Thursday, December 23, 2010

Contentment in Troubled Times

It's nothing new to get a bit reflective as we approach New Year's Day. In my case, I've also been just a wee bit too busy the last three or four months to pause to write, so I'm overdue. The fall semester is finally over. And so, it's time to look up and notice the changes of the past year.

For full time potters, or artists in other media, the day to day struggle to be both productive and businesslike, can make it difficult to notice much of the future (except for show application deadlines) and almost nothing of the past (except for tax records). In this way, any artist without children might be excused for failing to pay much attention to the passing of whole decades. Really, what has changed? Hopefully, the work has improved, and maybe the money has increased, but the making and the selling remain remarkably the same from year to year. It's a sort of seaside ocean scene with crashing waves and shifting tides, but always the same ocean of hope and opportunity, dampness and cold.

It, the art-as-business cycle, could be easy to take for granted, and easy to think of as much much too important. Well, this year, too busy for many things, I have still managed to notice my friends, and to value them more. Marriages have broken. People have moved to new cities. Jobs have been lost, and sought, and a few won. My friends have begun to feel like a small fleet of independent ships, some disappearing over the horizon for a while, some close by almost every day. A couple have sunk. I can't steer their ships for them, nor protect them from the weather, but we keep an eye out for each other, and take some comfort in each others' company.

They are among my contentments, and I am noticing those more these days, too. The past year has been full of dramas and suspense. But it has also been a time in which I have paid more attention to my contentments, the little things that can never make you happy by themselves, but which stitched together like a quilt, make life warm and cheery. Whatever you contentments happen to be, I hope that they increase in the coming year, and that you find the serenity to truly appreciate them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What Things Equal

A few years ago I acted as driver for a friend who was going to a weight loss clinic. There were weekly weighings, etc., and special foods to be purchased, and a studiously lean selection of staff members in the lobby/waiting area. For the benefit of those of us waiting, there was also a big poster illustrating the weight gain potential of alcoholic beverages. I suspect it was aimed at college women in particular, but it compared beer and wine and mixed drinks to ice cream sundaes.

Now, I don't have ice cream sundaes very often. Like most people, I think of them as a fattening self-indulgence. But a beer or two, every now and again, is a much easier thing to say, "Yes," to. Which was the point of the poster. The equivalencies were a little disturbing. Booze is fattening.

Of course, being the independent thinker I am, I got something entirely different out of the moment. Looking at the poster, and thinking about my occasional beer, I thought to myself, "I should be having more ice cream sundaes."

Saturday, April 3, 2010


A couple of months ago I happened to start a list of all the types of employment I've ever had. I sort of startled myself, and I don't know what to make of the list. Of course, I didn't know what to make of it years ago when I read of all the jobs the author, Jack London, had held. Did it represent courage and adaptability, or a short attention span and an inability to maintain good employee/employer relationships?

I'll leave off the employments I never got paid for, like martial arts instructor, poet, and painter. And I'll only do a rough approximation of chronological order. But follow me for a moment, if you will.

Newspaper delivery boy
Library assistant [alphabetizing cards for my mom]
Kitchen drudge/dishwasher [an Orange Julius restaurant in Albuquerque]
Agricultural laborer [detasseling corn]
Summer Child Care/Nanny
Construction work [KU football stadium renovation]
Assistant Soccer Coach [Grinnell College]
Figure Model [for drawing classes, yes nude]
Linen Boy [Hospital worker, shifting laundry, both clean and dirty]
University Ceramics Lab assistant [KU and the University of Iowa]
Ceramics Instructor [children, adults, community center and College]
Full Time Potter
Home Repair Guy
Writer [essays]
Writing Teacher
Factory assembly worker
Loading Dock worker
Furniture Mover
Prepress technician [Allen Press, Lawrence, Kansas]
Pressman's helper
Access Control Officer [credit card manufacturing security officer]
Clay Supply Warehouse worker
Medical Supply Delivery driver
Proofreader/Copy editor
Art Museum Security Guard
Bus Driver
SafeRide Driver [free late night taxi service for college students]
Library Assistant
and now, a Manuscript Specialist at a University Archive.

