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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.


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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Artist Talk

I-40, westbound, the vibrant & fragrant mesquites on either side of the highway, populating the Mojave Desert. Up ahead, the Colorado River and the California border - behind, in the bed of the truck that is, eight giant bins of new stoneware ceramics.

I-40, westbound, the vibrant & fragrant mesquites on either side of the highway, populating the Mojave Desert. Up ahead, the Colorado River and the California border – behind, in the bed of the truck that is, eight giant bins of new stoneware ceramics.

1:00pm March 18 – Los Angeles. A potter talks about his work:

Well, thanks everyone for being here. I’ll try to keep this kind of brief – I’ll talk about my work, and about what it’s like for me to make my work, and then if anybody has questions I’d like to try to answer those too. I want to really specifically thank, again, Tony, for making this weekend happen. Tony and I have been friends for about eight years now, and have done a few – I think three – events like this over the past eight or so years – every time I visit and we get together Tony always asks: what’s new with your work? What has changed?

I always have to stop and think for a second, because the way I think about being an artist, and maybe this is true for studio artists especially, and really especially for potters – is that what it’s about is just showing up – just keeping on, getting yourself to the studio. The ones who make it are the people who are so stubborn they just keep getting back to the studio and picking up the thread from the day before, over and over again. There’s even a certain amount of freedom in thinking about being an artist in this way because in a way you stop thinking – you don’t analyze or critique – you focus on protecting your practice and pushing the work forward, little by little, seeing things a little further along, day by day. I’ve always loved the kind of escape from your own self that the studio provides – I’ve needed it – and identifying that need was the way that i – reluctantly – first began to identify myself as an artist. It just made sense – trying to build a life around a creative practice. 

And then there’s Tony’s question. Which really goes to the whole opposite way of looking at being an artist. What’s new – where are you going with your work – how is it evolving? The danger, I think especially for potters, who usually work prolifically, is to start repeating yourself, and get in a rut of making the same thing again and again. You do have to have a direction. You have to have some perspective – that’s, for me, a lot of what this weekend is about, getting out of the studio and regaining that – and you have to be going somewhere. These days, as I work along busily day after day, I try to keep Tony’s question in the back of my mind. I should have an answer! And hopefully in a moment I’ll get to some specific answers about what’s new with my work at the moment.

Meanwhile, I’ve brought along a couple of the basic materials I use to make the pots – this is clay that I dig up in Abiquiu, which is not far from my studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in this other little bowl, you can see, is wood ash, just straight out of someone’s woodstove. I spend a certain amount of time processing these materials – sifting, sorting, straining out. Sometimes I go a few months with a bunch of big bins sitting around needing to be processed, and kind of procrastinating – then as soon as I get to it I think geez, this is kind of fun. Meditative, and kind of mindlessly relaxing, passing all this clay through a screen to remove rocks – kind of like being in a fairy tale where someone has to separate rice grains from beans or something. Who was it in the Greek myth who has to do that – and the birds come down to help? Or was it ants? Anybody remember? Somehow, she gets help – and there’s a level of that for me, really, getting these materials straight out of the ground – I’m kind of invoking help from a source, and from a power, that’s greater than what I have. Seems like just kind of a formless, grainy, black powder here, the clay in this bowl – but. Feels exciting too. Filled with potential.

The wood ash becomes a key ingredient in some of the glazes I use – turns out it contains a lot of the minerals that you need to form this thin, melting, layer of glass that covers the form – this glaze. Wood ash was one of the very earliest materials used to form glazes. A lot of the look of my work comes from my approach of very direct engagement wiht the materials of making it – of course you can just buy clay instead of processing your own, now, and you don’t have to start from scratch, so to speak, with your glaze formulations – but I get into all that, and I want to reveal the kind of textures and very earthy nature of the clay, tearing it, cutting in to reveal the underlying material, wanting to let the glazes move and drip.

Of course none of these are original ideas and I’m working within a very defined tradition of American studio potters – we’re all very inspired by certain Asian approaches to clay – for me, in particular, some Korean and Japanese approaches. A lot of Americans study these pots, their apparent simplicity, the rapid, spontaneous, making, and the placing of these pots squarely in the daily, the regular, living of life. It’s almost a cliche now to point out in the Asian aesthetic the restraint, and the emphasis on form over surface – you do see this as a goal of my pieces here though – I’m thinking shape, and overall feel, and trying to keep surfaces from becoming something you notice in themselves – you’re supposed to be not looking at them so much as looking through, seeing what’s underneath.

I’m also trying for a kind of beauty in my work that’s not so much of the moment but that might endure over time. That sounds like a contradiction, of course, given that I’m working rapidly, leaving a lot of artifacts of the making process, wanting spontaneity and wanting the piece itself to be a kind of record of the event of making – I think it’s not a contradiction, actually, but it is a paradox. I’m hoping you can live with one of these pieces every day for five years, or fifty or five hundred years, and still come back to see it revealing itself in a new way – still encounter it for the first time. I go to museums and see thousand year-old Korean celadon vases that look like they just came out of the kiln yesterday. They’re not so much in time, or from a specific time, as being about time itself – and I’d say that really time is part of my aesthetic – I’m using a sense of time and invoking a feeling of age to design my pieces in a way.

