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2012 Archive

December 30th, 2012

"All this time, the river flows, endlessly to the sea." - Sting

Although the new year is already flowing onward, I'll add one last entry here for 2012; a coda to the year's composition. (Even after five years of practice, I can still only report on my experiences after they've happened. Pity.)

I have several ongoing debates with my wise friend and pottery blog pimp Carter Gillies, including one about making resolutions: their usefulness; our flimsy ability to make substantial, lasting changes in ourselves; and the curious way their timing usually coincides with an arbitrary cycling of the calendar. I've argued the pro side for the most part -- that making a New Year's resolution in the past has been a useful way to upgrade my habits -- but I've decided not to make one this year. Perhaps Mr. Gillies' mystical influence is starting to work on me.

In part, that's because I'm just not feeling much slack right now; no space to try to do more. If anything, I'm fighting a rear-guard action against an avalanche of evidence that I need to be doing less; that my resolution, if I were to make one, would need to be along the lines of paring back my plans and expectations. A strategic retreat.

Also -- and I readily admit that this might just be the calcifying brain chemistry that comes with middle age talking -- it seems that as the years click by, not much really changes. Which is to say, things do change, but so gradually that they don't seem to. Like watching sunlight make its way across the room out of the corner of your eye, you know it's happening, but can't actually see it happen.

For example, parenting definitely gets easier year by year, but unless I make a conscious effort to note the details of that change, they get caught up in the wash. The hedonic treadmill of fatherhood. My pots are getting better, as are my knowledge and skills at making them, but only steadily and incrementally. The big leaps are rare. And the blog here, I think, is progressing, but in ways that probably seem increasingly eccentric to regular readers, and impenetrable to new ones. Focusing on topics that are way off-topic, burrowing ever deeper into my own recurring metaphors and vague references, indulging almost every structural trick and compositional tic that comes to mind... if that's progress, it's of a very strange sort. I guess it's getting better for me, but I'm not sure that means it's improving for any of you.

And speaking of me not writing particularly well, I finished a short article for Ceramics Monthly last week, about my experience of trying to become a full-time potter, and some of the things I learned both before and after Killing The Dream.

It came on assignment, a request for me to write more concisely about that topic, and so was difficult in a number of ways -- primarily because of the limited word count (750), but also due to all the parameters that are so different than writing here. More on that later, perhaps.

Anyways, after carving away at it in bits and pieces over several days, I think it came out pretty well. I gave it my best effort, and tried to be as honest and sincere as possible, while also tailoring the story for what I imagine that audience to be.

I'd love to be able to share it with you here and now, but I signed some paperwork giving up the rights to that blob of words for all time and in every conceivable transmission medium (or some legalistic jargon to that effect), so I'll have to wait until its print publication.

I've also been slowly ramping back up in the studio, starting to get some momentum with the clay again. I finished up the last of that gritty, dark stoneware and, after seeing what it's capable of in that last group of firings, am really enjoying working with it. Such a change up from porcelain. Following up on some tests I did, I'm putting on more brushed white slip than I've used in as long as I can remember, which is a lot of fun. It's hard to go wrong with wet slip. I'm also starting to get a feel for my fancy Support Your Local Potter brushes, which help my limited brushwork skills quite a bit. Despite the packed snow, the holidays, and the weariness, it's good to be making pots again.

December 16th & 23rd, 2012

"Let's put our heads together, and start a new country up. Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like..." - R.E.M.

I've dug quite the hole for myself here, with a commitment to writing every week. Sometimes I fear I have nothing to say. Even harder are times like these, when I fear that if I say anything I'll end up saying too much. What do you say in the wake of the unspeakable?

Let's try to fill it in.

My grandfather, James Wesley Watson, was born 100 years ago this week, on the numerologically interesting date of December 12th, 1912.

How to sum up a life in a few paragraphs?

He was a wonderful person: kind and gentle beyond expectation, intelligent and curious, wise but humble. Able to see the world and its various miseries, while still enjoying a good belly laugh about the small stuff. He genuinely cared for other people, and acted on that care.

In the years when I didn't have a father, he and my uncle filled that role admirably. And now that I'm someone's Dad, I see what that meant, and can imagine what it required, quite differently. I am somewhat awed by it.

I inherited his middle name: it's the W in the maker's stamp that I impress into every pot. He was my moral role model.

"Take a picture here, take a souvenir."

He and my grandmother Peggy were in the "Greatest Generation", and while I'm ambivalent about that label, as I am about most broad generalizations, if we're going to award first place to any cohort, that one probably deserves it. More to my point, that term suggests a generation of Americans whose lives were dramatically influenced by the sweep of history -- the turmoil of the first half of the 20th century -- and who, in the main, responded to it in ways we should remember and honor. That's certainly true of my grandparents.

Grandpa grew up on a farm outside Stuartsville, Missouri. I can't recall him talking much about what that was like, but I know that kids ate last, and that the work was hard. He enlisted in the Navy before WWII, in part, the story goes, to escape that life on the farm. It's hard to imagine now what a steady paycheck and the opportunity to "see the world" would have meant then, to someone who came of age at the start of the Great Depression, and had hardly traveled beyond the borders of his county.

He was posted at radio stations all over the western hemisphere during and after the war. To the shock of their families, he and Grandma eventually settled in San Diego, a world away from their roots. (In a mirror image of that choice, forty years later I went in the other direction, my family's strange migration from the midwest to California and back again, almost as if it were running on a loop.)

I don't know much about his military service. As with his childhood, there are a few stories that were repeated enough times to become family lore, passed down so that I can retell them here, sadly missing all the details and nuance that I'd ask about now if I could. This is how we create a modern mythology. Like the time they showed their wives, stationed with them at a remote post in Panama, how to "use up extra ammunition" with the machine gun, not telling them the real reason until years later. Or freezing through a winter in upper Maine. Or whipping the heads off snakes somewhere in South America.

He was, as I believe he called it, a radioman. Occasionally, when we were kids, he'd retrieve his speed key, in its special case, and show us how he used to move its mechanism back and forth to send Morse code. I can still hear the sounds he'd make for the dots and dashes as he explained them -- dit dit, de deet deet deet -- and remember the way the crook in his thumb perfectly fit the indentation in that polished-smooth handle.

He probably did more than just transmit messages -- parts of the story don't line up with that simple explanation -- but the truth of it, I suppose, is lost to untold stories and, for now, the national archives.

He only had high school education (the norm for that time), but I think of him as both book smart and intellectual. As another story goes, when he went with a group of friends to try to join the Navy -- in those years before the US entered the war, when jobs were scarce and the demand for recruits was low -- he was the only one to pass the entrance exam. Then, ironically, after his years of military experience and training, when he needed a second career he had to convince the local postmaster that he wasn't overqualified for the job he wanted; that he was best suited for delivering the mail. Preferably on foot. Despite (what I imagine to be) its monotony and simplicity -- or perhaps because of it -- I think it was his dream job. Utilitarian, in direct contact with the people he served, outside every day without ever stepping through a patch of ice or getting stepped on by a surly cow.

I never heard him call himself a mailman; the title he used was "letter carrier", and he said it with pride. His gnarled and weathered hands showed the record of many unfriendly dogs, and of years spent clutching the next batch of envelopes. They were working hands, and while I had no idea of it at the time, that fact left an impression on me. I've learned that there's value, and a certain kind of honor, in knowing how to do things with your fingers; to manipulating the world in tangible, self-directed ways.

When he retired a second time, it was to travel, and church ministry, and to his amazing backyard garden. You can leave the farm behind, but I suspect the farm never really leaves you. It's like the garden was his farm of choice, rather than one of destiny.

That garden strikes me now as a quietly rebellious act, too. They lived on Palomar Drive for fifty years; a post-war street of nearly identical, modest houses, with immaculately-tended little lawns, and a conformity that was likely reassuring then, but which I would find stifling now. From the front, their's was no different, but stepping out to the back patio revealed that he'd replaced the lawn with rows of boysenberry bushes and tomato plants, bean vines and fruit trees. It was like Eden in the suburbs. Outwardly communal while inwardly individualistic, never presuming or imposing too much on others, yet sustaining that personal and unusual space within... In some ways, I think that sums him up nicely, and perhaps adds some truthful complexity to the falsifying mechanics of memory.

He chose his own path when he joined the Navy, and again when he settled far from home. Perhaps even more so when he chose the Postal Service over what I assume where plentiful opportunities in the civilian defense industry. (Growing up, it seemed like that was how every other adult male I knew made their living.) He converted to my Grandma's church, probably also an unpopular decision, and in most ways was the quieter partner in their marriage. That's more common today, but I suspect pretty rare among their peers.

(My Grandma, Freda Lee Flynn Watson, was remarkable in her own right; a force of nature amongst the varied elements of our extended family. I don't mean to diminish her by focusing on him now; I plan to write more about her one day, too.)

He was a layman preacher in his church, and while I attended many of those services, I can't remember the words that he said. But I'll never forget the resonance of his voice during the hymns, the way it carried the bottom end of a good harmony, with a distinctive quirk I haven't heard anywhere since then. And I remember how much he seemed to enjoy using it.

I remember him sitting in his home study, thirty-odd years ago, working on letters and sermons, and imagine him struggling through the process of writing them out at his typewriter. I'd like to think that bears some resemblance to me sitting here, working on this. If not in any specific way, at least to some degree in intent. And if our eras were somehow reversed, with me in his century and him in mine, I can picture myself there, stocking away carbon copies into my files, and him here, sending pulses of light up to the global hive mind.

In addition to his strong religious belief -- and, I think, in no real opposition to it -- he was keenly interested in science, particularly in the discoveries and technological advancements of the later 20th century; the things that would have been unthinkable when he was a boy. Sometimes when I'd visit them, we'd sit over "breakfast cereal" at their round dining room table, and he'd tell me about something he'd just seen on TV or read in Discover magazine, some interesting bit about astronomy or geography that I'd likely have heard about from no other source.

In my memory, he seems open-minded and comfortable with questioning, rather than closed and dogmatic. Perhaps that's a retroactive interpretation on my part, perhaps not. It might come with the territory when you convert to a religion in adulthood, as he did. As a teenager or in my early 20's, in the few conversations about religion that I had with he and my grandma, they encouraged me to ask questions, with the implication that I should think for myself and, perhaps, start working on finding my own answers. That might just be how I want to remember it, a way to bridge what would now be a rather wide gap between their view of reality and mine. They'd probably be rather disappointed that more of the particulars of my religious education didn't stick, if we were able to sit and talk about it today. Even so, I wish we could.

I had a dream about him the other week; part of what prompted this post. One of those dreams that's so vivid it was like he was right there in the room with me. It's strange, the things the mind remembers on its own schedule, but which remain inaccessible to our conscious requests. The dream was probably seeded by a more recent memory, from watching a bit of video I have of him on a Christmas Eve more than 20 years ago. In it, he's playing a song on a harmonica that he'd just received as a gift, and he says something to himself, unaware that the camera's turned on him, like, "My, my. It's been a long time since I played one of these." It's a wonderful moment. At the time, of that filming, I was surprised at this previously-hidden ability to play an instrument. Like the strange Morse code machine, or his ability to touch type, I wondered what other talents lurked there, just below the surface?

I'm not entirely sure how this quote relates to this story, or if it does, but it's one I squirreled away months ago, and that I think about fairly often, in my role as a parent:

“When I was a child, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that it wasn’t appropriate for adults to tell about their early lives. However... parents who don’t tell their stories contribute to their children’s limited understanding of their role in the world. It certainly appears to have been the case for me. The way my parents and grandparents presented themselves, it felt like they dropped from the sky.” - Jerry Waxler

Growing up, my grandparents' house was a place of comfort and refuge. In my memory, it's taken on almost mythical proportions. If I were to choose a psychological "happy place", there are few in my past that would serve as well. Of course, that was a lot more about them than about the building; it was the environment they created and invited us into. It seems that they saw each one of us -- their six grandsons -- as we really were at that particular point in time. And, somehow, as individuals, too. They were open to questions, clever about pulling the best out of us. They were a second (or third, counting my aunt and uncle) set of super parents, who caught up loose ends, and noticed things below the day-to-day threshold; who probably did their best work on us by never revealing just how much they were working on us.

In their garage, amongst my grandpa's magical collection of old tools, I learned an appreciation of drills without cords, hammers and screwdrivers with worn-smooth wooden handles, and saw blades longer than I was tall. There were usually canned foods from the garden piled high on a shelf, an enormous freezer packed full -- you never can be too careful, I guess -- and any number of strange and interesting things stored away up in the rafters that would come down as the season or circumstance might dictate.

In retrospect, I probably learned some things about open-ended creativity, playing in his woodpile, where we were always encouraged to use whatever we wanted. (Today, I wonder: where all those bits and scraps came from, living in the suburbs of a major city? Was he stockpiling things he found on his mail route, just for us to discover and put to use later?) I probably also picked up a sense of the daily and seasonal rhythms of labor in the garden; how you move the hose down the row after an hour, or put out compost in the fall, and only after it's had time to get good. It occurs to me, literally only right this moment, that those experiences might have added to the allure of the pot shop, when I walked in all starry eyed and clueless a decade or so later. Go figure.

(I learned a thousand things like this from my Dad, too, of course. But, as we parents tend to do, those lessons were more specific and utilitarian: push the pedal to bleed the brakes like this, hold the hammer like that, be careful not to strip the head off that screw. Maybe that's what grandparents are best at: providing the open-ended counterpoint to all the mandatory things Mom and Dad have to cram into our brains before rushing off to work again.)

After I'd grown up and gone away to college, I saw my grandparents much less often; from almost-weekly all through my childhood to just a few times a year. So it seemed that I was always either arriving or leaving; those increasingly rare trips back to my hometown from wherever I was living that year. I don't remember when it began, but I gradually realized that every time we parted, Grandpa said the same thing to me at the end, sending me off again: Vaya con Dios.

In Spanish, that means, "Go with God", like the pre-shortened version of "Goodbye" in English. Like the machete I selected from the collection of objects he left us -- and which is sitting in my studio right now, waiting to cut on some clay -- I'd guess he picked that phrase up in Puerto Rico or Panama. But who knows? These things get lost in family memory, once we forget to mark them as important.

Whatever its origin, I think he meant it as a benediction: expressing his hope for both my safety and prosperity; for good luck and good deeds alike. Which is to say, the same kind of wish that I reflexively made for Maggie this week, with an extra kiss on her head, suddenly unsafe in the routine of sending her off to school.

Here near the end of 2012, I'm reminded by what would have been his 100th birthday that the years have gone by quickly, and will continue ever faster, even when in the moment they often crawl, or stubbornly resist progress.

I write here, in part, to mark these weeks, as they accumulate to months and years. Also, now, to tell my story so that they don't have to wonder and mythologize, my daughter and, perhaps, the people that will come after her. I'd rather have them know, if they care to, in detail and in my words, than to have to strain to remember, or guess or invent.

It's my pictogram on the side of the seemingly permanent stone we live next to. I etch out one little line at a time, in hopes they will eventually converge to show a complete image of my world, a personal cosmology. Proof that I was here and tried.

Peace, my friends, and happy holidays. Vaya con Dios.

December 9th, 2012

"I remember when I was 5, and told my mother and father I wanted to become an artist. They told me that artists live in attics and live on beans." - Robert Indiana

"I would rather not have the money." - Dan Rooney

I've done 25 studio sales over the past dozen years. In that time, a lot of the surrounding context has changed considerably: how the sales relate to my life, my business, my goals for the pots and my working process in the studio. As I said last week, I've gradually realized that the criteria I've been using to evaluate the sales events all these years may no longer be the most useful or accurate. In fact, they might even be doing me harm; meddling with my expectations, warping my ability to appreciate the intangible benefits they create.

When I turn off the lights in the showroom and carry the signs back to the studio on those Sunday evenings, most of those 25 times my reaction has been a mixture of relief and disappointment. Relief to have the big deadline past, and that the logistics and details of the thing usually went off pretty well. Disappointment that it wasn't somehow better. Wasn't more.

And that disappointment has most often keyed on the measurable, no nonsense, business-related aspects of the sale; the things I can record and compare with numbers. Customers in attendance, receipts written, pots sold, dollars earned. These statistics demand my attention because they are, by definition, quantitative: they can be counted. Whereas qualitative things are more vague, and therefore subject to endless rounds of reinterpretation.

I've mentioned my weakness for the flimsy appeal of numerology before, and my obedience to the frail promises of perfectionism. Numbers are seductive; they conceal ambiguity, promise clarity and invite comparison. They imply precision and objective truth, often by hiding the assumptions involved in gathering them. And nothing fakes "reality" quite as well as a carefully curated batch of numbers, especially when you put them on a fancy graph.

So I think it's time to start paying more attention to the less measurable things, the intangibles. To give them their due, in hopes of coming to a more reasonable, balanced way of assessing the results.

I will probably always feel some disappointment after a sale -- it follows the stress and exhaustion of making the whole thing happen, like air drags fuel through a Venturi burner. But its become my habit to attribute that feeling to fewer people showed up than I'd hoped for, or less money in the bank after all is said and done, and those numbers and calculations crowd out other reasons that are just as valid, and perhaps ultimately more important.

Like my disappointment that more of these new salt fired pitchers didn't sell. That's not really about having to wait for the income they'll eventually generate. It's because it would have been a shot in the arm to get the immediate validation of them that I was hoping for; the kind that comes from another person liking them enough to part with some of their hard-earned cash to take one home. There's tremendous value in having my view of my best, most recent pots confirmed by other people; and in knowing that my hopes for their utilitarian mission and intended purpose will be fulfilled sooner than later. When attendance and sales are lower, that leaves more pots on the shelf for me to feel regrets about; more room for doubts about their merits to creep in over time.

To flip that around, the same goes for all the aspects of a sale that are rewarding and feel successful. It's one thing to say that this sale was good because I put 148 pots into the hands of paying customers. It's quite different, but just as accurate, to say it was good because of an interesting conversation about ancient Roman drinking vessels or the geo-chemistry of glazes.