I'd prefer to mark all the changes down to geographical moves and improved opportunities. Almost none of the jobs involved getting fired or laid off. And several were the sort of part time work you count yourself lucky to find when you're also trying to be a student. I suppose student is a job, too, though almost no one will pay you to do it.

The long and the short of it is that I've got a lot of story material based on diverse work experiences. And I have a hard time understanding how someone stays with the same job their whole working life. It either indicates a brilliance in finding the perfect first job, or a complacency about life that borders on the vegetative.

Paula Poundstone was right. We ask kids what they want to be when they grow up because we're still looking for good ideas ourselves. I hope my current new job [combined with my old interests] lasts a good long time. Stability can be a change.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I Believe I'll Trim Some Pots

What if Art could be thought of as a religion? I mean, it's something you can believe in, isn't it? It gives strength, insight, satisfaction, peace of mind, even moral direction. It requires faith, and dedication, and attention to others.

I say this because not all of us can be holy men (or women) or live our religions twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And when your physical sustenance must also come from the practice of your beliefs, how does that complicate or erode your experience of that faith?

I worked for many years as a full time potter and it had its ups and downs. I certainly could have been more 'faithful' in my practice, more savvy as a business owner, and better capitalized at its inception. Many parts of it were wonderful, and I'm still delighted to visit my good old pots at other people's houses. But living in poverty was too stressful, for me, and my family. And selling pots because you absolutely have to, sucks.

Now, I finally have a good job, away from the arts but in a worthwhile endeavor. And I can express my faith in the same way that so many others of us express theirs... on the weekends. For artists just entering the business of art I recommend finding something similar. If success at your art simply overwhelms your ability to find time for a second career, well bless you. But for others, life is more likely to overwhelm your art. Build a wall of practical success and let it protect the temple sanctuary of your art. I rather wish I'd done so years ago.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A New World

A great deal has happened since the last time I wrote, and what I'd really like to do is write about things more important than myself. But first I much catch up on some important details.

1) I am now a full time employee of the Spencer Research Library, here at the University of Kansas. In many ways, this is just a direct continuation of my work there as a Student Assistant, but the money and benefits allow me to give up my late night bus driving, and even to give up my degree goals, if necessary.

2) One of my large wood-fired sculptures, Firetrap #8, got juried into the 3rd Biennial Concordia Continental Ceramics Competition in St. Paul, Minnesota. According to one gallery visitor, it even won an Honorable Mention, though ironically, no one from the show's management has bothered to mention it.

3) We have chickens. At the end of October, in a blatant gesture of defiance towards the forces that might have forced us to move to another city, we bought four chicks, and I built a four foot by ten foot mobile chicken coop. The chicks are now grown, though not yet laying eggs, and we just bought two more chicks, of a different breed.

And I'm sure there's much more that might be said, but really, I'm just glad to be back among the reasonably well-rested. Soon, I even hope to write here about those many subjects that have always interested me more than myself.

Please enjoy the return of Spring. I know I am.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Fairy Tale Life

I hadn't thought of it in these terms until yesterday, but I've been leading a fairy tale existence. Through the ups and downs of my typical week, I am by stages Cinderella (tidying up), Rumpelstiltskin (turning straw into gold), one of the seven dwarves (slaving away in the mines, and NOT tidying up in the kitchen), etc.. On Friday evenings, I come home from eight hours of silent, solitary clerking in a functionally windowless sub-basement, eat, take a two hour nap and awaken, TRANSFORMED. Like Sleeping Beauty, who awakens to become a Princess, I am brought back to life by the clock radio to become . . . a bus driver.

Last night, though, it was very nice. I drive college kids from an area of dorms to an area of bars, music clubs, and restaurants, and then get them back home again safely. This is from nine p.m. until three a.m.. It's a bit riverboat pilot, and a bit drive-through safari, and a lot of living in the immediate present of 'right now' and the traffic hazards of the next fifteen seconds. Last night they boarded politely and efficiently, were less trash-mouthed than usual, and didn't sing any vulgar songs. I got thank you's, and praise from someone who witnessed me NOT running over a drunken pedestrian LAST weekend. The only real disappointment was the two guys at the final stop who hadn't understood that one doesn't take on new passengers AT THE FINAL STOP.

