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Autumn Refrain


…beneath The stillness of everything gone, and being still, Being and sitting still, something resides - W.S.

…beneath
The stillness of everything gone, and being still,
Being and sitting still, something resides
– W.S.

I always say that If you unload the kiln and encounter one very good piece, you’ve had a very good firing. There may be a hundred pieces in the kiln that come off the warm shelves and onto ware boards and back inside – still. You never count the others, you look for the one.

What I really want out of a kiln unload though is a reason to go on — the kiln is a completion, an ending of the work cycle. Will I start again? First there will be a pause, the kiln is cold, the studio is clean, probably because I nervously mopped as the cones started dropping, there will be paperwork, and packing and shipping, photos, and my hands will be clean and dry for days – that’s unusual. A lot of times when the new work is all completed there will also be afternoons on the couch and an empty feeling, and why am I doing this? What is the point, really? You would call this depression, I used to, usually there is a day or two of that, over the years though I’ve learned that it’s not. It’s more like the slow turning of the planets, something just to wait for, now is not the time to work, or even to rest from work, it is a suspension. A weightless fallow moment. Will I go back in there and plunge my hands in the water again and let the wheel turn?

That’s where the one good piece comes in.

This vase is eleven inches tall and eight inches wide. Its claybody is dark, a little burned-looking almost, and when you peer closely there are flecks and freckles of metallic content unique to the local deposit I’m digging from that have totally melted and puddled. The glaze is fully melted and then some, its thickness slips off the shoulder, catching in the texture, streaming thin like water. The surface looks wet even though a couple days back it was glowing white hot like a star, not quite that hot I guess, twenty-three hundred and thirty degrees. The glaze is made from wood ash I found in a fifty-five gallon drum behind the garage I checked out when I was house-hunting a year ago last summer. That could make a good studio, I thought, that garage. I peered into the drum. The rain had puddled and compacted the ash, collecting there from years of the woodstove over in the house I guessed, and its surface looked gray and cratered like the moon.

We can put that in the objections? my agent suggested. The seller needs to get all these things removed, all this trash…

I looked up at the dirt hills that ringed the garage and its house. It was the end of summer — the cottonwoods down in the arroyo, over at the west edge of the property, were all yellow with their leaves rattling and barely clinging on. Nah, I said. I’m okay with this stuff. In fact let’s make sure they don’t take this barrel away…

I put an offer in. One year ago exactly I got a moving truck and loaded up my worktables & glaze buckets. The earth, you could say, I know this is a total cliche, has moved once around its star since I got started in the new space and began filling the kiln again with new work from the new house.

A year ago this garage that has become my studio was totally empty when I dragged my wheel across the cement floor and lifted it back up on its cinderblocks (actually concrete masonry units) and stepped on its pedal. I felt a bit of that same weightless feeling – what am I doing here? Am I really going to make a totally new start? I have struggled with that for a year. The duties of the teaching studio back in Santa Fe get many of my days and paperwork gets the nights – why am I making new work at all – why do I want to? What good will come if I go around again…what makes it worth it?

The vase is the fundamental form for me — it is like playing scales. It is the way you start a work session especially if it’s been a while or you feel out of phase. I must have thrown this one at the end of the summer and as I finalized the shoulder and the lip I reached for the needle tool and trimmed away a quarter inch off the very top, lifting a little circle of clay into my left hand & I studied that for a moment, actually I remember this, and then flung it back at the side of the piece – wham, it hit the shoulder and stuck. It becomes another circle like the mouth but negative, letting nothing pass, blank, denting the surface and catching a little of the glaze as it streams by. I like to do this, random or chance gestures that alter the form and might make it great or ruin it. It’s rolling the dice – it’s asking for an answer.


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As I glazed this vase I already knew it was good. I held it by the foot, pointing the piece downward toward the glaze bucket, my other hand ladling the liquid ash & letting it splatter, moving south to north – later the kiln would move the glaze back down. Gingerly I set it on the board. That is good I thought, that one is going to be good. Tomorrow will be my three hundred and sixty-sixth day in the new studio and this vase helps answer the question. Yes. Go another round. There is more.

I’m not surprised it was autumn when I moved my studio last year, it was autumn when I first built a kiln and started filling its never-before-heated-up shelves a couple decades back. After every kiln load…you find a new way to start and after every year, that weightless moment of suspension, the cottonwoods clinging to their leaves and then letting them go into the stillness — then the wheel turns again. If you unload the kiln next month and there is just one very good piece you find – I always say this – then it will have been a very good firing.

