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Autumn Refrain

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

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.


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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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.


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.