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2010 Archive

December 19th, 2010

"The point of reporting the news is not to make one recliner-bound old man
smile for half a second." - Jon Stewart

It was kind of a grab-bag week here at St. Earth HQ, so this post, like my thoughts, is likely to be all over the place. But in the bigger picture, I'm starting to transition out of the post-sale cleanup/shipping/resting phase and back into some actual work in the studio, which is a nice change all around.

Pots for Yunomi show

Zoom #1

Zoom #2

First, I sent off my five pots for the AKAR Yunomi extravaganza -- to my mind the most impressive display of contemporary pots online each year. The show won't be up until March of '11, but the early deadline lets them photograph and put on their site every single pot in the show. Last year there were 821 of them! (And while we wait impatiently for that, their February show will feature the upper-midwestern goodness of Karl Borgeson and Robert Briscoe -- nice!)

Barn wood shelf


Next, here's a last section of the sale display that I didn't show previously: a new shelf in the showroom custom-built by my friend Todd from some of our old barn wood. He has some serious woodworking skills and a great aesthetic sense for how to reuse the material. All the old patina is highlighted, while all the new cuts and fasteners are cleverly hidden from view. It's also well-crafted, really solid and carefully scribed into place in this spot over the fireplace in the showroom. I hadn't anticipated how well the faded red paint would match up with the exposed brick; it's a nice combination. It makes the pots look better, and is a vast improvement over the creaky old IKEA thing that used to occupy that space in the display. I love it!

It makes a nice historical echo, too. Frank Day, who built both our house and the now-wrecked barn in the early 1900's, also made custom furniture to fit into a previous incarnation of the house. Unfortunately, that furniture was all long gone by the time we arrived here, but I think he'd have appreciated having some of the barn salvaged to good purpose, and the return of some local, handmade furniture in his house.

Self portrait


I was down to my last half bag of wet clay, so I made a clay run to Amaco in Indianapolis. The studio is now 600 pounds heavier and almost ready to rock.

I can always relate to the young guy who hauls the 50# boxes out to the car on a handcart. I spent my late teens and most of my 20's hauling around food and beverages, appliances and electronics, windows and patio doors, bags of clay, boxes of boxes and innumerable other varieties of cargo. And in my experience virtually nobody tips the guy who takes the stuff off the truck or puts it in your car.

So after he'd hauled it through two inches of slush and we'd thrown it all in the car, I handed him a five dollar bill and said thanks. He reacted as if he'd never seen an extra dime for all that hard labor. I was happy to be the exception, because those jobs usually suck, and you're essentially mortgaging the long-term health of your back to make eight or ten dollars an hour today.

(On second thought, perhaps he gets $20 tips all the time, and was stunned that I'd insult him with a mere five dollars. I should have made it more. I guess I'm still living in the financial 1990's, when $5 bought lunch instead of just a fancy cup of coffee. Dang.)

I only had a couple minutes in the gallery space at Amaco, and was distracted by chasing down a toddler who was tired of being stuck in a car seat, but there were some really nice Unzicker Brothers pots on display.

(By the way, when you see an image here that is inexplicably more boring and random (than usual), I recommend that you click it. Just saying.)

A start...

And yes, that is indeed a photo of some freshly-thrown wet pots. I did my usual cautious start back to the wheel, and still had yunomis on the brain. But I managed to use of the last of that porcelain, and it appears that after yet another two month break I still know how to throw. So next week I'll switch the studio over to white stoneware and start getting serious about moving some clay in circles.

Finally, it's about time for my annual mid-winter break, so things will be quiet around these parts the next week or two. I promise to spend at least some of that time putting together a 2010 recap that's something more than a collection of old links, and perhaps I'll even hammer away at some long-pending ideas for future posts.

Taking a break always makes me feel bad about leaving you, my devoted reader, with an unexpected five minute block of free time... particularly around the Holidays. (I mean, what are you supposed to do, spend it with your family?) So in an attempt to fill that minor void, might I recommend that you check out my friend Carter Gillies's new blog?

After goading him about it for months, it looks like he's finally taken the blogging oath and is off and running. (Not that I'm taking any credit or blame for him doing so; just saying that there was definitely some goading involved.) Carter's a careful thinker, a good writer and a fine potter, which means our small number of potter-bloggers just got bigger and better by one. Huzzah!

December 12th, 2010

"Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like.
Let's try to fill it in. " - R.E.M.

No noteworthy activity in the studio this week means more kid pics. Look at it this way: it's better than photos of bubble wrap and boxes.

"Much to learn you still have."

"Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."

These are from a couple months ago -- that's Grandpa and Grandma in the audience. Maggie's only seen me at the wheel a handful of times, but her two-year-old's insistence on learning by imitation is powerful. (There's a parallel there to beginning potters, but I'm not going to push it. I've already bagged my quota of analogies for the year.)

She already wants water from the throwing bucket on the wheelhead, and likes to push it around with the wheel spinning. Since her legs need to grow about two more feet before she can reach the treadle bar, I have to push it for her, which is tricky while also holding her upright in the saddle. I need to either rig up some sort of toddler throwing harness -- perhaps cobbled together from all the swing/jumper/playpen accessories she's outgrown -- or see if Mark Polglase will take a custom order for a Junior Leach Wheel. She'll be asking for clay soon.

And while I'm afraid this will seem like boasting, I have to mention that the knit hat Maggie's wearing was made by my mentor Clary Illian. That's a pretty auspicious start for a future potter.

(I mean... ahem... if you want to. No pressure!)

December 5th, 2010

"People say I'm crazy 'cause I've got diamonds on the soles of my shoes." - Paul Simon

Sale's done. It was pretty good, considering. As in: considering that we had several inches of snow overnight on Friday. And that both Cindy and I were fighting off various illnesses. And that "in this economy" people still want to buy handmade pots.

The results weren't great and they weren't terrible. A quick look at the historical stats says that total sales were about 20% off the ten-year average. I'm realizing that while such data can be useful, it also tends to set up expectations. It might be easier to go into each one with a clean slate and take it for what it is. After all, just like with firing a kiln, there are so many variables involved in the outcome that prediction is virtually impossible. And several of the more significant ones, like the weather, are completely outside my control.

Online sales were quite good this time -- better than they've been in a couple years -- which means I have a lot of packing to do. In between grappling with bubble wrap, boxes, tape and the UPS website, I'm hoping to spend some time the next few days staring at the wall or perhaps even sleeping during daylight hours. It's been a long haul and I'm tired.

Here are some shots from early Saturday morning. I like seeing the pots in groups like this, little semi-intentional compositions, and with some whitespace around them. It's also interesting how they're different in various lighting conditions, more like they'll be seen in daily life than under the artificial glare of photography lighting. Wish I'd waited until we had the flowers in the vases.

November 28th, 2010

"I can make more generals, but horses cost money." - Abraham Lincoln

It's almost sale time, which means there are brand new pots for sale in the Gallery. Here are a few highlights:

Dome jars

Mugs with dots

Domino Pitcher

Celadon Pitcher

Vase with Dots

Vase with Crystals

And, if you're in the neighborhood, my 11th Annual Holiday Sale is this weekend, December 4th & 5th, from 10am - 5pm. More details at that link, including directions and maps. If not, wish me luck!

November 21st, 2010

"And glow, glow, melt and flow... a thousand different versions of yourself" - The Shins

The last firing left me wishing I could do one every week. Not necessarily as we head into the dead of winter -- more in theory, I suppose -- but I enjoyed getting into a groove with glazing, firing and cycling the kiln. I've gradually come to accept that there's no way to go deep into one phase of the making process without taking a break from the others. (Short of working an unsustainable number of hours to cram it all in... and I'm done with that nonsense). But I suspect it might be a better approach overall, even with the rust that would accumulate in the other phases while I focused on one. Even from this small sample, of spending a month in firing mode, I can see a difference in the results -- better pots -- and the process was more enjoyable, too. A little less frenetic, with more room for concentration; a rare dose of single-tasking instead of rabid multi-tasking.

Longer stretches in each phase might also make it easier to dedicate more time to warming up and cooling down. The frustration that comes with getting back to the wheel after a layoff, which I've cataloged here at length, is largely just a matter of impatience; of being too much in a hurry to allow things to progress at an organic rate. Likewise, at the end of a throwing cycle, it'd be awfully useful to spend an afternoon tidying up tools and scrap clay, making notes for next time, perhaps even mopping the floor, instead of rushing onto the next phase.

I can imagine the appeal of just making wet pots for a longer stretch, honing my throwing chops to that rare sharpness when it feels like I can make anything, piling up the bisqueware into every open slot in the studio, and then firing five or six times in a row. Especially factoring in the weather; there's no reason to fire in the extremes of summer and winter unless I'm rushing to hit a deadline. It's a lot easier and more pleasant in spring and fall anyways -- a great time to work outside the studio. Food for thought.

I've been wanting to show some detailed before-and-after sequences of the pots, but always forget to take the "befores" before loading them into the kiln. However, before this last firing I shot a lot of photos after glazing and wadding, partly because I went crazy with new dots patterns and partly because I experimented with some new stacking configurations; both seemed like good things to shoot for future reference. So, while none of these photos is spectacular -- and the collage part required some janky tweaks in Photoshop -- they illustrate how the slips and glazes change between the raw and fired states pretty well, and show some of the process involved, such as the waxed areas and layers of decoration.

Now that I use two glazes with copper in them, which is almost exactly the same shade of aqua in the raw state as my tinted wax (see the last photo there), I need a new wax color. The idea is to make it easy to spot the wax while building up layers or working around it, so I use food coloring to stain it. Ideally, it's a color that stands out against the bisque-fired clay and is different that anything in the glaze palette. So I should switch to a different color, but it's hard to break 10 years of habit. (It's become so fixed that my mental image of liquid wax is blue-green, not the off-white cream that it starts as in the gallon containers.) Orange and yellow are both out, for the same reason, so I might have to go with red. Hmm... red just seems too harsh. A dilemma.

And finally, by way of pre-announcement: my 11th Annual Holiday Sale will be the weekend of December 4th & 5th, from 10am - 5pm. Announcement cards will go out in the mail this week, and some of the newest pots will show up in the Gallery early next week, after I shoot some photos and get everything web-ready. About two weeks to go... almost there!

November 14th, 2010

"Daddy... kiln. See pots." - Maggie Pixel

Firing no. 44 was a dream: the fastest on record (about 10.5 hours) and almost entirely good results (minus one refire that didn't improve and a bit of wadding that fell into a cup). It's a real shot in the arm to have the kiln working this well; a much-appreciated boost to my confidence. That's three successful firings in a month, about 80 new pots for the sale, and I'm now a couple weeks ahead of schedule. The kiln's put to bed for the winter, postcards are labelled and stamped, and I'm ready to start thinking about clean-up and setup. Hopefully that will make the sale a little less hectic this time, and perhaps less exhausting to see it through. But there's still time for everything to go haywire, too, so I ain't counting any eggs until I sees me some chickens.

no. 44, before

no. 44, after

hook = dots

three jugs

new solutions to old problems

small dome jars

domino mugs

more dots

double-lobed bowl & yunomi

porcelain planters

November 7th, 2010

"…sweating the details at the right points does more than just incrementally improve the quality of the product; it actually means creating a substantially different and better artifact.
It means you're trying, and it shows." - Merlin Mann

Firing #43 was the fastest one on record, which was helped by a perfect spot of weather, and suggests that at least one of the recent changes I made to the kiln is working. And even better, the results were very good: nice clay color, slip development, salt blasts, glaze drips, surface variety, pattern diffusion, you name it. There weren't any technical errors or glazing mistakes on my part, and almost nothing I'd change if I had it to do over. It doesn't get much better than that!

I tried stacking two shorter pots with wads in between -- to help fill the tall bottom shelf -- which worked great. I'll be doing more of that in the future. It's a good way to fit in more smaller pots, which tend to make up a lot of my output. (The firings go a lot easier with a 12" shelf height on the bottom layer, probably because the burner comes in underneath that shelf and uses some of that space as combustion area.)

#43: Pre

#43: Post

Dots, dots, dots

Lidded jars

Three pitchers

Vases w/ "Green to Black" glaze

Having the final stage of the making process humming on all cylinders like this gives me a much-needed confidence boost. And it makes me hungry for more, excited to return to the beginning and start spinning wet clay again. I've spent so much time in the opposite state with this kiln: uncertain about its status and my ability to make it produce good pots. That's a very bad situation for a potter to be in, and at times has been so corrosive to my motivation, imagination and resiliency that the whole process has become a grind, like pushing a big load of clay uphill. In a creaky old wheelbarrow. With one broken leg, and a square wheel.

So now with two loads done and the third and last under way, I'm ahead of the curve for my sale -- which is so uncommon I'm not sure what to make of it. Could I actually start throwing again before the sale? As my old studio mate Rick Dunn used to say, "That's crazy talk."

October 31st, 2010

"1, 2, 3, 4, monsters walk across the floor..." - Feist

Sometime in the last few months, Maggie learned how to count to ten. This requires some interpretation on our part, as she still can't say about half of the hard consonants. So while it actually sounds like this: "un, due, tree, foe, ive, icks, eben, eieet, nie, den", we give her the benefit of the doubt.

At first she left out seven, so it went like this: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… short pause… 8, 9, 10." I assumed this was because it's the only two-syllable word in the sequence, and you could almost hear her brain working on it during that pause.

But that theory was soon proven wrong, because she started adding seven and leaving out six, without the pause: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10." I've written about my fondness for numbers here before, like my minor obsession with counting things and fake belief in numerology. So, needless to say, I found this to be very interesting.

Now it's not like we've been beating the drum to make her learn any of this. (Cindy and I are wary of treating learning like a race from the very beginning.) We modelled it for her, to the extent that she seemed interested, and I suspect she picked up the rest at daycare, or from repetition in books and Baby Einstein videos. It's not like I painted the numbers on the wall over her crib or anything.

Oh. Well, okay, so maybe I did. But that was after she started counting, because I thought she'd like it. Really.

Anyways, however she picked it up, I couldn't imagine an example that omitted the number six. All we could figure was that somehow in the process of figuring out seven, she'd lost track of six, and it just stuck that way. Like learning songs, manual skills or just about anything else, the power is in the repetition -- accurate or not. Each time through strengthens the connections between neurons, laying a mental foundation for future building.

So once this pattern stuck, when she got to the end of the sequence I'd say, with mock surprise, "You missed six!" She'd either ignore me completely, or momentarily give me one of those curious looks before going back to the beginning to do it again. Once she gets on a roll, it's like a tape loop, over and over again.

Sometimes she'd vary the delivery, from a high-pitched sing-song voice that's so sweet it'd make Attila the Hun want a hug, to a shouted chant that wouldn't have been out of place in the battle preparation scene from Braveheart. Occasionally she'd take a stab at 11 through 15, and get a few of them right. But there was never a six to be had.

This went on for a few weeks, her skipping six and me reminding her of it between repetitions. Then the other night, as the three of us were driving home in the car, she said:

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10… you missed six!"

Fantastic. Parenting doesn't get much better than that.


As promised, here are some highlights from the last firing. Seeing them grouped like this, I now realize this is a pretty awful background… too much competition from the sky blue wall and those hard vertical lines. Ah well; as the sun makes its seasonal shift towards the southern horizon, I'll take what I can get in terms of natural daylight.

1, 2

3, 4

5, 7

8, 9

10, 13, 15

I've got the pots for #43 mostly glazed and ready for wadding. Planning to get them in the kiln and fire it off next week, given a good spot of weather.





October 24th, 2010

"I always said there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe." - Arthur Dent

On a theoretical list of the most intrinsically rewarding aspects of making pots, I'd put unloading a really good firing right near the top. If it's not in the number one spot, it's pretty darn close. (Other contenders would be: mornings spent at the wheel, in the throwing groove; having control over every decision that goes into the work; and gradually seeing the pots improve and a personal style develop.)

After many delays, I fired off #42 this week, and it returned a very rare 100% success rate -- no fatal flaws, no seconds, and several top-quality pots. I don't know what the meaning of life is*, but the meaning of life as a potter essentially boils down to whatever value you can get from each new batch of pots. For me, that's a blend of both tangible and intangible things, from the satisfaction of making good work to the money that will eventually come from them.

#42: Before

#42: After

Particularly with this kiln, which is so variable and unpredictable, I make deliberate notes about the results of each firing. It's great to end up with a scribbled page full of things like "very good" and "SWEET" and "do it again like this next time!" Especially in comparison to the occasional bomb, where there's hardly a good thing to say about any of them.

There was only one good spot in the weather this week to fire, which coincided with a visit from my parents. In my 15+ years of firing kilns, this was the first time they'd seen one with the burners on, so it was fun to show them the details of the process. My Dad -- who's worked deep in mines, been struck by lightning, and wired up military aircraft -- isn't impressed by much in the physical realm. But he was surprised at the power and intensity that radiates around the burner port at 2300 degrees.

Three generations at the kiln. Dad: curious, Scott: anxious, Maggie: distracted by a cat or something

Promo prep; a.k.a. I am by no means a real print designer, but I can fake it pretty well

They were also here to see the pots come out, so I had a small audience for the unloading. That's a rare occasion, so it was a nice time to have it be a good one, rather than a head-scratcher (or a head-to-wall-pounder).

The firing itself was speedy and quite easy, compared to most. I made two more kiln modifications, in addition to the new door, with the intent of improving the draft and avoiding stalls. I added another 12" section of pipe onto the metal chimney, and wrapped a lower section of the chimney in a kaowool and sheetmetal liner, for some extra insulation. Of course, changing three variables at once makes it impossible to decode their individual effects -- which is why you're not supposed to do it -- but I'm nothing if not impatient. My gut says the firing improved a bit from all three, plus the benefit of a flawless day of firing weather. The next few repetitions will add more data to consider, and I'll probably play around with it some more; perhaps I'll add even more height to the stack, or remove the new section to see if that slows it down again.

Anyways, the first firing of the season was a great start. I'm hoping to do it again two more times before my sale. November can be a dicey month to squeeze them in, but I should be able to get in two more in a month. I'll have some snapshots of individual pots from #42 next week.

I also started into the sale preparation routine, designing the announcement card and sending it off to the printer. I went with the split-screen layout again, with two similar pots on the front. These vases were part of the same run -- clay sibilings -- and I like how the dramatically different glaze results show what a huge difference the choices made at that stage in the process have on the final objects.


* Well, okay, I do -- but I'm certainly not just giving it away for free here on the blog. What does this look like -- Socialism? Heaven forbid. No, if you want the really good dirt, you'll have to subscribe to the TW@SE Premium-Deluxe INsider (limited) Edition™.

October 17th, 2010

"And inside every turning leaf is the pattern of an older tree. " - Sting

I selected the pots for my next salt firing and started brushing wax and splashing slips on them this week, but only after losing a few days to a wicked cold. Apparently, my immune system is still no match for the stuff that a room full of toddlers can cook up. So no firing or new pots to show yet, but there's always next week. Or the next…

Back in action

Waxing & slipping

It's been another frustratingly long stretch since I last did a firing cycle, so even with good notes and 41 repetitions under my belt, it still takes a while to wrap my mind around the various details and remember where I left off: stacking fit, glazing options, ongoing kiln maintenance, firing plan, etc.

Time permitting, I'd like to do 3-4 firings before my sale in early December -- I have enough pots for it. Doing multiple firings in a row is a great way to go, as it lets me build on the information and successes from one firing to the next (the best pots usually come in the second or third load). But the consequential down side is that it stretches out the dry spell before the next one, as I'll use up most of the bisqueware and will then have to wait until after the sale to really get back to anything like a decent throwing groove again. So it goes.

In other news, a few weeks ago I sent about 30 pots for a Potters Tour in western Pennsylvania, where I was the featured guest at Windblown Studio. The tour was this past weekend, but I got so caught up in things like documenting my kiln surgery and riffing on Rascal Ware that I forgot to mention it. (How's that for not using the blog for self-promotion? Ironic.) Anyways, a few years ago they built a fantastic studio there, with a post-and-beam construction that fires up my nostalgic barn envy all over again. Who wouldn't want to work in a space like that?

And finally, Maggie had her second birthday last week, so I thought I'd show off this pair of portraits of her and I, taken almost exactly two years apart:



I've been quite disciplined about not blasting my proud-parenting photos here lately. That's required a lot of restraint on my part, especially given that we took approximately 3,660 photos of her in between these two. And that's just with one of our three cameras -- ridiculous!

I like so many things about these that I shouldn't even begin to inundate you with them. (But I will, of course, and you should feel completely free to click the Back button as soon as it gets dull.)

For example: her hand size, relative to mine; it's been fascinating watching her hands gradually change and seeing what she's learned to do with them. Her eyes open vs. closed -- I think she was asleep the first time. Her awareness of the mug and interest in holding it; I had to pry it away this time! The subtle similarities in her facial characteristics from then to now. The way Cindy framed the shots almost identically, despite not seeing the first photo in months. The related shades of blue in the background, which was completely accidental. The pots being inverted examples of the same idea, but made with completely different materials and techniques. That the mugs were randomly chosen off the "secret stash" shelf in the studio each time. That this is probably the first in a long line of photos we could take like this, and that the kid and the pot will still change dramatically each time for quite a while. Oh, and that she's so damn cute in both I can hardly stand it... &Etc.

That's my girl.

October 10th, 2010

"He's a retired professor and it's as if he thinks and speaks
in fifty-minute blocks of time." - Georgette Ore

I had a pleasantly unexpected group of visitors this week: some of the Rascal Ware crew drove over from Illinois to say hi, talk shop, complain about blogs, and look at pots. I've heard a lot about them over the years, seen their ads in Ceramics Monthly and such (I think they read better on the company web site -- puposefully looking at ads in CM gives me a migraine.) So it was very nice to meet them, if a bit crazy to meet them all at once.

Present were Junior Bucks, the idealistic owner; Georgette Ore, the voice of hard-won reason in the group; Mosley Bunkham, who seemed thoughtful but distant; Hairy Potter, who I thought had been fired at some point; and Shakespeare, their shop dog, who kind of reminded me of Patches. Sigh.

There's a lot of collective ceramics wisdom there, which makes for really interesting conversation. And, of course, there were so many ideas I wanted to get to that there just wasn't time for. Things like this bit of advice, from Chapter Four of the Rascal Ware story:

"Think faster, work slower and let the kilns cool even slower than that. Keep good records. Answer your mail. Don't become a slave to your cell phone. Try not to make the same thing over and over."