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Westwater


Colorado River July 8 2020

Colorado River July 8 2020

I’ve always considered myself a introvert, ever since I first heard that word, I was ten or eleven years old. I like time on my own, I can be proudly diffident about parties, gatherings, invitations to anything with more than one or two people. Holiday dinners, planning meetings, mid-afternoon coffee with your out-of-town friends…maybe I’ll be there, but maybe not!

Suddenly though, with the new restrictions, whereas this should be a perfect time for introverts, free points for just doing what you always do – suddenly things are different. I’ve heard this from other introverts too, which, when you ponder that fact in itself, is a little remarkable. Normally I wouldn’t have heard anything. No – this is not an easy time to claim your solitary hours and those of us who usually spend whole weekends without calling anybody – just working in the studio – suddenly that’s challenging. We are being driven into the open. It’s hard to work alone.


8” plates with Rhodes 32 matte glaze July 2020

8” plates with Rhodes 32 matte glaze July 2020

The last couple months I’ve had a reflex to avoid photographing my work and posting anything online – it’s like I want to shelter my work at the moment, if I can’t shelter myself.

At the end of June though I got an invitation to join a few people running a four-day trip down the Colorado River through the famous Westwater Canyon. Hmm, I thought. Can my son come too? Yes.

Well, if it’s such a hard time to disappear into the studio & get anything done…maybe I should just disappear altogether for a few days…


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After the usual flurry of coolers & stuffing sleeping bags and tying boats on the truck – and emails – off we went. Can we really turn our phones of for four days? Will the ‘outside’ world still be there when we turn them on again? Am I just neglecting my work, or, taking responsibility for the need to remember what it’s ‘really’ about?


Bowl with ash glaze July 2020

Bowl with ash glaze July 2020

In Westwater Canyon we would encounter, high above as we craned our helmeted heads up, the reddish Wingate sandstone that ranges so freely across the Colorado Plateau — and under it the ragged, green-purple, crumbling and water-furrowed, Chinle formation — naturally this layer is my favorite. You can see the wind and water working with this strata like…clay. And under that — way down below the Great Unconformity, in the dramatic inner gorge of Westwater itself, the metamorphic Vishnu Schist, the precambrian basement rock of the Colorado, visible only here — in Westwater — and in the Grand Canyon. Swirling and ancient as the wind itself but dense, smooth, fluted, plunging straight down into the current. The river rages through the inner gorge, going for miles with no beaches, no place to stop.


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The trip would launch July 5th, and we heard about some badlands we could camp in near the put-in so we sped up there on July Fourth, arriving at dusk and rolling out our bags. I tried to take a picture once the full moon had risen – that’s our out-of-focus tent, below – and off to the right, you can’t see them, fireworks are popping a few miles away down by the Colorado itself.


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Next day we put on sunscreen. And neoprene. We turned off our phones. Hi, I said bravely, and tried to join the group. Clay, of course, is always an ending and a beginning — it is decomposed rock, it has weathered and ceased being what it is and lost its form. Also it is impressionable, ready, malleable as the first day of a river trip. Nothing is decided – anything could happen.

I felt this as we pushed off from the sticky late-season riverbank, footprints of yesterday’s departing group already like cement above the waterline, hull of my kayak smeared with mud that would take a mile or two to wash clean. I felt the presence of my old self, the ghost of who I was before I was a potter, I used to be a river guide, I was just a kid, mild, sunburned…an introvert. The Book Cliffs, the sand, the bright sun, the dark summer night sky, the great Wingate swaths high above as you floated along.


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I didn’t recognize anything as we pulled in to our first camp after our first long day on the water — I must have camped here before…wow that really was a while back.

I glanced up at the Jurassic sandstone.


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It was hot. We unloaded our boats and walked upstream and waded in and let the current float us back down.

After that first camp I didn’t take any more pictures till the end, and I won’t tell any stories about the rapids, Skull of course is the most famous, you have to get off the main current and over to the left to avoid the hole, a giant recirculating seam on the right caused by water coursing over the Skull rock itself, a smooth, frowning, nearly river-wide hydraulic that must be avoided. Just about every year people die in Westwater. Also Staircase, Funnel Falls, Big Hummer, Surprise, Last Chance…rapids you lie awake in your sleeping bag looking at the clear desert midnight sky thinking about. True to form it was Last Chance that almost did me in.

I won’t discuss it though, and there are no pictures, and when I was in the canyon I didn’t think about the kiln, or the studio, or those risks to human life that are a present in the ‘outside’ world at the moment, a little less tangible than those on the Colorado. The thing about being an introvert is that you don’t think, you don’t like to think, and if thoughts are composed of words, you’re always trying to get away from them. You like to be carried along in the stream of life and you want to know the Colorado River is there even if thirty years go by between times when you get to float it. You need consistency. Otherwise it’s hard to get anything done. This is a hard time.


