It's like grasping at fog on a cloudy day. Hmm... throws like Jello, photographs like mist -- what's not to love?

Lidded jars commission

New photo: unedited

Speaking of photos, I sent the postcard for my upcoming spring sale off to the printer, having successfully resisted the impulse to put our daughter on the front again. (She's on the back, instead.) This time I chose a soda fired vase with my blue-green copper celadon glaze that's been doing great things lately -- it really reacts in interesting ways to the salt and soda. The sale will be the first weekend in May, the 2nd & 3rd. If you'd like, you can join my mailing list and I'll send you a card with all the info before the sale.

New photo: unedited

Spring sale postcard: heavily edited

In other news, Maggie turned six months old this week. She now has two teeth, can sit up by herself, and is eating a variety of foods. One of those small porcelain bowls from the last firing was for her rice cereal, and it looks quite nice sitting on the high chair tray. It's amazing to watch all the incremental progressions, as she slowly begins changing from a baby into a toddler. Soon she'll be crawling all over the place, and the pots will all have to move up a shelf or two to compensate.

Maggie - age 6 months


But in the strange double-helix that entwines life and death, this week we also lost our dog Patches. When we moved here four years ago she was a stray living in the barn, abandoned and almost wild. We soon discovered that she had a litter of ten puppies out there, which she was somehow able to keep fed in the middle of January -- her teeth were so worn from gnawing bones that the vet couldn't even guess her age. Her pups went to the Humane Society and were adopted almost instantly, each one white as snow and cute as hell. But knowing that no one else would want this battered old dog, we took a chance and brought her back home. She was very hesitant at first and showed signs of past mistreatment, but before long she was lying on the porch, then letting us near as she ate, and eventually giving in to being petted and scratched, learning to play and go for walks.

I spent a day digging a hole next to one of the 100-year-old concrete fence posts, near the remains of the barn, and building a rough box from its wood. Then I put her under the dirt and clay, with two of my pots -- her food and water bowls -- and we said goodbye.

Patches was a great dog, and perfectly suited to country life -- sweet and good tempered, smart and tough; cautious with strangers, but never hostile; a great alerting bark and just territorial enough to keep the wildlife at bay. Neither Cindy or I had dogs growing up, and hadn't particularly wanted to, so we were both surprised at how much we came to love this one. This place on Day Hill belonged to her before it was ours, and she knew every rock and tree by heart. It's already lonely without her.

April 5th, 2009

"The wages of sin are death, but by the time taxes are taken out, it's just sort of a tired feeling."
- Paula Poundstone

This week I taught at the U. for two days, subbing in for the beginning Ceramics classes, and worked a couple days at the office, but somewhere in the midst of it caught yet another cold -- so the end of the week was a bland blur of tax preparation and recovery time. (I'll resist the urge to complain about both.)

It was strange to suddenly be back in the classroom, and to jump right into doing throwing demos for a new group of students, but they seemed to go well enough. It's always eye-opening to watch students try throwing for the first time; it reminds me of how far I've come, and of the parts that I take for granted. I find it interesting that there's usually at least one person who just seems to get it immediately: good wheel speed, a steady touch on the clay, and an intuitive understanding of what they're trying to accomplish. It usually have to ask them, "Are you sure you've never done this before?"

New porcelain pots

Bowls & jars

The second glaze firing came out very well. I've started doing two loads back-to-back like that, so the first one is like a calibration test for the second. I usually split the pots into two equal groups, so that each load can have a similar stacking pattern. If I made four large bowls, for example, I'll save the best two for the second firing, and repeat that pattern for each group of pots. That way the best pots go into the second firing, when my feel for the glaze batches and firing cycle at its best. It seems like a good way to repeat what worked, avoid what didn't, and streamline the process.

This time around I had all those large lidded jars to fire -- sweet Mother of Feldspar, so many jars! For the commission, I wanted to get the best two examples of each of the four sizes into the same load, hoping for consistent firing of the celadon glaze. So that skewed things a bit, and the second load was a lot tighter than the first, but they still fired very similarly. The good news is that the jars came out well, with no major mishaps. I haven't cleaned and sorted them yet, but there may even be enough to make two complete sets, which would be great.

The porcelain in this load makes me even more excited about going in that direction. I find myself thinking about it as I'm drifting off to sleep at night, which is usually a good indicator of what I really want to do next. I used the same three glazes as the first load, but with a bit more knowledge about how to apply them. I can't decide whether I like the clear, glossy white better than the matte, opaque one... chances are that I'll end up using both. They're cool in combination, too -- a subtle white-on-white effect.

The clear glaze tests from John Britt's book were also really encouraging. (After writing about it last week, I had some doubts about the wisdom of singing its praises prior to seeing any of the glazes actually fired.) But of the five recipes I tried, at least four look really good and seem to fit the clay body well. Tight, but with minimal crazing. I'll mix small test batches of the best two and try them in the next firing cycle. I'm also looking to improve my standard liner glaze in the soda kiln -- the current one acts a little flaky sometimes, especially if it gets hit with a lot of vapor -- so I'll run the tests through the next soda, too. Next up are celadons.

I heard from the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento that they've acquired some of my pots, as part of a larger collection. They are launching a major expansion next year (including the obligatory glass atrium), and are planning a show and catalog of the collection. These are my first pots in a museum, and I have mixed thoughts about it.

On the one hand, it's an affirmation from the arts establishment that I've made some good work. Someone with the right credentials has given those objects the official stamp of approval, and it's another line I can add to my resume. But on the other, it's a bit daunting to have my work formally "institutionalized". I remember those particular pots, because I talked to the collector a few times on the phone and he made quite an impression. It was soon after I first put pots for sale on my website, around 2001. Knowing they'll represent me in a fairly permanent way makes me wish I could trade them for something more recent. Those pots were fine, I suppose, but the ones that just fired last week are a lot better.

And now that I think of it, there are certainly places where I'd be proud to have my pots wind up. But while getting into museums would be a nice legacy to a lifetime spent making pots, it's not my primary goal. Ideally, my pots go to people who genuinely like them, and who will use them regularly. Almost everything I make is utilitarian, meaning that it can function in some capacity, even if it may end up serving mainly as decoration. At least in someone's home there's always the possibility of use, and of touch and personal interaction. That possibility fulfills my intent as the maker, so it's preferable to having them displayed under glass, listed in catalogs or stashed away in permanent storage. If a few go there, as representatives of what I've done, that would be great. But I want most of them to live out in the everyday world.

Which makes me think about how we have some pots at home that I feel lucky to own, but am cautious about using -- a Warren MacKenzie bowl, a Byron Temple jar, a Clary Illian pitcher. There are some like these that we've used and broken, which is always a regret. But I know those potters would be disappointed if we just set their work up on the shelf, or packed it away for safekeeping.

Set aside for when? Kept safe for what?