Smart. Super smart. They just don't teach you that stuff in school.

Anyways, in the showroom, Junior -- who Georgette mentioned is a bit OCD -- went around pointing at pots saying, "I like that one. And that one. And that one. Not that one. Nice foot, bad rim. Not that one! And that one." It was pretty endearing, and occasionally flattering. At one point, looking at my recent experiments with porcelain and clear glazes, he said something like, "Yeah! Hot damn, Georgette, we should go home and make some pots like these! Look how clean and functional!"

Georgette -- who for some reason I'd imagined would look a bit like Georgia O'Keefe or Clary Illian, but actually resembles neither of them -- rolled her eyes heavenward and said, "Junior, we've been down that road before. You know white glaze on white porcelain doesn't sell. Get real." I've had the same thought myself, lately, but for some reason hearing her say it cheered me up about the situation. Like talk therapy.

She also seemed hard-pressed to take my simpler, undecorated pots at face value; as if those celadons and tenmokus on fairly conservative round pots were somehow intended as a pun on ceramic history, rather than an inherited love of the same kinds of things that excited Leach and Hamada back in the day.

(I can't blame her. As my own age and world-weariness steadily increase, I sympathize with that perspective. The best course is to look first with a cynical eye, wary of letting what little genuine enthusiasm remains in your heart get fooled by yet another post-post-modern, poorly-executed in-joke. On the rare occasion that that's not the case, there's always time for sincerity later.)

After taking Shakespeare for a walk around our property, stopping for a break at the concrete pilings for my forthcoming kiln shed, Mosley elected to stay in the car which, I'll admit, was a little weird. (Like he didn't want to see my pots too much, or that it was too soon to say what he really thought, given our recent acquaintence?) At one point, I was almost certain I could hear him shouting obscenities through the glass, but that might have been my imagination.

Hairy seemed to want to talk technique -- the hows instead of the whys -- but the others kept interrupting him. It's so easy for the basic stuff to get drowned out by complexity. I was sorely tempted to walk him over to a corner and peg him with questions about why I can't stop the iron speckling in my god-forsaken new celadon glaze, but that seemed like too much of an imposition. Maybe next time.

On their way out, Junior wandered over to a big woodfired floor pot I made in grad school -- punched through with holes and messily repaired after an encounter with the vaccuum cleaner -- and muttered something to Georgette about "the ghost of Peter Voulkos". Ouch.

Unfortunately, their compatriot Don Pilcher couldn't make the trip -- apparently he stayed home to keep working on re-stucco-ing his house or something? That wasn't quite clear, and I didn't want to embarass myself with too many questions, but that can't be right, can it? I'm from Southern California, where they put stucco on anything that doesn't move, but I didn't think that techique would hold up to the Midwestern elements. They can be pretty harsh and unforgiving. I must have missed something. (There was also mention of him needing to think through some old parking tickets, which really makes no sense at all, so I let that slide, too.)

All in all it was quite a priviledge to have such guests. I really enjoyed it. Out here in the sticks, I don't see many fellow potters in person, and it always leaves behind a bit of inspiration and plenty of new nuggets of thought to chew on. Maybe it will help me get some pots in the kiln next week and actually do the firing thing for a change.

October 3rd, 2010

"The one thing that I learned working on my Daddy's farm,
was to pull the crops in early when it gets cold...
No sense in wanting my life to live over,
I'd find different ways to make the same mistakes again." - Whiskeytown

Old door, fixed section at side

Corrosion ain't just a river in Egypt

It was time for some overdue kiln maintenance this week, trying to correct for bricks flaking salt glaze, bowed-in walls, and a seriously corroded door. And the kiln had been tarped long enough that it had not one but three mouse nests inside -- ah, the joys of country living.

The door is made of insulating firebrick, to ease the chore of stacking and unstacking the bricks each time. (Since the kiln sits outside, I store it with the door in. So each firing means two full cycles of the door: out, in, out, in.) The trade-off is that the salt and soda gnaw away at the softbrick at an alarming rate, so I have to adjust and rebuild the door more often. I'm essentially using expensive bricks as a consumable item, which seems extravagantly wasteful, but I suppose the fuel savings from the extra insulation makes up for some of that cost.

The results of that wear, while inconvenient, are beautiful in their own way. The process happens so quickly that its like watching time-lapse photography of geological erosion, which I find fascinating; even the hardbrick interior looks like some artifact salvaged from a wreck at the bottom of the ocean.

This reminds me that sodium glazing is essentially corroding the surface of the pots, eating away at their skin and then coating it in polished glass. The destruction of beauty, the beauty of destruction. Wabi Sabi.

I changed the configuration of the door, too, moving the fixed section -- which reduces the number of bricks to move each time -- from the left side to the bottom. I've gradually realized that on the side it makes for some awkward reaches when loading, especially to get the top back shelf in. Not a wise use of however many good reps I have left in my back. On the bottom, I'll just have to reach over it a bit to drop the first layer of shelves in, and then will have the full width open to load the rest. It also lets the bottom three ports (two for salt, one for spying cones) stay fixed in place, as opposed to two ports in the previous configuration. I also changed the inside layer of those three courses to hardbrick, like the rest of the kiln, because they take such a beating from the burner being aimed straight at them. And I relocated the pyrometer tube from the door to a salt port in the side, which I haven't been using much since I switched from mostly spraying soda to mostly throwing in salt. That's a lot of variables to change at once, and with a kiln as sensitive and stubborn as this one, it's a risk to change any of them! But I think if they have any impact on the firing cycle it should be positive -- tighter, fewer gaps, etc.

New door, fixed section at bottom

Rebuilt door

The less said about the bowing walls the better, I think. Mistakes were made. Obviously stupid mistakes, in retrospect, but I couldn't see them at the time. I guess that means I've learned something in the last five years. In any case, that mistake was a compromise required by a previous error, which I think is often where the big mistakes come from: the piling up of various small things into something serious. (If you know your bricks, a close look at the photos will explain the rest.) Anyways, some vigorous work with a rubber mallet and they straightened up admirably; problem not solved but reverted, ready for the next 40 firings.



Inside the studio, I made a quick run of small bowls, just to keep some blood flowing in my veins. I'm almost 100% out of clay, for the first time in years, and so past due to order more. But I'm thinking that running dry might provide extra motivation to get some pots glazed and into that crusty old pile of bricks. The best firing weather of the year is coming soon, and won't last long.

September 26th, 2010

"Readers are looking for any excuse to escape your awful prose." - Chuck Wendig

So, recently in the studio:









September 19th, 2010

"Here's the scene: you're in the backseat laying down
the windows wrap around to the sound of
the travel and the engine,

All you hear is time stands still in travel
you feel such peace in absolute stillness,
still that doesn't end but slowly drifts into sleep,

The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen
and they're there for you,
for you alone you are the everything." - R.E.M.

Driving to town one morning, I was thinking about my sense of where my pots are going, and its inherent limitations.

For example, it's very shortsighted. The pots I'm working on today day or this week are easily in focus, while the rest of the current making session ranges from fairly clear to a general outline. I usually have at least a vague plan for which pots are going in the next firing and what I want to achieve with them. But beyond that, it all fades into obscurity pretty quickly; which clays, which kiln, which forms and glazes and decoration.

Almost as quickly, I also forget where they've just come from. Practically overnight, the pots start to seem like they were made by someone else. And that's not just a consequence of the phase change, the gradual stiffening and drying from malleable wetness to rigid objectness. It's more that I can't recall those original intentions or the exact circumstances of the making. Details become impressions, then blur to nothing with distance. The pots exist in space, but my mind has moved on.

(For all the times I've complained about my poor memory, I should stress that I'm not hinting at early onset senility or some neurological condition here -- although it'll probably come to that eventually! No, I suspect my memory in within the average range for a 39-year-old, distracted, multi-job working, semi-sleep-deprived father of a toddler. Which is to say, awful.)

Another limitation to my sense of the flow in the studio is that, like everything else one can think about, it is always and completely biased by my perspective. Everyone has a point of view, and while you can broaden and refine it, you can never actually see outside it. Even imagining what things might look like outside it is, unavoidably, tinted by that personal lens. (While I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that a consensual reality exists, seperate from anyone's perspective of it, I acknowledge that there's no way to prove it.) At the end of the day, anything we see or think we see is just a reflection inside Plato's cave. So thinking about my studio activity is largely a process of projecting my interior onto the exterior; a tunnel vision, of sorts. Sometimes -- perhaps even most of the time -- that process hides what's really there. We tend to see what we expect or want to see, not what really is.

A good metaphor for all of that might go something like this:

It's like driving down a dark road at night, with a new moon or heavy clouds overhead and no other cars in view. The headlights illuminate what's immediately ahead quite well -- you can always see where you are and where you'll be in the next moment. But that clarity fades at the edge of their range, and just outside it is all emptiness. Some light spills off to each side of the road, giving an impression of your location in three-dimensional space. Things whizzing by in parallel to where you're headed, peripherally recognized then forgotten in a constant stream. Behind you, reflected in the rearview when you care to glance at it, is the colored glow of the tail lights, much dimmer than ahead. It's less important to see clearly in that direction, because you plan to continue going forwards. But there's some reassurance in the line of reflective road markers, a breadcrumbs trail suggesting that you could always turn around and find your way back to where you started, if you needed to.

You can change the speed of forward progress at will, but only within certain limits. Too fast or too slow are both counterproductive. Stopping completely would be dangerous; going in reverse practically suicidal.

Because you live in a civilized place, you automatically assume there's more road ahead, despite it remaining perpetually unseen until the last second. Experience says that bridges will be in safe condition, obstacles cleared from the roadway, intersections well-marked. Without that knowledge, you'd have to drive at a comparative snail's pace, or with floodlights ten times more powerful, to see obstacles coming before it was too late to avoid them.

You can't see any fellow travellers, but there are faint signs they've come this way ahead of you. Oil trails on the asphalt; trash by the side of the road. It seems safe to assume others are coming along behind, too. And obviously someone built this highway for good reasons, and at great expense, even if those reasons and costs aren't specifically known. (You know you could always Google it on your phone, but somehow never get around to it.)

You expect there will be twists and turns ahead, some hard hills to climb and long, easy descents. It's tempting to push the accelerator on the downhills, making up for lost time, but you know it's more efficient to coast. Sometimes you set the cruise and give up on that bit of control. At major interchanges, which head off in diametrically different directions, you pay a bit more attention, reassuring yourself that you're not drifting off course. (Some are quite tempting, the names on the overhead signs full of imagined potential. Others are places you've already been, or heard too much about to be interested in.)

At times you'll get tired, and wonder if it's wiser to take a break or press on to the end. It's a long trip, and so much easier with a companion or two. Together, you take the opportunity to dive deeply into conversation, and to linger over things that are more difficult to say when you can look each other in the eye. The flow of words is improved by a lack of distractions, and by the repetition of small patterns: the flickering view, "the sound of the engine", the vibration of the road. These help keep your guard down and your reservations at bay, which is probably the finest way to travel.

Oh, and the occasional cup of hot coffee is a godsend.

September 12th, 2010

"…at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly." - Teddy Roosevelt

So now that I've chased off the looky-loos with a few weeks of weirdness and a bunch of theoretical bluster -- suckers! -- we can resume the old formula, in which I tell you each thing I did in the studio this week, then analyze how I felt about it, and then close with a personal anecdote or some random reference to pop culture. "Is that something you might be interested in?"

Blog traffic: ready for a nosedive!

But first…


After giving it some more thought, I've realized that a significant problem with the Day in the Life approach to blogging, which I argued for the other week, is that it naturally falls into kind of a dull pattern: Here's what I did; here's how I felt about it; here's some photographic evidence. Repeat. (Looking back through the archives here, I must admit that TW@SE is often a great example of this. Sigh.)

The reason is that "real life", on a day-to-day basis, has that kind of rhythm. Or, at least, mine does. Making good pots in any quantity practically demands it; there's not a lot of time left for kayaking or day trips or playing in a garage band. Go to the studio; start some pots; finish some pots; repeat. And while that pattern can contain dozens of small, potentially interesting thoughts or events along the way, you really have to pay attention as they happen, then work at expressing them in interesting ways. I'd say that's a key difference between the pottery blogs I love and those I merely tolerate: the people who succeed at doing that on a regular basis versus those who don't.

For anyone who's interested in starting a studio blog, or improving the one they've got -- assuming you've had the horrible misfortune of arriving here for advice -- the errors I catalogued last week could be used as a checklist of "don'ts". Avoiding all those things would be a good place start, in my non-expert, unqualified opinion. And similarly to making pots, making a careful study of examples you admire, whatever they may be, is always a good idea.


Series 1 + 2: small & medium lobed bowls

Series 3: larger lobed bowls

Profile w/ finished foot

Stacking potential

I made three series of the same bowl form this week, scaling up by adding a pound of clay in increments (1.5#, 2.5#, 3.5#). They have a cool double-lobe near the rim, with a consistent wall thickness that follows that sinuous curve. I tried to make a foot that continues the profile line of the body and isn't defined from it horizontally, aiming for a repetition of that concave shape. That makes for some tricky trimming, undercutting the inside of the foot to compensate for the excess clay left on the outside. (I'm OK with them being a little more bottom-heavy than usual, but not a lot.) I nailed it on some of them, not as well on others.

I'm currently using up the last of some porcelain that I bought three years ago, Standard Ceramics #130. I should have bought just one box to test, but for reasons I can't recall I had 300# of it. Amazingly, it's all still quite soft, despite the fact that they don't seal the bags -- I was expecting to find solid 25# blocks. So kudos to Standard. In my decade of using premixed clay from Amaco, it's not uncommon to have clay that's too stiff to throw on the day it arrives, and I've never had a batch sit that long and still be workable.

I tested it when I was evaluating a variety of porcelains. It fires a little grey in reduction, so I'm guessing it's a domestic kaolin or has some ball clay in it. Their site says it also contains a fine grog. With reservations about making 300# of pots from a clay that I've only tested a little, I decided the other week to just go for it. I will probably live to regret this, and to tell the tale.

I had a specific bowl of Clary Illian's in mind as I made these, one that my mom bought when she visited Clary's studio the first summer I worked there, now 16 years ago (!). I've only seen that pot about once a year since, and then briefly. When we go to my parents house in California, I make a point of revisiting the pots in their collection. Most of them are mine, of course, including many older ones which are quite cringe-worthy. But there are several by Clary which are, predictably, excellent.

So Cindy has seen that bowl even fewer times, and with less attention, than I have. But Saturday morning, when she and Maggie came out to the studio, the first thing she said on seeing the table of wet pots was, "Oh, I love that bowl of Clary's!" Amazing. How's that for a potter's wife?

(While I know that Steigliz and Steichen were two different people, and can sometimes spot a Bill Viola or a Nam Jun Pike, she's far better versed in contemporary studio ceramics than I am in either of her areas -- photography and video art.)

More Phillips' brushes

I like my first brush from Brandon Phillips so much that I ordered two more. They arrived the other day and are very sweet. I haven't used them yet, but they look even better than the prototype. He's added copper rings at the end for hanging, and I really like the variation and selection of bamboo for the handles. I'll probably come to identify them not just by different tips, but by the handles, too.

As shown in last week's photos, I attacked a group of jars with the first brush. (My inclination was to procrastinate a while, then ramp up slowly by making dots or something on small teabowls, etc. But I'm tired of being so cautious.) The results were really promising, which is to say that the brush made the brusher look a lot better than he really is. It's my first brush that trails off to a long, thin tip -- practically a single hair at the point -- and it makes a very fine, dynamic beginning and end to each stroke. It also allows for some pinpoint marks, which will be great fodder for my tendency to get kind of OCD when decorating. The next best thing to a tool you made yourself is one made by another potter. Now I've really got to get serious about doing something good with them.

Brandon generously sent the smaller brush, with the yellow handle, as a bonus. Fifteen bucks each, and -- if you're lucky -- it's buy two get one free? Talk about a deal. (There are two left on his Etsy site as I write this.) (Hint, hint.)

This photo of Maggie in my studio rocking chair just kills me, so I'm breaking the #1 unspoken rule of blogging -- no photos of kids or pets! -- to share it. One of the unexpected joys of parenting is dressing her in the kind of clothes I no longer have the naive self-confidence to wear in public, and having her be completely happy with it. I realize at some point this is just asking to get her mocked or beat up at school, but when your middle name's Pixel and both your parents are artists, that's going to happen sooner or later. (Something tells me that when she's old enough to choose her own outfits, they'll lean towards the tye-die/pink panks/running shoes/mirror shades end of the spectrum anyways, no matter what we do between now and then.)

Just to complete the formula, I was planning to conclude this week with a riff about the World Series of Poker, including the shameful admission that I've actually watched it at length. I was going to go on about how much I appreciate the dexterity and casual expertise they show when sorting and stacking their chips; the thousands of hours they must have spent sitting there manipulating them like that; the way it must become hardwired into neurons and muscle memory, to the point that it's reflexive and automatic; and how my own hours making things by hand have made me such a sucker for virtually any display of manual skill, including this.

And then I thought…




September 5th, 2010

"I can swing my megaphone
and long-arm the rest
it's easier and better
to dispute it from the chest
of desire" - R.E.M.

Boy, it's hard to resist the temptation to paste in the entire lyrics of that song. If I could, I'd climb through your computer and play it for you. Instead, I'll just hope that you're intrigued enough by that snippet to go read the rest, and consider what it might add in the way of context. As with most of the lyrics and quotes I choose as epigraphs, there's more to that one than meets the eye.

So... last week's post was fun, right? If you'd also slogged through the previous one, perhaps you got my point, which was to do a of parody the kind of blogging that Don Pilcher was criticizing. Reader feedback on whether this worked or not was split: I either got it just right, or failed to display enough contrast between that post and a typical one to make the satire work. (Then again, that's from a total sample of three.)

Whether that concept was clear or not, the post suggests what this blog would be like if I composed off the top of my head without editing, or tried to write more frequently. Which is to say: awful. (Or perhaps I should say, "more awful").

Let's break down the formula for assembling that kind of dreck. It consisted of:

* Just kidding. -- the pots were real. I hope no one thought the words were sincere and the pots were satirical.

While I enjoyed doing everything the opposite (a.k.a. "a Costanza"), it was almost painful to type in all lowercase, blatantly screw up the punctuation, leave in the mistakes, and remove any big words or complex ideas that crept in along the way. It originally had about two more paragraphs, but I cut them to enhance the sense that I'd knocked it out on my cell phone while waiting in line for coffee. (Sadly, I suspect that's not an atypical example of how some of this stuff gets published.)

But for all that, truth be told it was kind of fun. Not as fun as all the cowboy nonsense, of course, but fun. The problem is, fun just isn't good enough. Not by a long shot. Don't get me wrong -- fun certainly has it's place. It would be vastly hypocritical for me to argue that everything has to be rigorously serious. But that kind of blogging is too easy, like selling blue pots at the county fair. As a friend of mine once said, if there's something you love doing, it should be "hard fun". The making should be somewhat difficult, if the outcome is to have any lasting value.

Of course, I don't actually succeed in crafting a thoughtful, well-written, significant post each time out of the gate. Not even close. Hell, I'm happy if it happens a couple times a year. But I try to make it great every week, just like I do with every lump of clay that hits the wheelhead. And I wish more potters, and potter-bloggers, would aspire to something similarly lofty. Even if the biggest potential target audience out there might prefer the parody to the real thing.

So just in case it's not already abundantly clear, I plan to continue blogging about blogging until I either run out of topics to discuss or my server goes to sleep for lack of traffic, whichever comes first. I realize that going Meta like this is: a) rather self-indulgent; and b) so "inside baseball" that we could scour the globe and be lucky to find enough interested players to field two teams. So be it. I gave notice at the blog's last anniversary that things might start getting a little weird around here. This is what I had in mind.

TW@SE is a not-for-profit enterprise. (Notwithstanding, perhaps, some tangential self-promotion and the odd sale of a pot or two.) It's a labor-of-love kind of thing, and I suspect that I gain more from doing it than anyone else does from reading it. I have little interest in gaining readers, clicks or eyeballs. Aside from falsely padding one's ego, those things are only valuable in terms of selling advertising and kickbacks from retailers. And I just don't think there's enough potential money in either to make it worth polluting my hard-won, sincere ideas with someone else's crap. So it's not really about achieving growth or attention or reputation.

In fact, it's gradually become the opposite. At an average of about 150 visits per week -- if the Googlebot is to be believed -- I'm feeling a bit overexposed as it is. Generally speaking, good and popular are mutually exclusive qualities. So I'm afraid some of you will just have to go.

(And if I have to turn this thing into a ranty, conceptual Mobius Strip that burns it's bridges while feasting on it's young in order to make that happen, I will. Please don't take it personally. It's not you, it's me...)

I've decided that if I try to make this blog for everybody, it won't be for anybody. I'd rather have 10 people love it than have 1000 people with it in their feed reader who never quite get around to actually reading it.

And for what it's worth, I'm working on applying that idea to my pots, too.

All this was inspired, in part, by John Gruber, whose Daring Fireball site covers Apple Corp. in a depth that makes me feel digitally illiterate. In an interview a few years ago, he said:

"I wanted to write a site for someone it's meant for. That reader I write for is a second version of me. I'm writing for him. He's interested in the exact same things I'm interested in; he reads the exact same websites I read. I want him to like this website so much that he reads it from the top to the bottom, and he reads everything. Every single word. The copyright statement, what software I use, he's read it all…

It's totally egotistical. I want Daring Fireball to be a site that you can't skim if you're in the target audience for it. You say, 'Oh, a new article from John. I need to read it', and your deadlines go whizzing by because you have to read what I wrote…"

I've become convinced that he's exactly right. This speaks to what Pilcher was saying about the value of making things personal: "life's interior matters -– the things we can't necessarily see from outside". If each blogger aimed for that kind of idiosyncratic focus, it'd be more than enough justification for hundreds or thousands of us each doing essentially the same thing.

So to you few, hardy souls who are my target audience -- and to those who aren't yet 100% sure that you aren't -- I'll see you back here next week. We'll paddle closer to the deep end and peek down the rabbit hole. To the rest of you: it's been fun!

