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a potter’s weekend in California

Tatsuzo Shimaoka stoneware bowl

Snow in the San Gabriel Mountains, covering the higher peaks white – and down in the city, days and days of rain. Arcade Fire had just released a single, unannounced, in the last hours before the Inauguration – I was speeding around in a rental car trying to avoid news. Only music. I shopped for tea, I went to museums & galleries. One pretty morning just before getting back on the plane –  the skies had cleared – I descended a narrow cement stairway with a fortified, security-alarmed metal door. Inside, clicking on the lights, was a big space filled with plywood packing crates and heavy deep drawers, each carefully numbered.

Peter Voulkos platter

On the smooth big cement floor more boxes were crowded, lined with white foam padding, lidless, with sculptures and vases sticking out of some of them like kids grown too tall for their school bus seats. Some of the pieces I recognized right away – some had been in that 1966 show Abstract Expressionist Ceramics – a lot looked vaguely familiar just for being made of clay, mostly stoneware, I use a some of those same glazes. A lot of pieces in the room were early works by people who have since become very famous.

That’s an early Jun Kaneko, said my guide, standing casually back by the door, hands in the pockets of a down vest, while I peered excitedly down at a big round form, like a giant ripe apple, taking up all the space in its crate, pushing against the foamed plywood sides. Oh! I said. It’s…

Yeah. Walking Man is back there too.

My guide was very knowledgeable about the work in this big collection and the personalities who made it – we had a conversation about Voulkos and his teaching style at Otis: casual, said my guide. Just working. Not that much demonstration, even – he taught by example. He wasn’t training people to become ceramic educators, or production potters either.

Oh, I said, remarking to myself these two shoals of the professional clay studio, which many ceramic artists run aground on. Oh. Geez. That’s interesting. I’m in town actually for, uh, a ceramics workshop so…that is good to think about. Funny how demonstrating – that’s not really teaching by example, and it’s not really working, either.

Neither a professional educator, nor a production potter – hmm, think about that. My goal, in these current years of working in clay, is to avoid those shoals and to navigate the deep waters of just making pots – which is why I was drawn to a lot of the work before me, right then, in the basement. I was eager to get to it – I wanted to look. I wanted to see. I got out my notebook and started down the middle isle. Karen Karnes – a few of her later pieces, those wood-fired ones with wings – stone-like, life-like, warm. Green, too – which seemed like a kind of unbelievable color. But there it was.

I’m gonna go take a lunch break and let you just stay down here, my guide said after a while, to my amazement.

Okay, I said. I know I don’t have time to see everything but, uh, I’m just gonna keep going for now.

The metal door clanged shut. I was alone. Not alone – I suddenly felt the presence of all these pots even more strongly than before – we were down in the basement together. I felt the fleetingness of time – both in the sense that I had so much to explore just in a short lunch break – you can only go so fast, when you’re extracting a Lucie Rie tea set and setting it before you on a cement floor to see all the pieces together. Exquisitely thrown, paper-thin but robust, modernist, aerodynamic. The cups and saucers had, punctuating the rich black glaze that was neither very shiny nor matte, a tiny thread of white at the rims. Careful, I thought to myself. Careful! Only go so fast. I also felt the fleetingness of time in the sense that some of these pieces had been sitting in their drawers for decades – just sitting. Long enough to start making dents in their foam, foot rings of some of the heavier forms even sticking to it. 

I was picking up pieces that hadn’t moved since 1974, it felt like. A Bernard Leach plate with a celadon glaze had some numbers near the foot written in red pen – indecipherable now. Next to the numbers, a round sticker that said ‘.5’ and near that, another tiny paper tag, curled and faded brown, from another era. Then a more authoritative type-written tag: ‘Scripps College 81.8.5’ How many times has this plate, thrown perhaps when Leach was touring America in 1950 or 1952, been cataloged & carefully packed away in some collection? Flipping it over, setting it on the cement floor for a second, kneeling with my notebook, I took a look at the combed texture under the cool, semi-translucent glaze. A piece of the wet clay had hung up in the teeth of the tool, when the just-thrown plate was turning on the wheel, and made a little blob. Leach had just left it, not fully smoothing the texture down – now the blob sat there, a little record of the tool and the motion, wet-looking under its glaze, like the plate, still, had just been thrown yesterday.

And then another sense of time’s fleetingness followed on those first impressions: my own time is fleeting, my moment to make work is shorter than I think, as it maybe had been for some of these potters too, whose work is now in this cement room. A ceramic piece records a moment of life lived – so does a life, too, if it is lived right – I must work, and not waste my studio time. I must not demonstrate, or practice, or teach too much. I stood up. I pushed Bernard Leach’s plate back in its foam holder, and slid his drawer shut. I stood for a moment, bewildered, then started peering in at the big sculptures in their lidless boxes. A glyph-like tall unglazed form, made by smushing big square lugs of clay together. Sandy, coarse, short strong clay – the form rising, vertical, earthy yet totemic. I took a very close look – in among the cracks and texture of the rugged surface were little crumbs – broken bits of pine needles. In places where the surface formed little pockets that might hold them. Just a few – and tiny. I thought about that, this John Mason sculpture had, at one point in its life, sat outside for at least one or two seasons – how long? Maybe a few years, or fifty years – under the California sky, perhaps in someone’s yard.


The basement was a kind of purgatory for these pots, it seemed to me – they did not like it, and would outlast their cement enclosure and be, at a future time, lived with and chipped and relied on and better known, individually, scattered among people who might love them. The pots liked being visited, I felt.

A tall pear-shaped vase with a feldespathic glaze had a band of little buttons rising from foot to the diminutive, tight, circle of its neck – little squares added in rows, then smushed in place. I picked the vase from its box, gingerly, and set it on a wooden crate at eye-level. It was as heavy as a six month-old. Time was fleeting along. Why was I here, really – to learn? To get ideas? That would be ridiculous – imagine. Trying to use these pots improve my own. The more I walked, and kneeled and pulled drawers open, the less I knew. I had left my notebook behind – I was just looking, wandering.

I wasn’t even looking, so much. I would pull a drawer open not to see the contents, nested tightly in their white foam bats, but to feel them – to sense them, partly by sight and touch, partly by something else. There wasn’t much for my eyes to do, in a way. 1972 – I was seven years old. 1957 – my father graduated from college. You can’t help placing yourself in a body of work like this – it is a history, a story, and you hold your own alongside to note the points of contact. Is this because it is clay, by nature so historical, such a record of the past, and to encounter it is to encounter time itself? Or it it just because the pieces, taken singly, as art, are so alive, and are such brilliant, skillful, realizations of form.

Actually, some works were not all that great – I noticed almost with relief that some fell victim to conceit, or had a distracting decorative element stuck on, or were poorly thrown, or pinholed, or the middle of the plate had crowned. All of this was good to see, like showing up at a party and noticing someone who’s more of a misfit than you. You’re happy.

And then some of the work was radiantly and unattainably good – subtle and graceful and light, or commandingly big and heroic – this was a great collection of ceramic work and I was humming, I noticed, after a while, as I held one piece and then reached toward another in its crate. I’ll never see all of this – I am not here to try and open every drawer or encounter each piece. I’m just here to be here – and now my time is almost up.


I should go. I’ll be back soon, I said to myself – or I said this aloud, even. I should go – this has gone well – I haven’t dropped anything, or said anything stupid – always best to leave while they still want you to stay.

Back up the cement stairs and into the rental car.

On with the radio – avoiding news of the Inauguration and cabinet appointments and protest – the streets were wet but the skies still clear – maybe I can find that Arcade Fire song again. There it is! I give you power, it is called.