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I felt my older self on the river, and the selfless time of the river, the continuity & completeness of time on the river, the vertical rock landscape that is now just as it would be had humans never evolved. The wet sand, the hidden hollows and bends, the quiet big pull of the current.

Also I felt just old, and creaky, and I noted how it’s harder to get up from sitting cross-legged around camp. I kept my sandals on — no more bare feet like in the old days. The highest & youngest layers of rock above us in the canyon were put there in the Triassic period two hundred and sixty million years ago, and my son is now the age I was when I first ran Westwater.


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On the last morning of the trip we sat around camp just talking, digging our toes into the sand, nobody that eager to re-join the world, and I was grateful to be with other people, proud to be part of this little group which is progress I guess. This is a hard time — maybe it’s a good time too though, for an introvert who needs to evolve a little.

A long drive an many hours of listening together to The National (my son) & Cornell 5/8/77 (me) and we arrive back home. Midsummer crickets are starting up, here in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos, and far away, one state over, the river is flowing and somebody else is probably setting up camp in those badlands near the put-in, ready to wake up and get going. Clay is always an ending and a beginning — just like the studio, just like a river trip.

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Down Time


green river pottery santa fe stoneware ceramics

Classes are suspended, the studio is empty (almost), the trough up at the top of the gravel parking lot where we dump some of our throwing water on busy days, usually a brimming pond, is now a hollow with smooth mudcracks peeling up as the weather warms. Bisqueware, once collected up and dipped in glaze as quick as we could get it from the electric kiln, now sits waiting on shelves, like a crowd of travelers stuck someplace, halfway through their journey.


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With most of our potter’s wheels rented out to students who have set them up on their patios & under portals in back yards, we are taking some time to clean & re-seal our studio floor. I am grateful to our current intern who has undertaken this work. The floor looks great! And it’s so easy to mop now.

Let’s hope it is not too long before the floor is getting tracked up and clay-covered again.

Meanwhile the shut-down is my chance to get back to my own work in clay — to reconnect with my own studio. You’d think this would be easy and simple, sheltering in place, using this down time to catch up and re-gain momentum creatively. Like many people I’m finding it hard though. I’m scrambling at the end of each month to pay bills and this keeps me distracted. And, it’s hard to turn inward and work peacefully during such pivotal and unsettled time in the outer world.

Partly though…when it comes to just working alone & quietly…I think I am just out of practice.

Back when I started my studio I used to have long undistracted afternoons throwing pots, many of which I’d discard later, long mornings sitting on a milk crate wearing a respirator and sifting wood ash and local clays. I took for granted that my time wasn’t worth much and I dreamed and contemplated and shrugged, gazing out the window. If a piece I’d spent half a day on didn’t work out back it went into the bucket — no big deal. This was an initiation, and I also took it for granted — I was kind of in awe of the fact — that doing art involved wasting enormous amounts of time. Not everything you try works. Not every firing is good, and not all of those pieces you threw yesterday are worth keeping. I found this kind of liberating in a subversive way. I found that when someone said ‘product’ or ‘efficiency’ or ‘what-did-you-get-done-in-the-studio-today’ a flag would go up for me inside, and I would stare extra hard out the window the next day, and make sure to waste even more time as I sat on the milk crate. Passing four pounds of wood ash through a sixty-mesh screen — you know, that really takes a lot of time! And, half of that ash might end up on the floor when you add water and attempt pouring it onto a big wide platter.

Wasting time is a talent — more important than centering or matte glazes or the other talents a potter might be proud of.

Like many people this is what I’ve been working on during the down-time of April. Doing little — doing less than usual. Somehow over the years as my studio grew I gave up staring out the window, and I started wanting to keep all those pieces I threw yesterday, and I resented those valuable morning hours sitting on the milk crate. I’ve got important work to do! So this month I am going back to the beginning and getting re-initiated.

When I think of it, in fact, just writing this blog reflects what I’m relearning during the down-time. Usually I write these in twenty minutes, then spend another forty revising and adding images, and then boom – up on the website it goes. This April though I wrote an initial draft, and then the next day I decided it was no good and deleted two thirds, and then the day after that I sat at the computer mid-morning, staring out the window. What am I actually trying to say? I didn’t write anything at all, but that took an hour. A week went by, and I wrote some more, but when I hit ‘save’ all the changes were lost for some reason — now we’re talking! I felt the old thrill.


It took me a lot of time to get all this clay processed, and it is going to take a few days for it to dry, and then I’ll have to wedge it and give it another few days… and probably then a re-wedging…before it is ready to work with in the studio. When I trim what I’ve thrown, a fifth of what’s here will end up on the studio floor.

