Thursday, October 15, 2009

So This Potter Walks into a Simon Leach Workshop...

It's 10 degrees cooler than NJ in Barryville, NY where the potter Simon Leach (yes, I've mentioned him previously) is set up temporarily, and where I spent yesterday and the day before.

(Here is Simon showing us the basics of throwing a cylinder:)

This is an autumn in the Catskills experience. Water in the pail got cold in mid-October in the not-especially-heated studio. The clay was cold to start with, though it warmed up as I worked it. The seat of the kickwheel I used has a rug on it so was thankfully not cold. And the artist giving the workshop was Simon Leach, who, with the help of coffee, pottery demonstrations, advice, camaraderie and the occasional cigarette, was warm.

When is a workshop more than a workshop? When participants were limited to three and quality time was just that. When Michal from California and Bob from Narrowsburg, NY were working as I was, doing the same task at the same time, finding our ways with clay in a new place for a brief period. When the potter giving the workshop was a pottery daddy of clay today, teaching the pottery children who arrive in little groups, like hippies to Haight-Ashbury, to watch and learn from a potter they know through his videos. (See sleachpots channel on YouTube, people- Simon is about to reach the 500-video mark while regular viewers wait impatiently for him to get down to it. Oh, the pressures of clay celebrityhood.)

I gained.

Did I already know that anything to be done well is a challenge? Yes. Mom used to say that anything worth doing is worth doing well.
-That potters enjoy the company of other potters? Yes.
-That an unfamiliar wheel takes adapting to, that unfamiliar clay may have more scratchy bits in it than the hand is accustomed to, that not every pot is going to be a winner? Knew that.
Did I know I would struggle with forms I believed I knew, which now needed to become suddenly and significantly better? Had an inkling.

What did I learn, then, that I didn't know before? Quantified, these things will seem small. Taken together, they are more than the sum of their parts. There's this: While wedging (kneading) the clay to unify firmish and softish bits, and remove air bubbles, don't push the whole wad of clay around as I have done for the last 24 years, as it will tire you unnecessarily. Push it by its little tail end, and all will come around again bit by bit, nicely kneaded. (Both ways will warm a cold potter considerably.)

This: Pushing in outside the foot of the pot, while throwing,  creates a ridge inside the pot that is a nice bit by which to pull the pot upward, reduce its visual and physical weight, and slim the foot. Simon showed me.

This: Throwing the same form, over and over to the same shape and size, is a powerful exercise towards becoming a good potter. I have been missing this practical approach in my day-to-day, making one-of-a-kinds. It is one thing to know this, and quite another to really 'repeat throw'.

This: A chopstick set into place in a wad of clay on the wheel table will mark the spot where I want to bring the width and height of a pot- a gauge to repeat throw to specifications. Knew this before, but ignored it. Mistake.

This: The continuous curve in the interior of a bowl makes or breaks the piece; subjectively, a line where wall meets floor creates a catch-spot for your spoon; objectively, a bowl with a curved interior makes my spirit roll with joy like a happy mutt in the grass. Explain this? Can't.  Only know that care with small details makes big changes in the soul of a piece. Or does the following explain it-?  Function that is well-considered in the making is also beautiful. Or this- There are no small details-?

In any case, I have some bisqued bowls that are now going to become flower pots, where spoons don't matter and you can't see the broken curve inside.

This: "Titivate" does not mean "potchke," it means make the small corrections that will finish a process nicely.

Or this: I really can put in 8-hour days, and should.

Getting to it, then, the richer for yesterday and the day before. Thanks, Simon Leach and my fellow workshoppers. (-Sorry no photos of us working, but we recycled all the pots we made into nice large reusable lumps.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Once Upon a Time There Was a Sculpture

Once upon a time in the life of a potter there came an opportunity knocking.

“We are new head counselors in a special summer place for kids,” said two nice people whom the potter knew,“ and there is an empty room in this special place where it looks like pottery was made a long time ago. Would you come and do your thing there with the special children?”
The potter had an inkling that this really was an opportunity, but she was not sure. Many of the special children were sick. She thought their being sick might make her too sad. “I will come look at it,” she said.

The room was small but the potter liked it. She decided to try to teach the special children pottery there.

But the potter had never taught children before, whether well or sick. ‘I will take this job for this one year,’ she thought, ‘and I will see if I can really do it right.' The potter discovered that the special kids were children like her own children. They danced and sang, they got silly or tired or cranky or creative like her own children. Some of them were not feeling too well and sat down a lot. Some were very sick indeed. This is what made them “special” at the camp. But the potter discovered something.

The children had fun with the clay! They had fun with the potter, and she with them! They made skulls and plaques and hearts. They made pencil jars and ceramic fruit, and something that two of them called “devil chickens.” They made things from their hearts and imaginations. The potter loved it all. She learned to work fast and teach clearly. She discovered that the hard job was a pleasure because she loved working with the kids.

Her second summer, she made a tag out of clay to sew onto her baseball cap. It read “Mrs. Pottery Head.”

The children knew her as “Mrs. Pots” or “Mrs. Pot Lady," or by the name on the tag on her hat. The potter considered it a badge of honor to be known this way. Some knew her as Mimi since, coincidentally, she had the same name as the author of this story.

Each year certain of the children came back to the special summer place. The potter got to know these children pretty well and became especially fond of them. After the summer, the special summer place lived all year in the potter’s heart.

After eight summers, for reasons which were not her fault and which are too silly to put into this story, the potter could no longer work in the special summer place.

What could she do about her sense of loss that she could no longer work with the children? The potter decided to go to school. There in a room with a very fine sculpture teacher, the potter began moving clay around in a new way. After months of practice, and time spent looking at the many photographs she had taken of the children and events over the years at the special summer place, the potter began a sculpture that would make her feel better.

One day in the special summer place, she had taken a picture of two boys sitting on chairs in the grass, playing a djembe (which is a fancy name for an African drum) between them. One boy was a counselor, age 21, the other boy a camper, age 20, who had lost his leg to a bad sickness. The boy with one leg was well now. He was the owner of the drum. He tended to have an outstanding joy in life, which at that moment propelled his hands over the instrument. He was teaching his counselor to drum.

Now the potter worked and worked to sculpt the moment captured in the photo. She tried very hard to show the healing that comes about from making music for the world around us. She realized right away that it was the same joy that comes from teaching pottery to children. She knew it was the same joy all people can find inside themselves when they reach down inside and try.

The potter worked for 50 hours over the course of many weeks until the sculpture was finished. Carving and adding and subtracting the clay became a dance of motion for her. She was completely absorbed in the moment of drum play, for all those many hours. When she was done at last, she had a permanent reminder of the strength and healing power of creative effort- the injured boy's, and her own. She felt much, much better.

She named the sculpture Expressive Healing.

(...and the view from the other side:)