March 29th, 2009

"...then dirt in truth is clean" - Procol Harum

Stack of plates from the bisque

This week I did a pair a glaze firings -- waxing, glazing, loading, firing, unloading. The first one came out quite well, and the second is cooling to door-opening temperature as I write. I put about 20 of the new porcelain pots in the first load and am really happy with them. Even just using my existing glaze batches -- a white and a clear that are liner glazes in the soda kiln, and the celadon I've used for years -- the results are already pretty exciting. There's such a difference between a clay that's almost white and one that really is. I like the density and feel of them, too. At it's best, porcelain has this otherworldly quality. Holding a good example of it in your hands, it's easy to imagine why this material caused so much fuss over the last 500 years.

I also fired tests of 4 other porcelain bodies: two each from Standard Ceramics and Laguna Clay. The domestic clays (Standard 130 and Laguna Dave's Porcelain) were darker grey, as expected, and looked very similar to the Amaco 38M white stoneware that's been my normal clay for the last several years. The Grolleg bodies (Standard 257 and Laguna English Porcelain) were both very white, and almost indistinguishable in color from the Turner porcelain. So I think in terms of choosing a premixed porcelain, it will come down to how they feel to work with and if there's any difference in their resiliency; i.e. how much they tend to warp, crack, sag, stick to the kiln shelves, etc.

I probably won't use the cost of the clay as a major factor in this decision. I would rather work with a better material than save a small amount of money, especially since I don't go through tons of clay each year. From an aesthetic standpoint, of course, I want the finished pots to be as good as possible. Clary Illian once wrote to me that if you're going to make simple pots, your materials must be of "jewel-like quality". That idea really stuck, and some of my interest in moving towards porcelain is to put it into practice more fully.

Tom Turner makes a similar point, while factoring in technical considerations, in this article about his porcelain body:

"The least expense of being a fulltime potter is the cost of our materials... If a porcelain throws better for you, is whiter, is translucent, and eliminates some of the problems associated with porcelain, isn’t that worth a few pennies?"

On the other hand, it might come down to defining what constitutes "a few pennies". For example, when purchased in 500# lots, the Standard English Porcelain is $0.57/#, while the Turner's Best Porcelain is $.90/#. Is 33 cents per pound "a few"? Or, to put it another way, is $33 per hundred pounds too much? Turner makes the argument that if a one pound mug sells for $30 or more, that price difference is somewhere around 1% of the finished product. So is 1% worth the difference between the two clays? Probably.

Another spring ice oddity

The second kiln load has a group of clear glaze tests in it, mixed from John Britt's excellent book The Complete Guide to High-Fire Glazes. In the intro, he writes that this is the book he wishes had been around when he was just beginning with glazes and firing, which is exactly what I thought when I discovered it. This book might have literally saved me hundreds of hours of ignorant, wasted effort if I'd had it ten years ago.

I particularly like how the recipes are grouped by glaze type, and laid out in a table with the glazes as columns and the raw materials as rows. This makes it very easy to compare the composition of similar glazes, and gives some insight into how their differences affect the fired glaze. It's also very well illustrated, with photos of test tiles and finished pots, most of them well-labeled to facilitate matching photos to recipes.

I'm planning to use it to help develop a clear, a semi-opaque white, and a new celadon for porcelain, trying to improve on the recipes I'm currently using. I'd also like to develop an amber celadon and revive a carbon trap shino, but those are a bit farther down the priority list.

Lastly this week, the 2009 AKAR Yunomi show is now online. Here are my pots in the show -- it's nice to see that several of them have already sold. As usual, the show is an astonishing array of forms, styles and working philosophies. Too much to take in at one sitting.

March 22nd, 2009

"Time after time" - R.E.M.

Fresh from the bisque

Another electric kiln load

Last week I made the cardinal error of counting pots before they're done, and jinxed the lidded jars in progress. Within hours after writing "I think they'll be OK," I went out to the studio to discover that 3 of the 4 largest ones had cracked through the base while drying. My first thought was that it was caused by an extreme change of thickness, like a too-thin base meeting a thick corner at the wall. But upon breaking them open I found that they all looked fine -- uniform thickness, good consistency in the base. Strange and surprising. Other possible causes are lack of base compression, too much throwing slip left inside, or uneven drying, but I think I avoided all of these mistakes. Also, the problem didn't occur with the smaller sizes, so I'm guessing it's something I did unintentionally during throwing, since my attention was focused on wrangling that big mass of clay up in the air. So, another ceramics bummer. Live and learn. I squeezed in time to make a couple more, thrown in two sections in an attempt to avoid the cracking this time. (I'll refrain from making any comment whatsoever about their current status -- more on this after the glaze fire.)

Then it was on to the rush of getting everything dry enough to go in the bisque, and pushing through two more loads in the electric kiln. I generally like having a small bisque kiln, but all these big jars really eat up the space, and I didn't have a good selection of forms to pack in around them. That makes for semi-full loads and the feeling that I'm being sloppy and not conserving resources well enough.

We've finally turned the corner into early spring here in central Indiana. As usual, I was getting desperate for an end to the cold and a chance to get out the short pants. One of the great things about living in a rural area is watching the landscape change with the seasons. With spring, it's always a long, slow wait and then -- bang! -- everything's gone green all at once and the plants start sprouting out of the soil at an astonishing rate. But some nice remnants of winter carry on for a couple weeks, like starting a small fire in the woodstove or morning ice on the hood of the old dumptruck.

Drying pots

Dumptruck hood w/spring ice

I'm still thinking about Gladwell's book Outliers, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago, and especially about The 10,000 Hour Rule. As I thought about elite musicians versus good ones and the Beatles' years in Hamburg, I couldn't help wondering: So how many hours have I put in? Have I reached that magical 10K threshold yet?

It took some careful coaxing of my creaky memory, but here's what I came up with:

Year Place Estimated hours in studio
1971-92 Various 0
1992 U of Iowa 300
1993 U of Iowa 300
1994 U of Iowa / Clary Illian's 500
1995 Arizona State / Clary Illian's 1800
1996 U of Colorado / Boulder Potters' Guild 300
1997 Boulder Potters' Guild 700
1998 Boulder Potters' Guild / So. Illinois 1100
1999 So. Illinois / Indiana St. studio 850
2000 Indiana St. / College Ave. studio 200
2001 College Ave. 500
2002 College Ave. 600
2003 College Ave. 600
2004 College Ave. 600
2005 Fillmore 350
2006 Fillmore 1400
2007 Fillmore 1350
2008 Fillmore 850
2009... Fillmore 200
Total   12,500 hours

These numbers are based on making conservative estimates, and counting just time working in and around the studio. That means mostly the hands-on stuff, and not much of the ancillary stuff; e.g. things like kiln building and clay mixing are included, things like reading about pots or interacting with my customers aren't.

I was generally surprised at the total -- if I'd had to place a bet, I would have said it was less than that. But I'm also disappointed that some years were so low, like both times we bought houses in need of a lot of work, or when I was in between studios. Seeing it listed like this also makes me wonder what else I was doing along the way, which other projects or distractions kept me from the studio. And if, in the big picture, that was time well-spent.