It took me a lot of time to get all this clay processed, and it is going to take a few days for it to dry, and then I’ll have to wedge it and give it another few days… and probably then a re-wedging…before it is ready to work with in the studio. When I trim what I’ve thrown, a fifth of what’s here will end up on the studio floor.

Now I get it! Now I remember. I’ve needed this down-time, the last six weeks, so I can be re-initiated and start contemplating and staring out the window again.

I’m working slowly this April — I’m tossing a lot of what I make back into the bucket — but that’s okay. I’ve got plenty of time.

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Winter Clay Weekend 2020


Santa Fe NM pottery workshop

This afternoon I took a walk up the arroyo behind my place, sunny and muddy, mid-January, granulated snow turning to water in the hoofprints and bootracks and ATV treads, I was mourning the passing of Terry Jones and thinking about the up-coming Chinese New Year, the year of the rat and the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

Lots to think about and my conclusion, as I skidded back down the hill toward the back door: 2020 hasn’t quite begun yet. We are all still waiting, this bumpy January will soon give way to the start of the real new year.

Still. Winter is here, and along with these other dubious thoughts I was feeling grateful & inspired by our recent Winter Clay Weekend – a three-day (really four-day) workshop here at the studio.


Wheel-thrown vases and vessels at Green River Pottery in Santa Fe NM

There were six of us altogether and we began with a snow delay – a quick, wet, unanticipated storm filled the streets with slush & cancelled a few key in-coming flights to the Santa Fe airport. We waited. Eventually everybody arrived, and we all sat down at our wheels.

Well, I said, starting off. I’ve been wanting to do a workshop on the theme of the vessel, the jar, the large vertical unitary form, for quite a while. I began enumerating some of the reasons why I love this form:


pottery wheel clay workshop santa fe nm

1) This first reason is a cliche, and I’m not even sure it’s true. The vase form is the most anthropomorphic of the wheel-thrown forms. Right? The closest metaphor to the human body. The body, the shoulder, the lip, and so on. The more I think about this the more I doubt – how about the teapot, with its arm akimbo and its spout? Or how about the pitcher.

2) Simplicity. This is something I really believe in – the the simplicity of the wheel-thrown vase. It’s always easier to throw going up than going out – the clay stays close to the center of the turning axis of the wheel, and if it’s not quite centered, who cares? Sometimes that’s an improvement, giving the form attitude, bias. You don’t really have to do anything, begin pulling the sides up taller & the form takes care of itself, you just follow along. It’s instinctive, like throwing a rock into a lake, or kicking a big dirt lump off a steep dirt bank, as I might have done this afternoon. My boots were covered in mud! An arc, a trajectory of line, you set it in motion and something begins to emerge and you take it as far as you can.

The vase is my go-to form, I admitted. If I’ve been away from the studio for a while, or feeling bad, or I’ve had a bad firing, or I need to reconnect with studio work – I throw vases. When I get my wrist out of this cast…I will throw vases. Think about your go-to form. How do you reconnect? Since as an artist you’re always trying to get back to the center, you’re always re-creating the discipline and the space in which you can work.


cone ten stoneware clay workshop santa fe nm

3) The vessel is the most direct connection to archetypal, traditional, ceramic form. The pots we will throw this weekend – you will be able to go to museums or look through books and find forms that are very similar, from two or three thousand years ago. I think about this while I’m actually working – I feel a link between what I’m doing with my hands as I stand at the wheel and what people long ago have done at the wheel. There is no invention in the clay studio, or in any art studio I don’t think – there is only participation.

Think of our work this weekend as a ritual – as you get into the discipline of pulling up a vessel form on the wheel, you get into a kind of work that has no beginning and no end. That’s good.


Green River Pottery wheel workshop 2020

4) Most important: empty space on the inside. Unlike the bowl or platter form, the vase is about what you can’t see – the hidden volume that’s in there. You can’t see it – but that’s what informs and defines the form overall. When you look at a vase and you like it, what you really like is something beyond its physical form – it’s the immaterial, weighty, contained, volume of the vase. It’s just like this new year – anything good about it is still to come, as-yet-unmanifested.


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Since my right hand was in a cast I couldn’t actually do anything during the workshop, just talk, and I relied on our studio manager Leslie to run everything, and I am grateful to our three visiting artists Esther, Rachel, and Carolyn, who brought work to discuss, and demonstrated, and worked with our group, throughout the three days of our workshop. On the fourth day we glazed work we’d thrown during the first two days.


Winter Clay Weekend Santa Fe pottery workshop

I gave my little talk at the beginning about why I love vases and how we can work on this form all weekend – and then we went around the circle to introduce ourselves and talk about what we hoped to get out of our time in the studio.