Until then, some recent photos from the studio:


Dome lids off hump

Porcelain switch

Standard #130 teabowls

Small plates

Ocatagonal rim

some more new pots...


last week i made some lidded jars with dome lids... they turned out pretty good. i like the forms in the middle there the best. the first ones on the left are kind of dull and the ones on the right a little too plain. (i needed to leave room for deco). but the new brush i got from Brandon worked great! tried a few differnt things with it.


that was the last of the white stoneware, so i switched to porcelain. cleaning up the wheel and stuff - yay! my favorite thing ever! LOL. i made some teabowls/yunomis (not pictured) & small planters w/ cut feet. the ones on the left are ok. simple and round . the ones on the right are kind of altered into octagon shapes and have little pointy lugs. little plates for them are next. have a good day.

peace out
~ stearth

*EDIT* I forgot to metion that i have POTS FOR SALE on my etsy page!!! some really nice ones - check it out. And heres my facebook, and twitter. ANd my backup wordpress site, and some photos on flickr. Thanks for reading!

August 22nd, 2010

"Oh My God, Whatever, Etc." - Ryan Adams

{This week's post features a Western theme, because reading Pilcher brings fake personas to mind. And I felt like wearing a ten-gallon hat for a while. It's also really long. You've been warned.}

Dead wood

I've got more wild ideas galloping around my brain than I can corral into coherent sentences this week. Sadly, I'll just have to leave some of them out in the cold, and focus on those that will fit.

There was a lively discussion on Michael Kline's Sawdust & Dirt this week, prompted by an intriguing guest post by Don Pilcher, who argued that our band of potter-bloggers should strive for "more reflective and nuanced discussions" and "some deep, personal story telling".

My first reaction was, "Yee-haw! Sing it, cowboy!" I always vote for depth over shallowness, and "serious thought" over play-by-play commentary. This is just one of the many reasons I prefer private conversations to cocktail parties. This call for better content in the blogging format is both admirable and useful. I have no doubt about the virtue of that goal, or Pilcher's intent in calling attention to it. (It's similar, in a way, to reminders that we should try to make carefully-considered, well-crafted pots. It's good to be regularly challenged to do better.) I also share his concerns about the increasing speed of digital media and how it's changing our sensibilities. The 24-hour news cycle of the 90's devolved into a 24-minute cycle in the late 00's. Our collective attention span for these things now threatens to degrade to mere seconds. Info-tainment as addiction.

I also respect Pilcher's willingness to be critical, and to risk sparking controversy in the very format he's criticizing. That's hard work and takes guts. (The fact that he seems to enjoy playing the role of outlaw doesn't detract from his message.) And this is what we should want and expect of our Professors Emereti, isn't it? Three decades of teaching and critiques is more than enough qualification for the job of Sheriff in our virtual town.

But my secondary reaction was that there's a good case to be made for the slice-of-life approach to blogging, too. Or, if not for how it's commonly executed now, at least for its potential. Despite the built-in limitations of this style of self-publishing, it offers a unique, valuable alternative to the top-down, institutional, overly-filtered publications of all previous eras.

While I aim to record more than just fleeting, top-of-mind stuff here, I've become strongly attached to the ability to share bits and pieces of my autobiography as they happen. (Even knowing that it's often self-indulgent, chock-full of hubris, and perhaps only interesting to a handful of people). I like having an excuse to photograph my pots in progress, and the process of picking out the good ones. I entertain myself at the wheel thinking of how I'll write about some idea or activity, even if those musings never make it to the screen. I enjoy linking generously to other things, to add context and as a way of pointing out the stuff I think is good. And it's fun to dig up vaguely relevant quotes and lyrics, and to wonder if my readers share enough of the same pop cultural references to make those connections.

The regular habit of blogging, which I initially hoped might make me a better writer, has made me a better potter, too. It refines thoughts, forces reflection, and encourages meaningful interaction with other like-minded clay wranglers. I think those benefits would be reduced if I edited more and published less often.

The blogs I follow closely seem to come from a similar intent and motivation. I've become surpringly attached to the virtual friends who create them, and even more so to those I've corresponded with, after finding one another through this medium. And I've learned a fantastic amount from this intimate, unfiltered view into the lives and work of my peers.

Admittedly, this is a shallower, more transient form of expression than what Pilcher wants to see. It has to be, given the inverse relationship between quantity and quality. I think of my best posts as rough drafts of the Studio Potter articles I'll never get around to writing, and, collectively, as the book I'll probably never write. But conversely, I often wonder if that effort would be better spent actually writing them, say focusing on one or two longer essays each year, with the potential for deeper meaning and longevity. It very well might be.

I suppose I'm shooting for a middle ground, somewhere between the city (quantity) and the frontier (quality). I like the independance and fluidity of that space in between, but sometimes No Man's Land can be a lonely place. As I've said before, one of the reasons I tied myself to posting on a weekly schedule -- which breaks the convention of writing a little bit each time and more frequently -- was to give my ideas time to marinate, between the happening and the writing. And also to prevent the impulse to just knock them out at random intervals, like this new-fangled Tweets thing, or to go with long droughts in between.

As Pilcher noted, "…such writing is hard work and it takes time. But what a gift to our collective conversation." I completely agree. Creating good content is limited not just by willingness and skill, but by time and effort. But then again, all writing is hard work -- even the bad stuff. It's just hard in different ways, and with varying degrees of reward.

One reaction in the comments, by fellow potter/kiln-builder-blogger Shane Mickey, supported Pilcher's challenge by expressing boredom with the common strategy of daily studio reports and photos of wet pots:

"All the same ramblings, of what a day had consisted of, and not, these are the 8 pitchers I made today, the one on the right has a bit to much volume in the belly, the one on the far left is out of proportion and does not have a clean line…"

He has a point, but I'd argue that just as a board of mugs are not "all the same" mug, a group of potter's blogs are not "all the same" thoughts, and certainly not all from the same perspective. It's the plurality of views about similar things that is fascinating. Or the repetitive cycle from one particular person's view, gaining an understanding of their quirks and nuance over time. "This is my blog. There are many like it, but this one is mine."

I'm still a long way from being bored with such stuff, particulary if I both admire the pots and the person's way of writing about them. The democratizing, populist nature of the web gives so many more voices the potential to be heard. That has to be a good thing, even if most of them will inevitably fall into a predictable middle-ground. Read the ones you like, and pass them along. Ignore the ones you don't, but support their right to exist. The easiest button in the world to push is the one labelled Back. (The second easiest, in case you're wondering, is Delete.)

Let's retreat to yonder mesa and take in the wider view of this new landscape. It often goes unremarked that we've only have this medium -- the public, commercial World Wide Web -- for about 15 years. That's less than half a generation! Then consider that the technologies that make blogging accessible for the masses, as both producers and consumers, have existed for scarcely ten years, and been commonplace less than five: authoring software (like Blogger), digital cameras, high-speed network access, RSS, feed readers, access from mobile devices, etc.

From that perspective, I think it's far, far too soon to be jaded about blogging's shortcomings and lowest-common-denominator mistakes. This thing hasn't even reached the awkward teenage years yet!

A little closer to our collective watering hole, the Gold Rush of pottery blogs came relatively late, starting about five years ago. Sorry if you missed it; I know I almost did. (At least it's well-preserved in all those dated lists in all those right-hand columns.) (Or, in my case, at the bottom of each very long page.) Nowadays, we're living in a slightly more settled version of the Wild West, but almost anything still goes, and there's a lot of bad behavior as a consequence. If you don't like things as they stand now, just wait; the land grab is coming.

This new territory will become civilized, sooner or later. That's how it's always been -- there's just too much potential gain (read: ad revenue) for it to be otherwise. Stability breeds wealth. The institutions <insert magazine name here> and monied interests <you know who you are> are just now starting to build out the railroad, laying its tracks on the dirt trails broken by the pioneers; preparing to smooth out the quirks and wrinkles that add friction to commerce.

The bandits and cranks will get pushed out of town, where they can safely be ignored by ordinary folks, or coerced into the mainstream by hot baths and cold liquor; their lapsed RSS feeds still echoing across a lonely desert, while somewhere in the distance a coyote cries at a brand new moon.

I predict that many of us will look back on this fleeting time fondly, the same way we knowingly smile at the wobbly steps of a toddler or the precocious mutterings of a kid who's just hit puberty. There's a lot to like about shedding the limitations of immaturity for serious, adult concerns, but giving up on them completely can get pretty dull.

What's different about this landscape, of course, is that even at its farthest edge there's a direct connection back to the middle. In fact, there is no middle -- it's all just a bunch of damn links -- trails of information -- some with more traffic and billboards than others. (And some with a place to eat lunch, and a chintzy gift shop to boot.)

I read Pilcher's request as an argument from the perspective of scarcity, which assumes that one kind of writing is had at the expense of the other. In terms of the time and effort mentioned above, I suppose it is -- none of us can do both, given a fixed set of resources. But in the larger, collective sense, it isn't. The web is correctly viewed from the perspective of abundance. Its frontier is nearly infinite and growing bigger every hour. Like the universe itself, it's mostly empty space, waiting to be filled up.

As my riding partner Carter Gillies said, sitting around the fire, through a mouth of half-finished chow:

"The pottery blogging community has evolved to meet some real and vital needs of the potting community. The diversity of interests expressed is clearly matched by the diversity of the audience engaged… It is not a case of either/or."

Now I'm not sure what all that fancy lingo means, exactly, but I think he's on to something, as usual. There's ample room, and desire, for everything.

In the mean old days of print, every article that made it to press required that others be left out. That's a good definition of scarcity. The fact that words cost a lot of money to publish and distribute served the useful function of setting the bar at a respectable height. But tt also required that someone be given the power to decide which stuff should be allowed over the bar and which shouldn't. When they get that decision wrong, everyone loses.

On the web, anyone is allowed to throw anything over the bar they like, because it's laying almost flat on the ground. Like a useless, dead snake in the grass. We're collectively responsible for keeping out the riff-raff -- mainly through the power of ignoring them -- but we each get to take the reins in hand and steer our own private course. And the view never looks so good as when you're riding at the head of the wagon train.

For those who prefer to sit back in a stagecoach and leave the navigation to others, that's where good filters come in. The junk, fluff, spam and hacks will always be there in quantity, and may even be what some people actually want. But it can quite easily co-exist with the good stuff. The ever-expanding online world can be everything at once. We just have to fill in the parts that we see lacking.

Well pardners, my six-shooter's empty, and my throat's done gone dry. Thanks for indulging this digital cowboy on yet another ride to noplace. I'm heading towards the sunset. Next week, pictures of the pots I just made, with some shallow analysis of same.

August 15th, 2010

"Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are 'It might have been'." - Kurt Vonnegut

Unfortunately, I didn't get back to making pots this week. Other priorities keep jumping the queue, things which I'll leave unspecified because they're: a) boring and b) mostly off-topic. I would vastly prefer to be working in the studio, but it's been a Bizarro-world summer, with nearly everything the mirror image of my typical routine.

And as long as I'm making excuses, I'll say that it's also been ungodly hot and humid, even for August in Indiana, which makes for awful working conditions in the studio. (And even worse for mowing. By this time of year, I hate yard work so much that I fantasize about trading it all in for a condo.) I've always had reservations about air conditioning, from the cost of running it to eco-guilt about the fact that they're burning coal somewhere so I can cool off. Growing up in Southern California during the 70's and 80's -- and in a large, poorly insulated house -- A/C was a luxury. We used it rarely, if at all. I remember lying in bed at night, an ice cube under my tongue, sweating myself to sleep. Ah, youth.

When I relocated to the midwest for college, the winters were such a shock that I never considered heating generously to be optional. But it took a long time to make the same concession to summers here -- I've grudgingly settled into a love/hate relationship with running the A/C in the house. My first two studios were in the basement, where one of the few advantages was climate control courtesy of the house above. (Naturally, I failed to appreciate this fact at the time. I was too busy complaining about it being dark and the low floor joists overhead.) Those studios needed a space heater to cut the chill in the winter, but were about the nicest place to be in the summer.

When we moved here in 2004, and I finally got the above-ground, large, detached studio I'd been dreaming about, I had to contend with the elements in a new way. I mainly heat with a wood stove, and quickly discovered that if I don't keep it toasty in there the cold really sucks away my stamina. And that I have a hard time doing good work with chilly hands.

Theoretically the same goes for hot and humid -- at times when the clay is lubricated by equal parts sweat and water, it seems crazy to be out there working at all. So after five summers toiling away in the heat, I caved in last year and bought a small air conditioner for the studio. Now I have the means, but the old reservations linger; it still seems pretty extravagant for a pot shop. I don't have an automatic routine with it yet, as I do with the stove, so I spend a lot of compute cycles trying to decide when and how much to use it, if it's worth the added expense, if guilt about my carbon footprint can handle the extra load, etc. But boy, is it nice when it's on!

New brush

(Wait, wasn't I trying to avoid being boring and off-topic? OK, let's try again.)

Last month, Brandon Philips offered free handmade brushes to his readers, some extras from his practice making them. In a rare moment of timeliness, I happened to be catching up on my feed reading the day he posted the offer, so I got lucky and snagged one. (If I've stored up some karma this year, that's how I want to use it! But perhaps I already have with the A/C, and now I'm in the red again? Crap.)

Anyways, it looks like a good brush, with a long, skinny tip that should make for nice entry and exit points on each stroke. The handle is good, too; an attractive bamboo and a comfortable length and texture. I played around with it a bit, just making marks with water, and am excited to try it out in slip and underglaze on some fresh pots. I've been wanting to get back to doing actual brushwork for a while now -- I use brushes for geometric patterns, like "domino", but that's mostly just filling in outlines. Now I have a great excuse to do so.

(More recently Brandon said, "I'll be making some more soon which I'll be selling cheap on Etsy, so keep an eye out if you're interested." If you make pots, I say you should be interested.)

In and around some other studio cleanup and organization tasks, I finally cleared off enough space on the bisk shelf to unload the electric kiln -- that's the first time the pots have sat for a month after a firing. Talk about stasis… I'd even forgotten what was hidden away on the bottom shelves! Waiting that long to unload a bisque is just symbolic of how this whole summer is going. I never thought I'd be so ready for Fall.


I'm finally making a bit of progress on plans for the new kiln shed. With some luck, building could still commence this year. A lot has changed since my Dad and I sunk concrete pilings for it four years ago (!) -- plans, assumptions, circumstances.

I started rebuiling a barn, then lost it (quella sfortuna!); went back to a job; had a baby; and so on and so forth. Each of those has refined my ideas of what I want for the new shed and kiln, but with a lot of confusion and hesitation along the way. I know that it pays to be deliberate and plan ahead, but sooner or later I just have to make some hard choices and commit to them. (I'm going to second-guess myself later no matter what. It's an addictive hobby.) Perfect isn't possible, so let's rock.

Auger(y): 2006

Better late(r) than never: 2010

August 8th, 2010

"Your old hometown's so far away,
but inside your head there's a record that's playing" - Tom Waits


Learning the waves

We went to visit my family in San Diego for a week, which was a nice break from Indiana's sweltering cauldron this time of year. Along with lots of good Mexican food and time hanging out, we fit in three trips to the beach, each one with spectacular weather. Maggie loved everything about it, and went running directly into the surf as only a kid from a landlocked state would do. (There's still plenty of time for her to learn about saltwater up your nose and riptides, timing the waves and swimming in the ocean. I remember a few tricks.) The contrast between last year's trip and this one was huge: holding a baby out of the sand versus watching a toddler play in it ecstaticly. It was really fun to be with her at my old stomping grounds.

By the third day, she realized there were also interesting things to do that didn't involve running at top speed in random directions, and we ended up making sand castles together. She must have been watching as I schooled her older cousin in the finer points of making drip castles, because -- without coaching -- all of a sudden she was just doing it, and with great technique and concentration. All of which bodes quite well for her surpassing her Dad as a potter one day, should she choose such a crazy endeavor as her own.

As I wrote during the first summer of this blog, there are interesting similarities between making drip sand castles and throwing pots, some of them reflected in the photos below.



Good concentration

Outside pulling hand?

July 25th, 2010

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." - Samuel Johnson

I had just a few hours in the studio this week, trimming and finishing up some faceted bowls and teabowls that I'd started last weekend. The faceting got better as I went; crisper lines and closer to the wall thickness I want left after making the cuts. It's easy to make them too thin or thick, either through an irregular cutting motion or throwing an uneven wall to begin with. Some variation is fine, even preferable, but too much makes the pot feel overly delicate or clunky, and can lead to technical problems like cracking. Faceting puts a lot of strain on the clay -- sometimes it's amazing that it works at all! But the results are well worth it. I really like the combination of soft thrown edges and hard cut ones.

Trimming teabowls on a chuck

Faceted teabowl

Small faceted bowls

My technique certainly warmed up with repetition. At first it was cautious, choppy, and took all my concentration with each pass of the tool to avoid mistakes (facets that don't meet up, holes in the wall, sloppy lines). But after a dozen or so, it was more smooth and relaxed, and the results much better. It's as if that skill gets loaded as a background memory process, leaving my conscious mind free to wander into that No Man's Land, that realm of semi-focused inattention that's almost required to do good work.

I gradually remembered -- or perhaps I should say that some combination of my head and hands did -- that it takes confident, fluid strokes to do this well. Any fussing or hesitation shows up in the clay poorly. As with most aspects of making pots, the clay makes a high-fidelity recording of the exact actions taken in the process, for better and for worse. Even if the desire is a wobbly, organic effect instead of hard-edged precision, I've found that it doesn't work to peck away at it or try to do damage control along the way. You have to dive in and risk the whole pot with each cut to make it any good. (Like brushstrokes.)

I'm looking forward to getting back to them, perhaps faceting everything for a while. Trying some more of the knives and wires in my tool collection for different effects, and then scaling up to larger pots.

I spent the rest of the week at the office, launching our biggest project of the year. It's something I've worked on for months, and the kind of thing that has to work just right at Go time. Little room for error, without rewinding and trying again later, which causes a whole other set of problems. It's exacting, complex, technical stuff -- chews up a lot of brainpower. But it went well, and is nice to have done. In terms of my job/studio time balance, I should be getting back to a more regular schedule in the weeks ahead.

Speaking of scheduling, I'm taking my summer blog break next week, so no new post until the week after. I'm sure you can find something... else... to... read.

July 18th, 2010

"In my stupid hat and gloves at night I lie awake, wonderin' if I'll sleep." - The Replacements

New pots!

Faceting with Peeler's wire tool

I need to be quick this week, so I'll say it mainly with photos. At long last, I managed to get some pots made. A welcome return to the rhythms of the studio. I resisted the temptation to switch forms, instead allowing myself to go long on teabowls. That's the kind of deliberate inefficiency that's easier to justify when the showroom and the bisque shelf are relatively full. Probably a better approach, regardless.

I did a couple boardfulls of faceted ones, too. It's a technique I've always wanted to be better at, and that takes a lot of warmup time for me to do well. I also experimented with using two different tools: a wire cutter that Marj Peeler gave me from her late husband Richard's toolkit (replacing my old favorite, which broke recently), and a machete that my grandfather brought back from his stations in South America in the 1950's. The machete is unweildy, but makes a distinctly different cut than a wire, and resonates with that personal connection. Looking forward to practicing with it some more. It doesn't get much better than making good use of inherited tools.

Faceting with Grandpa's machete

Faceted teabowls

My latest mug trade is complete. I got this nice photo back from Carter Gillies, of my teadust mug in front of his collection. It's cool to send a pot off in the mail and get visual confirmation that it arrived safely at a good home. Makes it all a little less virtual.

Old home

New home

Lastly this week, Support Your Local Potter linked to this fantastic video profile of Warren MacKenzie. It's by Twin Cities Public Television, and on par with the high production values of the Craft in America series. (Come to think of it, I would have been just as happy if that series had consisted of a dozen unedited hours of MacKenzie making pots.)

Warren MacKenzie video

It's very thoughtfully put together, too. I particularly like the editing, with alternating scenes of him working and being interviewed. As always, he has lots of interesting things to say. Among the potters whose work I admire, there are very few who wouldn't consider MacKenzie a major influence or inspiration.

As of this writing, this clip has only been viewed 250 times, which means there are thousands of potters out there who really owe it to themselves to check it out, particularly anyone who isn't already familiar with MacKenzie's work and legacy. If you have fast bandwidth and a good monitor, be sure to choose the HD option and run it fullscreen -- the details are wonderful.

July 11th, 2010

"Spine waits to feel the shiver…" - Giant Sand

I finally got my hands back in the clay this week. Just a start, but starting is the hardest part. Ye gods, do I ever dread that first day back at the wheel. I shouldn't, but I do. After a long layoff like that -- essentially the whole month of June -- restarting is a dreary slog through layers of accumulated rust and confusion. And also a stark reminder of how quickly my mental and physical edge gets dull.

First pots

Vases in bisque

What's worse is that, at least in theory, it should be a happy return to the thing I do best; a reconnection with tools and process and expertise. But in practice those things come later, on day two or three, after I've built up the hum of momentum again. To get there, I just have to grind out some mediocre pots, which is like going back in time to relive the early years of frustration and disappointment all over again, but with higher expectations.

I tried to pretend that all of this wasn't the case for years, but that never worked. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt. I'd get excited about starting up again, then depressed by how awkward it felt, my lack of stamina, and the immediate results. Re-entry is difficult and that's that. And on second thought, I suppose it should be -- it confirms the intricate combination of hand skills, thinking and intent that are required to make good pots on the wheel. (If I could easily pick it back up after a month off, like riding a bike, then it would have to be a much simpler endeavor, right?)

Anyways, now that I've accepted all of the above and know it's going to be rough, that first morning back I find ways to procrastinate before getting down to business. Wedging the clay a little longer. More stretching (which is to say, as much as I should do normally). Paging through an old issue of CM, wiping down the wheel, straightening my tools. Funny how all those cleaning tasks suddenly look a lot more appealing by comparison. But they're also an entry point, a way to ease back into that frame of mind.

I've also learned that I'm better off doing only one short run of pots on the first day, then giving it a rest overnight, to let things surface from my subconscious and muscle memory. Then I'll gradually ramp up over the next few days. None of that fulfills the desire to hammer the pedal down (or perhaps I should say, "crank the treadle bar really fast"?), or to quickly fill the shelves with wet new pots. But in the slightly bigger picture, it's more effective. So this time around I made 10 teabowls. Some of them were even good enough to keep, at least as glaze testers.