Assuming that these numbers are vaguely accurate (say within +/- 10%), I passed the 10K hour mark sometime late in 2006, almost 15 years after taking my first ceramics class. Coincidentally, that's also right after I built my first kiln and quit my dayjob to work full-time in the studio. Or did I make that decision, at least in part, because I'd logged enough practice time to feel comfortable doing so?

Another thing that jumped out at me from looking at this table is that I have never worked 2000 studio hours -- the equivalent of a full-time job -- during a single calendar year. But there were at least three 12-month spans where I did that and more: in '95/96, when I spent the summer at Clary Illian's and the school year at Arizona State; in '98/99, during my year of grad school at SIU Edwardsville; and in '06/07, when I worked every day on pots and had just clocked in hour 10,000. Interesting.

My mind's still unravelling the possible implications to all this... maybe I'll come to some more conclusions about it next week. Until then, I encourage you to ask yourself, whatever your thing may be: How many hours have you put in? Is 10K still in your future, or back in the distant past? What does that say about your relative mastery of your field, the quality of your work, how you spend your time, and what you have left to accomplish?

March 15th, 2009

Hoffman: Number four, do we really need it?
Bateman: If you like squares you do.
Hoffman: Oh, I like squares.
- Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

This was an intense week in the studio. I finished the last of the lidded jars, and at week's end made two series of plates and some bowls, then fired another bisque load. It was a struggle to get the largest jars done, and required extending the limits of my throwing skills. It seems I'd underestimated the challenge -- 10" x 9" is a lot bigger than it sounds! I ended up using 7# of pretty stiff clay, and lost several of them along the way. They seem a bit heavy to me now, as they're drying, but I think they'll be OK after the glaze firing. (Maybe it's just my imagination, but the pots always feel heaviest to me when I first lift them off the bat... the collision of expectations and reality.)

Big jar: failure/thickness test

No. 3 jars, marked for reference

The idea of "acceptable" weight for functional pots is a tricky one, inherently subjective and entwined with issues of craft and skill. I think each potter has to arrive at his or her own standards over time, and that the thickness and weight of the pots is an important consideration. For most people -- including those who buy handmade pots -- the default assumption is that thin is good, and thinner is better. This idea is hammered in by extensive experience with mass-produced pots made in molds, where the goals of uniformity and economy win out over aesthetics on a regular basis. But while a thinly thrown wall demonstrates a potter's experience and control, it doesn't always make for the best pot. For example, because these jars will be used as kitchen canisters, I think they can stand to be somewhat thicker and sturdier than, say, a mug. Typically, they don't get carried around much and when they sit on a countertop as a group, they tend to get jostled around and bumped together in daily use -- or at least ours do! (Planters and mixing bowls also come to mind as good examples.)

A series of small plates

Trimming plates on a clay pad

Three memories from my student days about thickness:

1) Chuck Hindes told our class a story about being at the Archie Bray Foundation, where another resident potter was making these elegant, featherweight pitchers. A woman bought one but returned with it the next day, broken. Apparently the pot was so thin that when she threw ice cubes in to make tea, the bottom fell out.

2) My first summer at Clary Illian's, we were talking about throwing and she held up a large ovoid jug as an example. Turning it in her hands around the vertical axis, she told me that a uniformly thin wall is not the ideal, but that deliberate variations in thickness, such as could be felt by shifting the pot's balance in space, are often far more interesting. I sort of understood what that meant at the time but didn't really grasp it until years later, studying the cutaway sketches in her Potter's Workbook and comparing them to some of her pots that we own and use every day. The best ones are a little heavier, a fraction of an ounce here or there, but in ways that make the pot more dynamic and more enjoyable to use.

3) In grad school, we were unloading the big anagama kiln with visiting potter Bob Archambeau. I'd been making these vases and teapots with really stiff-cut faceting, to the point where the remaining walls were almost paper thin (sometimes intentionally, often not). As he lifted one of these out of the kiln, Archambeau said, "Whoa... looks like someone's running out of clay!"

Cindy & Maggie in the studio

It's interesting how certain things like that can stick with you for a long time.

For the commission that started this series, I have 3 good versions of each of the 4 sizes -- 12 in all. But to get there I ended up making almost 40 pots, including a half-dozen during the warmup phase, more than a few that fell over or got torqued on the wheel, several of each size that turned out well, but weren't quite the right shape or dimensions, and a few where I couldn't resist going off in another direction, like exaggerating the swell of the belly or adding lugs and underglaze decoration. That's a lot of jars! So there will be an excess of them for my spring sale in May -- hopefully my customers will be interested!

I probably should have used some of that time making a wider range of forms for the sale, but that's how long it took to finish the job, and it made for a memorable, valuable experience. It's rare for me to spend so long narrowly focused like that, and it's also a great way to advance my knowledge and skill of that particular form. It feels like I now have a much better understanding of its properties and how to get there -- I could practically make the smaller ones in my sleep. The other advantage is that it required a stretching of scale that was probably long overdue. I routinely fail to get geared up for making the big pots, and so they're often left undone on my Make list at the end of a throwing cycle. Working at this size increases my confidence and interest in it, and reminds me that the only way to pull something new into my comfort zone is to flail around outside of it for a while.

I ended up throwing the larger jars in groups of 4. That's about as many as I could do in a morning, because of the complexity and physical strain of making them, and I generally avoid the high-difficulty stuff after lunch. (I try to sort tasks throughout the day in descending order of required skill; late afternoons, I'm only good for donkey work.)

For the last few years, I've avoided throwing in groups of 4, as another of my goofy, semi-sincere numerological superstitions. Instead I'd do groups of 3's or 5's or 6's. Maybe 8's, but even that felt kinda hairy. But I've gone back to 4's lately, perhaps just out of the contrarian impulse to buck my own habits. Ironically -- given all my attempts to become more efficient with my studio time -- I've rediscovered why quads are such a good quantity to work in. It's an easy number to wrap my head around: two pairs of pots to make and finish. As a bipedal mammal, I can carry two bats across the studio at a time (have tried three; usually a mistake). Weigh out a chunk of clay and wire cut it in half, and you get two chunks of equal weight. And it just so happens that I originally built my shelves to hold 4 12" bats in a row, so it's the most efficient use of scarce horizontal space. And yes... and I really like squares. After circles, they're my favorite shape.

That's the great thing about an irrational belief system like numerology: when its rules don't suit you anymore, you can just change them, and then easily justify the new ones as being correct and good. What's not to like?

March 8th, 2009

"She's a jar, with a heavy lid." - Wilco

The smallest size, complete

A couple spares for the soda kiln

More jars this week, working on the two bigger sizes with 4 1/2 to 6# of clay. I haven't quite nailed the largest size yet, and may need to use 6 1/2# or more to get it. That seems kind of heavy for the finished pot, but so far the completed ones feel about right for their size, so I think it will work out. It takes a lot of discipline to stay on task when working at the edge of my abilities like this. That's the hard work, doing the next most necessary thing, continuously pushing the scale. It's also physically challenging in a way that reminds me that being a potter is a contact sport (and that I need to get back to the gym).