I was listening to a podcast as I was driving out here on I-40 – it was Terri Gross on Fresh Air interviewing Adam Alter about technology, and how it is so addictive, each new version of World of Warcraft coming out, you have to keep up with it, and the new Ipad – these products are specifically designed to keep you hooked in, to keep you wanting what’s next, the way Netflix gets you to binge-watch – they make it impossible to stop. Alter suggests an antidote to addictive technology is to spend an hour a day doing something where you can’t tell what year it is. So like if you’re at a cafe on your Ipad Mini 4 or whatever, you know exactly when that technology is from – it locates you. Now I’m on the third season of Game of Thrones, say. But if you’re just walking down the street looking at the trees, or working in your garden, or knitting – weeding – well, it could be a hundred years ago and the scene would still be the same. I was driving along and I thought: oh! Ah-ha. That’s something I want my work to do – to kind of lift you of out time, and to be a kind of antidote – to let you float.

Anyway. To get back to Tony’s question of what’s new. Here’s a recent platter. You can see my on-going obsession with tearing and opening up and with the ruggedness of clay, and the earth as source, and the look of this piece overall as being something that could be old – from another time. The piece started out as a perfect circle – wheel-thrown. One thing that’s new for me, that I’m exploring and pursuing, is ways to interrupt that – to break the circle, to make it purposefully not a circle anymore. Or – not a perfect circle. I remember my brother, one day when he and I were riding home from school on the bus, I was probably about seven or eight, saying “you know there’s no such thing as a perfect circle.” “What?” I said. “The peanut butter jar lid is a circle – or my bike tire?” My brother explained that the tire is always going to be a little more worn in one place than another…I thought about that…lots. I probably thought about that for a few years, and I had to eventually admit that I understood what he meant – that a circle is a kind of ideal, and whenever you make one, or draw one, it’s going to be real – it’s going to be not quite perfect.

So here, on the wheel, you make circles – you chase after an ideal you can never realize – which is fine, that keeps you going, keeps you chasing. This new series of work is an attempt to sidestep that pursuit – to embrace un-circularity, to deliberately make things not quite right. The platter, when it’s still a semi-wet half-formed circle shape, is thrown down on the floor and stretched – kind of like pizza dough – ovalized. Then, using my left hand, since I’m right-handed & wanting to get away from my pursuit of doing things right, I kind of draw this oval line with a pointed tool – a different oval, necessarily, since I am just winging it. I made those, and then I was like why not just break off this whole rim and advance it a little around the circle? Pieces may fall off as I work – what I’m left with is a new shape, a new geometry of non-Euclid, non-ideal. But real. You can hear a little of John Cage in this process – I need to read more of him, and listen to more of him – but I do remember that he deliberately introduced a random element sometimes – I don’t know quite what is going to happen when I start cutting and shifting, advancing. Cage used to write a five-page composition and someone would go out on stage to perform it – but they would be told to shuffle the pages first, so what formed the beginning, and the end, would be unpredictable. It’s an urge to subvert, or to surpass, my own small-minded intentionality and to commit it to something bigger.

That’s – if I were to sum up – what lies behind a lot of the new strategies and new directions and new kinds of forms I’m always moving toward – it’s a desire for freedom and for getting out of my own small life, having my work not be small, having it invoke and encounter forces that are greater, and more eternal.  

When the truck was emptied of pots, I had a chance to go hear Billy Childs play at the Doheny Mansion. His new record – Rebirth – was just coming out. I went to Manhattan Beach. I had a fabulous week in LA and turning eastbound on “the ten” and heading home…ah, I did not want to go. 

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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.

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stoneware bowls with blue glaze

Though the new month has begun, August, the summer starts to feel a little old this time of year – it starts to feel long. The days are still long, and hot, and outside the door the annuals are spilling out of their pots. They need a lot of water. Days in the studio start early – when the room is cool and the door back to the kiln area is flung open – and then end late, after dark, with the sound of crickets. Anything you want to stay wet has to be covered.

1710 Lena Street Santa Fe New Mexico

This sounds a little like complaint, but, I love this part of the summer. There’s a slight feeling of stasis – like summer will go on forever – I love that. Change is good, sure. But it’s also good when something lasts, when it seems endless. The other day Terri Gross was interviewing Jay McInerney on Fresh Air & they started discussing this, in a way. “Why is economy a virtue?” one of them asked, I think McInerney. “Why is it necessarily good for something to be shorter?” I had to think about that. I was driving, in traffic, with the air conditioner on, listening to the radio. The idea that something is intrinsically more valuable if there’s less of it is easy to fall into – a kind of rudimentary, comparative, valuation – but really, how does that work? You can’t map the rules of economy onto aesthetics – you can’t live by them.

Terri Gross, with her usual sanguine humor, suggested that for her, there really is a virtue in economy – she has to read so many books that the shorter they are the better. But that’s just it – she was saying that because it sounds ridiculous – a good book is a good book. The longer the better, right? if it’s good. In the studio a kind of profligate spontaneity reigns – a kind of extravagant use. Throw as much clay as possible. If you’re going to make bowls – make eight of them, throw them off the hump, and keep the best three. I’m always chagrined to hear people talk about time-saving measures, or ways to conserve, in the studio – best to splatter half the glaze onto the floor when aiming for the side of the vase – best to waste a whole afternoon chasing after an idea that may or may not work. Economy – that’s the end of art.

stoneware bowl with shino glaze

“We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail – for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reason of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous; inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.” – thus Thomas Mann. He gets the last word on this topic. I first read that famous paragraph the summer I was first learning to throw clay – another endless August, quite some years ago – it has informed my days in the studio ever since.

I’ve been sitting writing for twenty-five minutes now, and the light is coming up, and the morning begins. I open the door and step outside – is that the smell of rain? or – just a faint crispness, a tiny suggestion of coolness – tiny hint of summer’s end, still a good month away.