Also in the studio this week, I fired a bisque, after discovering that I had more pots from my making session in May than I'd thought -- just enough to fill the electric kiln. There may actually be a salt firing in the works before too long.

Mega-shelf: in progress

(Mostly) complete

I also finished assembling the mega-shelf, now firmly bolted to the also newly-finished west wall of the shop. Just a few details left to finish, like enclosing the damp box spaces in plastic sheeting. I'm quite pleased with it, especially the way it maximizes the horizontal space. It's taller, much sturdier, and better suited to holding various heights of the pots and buckets (and junk that will inevitably find it's way there, sooner or later). But of course, all that's in the details, and perhaps only in the eye of the maker. Cindy walked in and said, "So remind me what's different about it again?" Ah well.

July 4th, 2010

"Could it be that one small voice, doesn't count in the world?" - R.E.M.

Carter Gillies mug

Nicely out of round

I acquired a sweet new mug last week, in a trade with Carter Gillies, from Athens, GA. He and I connected last year via this here blog, and have had several good "virtual" conversations through email and various comment threads. Even after spending a significant portion of my life in cyberspace over the last decade, I'm still surprised at how it let me to get to know people that I may never actually meet in person. We need a new word for this kind of relationship. iFriend? TextPal? I wonder what the kids call it these days? (And speaking of the kids, it's astounding to me that my daughter's generation will find none of this remarkable in the slightest; it'll just be the way things have always been, if they're not already obsolete by the time she's old enough to notice.)

I'm intrigued by the differences between online relationships and traditional ones, and also by how these new communication options have gradually changed how I interact with people I've known since long before the internet age. I particularly like the digital formats that revive the pecularities of letter writing, that now-archaic and practically extinct activity. (That is, email and discussion boards, rather than IM, Facebook or texting). These work well for medium- to long-form communication, and retain the alternating tempo of sending and receiving with some gap in between, but without the stamps, trips to the mailbox, and inflexible lag time.

I think online-only relationships are different, at least in part, because they're based primarily on text, instead of voice or interacting in person. Like reading a book, this requires more visualization and imagination by the reader, but this can make for a deeper engagement with the ideas at hand. (Obviously, that's dependant on the compositional skill and effort of the writer, too.) Also like reading a book -- or a blog -- when these things work well, they provide a glimpse of how another person's mind works, in addition to the ideas being related overtly. And that's a potentially profound interpersonal connection.

Then again, I'm probably just expressing my personal bias. I've always found it hard to have a meaningful conversation on the phone: the lack of context and visual cues, all those awkward pauses! And I seem to have oriented my life in such a way that actually sitting down to talk with another person, in what must now be referred to as "real-time", is increasingly rare. So perhaps online friendships are my backfilling strategy, compensating for what life via computers has gradually taken away?

I knew I could find the bleakness in that idea if I poked at it long enough.

Anyways, that's how I've come to know Carter, as with many other people. It's intriguing to find simliarities in another potter's views and approach, despite being from different parts of the country and having few actual experiences in common. (In this case, the closest thing is that he had Ron Meyers as a professor and I took a week-long workshop from him several years ago.) But on the other hand, I suppose we're largely products of the same system: late 20th century, university-trained American studio potters. So while it'd be nice to think that there are certain things about making pots that thoughtful people gravitate to naturally, as if they were universal qualities, it's more likely that modern Ceramics is such an influential mono-culture that we just digested it's lessons equally well.

I knew I could find the bleakness in that idea if I poked at it long enough.

Anyways, I really like his mug. It's impressively thrown, with fluid gesture lines -- thin without feeling too fragile or precious. It's nicely out of round, flattened on the side of the handle attachment, which captures a sense of the wet clay. In fact, the whole pot feels that way, like it came off the wheel and was frozen in place. That's hard to do well -- believe me, I've tried! -- and requires making a lot of attempts that don't hit the target.

I hadn't 'read' the alterations to the form correctly in the photos he'd sent me, so it was a pleasant surprise to unwrap the mug and discover those qualities. It's nearly impossible to overstate the difference between seeing a picture of a pot and holding it in your hands, even to an experienced eye. As good as the web is at exchanging text, evaluating 3D objects from 2D images is still a limited, flawed process.

The exterior glaze reminds me of my Teadust, with the way it breaks over the rib marks and forms crystals at the thick end of the drips and in each horizontal groove. Seeing those kinds of similarities in another potter's glazes is cool; kind of like meeting a cousin you never knew you had. In a blind test, I'd have bet his was a cone 10 reduction glaze, but it's actually mid-range oxidation. My sense is that's not easy to do such things in an eletric kiln, so I can imagine the time and experimentation behind these results. Quite impressive.

I also like the contrast between the exterior and liner glazes, a very nice amber merging into a buttery, opaque cream inside. The drips where they overlap inside the rim are excellent -- the kind of thing I associate more with salt or wood firing. They make a nice visual element right against the liquid surface of a full cup, gradually revealed as you drink.

It's got an interesting, abstract maker's stamp. I'm always intrigued by other potters' marks, especially those that aren't obviously the person's name or initials (like mine is). And another unexpected touch is that the bottom is glazed, with three small bare spots for wads or a trivet, over an unusual combed pattern -- perhaps some method of wire cutting I haven't seen before.

I suppose that's a lot of analysis of one mug, but it hints at what can be found in a handmade pot, if you know what to look for and stare at it hard enough. I could probably do another 1000 words about this one without breaking a sweat, given the time. It's a fine addition to our collection, and a gratifyingly physical artifact of a virtual friendship.

June 27th, 2010

"Because maybe it does take a certain amount of guts to see the emptiness,
but it takes a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness." - Richard Yates

After the storm (no filters)

Another week gone by without making pots, but I'm going to stop complaining about it. Honest.

Instead, it was more house maintenance; more lawnmower repairs; more time at the office; more preparation for rebuilding the big greenware shelf; more attempts at cutting myself some slack. It's been a tiring, stressful month, and I'm glad it's nearly over. Hoping for a change in direction in July.

During one of the thunderstorms that have been racing across the midwest almost every day lately, we went to the basement to wait out the first tornado warning of the season. I realized that it was the first time Maggie's been down there since she's been old enough to remember it. (That's assuming she doesn't have memories from when she was six months old. Or is that just my adult bias? Maybe she remembers that time now, but it will fade in the years to come?).

Anyways, if that assumption is right, then this was a part of the house that she essentially didn't know existed previously, just a mystery door that Mama or Dada would occasionally go through carrying a basket of laundry.

That idea reminded me of another archetypal dream: the one where you find and explore a hidden room in the house. I have variations on this one a few times a year, often relating to places I haven't lived in a decade or two. I'd always figured that this dream was based on either: a) flaws in the spatial relationships modelling engine in our brains (to put it computationally); or b) a latent desire to re-enter the womb (to put it psychologically) (and, I suspect, in an outmoded Freudian fashion).

But taking our toddler into a part of the house that was genuinely new to her suggested another source: maybe that dream comes from childhood -- a time when you could actually discover such places for the first time, whole rooms you didn't know were there. And the basement or attic are good candidates for this, places where even adults don't go unless strictly necessary. I remember my cousins' house, when we were young, had a great one: a small hatch at the back of an upstairs closet, leading to a dead-end attic space over the garage. We used to dare each other to venture in there, with bonus points for closing the hatch while you were inside. (Now, as a parent, that makes me retroactively nervous for my own childhood safety. Also pre-emptively worried about the sorts of things Maggie will be trying soon enough.)

I can imagine the weirdness and dread in that dream being an echo of those real places that were discovered as a kid. They were unknown and scary, but colored with the excitement of discovery and adventure. As you get older, they're more known and less scary -- just dark spaces to store junk and hide the plumbing. But as a homeowner, and particularly one who's been burned by such things before, a they prompt a new kind of fear: the knowledge that things could be happening back there, out of sight and out of mind, that will end up costing you lots of time and money to fix.

Maybe that experience seeds yet another kind of dream, in old age, after those responsibilities are past. One of being on the hook for things which are unknown, of worrying about what will go wrong next, of wondering where those soaces lead to and how it all turns out.

June 20th, 2010

"If it is true that the human mind leans at one extreme toward the bounded, material, and useful, at the other it naturally rises toward the infinite, immaterial, and beautiful."
- Alexis de Tocqueville

I've been stuck in "the bounded, material, and useful" lately: catching up on overdue maintenance around the house and yard, working some extra days at the office, and other things besides pots. Hell, yet another week gone by without any time in the studio. I'm going to be starting from stone-cold zero again. Pretty depressing. I'm anxious to get back in there, my hands in the clay, rebuilding the mega-shelf, and starting to think about the next firing cycle.

As I said last week, TW@SE is now three years old. It's hard to wrap my mind around all that's happened since then. As the actual memories fade, I'm grateful to have chronicled most of it here; it's an archive that will become more meaningful and useful (at least to me) as it ages. I hope to continue it and to keep refining and improving, pushing it out from the inside, seeking it's potential form. If I can look back at the last three years of it someday, and think that the pots are crude, the photos lackluster, and the writing self-indulgent, that'll be success.

But looking ahead to year #4, it also occurs to me that I need to keep my perfectionism in check here. If it's to be a perpetual project, I have to avoid the impulse to lavish it with more time and attention than I can justify (relative to everything else that I need and want to do). Sustainability requires a blend of efficiency and discipline that I haven't found quite yet. In my attempt to avoid the common pitfalls of blogging -- irregular updates, sloppy thinking, first drafts as final drafts -- I often over-reach, then try to brute force my way to quality results. It's wonderful to aspire to an ideal -- "the infinite, immaterial, and beautiful" -- but also potentially self-defeating.

My previous blog lasted about three years before I grew tired of bothering with it. I abandoned it mainly because it lacked focus and structure; it was a little bit about everything, written in sporadic bursts between by long silences.

For all those flaws, the Negentropic Blog was a good prologue for TW@SE. In retrospect, it was an experiment with the format, and useful in that it taught me what I didn't want to do. I started this one, about a year after letting that one lapse, with far more clarity and purpose in mind. And while it has certainly had it's low spots, too, I think it's been a big improvement. I'm proud of it as a whole, and especially of those weeks where I manage to thread together something good despite limited time and energy to do it.

I'm wary of the potential for burnout, both for myself and my readers. Just as with pots, dullness often follows repetition. It requires care and creative energy to avoid that trend. So I'm thinking about dialing it down a little, compromising on quantity in hopes of maintaining quality. (Such as it is!). I need to redirect some time and effort to a long list of other pending projects. I have a few ideas about how I could play around with the parameters while keeping the same format. Like throwing a board of mugs, each one a little different up close, but all of a kind from a distance. Nothing radical, but I'm going to let myself try some new things here and there. We'll see what comes of it.

Here, hastily photographed, are those pots I bought in an online auction several weeks ago. I'm quite pleased with all of them in person, including the three of my own that I had reservations about bringing back home.

Greg Schatz vases

"A sort of homecoming"

Unzicker, Peeler, Skid

I really like the two vases by Greg Schatz -- those were the steals of the group. Cindy wanted the lidded jar with the black band and glazed knob when it was in the showroom the first time, and this vase of mine isn't great, but certainly worth the $10 I paid. (I'll probably put it back out for sale closer to the original price.) It's nice to finally have a Richard Peeler pot in the kitchen, and another Jeff Unzicker bowl to add to our collection. And lastly, a woodfired jar I made at Edwardsville in '98-'99. It's got punched holes with little porcelain patches over them; my neo-Voulkos phase. Excellent ash effects, chunky, casually made. I like it more now because Philip liked it, and and I'm happy it's come full circle. I'll keep it as a memento.

June 13th, 2010

"…which had become the kingdom of broken plans and improvisations." - Neal Stephenson

No time for Ting Ting

This week was uniformly awful, a textbook example of "in the suck". I'll skip the details, because I just don't want to dwell on them any more, and there are few things more boring than listening to someone else's list of complaints. Let's just say that a lot of things went unexpectedly wrong at once, made worse because they cancelled my plans to take some time off around my birthday. (#39, for the record.) Instead it was crazy, hectic and exhausting. And, more to the point, it killed my momentum with rearranging the studio and making pots. Now I'm kind of lost in space and will need some time to regroup. Anyways…

So my birthday corresponds with the anniversary of this blog -- I started it three years ago right around this time. I was planning to reminisce about what's happened in that time and the history of this endeavor, but given all of the above, I'll just link to some previous recaps and leave it at that for now.

I mentioned the anniversary briefly last year, and wrote about it from a meta-blogging perspective in 2008. Here's my first post from June, 2007. It still reads pretty well, I think, three years later (and despite the numerous things it failed to anticipate). If you've been following along since then, thanks for reading, as always. If not, consider browsing through the archives (see the links at the bottom of any page). If it's not too immodest of me to say so, there's some pretty good stuff in there!

The image above is of a small cup I bought recently from House of Ting Ting (a.k.a. potter Sequoia Miller). I've been following his blog since reading an excellent article he wrote for the "Change" issue of Studio Potter. It was about becoming a parent and how that affected his studio work, which really resonated with me, particularly because our kids are about the same age.

The cup says, "Idon'thavetimeforthis", inlaid in black slip on porcelain. It's a sentiment I couldn't resist, both from the idea of me making time to sit down with a delicate cup of coffee in the midst of a typical day's chaos, and of the potter expressing the fact that he's doing something with his work that is either inefficient or unjustifiable.

It was only after the pot arrived in the mail that I flashed onto the irony of that statement being inscribed using a labor-intensive, precise technique. It seems like adding text to a pot rushes the whole concept to the deep end of the Post-modern pool. A further irony is that I will probably savor that idea only in my peripheral vision, as I rush past the cup, sitting on the window sill in the kitchen; too busy to stop and think about it.

June 6th, 2010

"All of my daydreams are disasters." - Jeff Tweedy

When I was a three or four, a couple years older than Maggie is now, I was sitting on the edge of the pool at a friend's house. This was southern California in the mid-1970's. A backyard party with people gathered around the grill; I imagine lots of plaid and the scent of macrame' in the air. Anyways, an older kid came by and pushed me in, thinking I knew how to swim. I didn't.

Fortunately for me, a friend of my mom's saw this and dove in to haul me out, with no real harm done. For lack of an actual memory of it, this scene has always played out in my imagination as a heroic rescue, like in one of those cheap action movies we used to see at the Saturday afternoon matinee. Whether it that was that dramatic in fact or something more mundane, one way or the other I spent a few moments submerged at the deep end, helpless to save myself. I have no conscious memory of that part either, so I can only wonder about what I was thinking during that time. But it's a safe bet that the experience left a mark, lodged somewhere in the primal parts of my young brain.

The other night, I had a dream that I was walking alone across a snow-covered field. Suddenly, the ground gave way and I was falling, crashing softly through layer after layer of snow, then coming to a stop and seeing it fill in around me, feeling the weight of it packed against my body. No idea which way was up, little room to breathe, no escape. And in the dream I had this very clear thought, almost as if I'd said it out loud: "So this is it. Now I'm going to die."


Water bugs on the surface, trout below. All the effort to keep things running right is not what's keeping things running right. A direct hit close-by is also a near miss. Control is an illusion. Random chance and infinity.

Old fears buried deep, bubbling up to the surface as reminders.

May 30th, 2010

"All I ever wanted was a place in the country." - Adam Ant

I had three studio days this week, and split them 50/50 between making vases and finishing up that insulation project. (Or, more accurately, 40/40/20, with the last part spent in the house hiding from the heat; enjoying the AC, a cold drink and a thick Neal Stephenson novel.)

Vases for salt

A big white wall

While working on the wall, I gave in to my perfectionist tendencies and spent some time patching old nail holes, sealing the seams around each panel, and applying a second coat of paint. Kind of crazy, given that almost all of it will be concealed behind the mega-shelf once it's reassembled. (I use the word "perfectionist" in the negative sense; i.e. excessive and potentially self-defeating. I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and a lot of the stuff under the heading "Negative aspects" sounds disturbingly familiar.)

But to give it a positive spin, that extra care was also prompted by how sketchy some of the sections are that I'd done previously. In retrospect, I was clearly in a hurry to get the task done and not thinking long-term. There's a decent chance I'll be looking at these walls for the next 40 years! Ha! I should be so lucky.

I suppose this is a personal example of a larger debate in our society: "Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well" vs. "Get 'er Done and Move On". (That's right, I just used the word "society", which means there's probably a rant brewing -- you've been warned.) Sadly, I fear we've virtually given up on the former and settled for the latter. The average American, myself included, makes choices based on price, quantity and convenience, and has become accustomed to things which lack quality and durability. Expensive objects that break or become obsolete in just a few years are the new norm, and are coveted mightily, despite these shortcomings. What was formerly seen as virtuous -- for example, craftsmanship and skilled hand labor -- is now considered unaffordable luxury. And what was formerly luxury, like, say, air conditioning and iced soda, is now seen as necessity.

So while I believe that it's worth maintaining high standards on principle, and that quality matters, I realize that these things often come at the expense of efficiency and profitability. In the end, they're the exception, and may have to be done for their own sake, if at all.

I also rearranged some furniture while things were in flux. Having the big shelf temporarily out of the way made it a good time to relocate the storage unit behind my main work table to the back of the studio. (Here's a photo of it in it's previous spot.) It's a 6' by 5' cabinet of small, open rectangular spaces that I bought for about $10 at the local university auction years ago. Quality and value -- imagine that! My guess is it was a custom-built set of mailboxes, or used for something simliar.

It's great for storing all the little things that I need easy access to in the studio: tools, writing and drawing stuff, stamps, stacks of notes, mailing labels, test tiles, pyrometric cones, and various pieces of ceramic, plastic, wood and metal. But while it's very useful to have some of that stuff at arm's length, it's also an easy landing spot for a lot of miscellaneous junk! Excess clutter in a primary workspace just adds friction to the process -- I hate having to prowl through stuff that hasn't been used in years to locate a particular item in the moment.

Also, because the shelf was behind my work table, about a third of the cubbies were underneath and behind the tabletop -- a pretty dumb use of space. So I decided that I'd rather hang some new shelves on the wall behind the table for the important, frequently used stuff, and store everything else back in the Dead Zone (a.k.a. the entire back half of the studio). That area is also due for a major reorganization and clean out -- and has been for years now -- but I'm hoping to move some of it to storage space in the new kiln shed.

Anyways, with the wall done and that shelf moved, that whole side of the studio is refreshingly bright and empty, clean and white. As I stood there admiring my handiwork, I thought, "I wish I could just leave it this way". Which reminded me, or was perhaps inspired by, an image from the PBS series Craft in America. It was of Sarah Jaeger's studio which, in my memory at least, was all in shades of white and almost completely unadorned otherwise. Just whitespace, shelves and pots. A nice ideal to shoot for, even if just imaginatively.

In contrast, most of my personal spaces have had the flavor of a dorm room since… well, since my personal space was a dorm room. Fueled by inconoclastic teenage angst, I decorated those sparsely utilitarian, institutional spaces in every way I could think of: hanging stuff from walls and ceilings, piling every horizontal surface with books and CD's (remember those?), and adding shelves for a wide variety of detritus; odds and ends without much purpose or meaning beyond filling the void with something I could chose. Those assigned cells were practically art installations by the time I got done with them (and were met, appropriately enough, with varying degrees of participation and appreciation from my roommates).

Without giving it much thought along the way, I repeated that pattern through many rented apartments and rooms, and then to both houses we've owned. As my living and working spaces diverged, it spawned to cubicles, my home office, several office spaces at the U. and -- predictably -- into my studios, too. (The fact that the first two were in basements, where I once again found myself confined in a tight space surrounded by painted cinderblock walls, prompted a virtually Pavlovian reaction: fill it up with stuff! Home is where the clutter is.

Then five years ago, when we moved out here to the sticks, my studio suddenly became the opposite of all those things: big, open, well-lit and blessedly above-ground. Still with plenty of flaws that could be improved by a clever layer of camoflage, for sure, but with fewer inherent qualities beyond my control. I suppose, too, that after a decade of owning my personal space -- or at least borrowing it one year at a time from the bank -- the need to cover over the blandness has faded. Now that I can make it whatever I want it to be, I've realized that want I want is less visual clutter, less stuff everywhere, less material reflection of my personality in things that are not pots. More room to work, more blank canvas, more air for new ideas to breathe. More whitespace.

May 23rd, 2010

"I'm on the chopping block, choppin' up my stopping thoughts." - Echo & The Bunnymen

Stamped mugs

Domino Zeiner mugs

I made more mugs this week, about two dozen of them. Not quite back in the throwing groove yet, but I can see it from here. The mugs are pretty good so far; a bit heavy at their bases, and needing some fine-tuning to get a nice size and shape to the handles. While I'm still rusty, it takes more conscious effort than usual. But so far so good.

I was thinking that it's pretty cool just to be making mugs at the start of a cycle. They were one of the more challenging forms for me, say, a decade ago -- now they're what I warm up with. I live for these tangible signs of progress! Back in the day, my warmup routine was: teabowls, little bowls, medium bowls and then maybe I'd progress to something vertical that didn't get the excess weight trimmed off, and to the challenge of pulled handles. (Here's a handle pulling photo series from two years ago.)

Three stages

I made some progress insulating the last leaky wall of the studio, just in time for the first wave of summer heat. Still a couple tricky pieces of panelling to cut and hang, and two more sections to do in the corner near the wood stove. I thought about trimming out the windows while I'm at it, but that's a more elaborate project than I have time for right now -- they'll just have to remain unfinished, workshop-grade until the next go 'round. I'll probably repaint the plywood panelling white, to clean up the existing dingy greyish-white and make one part of the studio a little less visually cluttered. (Ironically, I really like the pattern of the bare studs, with those sharply repeating vertical lines over a field of pixelated noise. I guess it also reminds me of the framing in the old barn, too. Sigh.) Sometimes the projects that linger the longest are the most satisfying to complete.

After the walls are done, I need to reassemble the big greenware shelf that runs along that wall. I took it apart to move it, and in the process discovered that it's not held together all that well -- kind of a sketchy design. I built it in 1999, out of two-by-fours and salvaged cubicle walls, which means it's been around long enough for my working process and shelving needs to change a lot. I've been thinking about redesigning it to add space for ware boards to slide in on rails, rather than all flat shelving, and to add a damp box in one section, for slow drying or to hold pots in progress in stasis. (It used to have one, but I tore it out for the move here in 2005 because it didn't work very well.)