Jars drying into the evening

I've lost a few on the wheel, either pulling the wall too thin in the lower half or letting a twist work it's way into that swelling curve, so that the top goes off center. I've always hated dropping pots -- the momentary failure of having one fall over -- so I usually play it safe and at least get something off the wheel (instead, I edit just before loading the bisque). So it's rare to lose one while throwing, but doing so reminded me of why it's important, and how it's a way to improve my skills.

For one thing, it creates the opportunity to cut the pot in half and see the cross section of the wall. This gives immediate visual feedback about the wall and base thickness and how I'm throwing that day. It usually identifies where the pot went wrong, too: a thin spot at a key part of a curve or an unseen air bubble in the middle of the wall. Another advantage to making the occasional failed pot OK is that it encourages taking risks and pushing each one a little further. Throwing often comes down to damage control, fixing the parts that haven't gone just right. Making a habit of pushing the limits builds experience with fixing things for when I'll need it later.

So I'm hoping to get the large ones thrown and make all the lids next week. I've made a lot of progress, and enjoyed focusing on one thing for a while, but it's time to finish off this project and move on to some different forms -- plates or maybe large bowls.

I just finished another book: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. (There's an excellent, praising review on the NYT site; a more critical one at The Guardian.) As with his previous books, Blink and The Tipping Point, I enjoyed reading it and feel like I learned a lot along the way. I admire how Gladwell's writing is direct and clear, yet explores complex topics and intricate detail. After having something worth saying, I think that's the real craft of writing, and something I try -- often unsucessfully! -- to emulate.

Outliers is about the root causes of personal success, and it challenges the conventional wisdom about the roles of talent, individual effort and genius in achieving it. Gladwell wants to prove "that we vastly underestimate the extent to which success happens because of things the individual has nothing to do with." So if you hold the prevailing view, this new theory prompts resistance and skepticism. His method, which I find very effective, is to use interesting storytelling and a variety of facts and scientific research in a way that walks the reader through to his conclusion. The results are completely logical and hard to dispute, and he does this in such a compelling way that you can actually feel yourself changing your mind as you read. That's an uncommonly cool way to learn.

I was most impressed by chapter two, "The 10,000 Hour Rule." He begins by describing a study of musicians at the Berlin Academy of Music in the 1990's. It showed that the elite students at the school were always among the group who had logged the most hours of practice, and that the quality of the students went down in direct correlation to their total lifetime hours of practice with their instrument. That part makes intuitive sense, and lays the groundwork for the argument that doing the hard work of practice and repetition is a pre-requisite for success, and that this is vastly more significant than "innate talent."

But here's the really cool part: in a field which is so commonly thought to be full of prodigies, gifted from birth:

"The striking thing about [the] study is that [it] couldn't find any 'naturals,' musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any 'grinds,' people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder, or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder."

So nobody gets to the top without doing all the hard work, and everyone with some reasonable amount of initial ability succeeds if they do the work. And the difference between the very good and the best, like the difference between earning a B and an A, is all practice. Hours and hours of it.

Gladwell tells some great stories that support this view. For example, the Beatles, in the years before they became famous, played strip clubs in Hamburg, often grinding it out eight hours a night, seven days a week.

"All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don't perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers."

All those performances added up to about 10,000 hours of playing time, which he shows to be more than just an arbitrary threshold. Apparently, it holds true for a variety of fields that require experience, skill and craftsmanship to master. Which gets to the part that relates to making pots. If I had to pick one quote to give an aspiring potter, it might be this:

"Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good. The other interesting thing about that ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time."

March 1st, 2009

"I placed a jar in Tennessee, And round it was, upon a hill." - Wallace Stevens

Jars, jars, jars

Lids, lids, lids

It was all lidded jars in the studio this week. I'm working on a commission for a group of 4 cannisters, in a sequence of sizes from 6" to 9" tall, with each one about an inch taller than it is wide. Over the past few years, I've become more selective about which commissions I take on. The best ones are for pots similar to what I typically make, so that the goal is reasonably attainable, but that push some aspect of my skills in a new direction or past their current limits. Then there's a dual reward: when it's done I have both the pots and the progression to show for it.

This one is a challenging way to stretch my throwing skills. I realized, belatedly, that the last time I made a set of jars was in Ceramics III at Iowa, now fifteen long years ago (!). So I'm rediscovering the parameters: repeating the same shape consistently while accounting for the changing scale of each jar; figuring out exactly how much clay to use for each size; and deciding how large to make them to account for shrinkage. I've never done a shrinkage test on this clay body, so I estimated about 12% total, from wet to glaze fired. (I'm hoping it's a bit less than that, so that they err on the side of too big than too small.) So I'm throwing each jar 112% larger than it's intended final size, which involves more calculation and careful measuring than I'm used to. And of course, I need to make more than one of each size, to hedge against mishaps along the way. Ideally, I'll have three good candidates of each on the way in the bisque kiln, even though that means making 12 to get 4. Going to have lots of lidded jars for the spring sale this year!

I started out using 3 - 4 1/2# of clay for the two smaller sizes. The larger ones will be right on the edge of what I can make as a single piece, with minimal trimming at the leatherhard stage, so I'm working my way up to them and practicing as I go. The hardest part of throwing cylindrical forms -- at least for me -- is getting all the clay from the base of the wall either pulled up into the pot or trimmed away before removing it from the wheel. I've wrestled with the thickness and weight of thrown pots practically since day one, including how it relates to my skill or craftsmanship, and the function and aesthetics of the finished pots. It's a complex issue, and kind of a moving target. What seems "right" at one time doesn't later on. Sometimes it feels like I'm throwing heavy, other times like the pots are too preciously thin and delicate. I doubt there are any absolutes or "right answers" to this, but weight can be such a critical aspect of a pot that it seems worth the effort to continue refining. (It's worth mentioning that there are pots in our collection that are very stout and others that are remarkably thin, and that's often what I like most about both of them. More evidence for the idea that it's the strengths we admire, but the flaws we love.)

As I've said before, if a pot won't have a trimmed footring (or "turned", depending on where you learned your potting vocabulary), I strongly prefer to get it right at the throwing stage, without going back later to trim off excess clay. There are a few reasons for this. First, it retains the character and texture of the surface made by throwing, so that it is consistent through the entire form, rather than transitioning to the surface left by a metal trimming tool. Second, it avoids a step that can be tedious, particularly because trimming often feels more like erasing mistakes than adding or refining a pot's qualities (I think it often looks that way, too). Third, trimming the lower part of a flat-bottomed pot also means reworking that spot where the walls and the base meet, that bottom outside corner. This is another small detail, but I really like that spot to remain as it came off the wheel: there's a precise fluidity to the way that last small bevel cut with the knife merges into the texture where the cut-off wire separated the clay from the bat. I try to touch that part as lightly as possible, just a light wipe of my thumb at the leatherhard stage to take any sharpness off that edge. And lastly, trimming is prone to the fatal flaw of a perfectionism. It's easy to obsess about the weight and balance and "feel" of a pot, so that the trimming drags on as long as you let it. I'm all for doing whatever it takes to make the pots as good as possible but, at some point, repeatedly taking the pot off the wheel and feeling for that last fraction of an ounce in the wrong place leads to diminishing returns -- and effort that could be better spent on something else. It's like when beginners try to weld broken pieces of greenware back together with slip... most of the time you're better off starting a new pot instead.