(One of the many benefits to living so near a liberal arts college is that many of my customers are professors. I get to pick their brains about the intersection between handmade pots and any number of academic disciplines, from art history and archeology to geology, math and music. I get an intriging glimpse of how they see my work from the framework of these academic disciplines and their expertise in them.)

It seems that the feeling of success, when there is one, should come more from things like that. Or from the fact that that quirky handbuilt oval dish with the checkerboard black underglaze pattern and mysterious holes in the bottom finally found a home. Or from Maggie helping me get the packing materials ready for the first time, and from how excited she was to stand next to me at the sale table, with her own calculator ready for action.

There are other rewards that don't show up in the numbers, too. When I'm not wrapping pots like mad in the early rush, I get to stand back and observe people's reactions to the pots, to answer their questions about how I do a particular thing or why a glaze turns out the way it does. They often make comments about a detail that I'd never have anticipated, or reveal a preference that catches me pleasantly off guard. These are minor revelations, perhaps, but they're so important, because I'm not making Ceramic Art here; things to go on pedestals and under vitrines. I want to make objects that people will use and enjoy; things that a particular person will let into their daily life, up close, and into their private moments. Hearing what they think of my work is a critical part of that loop. It gives me a sense for how well I'm achieving that goal.

This twice-a-year event has slowly gained a feeling of community, if I may use that so-overused word. Being in a small town, and with many of my customers working at the college, there are interesting overlaps among the people that come and a growing sense of familiarity. Some people almost always show up at 10am sharp, and that group has become used to bumping elbows with one another en route to the fully-stocked displays. Others bring their kids along, knowing that with Maggie here we can accommodate youngsters pretty well. (These days, it often turns into a combination pottery sale and impromptu group play date.) And when there's an hour lull on a Saturday afternoon, we get to catch up with friends who linger to talk or let the kids play. We chat about things like how my decorative patterns relate to music, what to do with all that old barn wood in the yard, and how a lightly cracked pot from the seconds shelf might be the perfect gift for a lightly cracked person. About arts education, the odds that we'll get another crazy ice storm this winter, the relative impermanence of a coffee mug and the philosophical implications of accidentally throwing one down a staircase. And, of course, university shop talk and gossip, which never go out of fashion.

I don't mean to overstate my point here. Obviously, the money is important. It would be good for the numbers on my historical spreadsheet to show stability, and even better if they showed an upward trend. At the very least, I need the pots to pay for themselves. There's an astonishing amount of infrastructure and related commitments and compromises required to make them; even at its most streamlined and efficient, it's an expensive endeavor, and I am rarely all that streamlined or efficient.

I'd like them to return enough profit that I'm not constantly second-guessing my choice to devote more than half my working life to them. While I've accepted that my labor pays well below the hourly minimum wage, and likely always will, writing off those hundreds of hours each year as a donation to some nebulous cause won't work. For all the intangibles I listed above, it still matters to me that the world values what I'm doing in economic terms, too.

But on a hypothetical list of Reasons Why I Make Pots, making money isn't in the top three, and it might not even crack the top five. It's one motivation among many, but certainly not the most important one. So why then, at the end of a sale, should I base the labels of "good" or "bad", "success" or "failure" on just that one factor?

Furthermore, as I've said before, one of my reasons for Killing The Dream was to get out from under the unrealistic demands it created, and all the problems that spawned from them. For a long time, one of those problems has been that the studio sales must grow. That what they've been is nice and good, but they need to be more and better.

I've kept those detailed statistics from the very first sale, back in December 2000, on the assumption that having the data would allow me to improve the data; that careful attention to those numbers would lead to better numbers. I hoped that from year to year I'd chain them together into a sustainable business model, then a primary source of income, and then a long career as a full-time potter. That, in a nutshell, was The Dream, this youthful fantasy that I keep warbling on about.

It seems to me now that such dreams are for the young. The middle-aged must be satisfied with measured goals and stubborn, unvarnished reality.

In my post-dream era, it doesn't really matter all that much how the numbers for this sale compare to last spring, or last year, or any year. It's certainly not the only thing that matters.

People matter. Relationships matter. Making a small but personal "dent in the universe" matters. Quality and beauty; the satisfaction of a job well done; trying to constantly refine my ideas and improve my skills -- those things matter. And, most of all, knowing that I put everything I had into this cycle of work matters. My intent was sincere, my heart full and my efforts genuine. Everything that happens after that is beyond my control.

December 2nd, 2012

"Oh, things I long for, peaceful nights, strangers at the door. 
Come in, come in… you've been here before." - Augie March

It's hard to know what to say this week, here in the post-sale weary weirdness. I've got a lot of text here -- boy, do I have a lot of text -- but it's mostly top-of-mind snippets, notes for future posts, first attempts at fleshing out larger or more complex ideas. Things that I would be wise to consider more carefully before putting them on the Internet.

And the same goes internally. I'm reminding myself this week to be cautious of my thoughts, and careful with my expectations. Given all that it took to get the sale off the ground this time, I'm worn out and kind of emotionally brittle. So many things get deferred or crammed into the run up to the sale deadline that there's a reverberating echo afterwards, no matter how well it turned out.

None of which is improved by the many weeks that have gone past since I last spun wet clay or really worked with my hands. The absence of my studio routine gradually reveals all that I gain from it in normal times. Without it, there's a hollowness at the core, a minor void in me that spreads until it threatens to unbalance all that revolves around it. It grows slowly, with symptoms minor enough that they can be swept aside or casually attributed to other things, but given enough time, that hallow beings to displace the important stuff. I forget it's there until one day I find myself listing sideways, looking out at the world from an untenable perspective. So despite the tiredness, or perhaps even because of it, I need to get back to the studio and the clay, even just a little, as soon as time and circumstance allow.

Which, I suppose, is not what you probably want to know about. The sale itself was pretty good. Not bad, not great. In terms of pots sold and dollars earned, it was about 10% below the recent historical average. Turnout was about the same, perhaps with a slight trend of each person spending a little less or buying less expensive pots on average. The pots sold in the proportions of forms and glazes that they usually do: lots of mugs, all the plates, fewer vases and bottle shapes, not many of the biggest or most expensive pots, but some occasional surprises. Salt fired stoneware and porcelain do best; Teadust is a mainstay and still outpaces my newer celadon and white glazes. Almost nobody likes Woo Yellow.

Many if not most of my favorite pots from the recent firings went out the door, and there are a few that didn't which I'll be happy to live with for a few more months. (I look at them over my first cup of coffee some mornings, lined up in the early sun, and interrogate them with quiet questions.) Also, some oddities that had long-awaited their future homes finally found them, reinforcing my belief that there's a pot for every person and a person for every pot. Sometimes it just takes a while to make the match.

So overall it was a little disappointing in terms of "business", but also good enough. I try to diligently keep the upper bounds of my hopes in check before each sale -- the secret to happiness is low expectations, right? But, of course, I'm always secretly hoping to hit all-time highs; to sell every pot; to have a million people show up and plow through the showroom like the rush for land or something. It's too much work leading up to it not to hope for that, at least a little.

The irony is that if it ever was that kind of dramatic success, my immediate reaction would be panic over how I would possibly be able to get enough pots made and fired to refill the shelves before the next one. Ha! Talk about trying to thread the needle!

For several years now, I've maxed out what I'm capable of producing, and even when I deliberately knuckle down and try to work more steadily, I never seem to make more than goes away at my twice-a-year sales, occasional showroom visits, and web sales. As problems go, that's a good problem to have, I know. But it's to the point where I've delayed bigger projects so many times -- like the new kiln shed and salt kiln -- that I'm starting to wonder if they'll ever happen without making a drastic cut somewhere else. So the silver lining of a less than great sale is the possibility of squeezing in something extra the next time around.

(I should repeat that my output is relatively low for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I work pretty slowly in the studio. It's just the way it is. Also because I have a half-time dayjob. And also, somewhat relevant, a four year old daughter, an aging back, and a weakness for knocking off early and doing something fun instead of grinding out the last hour of the average day (e.g. I'm undisciplined and kind of lazy.))

So even as I look at the results of the sale and wish they were better, I try to remember to be careful what I wish for, and more appreciative of what I have. Success is relative: ideally, not too little, not too much.

More specifically, there was a strange traffic pattern this time, and it's starting to seem like a trend. (If I may be so foolish as to refer to my customers as "traffic". You're all wonderful, unique human beings whom I value far more than that term might suggest! Really!) This makes two sales in a row that most of the people show up in the first few hours on Saturday morning and then things tail off sharply, with Sunday feeling more like a performance art piece than a retail event... mostly just me sitting around on the odd chance that anyone will show up, but spending the entire day trying to be ready at a moment's notice. This time, I had exactly two customers on Sunday -- two! -- where in years past it's been as many as two dozen. And while it's tempting to chalk that up to some combination of my ever-changing promotional efforts, unusually fine weather, or the vagaries of the global economy, I doubt those things really make that much difference. More likely, it just proves a lack of broader interest: the people that really want my pots come and buy them; everyone else doesn't. Most of the pots go to people who have been coming to my sales for years now, people I've come to know by name. New customers come in ones and twos, notable exceptions, and more often than not don't come back. I imagine there's a fairly big disconnect between the average person's idea of "pottery" and what they find when they walk in the door here.

All of which makes my appreciation for my existing customers more precise. There's more I'd like to say about the difference between the measurable aspects of a sale -- numbers, dollars, metrics -- and the un-measurables. I have the growing sense that my habitual focus on the tangible rewards has been obscuring my view of the intangibles, and that going forward that's a path into ever murkier territory. In the post-dream era, things can be different. Maybe they should be different. It's not mandatory that I keep up the constant worry about growth and sustaining what this thing is right now. It's OK for it to change, perhaps even for it to shrink.

But those thoughts are all still a bit of a mash today -- as I said, I've got lots of text here. Just not in a form that's fit for sharing quite yet. I'll see what I can cobble together from it for next week. Until then... thanks, as always, for reading.

November 25th, 2012

"There is a kind of alchemy in really good art that emerges from that zone of ambiguity between intention and result…" - Zach Baron

So did I mention that I'm having a pottery sale? Seems like I must have... it's kind of a big deal.


So: the pots are done -- sanded, cleaned and priced; photos shot and new stuff for sale in the Gallery; announcement cards mailed and distributed around town; showroom starting to shape up, house in order; flowers to buy, cookies to bake; and a few days left to get all the details right.

I'm excited that it's almost here. Despite a month of setbacks and illnesses, and postponing a fourth firing until after the sale, I arrived pretty close to my target of 300 pots. And I feel pretty good about them. I look at them stacked on the tables, consider them as a group, as a sequence, as representative of a span of time and effort -- and I feel a bit of pride. The pots are ready. I should be ready by Saturday morning. And, if I were to walk in the door, as a customer, there are plenty of things I'd be happy to leave with. (If that leap of the imagination makes any sense.)

I'm equally excited that it will soon be done. Another cycle complete, another reset of the clock back to a full five months before the next one. Breathing space. A rest will be good.

And/but... I'm already starting to daydream about what will come next. Where to resume on my make list, what ideas of pots I want to aim at the next time around, which images to aspire to. The mid-December through January time in the studio is almost always a good one, and as much as I'm happy to stop, I'm also happy at the idea of getting to start again.

Wish me luck. See you on the other side.

November 18th, 2012

"Life is crazy. But I already knew that last Thursday, and so did you."
- Chuck Klosterman

Right. Progress:

So #53 fired off well and good, a nice batch of pots to finish the firing cycle. Alas, #54 will have to wait; I've got the pots to fill it, but not the time to fire it before my sale in two weeks. And just when I was starting to hone in on the good stuff. Bummer.

Glazing and firing is another peak on the mountain range. Like with throwing, I can never just start over again at the top -- I've got to slog back up there, gear and all. At best, some of the ropes are still there from the time before, just in need of a little tightening. There may be a few half-remembered hints about where the good footholds are; or hastily-scribbled notes about the best spots to step out of the wind for a moment on the way up.

In any case, it's work to get back to the summit -- hard + fun -- and once I reach it, I wish I could stay longer. Unlike with throwing, however, it's usually more clear when it's time to hike back down. The calendar says the pots I already have done need to be cleaned up and priced; the showroom rearranged and made special; the promotional engine primed, fueled and blasted off in all it's loud, crass, smoky glory.

Almost sale time. Here I go again.

November 11th, 2012

"...clapping along with the absurdity of life." - Anne Lamott

Progress? Did I really end that last post with "progress"? Ughhhh. Look -- I'm no great believer in cosmic fairies and whatnot, but that's just asking for it.

And no, I'm not talking about the election results. Those were awesome. I'm referring to the ridiculously gerrymandered district that roughly borders our house and yard, in which all three registered occupants came down with the flu over the weekend, devastating the polls which had strongly predicted a few good days in the studio, another firing and, yes, progress. So much for facts.

Seriously, that was awful. And terrible timing, too. Despite working for months to stay on schedule, I still needed November to go pretty flawlessly, and it's been everything but that so far. So now it'll be three weeks of crazy crunch time and a rush to my sale. Which I hate.

I try not to use this space as a soapbox for my angst. Really, I do. (I could link to numerous bits of evidence to the contrary, hence the word "try".)You don't care about my minor setbacks and misfortunes, and you shouldn't. Everybody's got troubles, and most of them are boring. And mine rarely rise above the level of #firstworldproblems. Boo hoo, so I missed some studio time and now have to work harder to pull off another pottery sale. Sucks to be me!

On the other hand, if I may spin this into the realm of the meta yet again, I aim for tw@se to be as honest and fully-rounded a view of what being a potter is like for me as I can make it. And that doesn't happen if I leave all the messy parts left on the cutting room floor. That's a highlight reel. There have certainly been times where I've done that -- usually in the midst of some minor crisis that I can't yet see past well enough to describe it. And while it's easier to not have to explain every last drab detail sometimes, in aggregate it creates a false view of my daily life, of which being a potter is only one part.

Similar to the way that I think it's important to show both the successful pots and the failures here, if I hide all of my trials and frustrations, this whole endeavor becomes a mere marketing tool. And who needs more of that?

Which prompts further questions. What's more self-aggrandizing: constantly buffing my experiences to a rosy, enviable glow, or protecting my fragile ego by wailing on about my circumstances and struggles?

And then there's the matter of maintaing a reasonable perspective. Half full; half empty. Balance. Nihilism v. Optimism. Being up half the night with a sick kid, then losing two days to being sick myself leaves a smoking crater on the calendar. For sure. But it could -- it always could -- be so much worse. Water bugs, trout below. If these are the worst of my problems, it's still a pretty charmed life, all in all.

I'll make to my sale, even if it's with a few less pots that I'd hoped, and requires a few more long, wearying days to make it all happen. The donkey work of getting out the promotion and setting the stage for the event is a drag even when there's time to spare, so the difference is marginal.

One of the benefits of keeping a public blog is the way it forces me to consider the half-full view. The threat of revealing my foolishness is ever present. It helps keep my teeth gnashing, wallowing, self pitying and plaintive fate bemoaning in check. It reminds me that even the ability to sit here and write about it is a privilege, let alone the still-amazing ability to share it with anyone who cares to listen.

It's hard to maintain that kind of humility and gratitude in the face of a big, onrushing deadline. In the midst of illness, it's hard to remember and appreciate the lucky run of health that proceeded it, or all the other good things that have come our way lately. My blue team won, and won big, in one of those elections that seemed to have real historical significance. Much more mundanely -- but still somehow of great emotional importance -- my other blue team, the Colts, are on a surprising roll, and the greatest Colt ever is in the middle of an unexpected comeback season, tearing it up in Denver. Cindy passed her review for promotion to full professor. I've got exciting plans coming up this winter. Our finances are gradually improving on a variety of fronts. Our daughter gets a little bigger, stronger and smarter every day. We've been sick, but we'll get well. We've got a surplus of heat, food, support and comfort. Even when it's a dogged routine of two steps forward, one step back, most of the time that's a net gain.

And the kiln is firing great. There's a lot of good bisqueware waiting for glaze, whether I get to it now or later. I'm going to grind out the next few weeks, and people will come buy pots -- more or less -- and then I'll be free to start the cycle all over again, pretty much in whatever way I please. That counts for a lot, and shouldn't be taken for granted. It's almost all relative, and we choose where to place our bets. Right?


November 4th, 2012

"...there is nothing wrong with working in a similar style as some one else. But to blatantly copy work with no intent to grow from it, well, that's just sad." - Brandon Phillips

Another good firing, and I'm closing in on my goal of 300 pots for the sale. My best sales events correlate pretty well to the total inventory I have available -- the more I have to sell, the more I sell. And perhaps this is more imagination or circumstance than fact, but for the Decemeber sale there's a "magic number" somewhere around 300 pots on the shelves. So that's my target. Of course, even more would be great.

So firing #52 in my funky little kiln is done, #53 is on deck, and if I get lucky/ambitious I may even get #54 through it before December 1st. Despite an avalache of setbacks and distractions, I'm getting there, slowly but surely.

#52: Before

#52: After

It's occurred to me that I don't often write in much detail about the pots themselves, which is sort of absurd given how many words I've cranked out here over the years. So below are some notes about this batch of pots, my thinking from the place where I'm still not quite sure what to think of them. These are the things that go through my mind as I first pull them out of the kiln into the light of day, and work to reconcile my aims and expectations with what actually transpired in the fire.

These are made with a new white stoneware clay from Standard (#500). It's similar to the Amaco white stoneware I've used for years, but a nicer color, it seems to take the salt with more subtlety, and, so far, it's giving me fewer cracking problems. (I suspect that it has less fillers than the cheaper Amaco clay.) It throws about the same and takes my palette of slips and glazes almost identically, so I think I've bought my last box of 38-M. Too bad I still have 40+ boxes of reclaim lying around.


