Thursday, December 30, 2010

Snow Light, Glazing, Soup

Snow is collapsing slowly into a denser and less deep covering outside as 2010 comes to a close. Two days ago, it looked like this:

after more than 30" hit the deck.

This was a good week to glaze. Being the procrastinator I am, and loving the bright light streaming through the windows, it was hard to find enthusiasm for descending those basement steps to work. But this and other goblets and pots

had been bisque-fired and were ready to be glazed. So I brought them upstairs in several trips, to the dining room table, along with my sample tiles of recent glaze colors. Sitting in the sun planning, I made a drawing of each piece and notes on how it will be glazed.

THEN everything went back downstairs, and I started the glazing process. The bottom of each foot was waxed to resist glaze, and when that dried, each piece got a dip in glaze and/or had glaze poured into it. Between pourings and dippings, the pots were left for hours or overnight to dry before getting the next glaze.

This is not the spontaneous splish-splashing some can do and still end up with something that looks reasonable, and it isn't the tedious brushing of 3 coats of commercial glaze of the paint-your-own hobbyists. It's what I call cerebralizing the glazing. Plan and execute. It's the only way I get this done. I don't like glazing pots.

Meanwhile, while a big pot of chicken soup is simmering, I am taking a few minutes for my much-procrastinated (do we see a theme?) next blog post. By the end of today I hope to have the glazing finished, and a kiln loaded with glazed ware and closed, to be fired Sunday all day. Photos Monday, I hope!

Friday, November 26, 2010

It Isn't All About Clay

Going from potter to artist-entrepreneur is a sea change.

After 25 years learning and plying my craft, I keep finding out how much I don’t know about selling pottery.

Fortunately, there are books, articles and organizations to educate artists if you look for them.

Apparently many ninth graders learn the acronym SMART, though I did not- Specific Measurable Attainable Realistic Timely. This is, for me, a reminder that my time to make art is not endless, so it had better be used judiciously.

This week I didn’t make new work (though I did fire a glaze test kiln Sunday.) Instead, on Monday I went to a half-day seminar on Business Savvy for Artists, given by a very savvy consultant through the Arts Council of the Morris Area, and got a very broad overview of some sound business principles. There’s only so much to learn in four hours, so a list of useful books in relevant areas means I have some reading to do for a while. One thing I learned for sure is that my business card is a very poor design. (Well, I really knew that. Have you seen my sad business card? I've been penning in contact information.)

Meanwhile, Guerrilla Marketing on the Internet by Jay Conrad Levinson et al is my current textbook. There are also some good articles about using social media, that I found on Yahoo.

I never read all the way through the golden oldie, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is waiting for me with a bookmark where I last left off. (The bookmark is the very beautiful business card of another potter.) I’ve been working on some interesting paradigm shifts for Mimi Stadler Pottery. The result should be greater intensity in the surfaces and colors of my work in the coming months.

As a result of the Arts Council workshop, I have a further reading list at least six books long. Well, I've got plenty of notepaper, and a thirst to know and grow.

The key point here is I didn’t learn how to be a businessperson when I was learning (at Kean University in Union, NJ) to be a potter. The lack of business courses is a serious flaw in art education almost anywhere, not just at Kean.

Tuesday, I met with my favorite web builder. Deborah. The website is my business brochure and shop. Deborah's done a very good job so far, though I made the mistake of not consulting with a web designer (not the same as builder) first, so that my website took a very long time to come together. I have no clue about html, and Deborah had not done an artist’s shop-type website before. We made some poor design decisions the first time around. The site has had to evolve s-l-o-w-l-y, as we saw what was missing or fixed errors of poor judgment. It has mostly come together, but wow, it's been a long process. You KNOW it’s not good when the artist does not want to go to her own website for a visit. It had issues, now resolved. And I think it's kinda pretty, too.

Wednesday, I took a box of my pottery to a cooperative gallery an hour away, to show a committee of artists on its board my work, and let them decide if it has a place in their shop. (They will let me know. They have a waiting list.) I am very interested in the co-op gallery concept, and wish there was one locally.

Thursday, as you know, was Thanksgiving. Among all the other aspects of life for which I am grateful, I am thankful to be healthy and capable and working in a field I love. I’m thankful that I have the capacity to continue learning new angles of an old business.

My normal studio workweek ends with Thursday. Friday is my day for cooking, setting the house to rights, and errands, as I prepare for the Sabbath that falls in the evening. Luckily I don’t need any books to tell me how to do that. Like Jewish homemakers everywhere, I’ve done the pre-Sabbath routine week after week for years. It’s like making Thanksgiving every Friday- clockwork production.

Next week, happily, it’s back to the clay with me. I owe pots I haven't made yet (Specific), I have no large beautiful bowls in stock (Attainable), and I just received a commission for an item of Judaica (wine goblet and plate) that I must get right on (Timely). (Pottery Making Illustrated had an article on one-piece goblets back in 2008, and I kept the issue. I want to try the technique.) The web site needs Judaica urgently, too (Measurable), leading to work on designing and making a series of wine goblets and plates in various group configurations, as well as new washing cups and mezuzah cases. In fact, that’s at least a month’s work, right there.

When I say what it is I do, I sometimes hear, "Potter? Oooh, you must have so much fun!" I just smile. I do have fun. But maybe there's the occasional smidgeon of work in it now and then...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On Burping Glazes, or the Perfect Nature of Imperfection

Why isn’t the band of glaze color perfectly even around the rims of my mugs and bowls?

When I put a band of color on for contrast at the rim, why does it waver and speckle? Why isn’t it a precise, clean, perfect, (come on, anal) line? Commercial mugs and bowls have perfect lines. Is my mug or bowl inferior?