Well, one person said. I want to throw big forms – I want to throw ten pounds of clay!

Okay! I said.

Well, the next person said. I really want to make a lidded tureen? And I am struggling with the platter form – I really want to work on making bigger plates and platters.

Inside I laughed. A good workshop is one in which people don’t take the leader too seriously, and where you can learn from whoever else is there and from the clay itself. Who cares what the theme is? In the end we all just went our own way.


ceramics workshop lena street lofts santa fe nm

Attention, concentration, and a big body of work. The bisque kiln is now candling about three hundred pounds worth of clay that we all threw during the last three days. A good workshop is one where you don’t have to pay attention to the teacher – you learn from the other people there, and afternoon flies by, maybe you even put your earbuds in.

Before you know it the sky is clear and the snow is melting – on the way back to the airport, white crests on the muddy dirt hills in the distance, and some new energy to put to use back in your own studio when the year begins – which is soon – but not quite yet.


pottery class santa fe nm
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Studio Space

One of the numerous reasons to live with art, not that you need a reason, is that you never know, when encountering an example of it, a book, a movie, a ceramic bowl, a new song, how much of what you notice is really in you and how much is in the work itself, if any.

This bowl came out of the kiln earlier in December and looking at it in the pile of work unloaded onto the plywood table in the studio, I thought I saw a lot in it — a beginning and an end, an airy lightness, a swirl of gravity spinning outward, the center hopefully holding.


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But maybe that’s just me? It has been a swirling time of transition, here at the end of 2019.


pottery studio santa fe new mexico

Over these last couple of decades I’ve moved my studio several times, adapting each new space to the wheel and the wedging board, the shelving and water buckets and the plywood-topped table. Old adobe buildings, they never have plumbing, which is fine, and a beginning ritual is always stringing extension cords & drilling through the thick dirt walls to run electrical conduit. I adapt the space, and inevitably the space adapts me a bit — my work probably changes.

The time for this ritual seems to have come again. Wheeling the big plywood table out & putting it in the truck, digging out the dusty pots that’ve been around for years & letting them go, driving all kinds of equipment in repeated pickup loads to the new place.

I think it’s a good sign that this time, behind the new building I’m about to re-purpose, I found a fifty-five gallon drum filled with several years of wood ash from the stove in the house — I’m moving back out to the country. There’s enough in the drum for fifty kiln loads at least of ash glazes.

Here’s a first piece glazed with ash from the new source. You see it’s runnier than usual – I think the woodstove burns hotter and the ash is finer, more pure, and no doubt has a different chemical makeup from what I’ve been using. Most wood ash contains amounts of calcium carbonate and calcium oxide (quicklime) as well as silica and an assortment of other metal oxides – so that it works as a powerful flux in the kiln and also provides glass-forming minerals.

About three thousand years ago potters started using wood ash to produce glazed stoneware ceramics (in China). While moving out, and moving in, and driving a pickup truck around, that is a fact to ponder.

Green River Pottery’s current gallery & studio locations on Lena Street in Santa Fe will remain. My work will still be available in the gallery as always — pottery classes will continue & the schedule should fill in even more — what hopefully will change with the new year is a return to a bit of that concentrated, hermetic, worktime that in the past — back at the beginning, back in that first little plumbingless adobe building — helped me see my way forward in clay.

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Low Water


Rio Grande Race Course

There’s still some water in the Rio, I read in an email the other day. Want to try to get out there after work?

Sure, I said. It would be pretty late though when I can get away…

The Rio Grande is largely fed by snowmelt, at least up here, relatively close to its headwaters. That means great water, and great rapids, early in the season when Colorado’s mountains are still melting – and then usually, this time of year, mid-August, we get just a trickle coming through the Taos Box canyon and down past Pilar, the go-to place for Santa Fe paddlers, especially after work.

But this has been a big-water year. All the way to the end of the summer there’s still some water in the Rio. I forwarded the email on to a couple other people, and mentioned it to someone I knew who happened to pass by the gallery, middle of the day. There’s still some water in the Rio, I said – some of us are going up after work I think.

