Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Inspiration is Like Marble Cake Batter

Childhood vision is a three-foot high perspective. Grass and ants and sidewalk cracks, bark and leaves and sand grains, mud and water and soap bubbles- that’s where inspiration springs. Minnows and clouds. Salamanders and dragons, ladders and cats. All fresh, all absorbing.
Later on, trees and bridges, trucks and towers, letters and numbers.
Chalk and poems.
Cocoa and cookies.
Fire and charcoal.
Sticks and rocks.
The temperatures and colors of sound.
Channels made in hillsides by rain flowing down.
Mica flecks in a stream.
The shape and movement of the human body.
Roll them into a tiny coil of sensory experience all living in a single wrinkle in the brain.
Around it are other little wrinkles all full of other experiences.
There they are, fully packed, highly personal little wrinkles in the brain, ready to be tapped into like ore.
All stemming from one’s particular Nature and Nurture, swirled like marble cake batter, different parts that will somehow bake together.

Inspiration depends upon the artist and is what makes art subjective.

As for execution of inspiration: It’s like getting to Carnegie Hall. First, study hard. Then practice, practice practice.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"And What Shall I Charge for my Mayim Achronim?" asked Mrs. Potteryhead

I confess- I’m finding the new mayim achronim pieces kind of nice. OK, I didn’t come up with a creative variation on the traditional well-and-pitcher design. I seemed to keep coming back to this practical form. Somehow these feel true to my style, though.

Here are four of the nine sets I made this week.

When a set is put together, it measures about 8” tall from bottom of base to top of pitcher. This photo is of drying work, which will be dull in finish until glaze fired. But use your imagination to turn the clay from gray to an ivory color, deepen the underglaze colors to the strong hues they will assume when heated to maturity, and picture the shine of glossy, clear glaze over them.

Now, what should I charge for my nice, glossy little set? Competition is charging $30 for a machine-made mayim achronim.

Here is the process, from raw clay to gallery shelf: (skip 1-6 if you don't care about process!)
1) Both parts are thrown separately on the wheel, and a pouring lip formed on each pitcher. Each well is made with a little shelf inside the lip for the pitcher to sit on neatly. The mouth of the well and the bottom of the pitcher are sized to fit each other.
2) After they firm up enough, I go back on the wheel, where each piece is trimmed of any extra clay at the bottom. Once trimmed, handles are put on the pitchers.
3) Underglaze color is put on and designs cut through it, as whimsy dictates. This is fun and relaxing.
4) Kiln is loaded with the pots and fired to bisque, taking 8 hours or so to reach temperature, and unloaded when cool a day later. It is an electric kiln and doesn’t need a lot of tending.
5) Glaze is dipped over each piece, and the bottom cleaned off. Kiln is reloaded with glazed pots, fired again to a still higher temperature for about 10 hours to glaze maturity, and unloaded when cool late tomorrow.
6) Any sharp bits on bottoms are ground off with a special stone. I check pots for other flaws.

What do 1-6 mean? They say that it may take me as much as an hour and a half to make each set from start to finish.
(I will just mention some overhead costs that should go into the accounting: cost of clay and glaze materials, cost of electricity for firing the kiln twice, time spent wedging and weighing out appropriate size pieces of clay, time spent in cleanup.)

If I charge the same $30 as the machine-made competition commands, by my calculation, I would be paying myself about $20 per hour. (The overhead would subtract another couple of bucks from that.) Should I have chosen from the get-go to spend my time instead making something that is perceived to have greater inherent value, like a nice easy-to-make bowl? -I do like the challenge of making different sorts of things. Or should I have bought a different wardrobe than my mud clothes, and gotten a regular job like other people?

I would love some of your thoughts on this, my dear people with opinions.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Pottery Tradition? Tevye Didn't Have One!

I have had a teacher the last few months. I haven’t met him in person, but in this day of video proliferation, I found him on YouTube. He has nearly 500 videos up there, on all different aspects of making pottery. He’s a good teacher, too. I’ve gleaned some fresh understanding that invigorates and improves some of my old practices. As a result, the work has made a small leap forward lately.

That’s Simon Leach.

Simon’s grandfather Bernard Leach (1887-1979) was sometimes called the “father of British studio pottery.” An artist by inclination, he studied in Japan and then opened a pottery in Cornwall, England in 1920 with a great Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada. Bernard's teaching history was long and influential. It tapped into a most fundamental idea of Japanese pottery, beautiful function. His sons David and Michael were potters in similar style. Bernard’s grandson, David’s son, is my newfound pottery video teacher, Simon. He finds his own way in the aesthetic of his grandfather. He works within the tradition, although his voice is his own.