I'm not sure about the big domino panel on that little jug; it might be overwhelming the form too much. I like the horizontal bands of black underglaze on this small vase, especially where they blur a bit in heavy salted spots. I've been adding small scalloped ridges on vertical forms like this with a crisp metal ridge, and like how the black both highlights and covers them; the pot feels like it has an organic rhythm to it. This poured flashing slip and yellow glaze dots combination is working pretty well now -- I'm comfortable with it -- but perhaps even too much. It's starting to feel a little contrived, too obvious an answer. I might need to start over in a new place with it. The pitcher on the far right was the first in a group, and so the furthest from the form I was aiming at, but it has kind of a lumpy grace to it, with that oversized handle and spout. Reminds me a bit of some pre-industrial European peasant jugs I've seen, which may actually be a better target to aim for than the more sharply defined, angular pitcher next to it.

Brushed black glaze on faceted bowls. This is a brand new thing for me; an extension out of my comfort zone of dots, dots and more dots. I was telling a friend the other day that if a load of pots doesn't come out with some failed experiments, I feel like I'm not properly doing my job. Despite all my whining lamentations about the struggle to make a sustainable go of this pottery thing, when I'm starting down a table full of unglazed bisque ware, I like it that I still veer towards risk instead of certainty; towards the haphazard odds of new territory and away from the brutal calculus of business decisions and bland efficiency. If there's a moral and/or political dimension to handmade pots -- and I think there is -- it lies in part right there, in that act of final choices about how to finish them off. That's an understated but implicit value that I learned from my teachers, and that I hope reads through when other people consider my pots.


I like the pattern on the left: just a impression on alternating facets with a loaded brush full of glaze. But the triangular flags on the other bowl were a mistake. Rather embarrassing, in fact. [Even now, I'd be more comfortable just deleting that image and proceeding without it, but I think owning up to my missteps is an important part of tw@se; un-marketing for the sake of greater honesty.]


Those repeating shapes are good idea, perhaps, but whereas I had in mind David Crane's wonderfully precise geometries, my brushwork here was sloppy and ill-suited to the form, and didn't get the glaze to a consistent thickness. Now I know that a pattern like that needs to be defined with wax resist for a more defined edge, and probably dipped instead of brushed to get good glaze consistency and color. I should have known better and tried it on a test tile first. While not technically flawed, this pot is pretty bad -- one of those I'd hate to be confronted with some day sitting on a friend's dining room table. I suspect it's headed to the scrap pile. Lesson learned.

Three new plate patterns. As I said above about my slip pours, I wasn't completely sold on the last few batches of these lunch plates (from firings #48 and #50). All three of these are improvements. If it sticks, maybe I'll call the one on the left "orbit"; it's three black glaze dots and a circle in underglaze pencil. It seems part traditional, part new and weird; like a 21st century rethinking of a Seto horse eye design.


The center one is my favorite of these three; I really like that defining line around the slipped rectangles, segmenting the face of the plate into threes, the slight smudging of those black lines where I waxed over them to resist the orangey slip. The ability to add that kind of decorative element after the bisque -- with glaze pencil -- adds more options beyond the black underglaze that I brush on at the leatherhard stage. And it retains a sketchy feel to it -- the mark of the pencil tip skipping along the hardened clay surface.


The design on the right -- resisted slip stripes with small glaze dots over them -- owes a lot to a pair of plates we have by Linda Christianson. With, of course, the obvious caveat that hers are about a hundred times better.

The mug on the left has my Green to Black copper glaze on the exterior, a more stable liner glaze inside, and some really nice salting of the slip below the glaze line. It's "loose" in a way that I aspire to reach more often in my throwing. The little jar has two nice "cat's eye" glaze drips, and I really like how the poured slip followed the flattened faces of the form. I've done almost no paddling of thrown forms, but it seems like something I should try to get better at. This is a good test pot that I should make larger. The mug on the right is another new Standard clay body, a darker stoneware (#119, I think). It's almost too dark for my tastes, but is a nice complement to the lighter colored clays. (I could probably lighten it up by crash cooling the kiln, but didn't want to do that to the whole load for a couple mugs. It might be worth doing most of a load in that clay to make the quick cooling worth the trouble/risk.) I'm also thinking about using white slip at leather hard to define that rectangular panel of decoration; might add some contrast against the darker brown. This clay salts really nicely; a thin but classic orange peel texture and good variation.

Four mugs. From left: another glaze pencil and dots motif, on porcelain; a smaller mug in the dark stoneware; and two porcelain cups with copper celadon glaze. I love how quiet the salting on the bare porcelain is -- such a subtle, restrained effect, and a nice change up from reduction firing, where I feel obligated to cover the entire form with glaze. Where they're thinnest, these cups are translucent.

Lastly, two medium sized utensil jars; Green to Black glaze; from the most heavily salted and hottest spots in the kiln: the back corners of the bottom shelf. These got really blasted this time -- I should probably dial back the rock salt a little more. It wore away more of the crystalline areas of the glaze than I was aiming for, but they're still pretty damn nice. Lots of fluxed out drips on the "A" sides, and really nice runs off the three lugs. (I'm still a sucker for trilateral symmetry). The glaze gets fluid in those stamps, too, which is a really nice effect seen up close. They're a little rough where the salt/soda cratered some, and I'm not sure why it didn't smooth back down. I usually finish salting with ~50º and 45 minutes firing time to go before shutoff, and usually don't see anything like that. (I think it'll smooth down nicely with some extra fine sandpaper.)


The "B" sides have darker, more subtle greens through matte brown and the grayish crystals that are left where the glaze is shielded from the salt vapors. I deliberately stack this glaze close to the shelf posts and other pots to encourage these drier areas; I like everything it does, but it's the combination of three or four different effects on the same pot that really lights it up. There's great color in the flashing slip that I left exposed on the bottom quarter of each pot, as usual on the bottom shelf in this kiln, and I'm really liking how these cut feet are turning out, with their various facets exposed or hidden from the salt to differing degrees. It really encourages turning the pot over to see the foot and the space trimmed out underneath.

There were a few others, too, that I somehow neglected to photograph on the way out of the kiln: a couple porcelain lidded jars, more mugs, some uninspiring test tiles. About 30 pots in all, done and done.


October 28th, 2012

"Remember when we were young and cared?" - Dan Pfeifer

Notes To My Former Self, vol. III

Here I am, young and dumb in 2004, in my first studio.

The dream was white hot back then, ablaze with potential and possibility. Hope sprang from my fingertips, even when the pots weren't very good. I had plans. Things were going to change; I could feel it.

October 21st, 2012

"Never try anything new, or you will fail." - Codex

Sale card time. Which means pretending I'm a graphic designer for 48 hours, flailing around in the infinite array of options, then throwing a PDF file over the digital transom to my printer in California and hoping for the best.

I've been getting better about mocking up ideas in the months between sales. It helps to give the new compositions time to bubble on the back burner, especially since I decided to make a clean break with my longstanding format. It's also easier to mull over what I'm trying to communicate through the design without a tight deadline on that thinking. Changing my mind and then getting comfortable with that change takes time.

I usually approach the design process strategically for a while: "Will design X be more likely to achieve goal Y in circumstance Z?" Then, when that rational, businesslike perspective fails to produce any conclusive answers, I abandon it for an intuitive, gut-based choice. So much for having reasons.

This time, I debated between two options:

Holiday card: Option #1

Holiday card: Option #2

I eventually settled on Option #1, with the four vertical strips of close-cropped surfaces, mainly because it's the one that's been in the Mockup queue the longest. I've done three or four iterations of it in the last year, without quite getting it to a place I was satisfied with. But something about it coalesced this time; perhaps because I'm now in the midst of glazing and firing, so my brain is awash with details of surface, pattern and color.

Option #2 is brand new, a riff on that composition I did of my Make list a couple weeks ago. It's almost there, and I came close to committing to it twice, then chickened out at the last minute for what seems like a safer option. Whatever "safe" means in this context. But that fits the pattern of gradual iteration, and I like having it on deck for next spring. (It's reassuring to know I've pushed back the next deadline by an appreciable margin already.) It might just need some more cooking to get fully baked.

There's a little more to each of them than is pictured above, of course.* Switching formats and making such a dramatic hack of the word "HANDMADE" would be too radical even for the New Me. (Maybe the New Me in a few years will think that's a grand idea.) I cropped them here because I didn't want to fully reveal the design yet -- which I admit is a goofy impulse. Who cares? Are the audiences for this page on the Web and the people who get that piece of glossy cardstock in their snail mail the same? They probably don't even overlap in any significant quantity! Ah well.


So in other news -- not that you really care about my more mundane day to day activities -- nor should you! -- but just in case you're, say, reading this from Spain** and are curious about what I'm up to:

It's very well done and interesting; almost precisely in my wheelhouse. I can't recommend it enough. Most of Warren MacKenzie's stories were already familiar to me, as they probably will be to you, but it was enjoyable to see and hear him tell them again. The parts about Linda Christiansen were excellent; I love her pots, in part because I'm confounded by her entire approach to making and can't imagine working that way myself. Also, the scale of her studio and kiln was pretty eye opening.

And I enjoyed the interaction between Bob Briscoe and his former apprentice, Jason Trebs. To me, Trebs said perhaps the most interesting thing in the entire film, right at the end, about the time it took him to get established as a potter:

"Pottery isn't something that a young mind can master. Ten years in is just sort of scratching the surface."

Yes. Exactly.

* In Option #1, technically there's an "H", and the rest of a "D", an "E", and a trailing ".". (I really like that period at the end. It's exciting.) I suppose you guessed that already, but I just want to be clear that the finished card doesn't read "SANDMAN", or a misspelling of "HANDMAIDEN" or something. Or wait... I'm supposed to be maintaining some suspense. Maybe it really does say HANDMAIDEN, and I deliberately left out the "I" as an act of symbolic rebellion against The Man, and an extension of my looney approach to blogging. Yeah, that could be it.

** Hi Mom & Dad!

October 14th, 2012

"We just like the dots." - Michael Stipe

Now that I've reluctantly finished turning, it's time to start burning. I got one load through the salt kiln this week, squeezing it into an unexpectedly nice span of firing weather. The results were pretty good, especially considering that it was the first firing of the season.

#51: before & after

With 50 firings in this kiln, much of the process has become pleasingly automatic -- I don't have to struggle as much to remember little details like which glaze works best where, or how to set the damper during the early morning warmup. And infrequently used techniques like pouring flashing slip or making glaze dots come back pretty quickly, like they're now largely embedded in muscle memory. Which is great; it feels like a hard-won merit badge or battle scar.

But there's still some warming up to do, of course; the second firing is always better, and if there's time for a third (or fourth!) before my sale, it will probably be better still. Also, I tend to hold back the pots I'm most invested in for the later firings, using those that show less promise as the guinea pigs and testers first.

It's interesting that "warming up" consists mainly of just grinding my mental gears as I switch modes from forming to finishing. It still strikes me as odd and wonderful that making pots includes such an intensive focus on form and infinitely-malleable wet clay, alternating with concentration on surface and transforming these things into stone.

So #51 went well. I got most of the glazes in their zones, and with the help of my notes I remembered what my latest stacking arrangement looks like, and I hit all my marks during the firing. Since I modified the metal chimney that last time and started supplementing the propane with a judicious amount of wood stoking, my kiln fires off fairly reliably and in an amount of time that's not too draining. In fact, it's getting to be downright predictable! After all my early struggles with this (stupid) kiln, I'm grateful for even those simplest qualities.

So this one was jugs, mugs, bowls and plates. Next up, currently cooling in the bisque, will be vases, pitchers, mugs; then tumblers, bowls, oval dishes; and perhaps even more mugs, plates, and anything else that will fit into #54.

If I'm so lucky.

October 7th, 2012

"The information of your message is tiny; those little letters that you
chose to put on screen." - Ze Frank

Check this out:

See anything familiar there?

That's from an episode of A Show with Ze Frank, my favorite web video series.

So, long story short: the show incorporates a lot of audience-participation projects (called Missions). For one of them, Ze asked people to send in a page from their sketchbook, to be sewn together into a jacket or something. Which I did, along with one of my thank you cards with that picture of Maggie holding her mug on it. A month or two later, the card appeared just over his left shoulder, in the Magic Cubby there, in this video that's had something like 40,000 views to date. Kind of surreal.

Assuming you're not already watching A Show, I'm going to recommend it again. I probably shouldn't keep going on about it like it's God's Gift to the Internet or something, but it is pretty dang great.

I think Ze is brilliant, and I love both the concept of this show and it's impressive execution. It blends topics from art, philosophy, science and self-help in a personal, comedic way that I find unexpected and compelling. It is sincere, profane, profound and fun; equal parts bliss and sadness. Kind of like post-post-modernist Wabi Sabi. Many times it's been an easy, interesting ramp into ideas I wouldn't otherwise think about, which is about as high of praise as I can think of giving to something like this.

If I watch an episode while the morning's coffee is still coursing through my blood, it gives me a double-shot of positivism that's hard to come by otherwise. More than one tw@se post has been fueled by Ze's quirky, fun, hopeful view of the world.*

Anyways, I highly recommend starting at the beginning: Invocation. I've quoted it several times here in the past -- heck, alomst every sentence in it is quotable like crazy: "This is an invocation for anyone who hasn’t begun, who’s stuck in a terrible place between zero and one."

Anyways, I say start at the beginning because, like a good novel, starting this series in the middle, or just chewing on random bits will probably leave you a bit underwhelmed and missing much of what it has to offer. The content, style and meta-narrative of A Show gradually build on themselves one episode after another.

If you like the early episodes, chances are good that you'll like the rest, too; in which case, I envy you having the backlog of unwatched episodes to look forward to. Really.

Here's a bit from episode 26: exformation:

"This is the modern art: communicating without communicating. And we do it intentionally, don't we? We know that being vague has power because we know that it gets unpacked on the other end by people's hopes and wishes and dreams."

I think of this often now, when making little blogging choices; deciding how much or little to say or show about a particular idea or experience. Sometimes I chase my FILDI; other times I decide it's best to communicate in code, even if only a small fraction of my potential audience understands how my Enigma machine is programmed. Other times, I just stop and say nothing.


I've been fantasizing about what A Show would look like if it were for potters; with a similar structure and intent, but filled with pots and things only potters would really care about. I think this should be done. And -- in some imaginary universe where my time and attention were limitless -- I imagine how much fun that would be to do. I'd surely love to watch it. Maybe someday I will; say, if I finally blow out my back for good, or get so disillusioned with making $4/hour in the studio that I decide to do something else for free instead.

And now, the great Ze Frank will animate one of your dreams...

* In fact, Ze's approach is part of the tw@se DNA. "A Show" is a follow-up to "The Show", his previous project from 2006-07. It seems a little dated now (and small), but it was a pretty groundbreaking bit of web video and crowd participation. I was watching it on a daily basis around the time I started this blog, so it deserves at least partial credit/blame for my initial approach.

September 30th, 2012

"Dirt, dry bone, sand and stone." - U2

I've finished almost everything on my Make List for this throwing cycle. Which is both an accomplishment and a regrettable end point. I really need to quit wet clay and switch to glazing and firing, but all I want to do is keep rolling with my hard-won momentum, going deeper into form and technique.

It never fails. To the short list of death and taxes, I'd add the fact that I always arrive at my peak throwing skills just in time to stop. Surely this is a sign that I'm going about this whole thing the wrong way.

I mean, here I am, finally in the zone, going with the Flow, "on the crab", hitting on all cylinders, cruising along, feeling it, killing it, living it...

No, wait; I've got it:

After several weeks at the wheel, gradually tackling larger and more difficult forms, I get to this rarified place, like reaching the summit of the biggest mountain in sight. And once I've arrived, I just hate to leave without more to show for having made the ascent. I want to return to basecamp with armloads of great stuff that I found up there -- the best pots in my history.

Because I've been up and back down before. I know how hard it will be to return. You can't just respawn at the peak; you have to start all over again with planning and logistics and stringing ropes, and work your way back to the top. Hell, what I really want is to just live at the top, never returning to the uninspired elevations of daily life. So much of the potter's grind happens down at sea level.

Up at the peak, the pots not only start coming more easily, they're just plain better. They acquire those small differences that really make a difference, without me consciously putting them there, or even knowing how or why I did it. Most of the time, those special qualities that make my best pots the best happen up there, in ways that I can't fake or simply choose to impose on the clay when I'm stuck farther downhill.

But, like Heraclitus's river, I suppose the peak is never the same peak again, either. It's likely a different one each time, as I'm different -- the next mountain in the St. Earth range. Perhaps there's a chance of progression in that: leaving and going back up again offers new territory to explore, maybe even the discovery of different pots at the top of the next peak. If I stay happily encamped at my most recent ascent, how will I ever know?

As the video poet Ze Frank said, "Leaving is just the going without the coming back."

September 23rd, 2012

"Dude, finish your pottery." - Maggie Pixel

I've been working pretty hard in the studio the last few weeks. Pushing myself. As the oppressiveness of high summer gives way to the indescribable beauty of early fall, forces beyond my control drive me to action.

These seasonal triggers are subtle, but they come in bunches: waking up in the near-dark, the first touch of morning frost, the smell of cut grass on a cool day. Farm traffic on the road, Honeycrisp apples at the grocery store, the visual density of the trees gradually dropping away. The changing arc of the sun moving across my studio windows reminds me that every year ends, and that their number is finite.*

I've got a good flow going at the wheel. The switch from porcelain to stoneware is complete; now I think and work in grey and grit. Tangible proof of my efforts sits in little groupings on every horizontal surface. I like the studio best when the shelves are 3/4 full of greenware; I can see exactly where I've been, and it gives me confidence about where I'm going next. The pots start to talk to each other: "Hey, maybe I'll go in that back corner, where the soda really blasts through, and you can go on the next shelf up with that copper celadon glaze."

I'm waiting for the last of the tall pots to get bone dry, then I'll fire off the first bisque of this firing cycle in the salt kiln. I can fit about 50 pots into each electric kiln load, so there will be one (maybe two) more after that. Then -- depending on weather, effort, timing and luck -- I'll do somewhere between two and five salt firings, loading up the shelves for my December sale.

* Growing up in San Diego, fall was my least favorite season -- to the extent that we even had seasons there. It meant shorter days, the end of swimming at the beach, and the start of yet another school year in the system. But in the midwest, it's become my second-favorite: flawless studio days, the end of mowing, football. (Nothing beats spring.)

