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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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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!

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Good Bad Poetry

George Orwell, in his essay on Rudyard Kipling (1942) happens to mention that “ours is a civilisation in which the very word ‘poetry’ evokes a hostile snigger.” His essay isn’t an apology or defense of Kipling, but one of the things that interests him – a real Orwellian theme, I think, that runs through a lot of his writing – is the phenomenon of ‘bad’ art being so durable, so well-loved, so remembered. He enumerates a number of Kipling lines & phrases that have made it into everyday speech – and then lists, with impish relish, a number of terrible but popular poems that everybody knows (yes, several are American… numbers by Bret Harte, and of course “The Charge of the Light Brigade”).

Poems of this kind are capable of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with them. One could fill a fair-sized anthology with good bad poems, if it were not for the significant fact that good bad poetry is usually too well known to be worth reprinting. It is no use pretending that in an age like our own, “good” poetry can have any genuine popularity. It is, and must be, the cult of a very few people, the least tolerated of the arts.

Why is this? 

Pottery is the same, I think, in an age like our own. If you say “I’m a potter,” people think (rightly, probably,) that you’re just nuts, or that you’re terribly atavistic. Like saying you’re an organ-grinder, or a shoemaker. Why would you be this? For this reason, among others of course, a lot of potters say they’re “ceramic artists” and avoid making work that is direct, simple, historical. They want to write “The Waste Land,” not “Jenny Kissed Me” or “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

And yet. Having become a potter, I reach, for inspiration, to a book of poems – and not The Collected Kipling, either. From the start – as I have mentioned a number of times – right since I was building my first kiln it was Harmonium and Ideas of Order that lay alongside the chisel and the level and the bucket of fireclay. Now I’m delighted to see a new biography of Wallace Stevens is out – The Whole Harmonium by Paul Mariani. “His first book…published in 1923, established Stevens as the patron saint of the inner life held captive by the outer life – a peculiarly American condition,” Adam Kirsch comments in the current Atlantic, reviewing the new biography. He points out that many of the most influential & radical artists – particularly poets, for whatever reason – live the most mundane, uneventful, ‘outer’ lives. I love that. The guy who wrote “Sunday Morning” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” showed up to work in Hartford Connecticut in a three-piece suit, every day for decades, for his job as an insurance executive. I read his poems all the time. A potter is a bit the same, I like to think – all the art is on the inside, hidden – there’s something uneventful and even mundane about the repetitive, physical, craft of the job. Kind of the opposite of signing insurance contracts…maybe the same in some ways too. It must be this rhapsody or none, as Stevens put it. The rhapsody of things as they are.

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…if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you probably noticed I tend to stop, when I drive to Albuquerque, & photograph the two cottonwood trees that are right along the highway in Algodones. Starting around midsummer there is a glorious & giant spread of foliage – a universe of its own, when you pull off & step over the fence to stand there for a second. It’s only two trees – but starting in about June it feels like a whole forest, obscuring the sky, creating shade & that special rattly, restless, sound that only cottonwoods make. 

And then. In January or February all is quiet and there are just branches, and sky. You see the actual trees – their enduring part, the structure that gives them shape, or, that holds up the shape you see, the rest of the year.

When I first started as a potter I used to read a lot of Wallace Stevens poems – there was something about them that just seemed to go along with working in clay – that primacy of imagination, the circling earthiness, the power of what you think about, or picture, alongside what you really ‘see.’ I took the above photo last weekend, along with about thirty others, and when I got home & brought them up on my computer I was thinking about that famous stanza:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

stoneware bowl celadon glaze


That pretty much says it – there are the gestures of actual things, and there are the unseen suggestions they make, too, like the sound that hangs in the air after the sound has stopped sounding. I was starting out making ‘functional’ (I’ve never liked that word) forms – bowls and lidded jars – but what I was interested in, and this must have been why I kept reading Wallace Stevens, was the unseen dimension of the forms I made – the way they reach into the empty space around them – the way it’s not just what’s there that’s good, not just what you perceive – it’s what you imagine. I need to get back to  Wallace Stevens – I should get out Harmonium and spend some time before rushing again into the studio. It is easy to work too hard. You have to pause.

I just unloaded the kiln – the bowl, above, was in it – there’s that transparency…and that darkness too, that shade. A good ceramic form, like any good form, makes its own universe, a little – and at the same time lets you look through it to the sky, lets you know the best part of it is invisible.