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Some Things Last Longer

Some things last longer
Than you think they will.

– B.D.

I’m always telling students, and customers, not to worry about breaking ceramic things. Nothing lasts forever, I say with a shrug. Sometimes chips or cracks are beautiful in themselves, or alter a piece in a beautiful way – and sometimes, to have a favorite piece reduced to fragments – well, that makes room for something new. It’s good – I’m always saying – to refresh the forms you have in your presence, every day, in the space around you – keeps you from getting too attached or from stopping noticing, and being influenced, by what you encounter all the time.

Don Reitz pottery workshop

Easy to say.

Yesterday I had a little lesson in what this is like though – I must have had it coming, must have delivered that little lecture one too many times. I was running late – scurrying around gathering what I needed to head to the pool to swim some laps at the end of the day…towel, I thought, and raced down to grab one. Turning and swinging it over my shoulder I felt the towel hit something – I heard a ceramic clink and in the moment after, half a second during which two cups flew toward the tile floor and then hit it, I had all the time I needed to remember how much I loved those two old cups, and how attached I really was.

I stopped moving – I was no longer in a rush – I looked down. One cup had shattered and the other…is it still whole, did it even break? I picked it up. I gave a gentle squeeze and it made a grinding sound. A crack spiraled through it – invisible till you felt around. I began picking up the toothbrushes & scissors the cups had contained. Then I started picking up the fragments of broken clay.

Two old cups: one a perfunctory earthenware shape thrown on a wheel, with a clear glaze inside and a chalky unglazed exterior. A rough, crumbly, not-very-easy-to use handle. The other cup handleless, a hardened, formless, proto-cup that had never really been elaborated or fully realized, its surface deeply rutted by a wooden tool wrapped in rope. I still have that tool in the studio, in a box somewhere. This second cup I remember making by taking a ball of clay, poking a stick through it, and rolling till a rough uneven cylinder had formed by itself – then smushing a cookie of clay onto one end to close it, then whacking the resulting ‘cup’ with the rope-covered tool. It was the glaze that made me treasure this piece – it has held a toothbrush for the last fifteen or twenty years. A dark tight coating smooths out the ruts a little – and in some of them, when the glaze pools and gets just a little thicker, a cool stone-white depth. This was among the first glazes I tried to formulate myself – a mixture of porcelain and wood ash and feldspar. I took the piece from the kiln and shrugged – hmm, I thought. Kind of black and, uh, kind of white too.

Bernard Leach wood ash glaze

It was weeks later that I picked the little cup up again and thought wait…this is good, this glaze. What formula was that again? And will I ever be able to reproduce this effect?

I spent several years trying and finally got close. Unlike the rope-covered tool, the bucket of glaze that I inadvertently created and then spent years re-creating has a prominent place on the studio floor, its bucket proudly in the lineup of glaze buckets I rely on, and trust, and reach for again and again. The little cup – it’s a reminder of those first naive days of clay, and firing, and glaze-formulating.

The other cup, the earthenware one, I made during a Don Reitz workshop. Back when I started I idolized Don Reitz – the big muscular slabs, the spontaneous hard-working way they came together. There is always a slight sense of challenge to his work – a slight I-made-it-and-you-can-take-it-or-leave-it feeling. That was what I admired – that’s how I wanted to be. 

earthenware pottery

But something happened during that week-long workshop with Don Reitz. I began to tire of the spontaneity, if can put it that way – I began thinking that simple direct ‘loseness’ is, in itself, a kind of affectation. Some of the spontaneous gestures and signature Don Reitz marks turned out to be made very meticulously. The pieces were hard working, alright…but they weren’t that spontaneous. Maybe I was just realizing that I didn’t like workshops – they can be performances. They can be rehearsed. Somewhere around day three I got off the Don Reitz train. The workshop went on another day or two, and I had that feeling every art student has probably, sometime early-on, when your hero suddenly turns out to be just another person, and you feel confused. That earthenware cup is an emblem of my confusion. 

Now I take a last look at both these cups – neither very ‘good’ but both good markers, in their way. I used them, and looked at them, twice a day every day, all this time. Don’t get too attached – always keep renewing & refreshing the forms you encounter in your space – chips and cracks can be beautiful. Maybe those things are true. But I might not say that, next time a customer comes in the gallery here with an old coffee-stained cup in two or three pieces, hoping I can help, or wondering if I can make another lid for this teapot?

Maybe I’ll actually try to help.