September 16th, 2012

"Daddy, can we put up a sign that says, 'No storms allowed'?" - Maggie Pixel

The 100-year-old barn that we tried to salvage in 2007 gradually succumbs to gravity and other forces of nature.

As the sections fall to earth, one at a time, the accumulating pile of debris prompts me to send another memo to my former self:

September 9th, 2012

"Steady repetition is a compulsion mutually reinforced."- R.E.M.

September 2007: office | studio

The quote above is from the song 9-9*, which will be forever tagged in my memory to the time I gave up on being a full-time potter. Five years ago today I wrote a difficult post here about returning to my job at the university, after quitting it for the studio life 18 months earlier.

In retrospect, that wasn't very much time to run the experiment. As I said then, "the job opening was unexpected, and I took it because it seemed like an opportunity that was too good to pass up". Looking back, I still think that was the right call. Better that it was this job -- which is still pretty good -- than some other. And I suspect it was only a matter of time, one way or another... I was quickly running out of road in that direction. In that year and a half, I discovered just how staggeringly difficult it is to make a decent living from pots alone, which really increased my admiration for the people who manage to do it and do it well. Since then, as I've chronicled here at length, I've given up on ever becoming one of them. That dream is dead, and I'm looking for a new one, while trying not to visit its grave too often.

I suppose this would be a good spot to do an 'Are You Better Off Than You Were Five Years Ago?' review, what with it being the season of politics and such. But one way in which I'm not better off is that I'm still constantly pressed for time and competing priorities, so I'll have to take a quick shot at it and then punt.

I can say that things are profoundly different for me than they were back then. I'm now Daddy to a charming little girl, which changed almost everything. I eventually transitioned my return to that job into a steady part-time gig, and I don't teach ceramics classes anymore. I know I'm a better potter: a more skillfull and intentional thrower; I "solved" my puzzling little salt kiln; I swapped out or upgraded about half of my glaze palette; and I finally bit the bullet with porcelain, with some decent progress to show for it. But then other projects are still stalled right where they were in 2007: the new kiln and kiln shed, the website redesign, a dozen pending improvements around the studio, and a thousand other unspoken little hopes and aspirations. So it goes.

Lastly, I think I'm a better writer and a clearer thinker than I was then, largely due to maintaining this project over those 250-odd weeks. But those are relative qualities, and my perspective is so warped by my proximity to them that it's probably not for me to judge. I leave that to you.

* It's one of the odder songs from R.E.M.'s genre-defining1983 album Murmur; itself a very odd, brilliant album and a cornerstone of my teenage years and subsequent lifetime of musical tastes. If it's unknown to you, or you passed over it because of their later forays into more mainstream pop, I highly recommend taking a crack at it now. Like certain blogs, and many pots, some music just gets better with age.

"I've gotta stop!"

September 2nd, 2012

"I am an eternal optimist, because if you're not an optimist about this stuff you turn into something awful. You turn into a cynic or you turn into someone who hates the success of other people. And both of those things are just soul-destroying fates to court, right?" - Tom Bissel

This most recent batch of pots is disappointing because it somehow seems like less than the sum of its parts. Especially right after unloading the kiln, it felt like I had put more time, effort and attention into them than shows up in the finished collection of objects. They don't seem to justify all that investment and expenditure, and so I wish that they seemed like more.

I suppose that perspective is an oversimplification, in that it ignores the intangibles. A lot more than fired clay came out of this making and firing cycle, but experience and failure don't have mass; they don't take up space on the shelf next to the pots. They are invisible and therefore harder to remember, harder to account for and reckon with.

And even so -- even factoring in the lessons learned, minor leads discovered and layers of new information packed down into muscle memory during the process -- these pots just didn't live up to my hopes for them. They are good enough: not seriously flawed, not embarrassing to set out as my work. But not really good. Not as good as I'd wanted them to be. "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter."

The trap of expectations springs shut again.

Another consideration is that I'm still in the fairly steep part of the learning curve with porcelain. My hopes were inflated there, too, despite my careful hesitation before attacking that slippery slope.

It's been five full years since I bought those first test batches of porcelain -- the first mention of it here was in my ninth post! That's a long time to still be struggling with what seem like the basics. But of course it's not the years that count, it's the hours.

And "the basics" actually encompasses a wide range of challenges and solutions: everything from choosing one clay body to focus on to how to switch between darker and lighter clays in the studio. I've worked through problems with cracking handle joints, feet sticking to kiln shelves, pots warping and sagging in the hotter parts of the salt kiln, and a half dozen other minor issues that I've already forgotten about. In developing glazes suited to it, I've learned about and corrected for crazing, iron speckling, changes in raw materials, etc. So it's not that the progress has been slow; it's that I failed to see the territory in its proper scale at the start of the journey. Here there be monsters.

It complicated matters that I did't make a permanent switch to porcelain. No, like so many other things in my life I split my time between two contradictory environments, working alternately in both porcelain and stoneware.* I suppose I made that choice partly for fear of letting go of the known -- sailing out of sight of land -- and partly because I stubbornly continue to believe that the benefits of that plurality are worth the bewildering complexity and the compromise of moving forward slowly, on a broad front. Even though my analytical self knows better, the tantalizing lure of achieving both breadth and depth is hard to shake; a vestigial nub of my former optimism.

* Me: Well, it seemed to work for Clary Illian.
  Reasonable person: You, sir, are no Clary Illian.

August 26th, 2012

"A diary kind of sits between the experiencing self and the remembering self, a lot of little moments begging to be remembered, but most will fade away, not big enough for the remembering self to store." - Ze Frank

Typically when I set a pile of freshly-fired pots on a table in the studio, I don't like to move them to the showroom right away. I enjoy lingering over them, both individually and as a group. Particularly when viewed as siblings -- a generation of pots -- I really benefit from that extra time to actively compare and contrast; to catch glimpses out of the corner of my eye as I attend to other things; and to see the glazes in various kinds of daylight. These things help me finalize the experience of making that batch of pots.

Even more, when I'm firing right up against one of my sale deadlines, I often wish that I was far enough ahead of the inventory curve that I could comfortably hold back the last batch, stationing them temporarily in the space between my last touch on them and giving up possession of them for good.

(Which reminds me of Geo. E. Ohr, packing his clay babies away into crates above the garage because he couldn't stand to give them up for adoption.)

Sometimes I squirrel them away into the edges of the studio for future reference, or I carry them to the house, straight past the showroom and into our kitchen cupboards. I've heard other potters who say they don't use their own pots, but I find it to be a really vital feedback loop, experiencing first hand how they perform and hold up over time. And I like how claiming them for myself, even if just temporarily, both suspends the weight of economic transaction and can help prop up my fragile ego. Discovering that some of them are better in use than I'd expected is great.

Perhaps I'm even setting these pots aside as a hedge against the emptiness once the shelves clear out in the next sale cycle. Some physical proof that these things passed through my hands. Ho fatto questo. I made this.

But this time, with all the lingering frustrations that I detailed last week, I needed to get them cleaned up and out of the way -- not so much to make physical space for the pots I hope to fill in behind them, but to clear mental space for myself to move forward. In doing so, I found an unexpected benefit: getting this batch of pots free and clear of the studio and into the "frame" of my public display space changed my perspective on them. Finishing them off added a bit of emotional punctuation, and seeing them in that new context made me a little more satisfied with how they turned out.

Seeing that prompted me to linger over them a bit longer, so I took some photos to document that slight-yet-noticeable turning of the gears, in hopes that they will help me remember that as a strategy the next time I arrive at this spot. I took some straightforward, lighting studio style shots, but these detailed views with the edges cropped off seem to represent the pots more as I see them in my mind's eye.

They reflect my inability to properly distinguish the parts from the whole, the individual successes from the general sense of failure. They remind me that every great pot still has flaws and every flawed pot, if you look closely enough, has a few bits of greatness in it. Asking for more than that from fired clay -- perfectionism, in any of its nefarious guises -- is dangerous. Perhaps even flirting with career suicide. What possible advantage could there be to that kind of thinking?

"Afraid that I've walked a fine line, squandered it all and wasted my time." - Natalie Merchant

"Like a frozen lake of perfection." - Merlin Mann

"You need adversity to get good. You need to be tested a lot." - Louis C.K.

"Once you decide to do what you want to do, it doesn't get easierĀ… it gets harder, becauseĀ… you keep getting challenged by the newer possibilities that you hadn't realized before." - Rob Corddry

August 19th, 2012

"Answer me no questions, I can't itemize, I can't think clearly; look to me for reason, it's not there, I can't even rhyme... in the begin." - R.E.M.

The time right after a firing is weird. Much like the way that non-potters seem predisposed to imagining us joyously playing in the mud and "relaxing" at the wheel, there's a naive sensibility that says the culmination of a work cycle should be a time of satisfied reflection, a chance to lean back and bask in the glow of a job well done.

Not that I, as a seasoned (read: jaded) semi-professional, think that's a reasonable expectation. Certainly not! But some part of that view still lingers, from the time before I learned how to turn and burn; the residue of that civilian, beginner's mentality. I imagine it lurks in my reptilian hindbrain, biding it's time all through the throwing and trimming and glazing and firing, then erupts like a reborn phoenix at the moment I open the kiln door. My perspective on the finished objects is confounded by the glare and spectacle; the choking dry ash and the beat of its mighty wings. My rational self is undone by romanticized hopes and inflated expectations.

(On a not entirely unrelated note, as I slide into middle age it occurs to me that I have become a fatalist by a process of elimination -- an optimist with experience, as they say. So if you're going to keep reading these things I write, that's probably a good thing to keep in mind. Particularly when I say things like this...)

Barry Schwartz has it right. The secret to happiness is low expectations. And, conversely, the secret to misery is high expectations.

Wow. That's several weeks' worth of dramatic grandstanding already.

So: I did a firing, and now I have about 65 new ceramic objects to contend with. Physically, that's no big deal. Mostly just donkey work: cleaning the alumina left behind on feet and bottoms, sanding bare clay areas smooth to the touch, sorting, pricing, and hauling them across the driveway to the showroom.

Contending with the pots intellectually is more problematic. Any result other than the rare, staggering success is a confusing mash-up of good and bad. A nice form here, an inadequate glazing job there. A few happy accidents balanced by some disappointing surprises. I try to see the pots as discrete objects, as they are now rather than as a collection of all the processes that made them that way. But it's difficult. Even with my flawed memory, I'm still too wrapped up in the decisions I made, the expectations I formed, the goals I aimed for. Achieving proper distance from the making process is almost impossible, so soon after the pots have returned to room temperature.

And emotionally? Forget about it. It's just a haze of conflicting inputs and responses. That beginner's instinct says I need to come to some conclusive feeling about this kiln load, this making cycle, and the span of weeks that I was engaged with making these pots. But that kind of closure -- that idealized ability to sum it all up and then blissfully move on -- never quite arrives. I suspect that it's as much a fantasy as the idea that working to make really good craft objects is relaxing.

If that sense of closure does come, it's only when the current batch of concerns and complications gets overwritten by the next one. Which, come to think of it, is as good a reason to keep moving as any.

In fact, I seem to be gradually getting more ambivalent about the rationale behind doing this pottery thing at all. My "faith that a life surrounded by pottery is a life worth living" is a quaint memory. Faith isn't going to cut it for me anymore. I'd like something better than faith. Evidence. Proof.

"Drink up, dreamers, you're running dry."

What are these things, these mysterious VOCOs? This pile of objects on my studio table that a month or two ago started as intangible thought and nebulous mush and now have solid, persistent form? What they're for and why I made them and whether it was worth it are all open questions. Any other claim I could make today seems dishonest; mere marketing or self-reassurance.

I question whether the beauty that I, or anyone else, might find in them anything other than contingent and relative. If the benefits they might add to the world really worth their cost in time, labor, attention, materials and energy. They could be anything from completely frivolous or utterly essential -- I really can't say. Perhaps it's not for me to say. Known unknowns. Water bugs and trout.

Then, after a few days of thinking such things -- enough time for the mundane power of daily routines to douse the phoenix and return him to his reptilian egg -- I start feeling antsy to wedge up some more clay. To kick the treadle bar again, to have another go at making my ideas material, despite a lack of answers, confidence or good reasons why.

I listen to your finest worksong. I think ahead. I think, "I'm ready to get back to it." But, inevitably, getting back at it reboots all the old familiar questions.

Questions like: What do I want to make next? If this occupation and endeavor can be anything that I want, what do I really want? And how can I avoid this persistent feeling of disappointment next time around? Is it even worth trying to avoid, or does it simply go with the territory? Maybe I should take more risks, bigger risks. Or should I hedge my bets even further, play it safe? Better to start with a grand plan and concrete goals, or submit to an organic, free-form anti-plan? I dunno. I dunno.


August 12th, 2012

"The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in -- we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation -- the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness -- this is what you all came for -- the secret to happiness is... low expectations." - Barry Schwartz

Looking through my digital archive of photos, I find images of my former self. Iterations of me, in various stages of relative ignorance; innocence yet to be lost, hard lessons yet to be learned.

I think, "If I could send that version of myself a single message, knowing what I know now, what would it be?"

Some would be bits of encouragement, others warnings about things yet to happen. Attempts at forced perspective, retroactive self-defense, undoing regrets.

Which, of course, is all an exercise in fantasy. As if, even given that magical ability to communicate backwards, my younger self could learn the same lessons without actually making the mistakes. Or that I wouldn't simply "find different ways to make the same mistakes again".

Here's one:

August 5th, 2012

"Reality doesn't care what you think about it. It's just reality." - Merlin Mann

All that faith or superstitious belief ever got me in ceramics was an excuse for being lazy or sloppy, and an unhealthy reliance on inflated expectations. It might have made the journey a little easier, but it never made the pots any better.

My foray into learning how to make pots, as a naive, starry-eyed twenty year old, lead to a learning curve that seemed more like a vertical wall; an unscalable obstacle, given my meagre personal resources -- determination, creativity, courage -- and cheap climbing gear. 

In retrospect, I feel fortunate that I happened to stumble into a pot shop at a place with a strong local culture, quite good standards and expectations, and more role models than I could possibly absorb. In 1990, at least in my memory of it, the ceramics studio at Iowa was a charged, beguiling place: two strongly different professors; a dozen graduate students; a hundred undergrads coming and going in the average semester; an cavernous, jam-packed kiln room; an anagama just out the back door, often firing day and night; and the long shadow cast by Clary Illian and the Leach legacy, just over the horizon.  
In the longer term, I think there's no better recipe for success as a potter than to start in a place like that; a place that sets the bar for you, and sets it much higher than you might ever have set it for yourself. But in the short term, way back when, even with the heady enthusiasm of all that activity and the bright, alluring glare of the Brand New, that bar was awfully daunting. In many ways I was afraid to even start running at it, let alone jump.
So, if you'll forgive me mixing in yet a third metaphor here, early on I bridged the gap between my abilities and the challenge I faced with big doses of irrational hope. And with waiting around for inspiration. And with rolling the dice, expecting luck to bail me out. Those are all variations of magical thinking; all used as a hedge against the hard reality I faced if I wanted to actually get good at this pottery business.

Now, some twenty-odd years later, it's hard to untangle who I have become and the way I think from the experience of learning to make pots over all that time. To what extent am I like this because I learned to make pots along the way?

My best guess is that even if I'd stopped trying after a semester or two, or never worked up the courage to walk into the pot shop in the first place, other factors and experiences would have gradually prompted the same gradual loss of innocence, the same hardening of willpower, the same acquiescence to the nuts and bolts of daily life.

But I believe that something about becoming a potter in particular, as opposed to, say, a high school English teacher, dispelled that reliance on magical thinking and, instead, shaped and reinforced my adamantly rationalist, scientific worldview.
Like the daily confrontation with gravity, centripetal force and fluid dynamics at the wheel. The complexities of glaze formulation and harsh reality of the odds against achieving a really good one. The pragmatics of time and labor and effort and investment. The detail and nuance of weighing out clay, planning a kiln load, managing a (very, very) small business, and, through it all, keeping my shit together and my enthusiasm for pots at a steady roar, like a burner in the early hours of firing. Gradually, those bits of consensual reality became enough to sustain my wonder at the material and the array of processes and the vast diversity of possible outcomes. Enough to keep my fear, uncertainty and doubt at bay.    
I also believe in coyotes, and time as a abstract. But that's sort of beside the point.
Quite recently -- just in the last few years -- I've made a more deliberate commitment to developing science-based techniques (e.g. analytical thinking, experimental method, deductive reasoning, math, probability, etc.) This has vastly improved my technical foundation and, in turn, enabled me to make better pots.

It's almost like I don't know anymore who I was then. But I can easily recognize signs of that former self when I meet them in others.

So... I don't know. I'm not in any position to give advice, but it seems like there's some advice here waiting to be given. It might be directed more at that former version of me than at anyone else; the thing I wish I could have read two decades ago, so it that it might have helped me to these conclusions a little sooner or a little easier. Make of it what you will:

You can pray to the kiln gods and dance around the drum circle all you want. It will probably feel good. It might even buttress your resolve for a while. And if you find that you're staring straight up the wall of expectations, perhaps daydreaming about the rainbows and unicorns you hope to find at the top will distract you from your fears long enough to lace up your boots and hammer in some spikes. But, eventually, to make any serious progress, you'll have to address the real work of climbing head on. Acknowledge realistic limits. Face your fears. Get comfortable with science. Feel gravitys pull. Onward, and upward. *

* He said. Hesitantly.

July 29th, 2012

"This flower is scorched, this film is on, it's on a maddening loop." - R.E.M.

This summer seems like it will never end. Especially since the crazy heat started a month early, and we're still in the midst of the worst midwestern drought in memory. Everything outside is dry, dead and baked; like Nature has decided it's time to get serious about killing us off. I've never been so ready for Fall.

So this week, in the spirit of seasonal lethargy and parched thinking, I submit this variety of random bits; a stone soup for your hunger; a spliced sequence of my personal maddening loop; of no particular point or intended destination.*

∞ Fired another bisque. Mostly porcelain. Getting ready to glaze and fire 'em up. Keeping my hands in wet clay with a few tumblers and stocking up on porcelain test tiles.