Details, details... but I hear that if you want to find something beyond the mundane, that's a good place to start looking.

February 22nd, 2009

"There is a certain satisfaction that comes from full ware boards." - Earl Brunner

Lidded jars

My next commission is for a set of lidded jars, so to warm up and get reacquainted with the form I made a couple series of them this week, 2-3# each. It takes a few to get back into the groove of making the flange on the rim, where the lid will sit, getting it just so, and then pulling the body of the jar up from below without disrupting it.

I imagine that the knowledge of how to do things like this lives somewhere between the subconscious and muscle memory. That information exists, and is available for recall, but I can't really access it by just thinking about out -- I have to be at the wheel, with the clay moving between my hands. It's the same with many other skills in making pots, especially those that get used regularly but with a lapse of time in between: pulling a handle, shaping the spout on a pitcher, grabbing a mug in just the right spot with glaze tongs. I guess at some point, given enough repetitions, many actions sink in completely, to where you can do them without any conscious thought at all. For me, these include wedging, centering a ball of clay, tapping a leatherhard pot on center for trimming, etc. Maybe a good measurement of one's mastery of a craft is the amount of stuff that you've successfully loaded into that permanent, unconscious reservoir of knowledge. I'm not sure if that's true, but it's an interesting phenomenon.

Ready to load a bisque...

More greenware

On Friday I made a run to Indianapolis to buy clay from Amaco, so now I'm restocked on white stoneware. Because it's about an hour's drive, I've always bought as much as the car could hold -- about 800#. But since I have a half-dozen boxes of various clays still sitting around and I'm planning to go back to working in the Turner porcelain this summer, I only got about half that much this time.

Maggie visits the studio

Premixed clay can last a fairly long time in the box, and it has the advantage of aging and improving while it waits. But I've made the mistake of letting it sit too long, so that it gets too stiff to throw -- leaving two 25# blocks that are a real pain to reconstitute back to workable consistency. So I decided I'd rather risk running out and needing to make another trip than buy more clay than I think I'll use in this cycle. Also, with hundreds of pounds of scraps already taking up space in the studio, waiting to be reclaimed, I really don't know where I'd put a full load anyways. Stacked on a pallet in the middle of the floor?

There were enough dry pots to fill the electric kiln again, so I loaded up a bisque and let it fire on Sunday, my day off. Automated controllers on electric kilns have to be one of the best advances in ceramic history! A few trips across the driveway to check on it, and then the next day I've got another batch of hard, porous pots ready to go on the shelf and wait for glaze.

Returning to last week's topic, here's a list of the books I've read in the last few years:

And these are currently in progress:

I tend to stall out with some books, particularly non-fiction where the first half often tells 80% of the story and the rest is supporting detail. These are on the shelf, currently half-read:

On deck is Anathem by Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite fiction authors. I'm saving it for a time when I can really dig into it, blow off everything else, and go novel-crazy for a while.

I think this list suggests what's going on outside the margins of this page, or at least where some of my inputs are coming from (for better or worse). I read a lot less now than I did in my 20's (if you're interested, here's the whole list going back to 1990), but I sit around less than I used to also -- there's definitely a correlation. I used to read mostly fiction, but tend towards non-fiction now, and my schedule these days favors short bits over longer books, even though that's like substituting snacks for a full meal. For example, I usually read a good chunk of the New Yorker each week, and I'm always excited to get the new issue of Studio Potter. Since it only comes twice a year, and the articles can often occupy my mind for hours or days, mulling over the implications, I tend to milk stretch issue out over a long period of time; just an article or two at once, usually during my morning break in the studio, sitting in the big rocking chair, eating an apple.

February 15th, 2009

"Life is too short to spend it doing what other people want you to do." - Cormac McCarthy

I've been thinking a lot about scale lately. This week, I finished those extra-large mugs, with handles and more underglaze decoration. The handles were tricky, as the mechanics need to change once the mug body gets this large (about 6" x 4"). Just scaling up the same shape and proportions doesn't quite account for the weight, and to have a good balance they need room for a 3- or 4-finger grip. So I made the handles longer and also a bit closer to the body, proportionally, than on a standard mug. More like a strap, I guess.

The catch is that handles are very fragile as greenware, and still have a lot of shrinking to do, so they really can't be tested for fit until after the bisque firing. And even then, you can't get a sense for the weight and balance it will have when full of liquid until after the glaze firing, so refining these details is yet another iterative process stretched out over time, like glaze testing and firing technique.

A few people have requested XL mugs, including my friend Bob, who's been waiting for years. I finally moved them up on my make list after we had Thanksgiving at his house last fall. He showed me a small pitcher of mine that his wife was using for gravy. "This size is perfect," he said. "I've even used it for coffee!" The way he pantomimed turning it just so, in order to take a sip past the spout, was the final straw. Nobody should have to drink coffee from a pitcher.

At the other end of the spectrum, I made a series of small mugs with one-finger handles, also on request from a long-time customer. It's interesting to think about what different people want in a mug, and why they want it -- from the size of hands and fingers to the types and quantities of different drinks. One person's gravy pitcher is another's coffee mug; one's coffee mug is another's expresso cup.

I also started some vases, which will get the new Woo Yellow glaze, and a few large planters, about half again as big as I usually make them. Five pounds of clay felt like a lot after all those small porcelain pots and 1# mugs, especially since the clay was from a reclaim batch that had gotten almost too stiff to throw -- kind of a workout! But it's gratifying to have some bigger pots around for a change; such a dramatic difference in volume. I've got another commission on deck that will require scaling up -- a set of lidded jars -- so I'm heading that direction the next few weeks.

3 vases

Large planters

The only good thing about being sick was that I finished two troublesome books which had been sitting on the shelf half-read for over a year, taunting me in their incompleteness. The first was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a supremely bleak, minimalist, post-apocalyptic novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize, came highly recommended by people whose tastes I admire, and is an excellently-crafted, brilliant book. But it's not a good choice in the dead of winter when your barn's just collapsed in a tornado.

It wasn't much easier to read while feeling terrible, and with our snowed-in landscape resembling the one in the story much too closely. But I think there's a limit to how bad you can feel at any one time, so it was kind of like killing two birds with one rock. To my sensibilities, the glimmer of hope at the end didn't quite redeem the brutal starkness of the previous 250-odd pages, but then again I'm not one who needs any help seeing the nihilistic perspective on things. I guess it's a book that I'm glad to have read, but wouldn't want to read again.