It just occurred to me that this shelf might be my oldest piece of studio equipment -- this is it's third home! I originally built it in sections, in the garage of our first rental house in Greencastle, and lugged it down to the basement studio for assembly. When we moved the next year, my studio got much smaller (but also nicer). The mega-shelf took up such a big chunk of the space that I essentially arranged everything else around it. When we moved here to Fillmore, five years later, my studio got bigger again, so I pretty much just dropped it in the first reasonable spot and immediately filled it up with stuff. For more than a decade, virtually every pot I've made has spent some time on that shelf. From that perspective, the time is flying past like a bullet.

Late last week, I got an email announcing an online auction of the "Sartore Collection of Contemporary Pottery". As I mentioned last summer, Philip Sartore was a local collector who was wildly passionate about pots. We met about seven years ago, when I had a show at The Gallery in Bloomington, IN (sadly no longer in business). He started buying my work and came to most of my sales; occasionally he'd stop through on his trips to visit potters all around the state or call on the phone to talk shop. He was genuinely interested in the details of the making process and liked to hear about what I was working on at the moment. We had many discussions about my work, making techniques, firing, other potters' and their process, and the things in his collection. He knew dozens of potters who I only recognized by name -- his stories were a constant reminder that I need to hit the road and go visit some of my midwestern "cousins in clay".

After Philip died last year there was an exhibition of pots from his collection at the Richmond Art Museum, and I'd assumed that the museum had acquired the whole thing. So the auction was a surprise, and I don't know the details of it's origin. Perhaps this was the part of the collection the museum didn't want, so they put it up for auction? Or he left it to someone who wanted to liquidate it, or didn't know what else to do with it? Some items from the exhibition catalog, including an oval basket of mine, weren't in the auction, so it's hard to say how much of the total this represents. In any case, over 600 items is a staggering amount of pots -- easily ten times more than what we own (and most of that is by me).

I'd never done an online auction, beyond buying a few pots on eBay here and there, so I was intrigued by the idea. An initial browse through the listings was really interesting -- so much stuff! Not all of it to my liking, of course, but a lot of it was. There were a few by well-known potters like Warren MacKenzie, Byron Temple, Ron Myers, Jeff Oestrich and John Glick, and a wide range of work by potters with a regional connection: Charity Davis, Dick Lehman, Richard Burkett, Chris Baskin, Tom and Jeff Unzicker, Scott Schafer, Greg Schatz, Christa Assad, Larry Spears, Cheri Glaser and myself. (The full listing is probably a nearly-comprehensive index of all the potters who showed at The Gallery in the last decade or two; I really wish there was a website that archived that.)

This gave me a really detailed view of Philip's idea of handmade pots, and of a collection I'd heard so much about but never seen. I signed up for the auction, and checked in off and on over the five or six hours it ran last Sunday afternoon. I initially planned to grab a couple I really liked, if they were going cheap (they didn't); and to buy back one of mine, also if it went cheap, as kind of a memento of that connection I had with Philip (it did). So, naturally, I got sucked into the auction vortex and ended up buying seven pots, for a total of $98 plus shipping. Including three of mine! Which sounds bonkers on the face of it, but there's a good reason behind each.

Watching the results go by in real time was fascinating and often baffling -- some things going for far more than I'd expected, others for way too little. You can see the selling price for every item by browsing the list -- a nice by-product of an online event, and I was pleasantly surprised that the auctioneer doesn't hide that information. I'm still mulling over what I think about all this, and might not really know until the pots arrive. I'll post some photos of them and more about this when they do.

May 16th, 2010

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." - Charles Darwin

In response to last week's post, my #1 fan Carter Gillies asked (on my Facebook wall) if I had an idea why the turnout was lower at this sale. I've thought about that question a lot the last two weeks, trying to figure out if I did anything substantially different that contributed to it. I'm fairly confident that it wasn't due to the quality or quantity of the pots, how I priced them, or how they were arranged. If anything, the pots are incrementally better each time, I think, and most of the other factors in my control were consistent with previous events. I trimmed my mailing list a bit after the Holiday sale, but only the randomly chosen "potential customer" section -- previous customers are on the list for life, unless they ask to be removed (no one ever has) or they move with no forwarding address.

As for factors outside my control, the weather wasn't great: thunderstorms and clouds all weekend, which makes the display kind of dim -- the pots are always at their best in crisp sunlight. (Naturally, the next morning the sun was out, birds chirping, grass glistening… can't predict the weather months in advance.) It's hard to say how much effect that has on an indoor event -- it's vastly better than getting bad weather for an outdoor sale.

I've written previously that the national economic woes haven't made a noticeable impact on my sales -- at least, not yet. While I'm wary of relying on such an easy rationalization, it's entirely possible that the longer-term effects of that were partially at work this time. Like the weather, it's hard to know.

I certainly understand the randomness involved in people coming to an event like this or not. The variation in the statistics reinforces the fact that buying handmade pots is an entirely optional activity, even for the most die-hard fans. People tell me regularly that they'd planned to come and then x happened, or they were out of town or had other things to do. While my inner skeptic points out that this might be just a nice way of saying they're not as interested as I'd like them to be, I think the fact is that everyone's busy! Somehow our weekends can be more packed than weekdays -- catching up on work, kids soccer games, running errands, doing yardwork, going to church, etc. Squeezing in a trip to Fillmore, on the right day and time, could easily just not make the cut on the itinerary.

It often works that way for us; I'm amazed at the heroic efforts required just to put my shoes on and get in the car sometimes. There are all kinds of events in town and at the university that we try to attend but miss -- especially these days, when they have to fit in around naps or bedtime. (I'm also much more aware of how hard it is to bring a toddler into a china shop now that I have one of my own!)

It occurred to me that there are some interesting similarities between the results of my sales and firings in my kiln. Just as having 39 firings done doesn't guarantee that I've seen every variable the kiln is capable of, having 19 sales on the books doesn't mean that the trends can't shift, or that everything about such a highly variable, ephemeral activity isn't always subject to change. There are limits to the benefits of expertise and experience.

So that's the why. How I feel about the results is a whole other ball of wax. I've been in a pretty grim mood since the sale, partly because the results weren't better, and partly because it feels like there's so little room to let up, despite having just cranked really hard to get it done. I probably need a vacation, but don't think I can afford to take one. I'm determined to get this kiln shed project off the ground this summer, but have a lot of research and hard decisions ahead before I can even begin the physical part.

To put a positive spin on things -- that is, to focus on the silver lining instead of the ominous clouds -- even the strange skew in the historical stats doesn't override the pleasant fact that I made about as much money as usual, but sold fewer pots to do so. That leaves the largest inventory in the showroom ever, about 200 pots, which is a good way to start the summer.

In fact, while I suspect this may sound like a huge rationalization, I was actually hoping I wouldn't sell too many pots this time. As I've documented here (in excessive detail), the last few years it's been a crazy rush to get enough pots finished in time for each sale. Between my part-time job, parenting, over-committing to commissions and coaxing along my tired little salt kiln, my productivity always seems to be just enough to barely fill the showroom. Too many of the sale cycles have been an exhausting crash landing; there were several times where the wiser course would have been to skip one entirely, but I'm dead set on the importance of consistently keeping to two sales a year.

But it appears I now have the padding I've been hoping to create for a long time. Add in a half-full shelf of bisqueware left in the studio and I'm about three months ahead of where I'd normally be this time of year. That should help me focus my energy on the shed without worrying so much about my next sale in December. (Now only 6 1/2 months away, but who's counting?) The problem now is that, just like with having money in the bank, it feels so great to be a little ahead of the curve that I hate to use it up!

Back in make mode

Hacking the studio

OK, enough with the sale rehashing. This is supposed to be "a blog about making pots", not about selling them. I had three partial days in the studio this week and tentatively got back into making mode. The end result wasn't impressive -- just a couple boards of mugs and starting to tear apart the west wall of the studio to add some long-delayed insulation -- but it's getting started that counts.

I've realized, and grudgingly come to accept, that my throwing chops get rusty pretty quickly. This is noticeable after as little as a week away from the wheel, and it gets exponentially worse the longer the break lasts. Two weeks is irritating and three is a serious drag; a month or more prompts bucketfulls of hesitation and self-doubt when I get back in the saddle.

I think this is similar to excercise and muscle tone, in that the parts of the process that rely on muscle memory and intuitive responses are forgotten, or temporarily overwritten by other inputs. (I temporarily get good at glazing and firing and wrapping and calculating, at the expense of wedging and centering and pulling and shaping.) So it's quite literally "use it or lose it". On a list of the compromises involved in having a job outside the studio, this is in my top five: breaks in the studio flow are doubled and take twice as long to recover from.

But, conversely, it's also like riding a bike: I never forget how to throw at a basic level, I just lose the ability to do it as well enough to make good pots. It takes time and repetition to hone my skills back to where they were when I was last hacking away at the clay on a regular basis. And I suspect, although still lacking enough evidence to say for sure, that in the bigger picture I'm also getting better at the On/Off cycle; that each time around I regain the edge a bit faster, or forget a little less.

With all that in mind, this week I decided to expand on the approach I used after my last hiatus in December: starting out with practice reps before making anything to keep. I wedged up a couple 5# cones of clay and threw small sections off the hump -- not even trying for a particular form, just pulling amorphous walls into space. I pushed each one to collapse (which was surprisingly fun!), then cut them off, piled them up, rewedged it all and did it again, two or three times, until the clay was too sloppy to handle.

I was surprised at how different this was from my normal throwing process, how strange it felt to (literally) go through the motions without a specific result in mind. So weird to be sitting at the wheel, my leg cranking the treadle bar, everything else in its usual place, but minus the effort to get the clay to respond just so, and without my habitual moment-by-moment critique of the results. Kind of liberating, and good for a slight adjustment to my perspective. I occasionally feel like I'm trying too hard at the wheel, forcing the results I want and getting there in fact, perhaps, but not in spirit. It's like that tightness of approach bleeds away the intangibles that make the difference between acceptable and good.

(Good grief, did I really just invoke the spirit of a good pot? Such lazy terms… but I can't think of anything better at the moment.)

Anyways, all of that makes me suspect that this casual, unstructured throwing would be a worthwhile exercise at other times, too, not just as a means of warming up. It might balance out those coarser instincts, prompt some new ideas, or suggest a variation in technique that goes somewhere worthwhile. The catch, of course, is sacrificing productivity and progress in the short term in hopes of gaining some in the longer term. Isn't that always the catch?

May 9th, 2010

"Weighed down like a beast of burden..." - Natalie Merchant

Well, I didn't get back in the studio this week, despite trying to goad myself into it at the end of last week's post. I opted for the more prosaic route instead: post-sale wrap up and some time off. After weeks on end of treating myself like a rented mule, it was time to own up to the costs of cramming to meet the deadline and give it a rest. Among other things, I slept in, kept the grass mowed, started reading a novel and went to an art museum. Quite a change of pace!

Making my to-do list public like that can help reinforce my wavering self-discipline, but it doesn't always work -- and probably makes for boring reading. I appreciate your collective, quiet condemnation of my tendency to slack off.

Let's return to the results of my spring sale. As I wrote last week, I'm starting to think of my customer base as a pyramid, with the smallest but most active group at the top, a larger group of regulars in the middle, and the majority of people at the base, those who've attended one or two times and bought a few pots.

I'm hesitant to apply broad, hierarchical labels to the people who support my work, but at some point it's useful to think of my customers in statistical terms. It allows for a more general analysis of the data, which I hope will help me understand the trends and what I might do to affect them. (And analyzing them as statistics certainly doesn't mean I have to treat them that way!)

So I've gradually realized that attendance is very consistent by that small group of customers at the top of the diagram. While a typical sale's attendance is composed of some customers from each group, the middle and bottom segments attend less frequently and more randomly. (I'm starting to suspect that this aspect is largely out of my control, but that's a bigger topic for another time.)

Over the last ten years, total sales -- in both pots and dollars -- track very consistently with attendance. To put it another way, the more customers who show up the better the results. I generated some charts to help visualize this trend, which is quite easy with Apple's "Numbers" application. How business-like!

Chart 1 (click for a larger view)

The sawtooth pattern in Chart 1 is due to the alternating Spring and Holiday sales; the latter are consistently better by most measurements. Also, note that there's no numeric scale on the y-axis. That's because I scaled up the attendance numbers to make it easier to compare the two trend lines. When I graph the raw figures, the blue section is a tiny line at the bottom of the graph, because the average amount spent per customer is about $87, or an 87-1 ratio. (I also omitted it here because, while I believe in the value of transparency, I'm going to draw the line at sharing my total business income for the last decade. If you're looking for those hard dollar figures I promised, keep reading.)

Chart 2 (click for a larger view)

Plotting just the Holiday sales shows the general trend more clearly. It went gradually upward from 2000-03; then down from 2004-05, when we moved and spent a lot of time establishing the new studio and homestead; sharply up in 2006, when I was full-time in the studio; down again from 2007-08, when I returned to an outside job, had a baby, etc; and then started back up last December.

There are plenty of other factors contributing to these results, like the number and quality of pots I had for each event, the amount of promotion, variations in pricing, etc. I suspect that if I'd kept similar data on those, they'd follow these trend lines pretty closely, too.

But as I said last week, the most recent sale was different -- it broke with all those trends very noticeably. Here's another chart, which probably explains this much better than I can in words:

Chart 3 (click for a larger view)

It really jumps out that the three basic metrics were down -- and in the case of attendance, way down -- but that total sales were still pretty close to the 10-year average (this is compared to only the previous spring sales, for consistency). But it's equally noticeable that the other three metrics were significantly up -- and in the case of $/customer, way up.

Here are some specific figures from this sale that map to the percentages on Chart 3:

avg $/pot = $37 ($7 more than historical avg)
avg $/customer = $124 ($42 more than historical avg)
avg pots/customer = 3.33 (0.84 more than historical avg)

So what happened this time, essentially, is my core customers showed up and everyone else didn't. Prior to this, I hadn't realized how heavily things were weighted at the top of the pyramid. The core group not only attends more regularly, but they also buy the most pots, the more expensive pots and spend the most money, despite being the smallest number of people. The same is true in reverse for the bottom group -- it's the largest number of customers, but they represent a smaller amount of sales and have the lowest averages of pots and money per person.

I might have arrived at this conclusion from just looking at the stats, but the key was in the traffic pattern. It was very busy early and dead slow later on. After 10 years, I know most of my core customers by name, so I can jot them down in my receipt book as I tally their purchases. Looking back through that book, with a few exceptions, I found all those familiar names on Saturday morning.

Afterwards, I was surprised that the total sales were that good -- sitting there for long stretches of time by myself always makes it feel like a bust. But in retrospect what happened is the core group came early and did what they usually do, and the other groups -- who usually make up the bottom end of the statistical averages -- weren't there to factor in. So this sale was an abberation, but in kind of a good way: all the usual statistical highs without the middle and lows. Fewer customers buying more pots, and at a higher average price per pot, is very different from what I'm used to, but is an equally good way to get to the average amount of total income.

In retrospect, all of this seems like analysis overkill, but it's definitely helped me make sense of this sale and the larger trends. If you made it all the way through, I hope it was worth reading!

Next week: fresh pots?

May 2nd, 2010

"I've managed to get some work done nearly every day of my adult life,
without impressive financial success. Yet I would do it all over again in a hot second,
mistakes and doldrums and breakdowns and all." - Anne Lamott

My favorite shelf

My 2nd favorite shelf

So another sale is complete. All in all it was a pretty good one; not great but not bad, either. Attendance was way down from previous years, but total sales were good -- an unusual combination. We had the usual rush first thing Saturday morning, but it slowed considerably after that and Sunday was about the quietest day ever. At least I got some reading done!

Regular readers won't be surprised that I keep detailed records about each sale: total attendance, pots sold, average price per pot, etc. Sometimes it seems like I'm in the note-taking business, and the pots are just there to provide something to analyze! With 20 data points on the spreadsheet now (e.g. 20 bi-annual sales done) there are pretty strong trends to compare against, and most sales fall right along those averages. But this one was very weird; normally the number of pots sold and total sales correlate directly to attendance. As I said, this time attendance was very low, but the number of pots sold was slightly below-average and sales in dollars were a bit above average (4th best out of 10 spring sales).

That took some puzzling over the stats to arrive at a reasonable explanation… I need answers! But if I may put the cart before the horse (and perhaps go water the horse and give him some hay), let's approach this from a look at my local customer base and then work backwards towards some conclusions.

Pre-sale portrait

Triptych & porcelain

My sense is that over 10 years of local sales, I've developed a core group customers -- collectors, patrons, "true fans", people who really like this -- whatever description fits. These people generally come to every sale, and show up early to see all the pots. They buy more pots and spend more money per trip than the average customer, express more interest in the process and concepts that go into making the pots, help me promote my work through word-of-mouth (aka "viral marketing"), and seem to sincerely value what's different about both my work and the format versus what you get from typical retail shopping: handmade, functional, well-crafted, local, and so on. They are the foundation of my business and the justification for the model I've committed to.

Which is not to say that those are the only customers that matter! If the whole is like a pyramid (diagramatically rather than schematically, if you get my drift), then this core group is at the top; the smallest in number but most significant.

The middle group consists of all the people who have been steady customers over the years. They don't necessarily come to every sale, and spend a little less per visit than the core group, but in aggregate they're a significant portion of my sales, too. (If all of these people attended the same event, I'd practically sell out.) While this middle group probably shares some of the qualities I listed above, it's not with quite the same intensity. (Which makes complete sense; being passionate about handmade pots is an Outlier quality! Unlike mass culture, people essentially have to stumble across it on their own and be driven by highly personal interests to care about it much. What support or reinforcement for handmade crafts exists in modern society? Very little, I'm afraid.)

Then at the base of the pyramid is the largest group, in terms of population, but the smallest in terms of sales. (If you follow the "true fans" link above, they're analogous to The Long Tail of media.) These are people who come sporadically or at long intervals, or who have been here just once -- so far! They generally buy a pot or two, typically from the less expensive items. This makes sense to me, too. Not everyone who likes my work has the disposable income to spend hundreds of dollars on it. Some people buy a pot or two and are satisfied at that. Some buy only for themselves, others only for gifts. And I'm sure many people have come here and not found what they'd expected -- my pots aren't exactly aimed at the broadest cross-section of aesthetic taste!

But lest I give the wrong impression -- making distinctions between one's customers is tricky business -- let me emphasize that I'm sincerely grateful for ALL of them. While it's easy to take the past for granted and get lulled into just assuming people will come buy my work, I know that every sale is a priviledge, no matter how good the pots might be or how much I put into them. People are choosing to live with objects that I made and they're spending their hard-earned cash to do so. Even when the totals for a particular sale aren't great, that continued fact, in and of itself, is.

Since I'm in this for the long haul, and have committed to selling as many of my pots locally as I can, it's very important to me to grow a customer base that is steadily interested. While it's great to have someone buy a lot of pots at one time, I'm just as happy when someone comes repeatedly to buy a couple mugs. It's as much about future prospects as it is the present moment or event.

And I was thinking recently about what makes for the most gratifying sale, and it's rarely the one that puts another $500 in my bank account. Rather, it's when a young person buys a cup with their own money (I've been enamored with the idea of pots for kids since long before I became a parent). Or a college student who's taken ceramics and is genuinely interested in all the details I put into a particular pot and how they got there. Or someone who spends an hour going around the showroom, stopping at every shelf and looking at almost every pot before choosing one. I think this goes to the idea of non-financial rewards. They're hard to quantify and you can't use them to buy propane, but they can help get you through a lot of cold mornings and late afternoons.

OK, I'd better leave it at that for now -- I promised myself I wouldn't rattle off 1000 words for a change, but it appears I already have. Next week I'll get back to some of those statistical conclusions, and perhaps throw out a few hard dollar figures to give all this speculation some grounding in material reality. (How's that for a tease? On the next TW@SE: Scott uncovers a hidden immunity idol and makes a move that could cost him the game!)

In the meantime, I'll be finishing the mundane tasks that complete the sale cycle: rearranging the showroom, packing and shipping pots, getting the studio back in order, bookkeeping and so forth. There's still more to do before I can get back to the wheel, or some well-earned rest. But I may put a few of them off to get a little wet clay on my hands, or to swing awhile in the hammock on one of these rare, perfect late-spring days. Probably some of all three.

April 25th, 2010

"This song is called, creatively, '#41',
as it was the fourty-first song that we wrote." - Dave Matthews

So the sale announcement cards are in the mail, the firings are done and the pots all but finished -- just some cane handles to go. I'm starting to feel like I'll make it without resorting to last-minute heroics, which would be a nice change. There's still a lot to do, but it certainly helps that this is the 20th time to do it. Once the pots are done, my sale preparation is mostly about following a well-established punchlist and checking off all the boxes.

#41: Before

#41: After

I squeezed salt firing #41 in between storms this week -- April is a tough month to fire without a proper shed. After 40 firings, the kiln is showing it's age, and it's overdue for some maintenance, like rebuilding the soft brick door. But with every cycle I learn a little more about what it wants to do and what it's capable of. For better and worse, we have a long-term relationship, this kiln and I. We've certainly put each another to the test over the years!

The results this time were very good, all in all. A couple minor heartbreaks, but mostly successful pots. The vases, pitchers and bottles on the bottom shelf were killer -- some beautiful surfaces and texture. I'm getting great results from Ryan McKerley's "Green to Black" glaze. I mix it as it was listed in Ceramics Monthly, but it's never done anything like his examples in my kiln -- if anything, it's even better! It's very sensitive to the amount of salt and soda it gets, but that can make for some amazing variation; everything from drippy green glass to dark, matte crystals. I reminds me of working with carbon trap shinos, in that it requires good luck to get the very best results, but they're worth the gamble and the occasional complete miss. Here it is on two vases; on the left it was partially shielded, and so has the most variation. On the right it really got blasted, so it has some excellent drips on one side, but not as much variety or subtlety overall. I don't think the detail photo even does the glaze justice -- that might be one of the best pots I've ever made.