∞ I'm midway through two books: an unauthorized bio of R.E.M., one of my all-time favorite bands, and Reality is Broken, about the potential for games to solve real-world problems. There are a half dozen others on the shelf that I'm really interested in reading, but finding (i.e. making) time to actually read them seems perpetually difficult. Meanwhile, I manage to still consume a lot of TV on a regular basis.

∞ I have far less confidence in Malcolm Gladwell these days, after reading reviews of Outliers ranging from skeptical to scathing. Not sure how I'll approach his next book, although I'll still definitely read it.

∞ But Barry Schwartz is still awesome.

∞ I've been wondering : does American potters' use of the tea ceremony qualify as a cargo cult?

∞ My discarded dream is giving me phantom limb pain. How can something still hurt after you've cut it away?

∞ I love the first discovery of a potter I'd never heard of before. (Note: This lack of awareness says a lot more about my lack of attention to current happenings in ceramics than anything about Peltzman's CV.)

∞ I love that moment at the bottom of the pool, just after I've let the last of my breath out, just before I have to race to the surface for more. I hope that's what being dead feels like. Not that I'm in any real hurry to find out.

∞ Re: progress, I've been thinking about how key it is to me that I've never stopped trying to improve my pots -- the actual objects -- and to innovate the conceptual underpinnings of how and why I make them. Even when my business model, work routines and infrastructure all stay fairly static, "the work" itself continues to move forward, sometimes in what seem like pretty dramatic leaps in realtively short amounts of time. That's encouraging.

Maggie: "It looks very difficult with the things on it."
Me: "What looks difficult?"
Her: "It looks difficult if I was making pancakes."

* There are no notes.

July 22nd, 2012

"If all you want in life are answers,
then science is not for you." - Neal DeGrasse Tyson

If there's a place for mysticism and superstitious rituals in making pottery, it's at the kiln, when all the work is on the line and an appeal to other powers can seem worth the lapse into irrationality.

And if there's a place for theology, decoding received dogma and canonical parsing, it's during glaze research and formulation. Pouring over dense, arcane texts, with layer after layer of notes scribbled in their margins; dredging up half-remembered comments from old peers and teachers; cobbling together comparisons and compromises with tools and methodology ranging from the baroque to the bespoke.

It's a weird art that plays at science so well while, quietly, remaining founded on a millenia-old tradition of magic, alchemy, and guesswork.

Reviewing the last batch of glaze tests

Bonus points: guess what glaze type I'm mixing *

But then again... I have to wonder just how much of that mystery and procedural flailing is merely a consequence of my own ignorance? In all fairness, probably a lot. And of that ignorance, how much comes from simply not wanting to know badly enough to go find out? It occurs to me that there is tons of evidence that such things can be less mysterious: the work of hundreds of other potters I admire.

For example, Don Pilcher knew that our well water could contaminate my celadon and Tom Turner knew that synthetic red iron is less likely to speckle than standard red iron. Clearly Pete Pinnell, Richard Burkett and dozens of other potters have learned things about glazes that are, to my view, still out in the darkness.

These things are knowable, just not already known by me.** They are, in the parlance of the military-industrial complex, known unknowns. But not unknowable unknowns.***

John Britt's book, The Complete Guide to High-Fire Glazes, Glazing & Firing at Cone 10, has taught me things that I previously assumed were unknowable. Like where the carbon trapping in a shino glaze comes from (soluable salts from the soda ash migrating to the surface as the glaze coat dries) and how to remix a glaze to the same consistency as a previous batch (specific gravity). In one go, it basically made my 20-year archive of acquired glaze recipes obsolete -- an entire binder full of hand-copied notes, scanned articles, xeroxed handouts and printed web pages that could probably go in the recycle bin and never be missed.

Once you know these things -- that is, once your ignorance has become so unacceptable that you put in the work to overwrite it (or, alternately, you just get lucky and stumble onto answers you weren't looking for) -- they often seem simple and obvious. "Duh! How could I have not known that before?" Looking back at your own knowledge retrospectively is powerful proof of how limited your individual perspective can be.

It's all fine and good to throw up our hands when faced with things that defy any attempt at understanding through logical analysis and reason. Like mortality. Or the existence of matter and energy, as opposed to nothing. Or how LOST could have gone so horribly off the rails in season three. It's quite possible that the only path to root answers to these questions goes through the irrational and mystical: magic, numerology, superstition, religion.

But glazes? Firing cycles? The interactions of molecules and moles and gravity and heat? That's known stuff, man. A lot of serious science has been applied to these topics for a long time. Hard to access with a basic public education and half a lifetime spent on lazy intellectual pursuits? Yes, perhaps. But not unknowable. Not if you're paying attention and willing to work at it. "Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around."

* Answer: No, really. You have to guess.

** I know there's a philosophy word for knowledge of knowledge (philology? eschatology? phermone replacement therapy? No. Googleplex? Beeblebrox? I give up.) And I know that you know what it is, and I know that a quick perusal of Wikipedia would remind me of what it is, too... but at the moment I can't risk going down that particular rabbit hole. Please fill in the blanks above as required for me to sound more smart than I actually am.

*** Paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld's rather famous quote about how things went so wrong after our invasion of Iraq. Ugh. Remember when the worst of our problems was an administration that lied to Congress to start a war against the wrong enemy and a major American city getting wiped off the map by a hurricane? Now it kind of seems like those were the good times.

July 15th, 2012

"I have only the courage for a perfect life.
Anything less than perfect, I ain't doing it." - Louis C.K.

Out of the bisk & waiting

Sometimes a full, uninterrupted studio day is hard to come by. This week it seems that a dozen other things have conspired to get in the way, most of them small and expected, but some of them not. Collectively, they've made a pretty good mess of my plans.

It's always frustrating to see days that I'd reserved on the calendar for studio work get siphoned off for other stuff, no matter how important that other stuff might be. Much like the way that I used to carefully stockpile paid vacation days when I had a full-time salaried job, like precious cargo to tow along life's rough road, now I jealously hoard studio days. Especially the ones where I know I have absolutely nothing else planned; no pending phone calls, no errands to run, no chores to squeeze in.

That prioritization and pre-commitment of a whole day lets me do the work in whatever way is best: fast or slow, in short bursts or longer stretches, and without reserving energy or brainpower for other things. Those days are the most enjoyable by far and, I suspect, also when the best pots and the most progress are made. If I'm so lucky as to get some flow going -- usually at the wheel, but it can happen with glazing or in other phases, too -- there's nothing to break it. If I see an opportunity, I have the luxury of trying to exploit it, right then and there. And, perhaps most of all, I can give whatever it is that I'm working on my full attention; everything I can muster on that particular day.

Making good pots is hard enough without the rest of life bleeding over the fragile boundary in between.

So... the pots wait patiently for me to do the next thing to them. My studio simmers in the summer heat. The Dude abides. I'll get back to it soon, just not soon enough for my liking.

July 8th, 2012

"You can't bank up credits at being awesome. You're going to have to be awesome a little bit every day." - Merlin Mann

Since we returned from Maine, I've made 59 pots. That's a pretty good three week total, for me.* Especially considering that I worked some extra days at the U in June, to meet my 1000-hour quota before the end of the fiscal year. And that the heat during all that time has been killer -- a constant drain on my energy, even with the A/C running hard in the studio. And that I've been letting myself knock off early to take Maggie to the pool or grab an afternoon nap. And that, somewhere in there, I made the switch from stoneware to porcelain and fired a bisque. Not a bad three weeks.

Trimming plates



Mugs, after Clary Illian

Mugs, after me

Small pitchers, improved

Assembling oval dishes

Small ovals (these will probably crack)

Two-part porcelain vases (these too)

OK, Gillies. Are you happy now?

Tumblrs with stamps

Tumblrs with black underglaze

And here's a little slideshow of photos I took while loading the bisk. (I'm not sure this is even worth sharing, but hey, you're just wasting time on the Internet, right?) There's nothing particularly revelatory about it -- perhaps aside from the fact that I played it super safe and single-stacked the porcelain plates, after losing several of them to cracking last time. But it's fun to see the layers stack up, like a time lapse shutter. And I enjoyed the excuse to set some of my studio activity to this catchy intro.

* While good for me, that total is completely laughable compared to my more ambitious, determined peers. Heck, I'm pretty sure Brandon Phillips has made that many pots in a day, with most of them better than the best of these.

July 1st, 2012

"It's better to lose than to suck." - John Siracusa

June 24th, 2012

"How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?" - Sinead O'Connor

I have been making pots this week, after a clay resupply run at the end of last week. I made some test tiles in a new stoneware body that I'm hoping will work well in the salt kiln, then switched the studio over to porcelain. This used to be a huge pain, especially when going from a darker clay to a lighter one, but I've made it less so by assembling a second set of bats, buckets, towels and some of the harder-to-clean tools. So now it's mostly a matter of swapping out sets, and then scrubbing down all the horizontal surfaces and the treadle wheel. The new batch of porcelain -- #257 from Standard -- is pretty soft, so I started with plates and will gradually transition to vertical pots as I get some of the clay a little stiffer. It's good to be back to making again.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking more about dreams: where they come from, and what happens when they reach their natural expiration date.

"At some point, he’ll have to find a job and grow up and stop living in a fantasy world... This is a pretty fundamental thing that happens to change people between when they’re about 20 and when they’re about 25 (and again between 25 and 30). Eventually, you realize that your number one dream for life just might not be attainable, and that leads to a slow winnowing down, a wearing away of what you wanted that leaves you in a place where you can make enough money to live, but you might not be doing what you’d always hoped you were." - Todd VanDerWerff

That's a strange thing to find in a review of a sitcom, but then again Community is a strange show. In these postmodern days, you have to take wisdom wherever you can find it.*

The phase transitions he describes happened later for me -- the first was around age 30 and the second between 35 and 40 -- but I think this explanation of the "number one dream for life" phenomenon is pretty accurate. (Again, I'll add the caveat that all of this gets filed under First World Problems, and perhaps even the uniquely American subset of those.)

I suppose it took me longer to reach those milestones because at 20 I still wasn't sure what I wanted my dream to be. In college, I had little ambition beyond being a good student, and had absolutely no plan for what would come afterwards. I backed into a major at the deadline to declare one (English Lit); did what it took to get A's (in everything except freshman year Calculus and senior year Italian... stupid Calculus); and met my future wife (the start our relationship, now in it's 22nd year). But smack in the middle of Calculus and Italian, I stumbled into that first ceramics class, and that's where my number one dream was formed.

In hindsight, I can say that I clung to it rather stubbornly for a good 15 years. It was only through the combination of hard-won experience, the physical wearing of age, and the addition of new priorities that I gradually came to an understanding about what would and would not be possible in this life, and made a determined effort to kill it before it killed me.

For the sake of comparison and contrast, here's a another related bit from Mark Shapiro's interview with Michael Simon:

"I was conscious of wanting to work for years. You know, at the time, I remember, being at 23 or 24, 25, that I thought, gosh, you know, if I keep doing this until I'm 40, I'm going to be able to do it. [Laughs.] And I thought 40 was tremendously -- really old, but I thought that would be a lifetime of pottery working, and there would be development. The development was constantly going on. Every kilnload would come out, and you would learn something, or have a good day's throwing. There was always development."

I don't know what my next dream will be yet, but I'm pretty damn sure I need to find one. Of necessity, it will be somewhat smaller; something less grand than making a good living solely as a potter. Simply aiming for development seems more like a goal than a dream, but maybe that's underestimating the value of development.

* That review continues with a theory about where these unrealistic adolescent dreams originate:

One of the crucial shifts that’s happened in the last 30 years or so, however, is that kids, increasingly, aren’t prepared for this. They are told they can have everything they want and be whatever they want, and then they hit about 25 and realize, abruptly, that that’s just not the case. My grandfather might have wanted to be a professional baseball player, but he also knew he was going to end up working on a farm and getting married. That was the life he was born into, and what he could do to change that was to make sure his children had other opportunities.

I'm not sure how well that assessment applies generally, but it seems like a good start.

My grandfather was more the exception. Seeing that if he followed the obvious path he'd be stuck on the farm in Missouri -- a life he didn't want -- he did everything he could to make a different one: joined the Navy, settled in California after the war, and delivered the mail for 20-odd years. Those seem like humble dreams now, but at the time they were pretty radical. Maybe a tendency towards dreaming runs in my family.

While I don't remember anyone specifically telling me that I could have or be anything I wanted, it was at least tacitly implied that I had lots of options. (The vagueness of my plans proves that I either believed this was true or didn't care all that much if it wasn't.) My dad used to tell me, "Son, if you're going to dream, you might as well dream big." I was never quite sure what he meant, but in retrospect I think I know now.

June 17th, 2012

"Syrup comes from trees and toys come from batteries." - Maggie Pixel

June 10th, 2012

"For our trip to Maine this summer, we packed one baby..." - Maggie Smith

After a week of vacation spent almost entirely offline, my Internet hemisphere -- the approximately 50% of my brain that's morphed itself into a machine for creating and consuming data via the web -- seems to have gone dormant. It's weird how easy it is to fall out of the habit of routine email checks, feed scans, Facebook check-ins, etc. And interesting how it takes a while to get back into that behavioral groove. Like with caffeine and bad television, after a week going cold turkey it's hard to remember what seemed so compelling about it in the first place.

And so... here we are at the end of another loop cycle: the five year anniversary of this blog. My aspirations for it, as I listed them two weeks ago, are much easier in the planning than in the doing. (Of course.) But here's a few things along those lines that have been percolating:

I like how overlaying the captions jazzes these up, but I dunno... Is it a good thing to turn boring studio shots into propaganda posters? Maybe I've just been watching too much of A Show With Ze Frank.


"Knock knock..."
"Who's there?"
"Nobody who?"
"Nobody's at the door!"

I like it when the literalness of a three-year-old's sense of humor verges on the existential. Kind of like one hand clapping; if no one's there, who's doing the knocking?

Here's an index of tw@se to date. Quite the gratifyingly-long list! I'm thinking this might facilitate back-catalog browsing, if anyone's interested in such a thing. I plan to update it regularly from now on.

Check out this NYT article, "For Ohio Pottery, a Small Revival". It's about Starbucks shifting some of their "mug" manufacturing back to the US from China. There's so much wrong with it that I don't even know where to begin; from the editorial perspective to the embedded assumptions about manual labor to the bewildering, meta layers with regards to globalization and the future of objects. If there's anyone out there in need of some blog fodder, I'd love to read a breakdown of this from a potter's perspective.

May 27th, 2012

"Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else. And if it is, let me become fascinated with the shape of the stone." - Ze Frank

For all my troubles getting my rock off it's inertia point of zero, I have been making pots the last few weeks: mugs, more mugs, soup bowls, serving bowls with carved rims, tumblrs. I realized that I probably did start back in too soon after my sale. When it feels like a task of Sisyphean scale, that's a pretty good sign of short-term burnout.

But once I've started, it's much better to go at half speed than to stop and have to restart again later. Retreats always feel like failure. Make that Failure, with a capital F. And while I wish I had more resiliency with these things, I'd rather hug my stone than face the big F.

So now, something like 40 pots into the new cycle, I'm comfortably into that quarter-way up zone I mentioned last week. The process is starting to fuel itself; the next pots in mind drafting off my enthusiasm for the last ones, helping to will themselves into existence.

Another nice boost is this new shelf, built by my friend Todd out of salvaged 100-year-old yellow pine siding from our dearly departed barn. He used to be a finished carpenter, so he's got skills to burn and a perfect sense of how to preserve and highlight the age, wear and patina of the boards. I'm in love with this thing, and with keeping even this tiny part of the old barn alive and useful.

shelf empty

shelf filling up

We hung it on the wall just above my main work table. With the wall behind it painted sky blue, it's now the most finished corner of the studio, and a pleasure to have as visual backdrop when I'm finishing pots, writing notes or sketching there. I cleared away all the junk that had accumulated on and around that table, and then started putting things back very deliberately, with an emphasis on utility over storage: tools at hand, pots for reference, one or two random beautiful artifacts and -- I hope -- that's it. (Storage can go back in the cave, where I don't have to look at it a dozen times a day.)

I want to be able to lean back in my chair, in those moments of pause or for lack of an idea, look up into that space, and be reminded of who I am and what it is I'm about. I don't want the answer to either of those questions to be clutter or careless randomness -- the universe has plenty of entropy as it is without my succumbing to it.

I don't mind being a strange loop, but I hate the idea of devolving into a strange pile of storage.

Speaking of loops, I have another birthday coming up, so it's time for my summer blog break. I'll take the week off next week, but will be back after that for the start of tw@se 6.0. I'm five years in on this blog and, I think, still going strong.

Coming up, my notes say I want to indulge in some more meta-blogging; review where this thing has been, where I think it will be going and why. They also say I've had some more thoughts about the status of my Killing The Dream resolution, but they're still a fragmented mess going in eight directions at once, with lots of quotations as placeholders for ideas I've yet to flesh out.

I'd like to follow up on the perfectionism issue from last year, and also to finish the long thread about Steve Jobs with some ideas prompted by reading his biography. I've had some new thoughts about copying and originality, which would be nice to share but it's so hard to address that topic well. Like tiptoeing through a mine field, it's probably better left alone unless you really need to get to the other side.

I'd also like to get a new camera and do new/better stuff with it. I'd like to reformat the format, redesign the design, roll in some fun stuff, automate the workflow-y background things whose manual-ness has grown tiresome.

We'll see. I want to use the last five years as stepping stones for the next five, but to remain fascinated with their shape even as I leave them behind. I want write about all {those things} and more; to get <loopy> more often; to make some (odd) videos; to tell some of the [old|untold] stories about my coming of age as a potter, stories whose bits are eroding into the gaps between my neurons as they age. I want to tell stories that take longer than an hour to compose, and to tackle issues that require more than a week to gestate properly. I want to Fail often and to Fail hard, but only because I'm trying to do something great...

