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.
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