It all starts with how I apply the glaze. When it comes time to glaze the nekkit once-fired pots, I don’t usually sit there with a little bitty brush and make painstaking decorations. I turn the piece over and dip it right into the 4-gallon bucket of wet glaze. Or, if it is too big for the bucket, I pour the glaze all over it. Sometimes I glaze the inside one color and the outside another. Or I dip the piece all at once, inside and out both, in one practiced dunk, and when the thirsty pottery has absorbed all the water out of the glaze and dried again, I may dip it back, just the rim, in another bucket of a different glaze color.

This is where imperfection rears its juvenile delinquent head.

I admit it. I’m imperfect. I can’t hold every single pot exactly level when I glaze it. Sometimes I achieve this nirvana, but often the pots enter their glaze bath very slightly crooked. They sneer at my inability to see through the plastic bucket and tell if I’ve got the exact same depth of rim dipped all around, so that the air trapped inside the upside down bowl maintains even resistance all across, to the surface of the glaze in the bucket.

See, the pot wants to be dipped exactly straight, or it burps. Some air sneaks inside if it is held at even a slight angle, and a little spit-up of color hops past its allotted line in impish, messy glee.

Sometimes the son of a gun sucks up the little gush of air really fast, so that the bucket throws up a small spatter of droplets of the wet rim color right into the interior of the pot.
Beautiful clean white interior? Freckled now. Trying to scrape off the freckles is going to damage the glaze under them. So there they will remain.

Freckled, juvenile delinquent pots. They are a lesson in the beauty of imperfection.

Look at it this way. (I know I have to.) Every little speckle and out-of-the-ordinary overlap gives you something for your thumb to run over and your eye to contemplate. I know that you didn’t buy my mug or bowl because you wanted exactitude. You saw right away you weren’t getting that, even if you were getting something very nice. What you got was a piece of pottery nobody else had exactly, even if there were 10 similar ones at my show or in the gallery. No two are precisely identical. It’s the unpredictable thing, like glazes that burp in the bucket, that make each one of my production pots (multiples in a series) itself and not quite like another. It is the nature of humanness to be imperfect and I sure as heck am human when I make pottery.

Pottery making is a constant reminder of humility. Glazes will burp and spit despite me, or to spite me, maybe. It’s like life. There’s no such thing as perfect, and if you had it, it might feel a little wrong.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Summer Days and Pottery Shows

Our Potters Guild pottery show this weekend was made up of pretty diverse people and their pretty diverse pottery. From the face jug potter who calls her little fellows by name as she chattily sets them among the fifty other pieces of colorful pottery on her table, to the quiet potter with just six groups of nine perfect pots each, we run a gamut of styles.

Here was a potter whose creamy white, glossy porcelain cups, plates and buttons are incised with personable barnyard animals and a kitchen dooryard mama. Her table was set up beside another potter's whose glazes are mostly as dark as the sky when the sun has just set, swirling with black and navy clouds and with highly textured, unglazed handles of deepest brown. Contrast!

Across the room another guild member had arrayed her crystalline vases and cups, each one having grown a surface of smooth crystals in sparkling colors in her kiln, looking as if she managed to flatten the insides of geodes and apply them delicately to her pots.

Aesthetics varied even more widely. One potter’s brightly glazed, shiny majolica earthenware bore little likeness to another potter’s arched and lobed stoneware across the room, in moody, rocklike grays, blues and browns, though both were tableware.

My own pottery on the right half of my shared table contrasted in intention with that of my tablemate to the left. My soft green, black, blue and white, homey pieces are clearly about function. My table mate's vases, bowls and teaware are really 360-degree canvases for her extremely elegant and quite beautiful drawings of fish, birds and trees. Though we are both functional potters, our work speaks two very different languages.

Some of us have been making our pottery for years. I’ve been at it for 25, but have shown my work less often than many with shorter potting lives. The woman I shared my wrapping-table shift with began with clay less than three years ago, but she was ready to show. Another, longtime guild member does five shows in November and December alone, and has a devoted following.

I took half a table for this show, thinking I might not have enough work for a whole, and then loaded it with nearly as many pots as it would bear. I could have had enough for a whole table in the end, but this is my first guild show in a while and I wanted to get the feel of the terrain again.

I wasn’t there on Saturday, the first day of the show, (it being the Sabbath, with no personal commerce,) but when I came in Sunday I found a few shards of a mug peeping from under my table. Someone had broken it the day before, and paid for it, so I had made back some of the table fee by accident. Two other mugs had sold Saturday, and that's all. Without the potter being there to jazz up the exchange and talk pottery with the customer, fewer pots are sold.

Still, on Sunday, when I was there, I sold only a jam jar and two little soy sauce dishes. (I did have higher expectations than that...) The jam jar customer loved the jar, “even though it’s imperfect, but of course that’s part of its charm.” She was energizing to talk to, another benefit of doing shows. And I acknowledge that the lid, being hand-built, wasn’t an absolutely perfect fit for the jar, which was wheel-thrown. It was only a pretty good fit. But I saw the customer studying and stroking the glaze on the front of the jar and knew they were a match.

If that’s all I sold, was it worth it, you ask? Was it worth the inventorying, pricing, tagging, packing, unpacking, setup, the day on my feet at the show, and the repacking of unsold work? (In short, you are asking, "How was the show?")

Here’s my conclusion. From noon to six I looked at pottery, wrapped pottery, and talked life and shop with my fellow potters, an interesting, fun and lively bunch. I was glad to be there. By the end of Sunday I was tired, not much richer, but happy enough. I was ready to pack up and head home to a new and different cycle of pottery-making already in process in my studio, with visions of a different sort of show setup next time. I have glazes to test and fish to carve. I am also thinking about how to make more money than I did this weekend. Tune in for the next show or the next gallery- or hey, come see it.

When I was about ten, my friend and I were wandering one summer day in a field near our neighborhood. We found panes of old window glass, and a mud puddle. I spread mud on a pane of glass and began trying to draw a landscape by sticking leaves onto the mud, using daisy, black-eyed-Susan and Queen Anne’s Lace petals like brushstrokes. My friend didn’t like to get dirty, and she thought I was a little nuts, but I was in a glory of summer innovation. The piece was as ephemeral as summer, too, drying and crumbling in a day, but it left an impression in my mind. Art out of mud, leaves and glass is spontaneous. Art out of clay, carved natural forms and glazes is a continuation of a thought pattern. Imagination is not dead. I suppose that I am still ten, along with being five times ten, when I am in my studio innovating.

Pot on.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Carved Vases, Stage II

The four carved vases were bone dry and it was time to bisque fire them, then glaze them. But I don't think these pots lend themselves to regular glazing. Colored glazes might war with the complicated, busy carving, or mute it. I know from experience that clear glaze alone would be too dull on the buff colored stoneware clay body.

I had a couple of jars of underglazes, though, which are formulated to go on raw pots. There were only light blue and black underglazes, so that is what I used. The photos show the four vases with these underglazes, which I put on fairly dry with a small foam roller and a flat sponge brush. The surfaces of the vases have almost an ink-printed effect. They will be bisque-fired in the old reliable electric kiln later in the week. Afterward, I will clear-glaze over the fired underglazes and fire the pots again.

This is Stage II of the vase story. Tune back to see how the finished, clear-glazed vases come out. I can't wait to see, myself.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In the Carving Zone

The weeks have passed into a couple of months, and what busy months they've been! My studio stood almost abandoned in favor of major family events, religious observances and celebrations, and travel. I have been contemplating web marketing and show possibilities. I applied to a co op gallery. In general, I've been considering what is the real potential for profit. But my hands have touched very little clay and no glaze at all.

I decided to revisit an old favorite pastime. As you saw in the photo from August of the bowl with the bridal bouquet in it, I used to carve pots. The bowl in the photo is over a decade old, from a time I tried carving into bowls some semblance of those leaves and vines I love to draw so much. You need to work out before you can lift one of those carved bowls. Since they were made very thick (too thick, maybe 3/4") to accommodate deep carving, they are extremely heavy, maybe 10 lbs each. No one bought them, either because I had too high a price on them to reflect all that work, or because they are so heavy. I keep them stowed away gathering dust in the kiln room now, their fate undecided.

Finally returning to the studio last week, in a contemplative mode, I threw a group of new vases on my trusty Lockerbie kickwheel. The belly portions of these vases were thrown thick, perhaps 1/2" instead of the usual 1/8" or so. Next day, I trimmed foot rings on the bottoms of these, got out my carving tools with their variously shaped cutting surfaces, and set up a comfortable padded stool beside my wheel. Hands, head and carving tools entered the spontaneous zone, and the vases pictured are the result.

I kept carving till they felt light enough in weight and seemed "done." You probably know that "done" is an unquantifiable state if you start getting abstract in your design. There were no guidelines but my gut feeling. These individuals were so much fun that I lost track of time. A blank canvas can be a joyful thing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Plea for the Touching of Certain Art

Toshiko Takaezu's work at Princeton Art Museum is worth a look. I wish it could be touched. It is art made to be touched. I fell in deep like with a monolith of a piece, a tall black form rising like a classic vase,from a base let's say two or three feet in diameter, up to a rounded shoulder a couple of feet wider. Reminiscent of a classic vase form, it defies vasehood by being closed at the smooth, rounded top. There is no opening. It is a form.

It is glazed a semi-matte black. Something in the glaze, perhaps feldspar, sparkles in the soft exhibition light.

Like much of Toshiko's work, it is like some magnificent stone, in this case covered with a mineral formulation that resembles faintly luminous sumi ink. It is not functional, and of course it does not speak out loud, but still evoked my response by its very monolithic muteness. Maybe early idols were like this, seeming to be more than stone. Of course, this is no idol, but a ceramic piece with an outsized presence.

Remember, this black piece, among the rest of the pieces in the exhibition, is in a museum space. We all know you must not touch museum pieces.

Toshiko sometimes encloses rattling bits in her pieces. If you could lift one of these pieces, you could hear it. It would become interactive. You cannot see the interior at all on her closed forms, or on the forms with just a tiny conelike hole at the very top. You can feel the volume of enclosed space from the exterior of the forms. But I read here about the rattles, and I am only a little surprised. It makes sense. These are quiet "pots" with a presence that radiates a power note. With her rattle enclosures, Toshiko makes the sound into reality. I have never held one of her pots in my hands. I must take this information as it is told, but wouldn't it be good to shake...

The piece I liked so much, towering over shortish me from its place on a museum platform, was so strong and appealing that I stepped as close as I could. In life, I'm wont to touch satins and velvets, netting and bark, feathers and stones. Potters touch things. We fall for texture. We are secret texture fondlers. Quick look around- no museum guard, no other patrons besides my two friends, absorbed in their own trip among Toshiko's pots. I laid a hand on the tall black "stone," named Night, and held it there for a couple of blissful seconds. The glaze was somehow warm and practically electric. I was not disappointed. I needed to be too quick to really assess and disassemble the feeling, but the faint ridges of the skin (from the making process), covered in the semi-smooth feldspathic glaze, connected and completed the viewing experience.

Tactile medium! Touching necessary! Impulse ruled. I hope no one will track me down and bar me from entry to the Princeton Museum over it! But- until this moment of public confession- no one knew. It wasn't ignorance that let me touch the art- me, the rule-observer, the goody-two-shoes! I did know this was not raku, not earthenware, not porous, not easily damaged without a sledegehammer, not delicate!

This is not like a painting. It is high-temperature fired clay covered in a very durable glaze. The glaze will not erode by my touch, as it is truly fired onto (and merged with) the surface of the clay it covers. It may show prints from the oil in the skin of touching fingers (which can be wiped away), but otherwise it would be unaffected by human touch. Ms. Takaezu's work begs to be touched. Can't this be interactive, as it was meant? Can't this art exhibition allow at least this one heavy, large pot, stable in its stance, to be touched? I wonder what the remarkable Toshiko, now 88 years old, would say. I hope she would not censure my impulse, born of the magnetic presence of her pieces and my love of things Clay.

I confess. My own brief, totally unsanctioned moment of touch was marvelous. While I don't recommend it to you, reader, because it is wrong to suggest you break the rule, too, it was a precious couple of seconds I am glad I had.

(The photo at the top of this page show Ms. Takaezu walking in front of pieces very like the one I touched.)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bouquets and Bowls

The wedding is over, the newlyweds are opening gifts. Some of our guests are still here. Several more dinners and one more lovely Shabbat will pass before quiet reigns again. Then I will put on NPR in the studio and get to glazing mugs and making new large bowls. This isn't the first time I wish I could live several creative lifetimes at once, and I don't think it will be the last.
The blog will keep. Please check back within a couple of weeks, though. Thanks for your patience.
Till then!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pottery That is Commercially Viable (Go Figure) and Not Mine

I was in NYC today- again. Even though a wedding is one day, and then it’s over, the preparations go on for months beforehand. My daughter is getting married in just a few weeks and I am one busy mama.

I miss my studio. I keep thinking that if I give it just two hours a day, three days in a row each week, I could produce something. I could pay some attention to marketing my work, let’s say. I owe a couple of people a couple of pieces; I could make them happy. I just can’t get to it. I need to do a kiln firing.

But noooooo. Appointments pile up. Phone calls need to be made, visits to the various wedding vendors and dressmakers, shops and etcetera. If I were highly organized, I could possibly do it all and then some. People with regular jobs do it all the time. They need to take off a day now and then, but they work and they run errands and fit in appointments. My wits, however, need collecting. So do the notes-to-self I have all over the place.

My favorite husband and I went to Vermont over July Fourth weekend for a few days to decompress. Our travels took us to Bennington, so of course I visited Bennington Potters.

Someone had asked me to make Bennington Potters style dinner plates- remember the 10” dinner plates of a previous post? I held some of these plates in my hands, felt the satin glazes, felt their weight, turned over the plates and looked at how the bottoms were finished. These are nice, but I am quite sure I am not going to be making ones like them.

These plates are each glazed with one or another of Bennington Potters’ selection of either semi-matt solid-color glazes, or spatterware-type sponged dark blue glaze, whereas I dip, pour and splash my glossy glazes, rarely sticking to one color per plate. Theirs are uniform in size and shape; mine are more variable, though I try to keep them as similar to one another as I can. I throw all mine on my potters’ wheel; I don’t know if theirs are ram-pressed or thrown, just that they are remarkably alike. Their plate bottoms are ground flat on a grinder- I could see the marks. I trim a foot on each plate with a tool on the wheel. Theirs are perfectly nice, perfectly simple. They stack much better than mine and look much more alike. They are highly marketable. I maintain that mine, however, are sassier.

That’s all I want to say. I envy the uniformity of these plates. I celebrate the handmade quality of my own. If you’re in Bennington, Vermont, stop in there at the Potters. It’s a nice place. If you’re in Hillside, New Jersey, come visit my basement. I guarantee dust, clutter, and sassy pots.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

New Facebook Page

Just started a new Facebook page for Mimi Stadler Pottery! This is one of the things I would not know to do without a suggestion and instructions from my child. This is a case of the Technofearless leading the Kickwheel Purist. Click on the title of this post to enter!

This page is there so I can share in photos what I've been doing in the studio. At least that's the initial idea.

Pass it on!

Friday, June 18, 2010


spun from still gray clay
drinking vessel flowers rise
quick stems opening

(*the mugventure continues.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Muggus Jumbo-issimus: It's all About the Process

Six hundred grams of clay makes a whopping big mug. In fact, it makes a beer stein. Today I put the handles on 24 beer stein-sized mugs.

Late last week these were thrown, with little to trim away later. A day later, the bottoms were "thumbed off" around the edges to clean them up. This is satisfying. It's just a firm thumb swipe all around the bottom edge to pull off extra clay. It beats trimming with a tool for speed and casual accuracy, and it feels...elemental. A sort of visceral clay-thumb connection takes place.

The mugs were "fluted" after that. I took a loop-shaped tool to the first mug, and swiped a shallow line down the outside, starting at the center of the belly and sliding straight down to the bottom, over curves, like riding a sled with a single runner down a hill. (You have to do this with a sure touch, or what you've done just looks like an uneven gouge.) This move creates an indentation about 1/8" wide and less than 1/16" deep. Smooth little glides of clay come off the loop tool as you go along. Then- this is a nice contemplative action- I followed the first swipe with another beside it, then another, all around the mug. The lines go marching, the potter gets in the zone, and this is called "fluting".

Fluting was followed by sponging off. Cutting a flute in a soft-ish pot leaves little burrs of clay along the cuts. A well squeezed-out sponge moving up and down swipes the burrs away and leaves clean lines that will not be sharp-edged after they've been fired. A nice upward delicate swipe gives the top of each flute a little arch. I know I'm getting into the minutiae of the flute here, but hey, I'm alone in the studio much of the day, I ought to find my work engrossing. Flutes are more interesting than my navel for gazing purposes.

By the time I was done thumbing and fluting, the day was at an end and so was the work week. About 8 pieces of dry cleaner plastic covered the board of mug bodies for a couple of days. I couldn't get to them, but they were on my mind. Well, thinking of unfinished mugs beats worrying about my kids, traveling in Cambodia and Laos on vacation.

Thumbing. Fluting. Now, pulling handles. Today was handle day. The Muggi Jumbo-issimi needed sturdy handles. 16 to 20 ounces of fluid have to be held up comfortably. Even if your wrist gives out from the weight, the handle should be up to the task. I paused to consider the length and width of handles required. Then, with a couple of long boards set up to take the handles as I made 'em, I "pulled" 24 handles, plus a few spares in case.

Finally, I applied the handles, and added thumb rests to top each one. Re-covered lightly with plastic in my new, improvised damp cabinet (baker's rack plus plastic- thanks, Dirtkicker Pottery, for the idea!), the mugs and handles are downstairs communing with one another and exchanging body fluids... I mean, evening out the dampness between body and handle, so they will not crack apart by drying too quickly. (But who knows what really goes on when the mugs are mugging alone together downstairs.) Now I can think of what I would like to make next. I think it will be other sorts of mugs and cups. My website needs a design-a-mug page and I want to give the people photos of their size-shape-color-handle type options!

Engrossing, muggy First of June, 2010.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Swamp of Despair

Unloaded the bisque kiln today, faithful readers. The very kiln filled with- you guessed it- 10” dinner plates. Dinner plates made from my new dark clay, with even darker chocolate brown slip brushed lavishly on each center like large thin Swiss Fudge cookies. They were lovely when they were raw, before they were dried and fired.

But then I unloaded this bisque kiln. Ugh. UGH! Bad plates, bad! Into the trash with you! And you!

The smooth-as-pudding slip in the plate centers crackled and lifted delicately in the heat of the kiln like a finely textured salt marsh on the fringes of the Kalahari. Not. Ideal.

The plates themselves, so nice and light in weight, had dried unevenly. TOO thin! The bottoms of two were cracked all around, ready to drop out.

The rest were okay, maybe… It is so tiring to achieve “okay, maybe” when what I want is “Oooohhh, yes.” I won't even know till they are glazed and fired again whether the Kalahari slip can be compensated for with a glaze layer on top. I can only grit my teeth and hope.

The kiln also contained nice big cereal bowls. So the electricity used to fire this otherwise stinkin’ load will at least be paid for when I finally sell the bowls. People like big cereal bowls. Cereal bowls and nice big mugs are bread and butter.

There is a symbolic kayak waiting to ride me out of this Swamp of Despair. It is a day spent making mugs, and a day or two of trimming and handle-making to complete them. And that, my friends, is this week’s antidote. Then next week, if I’ve gathered up enough Plate Commitment to continue, I’ll have another go.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Dinner Plate Challenge

Plates. Despite 25 years of making pots, even I have never cared much about ‘em. Plates are dinnerware, and I haven’t really done dinnerware. Making dinnerware means throwing one sort of form repeatedly to the same dimensions, with the same size and angle of rim, the same foot lifting it the same distance from the table. This, sadly, has not been my forte. The gauntlet, however, has been thrown down.

Three weeks ago, I approached a gallery about selling my work, and the owner had a request. Did I make 10” dinner plates? Would I make them of rough brown clay, with not too large a rim?

So now, yes, I will. I’m not sure she’ll want them when I’m done. She has an image in her head of what she wants. I have an image in mine of what I’m willing to do. I’m not even sure I know how to charge the right price. Even so, this challenge is about to break the dinnerware (sorry, bad pun) barrier at M. S. Pottery.

I found a teaching video that told me exactly what I needed to know.

If I can get muscles like this potter's from just throwing plates, that would be cool.

Besides the technique demo, this woman even tells me how much clay (about 3 lbs. per plate), how wide to make the wet plate (12”, which will shrink to 10”), and how to form the rim. Basically, I knew conceptually how to do this, after all, but a little extra guidance got the motion going.

Off I went to Ceramic Supply, got some brown clay that was NOT rough (an executive decision; rough clay scratches your cabinet and table- bad for sales) and got down to business.

It isn't rocket science. I got it pretty quickly. Why'd I wait so long to go for it? Shapes and sizes were approximately similar. Angle of rim had a learning curve, though. Rims all need to match, so the plates can be shelved in a nice neat stack. But rims like to lift when drying. While you are making them, each one has to be made to the same angle as the next, so they will lift at the same angle as they dry. I had to recycle the ones with rim differences back into lumps. After a day's work, only six were set to dry in the kiln room. This morning I threw another 6 on my handy dandy old Lockerbie kick wheel, and I'm about to thrown some more. I’m shooting for a couple dozen this week, or till I run out of brown clay, since this is a trial run and I only bought 100 lbs. Then back to the gallery owner, who can take them or not. If they’re nice, the price is right, and I can scoot some traffic to my website, they may sell there too.

Challenges keep the work fresh, and the work is always having to be fresh, because challenges are perpetual.

Next, maybe, the elusive and so far unsuccessful Seder plate..?

Monday, April 26, 2010

How Was the Show?

The show is over and, to answer the question I have been asked often in the last week, it was good.

What does the question mean, “How was your show?” Well, you reading this, what do you think? I would really like to know. Does it mean, “Did people show up?” Does it mean “Did people buy your pottery?” Does it mean, “Did you enjoy the experience?” Does it mean “Did you make money?” Help me interpret.

My usually reply to “How was your show?” is, “Good.” A vague question, a general answer. Sometimes there’s a further question: “Did people buy your work?” I respond to that, “Yes, they did.” To the further question- and I wonder if you agree that this is pretty nosy? “Did you make money?” I want to say, “How is your salary lately?” but I don’t. I just say, “It was a good show,” and I smile, which people can read any way they like. People don’t mean to pry, they were just, um, curious. I just realize some people (not you, of course!) are kind of clueless about making pots; feel free to lead the uninformed to this blog! Call it public service to potters... Explain about the hobby versus work thing, OK?

So this is a nice time to point out that pricing, labeling, writing up inventory, packing, hauling, unpacking, setting up show furniture and pottery, and manning my booth is just the laborious bump at the end of months of making & firing cycles in the studio. What I have invested in a show began long before the show. It is not a hobby, it is not a game, it is not “How lovely, so relaxing” as is one’s experience at paint-your-own shops. (It's true; I'm a bit tired of hearing "How relaxing.") Shows are one facet of a studio and retail website program.

Being a potter is a creative, exciting, heavy-lifting, muscle-using, dirty, messy, visceral experience that wraps up design ideas, powers of observation and active, continuing education, physical ability and tenacity. I do love to make pottery. It is work. I am trying to make it pay better. Sometimes it does.

Having said that, it was a good show. We had various booths, made up of 18 varied painters, four jewelers of different sorts, one local chocolatier, and me. The crowd was heavy for our one-day event, which had been widely advertised in large mailings, emails, posters, and newspaper items. I made money for me, for the gallery’s cut, and the 15% donation for the social service organization that benefited from this event. I enjoyed working with gallery and service organization people. That, in my opinion, is good.

Shows, additionally, are not just about money (though heck, I can only put this plainly, I want the people to buy). This show was good both because of the reasons above, and because I got to talk to people.

Talking to people about the work at a show is illuminating for me, not just them. The people make me think! People wonder about utility. They wonder about why I designed a piece a certain way and not another. Couldn’t that goblet use a plate under it? Shouldn’t the creamer be a bit larger, with a wider mouth? How did I get this beautiful color, this interesting texture? Would I make mustache cups? Salt shakers? Smaller oval serving bowls? Would I lower the price on this? Alternatively- Why are my prices so low? (I even got a kiss for the affordability of a certain vase! And a discussion with a dear friend about how high the price was on another vase, and why I believe it is justified. Go figure.) Then I assess my work based on what people have said.

Feedback! One of the best reasons for doing a show, after sales!

I came home and made a list the next day of items to modify or try next. That's GOOD. Thanks for feedback as well as sales, people.

It also made me happy to have so many comments about how my work has changed or grown in the last 25 years. (Yes, I know that is a no-brainer. Experience changes the work all the time. Still, if I don’t come out of the basement periodically and show the work, who will know it’s nicer now?)

And that's how the show was. It was "Good."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tired for a Good Reason

Thanks for coming to the show, and thanks to all of you who bought some of my pottery! I enjoyed the day and hope you did, too.

Those of you who didn't make it, see you another time perhaps. More nice pots remain in need of homes...

Please be aware that the show will remain up until Thursday, April 29th, and you are most welcome to visit during L&M Gallery hours, although the artists will not be present. If you call me or email me, I will try to be available to go with you if you want the company. Otherwise, some pots are available through my website,

It's good to get feedback at shows, and see what people like or need or want.

Tomorrow, back I go to the studio, to work on some requests. And now, ready to give up being dressed up and "on" for the day, I bid you a comfortable and restful night.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hi-ho, Hi-ho, It's Off to Show I Go

Tomorrow brings an art show to Elizabeth, New Jersey at L&M Gallery. I’m in the show again this year. It’s a fundraiser for the food pantry of a local social service organization, Jewish Family Services, which caters to interdenominational clients. This is a great organization, providing job and personal counseling, helping qualifying clients with rent or food, providing Meals on Wheels for older clientele. Last year was its first art show, and we raised lots of necessary funds in a difficult economy.

I don’t mind at all being the only potter. The rest are painters, jewelers, a nature photographer and a chocolatier. We have the whole large, bright second floor, and we are an interesting group.

I couldn’t be more excited about it. Since I’ve been doing only one show a year, I put lots of energy into this. I have more than 75 pieces of pottery set up, ready for the opening at 1 PM for patrons and sponsors, ready for walk-ins at 2. Then I am happy and primed to chat, explain, kid around, promote, and sell pots.

It made the weekend to-do section of the Star Ledger, under the heading “Benefit”! I hope that brings in some people.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t been to my website, it’s up in a new version, as of this week. Go to to see it. I have more pottery than made it onto the site, but more will go up over time. So please go there, and I would love feedback if you haven’t left some already: There have been some glitches viewing it on Internet Explorer, which I hope have now been fixed. (If you have IE as your browser, let me know how the site looks.)

I will have some photos to post on Monday. Come back and see! Wish me luck!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mug Drawing and Spring Unfurling

Springtime! That means the leaf buds are swelling, the squirrels have dug out my tulip bulbs and eaten them, and I have drawn the winner for the mug lottery for subscribers to an RSS feed to my blog. S won. Nice for me- I just have to walk the mug on over. S has been under the weather, and busy, so she hasn’t picked it up, but I will bring it to her today, and she will have a new mug for her coffee. The rest of you- thanks for playing along!

It took me a while to post this, loyal readers! First bronchitis, then a basement flood, then a sneezing, barking, nose-roughening cold got me, but I did the drawing on March 17 as promised. So a green (and blue) mug goes to S!

Somewhere between the ailments and small natural disaster, I made it into the studio to produce some bowls. Inventory was somehow thin on these staples. With spring minutes away, I reverted to childhood and (though rain was lashing down sideways and seeping inventively through the foundation of our house), I imagined lying on my stomach in the spring grass, just as I used to, studying the roots and stems stretching to the newly reinvigorated sun. I could almost smell the good (though rocky) Spring Valley soil damp with the first wild scallions and early grass blades. One jar of black underglaze, one long and flowing and one short-tipped brush later, I was happily brushing grass blades all over the outside of my just-made bowls, drawn from my child’s-eye nirvana among the roots and soil. Just for fun I brushed a touch of tracks- slug? ant?- inside the bowls.

There’s something about a child’s-eye view that remains imprinted on the psyche long after one is grown. There she is, Nature in the form of that humble carpet, the American lawn, living and breathing in my brush and underglaze, with art springing from the unconscious between between the living memory and the brushing of the strokes that describe it. Spring!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pottery Rhythms


Purring like a cat, the heat pipes
gurgle on and off sleepily through the hours,
a long-breathing rhythm overhead
rumbling like a living pet-
and music's on in the studio
while clay shavings peel away beneath
my trimming tool like
skin off an apple, and
the bottom of a cereal bowl
is shaped and smoothed.
Phone rings and I don't answer.
Rather hear the purring
of the pipes, my potter's wheel turning,
these blues thumping and wailing
than chatter. Another hour
Everything can go on without me.
I love this dusty vault
this cluttered order
these spinning bowls one then
another. Conversations
between the senses.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Family, Time and Serendipity

There is nothing like family. They knew you when and they put up with you now. I realize "family" is different things to different people, but to me it is my husband and kids, and in-law kids present and pending, sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces, aunts, uncles and cousins, and my closest friends. This makes a sizable group to be blessed to possess. Sometimes it has been hard for a relatively reserved person to have an individual voice in this noisy and opinionated crowd, but individuality will find its way, with persistence.

Recently the sibs and I marked the 7th anniversary of our mother's passing. There's no denying Time; we are not immortal. So I am living the moments as they arise. Today I am in Israel visiting my closest-in-age sister. It is quite something to consider all the years between sharing a bedroom (and squabbling) in the house on the Turnpike and spending time with my sister's family more than a quarter century after she moved to Israel. Later this week, I will be in Amsterdam, visiting my youngest child (wasn't I just putting a little pony tail on top of her head?) and getting the feel of her life in her semester abroad. Wasn't I in college yesterday?

But when I was in college, I had no clue that one day I would wake up each day pondering what to work on in the pottery studio today.

In the same vein, there is no way to know what tomorrow will bring even though I have an agenda at work. Sometimes it brings a surprise. Here in Israel, where my studio is an abstraction I think of from far away, I am thinking of textures and slabs, and do not want to know what I will assemble from them yet. I think I will let the ideas roam free when I get back home next week, and see what transpires. It's time for some serendipity. I have a show in April, and want some experimental work in it.

Hey- thanks for reading the blog, friends. I have about 15 people in the mug lottery (you know who you are), so your chances are excellent for drinking out of a new mug in March if you are one of them.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Seven Minutes of Isaac Button at His Wheel

Taken in 1965, this is a black and white video of Isaac Button (England) throwing cup after cup with regular rhythm and speed. (Note: It helps that he has someone else to wedge his clay and take the ware from him as it is done!) His aura is calm- check out the pipe, the whole demeanor. His fingers are capable. Watching this is mesmerizing and soothing. He died about 30 years ago; it is very cool to have this footage of him at work.

Click on the title of this post to watch the video.

As an odd aside, he is missing part or all of his left pinkie. I hadn't noticed that till I just re-watched this video. Is pottery-making hazardous to the limbs? Holy moly, I hope not.

Back to pack for my trip!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Taking a Break, and One-Handed Goblets

Soon I will take a two-week break from all things clay, and travel to Israel and Amsterdam to spend time with family. I will leave rawware drying, and bisqueware waiting, ready to be glazed. I will visit parents' graves, and gather for joyful meals with siblings and their families in Israel. In Amsterdam, I will see my daughter who is studying there. I will come back, I hope, with a spirit refreshed and hands ready to take up my work in the basement again.

Until I leave next week, I am making goblets and little plates. The goblets are new in the repertoire. I am throwing them in one piece (stem and cup as one unit), and trimming out excess clay from the base once they harden a bit. They're sweet vessels.

Something that has changed from 1985, when I started working in clay, is that now there is YouTube. I learned to throw one-piece goblets this week from videos found there. There is a marvelous British potter named Dick Unsworth, with a video I especially liked. (I have enclosed a link.) I followed his process, though my shape of cup is more tapered, with less belly, and the goblets are smaller in general. Mr. Unsworth seems to have lost his hand at the wrist to some vagary of fate, and so he throws pots using one hand and one blunt-ended wrist. The wrist, interestingly, seems to be to his advantage in some respects. It makes a nice supporting and pushing tool.

Human ingenuity and drive are beautiful. I learn from all my teachers as I find them.

See you in a couple of weeks!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Toshiko's Pots at the Newark Museum

Hello from the view at my computer instead of my potter's wheel! It's been photography and photo editing (for clarity only; I promise I'm not making them look other than they should!) and working with Web-a-Deb on the website. Oh my gosh, this stuff takes a year and a day. You know when a pottery woman's fingernails are growing that she hasn't been handling the clay lately.

Down in the studio, the kiln is firing away, cooking up a load of small plates and a few other things. A few lucky duckies get plates from me in a few weeks on Purim. The rest will be for sale. I hope they come out as nice as I think they will...

I haven't exactly been idle. With the anniversary of my mother's death coming up, I am thinking of what to say, since I usually speak at our annual family gathering on this date. So I have been trip-trapping over the bridge of time to letters and relatives' memories of an era before I was born. It is like existing in another dimension for a little while, then resurfacing. I am fascinated, and honestly, it is bittersweet, because my mother is close to my heart.

But back to art, since I digress here from clay ruminations, as I have in life recently! The Newark Museum in Newark, NJ, is a strange configuration of rooms with all sorts of items grouped in relatively small collections, into time periods and art movements. I had to wander a bit, even with map in hand- and it was interesting wandering, with some highlights!- but eventually I found my destination.

Off in one little room, all by themselves, are the ceramic objects that I had come especially to see. To nourish my curiosity and my heart and mind, suffering clay withdrawal due to all the other things that have occupied me, I stood before each piece and took it in. It may sound crazy, but I felt myself absorbing their presence almost with a little whoosh of induction. Toshiko Takaezu's forms, in smooth stony colors, like moons, some round, or tall, cylindrical, like rocks: these closed forms are so quiet and yet so strong at the same time. Some have vestiges of an almost-opening, a tiny conical peak at their very top to remind that these were, indeed, created in the same methods as utilitarian vessels. They are meant to be part of a landscape, I think, though when grouped together, they are a landscape.

There is nothing showy about them, but Takaezu's forms satisfy something so powerful within me that I seek them out wherever they are on display. One of the forms was a garden seat. It is just a sort of short, voluminous round stalk that flares out as it proceeds upward from the ground, terminating in a very slightly convex top that can be used as a seat. It is easy to visualize it set in grass or sand, a perch from which to absorb the smell of earth, sound of birds, feel of wind.

The garden seat form is symbolic to me. Sometimes I am reminded of what it is to just be quiet and observe the life around us. Eventually, I find, it likes to spill over into my work.

Toshiko is in her 80s now. Long life to her!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Honor Mug

I only know of 3 people who have signed up for RSS or have other means of automatic notification of new posts, so you 3 have a 33.3% shot at a new mug in March! Excellent odds so far, I'd say. I still don't know how to tell who else subscribed, so if you are someone who has done so and I don't know about it, tell me. We are on the honor system.

It gives me a kick to be on the honor system. It's like taking a half-bushel of tomatoes from the unmanned roadside stand, and leaving your money in the little basket with the note on it that reads, "Pay here".

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

lottery to break the doldrums

Sometimes there's not much going on inside the studio.
Sometimes it's web site work that day, or other office stuff, or a trip for supplies.
Sometimes it's time to mix up new buckets of glaze from my dry materials and recipe list. Measure, measure, measure, mix, sieve, sieve again. This is very boring.

Sometimes the matzah plate made to match the seder plate from last week warps, and sends me back to the design stage. RATS. (That was this week.)

Sometimes other things need taking care of that have nothing to do with clay. Now happens to be the right time to delve into family history, for which I took a trip to my aunt and cousin in Long Island yesterday. Never got into the studio at all.

Those times, there's not much to blog about. So let me thank you for continuing to read even on days when it's more of a bog than a blog.

To reward you for your diligence, I am going to make you an offer. If you sign up for an RSS feed of the blog, I will put your name in a lottery. On March 17, 2010, nine weeks hence, I will do a drawing for a mug. This is either a blue and green mug with white interior, or a cream and chocolate colored mug. Either one holds at least 10 ounces. If you win it, and are in the US or Canada I will ship it, or hand it over if you're local. If you are in Israel, I will eventually send it via someone making the trip. (Other countries- sorry, guys. You just get a note saying thanks.)

How, you ask, do you find out about RSS feeds? Go to the URL box at the top of your monitor, where you have typed in the web address of this blog (URL). Right next to the URL box is a little blue square symbol. Click on it and follow through the sign-up process via RSS. It's not bad at all- I've done it, and I'm no tech wiz. Then, when I put up a new post, you will get notified automatically. You won't have to remember to check for something new.

Good luck!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Rocks and Feathers, Function and Art

A machine-made pot is a more perfect pot, light and absolutely regular in form. Everyone’s place setting is exactly the same. We humans crave some order and balance. Machine made dishes also stack better in the cabinets, as my first college ceramics teacher, Dave W. Jones, pointed out. (He was a very fine potter, trained at that interesting juncture when Danish modern design and Peter Voulkos met with a bang and a slash in the 50s.) Dave was a realist about functionality. All the same, he pursued the art and craft of making pottery by hand, and so do I, because there is no real spirit in a machine made pot.

Yesterday I made a seder plate; not my first by any means. The seder plate has been an evolutionary item in my studio for at least 20 years. Its function defines it, like any item of Judaica. It is meant to sit in the middle of the table at the Passover seder and contain symbolic portions of the special foods of the meal. The first started out long ago on my wheel, too small and heavy, the design somehow never becoming “right” through modifications, until I took some time to plan it. I drew some 6-petaled flowers and abstracted the forms till I had one I liked. I made paper and upholstery foam templates and other tools to accommodate production. I make the plates from slabs now, instead of on the wheel. They are lighter, larger and I can make similar multiples. Making seder plates over the years is symptomatic of all of my journeys in clay, a very slow and sort of steady trip.

When you think of "accidents" of art, here is an analogous hypothetical situation to ponder:
Someone gives you a nice little box, and says, Fill this box. Do not overfill or underfill it. Fill it so that it remains a container, but make it more by virtue of what is in it, how well it contains, how it closes and opens, what it looks like. Go!

You fill it with rocks. The rocks are from the coast of Maine, all rounded and smooth blues and whites and grays, and so beautiful. They fit in the box just so. You admire the contents of the box and close it. Later, when you pick up the box to put it away, you stagger and the box bends a little under the weight. They look good in it, but rocks are the wrong load for this box.

You start again. You take the rocks out of the box, fill it carefully with your collection of hat feathers and cover it, and when you lift it, it is light. You open the box and a draft lifts feathers and settles them all over your sofa. The remaining feathers are all meshed together and you can’t sort out individuals by eye. Feathers are better in something other than this box.

So you say, the heck with this experiment, and the heck with the guy who gave you the box. You fit your jars and tubes of paint and pigments into the box. You needed to neaten up your easel area anyway. You have now used the box in a non-decorative way. You expect nothing more than a utilitarian arrangement, and you go have dinner.

Tomorrow you return. You open the box and you are surprised. The paint tube labels and the pigments in their clear jars are an explosion of color. The box smells interestingly of linseed oil. You find each item at a glance. This is a utilitarian arrangement, but also- Yow!- a still life. Now the box is part of a functional composition. Art! Your five year old could do it... couldn't she? Maybe- up to this point. Maybe not once canvas and brushes get involved.

You- hey, you with the box- already had an artistic spirit and a creative eye, which were working unconsciously as you gave up and accepted the box as a component of a life situation. Function balanced with- and this is the crux of the thing- the unnameable force from your arty ole head, and gave you your surprising still life.

This is really a clay story. Latent knowledge and conscious knowledge flow together as a potter works, aware of the functionality of each piece, our own voices coming through ever more strongly and even unexpectedly as we gain experience. Then just working through the everyday of clay and bringing one more challenge into the equation sometimes catalyzes into the Yow! moment.

Yesterday's seder plate is on a shelf in my kiln, drying. It's my best one yet, the most like my planned design but also with spontaneous elements. Don't want to move it while it dries, or I would take a better picture for you, but check out the raw pot in the picture. Who knows what the next one might have that this one doesn't.

Keep on doing whatever good thing it is you do!