It appears that I want to do a lot of things. What I manage to do will undoubtably fall short of those aspirations. But what's the use of having goals if you know you're going to reach them all?

May 20th, 2012

"The only way out is through." - Dan Benjamin

Then, about a quarter of the way up the hill, the enthusiasm returns.

Here's the very next paragraph from that Michael Simon interview -- what he said right after the part about how hard it was to put together a kilnload of pots:

"But I know at the same time I felt so lucky often to come out -- to just be able to walk outside of the house and go in the studio. And the best part, really, was to just get into almost a daydream in the middle of working, having the work done -- having the work in concept, ready for you, so you weren't planning but were just free to feel the clay and see how the shapes would grow and really essentially daydream in the work. It was a terrific experience."

Daydream working. Not planning. Free to feel. Growth.

Those, I think, are the best parts of actually making pots. It's the experience I keep going back for, elusive as it may be, and despite the fact that it's often buried deep under layer after layer of life's bureaucratic grind, assorted donkey work, and random nonsense.*

They speak to the idea of flow, of becoming empowered by confidence, the tangible signs that I've not forgotten everything, that genuine progress is possible. That I've not only rolled this particular rock up this particular hill before, but that I'm actually pretty damn good at it. I can do this. I must do this.

The catch, today, is that I'm still only an eighth of the way up the hill. Perhaps a sixteenth. So I suppose I should say, "the enthusiasm usually returns". Right now, it's still aspirational, hoped for and glimpsed, but not yet really felt. The only way up the hill is up the hill. Until then, it's hard not to feel like a stupid slinky on a treadmill sometimes.

And, while we're on the subject, I'll say that to me that entire interview is worth reading again on something like a yearly basis. Mark Shapiro did such a fine job of teasing out deep ideas and significant details -- it's the kind of thing that only another potter could have done. And the sense that they're talking in potters' shorthand, that there was trust and assumed shared understanding, is palpable and engaging. I love that. New things bubble up each time through.**

*Which, come to think of it, sounds like a great title for a concept album: layer after layer of life's bureaucratic grind, assorted donkey work, and random nonsense


I've probably quoted that interview a half dozen times here on the blog, and I almost inevitably refer to every other time I have a conversation with another potter. It's steeped its way into the structure of my brain, helped by lingering over the Evolution book like it was scripture. A happy member of The Cult of Michael Simon. I even realized a few days after my last post that I've already quoted that exact paragraph before. Ha! Geez... when the blog becomes an unintentional loop of previously expressed ideas, maybe it's time to think about hanging it up?


May 13th, 2012

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy." - Albert Camus

I resumed 'wet work' this week and, in my ongoing pursuit of honesty here, I'll admit that it felt a bit like stumbling back down the hill to my rock, then starting to wearily push it back up. I probably should have spent more time in the hammock first.

But I don't mean that so much in the classical sense -- doomed to a futile grind of repetitive labor. More like what Michael Simon said after he'd stopped making pots:

"And somehow that has made me think in terms of making pottery alone... I thought how difficult it was to make a kilnload of pottery. Since I have not been working, pottery has become much harder work than it was when I was a potter. I can't imagine anymore how people make a kiln of pottery, when you consider how all of that shape and all of the considerations and everything that has to line up and make sense and have -- not just thought about, but actually accomplished -- glazes mixed and, oh, everything right. It's flabbergasting the amount of work to do."

Yeah, more like that. Flabbergasting.

I believe Clary said something similar to me about giving up her large gas kiln, after forty-odd years, in favor of an electric: that it was a relief to not have to push such a huge mass of pots up the hill each time to get them finished. (N.B. It's also entirely possible that I dreampt this, so blame the messenger.)

Digging my shoulder into the stone again, the initial pain of renewing that contact on a spot long-scarred and still sore from the last circuit, makes me wish it were just easier somehow; whether by economics or gravity or simply discovering some acceptable way to compromise my standards or curtail my irrational ambitions. But with none of those things forthcoming, I lean in and set my feet, take a few deliberate breaths, whisper a bit of vague invocation, and start to roll again.

May 6th, 2012

"His fidelity to the cliche transcended the necessity to communicate." - China Mieville

Sale morning...

... woo hoo!

Another sale is done, and it was a good one. Good, not great -- there have been better, but there have definitely been worse, too.

Saturday was very busy and brought in almost all the sales. Sunday started loud and fun, with friends looking at pots and chatting while their kids Maggie's age played on the back porch and in the sandbox. But it ended quiet as a tomb, with barely a peep the last few hours. That left a lingering feeling that the event was kind of a failure... But in the light of the next morning, the numbers said otherwise. I was surprised to see that I'd sold over 100 pots, and netted $3248 $3388 for my efforts. And, in whatever this new era of perpetual economic stagflation that we're living in is, that ain't nothin'.*

I promised myself I'd refrain from rolling out a bunch of statistics this time. As nice as it is to have a decade of data, as the years move along those numbers from long ago become less and less relevant. But it's still reassuring to see certain metrics holding steady, like the average price per pot and amount spent per customer. Both were par for the course.

I guess that's where the historical data is most applicable: helping me see the broader trends in my customers' behavior. I question the degree to which that behavior is actually within my control, but it's nice to see some pattern amidst the noise, like one that suggests that the more pots I have available the more I sell. (This fits my anecdotal bias, which is that people like choice and the more choice the better. No matter what Barry Schwartz says to the contrary!)

Flowers fresh from the yard. (Thanks, climate change!)

All that aside, even after doing my sales this way for so long, the promotion and "marketing" aspects of it still leave me baffled. It seems to make little difference how many postcards I mail or put out in town; whether or not I run an ad in the local paper; or even if I offer an incentive like a $25 coupon or a 20% discount for students. (I shudder to think that I'd probably be more successful peddling virtual pottery to today's college students, with their ubiquitous phones and their Twitterfarms. Kids these days.) I've tried trial ads on Facebook and Google Local -- but the digital promises of the new medium are hollow. Those little blips in the infosphere get lost so easily, "like tears in rain".**

Mailchimp tells me that only 50% of the email announcements I send out -- to previous customers and people who have explicitly asked to receive them -- are even opened. Half! And of those, only about 20% click a link back to my site, even when I carefully and concisely collapse five months of blog entries into a friendly newsletter with appealing photos. (Then again, who knows? Maybe 50% is great. It's highly likely that a similar percentage of the postcards go in the recycle bin without so much as a second glance, if not more.)

Every time another good customer moves away or saturates their home shelving, I go back to the drawing board, worried about sustaining this thing I've built, trying to devise a new way to bring in more people. A special VIP preview? Bring a friend and get a free mug? Ladies' night? Hire a blimp? Or one of those guys at the nearest intersection, lethargically spinning a St. Earth sign next to the pizza vendors and tax preparers?

It's entirely possible that everyone in a 100-mile radius with the slightest potential interest in handmade pottery has already heard my pitch and made their choice. Clary Illian told me her sales steadily improved decade by decade, but I fear mine are reaching their natural limit.

Beyond all that, I honestly think the weather has a greater impact on the turnout than whether or not I spend an extra $200 promoting it. Based on the number of acquaintances who ask about it beforehand or express regrets about missing it afterwards, the variance between a good sale and a great one just might come down to the scheduling of kids' soccer games or who happened to be out of town that weekend. As professional athletes (and anyone else at a loss for a meaningful explanation of the way the world works) are wont to say, "It is what it is."*** Such is the life of the small, niche business and the modern, rural craftsman.

And so... so. I'm tired. Not as beat up as I often am at this point in the cycle, but definitely due for some downtime and rejuvenation. Hesitatingly grateful. Excited to get back to throwing pots; wary of starting back in too soon; wondering what it will take to let myself lie in the hammock with a fat novel for a while instead.

* Yep, there it is. The real number, out in public. Probably a really, really dumb idea. I've played with the idea of sharing it the last few times, then shied away. But what the hell? It will quickly become buried in the massive tw@se wall of text; a classic case of security through obscurity. And besides, nobody really reads this thing anyways. Google Analytics tells me this gets about 100 pageviews per week, but I know that's just 81 spam bots, 4 web crawlers, 3 casual photo skimmers, OKG and Mom. Right?

** Oh yeah, I did indeed squeeze in a Blade Runner reference. Look it up. It's fun to imagine that that's the part of the movie that Phillip K. Dick liked best. I have a hard time believing Rutger Hauer ad libbed that line -- especially with Ridley Scott directing -- but Random Internet Person said it, so it must be true.

*** I almost included Libertarians in this list, and had a really juicy paragraph along the lines of 'unless you've personally succeeded in life greatly out of proportion to your starting circumstances, I think you need to reexamine your notions of causality and the degree to which they undermine the morality of your political philosophy' all ready to go, then decided I'd rather not get the email.

April 29th, 2012

"I love fool's experiments. I am always making them.” - Charles Darwin

My Spring Sale will be this weekend, May 5th & 6th, from 10am - 4pm. I will have 250-300 pots for sale, including three loads fresh from the salt kiln. More details about the sale are at that link, including directions and maps if you're planning to attend.

As I said last week, there are new pots in the Gallery, either for sale for as a preview of what will be available. (See below for pots from the last firing, which aren't yet in the Gallery.) For any other questions about the sale or the pots, please don't hesitate to contact me.

This was firing #50 in my salt kiln. It was a really good one, with almost 100% success rate (a few seconds). I had excellent results in each of four different clay bodies, most of my glazes and decorative patterns, and nice salting throughout. These included some of the best pots that I'd saved for this last firing of the cycle, and I'm really pleased with how they turned out. A few gems that are almost too good to let go of yet.

In my ongoing quest to get the most out of this kiln -- and to never stop experimenting out of either fear or settling -- I stacked it differently this time, with an extra layer of pots and shorter shelves throughout. It fired off fine, almost the same as for the normal stacking pattern.

So between the adjustments I've made to the chimney to improve the draft and gradually learning what the kiln wants to do and how to push it in the direction I want to go, it seems like I have more flexibility with it now than ever. (Twenty firings ago, I'd have never been able to get it to temperature in a reasonable amount of time with a tighter load like that.) After my many struggles with this kiln, it's great to feel like I've carved out some margin for error and a wider set of routes to a successful firing. That's been a long time coming, and gives me renewed confidence and enthusiasm for the pots to come.

Wish me luck on the sale! If you're nearby, I hope you can make it out this weekend. And if you're off selling pots in your own neck of the woods, I hope you have a great one.

April 22nd, 2012

"It makes you feel like everything you do is like a rocket you send out, and sometimes it lands way, way off into the future someplace." - Cameron Crowe

I swear I am not making this up.

Last night, reading stories to Maggie before bedtime, we were looking at a National Geographic magazine. She really likes them -- so much new and unexpected stuff to see* -- and I've got a massive tower of back issues for us to go through. In an article about the Civil War, there was a photo of a crowd of re-enacters or something gathered in a field:

Her: "What's that?"
Me: "I don't know." (tired; dissembling)
Her: "Oh... it's a pottery sale."

It's a pottery sale. That's my girl.

(Oh, sorry. That's my big girl, as she insists on being called these days.**)

In addition to giving me a moment of fiero -- the realization that, without even trying all that hard, I've already warped her remarkable young mind to see the world from the potter's perspective -- the kid has impeccable timing.

With pots cooling off in my third kiln load of the month, 700 announcement cards stamped and ready to go in the post, and the deadline for the big event looming, I couldn't ask for more encouragement than that. Her optimism is infectious -- I can only hope for a crowd that rivals the one in that picture.

So yes, sale stuff:

  • If you'd like to get my sale announcements and aren't already on the list, sign up here and I'll be happy to send you a card with the aforementioned big girl on it, showing off her new mug.
  • I just added two dozen new pots to my site Gallery. That's just a fraction of the pots I'll have at the sale, but a good preview of what will be available. As always, if you see anything there you want, just let me know.
  • I also added those photos to The Book of Faces, if you'd prefer to see them in slideshow format. Please feel free to Like away to your heart's content!

And lastly, some photos of my ongoing glazing, loading and unloading. I love doing multiple firings in a row; it let's me get back in the groove where things can have some subconscious flow to them. (I suspect that's when the best stuff happens, too. Maybe because the anxiety gives way to a more casual approach and -- dare I say -- fun?)

This last firing before the sale was #50 in this kiln, going back to its first trip around the sun in November 2005. That's about 7-8 firings per year over that span; less than I would have imagined when I built it, but enough that I'm finally, finally starting to feel like I understand what this kiln wants to do. And -- more importantly -- what it's capable of.

The plan


#49: before

#49: after

One-part vases = no cracks!

Mugs w/ dots

Two-part vases; different clay = no cracks!

* Lest you worry about this, we skip quickly past the articles about genocide, political upheaval and environmental devastation for the bits about cute animals and the ever-spectacular landscape photos. Erupting volcanos are one fine, but she's not yet ready for me to explain boys holding machine guns.

** "I'm not a baby anymore!"

April 15th, 2012

"Pass around the lampshade, there'll be plenty enough room in jail."
- The Replacements

After reading my friend Carter Gillies's recent posts about introverts -- and, somewhat ironically, talking with him about them extensively -- I've been thinking about how my own tendency towards the introverted end of the spectrum has influenced my work as a potter.

It's complicated, for sure, and something of a chicken-and-egg scenario. As Carter wrote:

"...studio practice that involves devoted solitude often seems to draw folks that are naturally inclined to introversion."

Growing up, long before I knew making pots or "being an artist" were even among the available options, I was more of a bookish loner than my friends and relatives. Not so bookish as to, say, take a suitcase full of them to camp, but still just as likely to sit inside building a Lego castle while everyone else played outside as to go join them. My brothers are both several years younger than me, and there weren't a lot of other kids in our neighborhood, so I got used to being left to my own devices in the hours outside of school and scheduled activities. My mom still laughs at how I would set up a board game and play against two or three imaginary opponents, always carefully abiding by the rules and taking my fair share of losses along the way.* Between that, swimming lessons and vast stretches of television, I could kill a summer like nobody's business.

So I was primed for a vocation that requires (and enables) long stretches of solitude and inward mental focus, both by genetics (I suspect) and by circumstance. When I bargained my way into that first ceramics class at Iowa, I had no real idea that's what it involved. (Sadly, my only previous studio art classes were in drawing, which was presented in a fairly social atmosphere during class sessions and required little to no outside work to earn a good grade.) But as I kept going back to the "pot shop" semester after semester, I gradually realized that to get any good at this thing it was going to require lots and lots of practice, and that I vastly preferred earning that time when the studio was quiet and uneventful.

My first summer at Clary's was a serious test of this ability/requirement. I'd go days at a time without leaving the property, like a first level monk toiling away in my meditation cell. There was always some conversation with her throughout the day, but, in retrospect, not as much as I wish I'd prompted. I shied away out of hesitation of imposing on her too much, and for fear of highlighting my ineptitudes and ongoing struggles with the clay. And while that isolation was an added complication to that surreal, invaluable experience, I found that I preferred it to the bustle of a group studio. It was also my first taste of what it would be like to have a space and a wheel and a drying rack of my own, without the need to clean up after every throwing session or keep my tools hidden away in a locker.

I gradually discovered that the freedom to use the space as the work required and the freedom from the intrusions of others also meant the obligation to keep myself engaged and disciplined. "It's all on you now," I thought. That realization snapped into place in my brain like a misplaced puzzle piece from time spent playing Payday with my three virtual friends a decade earlier. That obligation to both engagement and discipline in the studio has been a constant for me ever since; a war with battles that can be lost or won, but with no end in sight.

And while I may occasionally daydream about some idealized shared studio, teamed up with great friends in a joint endeavor -- mixing clay, sharing generous critiques, and firing kilns together into the night -- I know that even in some unattainably perfect version of that scenario, I'd still be better off going it alone.

* This works a lot better for procedural games like Monopoly than for strategy games like Risk. Much as I tried, I couldn't maintain multiple independent perspectives, and keep them firewalled off from one another, to create the sort of surprises and challenge that come from a human opponent.

(Oh yeah: kids, this was in the time before video games of any sophistication. We're talking the Atari 2600 version of Asteroids, Snake Byte and Oregon Trail on the Apple II, and Dig Dug on a stand up console at the arcade -- 25¢ a game. (For real. Look it up.) Heck, in the early 80's we couldn't have imagined games a tenth as complex or elaborate as the stuff that's standard console fare these days, let alone games with smart enough AI to make for a good opponent. If I'd had a Playstation in 5th grade, I would have never left the house.)

April 8th, 2012

"So let me learn, let me burn and I'll admit when I'm beat."
- Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers

New pots make me happy-sad *. Wabi-sabi; or that strange feeling of relief tinged with regret. Achievement mixed with new ambitions, satisfaction with longing.

Unloading the kiln and then setting the results out on a table prompts a feeling of nostalgia for a moment that hasn't happened yet, but could at any time. I'm aware that's either a paradox or an illogical contradiction, but it's the most fitting description I can come up with.

Most of that reaction comes from the difference between expectations and imagined outcomes -- which are absolutely essential to the making process -- and the actual, hard results. The probability field of that group of pots gets collapsed by the fire into fixed values, but those values can't be fully understood, or appreciated immediately. Certainly not from a single perspective.

So here's my documentation of #48 in this kiln. I'm including a before/after shot of each shelf, because even after years of salt firing I'm still frequently surprised by the amazing transformation from one state to the next.

*Like that moment in Almost Famous, when everyone on the bus breaks into the chorus of Elton John's Tiny Dancer. So, so great. Bravo, YouTube.

"I have to go home."
"You are home."

I love that.

Happy-sad is a vastly underrated emotion, particularly, I think, in American culture. (Maybe in large part because there's no good way to express it in English?) One of the reasons I really like Cameron Crowe's movies is that he consistently aims to convey that emotion, and finds such a sincere, touching variety of ways to do so.

April 1st, 2012

"My boss just quit the job, he said he's going out to find blind spots
and he'll do it." - Modest Mouse

Bisque #61

'Utensil jars'


I finished out the making cycle this week, with some simple one-piece cylindrical forms -- pots intended to fill the bottom shelf of the salt kiln, and to be stackable, and to be immune to my seam cracking problem. So pots more of necessity than choice; of calculation than desire; if those are worthwhile distinctions.