Why do I tell you all this? Because it blows me away. What can it be like to have a tradition of pottery-making to tap into? To have the skills and aesthetics laid out for you to learn and absorb from an early age? To understand that beauty in a functional object can be a given? I wonder because I have no such tradition, and must find my way as if everything is a new discovery.

What is it that make Judaism and clay a difficult team to yoke together?

From archaeological digs in Israel, you find clay objects of old Judea: olive oil jars and other storage jars, and oil lamps. Matter from the earth was used to make the most basic utilitarian ware. Since idols were out for us monotheists, you don’t really find figures.

On my trips to modern Israel, I see jewelry and pottery, sculpture in all media, all around. Even a flower arrangement is so much more creative there than here in the U.S. There is a bright, inventive spirit among the people, who came from all over the world to settle there and brought a spirit of adventure and freedom of expression. More creative thinking didn’t just arise from the kibbutz movement that originally tried to jettison religion in favor of a new social order. It’s way more than that. Autonomy has led somehow to great creativity. Color, texture and free form are everywhere. Maybe it’s the neutral colors of pale stone and blue sky that encourage art to sprout- the same effect as the white walls of a museum, where art is shown to its best advantage. Playgrounds can be found made of altered and brightly painted old farm equipment. Playground slides are turned into fanciful creatures. What freshness! Why? These are Jews, too. Why do they have a more creative art outlook than the wonderful people among whom I grew up?

Originally a kid from the sticks with many siblings and little money, my strongest early influences are extremely utilitarian. Necessity dictates. Even now, as a person who is not counting pennies every day to get by as my parents had to, my frugal sensibility remains. What is more, it is common to many: at a recent local show, in typical fashion, I sold none of the covered jars with curly-whirly handles and lid knobs (they have no obvious purpose, being too silly-looking to hold flour), but sold a lot of the trays that read “Challah” and other items of Judaic use. Function. It justifies expenditures.

Maybe I'm lucky to have no family or cultural tradition for what I do. Maybe it frees me to surf around and choose the most appealing bits from world art and use them, like spice in cuisine, to flavor my work. I even take and channel these bits into items of Judaica.

That’s my challenge. Make it utilitarian- and have it satisfy on some level as art.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Longish Meanderings on "Afterwaters"

This week someone asked me to make a mayim achronim set for her. I said I would, and estimated the price at around $30.

She said she wanted a nice one as opposed to the cup and bowl they tend to rustle up from the kitchen for the job.

At my Shabbos and holiday table nowadays we do not have the custom of mayim achronim, which literally means “after waters.” My husband’s family did not have this handwashing ritual at their table and we follow their way. But when I was growing up in my childhood home, we did have this custom (in our home, a man’s custom) and passed around a cup and bowl, also random items from the kitchen, for mayim achronim after Shabbos or holiday meals. My father and brothers rinsed their fingertips with this system before bentshing (saying grace after meals). We would take the mayim achronim bowl off the table after use, as it was not fitting to leave the used rinse water uncovered there while speaking to G-d. However, it was OK to leave the used water bowl on the table if it was covered.

I wondered on occasion where this custom came from. Some people we know nowadays do it, particularly Sefardic Jews, but many people we know do not. (I found information I liked at OHR Online and Chabad.org if you want to know more.)

I went online to see what is out there, and how much sellers are charging.

There are very limited design concepts for mayim achronim. A set tends to be a tiny pitcher that sits atop a little well with a flared rim. The idea is to pour the water from the pitcher over one’s fingertips into the little well. Then the pitcher is replaced on top of the well, covering the hole and the used water inside it. I’ve seen it a million times.

There is also very limited profit in it. Competitive pricing really is around $30 per set; it was a good guess.

My challenge: Make a mayim achronim set that pours and contains well, looks interesting, and is not too labor intensive. ($30, after all, should not involve spending hours per piece.) It has to fit to the curve of the hand and have a gracefully handy shape, so that a child can pass it without spilling; must be stable when standing, (the pitcher has to stay upright); and satisfy my sense of aesthetics, which are somewhat nature oriented with simple lines.

Six tries later, I still don’t have the well portion of the mayim achronim, let alone the itty bitty pitcher. It’s not that the item is so complicated. It’s just not very interesting. Since the basic forms of the two parts are determined by their function, we’ve got a pitcher or cup, and a well. Ba dum bum.Whoopee. Can I just make them look like MY pitcher and well? That would make me happy.