It was a great evening – at six thousand cubic feet per second the river level was not high but not low either, especially not by the standards of the last five or six years. The wave at the top of The Narrows was surfable and Sleeping Beauty was a deep glassy trough, smooth and fast, foam piling up on the downstream side. There were six or eight of us in kayaks, by the time the email made it all the way around, and as we approached the take-out, having taken our time on the water, catching all the eddies, making it last, it was nearly dark. Up on the highway the cars had their lights on. The cottonwood tree branches at County Line were starting to get lost in the night sky. I pulled off a layer of neoprene and stood there dripping wet on the boat ramp – just a hint of fall in the air, just a slight bite of cold, mixing with the smell of the water and the sage-filled canyon.


stoneware bowl celadon glaze

That got me thinking, as we stood around and suddenly it was really totally dark, about the summer that has just passed – or that is just now passing. It has been busy of course, and it has been eventful. Eleven kiln firings since the snow began melting back in springtime: the big summer sale, a three-day workshop, guest artists, that group of 24 Upward Bound students, some terrific thunderstorms. More this year than usual. That memorable performance of Winterreise down at the St. Francis Auditorium on the last day of July.


Santa Fe New Mexico Pottery Workshop

The one thing, as I load my wet gear back in its mesh bag and toss my kayak on a car roof, the one spot on the summer schedule that has remained a little empty and quiet, it occurs to me:


green river pottery stoneware vase with celadon glaze

My own wheel. There has been little time to just work – to float, and explore, and feel some new work flowing through my hands. Back home from the river I dump my wet gear and paddle and boat on the studio floor – a little puddle of river mixes with the dry clay under a worktable and becomes mud.


green river pottery studio workshop

There in the corner, unlit in the night, stands the wheel where I work, when I have time to work. Which this summer has not been very often.


July workshop weekend 2019

Fall is coming though. I am grateful for fantastic students this summer, and great teaching – Green River Pottery’s A3 studio is honored to have had some gifted, funny, experienced, and inspiring teachers working closely with us through some hot afternoons. We run next door for iced coffee – we reach in the fridge for cold water.


Richard Meyer at Green River Pottery in Santa Fe

Fall is coming, and though it’s always a little scary to see those blank spots open up on the calendar, and a little sad to see the river level recede & the steep mud banks appear below the cottonwood roots – still. It’s a bit of a relief too.


Esther Smith ceramic artist at Green River Pottery 2019

One of these days, soon, I’ll find myself alone in the studio, and I’ll flip the light on above the wheel where I usually stand while working. I stand there through a lot of the winter months. A new adventure will begin. You can’t have high water all year, and the creative process involves some busy days and high-output afternoons, sure – but some downtime too. Some afternoon naps, some time alone, some white space on the calendar, some wet sand that used to be under water back in June…now it’s drying in the sun, and the sun itself is moving south.


pottery class santa fe new mexico

Thanks everybody who has been a part of the studio this summer & has put something in one of the many kiln loads of this hot and thunder-filled summer season. I hope to see you back next year!

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Regarding your new antique pots


Umanome Platter Tokugawa Period

The other day, through a friend, I acquired a couple very old ceramic pieces. The acquisition may really take a long time, years probably, to fully accomplish – still, for now, the new platter and bowl are sitting on my kitchen table and are like new companions, new creatures in the house. In the evening in the kitchen I glance over, mid-spoonful, and there they are, watching.

I am watching them too. They are not rare. The piece above, the platter, is Japanese umanome from the late Edo period. Probably produced in the Seto region, these platters, I am learning as I read online, were in prolific use along the Tokaido Road. Yanagi Soetsu cited them as an inspiring example of robust, brisk, ‘honest’ ceramics during the folk art revival of the ‘twenties in Japan – the Mingei Movement. Umanome means horse eyes. That’s what the circles are supposed to be, arranged around the perimeter of the form. Typically these platters have six…my platter has seven. During my first few evenings with my new ceramic pieces a favorite feature of the platter is…I have to say…not the eyes…the six small rough dots closer to the center. These were not made with the brush. I think these are scars in the glaze surface from wads that lifted the next platter up a bit in the kiln.

Putting down my spoon I reach for the platter and flip it upside down. Its foot is wide and low, just right for arranging on top of the wads placed on the platter below it – in the days before kiln shelves, the chamber was sometimes filled with pots that were designed to stack easily one on top of another, separated and kept from fusing together as the glaze surfaces melted by the use of little refractory pellets – wads. I look closely at the unglazed foot – yes, sure enough, there are the small rough dots. I picture my platter taking its place in the stack, the tall column of ware in the kiln. It was neither at the top, nor at the bottom.

My friend sent a follow-up email after I got the pieces. “Regarding your new antique pots,” he started, and helped me understand them by describing their histories a little, and, importantly, where & when it was that he acquired them himself, some sixty years ago. “Those aren’t horse eyes,” he said also. “Those are clouds.”