They're perhaps not the most utilitarian of forms, either; by which I mean they could function perfectly well, I'm just not sure as what. Utensil jars for spatulas and spoons, I suppose. A bucket for ice, or perhaps for one's throwing slurry? We'll see.

Either way, I'm always a bit saddened by coming to the end of wet clay time. I can certainly get excited about glazing and firing, and once I make the transition to them I usually do. But there's an autumnal feeling of loss beforehand. Making season always comes back around, but the harder, less forgiving seasons have to be endured to get there again.

I know from experience (i.e. pattern recognition) that it will probably be weeks and weeks until I sit at the wheel again and center my next piece of clay. Then the sale cycle will follow the firing cycle, and it always consumes far more time than I'd like. I've tried to keep the making ongoing throughout, but having the studio in two or more phases at once is chaotic at best, and completely counterproductive at worst. (I used to be a firm believer in the benefits of multi-tasking like that, but now I sincerely doubt its effectiveness, and as I get older I see how it makes me nuts in the process.) Firing and selling should get their due. Taking shortcuts with either doesn't pay in the long run. And I'm in it for the long run.

I also know that in those weeks away from the wheel and wedging block, the mechanics of throwing, trimming, pulling handles and so on will become unfamiliar again. Returning to it will be like wearing ill-fitting clothes, or walking around on not enough sleep, until all the stored memory and reflexive responses warm back up. I hate that fact, and knowing it's unavoidably coming doesn't make me hate it any less.

Ah well. It's not all doom and gloom here. The transition to springtime is fantastic, as always. At three and a half, Maggie is suddenly a great little helper out in the yard, using her kid-sized shovel to help me load the wheelbarrow or trailing along behind me with her sunglasses and Mickey Mouse parasol.* A year or two ago, the idea of both keeping track of her and getting things done at the same time would have been a fantasy.

And in the studio it's been a good run this time, on the short side of the calendar between sales. I was unusually productive in December, spent a long time lingering on porcelain, and got back to some forms I've really been wanting to revisit for a while, like those lidded jars with the wire handles. I used up the rest of two test stoneware bodies for the salt kiln, and have a nice range of forms and sizes to fire in the next month or so before my sale. Weather permitting and with the kiln gods' blessing, I'll get another infusion of new pots from it, and a good feeling about how the shelves are filled come the first weekend in May.

Lastly, that quote up above is no Fool's joke. My boss really did just quit the job to go chase other dreams, and having been in that exact spot myself a few years ago I completely empathize with his decision. No job is forever, of course, and carrying the ultimate responsibility for a huge, complex, finicky web site wears you down after a while. But it's still a bummer to see him go. After five years of working together, first with me as his boss and then, oddly enough, with our roles reversed, we got to be friends. As I've said before, the perils of making friends at the U. is that people tend to come and go with alarming regularity.** Losing a good boss is tough; losing a friend at the same time is... well.


"Well the universe is shaped exactly like the earth, if you go straight along enough you'll end up where you were."

* I overloaded you with kid pics last week, so you'll have to take my word for it: this is just precious.

** What's more, I've been lucky to have two really good bosses in my 10+ years there -- both were capable, reasonable and extremely decent people. (Danny P., wherever you are, I still love you, man!) And both, when they left, went too far away to sit down and shoot the shit over a cup of coffee anymore. Virtual friendships are vastly better than none, of course, but they're almost never as good as the real thing.

March 25th, 2012

"That's a lot of dots." - Maggie Pixel

Sale time is on the horizon yet again, so this week I grabbed the camera and fired up Photoshop to get to work on the promo card. I've had this idea to do a call back to the card from 2008, where we propped a mug in Maggie's newborn baby hand, but was waiting for the day when she could actually hold it herself.

It just so happens that I gave her her first mug a few weeks ago -- we've been braving the occasional pot for her to eat or drink out of the last few months, gradually working our way free from the clutches of all that toddler plastic. So I decided it was time, and as I expected she really liked the idea that it was her very own. I picked one from the save shelf in the studio; a decoration idea I've been holding onto for future reference, and a size that's just a little too big for her now, but manageable. (She'll grow into it.)

I fully expect that she'll break it in the next few weeks. Despite my 347 warnings to be careful with it -- or, perhaps, because of them -- she's amazingly reckless with it. She holds it by the body instead of the handle, palms it by the base with one hand, puts it on her head, insists on doing "cheers" and clanking it vigorously against whatever you're drinking from, and so on. Three year olds are nothing if not inventive about ways to skirt the rules. But even if she does break it, I think it will be a worthwhile object lesson; tangible proof that some things are in fact more fragile than others, and that most things have beginnings and endings, with a finite spot in the middle where we can enjoy them. *

Anyways, with her new mug in hand, I trotted her out to the backyard one evening as the sun was doing it's golden fade, and shot a bunch of photos of her drinking from it.

Here's the resulting sale card that I sent off to the printer, and the one from 2008:

Spring 2012 sale card

Holiday 2008 sale card

The change in the 3 1/2 year span between those two photos is just staggering. Day-to-day it never seems like much. Add them all up and... whew! Crazy.

I like how this one works with the design change I started last winter, with the pots out in real space instead of the white cube, and with that "HANDMADE" label prominently displayed. The pots seem so much more alive like this, more like they really are to me and more like I hope they end up in use. In a hand instead of under glass. I also like that my studio is in the background -- not a coincidence -- just like it was on the previous card. The studio is always the background for everything. My only regret is that I didn't keep that mug from the 2008 photo, both to make it her first one and to reshoot the photo now. That would have been pretty cool. I'm not even sure what happened to it -- most likely I set it back out for sale -- but I'm inclined to cut myself some slack for just about any error in judgement or mistakes made during those early months of insane sleep deprivation.

Also related to moving towards the sale, I'm about done making pots for this cycle. I've just about got enough of them bone dry to run a bisque next week, and then I hope to do two or three firings in the salt kiln in April. (I've got enough pots for three, but the weather usually starts to mess with my plans then -- lots of storms and wind. Then again, the weather's been so wacky lately that it could be perfect for firing. We'll see.)

Two pound vases, dominos

Two pound vases, stripes

First jugs in years

Jugs w/ domino panels

Two-part vases; testing cracking phenomenon

Drying wadding for salt kiln

I've been making a lot of taller pots for the bottom shelf -- it needs to be at least 9" high, and is better at 12". I made a quartet of small jugs; a form I haven't been back to in years. No idea why not. Also testing my two-part throwing technique on some vases with two new stoneware clay bodies; trying to triangulate in on the serious cracking problem I've had the last few firings. I'm really, really hoping it's as simple as a bad batch of my primary clay that went into several firings in a row. Because otherwise... I'm just stumped. Every other factor that I can think of has been fairly consistent, and after using that throwing method for -- what, 16 years? -- it's hard to imagine that I just started doing it wrong all at once. Every firing is another chance to learn something new.

I've also been going pretty heavy on the black underglaze decoration, which is still great fun to do. I enjoy getting out the brushes, defining the outlined geometry of the patterns, scooping the little pips of clay out for the dominos. And I just love getting the pigment on there while the pots are still soft and green, the stark contrast of the black up against the slowly drying grey. Sometimes I think I could be quite content doing every pot that way for months at a time. Then I think of something else that seems the same way, and the wheel goes around again.

* As Merlin Mann said in an old Back to Work podcast, "That glass is temporarily not broken, for a very short time."

March 18th, 2012

"Things are gonna change; I can feel it." - Beck

I've been thinking about change and endings lately. This story about a famous programmer gone missing; Dan and Merlin talking about Buddhism; the way that this blog, so foundational to my idea for tw@se, eventually made a truce with silence; and how this one just abruptly stopped one day.

And also change without endings: the loop. An early and unexpected rush into spring; the perpetual coming and going of familiar faces at the U.; shuffling another year's paper into the proper piles, then submitting my accounting (trying to pay my fair share, whatever that may be).

Seeing the loop in what I make -- the ostensible repetition that is never the same river twice -- and in photographic memories of a baby-now-girl that seem as if from some other lifetime. (Or, as Tom Waits said about where songs come from, that seem "like a dream taken through a straw.")


Sitting down to write about it again, hoping the clackity noise will lead me. Music. Intention. Pattern. Focus.

Loop, loop, loop.

Loop, loop, loop.

Loop, loop, loop.


March 11th, 2012

"…find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area and…
then tell the story of how you got involved." - Dave Eggers

I'm lousy at volunteering. I mean, pathetic. Have been for as long as I can remember.

In large part, that's due to a generic blend of selfishness and laziness. It's so much easier to focus on tasks that bring direct personal rewards and then, when work is done, to go take a nap. Perhaps a bit more defensibly, I've also become really guarded with my time, going on almost 20 years now of hoarding it to spend in the studio. (The bane of a labor-intensive, low-paying vocation?) And more recently, that's all been exaggerated by the demands of parenting which, in large part, is about investing time and attention. Time for everything else becomes increasingly precious.

So given all that, it was going to take an issue with personal resonance and an opportunity specifically tuned to my abilities to break that trend. But I think I may have found it.

This week I did a day of throwing demonstrations at the local elementary school: seven 40-minute sessions of spinning clay, showing fired pots, explaining the process and answering questions with over 100 kids, grades K-6.

The Castle is a new local arts initiative, founded by a professor at the U. who is also a friend and long time St. Earth customer. My session was part of its pilot program, which is bringing artists into the school for hands-on workshops, demonstrations and talks, covering a wide range of formats -- visual art, music, writing, theater, etc.

One of the primary goals of the program, as I understand it, is to counteract the ongoing erosion of the arts curriculum in the public school system, by subsidizing it with outside effort and funding. Hopefully, it can add those experiences -- the rest of the liberal arts -- back into the core curriculum of reading, writing, math and science. And ideally, it can do so in a way that's less affected by budget constraints, more integrated across various media and disciplines, and that reinforces and enhances those required subjects.

Overall, I think my day at the school went really well. The kids seemed engaged, the feedback from the adults was positive, and I left feeling like I'd contributed something fairly unique. Aside from, say, cooking or knitting, when was the last time any of those kids watched something being made by hand? Or listened to an adult talk about something like pottery in those terms?

Some of the moments were priceless, like having 20 first graders all go "Whooaah..." in unison as I pulled up the walls of a bowl.

One kid exclaimed, "I want to be a potter when I grow up!", which is pretty great. I was quite pleased in the moment that I thought to reply, "Me, too!" (We'll have to return to whether or not that's such a great life decision later on, if he's serious. Heh heh.)

And it's been a long time since anyone told me I was magic, but I heard it several times during the day. A little bit of that goes a long way.*

The support staff from The Castle program and the school were great. There were always at least two other adults in the room, which meant I didn't have to do any crowd control beyond managing the flurry of raised hands when they wanted to ask questions. With the older grades, I let them pass the fired pots around, but with the younger kids it was nice to have the adults manage the hands-on part; less risk of a nice pot hitting the floor.

There were a few glitches, of course -- like going through my clay than I expected and having to run back to the studio for more at lunchtime. And there are certainly things that'd I'd do differently the next time around. Later on, watching some phone cam videos of myself in action offered a pretty sharp critique. Ouch. (Slow down! Explain the basics first! Wow, do I really sound like that? And what in god's name has happened to my hairline?)

The older grades seemed the most interested and the most easily engaged. They asked questions I'd never have expected.** We had some back and forth discussion, and I was interested to hear their perspectives. At least in part, I think that's because the format I chose worked best for that age. The youngest kids, while vastly entertaining, got a little squirrelly after about 15 minutes. Ideally there would be an interactive component, too, but in that time span it would be hard to both show and let them act. Also, I didn't want to send them back to their classes smeared in throwing slip, so it was difficult for many of them to resist that impulse to reach out and touch things.

That problem of appropriately addressing each age group was something I worried about beforehand, and couldn't really come up with a better answer for, short of planning and preparing two entirely different sessions. I discovered that Kindergarten to 6th grade is an astoundingly wide age range, particularly going from one to the next in quick succession. (Due to scheduling, they were also out of sequence, which threw my delivery off a few times. A progression from youngest to oldest would probably be ideal.)

In the future, I think I'd split it into two more distinct variations, and perhaps also do two half-days instead of one long one. The pace was intense -- the classes passing one another in the hallway, with barely a minute to catch my breath, scoop the old clay off the wheel and prepare to do it all over again. (Two half-day sessions would be easier on me and so probably better quality, but complicated by transporting all the gear twice.)

Speaking of which, the logistics of transporting a mini version of my studio there and back were rather daunting. I'd forgotten how heavy an electric wheel is! (Between that and lugging several boxes of clay, I managed to tweak my back in an exciting new place.) And I have a new appreciation for the ease of a ceramics-specific studio, with wedging tables, sink traps and hose-able floors. But all that would be easier with more experience, too.

All in all it was a challenging but rewarding experience. I feel like it made a little difference in the world; I hope it did. At least now I don't have to strain my memory to think of something like this that I've contributed to. And if they'll have me back, I expect I'll do it again someday.

*I couldn't help but compare the experience to demonstrating for college students, which I've done a lot in the course of teaching at the U. a half dozen semesters. The mechanics of that become pretty automatic, so it's mainly about tailoring the content and detail to the audience. But the difference between throwing for a group of exuberant kids and a bunch of tired, restrained twenty year olds was startling.

The kids made lots of spontaneous noise, shifted in their seats to see past one another, and often could barely contain their questions and reactions. They blurted out things like, "It's a tornado!"

College students, even the really good ones, have an additional decade or more of socialization and self-consciousness, so they generally play it much cooler. Even if they're genuinely excited, they conceal it, lest they be the most enthusiastic person in the group. They can get defensive about receiving instruction, or impatient in thinking they already know what you're trying to show them. And soliciting their questions often involves repeated requests with long, Bueller-esqe pauses in between. They commonly wait to ask questions later, when there isn't an audience listening. And, last but not least, not one of those students has ever told me that I'm magic.

**Q: Can you make a lot of money as a potter?
A: Not really. But it's a lot of fun.

March 4th, 2012

"Thank god I never had to do it for money. I'd have starved to death." - Ron Meyers

So last week... uhm, yes. Not sure what else to say about that. Part of me is inclined to apologize, or express thanks for your indulgence, but I guess that would imply that I don't plan to do it again. Which I probably will. As long as you don't start expecting me to. (I think.)

It's been a while since I did a series of greenware photos, so here's an encapsulated look at my last three weeks of studio activity:

February 26th, 2012

"I Am a Strange Loop" - Douglas Hofstadter


I I I am a strange. I . Loop. I am a strange --- loop. Lids drying slower than jars. Godel vs. Wittgenstein. Sick or not sick, ('speed it up or not speak?') If the cat is both dead and alive what does an

y of it mean. ? switch porcelain to stoneware switch. Loop/

Two wweeks of studio [ix? or mags twinkle vid? Is Peyton coming back. Is my back going out again. What will it take to make David Brooks says we're social |


myself do these things? David Brooks says we're social | David Brooks says we're social | David Brooks says we're social | David Brooks says we're social |

wallowing in my own data, drowning in it, fixing it, com[acting. in hopes that someday there will be enough space to move freely.

"The thing about Sisyphus is like, does he ever stop and go, 'Wait a minute... how will I know if this is going great?'" - Merlin Mann

It's not.                 ::Skyrim

Water bugs, trout below. Spring is coming. Fear is everything
and nothing. show the kids how you throwjustshow the kids how you throw--


stop, loop



February 19th, 2012

"...the Internet will warehouse what people's minds do not." - Chuck Klosterman

Michael Kline's Sawdust & Dirt makes me want to be a better potter. His pots do, too, of course -- I still take special notice of this bowl every time I eat from it. But by long habit, I seem to have subscribed the input I get from using the pots in our "collection" to a specific channel or wavelength; as if I'm programmed to expect certain things, but only certain things, to be received on it.

But potters' blogs -- and particularly this new-fangled (at-least-to-me) potters' video¡¡ blogs phenomenon -- live in this unprescribed space. They're broadcasting on unallocated bandwidth; spilling over with unregulated content. And, so it seems, they're still capable of surprising me in any number of ways, happily thwarting my expectations.

Back to Mr. Kline and his "video" from last week, which I watched with rapt satisfaction amidst the laggard floating of our Sunday morning ritual, cup of coffee in hand. (One of my cups, I must confess: a new porcelain celadon one, with a crazy overkill of stamped texture). I say "video" because it's more like a "short film"; meaning something that was given some serious consideration and a diligent editing job, and which seems capable of carrying multiple layers of meaning and inference -- the sort of thing one could benefit from watching multiple times, and interpret differently on each pass.

Watching it also makes me want to make video again -- a long latent project/desire stretching back to when I first laid hands on a DV camera and a Mac running Final Cut Pro, circa 2001. But, as Michael said in that post, doing video takes big chunks of time, particularly if you're trying to do it well.

Even without contributions from the likes of myself, here we are a decade later, with the Internet rapidly compiling a wide variety of content by and for potters. There's already more good stuff than I can keep up with.

Such as:

And that's just the stuff I've actually watched -- I'm sure there are dozens more of similar caliber and approach that I'm forgetting or haven't even heard of yet. That's practically an entire alternate potter's education; all immediately accessible, all free and growing every week. Simply amazing.

February 12th, 2012

"Why you trying to second-guess me?" - R.E.M.

Making a hesitant start back into throwing wet clay again this week, I was reminded of how much the season affects my outlook. Everything seems 20% worse in the pall of winter -- the fired pots, the freshly thrown pots, the crap on my to do list, my accessible motivation and stamina, and the prospects for making any significant longer-term changes.

I also remembered something that I made a mental note of last fall, during one of those pristine weeks where Nature can do no wrong, which is that everything gets a corresponding -- and, perhaps, compensatory -- 20% boost during my favorite phases of the year; in the midst of spring's bloom or fall's cooldown. Just as artificially, but vastly more welcome, at those times it often seems like my opportunity and enthusiasm are perfectly matched, the pots are all good, and the outlook is full of hope. (Not coincidentally, this is when I historically over-commit to projects that I'd be much wiser declining.)