(The part I couldn't figure out was how in the hell this ever got picked by Oprah's book club. I can imagine legions of the nice, middle-age women who comprise her audience getting to the first bit about cannibalism and keeling over right there in the breakfast nook. Then I watched her interview with McCarthy, and was impressed at how seriously into it she was. So much for stereotypes! I really liked him -- especially his seeming indifference to the trappings of success -- which made me want to like the book more, even though I think a novel should stand on its own merits.)

The second was Air Guitar, a collection of essays by Dave Hickey that's equally brilliant -- it even has a gold seal on the cover announcing his MacArthur "Genius" award -- but was just as hard to plow through. I really enjoyed many of the essays, which range from art theory to cultural criticism. And I liked his approach, which is to address low-brow, pop culture with the seriousness and intensity normally reserved for "fine art", usually taking a contrarian, unconventional perspective along the way. (I suspect this was a more unique and shocking approach when these were first published, but something that's gone mainstream since.)

But for all of that, large parts of the book were over my head. My undergraduate English degree is pretty good all the way up to semiotics, but from there on, forget it. I'm baffled by signs and signifiers, and my brain goes blank when it sees references to people like Foucault and Derrida. (For that matter, I've tried to read Ceramics by Philip Rawson -- twice -- and failed to get much of anything from it either time, despite it being quoted often by every thoughtful potter in the universe.) Hickey also writes in such a dense, sophisticated vocabulary that I frequently couldn't parse out what he meant. It often goes from simple and conversational to very abstract and complex in mid-sentence, and -- despite knowing I should -- I can rarely be bothered to look up words I don't already know.

My favorite essay in the book is "Dealing", which is about his realization that, after three years of work, his dissertation topic was almost certainly too weird to be approved for a degree; and that, if it were, "the optimal positive outcome would be a little job at a big university in a place where it snows -- and a six-year battle for tenure." Ha!

The description of his decision to quit school and open a gallery is fantastic:

Even then I prided myself in being a gambler, but this was a bad bet. You don't send good money after bad, ever. So I dropped that stack of white bond back into its stationary box, placed the box in a drawer, and closed the drawer. I walked into the kitchen, where my wife was sitting at the table reading The Crying of Lot 49. "I think I'm going to quit this shit," I announced. She looked up and stared at me for a minute, then she smiled and said, "Great!" That night I called up all my artist pals and told them I was going to become an art dealer. They all said, "Great!"

I like how he saw staying the course as the risky bet, but making a radical change as the reasonable alternative. I've quit a variety of things, too -- graduate school, jobs -- but never quite that impulsively, because to me quitting the status quo always felt like the real gamble. (Perhaps because very few people around me were saying, "Great!")

Then he describes the kind of art he wanted to promote with his gallery: one which lives in a fragile, uncommon niche between the norms, and which sounds very familiar:

"I had this idea of an art made for the living, you see -- of an art that may flourish in that crazy zone between the priests of institutional virtue and the bottom-feeders of commercial predation -- of an art that might embody the marriage of desire and esteem (which is, of course, what a marriage is). So I liked to distinguish my practice as an "art dealer" from that of "picture merchants" and "curators." Because picture merchants were dedicated to exhibiting what they thought the public wanted, and curators were dedicated to exhibiting what they thought the public needed. Everything I did as an art dealer, however, was based on the hopeful, Emersonian premise that on occasion, sometimes, we just might find, we want what we need -- that private desire and public virtue might find themselves embodied in a single, visible object."

Functional pots, anyone?

February 8th, 2009

"The self-discipline required to make a living as a potter
can slip sneakily into nuttiness." - Clary Illian

Throwing cylinders

Domino mugs

I finally started out of my sickness tailspin this week, and managed to get some work done. I made more mugs for the soda kiln, including some extra-large ones -- 1 1/2# each! That's a tricky cylinder to throw well, without leaving an awkward chunk of clay at the base. I'm really enjoying pulling handles lately; into kind of a good groove with them. I got out the black underglaze for the first time in a while, refreshing my brushwork skills and trying some new patterns that have been cropping up in my sketchbook. Dominos in diamond shapes instead of just rectangles.

Then I got around to one of those studio maintenance tasks that's been pending for a long time: replacing the canvas top on my main worktable. The old one had been in place since about '99, and was covered in a decade's scribbled notes, ink spills, layers of clay dust, and various glues, goos and grime. One whole edge was torn and frayed by a bad encounter with our dog, and I've been working around all of it for far too long. It only took about an hour to tear it off, then stretch and staple on a new piece, which makes me wonder why I waited so long to get around to it.

New canvas top

Nicely ordered tools

It's now pristine and lovely, particularly since replacing the canvas required moving the piles of junk that had accumulated along the back edge: books, scraps of paper, jars of pens, dozens of test tiles, tools I never use, etc. I deliberately put back only those things that I use regularly, and which couldn't go anywhere else in the studio, and the result is a nicely ordered workspace that is both inviting and a restful to the eye. It reminds me that I need to keep doing these cleaning and sorting tasks throughout the studio; that all the clutter not only gets in the way physically but also creates a lot of unnecessary mental friction.

February 1st, 2009

"Black rain, black rain, don't fall on me
Can't you see I'm doin' my best?
Black rain, black rain, don't fall on me
When I lay to take my rest" - A.A. Bondy

Sick of shovelling snow

Jumpin' Zeus on a unicorn, do I ever hate being sick. Hate it. [* If the editorial standards here at St. Earth would permit it, I'd add about 37 a's in "hate", to suggest the proper emphasis.] I got a wicked cold early in the week, then had the flu for a day, then back to the cold, which morphed into a sinus infection and is still dragging along... As if feeling terrible isn't bad enough, watching the days go by with nothing to show for them makes me crazy -- it's so frustrating to lose momentum in the studio and feel myself falling behind schedule, accomplishing nothing.

We also had about a foot of snow and sub-zero temperatures, which made for lots of shoveling and trudging around on ice. That's not my idea of fun on a good day, and with a sore throat and runny nose it's miserable. But for all that, I shouldn't complain; I stayed remarkably healthy last fall despite pushing myself to the limit, so this was probably overdue.

This week was also the one-year anniversary of our barn's demise. It still gives me a jolt sometimes, to walk out of the house and look up at the bones of its frame, standing above the weeds. I have hopes of saving one part of it, the lean-to on the east side, but it would be a big project and is pretty far down on my list of priorities. Such regret that it didn't turn out differently.

As we inherited it: Winter '05

During renovation: Spring '07

Before winter arrived, I sawed up some of the boards from one of the many piles of debris littering the yard, and have been burning them in the wood stove -- salvaging a last bit of use from the materials. This wood was bone-dry decades before I was born, and burns with a ferocious intensity.