Sung Dynasty celadon

The second piece here on the table with me now is smaller, more delicate, higher-fired, and older. It is a Song Dynasty bowl probably made in south-east China & exported to Indonesia. Like bowls generally, as compared to platters, a more overt and prosaic flat form, this particular bowl is more graceful and ethereal. Bowls often have a hidden quality that platters lack – a shifting, musical, essence that you can’t see but feel. Bowls are more mysterious and cosmic – you use them more every day, though. No iron brushwork on this bowl, as the umanome platter has – instead, under the greenish crackly glaze, some sweeping, quickly-rendered, loopy designs. “Those are lotus flowers,” my friend said.

You can feel the motion of the potter’s hand, holding some short thin stick and trailing it through the still-wet clay, as you hold the bowl now. Better hold it with both hands – better stop eating and put the spoon down again, slow down and just look for a second.

Night, when I return to the kitchen and check on my new pieces a last time before sleep, it is the bowl I am glancing at as I switch the light over the kitchen table off, and as, from the window over the sink, moonlight fills the room.

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Japan


Kokeigama oribe Tajimi japan

This Oribe teabowl is from Kokeigama, a great ceramics studio in a big old pair of buildings at the top of a very steep hill in Tajimi, Japan. I arrived there on bicycle, thrilled to be there in the heart of the Mino ceramics region, eager to see as much as I could in a couple days.

Tajimi was my last stop before taking the train back to Nagoya, and from there to Tokyo, at the conclusion of my short but fantastic first trip to Japan. I am very grateful to a number of people who helped make the trip happen – people I was friends with already, people I became friends with during the lengthy learning & planning process for this trip, and of course, also, I am grateful to a number of total strangers who helped me out once I was there and got lost or was totally baffled about something. In the picture below, a typical ramen restaurant has a machine outside where you place your order – you feed coins into it until your menu choice lights up, then push the button. A little paper tag appears, and you take this in and hand it to the person who seats you. Sometimes, by the time you sit down your food is already appearing, since the kitchen learned about your order first.

I loved these places! But the first time through, which happened to be my first night in Tokyo, just off the plane, the cook had to come outside and show me how the machine worked.


Kibi Ramen Shinagawa

Here’s an article about the ramen shops at Shinagawa Station, which I managed to get four meals at. I have hundreds of pictures & lots of stories but to keep things brief here are just a few links to places I want to remember for next time:

Super Hotel Shinagawa Shimbamba
Friends recommended this to me, and it was my landing point in Tokyo. Friendly, minimal, modern, elegant, with a bath on the first floor and a fantastic traditional breakfast

Ginza Kuroda Touen
Also a recommendation, I headed to this fine ceramics gallery on my first morning. I met Shinji Suzuki, from Gifu Prefecture, whose show was in its last week, up on the second floor

Ookini
I was lucky to be invited to a dinner at this sushi restaurant in Kyoto. Unforgettable – small, comfortable, exquisite food. At the end of the night the chef served us cherry blossom tea and sang o sole mio

Nukumori no Sato
In Tanba, this was the first of three onsens I visited. Not for staying overnight – just for the spa. I felt so healthy & good during my whole trip! These spa visits had a lot to do with that. My other two onsen visits were in Tajimi: Tenko no Yu and Toki Yorimichi

Harada Farm
I stayed here while visiting potters in Tanba. The generous owner, Harada Kenichi, whose great-grandfather built the main buildings, lent me his bicycle for a morning ride past the small vegetable (rice and black beans) farms and noborigama kilns, & also gave me a ride back to the train station

Tokiwa Ryokan
of all the places I stayed at in Japan this ryokan was the most traditional, with beautiful wood paneling, tatami rooms, great meals, and a peaceful quiet

Tajimi Guest House
My last two nights in Japan were spent here & it is perhaps the first place I would try to return to on another Japan visit. A warm welcome and a ride from the train station, a beautiful quiet garden, a bicycle rental…in Tajimi, the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art has a brilliant collection & I spent hours here

…the group of photos above covers about the first half of the trip. Below: Kyoto, Tanba, Bizen, Tajimi. You see that after a while I stopped taking photos of pottery – partly because I visited either peoples’ studios, or museums where photography was prohibited which I kind of liked – allows you to concentrate. Leaving the cities I was impressed by the wild beauty of the landscape…still working on uploading those photos…

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L’Histoire du Soldat

Ten days’ leave he has to spend –
Will his journey never end?


01-ski.jpg

Like many people I was at first a little horrified, and then curious, and then delighted that Roger Waters has released, this January, a narration of A Soldier’s Tale, that well-loved Stravinsky piece I play in my studio all the time. I play it once a season at least – three or four times a year – searching Spotify for the various productions, comparing the versions. People are always re-writing the narration but the music, arresting, angular, jazzy, is just so fantastic.


