Posted on

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.


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.

Posted on

Digging Clay

local stoneware clay

I trim pots on a kickwheel, an old machine that’s not electric, but instead has a big heavy flywheel you move with your feet. It’s more sensitive, and more precise, than an electric wheel whose pedal, and motor, and drive belts, mediate your connection to the turning wheelhead.

Anyway. I was trimming away, cutting excess clay from forms I’d thrown previously, and I noticed a bad habit I have when at this particular task. It didn’t use to be a bad habit, it used to be good: I tend to go back over the work I’ve just done, re-positioning the cutting tool and passing a second time over what I’ve just completed. Let me just see if I can get a little more off, here, I say to myself. When I was first learning it was good to try and be bold – take a little more clay, a little more extra weight, away from the form. Tighten that curve – make the line be a little more articulate. 

That was then. Now, I still do this, the second pass – but now I just am second-guessing myself, or making a contest of the task, and I’m obliterating the confident spontaneity left by the tool the first time around. Also I’m taking too much off, sometimes, and the result is a form whose foot is diminished, like it’s on tiptoes. You could push it right over – and sometimes the intensity of the firing process makes a platter or bowl wobble, lean. When it’s too thin to support its own weight. I unload pieces that are already exhausted, one day into existence, from holding themselves up.

This bad habit is one of many that I cure by going to dig clay. I load up the truck with empty containers and a shovel and gloves and start driving – it’s a couple hours, one way, to the spot I like. 

Abiquiu New Mexico clay

As I get north of Santa Fe the landscape opens up – space, and sky, and up ahead – that is all just rock, gravel, decomposing mudstone, sandstone – clay. For miles! What is the Greek myth where the young upstart goes up against the great hero, who decides to put him in his place? He gives the kid a drinking horn and says can you finish this in three draughts? the kid tries. But the end of the horn is connected to the sea – there’s no way he can drain it.  

abiquiu new mexico stoneware clay

That’s kind of how I feel, driving up here – really, it’s why I go. To be humbled, to let go, take things less seriously. The whole earth is nothing but clay, really – there’s no use trying to contain, or control, or over-protect, your own little efforts. I park, I walk, I shovel a gray-black clay into buckets, and drag the buckets to the truck. The clay has little angular translucent crystals in it – gypsum, in the form of selenite – so-called not because they contain selenium but for the ancient Greek word for the moon. The gypsum – calcium sulfate – tends to occur in layers of sedimentary rock, which is what this clay was, I think, once – mud at the bottom of an ocean. In case you were wondering, gypsum, historically, was also mined extensively at Montmartre – it was calcined, which dehydrated it – you could add water back to the white powder, to re-hydrate & harden the material: plaster of Paris.

Anyway. I load up. I spend a little time contemplating the scene – the source – and begin the drive home. The sun is setting – the light is getting long. It’ll be dark when I move these containers into the studio. To encounter the raw material of your work in such abundance – and in a form whose beauty you will never approach – is a good cure, a corrective. I’ll try not to be the young upstart, whose name I just Googled – he was Lepreus, and he foolishly challenged Heracles, who, in the end, killed him.

I’ll dry-screen as much selenium crystal out of this clay as I can – calcium sulfate is notorius in the kiln. And whatever art I hope to add, to this clay, whose natural beauty is rooted in the earth itself, I’ll hope to do through invocation, and not through challenge or competetion – I should know, by now, not to try to win.