Towards the end of the week I managed to get back to the studio and make a little progress, but it was hard to focus and I didn't have much energy. On days like those, I'm not sure if the results are good enough to justify the effort, but at some point I just can't lay around the house anymore.

So I used up the very last of the Turner porcelain, which seems to have gone a long way for only starting with 150# of clay -- lots of small, thin pots. I now have a good inventory of porcelain pots on hand that I plan to use for testing. I'll put a few in each firing through the spring, hoping to find a couple interesting, reliable glazes before I buy another batch of clay and return to working with it this summer. I have high hopes for this stuff.

Then on Sunday I switched back to my standard white stoneware, a reclaim batch that I processed last fall, and made a few mugs. They're a good way to get a feel for the clay body again -- and there's no such thing as having too many mugs around. If the switch to porcelain was surprising, the switch back was equally so, even though I knew to expect it. Suddenly this clay that I've used for years seems very strange, really dark grey, and every little speck of grit feels like a boulder. It's weird, like putting on an old pair of shoes that you haven't worn in years, and fitting your feet into all the creases and dents that make them yours.

January 25th, 2009

"Remember: Clay goes on the wheel, baby goes on the changing table. Not vice versa, though both are equally pliable." - Byron Craft

Milk bottles

This was a great week, the first one on my new schedule without a lot of wacky exceptions. I spent 2 days on campus at the job, 4 days in the studio, and 1 genuine, certified day off on Sunday. It's a nice balance when it works out like that; the bills get paid, I get time to dig in and get some pots made, and then a chance to catch up on the little stuff, hang out with the family and recharge before starting again the next week.

I'm still going strong with the porcelain: more mugs, bottle forms, and some oval dishes. I got handles on the mugs while they were a little softer this time, and they seemed to attach better -- the first batch had a few small surface cracks at the edges at the lower attachment, which I don't score. Porcelain tends to warp and crack at joints as it shrinks, more so than other clay bodies -- or at least, that's the conventional wisdom. So to finish of this series of tests, I'm trying the things in my standard technical repertoire that push those limits the most.

For the bottles, I used my two-part or "extended" throwing technique. It's similar to the traditional "capping" method, used by the southern Turners & Burners to make those wonderful jugs, but rather than throw both parts and assemble immediately, I make the base section and let it stiffen overnight on a bat, then throw the top ring, attach to the rim of the base, and then throw the top. It's an elaborate method, and requires some visualization to arrive at the form I have in mind, but it allows me to make taller pots, with more exaggerated profiles -- like a long, narrow neck -- without leaving an overly thick base, or needing to trim away clay at the end. (I'd like to do a photo tutorial of the process sometime, but need to have someone else around to hold the camera.) I've been wanting to make this form in porcelain for a long time; thinking they should be very minimalist, quiet -- just the form and a pure white glaze. I'm calling them Milk Bottles; the name came out of my subconscious like I'd just seen it flash by on a billboard. I guess because the form resembles an antique glass milk container, and I've been thinking about milk, and bottles, a lot lately.

The oval dishes are another form I make often, and another test of how much the clay can tolerate, because they're thrown round and stretched into oval shape, with a slab base attached. That's a major join, and merging two parts that were made in completely different ways, with creates competing stresses and "memory" in the clay as it shrinks. Like the bottles, I'm drying them extra-slow under plastic, just to be safe. So far, so good.

January 18th, 2009

"...and hearts pumping blood in 3/4 time." - AA Bondy

We've had a lot of company lately: my parents last week and my brother's family this week. My niece, age 4, gave us an idea of what's ahead as parents a few years from now and my nephew, age 22, was really curious to see how my pots were made. He studied archaeology in college, and as I was throwing more bowls in the studio one morning we had an interesting conversation about how fired clay outlasts virtually every other human artifact (including, as he told me, bones and teeth -- that's fascinating!). Apparently, when you go down deep enough into the historical layers, all that's left is pots and stones. Which reminds me yet again that every single thing that goes through my kiln will outlast me, even if it's just as shards, by thousands of years. That's a humbling thought, and one which facilitates making the hard editing choices.

For instance, this week I was planning to glaze the series of stoneware teabowls I made last fall, thinking I'd squeeze in a rare January soda firing before the deadline for the AKAR Yunomi show. They came out of the bisque kiln fine, and have been sitting on the shelf for a month or two, so I was really surprised to discover that most of them now had large chunks of clay blown out or cracking away, caused by a dreaded contaminant called lime popping (AKA: lime spitting; lime blows; chalk springing; or the sickening sensation that you have 1000# of wet clay mixed up that contains a fatal ceramic virus.)

Whatever you call it, it's really discouraging -- but it goes with the territory. Any time I change something in the process, particularly with clay and glaze materials, there's a good chance of the unexpected happening, and usually not for the better. On the plus side, the teabowls made a really satisfying sound as they hurled towards the side of the old dumptruck behind the studio -- like the whoop of a tiny helicopter blade -- and an even better one as they smashed against it. Done and done.

Porcelain bowls w. thick rims

Also a good editing mechanism

Switching to Plan B, I selected five teabowls from the Reserve and packed them up for the show, coming to the web in late March. All things considered, I still feel pretty good about them. As a group, they're different than last year's pots, in ways that show how my work in the salt/soda kiln is evolving. More black underglaze brushwork this time, and more glaze too, pale celadon over grooved faceting.

Five for the Yunomi Show

The "joys" of packing pots for shipping

As I usually do upon discovering some new way for things to go wrong in the studio, I did a bit of research into lime popping, particularly what causes it and how to avoid it in the future. My source of first resort for this sort of thing is a Google search aimed at the Clayart archive. The results for "lime popping" made me pretty sure that this is what's going on with my clay, confirmed what I thought I knew on the subject, and filled in a lot of new detail. Here are some highlights:

Ron Roy (a materials guru of the first order) said:

" could be coming in the Hawthorn, the GoldArt or the grog... Lime will show up in bisque pots if they are on the shelf long enough to absorb H2O from the air - and certainly when glaze is applied - it take a little time and sometimes it happens during the initial stages of a glaze firing. It can even happen after a glaze firing if the clay is not vitrified enough..."

My clay is about 90% Hawthorne Bond, and they sat on the shelf after bisking for a few months...

Michael Banks said:

"Lime popping is due to coarse calcium carbonate or other calcium salt such as plaster, contaminating the clay body. The offending particles lose their volatile matter during bisk firing, are reduced to calcium oxide and rehydrate explosively at a later date, especially in contact with water. If the particles are fine-grained (say, minus 100 microns) there is often no problem because they sinter with surrounding silicates. Too coarse, and a lump of CaO is created, lying in wait for a bit of atmospheric or liquid water to turn it into a little bomb. "

Generally speaking, "explosively" and "bomb" are not words you want associated with your pots...