Picks of the litter

"Green to Black" glaze detail

There were some good porcelain bottles and cups, with poured flashing slip and yellow glaze dots, and a few pitchers like the ones on the sale card. My black underglaze worked this time -- thankfully -- and a refire test of a bad one from #40 came out great. (It's the mug in the top right of the before and after photos above.) I don't refire pots very often, but when I do the salted areas are usually great -- I think because of both the double-blast and the layering effect of being positioned differently each time in the kiln. Like this mug, they're so nice that I sometimes think about what it would be like to fire each pot twice. Completely crazy, for sure, in terms of efficiency and productivity… but it'd make for some really great pots. And I guess it's only crazy relative to what I'm used to; two trips through the salt kiln is still far less commitment than a multi-day wood firing, or a half-dozen electric firings for underglazes and enamels.

Maybe as a test I should save up the best of the best from a few firings and then refire all of them in one batch? The problem is that if it worked as great as the tests indicate that it might, how could I resist making that my new norm, and adding yet another step an already elaborate process? Ah, the old quantity vs. quality debate.

Speaking of firing process, I made some headway in understanding and accomodating for whatever it was that changed when I cleaned out the pilot burner before the last firing. #41 reinforced my hunch about it changing the fuel/air balance and the draw of the stack. Thinking in terms of making it more like it was before I unclogged it (!), for comparison to my previous firing schedule, I adjusted the pilot by closing down the primary air and the gas early on. That seemed to help it climb more steadily and quickly above 1000°. I also fired the whole time with less dampering, hoping to avoid bubbling the black underglaze (assuming over-reduction was the cause). That worked, but it also exaggerated the big difference in temperature from the top to bottom of the kiln -- it's pretty damn hot down there where the burner comes in under the shelf.

As I often do when troubleshooting technical problems, I surfed the Clayart archive for a while between the two firings, reading about updraft kilns and stalled firings. Here's a great quote by Mel Jacobson:

"When you hit a snag and kiln stalls...what do you do? Keep firing because the instruction manual says...this is the setting? No, you change things. Most often, for a stuck kiln, you turn down the fuel."

Like most of his posts, I think this reads like Beat poetry; obviously seasoned by years of experience, and alternately enlightening in its detail and infurating in its lack of it. But that advice about less fuel instead of more pops up over and over again in the archives, probably because it's so hard to unlearn the intuitive assumption that more gas equals more heat. Especially in a stall, when any loss of temperature threatens to just stretch the firing out longer.

Also from Clayart, here's a great description of the loading process by Stephani Stephenson (and good explanation of why I find it to be so mentally exhausting, even with a small kiln):

"First you get attuned to the process and the kiln by preparation, you muse and think over the firing as you stack. You calculate piece by piece as you build your own little architectural wonder inside the belly of the kiln. Thinking how the air will circulate...thinking how the pieces sit. Using what you know, fitting in a few unknowns, testing perhaps placement of a new piece with a new glaze, a new stack, a puzzle to solve, tending and observing to any new signs of wear in the kiln."

Cleaned & priced


And finally, my 10th Annual Spring Sale will be this coming weekend, May 1st & 2nd, from 10am - 5pm. The sale is open to the public and will be at our home and studio near Fillmore, IN. (Maps & Directions)

This is the 10th anniversary of the Spring Sale, and I'll have a nice selection of about 250 pots for it: two batches fresh from the soda kiln, some new porcelain pots, and the usual variety of forms: mugs, bowls, lidded jars, vases, planters, pitchers, teapots and more. To preview the pots, please see the Gallery -- I recently added about 30 new pots for sale there. And if you're within driving distance, I hope to see you this weekend!

April 18th, 2010

"This is '40'!" - U2

Ready to load

Another busy pre-sale week. I woke the salt kiln from it's winter slumber, officially ended the making cycle by loading the last pots into the bisque, mailed out sale announcement cards and shot photos, including some from the most recent firing.

Firing #40 was a weird one. After a 4-month lag since the last one, I spent a lot of time loading all that data back into mental RAM. I make a lot of notes about glazing, stacking, firing and results -- may as well use them!

After getting it loaded up, the burner wouldn't stay on during the afternoon pre-heat -- the safety valve kept tripping off. After trying every trick I know without success, I called Marc Ward, who said to take the pilot burner apart and clean it out. This required some flailing with wrenches and such, but I figured it out eventually, and even managed to get it all back together in proper sequence. It must have been really clogged, because afterwards it not only stayed lit, but the flame almost doubled! (What's odd is that I don't remember it ever being that powerful, even when brand new. Then again, that was over 4 years ago, so perhaps my memory has degraded in tandem with the burner.)

#40: Before

I normally start each firing with just the pilot before turning on the main burner, a gradual pre-heat. This time it went 200° hotter than usual on the pilot alone, which seemed very promising. More power! While that's a good thing, in theory, every change to the kiln follows the Law of Unintended Consequences, too.

During the firing, it slowed down in a completely new spot, about 800° sooner than in any of the previous 39 firings. It wasn't stalled exactly, but I couldn't find any combination of settings that would make it go faster. Adding more or less gas just slowed it further. Adjusting the damper either way made it stall completely and lose temperature. Bizarre and very frustrating.

After a lot of head-scratching and grumbling to myself (Why can't it ever be easy with this kiln?), I finally decided to throw in some wood, which I typically do later in the firing to make it climb faster. Contrary to what I expected, the wood seemed to jump start it -- the temperature popped up immediately, and then started going at a faster rate.

My retrospective guess is that the extra BTU's tweaked the delicate fuel/air balance of my very sensitive, flaky kiln design. Maybe the pilot is now sucking in too much extra air, defeating the draft of the stack? Or the temperature wasn't sufficient to handle the pressure at that point, impeding flow? I've read about "nulls" -- pockets of dead air or negative pressure -- that can form in the chamber or the chimney given certain conditions... but who knows? Perhaps it was the weather/ barometric pressure/ shelf arrangement/ gas pressure/ economic recession/ economic recovery/ volcanic ash cloud/ failure to make ritual sacrifices to Loki/ too much startch in my diet/ Karma/ you name it. WIth a lack of hard evidence and such small sample of data to work with it could be practically anything -- including 100% user error.

Whatever the case, it reminded me of how I could never have learned to fire or troubleshoot this kiln without a digital pyrometer. While I tend to rely on it too much, staring at the display as it updates in tenths of a degree, it's a fantastic tool for seeing what's happening in the kiln at any point in time and a great way to learn about firing. It's probably saved me dozens hours of firing time and untold gallons of propane.

How'd it turn out? Sometimes the most difficult firings seem to give the best results -- perhaps I just value the results more because of the struggle it took to get them? But unfortunately that wasn't the case this time. The pots were generally good, but a mix of successes and failures (somehow I forgot to take an "after" shot before unloading). Some great ones on the bottom shelf, always the best spot in this kiln, but I managed to make my black underglaze bubble again, so several seconds or wasters. It might have been caused by too much reduction, as I went pretty hard with the damper late in the firing, trying to make up for the early weirdness. Some are probably fixable with refiring, but that doesn't do me a lot of good on a tight sale deadline. My two copper glazes really did their thing well: great variations and crystals and drips in one, serence color and depth in the other.

As this was firing #40, the chorus of the classic U2 song kept running through my head during the firing: "How long to sing this song?" (The Live at Red Rocks version is the definitive one from my youth, in case you were wondering.) Except of course I was thinking of it in terms of, "How long will this firing go?" and "How many more times will I fire this kiln before I get a new one built?"

(One of the Biblically-inspired lyrics in that song is "out of the miry clay". Who knew?)

#40: After

Last pots of the cycle

So after a long delay, there are now 32 new pots for sale in the Gallery. Here are a few older ones that I just photographed, too. I'm holding them in the Reserve a while longer -- can't quite let go of them yet -- but they'll probably make it out for sale eventually.

Pitcher w. lines & dots

Copper celadon pitcher

Teapot w. slip pour & dots

Vase w. crystals

In other, admittedly old, news: the AKAR Yunomi show was a barn burner, as Michael Kline detailed. That's a lot of pots, sold at mind-boggling speed. All five of mine sold pretty quickly, which is great. I've got a few more like them ready for the next firing, which will be this coming week, if the weather cooperates.

April 11th, 2010

"April is the cruellest month" - T. S. Eliot

How do I put myself in the same bind every spring? Somehow I always fail to remember that the confluence of tax prep and yard work and processing announcement cards and shooting photos and unhibernating the salt kiln and finishing pots for the sale is way too many tasks to handle at once. Since I don't factor all of that in ahead of time, I make overly-ambitious plans about how long I can keep making new pots and how many firings I can do for the sale, then have to rush at the end to compensate. And so the madness continued this week, and probably will for the rest of the month. Wasteland, indeed.

(Next year the calendar loops and I'll have a full week in May before my sale. That will be great, until I get used to the extra week and forget that each year it inches a day closer. By the time it's on May 1st again -- in 2017 -- I'll probably be back in this same spot!)

Beginnings & endings


Last firing

The studio physically reflects the craziness at this point in the cycle, too: wet pots bumping up against fired ones, juggling all the available horizontal space. I'm trying to make, dry, bisque, glaze and clean pots, all at the same time. My current configuration has room for two or three at once, but not all of them. I can't wait to build the new shed, get some of the junk into storage, and build some more shelves.

This week I wrapped up the making session with a few more pitchers and some vases, That rounds out the last of what I need for a second bisque and, hopefully, two good loads in the salt kiln.

Here are a few pots from the last firing. (I'll be shooting good photos and adding new items to the Gallery soon.) The results were pretty good -- a few glazes were right on, a couple others good but not as great as they've been recently. I'm on the fence with the matte yellow glaze, waiting for my gut to decide if I love it or hate it; seems like it's going to be one extreme or the other. I'm really pleased with the clear glaze on porcelain, it's such a nice contrast to my darker stoneware glazes, but I'm still working out the kinks on the new celadon. Now I'm thinking about variations I could add in texture to emphasize the depth in that simple thin coat of glass over that highly reflective body.

Yellow vases

Teadust lidded jars

Porcelain serving bowls

Porcelain soup bowls

I listened to part two of Garth Clark's lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, the question and answer session. Unlike the paper he presented in the first segment, Clark advocated several ideas in this one that I completely disagree with. Charging $60,000 for a dinnerware set? Please. Trashing 50% of your pots to keep prices high, like the Japanese? Uhm… no. Not this potter.

But I laughed out loud at this idea, attributed to potter Andy Shaw:

"My friends and I have a name for young functional potters who make their work, sell it and live off it… we call them unicorns, because we've never met one."

Funny in a desperate kind of way, I guess. I think it raises an interesting, vexing question: if the Arts & Crafts movement is dead, as Clark claims, and there's no new economic model for Craft yet, is there any feasible entry point for new potters? If not, but assuming one emerges eventually, it would make for what amounts to a lost generation of potters. Perhaps even the first gap of it's kind in the 10,000-year-old, global tradition of handmade pottery?

Lastly this week, I made a St. Earth page on Facebook. Better late than never! For now it's just a landing page, but I added a few photo sets -- kind of a "greatest hits" from the blog. (They're also on Flickr, if you'd prefer to see them there). I'm resisting making a personal profile. April is a really bad time to give myself another potential time sink.

As an experiment, I prompted a few friends to hit it, but then let it run for a while to see what would happen "virally". The last count was 19 "fans", which is light years away from Kline-caliber (1,305!), but still pretty cool. It's interesting to watch the network effect happen in real time, and to have a sense of who the actual people are behind my Google Analytics numbers. My plan is to post there about updates here, and vice versa, and am thinking I might use it in the future for comments/discussions, since I don't have that functionality here. Not sure if anyone would use it, but it's exactly the kind of thing that makes sense to outsource.

So now that I've stepped into the 21st century, what's next? An Etsy store? Maybe. Twitter? No. Never. I still aspire to be the last person in North America with a cell phone.

Domino pitchers

Vases for salt kiln

April 4th, 2010

"One of the saving graces of pottery making is its redemption through repetition." - Michael Kline

Spring sale card

Throwing pitchers

The sale crunch continues, so I'm going shorthand style this week.

Sent postcard off to the printer. Decided to put two images on front. Two pots in each image = four pitchers. (Need more pitchers!) Layout now in quadrants = bilateral symmetry; I should have thought of a way to go trilateral. Catapulted into spring: first day without fire in the stove, breaking out the shorts. It's my favorite time to live in Indiana, but now I have to resume mowing.

I went into hard-deadline, take-no-prisoners mode in the studio. First 11 Nano bottles, then pitchers. Or, I should say, relearning how to make pitchers. Perhaps the hardest form to throw well. Then relearning pulled spouts. Then relearning pitcher handles. It's been a while. Ended up with 16 of them, mostly small, but starting to get good. Lots of black underglaze & domino patterns. Broke my Sunday rule -- second week in a row -- to finish the last group. No time to clean and price pots from last firing; some snapshots next week, I hope.



Bottles, detail

Domino pitchers, detail

Listened to Garth Clark's 2008 lecture, "How Envy Killed the Crafts Movement" (free on iTunes). Pretty amazing, even factoring in a degree of hyperbole and self-interest. Can't think of much I disagree with. Would love to see or hear a good rebuttal; maybe I just missed it? Looking forward to his 2009 follow-up, "The Palace and the Cottage".

Big news: we're having another baby! OK, not really. (Belated April Fools.)(Sorry, Mom. Couldn't resist.)

Next up: more pitchers, drying and bisquing, stamps and labels, unhibernating the soda kiln, firing more pots!

March 28th, 2010

"Small animals make first paths." - David Dunlap

I'm firing as I write this, on Sunday. The kiln just climbed past 1000°F, slowing it down a little now, so the quartz can do it's thing. I spent most of the week mixing glazes and tests, waxing, glazing and then loading. There's a good mix of porcelain and white stoneware this time, with my usual range of glazes; gradually increasing the amount of the newer porcelain glazes as I have more of those pots in each load. I have high hopes for a new batch of pale green celadon, but am keeping expectations in check. If all goes well, I'll have photos of new pots to post next week.

I've been slowly reading through the latest Studio Potter -- the Money issue -- which has required even more time between articles to mull and process the new information, working out how it fits (or doesn't) into the existing structures in my brain. There's a lot of raw, sincere stuff in there, from many interesting perspectives. Obviously money is a critical issue for almost everyone these days, but particularly so for people trying to squeeze out a living making pots.

I just finished Michael Brannin's article, "First People, Then Money, Then Things", which gives an interesting view of the motivation and considerations of a serious collector of pots. As a former potter, he really gets it: "Potters want to feel that their time and effort are worth something." His description of living in Iowa City, buying pots from Clary Illian and AKAR Gallery, really resonated with me. It's always fun to read other people's impressions of my old stomping grounds.

Here's my 2¢ on the money issue: Finishing my tax prep each year means taking a good hard look at the previous year's totals -- an ad hoc meeting of the St. Earth Pottery board to review our financial status. (Okay, I'm channelling Pilcher here; it's just me staring at a piece of paper.) This is a thought-scrambling experience, trying to reconcile the hundreds of hours of hard work with one final number. Of course, it's not all about that number -- if it was, there are certainly easier ways to increase it than making pottery by hand! But for all the intangible benefits of this occupation and the life that goes along with it, that number certainly still matters. Despite my numerous choices to the contrary, this is a profit-seeking enterprise -- a reasonable amount of money needs to come out at the end of the process to make it all worthwhile. So it's disheartening to see how much the expenses tally up to: keeping materials in stock, infrastructure maintained, fuel and shipping and promotion and all the rest of it. And it's very different to have your employer take taxes out of each paycheck before you get it (and pay part of them for you) than to pay it all yourself and write out the checks up front. I'm no small-government Libertarian -- quite the opposite, in fact -- but that's a big chunk out of the bottom line, and one not to be taken lightly.

I try not to take the net and gross and divide them by the time expended; I don't want to dwell too much how my hourly rate in the studio compares to my office job or, say, the minimum wage. But I do anyways, almost in spite of myself. My love of numbers and their sultry precision coax me into it, as does the sense that it's irresponsible to keep myself in the dark on these matters. After doing the math, I think through all the reasons I continue to do this, what that time is really worth to me and what it might be worth if I spent it doing other things. I consider making various changes to my "business model" -- usually the same ones over and over again -- but seem to end up back where I started, with the same goals and intent and compromises, and already a quarter of the way into the new year.

Speaking of which, it's nearly April and my spring sale this year will be the very first days of May -- a mere five weeks to go. That means I'm already pressing the deadline to get the announcement card off to the printer, which also means it's time to make up my mind about what to put on it. It's always a bit of a dilemma between using the best photo of a recent pot or the photo that best represents what I'll have in inventory for the sale. Yet another example of art vs. commerce. You can probably guess which side I'll end up on. These are the four current candidates:

Dotted pitchers

Domino pitchers

Dotted vases

Nano bottles

After doing a jumbo card for my 10th anniversary sale last December, I'm going back to the standard 4" x 6" card. (They're less expensive to print and mail -- see? I can lean the other way, too.) But I fit 10 images on the last card and liked the results, as compared to a single photo. So I'm thinking about keeping an element of that layout and using two of the above; it would get more information on the card, and let me hedge my bets a little. I'm leaning towards the pitchers… but the catch is I only have a few in the showroom, and none in progress yet. How many pitchers can I make and fire in April?

March 21st, 2010

"...what is most easily put into words is not necessarily what is most important." - Barry Schwartz

This week I made a few pots, fired a bisque, and spent an entire day doing tax prep: sorting sales slips and receipts, tallying totals, collecting forms, looking up data and organizing another year's worth of paper. And that's just to get it in some semblance of order for the accountant, who does the real work!

New vases & a prototype from the Reserve

Four planters

Bisque #41

Now it's time to start thinking about sale promo and my upcoming glaze firing. So to preserve any hope of getting them done on schedule, I'll keep this short (for a change).

There's always so much more I'd like to write about, given the time. As I come across interesting ideas and links and quotes, I save them in a text file; the digital twin to the paper scraps on the nightstand. But unfortunately, it just keeps growing -- at this rate, I'll probably never get around to most of it.

In the interest of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, here's a few of them in snippet form. Please use your imagination to fill in my usual blather and excessive commentary.

a) Brandon Phillips pointed to these intriguing clips from a forthcoming short documentary about Clary Illian. Great quote: "I might not have predicted this life for myself, but I'm good at it now -- because I had to be." They spiked a lot of memories from my two summers there: the desk behind her kitchen table, the studio and kiln shed, the front of her shop, the side room where I worked. Can't wait to see the whole thing.

b) Interesting essay by Simon Levin in CM last year. "To keep my interest and protect
my passions, I make what interests me, then sell it, rather than making what I think will sell." I couldn't agree with that idea more, but I'd rephrase it as, "I'd rather make what I like and try to sell it than make what sells and try to like it."

c) A 15-year-old article by Chris Staley called "The Challenge of Making Pots at a University". Perhaps more relevant now than ever? Or has that ship already sailed? I'd love to read an updated version.

d) Great Smithsonian article from 2004, summarizing the story of George Ohr. In retrospect, I think he's in the holy trinity of 20th century potters: Leach, Ohr & Voulkos. The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum in Biloxi, designed by Frank Gehry, was wiped out a year later by Hurricane Katrina. (For years I'd assumed it was a joint museum for Ohr and Georgia O'Keefe, which seemed like a really odd pairing. But apparently O'Keefe was a donor who, in typical fashion, couldn't resist having their name on the building. I wonder what the ‘GREATEST’ ARTPOTTERON EARTH would have made of that?)

e) A profile of the MFA program at SIU Edwardsville, my semi-alma-matter. Man, did I ever love that wood train kiln.

March 14th, 2010

"Three is a magic number" - Schoolhouse Rock

Things started out kind of ugly this week, but I managed a few productive days in the studio towards the end. I've been trying to make some taller pots, so my next firing isn't just layer after layer of 4" high shelves, and also to fill in some gaps in the showroom inventory. My spring sale is coming up quick. That's meant doing fewer pots in each series and jumping around between forms a lot, which is in contrast to my ongoing goal of doing the opposite of both those things. I suppose it's easier to maintain an optimal workflow when there aren't any hard deadlines looming.

So I made more vases, oval baskets/serving dishes, large bowls, and some lids for last week's jars. The vases and bowls each got three decorative lugs again. That number has gradually become my default for decorative elements and surface decoration: lugs, stamps, dots, panels of glaze, etc. A trip back through the archive gallery shows that it used to be two, and the change has come more from a gut reaction to the results than a formal plan.

As I've said before, three elements delineates the form into trilateral symmetry, whereas two makes for bilateral symmetry. I think there's a subtle yet potentially significant difference between them, but just recently started wondering what that cause of that difference might be, and where it comes from. Why three?

Sat AM: 'chasing plastic'

(Trilaterally symmetrical) vases


Lids for jars

(Note: the following relies heavily on Wikipedia and other web sources, so all facts are subject to further review. Hey, this is a blog, not journalism!).

Bilateral symmetry means a form is a mirror image on both sides of a central axis. It's also known as axial, facial or reflection symmetry, or the even jazzier term zygomorphic. (That's just begging to be used in an artist's statement: "Using zygomorphic structures and quasi-symmetrical patterns, my vessels seek to embody the essence of rational thought into a durable, functional paradigm. Yes, that's right. I said paradigm.")

The visible structure of human beings and most other animals has bilateral symmetry: two arms and legs on opposite sides of a central spine, two lobes of the brain, and one eye, ear and nostril on each side of the head. Based on that biological constant, it follows that people tend to perceive balanced sets of two as normal, and even anthropomorphize animals, plants and other objects that share this structure.

Apparently, there's some scientific evidence to support this: "… animals appear to be perceptually sensitive to very small deviations from bilateral symmetry." Which means there must have been evolutionary advantages to acquiring this ability. Perhaps lack of symmetry was an indication of a flaw, something to be avoided?

By contrast, trilateral symmetry is very rare in nature, if it exists at all. (I couldn't find anything conclusive one way or the other). It's a subset of radial or rotational symmetry, or the also statement-worthy actinomorphic. Apparently, it's never found in mammals or any species that evolved relatively recently. Some fossils and plants, like the three-leaf clover, have trilateral structures, but they're superficial -- actually just a variation on bilateral form. So given that rarity, I think people tend to perceive three as somehow alien or unnatural, despite the fact that the various elements are still evenly distributed around the core of the form. This is suggested in science fiction, where it's even something of a cliche; three-armed robots or three-legged aliens are an easy way to symbolize "the other".