Clean and contemporary…that’s what I want. Contemporary Organic. The ones I found scrolling around through Judaica web sites are aluminum, silver or wood. One- get this!- is silver plated resin. The surfaces tend to be silly, ornate, what my kids call plastered with grapes. Nyet.

Renee Vishinsky has a couple of nice stoneware pieces to see online. They are bowls with a raised well in the center and a classic little pitcher that sits on top of the well. (Check her work out online and in shops, it’s nice. She is a pro & has been for years.) I remember meeting Renee at the former Anshe Chesed Judaica craft fair in NYC in the late 80s, early 90s.. She is a wonderful Judaica potter. I saw a mayim achronim set at her booth. We had a conversation about the design, which in my still fairly novice yet freely offered opinion would have been improved by changing what was then a simple open bowl into a bowl with a well that could be covered. She hadn’t thought about having to take the thing off the table after using it and before benshing if the used water was uncovered. Renee was interested, though whether that helped facilitate the design change to her current one, I don’t know.

It’s nice to think about the potter I was then, in the late 80s, and the one I am now. A lot of water under that bridge! Renee said to me then, “I can throw any form I want.” She could, too. I was struck by her confidence. I’m almost there, maybe, after all this time.

More design thoughts to work through first, though.


You may have read this before on my first blog that I could not re-access for posting! I copied and pasted it here for continuity. Thanks for indulging me.

Down to the cellar, where the studio is, where newly made stoneware pots are firming, and already firm pots are ready to trim; where dry scraps of trimmed-away clay are slaking their thirst in water and turning back into slurry; where trimmed pots are parching into bisqueware in the heat of the kiln; where bisqued pots are awaiting their coat of glaze; that's where I am going.

Just the thought of all that glorious ware in all the forms of its cycle pulls my feet downstairs at all sorts of hours. I check the pots: cover with plastic? Uncover? Are the handles put on well? Will the pitcher lip pour? Has the kiln finished firing? Is it cool enough to unload? Will I love all these pots, or dislike one enough to give it a smash on the concrete floor, hard?

Lately I am having a fertile phase in the pottery studio. But it hasn't always been this way, and there will without question be times again when it won't. Even in a good time, it is not unmitigated joy. In last week's glaze fire, for example, my reliable blue glaze spat on the kiln shelves and crawled in a most ugly way on a few of the nice pots in the kiln. Will thinning the raw glaze fix that? My trimming techniques need refining some more- some of these bowls need to lift from graceful feet instead of squatting like tired puppies. Minor adjustments could make these pots sing, or croak. I keep adjusting and developing even after 24 years.

This is a most humbling occupation. One kick(wheel) forward, two steps back, some days. But if it were easy, if it were rote, my pottery would be made as if by machine. It is the individual subtleties that create individual pots. Of twenty all similar, no two are really just the same. Of twenty all similar, it is altogether possible that one will need a good smackdown on the concrete when it comes out of the kiln. Smash! And its companion might have that certain je ne sais qua that makes you want to pick it up, own it.

This blog is about my life as a potter. My solo, cellarbound life as a person whose art is found in the combination of minerals, water, heat, effort, experience and the ridiculously strong human need to create.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mimi Stadler is a Woman With a Kick Wheel

As a woman with a kick wheel, I celebrate the simple level of the technology in my studio. Unlike my electric-wheel peers, I could use my wheel, powered only by my right leg, by candlelight in a electricity outage. So you can imagine my frustration with technology when my first blog post got eaten by the ether due to some unknown error on my part while trying to log in the very next day after I created the blog. Frustration mounted while I attempted over several days to find my way back in. Can't I just kick it back into place? But no. Somewhere on Blogger my first post still exists, but alas, access to add to it is not for me.

So this is the first post of my second blog.

First, I am going to say some words I will not put down here. (There, done.) Then I am going to be philosophical about this and say that the first blog needed improving anyway. Notice my name in the title? Now you can probably find my blog by trying my name if you should forget Mimi-Among the Pots. You couldn't do that before.

The plan is to update this every week or two. As I spend part of at least four days a week breathing some clay dust down in the dungeon, and a good bit of my off time reading about pottery, watching pottery-making videos and making little sketches of potential pot designs, clay is on my mind a whole lot. Musings are going to come up.

Meanwhile, if you haven't gone to my web site, it is www.mimistadlerpottery.com . It is being put together by web woman Deborah Berman. We are almost done getting it together. It is going to be my retail shop very shortly.

For the new year- honey jars!