Snail Scott said:

"It's LARGE bits that cause lime pop - bits too large to melt into the clay around them. How big is 'too big' depends on your firing temperature. At ^10 even pea-sized chunks will melt, and maybe just leave melted holes where they were, while at earthenware temperatures, a pinhead-sized bit won't really melt at all. That's why lime pop is mainly associated with low-fire clay, and with bisqued clay sitting around awaiting a higher firing. The low firing just calcines the lime, and when it rehydrates due to ambient humidity (or washing) it expands, causing any bits near the surface to blow out the covering clay."

That's a great explanation. It also might explain something else I noticed, which is that while most of the pots did some popping, the ones that I dipped in thin slip at the leatherhard stage popped the most. This makes me think that the extra water in the slip soaked in and was absorbed by the lime, but if that's true, I wonder why they didn't blow during the bisque, instead of afterwards. Hmm... some questions answered, new mysteries revealed.

January 11th, 2009

"I will light the match this morning, so I won't be alone
Watch as she lies silent, for soon night will be gone" - Pearl Jam

Porcelain mugs (after Karl Borgeson)

Stout-rimmed bowls

This week I started back at the web job and Cindy returned to teaching, so between that and trading off baby care I didn't get a lot of time in the studio. But I managed a couple throwing sessions, making a few mugs and bowls, and continuing with the Turner porcelain. I'm finishing off the last box of that clay, then will switch to my white stoneware next. The mugs were informed by one I just added to our collection. It's by Wisconsin potter Karl Borgeson, and recently purchased from the online gallery at Red Lodge Clay Center. It's a beauty, with a nice wood/salt-fired satiny celadon, lightly crazed and flecked with crystals. The bowls are an ongoing exploration of making these really stout, rolled rims -- I'm seeing how far I can exaggerate them and also testing what this clay can do with regards to a transition from a thin to very thick wall section. So far I like the results, and they haven't cracked apart during drying (yet)! I had the minor realization that it makes a big difference if that coil of clay at the rim sits in line with the wall below, versus being inside or outside of it. (That seems obvious in retrospect, but I hadn't quite made the connection previsously.) On these, it comes inwards, which gives a closed feeling to the form and will, I think, make for a nice place to grab onto the pot.

I've been shepherding the boards of greenware around the studio to avoid the sub-zero temperatures we've had lately, trying to keep them in the furnace's zone while at the same time preventing them from drying out too quickly. I haven't lost any pots to frost this winter, with the new digital thermostat holding the studio at a constant 45°F when I'm not around to stoke the wood stove, but with the frightful cost of propane these days I'm in need of a better solution. I'm imagining a wheeled cart with some sort of cover, which could be rolled into the warm part of the studio overnight and pushed out of the way during workdays. Hmm... sounds like another great project that I don't have time to start.

Just before closing up the shop one night

My stamp & '09 mark

With the turn of a new year, I'm marking my pots with one more tick -- now a balanced grid of three tiny squares across and three down. I started adding the year to my maker's stamp sometime in 2006, I suppose prompted by the realization that I often look at an older pot and have little to no idea when I made it. Next year I think I'll switch the mark to an X, for ought-ten, and the year after that I guess I'll start over with a single mark for '11. (Identifying a pot to within the decade seems good enough, while perhaps retaining a bit of mystery.) In any case, I've discovered that I really like making those little repetitive pokes with a wooden stamp -- it's nine marks with the same stamp, not one stamp with nine prongs -- and so that's beginning to work it's way into other decorative aspects of the pots, despite being obsessive, subtle and labor-intensive. Typical.

January 4th, 2009

"Happy new year, baby..." - Counting Crows

Porcelain bowls

Small porcelain bowl-things

We were home for the holidays this year for the first time ever, which meant I was able to sneak in a few studio days around the festivities. It's been cold, icy and wet, but good as ever to be back at the wheel. I'm still working with the Turner porcelain, trying out most of the things I regularly do with my regular clay and building up a small inventory of pieces to test glazes and firing. My early impressions are that it is a very nice clay, seductive in its purity, precise in how it holds detail, from an edge or line of slip down to the smallest fingerprint. Also a bit fussy, but not as difficult to work with as I'd been expecting. (Perhaps because I'm coming to it from a white stoneware, which is mid-way between porcelain and a more traditional, sturdy stoneware claybody.) It's exciting to look at my prior tests of it and imagine those pristine, striking surfaces on these pots.

Nice box labeling

New banding wheel in action

One of my end-of-year purchases was a new Shimpo banding wheel, which I've been coveting for quite a while. It's a beautiful tool; built like a Soviet tank, but if they'd outsourced the precision engineering bits to Toyota. (My old one, purchased from a vendor at NCECA and made in China, is built like a Soviet tank, but if they'd outsourced the engineering bits to... well... China.) I use the banding wheel at some point in the making of almost every pot, even if just to hold it for finishing touches and adding my maker's stamp. It's very useful when attaching lugs and handles, or for doing any sort of decoration. I love how solid this new one is, heavy and thick, but also how fluid and smooth the action is as it spins on it's bearings. Nice upgrade.

Last pots of 2008

First pots of 2009

Continuing with an item from last week's 2008 recap, I've been thinking more about what this blog is for and why I'm doing it. The desire to keep it up is strong, but I'm also feeling the need to justify the effort it takes, given recent changes in my life (baby) and schedule (dayjob). I've come to realize that my primary motivation is all the ways it benefits me directly, and that how it might benefit others is actually just a subset of that. Selfish but true!

What do I get from it? As I suggested back in June, doing the writing and photos prompts me to reflect on things in a focused way that's qualitatively different from fleeting thoughts or writing in my private sketchbook. It improves my pots by forcing me to think about what I'm making (and how and why) on a regular basis, and to compose those thoughts into a public format. It serves as an outboard memory -- a way for me to scan backwards to remember what I've been up to and orient myself in time. It's making me a better writer, I think, albeit slowly. And lastly, I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that other people benefit from it, too.

What others get from it is hard to say exactly, but I can guess based on the feedback I get (site traffic statistics, comments from friends, and email from readers, most of whom I've never met). Probably the most common is technical or process information -- for example, I get a lot of questions about my glazes and soda kiln. Second would be a general understanding of how these objects are made and what my intentions are, which is very cool, and was one of my initial goals -- equal parts teaching, proselytizing and marketing. And third, which I really hadn't anticipated, is inspiration: other potters finding things here that prompt a new idea, or give some encouragement amidst the vast range of possible ceramic disappointments, or help nudge them back to the studio with a bit more fuel in the tank. That last one, however hard to quantify, is probably the most rewarding of all.

By way of illustration, here's the best email I've received yet:

I stumbled onto your blog (which is lovely) and it shook me out of my I-got-a-ceramic-bfa-2-years-ago-haven’t-made-a-pot-since-and-have-a-great-desk-job funk. Thanks for the inspiration! I was just floored, especially by the images and how they brought me back to what working in a studio day to day was like.

Best wishes,
A. Reader

That's just excellent, and more than I could have hoped for; like a small start on repaying the tremendous gifts of knowledge and encouragement that I've received from others at every step along the way.