Actinomorphic bowls

Three lugs each

(Sub-tangent #1: Other examples of radial symmetry in animals are mollusks, which have one foot; sea urchins, coral and jellyfish, whose parts radiate from a central hub; and starfish, which can have five or six arms. That's a pretty short list, in all of nature!)

(Sub-tangent #2: Another cool term from Wikipedia is glide symmetry: "… the pattern of leaves on a branch or stem may often show glide symmetry, with left, right alternation, rather than perfect bilateral symmetry." Reminds me of Michael Kline's brushwork.)

So how does all that relate to pots? As with most things, the form and decoration of pots often references or mimics qualities found in nature or other well known objects. (I think this is what Phillip Rawson meant by "memory traces", but I'm not sure. That book still mystifies me.) This technique works because it prompts people to associate those known patterns with the pots, usually with a positive reaction.

Bilateral symmetry means that a pot looks the same after 180° of rotation -- typically you can imagine the opposite "face" without seeing it, because it's exactly the same. That sameness is static and balanced, therefore predictable and perhaps reassuring. But also, potentially, kind of boring. (However, this an assumption that potters can play off for effect, by making a bilateral form whose "A" and "B" sides are different. That's one of the many nice things that happens organically in atmospheric firings.)

With trilateral symmetry there are three "faces" to the pot instead of two. The form still appears the same after 120° of rotation, but because this occurs at an unexpected, less obvious interval, it can be more interesting. As suggested above, if a pattern is not inherently familiar, it might be perceived as exotic or even alien.

As with all things having to do with perception, there's certainly individual variation to account for -- some people probably think three is normal and two is weird. It's also likely that there are cultural biases involved which influence each person's perception. At the risk of theorizing way above my pay grade, and really straining my knowledge of ceramics history, I'll suggest that pots from western cultures (European, American) tend towards bilateral symmetry and an even number of elements -- twos, fours, eights. Thematically, they represent order, balance and reason as virtues. But in ceramics from eastern cultures (Middle Eastern, Asian), it's more common to find odd numbers -- threes, fives, sevens -- perhaps representing an appreciation of chance, imbalance or emotion.

That's a broad generalization, of course -- and perhaps profoundly lacking in evidence! But even if it's just reflects conventional wisdom, it means a western audience will find trilateral symmetry more puzzling, interesting or unique than bilateral. Perhaps interesting enough to take a second look, or to rotate a pot in one's hands, or to wonder why it's different than a classical Greek vase or something from Crate & Barrel.

(The more I think about the cultural aspect, the trickier it seems. Where to place other ceramic traditions -- African, pre-Colombian, Native American? My sense is that these would align closer to eastern than western. I know I've seen three-handled jars from Africa and South America, but are they the norm? And if so, why? Also, is there a difference between pre- and post-industrial societies; i.e. before and after adopting a generally scientific worldview? For example, trilateral designs and rotational symmetry are found in Celtic art, but in the same region that later became the center of the western world.)

A related idea would be, for lack of a better term, "bilateral asymmetry". That would be elements positioned on the form as mirror opposites, yet with different qualities, like handles of different sizes or a decorative pattern that changes from one side to the other. And of course all of this assumes some kind of symmetry in the first place -- asymmetry or seeming randomness evoke completely different responses altogether.

One last point is that all of this applies to the decorative aspects of a pot because they are so open-ended, but for elements that serve a function, either structural or utilitarian, it's a different story. For example, when dividing a bowl into lobes, I like threes, fives and sixes better than fours or eights. The bowl stands up and works just as well in any of those variations. But when adding feet to a jar, the options are limited by the requirement that the pot stand level and not wobble. A tripod is inherently stable, but more (or less) than three feet tend to rock -- especially with a little warping during drying and firing. So there are good, non-arbitrary reasons to give a pot three feet instead of some other number of them. The same goes for spouts on a teapot and knobs on a lid. And for handles on a mug, perhaps, but there are some great historical multi-handled mugs, so I suspect that's just a modern convention.

Oh, and just in case you've had the song in your head this entire time, here's that Schoolhouse Rock video on YouTube.

March 7th, 2010

"I make small variations within the sameness..." -Ayumi Horie

Ye gods, we finally escaped February. Early March is still cold, here in our latitudes, but even the smallest signs of spring are encouraging -- birds in the trees, rain instead of snow, the smell of green things starting to do their stuff. Can't wait.

I managed to make about 50 pots in February, but it sure didn't seem like that many. My flow in the studio was frozen solid, like the little glaciers scattered around the driveway. But as sunny days this week reduced them to puddles and snowy chunks, in the same way, I applied enough focussed energy to start thawing out my momentum.

Abandoned ovals

Jar profile

As I've complained many times before, I hate the confusion and clumsiness of that first session back at the wheel. It just goes with the territory, any time I've been away from it for more than a couple weeks. I know how to get through it, and that I will, but it's always a struggle. Perhaps the mental/emotional part of this comes from expecting it to stop being a struggle at some point, given a certain amount of experience. (Maybe at 20,000 hours?) That'd be great, but when I try to look at it objectively, it seems more likely that experience makes the results of the first session better -- i.e. better pots, fewer scraps -- without doing much to improve how it feels. It's also quite likely that my expectations in this regard ramp upwards in tandem with my abilities, preventing much sense of improvement, despite better circumstances.

So this week I made lidded jars, vases and oval dishes. Some jars had trimmed footrings, others had added tripod feet. They got various patterns of stamps and small lugs; I was thinking about how to get the most milage out of my matte green and yellow glazes. Lids to come next week -- I wanted to keep filling the table up with volume instead of details.

Three jars

Lidded jars

It might be worth mentioning that I gave up on making one specific lid for each jar over the last few years ago. That's how I was taught, to make them one-to-one, including trimming the lid by sitting it on the flange inside the jar, with the whole thing held to the wheel with three wads of clay. But I now make both the jars and lids in series, many-to-many, and throw a small chuck or pad to trim the lids on. For one series, I keep the style of lid consistent (e.g flange on the jar or on the lid, drop-in or cap, etc.) and try for a similar lid diameter each time. I measure the jars with calipers just after they come off the wheel and record the required sizes and quantities on paper; when I throw the lids, I reset the calipers from those notes and make a variety of sizes within that range. Throwing in series like this means it's easy to make a few extra lids, which I always do to have some options. Then I wait until everything is bone dry to match lids to jars, looking for the best combination of form and fit for each.

I prefer this approach in general, but there are a few drawbacks. One is that any surface decoration done at the leatherhard stage has to be consistent across the series, so that any lid can go on any jar. (This prompted me to come up with some decorative schemes for the salt kiln where the jar body is decorated at leatherhard, say with black underglaze, but the lids left bare until glazing. It can create kind of a "mix and match" result, but done well it makes the pot more interesting and dynamic.)

Another is that I inevitably have the odd jar without a good corresponding lid, and I tend to amass a lot of extra lids over time. The jars sit around until I make another similar series -- which can take a while. The lids eat up a lot of horizontal shelf space, so I have to fight off my packrat instinct and occasionally cull them to the reclaim bin. Then again, when my karma's particularly good or the stars align just so, the new extra lids match the old orphaned jars, or vice versa, and I'm glad to have both. And sometimes they go together in unplanned combinations that sets off a new idea, another chance at composition after it's too late to alter the parts.

After warming up with the jars I did a few vases, heading in a vertical direction. I wanted to make more but ran out of time. I threw them in two parts, as usual, and gave each one three lugs around the neck. I'm still going strong on this trilateral symmetry thing -- most of the jars got lugs or patterns in threes, too. I think it adds an unexpected element to the pot.

Then I made four small oval dishes with lobes, closing the loop on the batch I abandoned a couple weeks ago. I knew that would bug me until I'd taken another shot at them. These turned out pretty well, with slab bases added and little lugs in each of the (four) lobes. Hmm… maybe I should try them with three? I also trimmed those lobed bowls that I'd left unfinished two weeks ago. Somehow they managed to stay just soft enough to finish. How did potters ever manage before the invention of cheap plastic sheeting?

Vases with lugs

Lobed oval dishes

Lastly this week, here's a post by Kristen Kieffer about potters developing a "signature style." There's a good discussion in the comments section, which addresses the breadth vs. depth issue, and the (fading) status of pots in academia. It's long, but well worth reading.

February 28th, 2010

"The key is not having the ideas but having the recipe to deal with your ideas." - Nassim Taleb

My parents were visiting from California this week, so I paused in the studio for some family time. It was too cold for Dad and I to attempt any ambitious house projects, but we made a little more progress on conceptualizing my upcoming kiln shed. Mostly we hung out and played with Maggie. It was fun to be with her for most of the week; it gives me a different perspective on how much she's changed lately.

She's 16 months old now, a compact bundle of energy with blue eyes and a runny nose, untamed towhead, and wild oufits of clashing dots and stripes. She's constantly testing, practicing, exploring. Occasionally sleeping.

The funniest thing she does now is this pretend talking. A recent report from daycare said, "Maggie and Flynn have their own language that they talk to each other." It's kind of lispy and really wet, and wanders all over the place, like an atonal chant; I can't even begin to approximate it in type. She breaks it out at the dinner table a lot, perhaps trying to get a word in edgewise while her parents are sitting there going "blah blah bigword blah blah".

The coolest thing she does now is drawing -- Cindy already has her started on her first sketchbook. She likes to take a bite out of the crayons occasionally, which Grandma remedied by teaching her to draw with a pacifier in her mouth. Now she reminds me of Jackson Pollock, painting on the floor with a cigarette hanging from his lips.

For lack of pictures of my clay babies, as George Ohr called them, here are some of our toddler: (I know, I know… but hey, it's been two whole months!)

16 months


And since I'm already off-topic…

At the end of my daily routine I usually read for a while, before turning out the light and falling into a near-instant coma. The last few years it's been The New Yorker, which might seem like an odd (or even pretentious) choice, but it's usually just the right combination of interest and abstraction to unhinge my thoughts from their train. I used to read something fluffy, like Wired; I can't do anything about ceramics, because that gets my brain fired up instead of cooling down.

In that weird state at the edge of sleep, certain ideas seep in differently, perhaps pinging directly on neurons that are normally masked by daytime consciousness. They often seem to have heightened significance, like a dream scribbled down in the middle of the night that reads as mundane or incoherent the next morning. I often tear those parts out of the magazine, fully convinced that I'll really want to refer to that text later.

It's occured to me that the physical action of stashing away bits of paper has become a parody of sitting at the computer, where I actually do most of my reading. My default mental model for this operation is now the reflexive keystokes of Cmd-C + Cmd-V, copying from one window and pasting into another -- even when I'm doing it with paper. These days, the lack of that functionality when reading an actual book can be really frustrating. I have to turn down corners and flag pages for quotes I want to save, and then type them in later. How archaic! (A good example is the one at the start of this post, from Malcolm Gladwell's What The Dog Saw.)

Anyways, I recently found one of those paper bits from The New Yorker tucked behind the nightstand under a cloud of dust bunnies, apparently sitting since I tore it out in summer of '06:

"In his last years, Feldman became unexpectedly wealthy… Most significantly, he made a small fortune by selling art. Back in the fifties, he had bought a Rauschenberg canvas for seventeen dollars, because that was what he had in his pocket at the time. Shortly before his death, he sold it for six hundred thousand dollars."

That's pretty awesome, even divorced from it's original context. Fortunately, there's enough unique text there for a Google search to return it's source: this article about the composer Morton Feldman. (The magazine has the kind of free content archive that I keep wishing the various ceramics publications could/would create.)

I'd never heard of Feldman before reading this, and had forgotten all about him since. (The nice thing about having a leaky memory is getting to rediscover the same things over and over again.) So it was cool to read that he was a peer of John Cage, and friends with Abtract Expressionist painters like Pollock and Rothko in the 1950's; that sheds some light on the part about buying a Rauschenberg for $17.

The article also quotes from the book Music in a New Found Land by Wilfrid Mellers:

"Working nine to five in the garment business, Feldman proudly maintained his independence from the professional herd. He mocked the university composers who tailored their work for fellow-analysts, the tonal composers who tried to please orchestra audiences, the inventor-composers who unveiled brand-new isms each summer at the state-funded European festivals. “Innovations be damned,” he snapped. “It’s a boring century.” In 1972, he obtained his post at SUNY Buffalo, but he continued to insist that composition could not be taught, that it should not be professionalized. He loved to challenge students’ assumptions about what ideas were au courant, about which composers were radical and which were conservative."

I love all of that; the stubborn independence, the rejection of contemporary trends, the poking at his students.

Here's another great one from an essay by Feldman, about his working process:

"Earlier in my life there seemed to be unlimited possibilities, but my mind was closed. Now, years later and with an open mind, possibilities no longer interest me. I seem content to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room. My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical conditions that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart."

February 21st, 2010

"For a long time it has seemed to me that in our filthy job as painters we have the greatest need of people with the hands and stomach of a laborer." - Vincent van Gogh


There's an emerging trend around here of February being kind of a lost month... events conspired against me in the studio this week yet again. After two days of throwing, my back made it clear that I've been spending too much time shoveling snow, hauling firewood and carrying around a 26-pound toddler, and too little time at the gym. I should know better by now.

What I have learned is that working through back pain is a losing proposition (vague Replacements reference, anyone?) But it still presents a dilemma, particularly when I have pots to finish or am up against a deadline. Which reminds me of a geeky new term I heard recently: Morton's Fork. Wikipedia defines it as "a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives, or two lines of reasoning that lead to the same unpleasant conclusion." That sure sums up choosing between more back strain and abandoning unfinished pots! (And if you like that, see the entry for Buridan's ass, which for some reason I find hilarious.)

So I called it quits, leaving the second day's pots unfinshed. I very rarely abandon pots once they're started -- with so little time and effort to spare, I loathe the idea of wasting any. I usually have a good idea as I start a series of pots of when I'm going to finish them. Wedging up a ball of clay and slapping it on the wheelhead carries an implicit commitment to finish what I start.

Because I transition each week from working at the office to the studio, usually with a a 3-4 day layoff between studio sessions, I often sketch out a plan for my studio days in advance, trying to anticipate things like drying time and finishing sequence. The logistics can get tricky, trying to fit the pots I want to make into the available time each week, while avoiding working into the evenings or keeping unfinished pots damp over the break. With over a year of practice in this format -- part-time job, part-time potter -- things usually work out pretty well, if I really stay on task that last day in the studio. (Usually Saturdays). But it's when I draw a wildcard, like getting sick or my back going wonky, that the plan goes to hell and I face the choice between the two grim paths after the Fork.

There are exceptions to the Start What You Finish rule, of course. (Aren't there always exceptions?) For example, I've trained myself to be more ruthless about scrapping things that come off the wheel with serious flaws, rather than hoping to patch them up later. Another good rule is that you don't throw good time after bad [pun intended]. The same goes for pots that get worse during the assembly and finishing stages; I try to cull the duds along the way, and to take a good hard look at each pot before committing it to the bisque firing. Garbage in/garbage out.

Of the pots I left unfinished, the 4# shallow bowls will probably hold over until next week for trimming and finishing, but the small oval dishes won't -- there's not enough clay mass to them to stay damp enough, even tightly wrapped in plastic. They have to be just the right consistency to add the slab bases, so I always throw them one day and finish them the next.

So it's no great loss, in terms of output -- I don't mean to make it out to be a big deal. But as I said last week, I hate it when a plan falls apart (reverse A-Team reference, anyone?). More than the specific consequence of not getting those pots done, it's that the lack of follow-through feels amateurish and sloppy. And I had a good thing going with lobes -- tweaking up the rims of the bowls after they'd set up a little, and pushing the ovals into an interesting four-lobed shape. I'll have to get back to that again soon.

Stack of celadon plates


To close on a more positive note, the customers who ordered the celadon dinnerware set came to pick it up, and seemed really pleased with how it turned out. That's both gratifying and a relief. Very nice that all the work I put into it succeeded in meeting their expectations, and to have the sense that they'll get years of good use out of them. Also nice that I didn't misinterpret what they wanted, or anything else that would have sent me backtracking on the project.

One of the many difficulties of custom orders is that I have to make pots that fulfill the idea in someone else's head, while working within my existing technical constraints and aesthetic range. My experience with this is somewhat limited, but I think people tend to have either too vague or too specific a concept of what they want when they imagine an object that doesn't exist. Either one is hard to overcome, because it reduces the odds that I can hit the target. I suspect that a key to making commissions succeed (often enough to be worth the effort) is learning to communicate about the specific details and qualities of handmade pots with people who lack a specialist knowledge of them. As with teaching beginners how to throw, it's hard to put myself in that mindset of not knowing, to see things from that perspective. It requires forgetting all the things I take for granted when I look at a pot or imagine how one could be. But also like teaching, when I bridge that gap with a customer well enough that a big commission works out, it's really great.

February 14th, 2010

"Are you potting?" - Michael Cardew

If you've followed this blog for a while, it probably goes without saying that I'm pretty set in my routines. I rely heavily on established patterns and habits to be productive in the studio, and to keep all the boxcars of my life in proper order, or at least going in the same general direction. But this week the whole thing went off the tracks from the start, derailing my plans and making an interesting mess along the way.

Monday I was home for a sick day with Maggie; Tuesday we were snowed in (country living!); Wednesday was ferocious winds and cold, with big drifts of snow on the path to the studio and the stove burning through my dwindling woodpile at an alarming rate; Thursday I made it to the office; Friday to Indianapolis for a doctor's appointment and errands; Saturday in the studio; Sunday off. A very atypical week, indeed.

Studio, snowstorm

That kind of uncertainty and distraction freaks me out. It's hard to abandon control, or the illusion of control, even for just a while. But once I did, I managed to get a few things done: some pending side projects, like adding insulation in the attic spaces of our house, and a bit of work in the studio, cleaning up pots from the firing and throwing a series of tumblers for the salt kiln. Those are white stoneware, 3/4 to 1# of clay each, with a flared foot for stability and gradual tapering out to the rim. Some pokes and bits of stamping, then black underglaze decoration in three different patterns: dominos, dots, horizontal stripes. I'm returning more often to the patterns that have worked well in the past, trying to become more familiar with them through repetition. Not making exact copies; more like exploring variations of each idea at a smaller scale, refining nuances.

I have to do this deliberately, because the lure of constantly going in new directions exerts a strong pull. It's important to explore new ground, of course, but too much of that without developing the discoveries leaves a lot of potential on the table. It can also result in a scattershot range of pots, with interesting qualities but too unresolved as a whole. I think balancing that ratio of breadth-to-depth, and knowing when to make the switch from one to the other during the making process, are important to maximizing your abilities and developing a personal style. As with so many aspects of craft, it's not a binary choice -- repetition or not? -- but rather a matter of finding good proportions.

Tumblers, inverted


So it appears that I've finally figured out how to take a nice detail shot with my old digital camera -- it's the button with an icon of a flower on it. (Doh!) It also helps to have mid-day winter sunlight on them. Nature's lightbox. I should have flipped them over first -- I let most pots finsih drying upside down -- but they're kind of interesting this way, too. (You can click each image for a larger version.)

I like how the closeups show the grain of the clay; the texture on the foot from the twisted cutoff wire; the blue outlines that mark up the patterns -- diltued food coloring that will burn out in the bisque; the qualities (and flaws) of the brushwork; what the black underglaze is like after it's dry on greenware; and my date stamp for the new year -- an "X" in a circle, like the Roman numeral.

February 7th, 2010

"The feeling of touchness and holdness is comfortably thin and smooth,
and profoundly dense and balanced." - Sandy McPherson, from a Japanese pottery auction

Bottles (with apologies to Gwynn Hanson Pigott)

Porcelain mugs

Tumblers & small lobed dishes

The firing turned out well. Most of the glazes behaved as expected and the pots that really needed to come out right did so. I'm currently ramping up two glazes on porcelain. The first is a glossy clear, which lets the white body show through, is translucent over a thin wall section, and dazzling in bright shunlight. The other is a matte white, which is opaque and thicker, more subtle. I couldn't decide which I liked better from the tests, but now I'm leaning towards the glossy one. I might still find a use for the matte, perhaps with other glazes over it. If not, it's also my primary liner glaze in the salt kiln, so I can use up the batch that way, too.

The dinnerware order that I started it last summer is finally complete. That's not exactly a quick turnaround! As I wrote in the midst of throwing them, I started with double the amount needed: 16 of each form, aiming for a good set of eight. All of them made it through the greenware stage and bisque firing, as expected. After that I sorted them into firsts and seconds, based on relative similarity and quality. Then I glaze fired some of the seconds -- a couple of each form -- as a preliminary test, calibrating glaze thickness and such. In this load I fired the best eight of each, stacked closely together in the kiln to get consistent color from the celadon. There were 3 or 4 with minor flaws, but most turned out very well: even glaze application, good color and nice iron speckling, as this glaze does on my white stoneware clay. They stack pretty well, too. I'm happy with them as a big group, and as individual three-piece settings. They're solidly utilitarian, but a bit quirky, too. That leaves 6-8 extras of each form, which I'll put in the showroom.


Celadon dinnerware set

Continuing with my ongoing thread about ceramics magazines, after that surprise in Clay Times prompted me to resubscribe, I got offers in the mail from both Pottery Making Illustrated and Ceramics Monthly, too. Coincidence, or is it just that time of the year? They seemed pretty cheap at $20 and $25, respectively -- it's hard to go wrong at a few dollars per issue. Plus it's tax deductable, and at the very least I'm supporting publications that promote my field (and sometimes even my work). In the worst case, I could just think of it as a donation, with any useful content as a bonus.

I've written before about all the ways these magazines frustrate and irritate me -- the obnoxious ads, the lowest-common-denominator writing style, the tendency to treat any and every facet of Ceramics as equally interesting and worthy of coverage. (Yes, I'm strongly biased on that last count. Sue me.) The things I dislike about them are the things Studio Potter omits -- which is perhaps why I appreciate it so much.

But it's been a while since I've read the others, so I'm going to give them all go for another year. I will try to approach them like a blank slate, and with a less-judgemental attitude. I need to learn to skim for the good parts and ignore the rest, both to extract some value from them and keep myself emotionally stable. That's how I read the New Yorker, for example. I quite enjoy it, and never get bent out of shape about the fact that I'm not the target audience for big chunks of it. (Upcoming events, Manhattan-centric tidbits, theater reviews, etc.)

