Thursday, November 27, 2008

Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas

68. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas

I once heard Joseph Bennion talk about the point in his career when he realized that he really needed to go to graduate school. You see, he’d been working as a potter, out on his own, making a line of reliably selling kitchenware based solely on his undergraduate training. Business was good. Then at one point he fired a kiln-load of glazeware and didn’t bother to look inside, much less unload it, for days after it had cooled. His work had become so predictable and routine that he had lost all suspense in the results of a kiln firing. He had no expectations of joy or discovery. When he unloaded a kiln all he found was ‘product.’ He decided that that had to change.
At my house we joke about the three kinds of kiln openings that we experience. “Halloween” is a firing with more tricks than treats and the emotional range tends towards fright, anger, disappointment, and disgust. Our simple hopes have been dashed and, potentially, some additional kiln maintenance may be required. I remember once at school when six shelves worth of student low-fire whiteware mistakenly got loaded and fired to cone ten. It was, in a word, horrible.
“Thanksgiving” tends to refer to two situations in particular. The first is when we just need inventory for a closely upcoming sale. Nothing extraordinary was hoped for, but something worthwhile was essential, and we got it. The second version is when either the kiln has been acting up or something unusual is being fired. We are grateful that the repair worked, the kiln reached temperature, the new idea was not hideous, but instead showed promise and justified the effort. Thank God, it was good enough.
Then there is “Christmas.” You know what you wanted but you don’t know what you got. You open up the kiln and the pots are even more spectacular than you hoped they’d be. Pots that you thought were just experimental turn out to have been inspired, and the proportions and glaze effects of regular old pots seem to ‘zing’ for you this time.
How big is your kiln and how often do you fire it? How many Christmases do you need to sustain yourself emotionally and creatively? Do you have fun unloading a kiln?
It leads me to wonder about the ancient Chinese dragon kilns and their alleged once-a-year firing schedules. Did kiln firings get rated then in the way that vintages of wine do now? “Ah yes, the last year of the Dog, a very good year, the copper reds were particularly exquisite, full-bodied, complex, profoundly satisfying. Ah yes, and the celadons…”
For students, every kiln firing should have its element of suspense. It’s in the nature of their exploration. But for potters in business, too much suspense can foretell disaster. Without inventory you have no sales. Without sales you are just a hobbyist, and potentially, a hungry one at that. So by all means, seek consistency. But leave room in your kilns (and in your studio) for pots with the potential to turn out better than you had any right to expect. Give yourself the treat of that occasional Christmas morning when thoughts of business can be set aside for a moment in the childlike appreciation of unexpected beauty.
Thanksgiving may fill your belly, but it’s Christmas that will fill your heart.

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