Keeping such things in proper perspective might not be everything, but it's definitely something. Even so, for me, acquiring that perspective is often difficult, and it takes maintenance to keep steady once found. For example, I wrote a fairly long and detailed draft of a post yesterday, complete with links and few self-referential loops (as usual). It was an attempt to reconcile what seems like my general malaise since that firing; trying to ascertain the source of my lack of motivation and inability to focus since completing the last big goal.

But -- given a night to process it down in the boiler room of my brain -- this morning it reads as merely an elaboration of whatever flavor of the winter blues/cabin fever/Seasonal Affective Disorder I get this time of year, and as self-indulgent, whiny, and foolishly compromised by the circumstances it was attempting to analyze for me to share. Yes, it appears there is still a line between my private journaling and public blogging, and occasionally I manage to err on the side of discretion when deciding which bits should go where.

So I've socked that away for future reference, perhaps, and am going with this instead.


Chasing plastic, chasing my mind

Deco tests on porcelain greenware

Trying out a new bowl shape. Huhrm...

February 5th, 2012

"...undone by their hardwired inclinations and undying dream of a new start."
- Colson Whitehead

The firing was a good one. Not great, but solid; let's call it a B+. This load was about 90% porcelain, which is a faster evolution away from my white stoneware than I'd have imagined was possible a year ago. Which is great, as far as formulating a plan and making measurable progress goes. But in looking at the results, it's pretty clear that I'm still finding my way with it. There's a lot more to learn.

I don't really know these glazes yet, which is part of the excitement in using them, I suppose. But that lack of familiarity comes at the price of not getting exactly what I want from them consistently. For example, my new celadon is vastly better than my old one, but to date I've applied it all of about 100 times, where I've probably put the old one on over a thousand pots in the last decade. There's just no substitute for that kind of deep knowledge about a specific glaze; with the old one, I could adjust the batch thickness by feel (aka intuition) and be almost spot on to the hydrometer. But of course, that kind of familiarity can breed contempt; or, at least, well-intentioned boredom. I suppose the new glaze has the excitement of a budding friendship, but with a similar degree of awkwardness and miscommunication as it finds it's footings.

So this time I got the new celadon just a little too thin, which shifts the color towards a paler green instead of the blue-green I'm going for, and loses a bit of the opacity that comes with a thicker coat. It's still fine, but not as good as I want or was hoping for.

All other things being equal -- wall thickness, bisque temperature, glaze mixing, and the specific gravity of the wet batch -- that difference in the glaze coat comes from as small a variance as a second or two more or less in the glaze. Often, the gap between a serviceable glaze and a great one lies in that tiny wobble in procedure; a frustratingly thin margin of error. Seeing the consequences of a near miss like that reminds me of why I do maniacal things like measuring specific gravity to two decimal places and counting off the seconds of each glaze dip. (One one-thousand, two one-thousand...) There are places in the making of pottery where anti-perfectionism is an improvement -- like throwing, or salting a kiln -- and places where it most decidedly is not. In my book, glazing porcelain for high fire reduction is definitely one of the latter.

And yet... I'm still too close to these pots to see them correctly. Cindy comes out to the studio and says, "The pots look great!", and she means it. Maggie comes with her and says, "Wow...", in her spot-on simulation of appreciative surprise. (Then she quickly wanders off to play the snare drum and high hat. Pots can't compete with percussion for her attention -- yet!)

But for me the memory of the wet clay is too fresh, as are the full-color images I conjured up while gazing at the pale bisqueware surfaces. Time hasn't worked it's way into the gap between expectation and results yet. The filler that results is what holds the whole enterprise together; the bond between the fluidity of imagination and the solidity of reality.

And while I wait for that to happen, there are new pots to start dreaming up, looking ahead towards salt. And some puzzling amber celadon tests to muse over, and some dazzlingly provocative new carbon trap shinos to get excited about. Adding one (or both!) to my porcelain glaze palette over the next few firings would be fantastic.

There's also a wicked mid-winter cold to suffer through; and a terrific defense of the home turf by little brother Eli to enjoy; and time to get serious about doing the taxes; and time to waste ranging across the expanse of Skyrim; and a serious need to find a two-hour-and-twenty-one-minute hole in my day to watch this...

January 29th, 2012

"It's like I'm perched on the handlebars of a blind man's bike." - The Shins

I did a firing this week, and am currently in the no man's land between expending all that effort and receiving the results. I bottle the kiln up tight at peak temperature, then let it fall back to ambience without interference or peeking. Good for the pots; hard on the potter.

(As I tease this sensation out into words, it occurs to me that writing is as close as I'll ever get to meditation. Like an overly-hard puzzle, solving it requires the kind of concentration I can only muster in brief bursts.)

So a full 40 hours or more goes by from the time I turn off the gas to the time I get to see fluxed glazes. The kiln door is a relentlessly stubborn keeper of secrets. I hope to live long enough for the materials science guys to develop a transparent refractory; some matrix of carbon nanotubes and space-shuttle-grade porcelain that allows for a little window into that most arcane of chambers. Imagine watching your glazes sinter and boil, go fluid until they glow like the heart of the sun, and then, ever so gradually, cool back to normative reality; frozen in place until just about forever. Hard to say just how much I would pay for that view.

Waiting out that span, I'm usually pretty worn out -- it's a tremendous amount of work: mixing glazes, waxing, glazing, cleaning, preparing the kiln, loading pots and shelves and then carefully monitoring the firing. (Here I think of my woodfiring predecessors (and contemporaries), whose path to fired pots was a hundred times more rigorous. Simply turning a gas valve is a luxury of modernity.)

But even more tiring is the emotional toll of not-knowing, having made all the investment with virtually no hint of what it will return. Like a pagan numerologist, peering into systems far beyond his comprehension in the futile hope of deriving their formulae, all I can do is compare numbers and times in my firing logs, looking backwards for consistency and patterns in data I generated previously. Any that I find are likely compromised and biased; at best a sketchy outline of what the results in fired clay will be.

And so I wait.

January 22nd, 2012

"Writing and reading allow one consciousness to find and
take shelter in another." - Tom Bissel

It's nice when my meta blogging echoes back across the network. I take that to mean that my experience is overlapping with what's happening in other minds. Like evidence of negentropy; it all coalesces. Or seems to, anyways.

For example, Michael Kline -- who's just back from a blogging sabbatical, and the man I think of as the Godfather of potter bloggers -- has been writing about the whys and wherefores of his endeavor over at Sawdust & Dirt.

His description of how using a camera in the studio helps him see his pots from a new perspective really resonates for me. Reading that, I realized that the same thing has gradually become true for me since I started tw@se. (I just didn't know it until he articulated it.) That habit has subtle yet profound consequences for how I look at, think about, and make my pots now.

That regular process of recording pots and studio activities in photos is another excellent example of the real, unplanned and unexpected rewards to blogging. It's hard to remember a time before the ease and fluidity of digital cameras now, or what it used to be like to finish a run of pots and just... let them dry out, unarchived into pixels. (Despite being married to a photographer well before the digital era, I'd never have bothered back before there were LCD previews and immediate gratification, let alone the required cost and hassle of developing and printing film.) Now, in addition to all the shots that make it here, I have this sprawling iPhoto history of the last four and a half years in the studio. That's the kind of archive that grows in value over time.

I also really like how he compared blogging to a firing log. Seems like a near-perfect analogy. Almost to the point that I'd say any potter who does the second would benefit, in some way, from also doing some form of the first. Even just a tumblr. A quote a day. One photo per week. Anything.

At least think about it.

Elsewhere, my friend Carter's beard waxed philosophically on the theme, extending off of both Michael's post and mine from last week. Carter's post is the exact kind of thing that I've come to depend on him for: an extrapolation of my simple observations into some deeper wisdom and broader perspective. It's like he takes the concept around the track three more times than I'm willing or able to, and comes back with this entirely different, higher-order result. I only wish I could think like that on demand.

Well, I suppose that might seem like a lot of reflexive back slapping and mutual admiration, but it's all completely sincere. Michael's blog has inspired and refined mine over the years in more ways than I can count, and Carter's often feels like the next generation of what pottery blogging could become. I'm happy to share space with both of them.

In not-very-related news, I just saw that Jeff Oestrich is the next show up at AKAR, opening this Friday. He's one of my potter heroes. Can't wait.  

January 15th, 2012

"I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin." - Bruce Springsteen

The real reward to blogging isn't in sharing, grandstanding or even in the hard fun of composition. It's in the ability (and the quiet obligation) to push first drafts out into public space on a regular basis; to get some ideas beyond the walls of the mind. Their tendency to constrain and obscure often prevents me from knowing what I actually think until after I've written it out and uploaded it to the hive mind.

While it's tempting to undercut my last post with qualifiers or to hedge against it with caveats, I'll try not to. For all its flaws -- the strained analogies, mixed metaphors and overwrought pathos -- I'm glad I finally got it out there. Any further editing or filtering and I'd probably have chickened out and held it back, waiting for a more perfect approach or a less embarrassing means of expression.

But I will say this: getting to see that blob of text as a thing outside of myself has already allowed for a refreshing dose of perspective on it. For example, this week I was listening to an older episode of the excellent Back to Work podcast * while finishing lids in the studio, and heard this quote by Merlin Mann:

"We get to sit around and have first world problems, and that's a blessing."

That's it exactly. File Killing The Dream under First World Problems. I knew that before hearing him say it, of course, but with the distance gained from writing that post I can appreciate it differently now. However crucial this issue is for me, in any sort of larger context it hardly qualifies as a problem at all. Compared to the serious things that most people on earth wake up to each day, it's nothing.

Heck, in addition to the first world designation, it's also an upper middle class-, financially stable-, and relatively healthy-problem. I have friends, acquaintances and neighbors who'd be quite happy if not getting to be a full time artist was their biggest concern. Seen from that reversal of perspective, I'm lucky to even have the time and resources to think about it.

So, there you go.

I've been working pretty steadily in the studio the last few weeks, making pots in porcelain and thinking about another firing here soon. The throwing is going well, but my love/hate relationship with this otherworldly white stuff is intensifying. There are so many more ways it goes wrong than my standard white stoneware. I'm developing a whole new vocabulary related to cracking: rim cracks, base cracks, handle attachment cracks, carving cracks, stamping cracks, too dry cracks, too thick cracks, too uneven cracks. So many otherwise-good pots back into the scraps.

I've always been really impatient with losses stemming from technical problems, so this porcelain will either train me to a new level of tolerance for them or drive me crazy fighting it. If the potential rewards weren't so high, I'd give it up tomorrow. But they are, so I won't.

*Back to Work is probably more enjoyable if you're a knowledge-worker/geek than a potter -- or better yet, both! But I find the issues they deal with overlap both sides of my life, and they cover a range of topics in interesting ways. Plus, I mean, UNIX jokes.

MM's other podcast, You Look Nice Today, is hilarious, but probably most enjoyable if you're a 30-45 year old American male who's somewhat stuck in a perpetual adolescence. If that's you, too, I highly recommend it.

January 8th, 2012

"Be still my broken dream, shattered like a fallen glass.
It's not ready to be broken just yet.
Lesson once learned so hard to forget." - Sting

Speaking of resolutions, here was mine for last year: give up on the dream of being a full time potter.

Walk away, let it go. Abandon it, disavow it -- kill it if you have to. Bury it, mourn it and move on. Simple in concept, brutally complex in practice.

It started badly, the first several months like a forced march through enemy territory. While in the midst of it, I could never quite bring myself to say so here, at least not explictly. It was too fresh and intense, and the eventual outcome too murky.

Yunomi with dots, January 2012

I made that resolution without knowing what effect the process might have on my desire to continue making pots, post-dream. I hoped it wouldn't change much. Or that, if it did, it would free me to explore and experiment more, feeling less tied to deadlines and business-related pressures.

But I suspected it might do irrepairable damage to that desire. Because the dream was a key foundational structure in why I committed to making pots in the first place, there was a chance, however small, that after carefully dismantling and disposing of that part the rest might come crashing down around the void. What if the promise of a life spent purely as a potter was the only thing driving me through the hardest parts of making pots?

So I was more than a little afraid of what my life on the other side of Killing The Dream might become. It was a potentially paralyzing threat to my identity, hence the long delay in doing it, despite piles of evidence that it was time. That's where the decision to resolve it on a deadline came from.

Once begun, there were so many open questions, some expected, others discovered en route. I committed to finding real answers, suffering along the path to greater self-knowledge. To digging deep and questioning hallowed assumptions; not settling for shallow changes or merely inserting a new fairytale placeholder to hold open the gaps left by the dead one.

Along the way, I tried to contain it to introspection, private conversations, and manic scribbling in my studio journal. But that's the catch (or perhaps the grace) with writing a weekly blog: the truth will out. It would take a better storyteller than I am to stir up enough filler to hide those cracks, especially while absorbing one sequence of emotional stomach punches after another.

So looking back I see remnants of that battle here, places where I either allowed myself to hint at the truth or where it broke free against my better wishes. My ongoing angst revealed itself in dozens of little ways, which, come to think of it, would be an interesting filter though which to review the last year of tw@se. Maybe I'll do that here soon.

For example, some of those photos in February got downright weird, didn't they? A swampy, occluded glow. A gnarled, rusty old chain. A wispy tree, bent over by the weight of crushing, twice-in-a-lifetime ice.

And the lead-off quotes through the end of winter had a consistent edge to them, an undercurrent of despair and frustration that surpassed my normal reaction to the deep freeze and mere seasonal affect. I rediscovered why song lyrics are such excellent fodder for quotes; suggesting without necessarily revealing, speaking to emotions as much as to reason. Especially if you know the song in question. ("A list of things I could lay the blame on might give me a way out." Damn, I love The Shins.)

But as it almost always does, spring brought about a renewal of sorts. A reframing of the problem, aided by allowing myself to break some self-imposed rules, and by the enforced discipline of a stubborn deadline like my spring sale.

By mid-year -- which, not coincidentally to my plan, marked my 40th birthday -- I'd made significant progress. It gradually began to feel more like a difficult fact to manuever around than a gaping wound in constant need of accomodation and re-bandaging.

The whole perfectionism issue was, I now think, a method of working on the Killing The Dream problem by writing about something else; a sibling issue. Working towards a better stance on my perfectionism was a public stand-in for the private dismantling of the dream. They were/are tied to similar sources and motivated by similar needs.

And by year's end -- albeit still with the occasional pang of remorse, loss of navigational certainty, and hint of wistful promise -- it seemed like I'd gone through the steps and made it through to the other side, intact. Even considering the possibility that I was merely fooled by a clever, subconscious tactic -- like breaking the dangerous parts into smaller, concealable bits -- it appeared that what remained had at the least been carefully reframed, and those bits compartmentalized into more manageable, future-proofed containers. Come to think of it, I remember building those containers: sturdy, triple-sealed, and carefully set off from the core, where their contents will do less damage if still armed. Time will tell.

So, for better and for worse, I'm left with a working life in perpetual equinox; balanced between opposite poles, both always in view, without anticipation of ever fully arriving at either. The strengths and weaknesses of a predictible day job and a creative studio job braided together, reinforcing and compromising one another on a weekly basis. Ho hum.

I suspect this post prompts more questions that it provides answers, and I'll try to anticipate some of them in the coming weeks. For now, I'll say that the resolution plan succeeded. I just may have seen a trip wire to the mid-life crisis early enough to route around it rather than stumble through it at full speed. (Then again, I am not so smart, so maybe this was all prelude to more I simply can't see yet. Even so, you've got to take them as they come.)

Either way, I'm marking my 2011 resolution complete, or at least complete enough to dare making another for 2012. And the fact that my new one is a big committment to physical infrastructure, and requires long-term planning for making pots, says a lot about the result. If last year's problem was still unresolved, I'd most likely continue stalling on this year's.

Kiln shed, kiln shed, kiln shed.

January 1st, 2012

"Start again..." - Ian McCollouch

Despite the turn of the calendar, I'm not feeling the retrospective impulse about last year. At least, not yet. And so far, the new one feels like just a series of lived moments in search of a narrative structure; perhaps that's a failure of my usual, obsessive attempts at pattern construction. I am not so smart.

So my customary overview of the year just gone by will have to wait, if I do one at all. (My therapist, Dr. Gillies, tells me not to fear change so much; to feel free to break with my old patterns and expectations.)

Here's the freshly-archived page of my blogged life in 2011.* I suppose making that transition is looking backwards and taking stock in its own way, minus the summarizing and highlighting.

In any case, I like putting away that long, slow, accumulated bulk of a year's writing and images in favor of the short, speedy blankness of a new page. That feels like a much more significant demarcation of time than flipping over the calendar on the fridge. And it surely beats the comparatively effortless and, therefore, virtually meaningless observation of the iCal robots pasting some new text into my monitors' view.

Making pots again reminds me of the benefits of tangibility, and of the relationship between effort and value.

My resolution for 2012 is simple: build a kiln shed. That's it. There are a dozen others I'd like to achieve, too, but that one is currently bottlenecking my ambitions more than any other. If that's the one new thing I get done this year, the rest will be gravy.

There was an anecdote in the Steve Jobs biography** about how once a year he'd take his 100 best employees on a working retreat. They'd collectively make a list of the top ten projects for the upcoming year, all the exciting products and emerging technologies that they wanted to work on. Once the list was settled, he'd say, "Great. Now we have to pick three and cut the rest." That probably made a lot of those people angry or disappointed. For the dozen other new things I'd like to commit to this year, parts of me are angry and disappointed. But I think the focus and commitment to the highest priority stuff is worth those trade-offs. (Jobs was relentless about staying focused and his ability to eliminate distractions was uncanny. Perhaps even to his own detriment).

So this year is for doing that one new thing as best I can, even if that's mercilessly sacrificing breadth for depth. We'll see.

* Because, you know, the unblogged life is not worth living.

** Yes, I finished it. Super-elaborate book review forthcoming. I'm sure you're excited.