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I know – Sony actually released this recording last October – somehow I only heard about it in January. The holiday whirlwind has thrown the calendar off & kept me from noticing half of what’s going on.

January has already flitted past – it has been a busy few first weeks of 2019 in the studio, with Thursday workshops on clay science, glaze science, with two firings, and a number of new people joining the Tuesday evening wheel class which is great.


03-studio.jpg

Glazes are inherently alchemical & hard to pin down. Our resident potter Leslie has created an array of tests to hopefully take some of the guesswork out & create a bit of predictability – here you see her introducing it. Each piece on the array provides a demonstration of two interacting glazes, one overlapping the other, and then the other overlapping the one. As a potter you’re always balancing the known and the unknown…both are necessary. It’s really through experience, through using glazes over and over, that you come to get a feel for what might work, glaze-wise, on a given piece. This need for experience & repetition is one reason we keep to just a few basic glaze buckets in the studio rather than having a myriad of choices.


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In A Soldier’s Tale, the Devil talks a naive young soldier, returning home on leave, into hanging out with him for a little while – just three days he tells him, but within those three days, somehow, three years actually pass. When the soldier finally gets to his home town his mother thinks he’s a ghost, his girlfriend has married someone else, and he is out on his own. “Now what are you going to do?” the Devil asks, tauntingly.

This is just one of the numerous things to love about the story, this familiar fairy-tale trope, the main character being lifted out of the familiar flow of time he’s ‘supposed’ to be in – I love it because this is how the studio feels in a basic way. What potter hasn’t detoured into the studio for a few minutes, maybe just two or three minutes, just cover up those pieces and check the kiln – and then found he or she has been in there three hours?

Or you’ve been in there three weeks, during which time your friends have gone on great vacations, and great new albums have been released – you never even heard about it. Glazes may be unpredictable, sure, but time, that’s the one that’s really hard to pin down. Time is what A Soldier’s Tale is really about…and its waltzes & tangos are fabulous, crazy.


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Higher and higher over valley and hill
Faster and faster, up and up they soar
Till time stands still…
Then everything is as it was before.

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December


dinner settings with white shino glaze

“One must have a mind of winter,” said Wallace Stevens, and in the cool white crackle of the shino glaze, above, with that smoky haze settling lightly on the edges of a few forms, I can feel winter’s approach. I was happy to get this last project completed just as snow began settling out by the kiln.

It is encouraging, of course, to feel the very-cold nights & imagine that a prodigious winter is approaching. You look eagerly at your skis, dusty from the long summer.


calcium carbonate in glazes

Limestone, chalk, marble, travertine – as well as pearls, seashells, and kale – these all contain calcium carbonate, a material used enthusiastically by potters all over. Potters usually buy this compound, CaCO3, as Whiting, and add it to stoneware glazes to promote hardness and translucence.

On the left, above, a bottle whose surface was thickly painted with a slip made from a brown clay found in the Chama river valley. Looks good, I thought…but how to make the glaze melt just a little more, and to make it more…dense and translucent? I spooned a little Whiting into the pint container of slip and mixed enthusiastically. The result of the second test is on the right, above – you see that the same clay slip has melted totally, due to the fluxing action of calcium at high temperature, and has become a thin, translucent, greenish glass. I need to go one more round, modifying my enthusiasm just a bit – maybe half the amount of Whiting so that the slip doesn’t loose all its viscosity & run right off the form.

And I’m going to need a larger supply of that Chama clay, too, once I get the formula for the glaze figured out – could be pretty frozen up there at the moment, though.


green river pottery open house december 15 2018

Meanwhile. Here at the gallery, we plan for the eleventh annual Open House – to be held Friday & Saturday, December 14 & 15. As always, terrific amounts of giveaway pots left from various projects throughout the year – as well as beautiful new work and of course doughnuts, packing & shipping, holiday cheer. Please drop by if you’re in town!


pottery class santa fe new mexico

This year the Open House will feature work by student potters & by our two resident potters at the workshop-studio where we do classes. December is a great time to browse this new studio & see what’s happening. Every Thursday morning through the end of the year we’ll have a short workshop that you can sign up for even if you’re not regularly using the studio – drop in to watch the demonstration, or pull up a seat at the wheel & make work too, during the three-hour session.

Topics include: stacking wheel-thrown sections to make bigger forms, slab-building essentials, exploring micaceous clay, developing a design for your wheel-thrown dinner set, combining slab & wheel-thrown elements. In January, we look forward to a workshop on the science of clay – how and where it forms, why it behaves the way it does.

Click here to read more & sign up for one of these little workshop-classes.


Edgar Plastic Kaolin

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice…

Happy Holidays from Green River Pottery. Stay warm!