Please don't ask about the evil stepmother, . . . or the wolf.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hunter's Cup

The little stoneware cup I chose marks a point on an arc from Cornish ancestors and centuries-old creative traditions to a rapidly approaching, yet unpredictable, artistic and familial future.

For the past two decades, I have worked as a potter, a maker of utilitarian objects. Before that, I labored as a student of the craft for ten years. Perhaps ten years seems like a ridiculously long time to devote to such an education? Perhaps, it doesn’t. In centuries past, a child would have learned the trade in roughly the same amount of time in the context of the family business. But that was not my way, nor was it my culture. I learned to be a potter through a college, and two universities, some books, and a sprawling, worldwide community of fellow potters.

My youngest child, Hunter, is the only one (of three) to have professed an intent to be a potter, too. He shows many of the necessary qualities and characteristics, but I am hesitant to push his training, lest he grow to resent having been pushed. He is helpful around the sales tent. He has traveled to distant Fairs and to the loading and unloading of massive wood-fueled kilns. He has debated with me the merits of a particular design, or of a particular glaze effect. He has helped me pack and unpack my wares, shifting them from box to table to shelf and back again, as needed. He has asked to make his own pots to sell to our customers. He has also just turned seven.

His cup, the cup whose qualities and existence I find to be so evocative, is not one I’ve made. Rather, it’s a small, twin-handled ‘christening cup’ made by an English potter, Seth Cardew, specifically as a gift. Years ago, before Hunter even seemed a possibility, my wife and I traveled to Cornwall to visit Seth Cardew’s Pottery and to stay with him a few days. Seth uses native clays, hand-processed in much the same way that British potters have worked for centuries. And in much the traditional way, he learned his skills and inherited the Wenford Bridge Pottery from his father, Michael Cardew. In turn, Michael learned his art, after a more conventional education at Cambridge University, by apprenticing to Bernard Leach at the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall. And it was Bernard Leach, through his unlikely combination of Western education and Eastern upbringing, who inspired the great re-flowering, and re-invigoration of Western Ceramic Art in the twentieth century. Together with Shoji Hamada, the late Japanese ‘National Living Treasure,’ Leach restored a seemingly lost tradition of simple beauty, superior design, and handmade excellence.

Seth Cardew serves, by one measure, as the grandson of that Bernard Leach tradition. And in much the same way, Hunter serves as Seth’s creative grandson.
Seth and I are exactly twenty-four years apart in age. We share the same birthday. By the Chinese Zodiac, we were both born in the Year of the Dog. I have met him on just two occasions, at a workshop he gave at the University of Iowa, and during my four day visit to his home near Bodmin, west of Dartmoor. And yet, he is my most significant role model and mentor. During his workshop in Iowa I wrote pages of notes, and further pages days later as key tidbits returned to my mind. His gift to my son came as an unbidden response to a bowl, of similar purpose, that I had made and sent to his step-daughter, Molly, after our visit.

And so, when I consider Hunter’s cup, I respond materially to the earth of my creative father, Seth, and of my mother’s grandfather, who immigrated from just that part of England. I respond on a physical level, to the glaze, the clay, the weight, the balance, and the proportionality. I respond to the simplicity and directness of his brushwork and calligraphy, as I work to improve those same elements on the pots I make. As a student, I see in that one cup a dozen lessons from my master. As a teacher, I see in it another approach to show to my students, including Hunter. As a traveler, I am reminded by it of my landmark trip to the Wenford Bridge Pottery, with its great wood-fueled kiln that Michael Cardew built, the former tavern house by the Camel River, the great food, and its excellent company. I feel in it Seth’s good cheer, and gratitude for my gift to his Molly. As a colleague, I sense the challenge it offers, to do as well or better, in all the pots I make for my own friends and customers. And finally, as a friend, I touch the clay where he touched it, and it is as if we are shaking hands again. And I cannot help but mark this one little cup as a bridge between the inspiration of Bernard Leach, and the potential for greatness in my little son, Hunter. It will be up to me to not spoil his interest, nor mismanage his education, nor restrict his capacity to do better than us all.