Reconsidering my relationship to these magazines, after a few years of getting by just fine without them, highlights all the ways that online content has changed print in the interim. On the web, it makes no difference that there are hundreds of ceramics-related sources, and that most of them are useless to me. That kind of abundance and variety are now the norm. It's all free, so the only possible cost is spending a few moments of attention deciding whether something is worth reading. Tools like search, filtering and recommendations make it very easy to find the things that are relevant to my interests and skip everything else.

But in print the old paradigm still rules, as permanent as the ink that gets rolled on the paper. And the contrast between the two media makes print seem far more like tyranny than a benevolent dictatorship. You can pay as you go, if you live anywhere near a bookstore or newsstand, but you still have to buy a chunk of stuff you don't want to get the parts you actually do. You can subscribe, to get a lower cost per issue, but that makes for an even broader chunk of good, bad and indifferent to sort through. In either case, the key is that scarcity is the norm. There are only so many pages in each issue and so many issues per year, limits on how many color photos can be printed, and so on. Every bit that isn't valuable to you is a missed opportunity for something that would have been. I suppose that, in theory, part of what you're paying for is scarcity: the editorial function of excluding some things while bringing others to your attention. But in the era of the Web, that seems a lot more like a flaw than a feature.

Domino mugs, in progress

That Anne Lamott quote

Domino mugs and others, complete

February landscape, from studio

Lastly this week, it's time to deliver yet another blow to my artistic persona and admit that I'm a fairly serious football fan. (That's "American Football", for my handful of readers abroad). I get quite wrapped up in it during the season, culminating in more hours of NFL media absorption in January and early February than is probably reasonable or healthy. I've enjoyed the hell out of this season, despite yet another suckerpunch at the end from my beloved Colts. But I'm also kind of glad it's over for another year. I've struck a deal with myself: I get to wallow in fotball as much as I like, but can't have more than a cursory interest in any others. I'm sports monogamous. Basketball, the upcoming Olympics and the World Cup will get a glance or two; baseball, golf, hockey and auto racing may as well not even exist for me. And that's probably all for the better. Now I can use that time more productively. Say, reading a book.

January 31st, 2010

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” - Winston Churchill

The hand that feeds

Well, Clay Times magazine finally lured me back. I'm not sure their strategy of putting each lapsed subscriber's pots on the cover will scale very well, but it sure caught my attention! Yes, that's my lidded jar from the SFPN show, up there in the right-hand corner.

This was the Sept/Oct '09 issue, so I'm not sure which is more surprising: that it happened in the first place, or that it took four months for me to hear about it. My relative ignorance of current events in ceramics, and tendency to be a bit of a hermit, usually suit me pretty well. But missing something like this is a bit ridiculous!

It suggests that I need to keep my ear a little closer to the ground. But on the other hand, doesn't this seem like the kind of thing that they might, say, let you know about? Or send a copy? Maybe they figure that if you're not already a subscriber then tough luck.

So I bought a copy from their back issues site, to see it in person and add it to my files for posterity. I looked for an image of it to post here, but even Google image search didn't turn up more than a tiny JPEG of it; I find it kind of odd that the Clay Times site doesn't have decent-quality images of the magazine's covers. (I had to scan the paper copy.)

That discovery triggered my knee-jerk tendency to criticize websites, especially those where an Old Media publication has made an attempt at a "web presence". Like most, this one's pretty lacking in content: 13 years of publication, but just 20 online articles to date. That gives the impression that this is just a thin storefront, designed to prompt more subscriptions to the paper version and to sell archived content on CD's. CD's! State Of The Art technology… if it was still the 1990's.

What's worse, the content of the discs are "files provided in Adobe Acrobat PDF format" -- which means it's already perfectly suited for distribution via the web. But you can't preview or purchase the back issues that way, let alone individual articles. This suggests either a clinging to outdated structures and business models, or an inability to imagine the future of publishing. While the old model may be more profitable in the short term, I don't think it's sustainable. If a late-30's person like myself expects the option to buy and download bits of content individually today, imagine what the next generation will want. When the most exciting consumer item in the world is an iPad -- and that's just the first glimpse of what's to come -- how can a magazine survive with such a pre-web mentality?

OK, I'll stop there; I need to keep my ranting in check. My own archaic site is so indefensible that I shouldn't be pointing fingers. And there's a vast difference between describing how a site could be different and expending the resources to make it happen. From the other side of my work life, I know quite well how complex and expensive websites can be to maintain. I don't envy the task of transitioning a traditional magazine into an online version, while not going broke or alienating your existing readership. But I'll be a lot happier once they've all made this historic transition, and all that old content is finally digital.

(I also forget how small the ceramics community can be. After my post about the Ceramics Monthly site, I got a reply from the editor -- hadn't considered that possibility! We had an nice discussion about it, and he filled in some interesting background information, but it made me feel the need to justify what I'd said, and reminded me to be more cautious in my critiques. Just because the web makes it easy to sit back and lob grenades at other people's work doesn't mean it's a good idea.)

And beyond all that, I'm grateful that Clay Times promoted my work. It's dumb to bite that hand. I'm happy the magazine is still in circulation, respect it's approach, and sincerely appreciate it's good aspects, of which there are many. (Or, to put it another way, it's certainly good enough to criticize.) Just realizing that I've missed several years of Pete Pinell's column about glazes was enough to make me pay the $33 to renew.

Meanwhile, I did a glaze firing this week -- lots of porcelain, the last of a dinnerware order, and celadon glaze tests. It's cooling as I write this, so I should have photos of some new pots next week. Weary anticipation mixed with cautious optimism.

January 24th, 2010

"Words, words, words, have you heard? A bird in hand is much better than,
any number free to wander." - Dave Matthews Band

I'll start this week with a caveat: that what I write here is trivial by comparison to something like the earthquake in Haiti, or any number of other significant events that I routinely fail to mention. That's partially because I don't have much to say about them that hasn't already been said better elsewhere, and partially in an attempt to stay on-topic, with things at least tangentially related to making pots.

I decided at the outset of this project that I would follow the dictum of "write what you know", and that what I know best are the things I do and think about in the studio each week. But, of course, these are relatively unimportant things, completely out of scale to those larger events. I want to be explicit about that fact, in hopes that as I forge ahead here in my usual way, it won't be mistaken for ignorance or indifference.

Actually, I do have one reaction that may be worth mentioning. When tragic events happen, far away or close to home, I share the common response of not quite knowing how to make sense of them. It's not that they conflict with my worldview, necessarily; I'm OK with the idea that we exist in a neutral, random universe. Stuff just happens, good and bad. But maintaining a non-supernatural perspective in the face of such things can be a little overwhelming.

Which in turn reminds me of this quote from the book bird by bird, by Anne Lamott:

"It helps to resign as the controller of your fate. All that energy we expend to keep things running right is not what's keeping things running right. We're bugs struggling in the river, brightly visible to the trout below."

I like that a lot. Perhaps because I lean towards the control freak/perfectionist end of the spectrum, it really resonates with me. And hard as it might be to accept that lack of control, I believe it's true.

I paraphrased that on my studio chalkboard, around this time last year: "water bugs, trout below". It's shorthand for the lyricism and depth of Lamott's idea, and seeing it there at odd intervals reminds me to appreciate all the times that I get lucky; the trout strike elsewhere. And also that wasting energy on "keeping things running right" is a sucker's bet. Yes, some control is essential, illusionary or otherwise. But striving for complete control is foolish and risky.

For example, when I get sick, I always fight it and complain. But illness is a reminder that life is fragile, and that good health shouldn't be taken for granted. We're all going to die, sooner or later -- time is short, and not to be wasted.

OK, that's pretty damn heavy for a blog post. And pretty far off-topic.

Glaze tests

Pots for show

So if anyone's still reading: it was a slow week around here, still dampered by a tenacious cold. After a few days at the office, I worked on odds and ends in the studio (pretty much everything except starting new pots).

I continued testing glazes for porcelain, this time going after celadons. In the last round, I tried three types of iron oxide in a couple clear bases: yellow, black and red. That was prompted by seeing them in recipes by Pete Pinnell, Tom Coleman and others I admire in John Britt's glaze book. The yellow was the weakest colorant of the three, and came out heavily speckled; the black a bit stronger but also speckled. The clear winner was good old R.I.O., which has been the primary colorant in almost every one of my glazes since I first dipped a scoop into the raw materials bins at ASU in 1994. "Surprise, surprise, you pay for what you get."

My understanding is that the yellow and black variants of iron are used for finer control over color, but that they don't disperse as well in the glaze. So now I suspect it's not so much about which type of iron is used as how much. So, not wanting to add ball milling to my glaze mixing routine, I decided to see what I can get with the red.

I did a biaxial line blend, in the same two bases, at five intervals each: 1.5%, 2%, 2.5%. 3% and 6%. The first tests were at 1%, which wasn't quite as dark as I want; since my Temmoku and Teadust glazes have 8-10% iron, I'm thinking 6% should be about the upper range of the greens and blues. Time and temperature will tell.

I was surprised at how dinky my test tiles were -- what was I thinking? Britt recommends making them fairly big, like 2" x 4", in order to see detailed results at three thicknesses and to get a sense of how much the glaze runs on a vertical surface. Mine were scarcely half that size, barely worth the effort to mix up the tests! But you can only work with what you have, so hopefully they'll return enough information to guide the next batch of tests.

I packed up my pots for the upcoming Functional Ceramics show in Ohio, and was pretty happy with the selection -- four from The Reserve, including the vase from last spring's sale postcard, a bottle in that same copper glaze, from when it was doing this crazy, electric blue-green thing, a vase with yellow dots from my last salt firing, and a nice lidded jar that didn't make the cut for the SFPN show.


Sorting for bisque

Then I loaded a jam-packed bisque, getting closer to a glaze firing near the end of the month. Lots of porcelain, and I didn't get nearly all of it in, so there's also a good start left towards the next one. I find it's better to have some pots in the queue at every stage along the way; it gives more options for loading kilns efficiently, and prevents that feeling of starting over from absolute zero each time. I really like spreading all the pots back out on a table for loading, and seeing them reordered into the strange geometry of the electric kiln, like some kind of hyperactive still life.

A tight stack

Brandon Phillips' mug

In other news, a while back I did a mug trade with Brandon Phillips, and have been meaning to post a photo of the one I received. Trades with other potters are a nice way to expand the collection in our kitchen, and Brandon's is a great addition. It has subtle variations in color and surface texture, really gestural, fluid throwing, and a generous handle, plus a few little quirks that tell me this pot was made by someone who's been doing this a long time, and who knows what they want to see in the result. I really like the slip stripes, just a little raised texture, and arch at the top of the handle. It fits my hand well when held normally, but even better when I hold it reversed, like towards the end of a cup of coffee. I'm afraid the one I sent has fewer of these attributes, despite the fact that I aspire to them, but perhaps it has others that compensate. (Here's an old photo of Cindy and Maggie inspecting it -- a domino mug that got blasted by salt and heavy reduction in a firing that went slightly haywire.)

January 17th, 2010

"There wasn't a damn thing I could do or say." - The Replacements

The one stat I forgot to report in my yearly recap was number of illnesses. Or perhaps it's more correct to say that it was the one I didn't want to know. I'd guess it was between 15 and 20 -- all those days, gone for good. So I'm sorry to report that 2010 is already off to a similar start, with a nasty flu last week, immediately followed by another cold. I know I promised to stop complaining about this, but... really? Two in a row? Before that, I was well for three straight weeks, which felt like forever by comparison. It was suspiciously productive, too, almost as if there might be some correlation. Of course, poor Maggie had both of them first, plus an ear infection, which was terrible in two ways: having to watch her suffer from it, and getting a very… uhm… visceral preview of what was around the corner for me. Anyways, I mention all of this because I like to imagine the forthcoming ripple of virtual sympathy from you, my tens of readers. I've heard that self-aggrandizement is good for the immune system.

But seriously, getting sick like that always tanks my routine, including the weekly blog post, and it takes time to recover and get things back to rights. It prevented so much as a squeak here last week, but rather than dwell on the time I spent sleeping off the virus instead of in the studio, here's what I was going to write about before it all got ugly.

Small "milk" bottles

Medium "milk" bottles

So during my healthy spell in late Decemeber and early January, I seem to have made a good batch of porcelain pots: teabowls, yunomi, tumblers, bowls and bottles. Then I switched back to white stoneware and made mugs, planters, and lids for some orphaned jars and teapots from the last throwing cycle. Now they're all lined up, in order of making or relative dryness; a procession running along the tables that go down the center of the studio, slowly getting ready to bisque.

During the two or so months of deep freeze that we get here in central Indiana, I'm pretty cautious with the wet pots, only moving them out from in front of the gas furnace when they're completely bone dry. The challenge is that hot, dry air blowing on freshly-completed pots -- particularly porcelain! -- is just asking for trouble, so it's a high-maintenance shuffle of covering and uncovering plastic, flipping pots, tucking them in carefully each evening before I close up the shop, and checking on them the days I'm not working out there. I haven't lost any to freezing since I got a digital thermostat last year, but I still need a better system. I do like how the way they're arranged records the order of what I've made, instead of just cramming them wherever they'll fit on the shelves, as I do in the warmer months.

New, clean bats

The procession


Treadle wheel assembly, 2001

Among my year-end studio purchases (after the big sale, before the end of the tax year) was a stack of a dozen new Hydra Bats, from Continental Clay in Minneapolis. I've used these since Mark Polglase sent a few along with my treadle wheel -- way back in 2001 -- and I really like them. I've accumulated them in small batches over the years, and they've held up exceptionally well. This new group makes a total of 30 of the 12" diameter bats (the size I use most often). That should let me dedicate some to each type of clay, so I can avoid scrubbing them down every time I switch from stoneware to porcelain -- which I anticipate I'll be doing more often. (Because I throw with slip instead of water, getting them clean enough to avoid contaminating the porcelain is harder than it might seem.)

I'm not sure what they're made of -- some space-age psuedo-wood, I suppose… perhaps mostly resin or epoxy? -- but it's tough stuff. Mine are 3/4" thick, and one of the things I like about them is their strength and near-imperviousness to flexing. A few have warped just slightly, cupped upwards at the rim, but that's probably due to my not flipping them more often; the holes go through the bat, so they're easily reversible. They now come in a 1/2" version, which would be less bulky to haul around and more compact in storage. Those are probably fine, but I went with the old workhorse. I like my bats thick and my kiln shelves thin. (Plus, if I had both kinds, I'd inevitably waste precious compute cycles on deciding which to use at any given time; if there's a hair to split, I've got a sharp hatchet and a chopping block! Perhaps one of the few efficiencies that come with age is knowing your perennial weaknesses well enough to head them off at the pass.)

The catalog says they "absorb water from the base of the finished piece, [so] you don't have the typical dry top/wet bottom that you do with other non-permeable bats, i.e. formica and plastic. Because of the absorption, the pieces are set up nicely for trimming shortly after flipping." That's pretty accurate, in my experience. They definitely absorb some water during throwing, then gradually dry out; some moisture gets pulled out of the base of the pot, depending on how long they sit on the bat, but the effect is much less than with plaster.

Does anyone still use plaster bats, I wonder? My impression is that it's kind of an old-school technique, perhaps replaced by mass-produced bats made of materials like these. I remember at the U. of Iowa there were several Randall wheels, with that crazy tractor seat and cast plaster bats that fit in a metal socket, in place of a wheelhead. I was always too freaked out by the possibility of chips getting in the clay and causing lime popping.

Perhaps it's simply a matter of frugality -- my first bats were plain old masonite cut from 4' x 8' sheets, coated in marine varnish, no holes for bat pins. They were among my first bits of studio gear, made on Clary Illian's suggestion when I arrived at her studio in 1994. These days, I can afford (or think I can) to pay someone to make them, and get a better result.

Thinking of those first bats reminds me that I really debated switching to the Hydra bats at the time. It was prompted by the fact that my new treadle wheel came with a pre-drilled wheelhead -- my old Lockerbie kickwheel didn't have holes for pins. And here I had these nice, smooth, free bats, ready to be used. I guess I'd been using the masonite ones for 6 or 7 years, and in my pottery upbringing, bat pins were sort of frowned upon -- not to the extent of, say, a Giffin Grip, but they lived near the realm of hack-ish, production, tourist pottery. The Leach/MacKenzie way -- as far as I know -- was to throw directly on the wheelhead whenever possible, lifting the pots off onto wareboards, and when bats were needed to secure them in a wet pad of clay. That's how I learned, and it took me a long time to acquire the precision to get that pad just so, and to keep it the right dampness from one throwing session to the next, and to tap each bat on center. As a part-time potter, it seemed like I was endlessly throwing a new pad, or touching up the old one, or fretting over pulling the whole thing off-center midway through a good pot. (If you're throwing every day, that's less of an issue. And if you're throwing hundreds of pots in a row at the Leach Pottery, it's probably a non-issue!)

In retrospect, those are all very good things to know how to do, with or without bat pins, so perhaps there was a bit of learning exercise built into that process. But in practice, once I'd finished grappling with received dogma and worked up the courage to do something different, I prefer pins and bats with drilled holes by a long margin. It enables a lot of little tricks and improvisations, and saves a bit of time here and there that can go to making actual pots instead of maintaining tools. Although, by that standard, I suppose one could justify nearly anything. Even a Giffin Grip.

The one thing I miss about my old method is getting to throw directly on the wheelhead, when not using a bat. The edge of my hand against the cool metal, the quick ring of vibration when it's tapped with a tool. If my wheelhead wasn't nearly welded onto the shaft by eight years of downward pressure, I'd even consider getting a second one without the pins, just so I could swap them out on occasion and enjoy the subtlety of that touch on the metal. Sometimes it's the smallest details of making pots that I feel the most romantic about.

January 3rd, 2010

"Can you deny, there's nothing greater, nothing more than the traveling hands of time?" - Son Volt

Before moving on to the new decade, I thought I'd recap 2009 -- review the bigger picture as the recent past slips into permanent memory. It's hard to summarize the year in simple terms, or to give it a grade on the great-to-awful scale. Because this was our first full year as new parents, it was unlike any other; full of constant, dramatic change. Some parts were great, others were awful, but on the whole it was just... intense. Challenging, surprising, confusing, rewarding -- rarely a dull moment.

Almost everything that happened is pinned in my memory to Maggie's gradual development. I think of each month in terms of what she was like then, and what we were doing as a result; the firing after she started crawling, what pots I was making as she learned to walk. To put that change in visual terms, here are some photos from the family album:





I worked half-time at the U. and the other half (two-thirds? three-quarters?) in the studio. The first part of the year was cold and snowpacked, generally sleepless and frequently sickly -- pretty miserable, all in all. Maggie was three months old in January, so Cindy and I were still climbing the early part of the parental learning curve (rumor has it that's the steepest part -- right?). We lost our dog Patches, and I postponed, for yet another season, starting on the new kiln shed. I had a hell of a time maintaining any momentum in the studio, but slogged through somehow.

Things improved through the late spring and into summer, as they usually do, and I managed to get a good amount of pots made and through the fire, and I had a successful spring sale. I did a commission for a set of lidded jars that spiraled out of control for a while, and I ended up making dozens of them. But the results were good, and it was interesting to focus on one form so long and so intensely. We had a nice vacation to San Diego, and I made the most of what was, by midwestern standards, a cool summer.

The fall was productive: a good amount of throwing time, some overdue kiln maintenance and several firings. I worked on my largest dinnerware order to date, and learned some new things about sets and repetition throwing. Somewhere in there I squeezed in time for a quick camping trip and Maggie's first birthday. As I've detailed at length, my 10th annual holiday sale was great, primed by a promotional experiment that had a lot of interesting ramifications.

We spent the holidays at home, which was restful, but also let me break the ice on seven weeks away from the wheel. I ended the year as I started it, working with porcelain, and have a good cluster of new pots going towards the next firing, and some forward motion in a good direction. My feel for the porcelain progressed a lot this year, and it's really starting to sink it's hooks into me. I think about it often in my idle times, the potential of all that pristine whiteness.

Some extraneous details that come to mind: I made a new habit of taking Sunday's off (or, at least, of not working in the studio); temporarily abandoned my walleyball career; started learning to split firewood with an axe; acquired a taste for homemade pesto from the garden; and adapted to getting by on an insufficient amount of sleep.

In terms that are more numerically measurable, I made 554 pots this year. (I wish I'd seen that coming and made one more, to get to a nice triple five!) That's the second highest total since I started keeping track in 2003 -- second to 2006, when I was full time in the studio most of the year. That's still not as many pots as I'd like to make, of course, but not a bad total for part-time work! It suggests that I may be slowly figuring out how to be more efficient in the studio. In fact, it's possible that the tighter constraints on my work time, and less predictable schedule, prompted me to be more aware of the time, and more focused on making effective use of it. Just doing my part to maintain the old Protestant work ethic.

I did 10 firings, and ended up with a lot of pots that I was quite happy with. It will take me a while to put together my yearly gallery archive, but as I skim through the year's photos, I see many gratifying highlights. Both my sales were very good this year, near record-setting in several categories, and my pots were in three other exhibitions, including the SFPN.

I read 11 books -- 9 non-fiction and 2 actual novels -- and a slew of New Yorker articles, blogs, and other online stuff. I spent a vast number of hours listening to podcasts, while my hands were busy, and an unaccounted span of time staring at the TV, in concession to my need for some passive downtime at the end of each day.

Here on the blog, I added 46,360-odd words (!), 212 images, and 49 posts. (Or, technically speaking, 5,334 lines and 317kb of HTML). That's probably too much in every way, and it represents a good deal of time that I could have spent elsewhere, but this thing seems to have a life of its own now. Everytime I try to get out, it pulls me back in.

I primarily detailed each week's activities in and around the studio, which gets to be repetitive -- and perhaps dull from the reader's perspective -- but it mirrors the process of making pots very accurately. Wedge, throw, finish, fire, sell. Repeat.

In addition to my usual references to music and numerology, Clary Illian and Michael Simon, mowing the grass and stoking the stove, function and process, meta-blogging issues and my perpetually messy studio, I wrote about a variety of other topics: lime popping, The 10,000 Hour Rule, pricing, softening hard clay, Stumbling On Happiness, Maggie's first birthday, Ceramics Monthly online, and my pottery stimulus act.

I finally got around to adding an RSS feed for this thing and to archiving a couple years of old posts. Here's all of 2009, just now moved to permanent storage.

And last but not least, here's a review of the best, most relevant photos from 2009 -- the year in pictures: