Monday, October 15, 2012

Thank You, Selma

Selma, 2010
       I had a friend, Selma. We met in 1985 in the Ceramics studio of our local college. I was in my late 20s, back in school after my second child started walking. Selma was then in her late 60s.
       I was looking for the ability and training in art that I had gradually lost as I grew up in a place not always sympathetic to art. My husband and I had bought four stacking mugs from a potter in a Greenwich Village street fair five years before, and I had been thinking ever since,I can do that!” (Little did I realize how much learning was involved!)
A doctor’s wife, Selma had raised her children full time, and when the youngest went to college, began her avocation as a craftsman. By the time I met her, Selma had been making her own sort of pots on and off for a couple of decades, developing her deceptively simple style.
Selma had a lot of confidence. She had done a lot of looking at art of all sorts, and continued to do so as long as I knew her. There were galleries and museum shows to see, art books to learn from, courses to take. There were trips to theater and opera. There was her beloved daily newspaper, which she read cover to cover. Selma absorbed intellectual and aesthetic lore with passionate abandon, though her demeanor was always collected and gracious so that perhaps “abandon” is a funny word to use. But there it is. Passionate abandon.
Selma was a beautiful woman in the best sense, tall and naturally very slim in late middle age, with a thick shock of white hair, a warm and gracious smile, and luminous dark eyes. She liked to wear a bit of eyeliner and some foundation to cover the sunspots from years of tennis. She was always conscious of elegance, even with clay on her arms, even wearing an old pair of pants and her old brown shoes while she worked. She had won athletic awards in high school, and an aura of erect grace always remained in her bearing even though a car accident years before had left her with a permanent limp. Despite her elegance, lest you think she might be, she was not a snob.
When I met her, she had a yen to talk about art, and I had a yen to hear it. We talked quite a lot in the college studio as we worked, about life and art, me a newbie with clay and she an old pro. I sometimes thought that if we were close in age, if I had met her when she was in high school, it is quite possible we would not have become friends. I was an introvert in my late 20s, and from the way she told it to me later, she was anything but. So I think we met at the right time to grow into friends.
She taught me something simple about pots that I had to practice and grow into for years afterward: “The inside has to agree with the outside.” She showed me what she meant as she made her own pots. It was a gentle but very persuasive conversation.
Handles on her mugs and pitchers were always as small as possible while still having enough room in them to be comfortable in the hand. Selma had perspective about things like this. I wanted to hear her perspective. Sometimes I disagreed, but still, I heard.
When she worked at the wheel, her pots had a softness of form that became harmonic counterpoint with the hardness of the piece once it was fired. When she worked with slabs, she liked to leave torn edges, quite different from the thrown work. But color and texture brought it all to one strong, quiet statement.
The colors Selma loved were usually oatmeal, golden brown, brilliant mazarine blue, deep semi-matt chocolate brown, rich cocoa-spotted bright rust, tenmoku black breaking to iron silver, and still more. The textures were often burlap rough or tree bark crackly, with bumps, indentations and lines made by pressing in found objects both organic and industrial. She really liked an irregular edge. She found her inspiration in things like seashells and rocks, pieces of bone, and oddments like terraced bits of tree fungus.
She rolled clay into a slab, tore pieces from it and slapped them back on, pressed some of her texture bits into the clay, and placed the whole crazy quilt into a fabric cradle or a giant wok to form them. This way she made plates and bowls of all sizes. She poured, splashed and trailed glazes with exuberant freedom, always with a particular objective and always with respect for serendipitous play.
One day after coffee at her house, she gave me this cream and sugar set, right off a kitchen shelf. It has lived in my studio ever since. It has a gentle delicacy that I like:
Cream and Sugar- notice the sweet little handle

Selma died a year or so ago, at age 94.
Today I met her daughter at Selma’s still-art-filled house, which is nearing sale. Her daughter greeted me at the door and immediately offered me my choice of Selma’s pots covering the dining room table. I chose a group of four vases. I remember this clay and these glazes from our time at the college. The rich browns and bottle forms give this group lovely solidarity. I hope I was not greedy to take all four, but they seem like a family:
Bottle Vase Family

 We went down to the basement where Selma had her small workshop. I helped her daughter take inventory, in the hope that homes can be found for glaze chemicals and the old kiln and tools. I came away with kiln shelves and posts, a makeshift wedging table, and two great big bisqued wall plates in a form I remember Selma making; I will glaze them and keep them. As I carried out a box of kiln posts, I passed Selma’s tan apron hanging on a peg and thought of her, in her usual turtleneck and silver earrings, wearing that apron, moving with a slight limp around the glaze table at the college, or sitting at her usual potter’s wheel, trimming a pot so that the inside agreed with the outside. I felt a great sense of gratitude to Selma and a powerful nostalgia for our friendship, unlike any other in my life. I so enjoyed knowing her.


  1. A virtue of your line of work is that you leave many tangible creations behind. I recently read an article quoting the son of a woman killed in the massacre of Sikhs this summer, who spoke of eating the last bread that his mother had made for him, a few days after she died. We will hopefully be able to hold on to your handiwork for longer.

  2. Beautiful thought, Gila. Only downside is, you may have more of it than you know what to do with!