How To Build A Time Machine

How to Build a Time Machine – Teaser from Jay Cheel on Vimeo.

My friend the theoretical physicist Ron Mallett invited us to attend the Connecticut premier of Jay Cheel’s documentary, How to Build a Time Machine at Real Artways in Hartford. We were delighted to accept the invitation. I knew Ron’s work, and looked forward to the film. What I didn’t expect was its relevance to craft, to making.

Mallett, who was only ten when he lost the father he adored to heart failure, has devoted his life to seriously and scientifically researching time travel. Longing to see his father again, he was inspired as a child by the comic book version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Time travel became his mission. He read assiduously, studied, and earned a doctorate in physics to further his quest. Using Einstein’s theories, Mallett has developed his own widely respected theories about what he believes is the real possibility of time travel.

In the documentary, Cheel juxtaposes Mallett’s story, his high-level theoretical inquiry, with the story of Ron Niosi, a Hollywood animator who, taken with the movie version of Wells’ story, decided to build a replica of the time machine in the film. Cheel’s portrayal of both men is sensitive and engaging. The documentary takes each of them, and their very different time travel obsessions, seriously, bringing us into their worlds.

Niosi is a consummate craftsperson. In order to make his replica, he learned many skills. We see him making molds, visiting a master pipe bender, and putting the disk of his machine out in the sun because the color is darker than he envisioned. He enlists the help of other craftspeople. What he thought would be a three- month project, becomes a ten-year project. He is a perfectionist and is willing to do something over and over until it is flawless. He realizes that he needs to let go, to move on, but is compelled to do the best possible.

Isn’t this something many of us wrestle with? We strive to make the perfect bowl with the perfect glaze yet it is the bowl with the teardrop drip or the ever so slight wobble that makes our hearts beat. It is the imperfections that we cannot control, that often give a piece its power.

Niosi has not quite come to this conclusion, but at the end of the film, he shows us where he had drilled a hole in the wrong place on the large metal disk of his machine, and in his attempts to correct this, make it perfect, he creates a stress crack, making it less perfect. He has to accept it. And indeed, his time machine is a very beautiful object, a wonder of craftsmanship, celebrated at the end of the documentary with an unveiling part.

If How to Build a Time Machine comes to a theater near you, I recommend seeing it. If not, it’s available for streaming. And if you are interested in actual time travel, read Mallett’s book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel A Reality. It’s a memoir with science, but you don’t need to be a scientist to understand it.

A Memoir of Friendship and Craftsmanship

I do not know why it took me so long to pick up Archie’s Way: A Memoir of Friendship and Craftsmanship by Richard Ezra Probert. The book came out in 1998 and I immediately brought it home with the intention of reading it. Alas, I am a greedy reader, always thinking I can read more than there is time for, so stacks of good intentions accumulate around me. Now, eighteen years later, while “organizing” my writing room, I came upon the book and moved it to the top of the teetering pile.

Archie’s Way is the story of a man on the younger side of middle-aged who grew up learning woodworking from his grandfather and music from his father. As an adult, he becomes a musician, and then a professor, but, continuing to like woodworking, he accumulates tools and lovingly restores a turn-of-the century house for his young family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The restoration newly complete, the house is suddenly ruined by the raging floodwaters of the Susquehanna River after Hurricane Agnes strikes. Devastated, Probert, packs up his tools away, and moves his family across the country to the north woods of Wisconsin, where he had accepted a job teaching music..

The memoir is about his reawakening to craft after such devastation, and the curmudgeonly older man, Archie Rausch, who rekindled his craftsman’s soul. Archie, dropped out of school at a young age and through determination, passion, and the ability to learn from others, became a highly skilled metalworker and woodworker. He earned his living as a metal worker, making parts, machines, and tools often of his own design. Customers knew that he could figure out how to make anything from metal. He was a woodworker too. He built the comfortable house he shared with his wife Lillian and all the furniture in it, a cabin in the woods, and various sheds and workshops. He lived what we might today call an integrated life; there were no boundaries separating his work from his passion. It’s how he lived and how he thought about how he lived, that makes the book interesting, even for those of us who work with squishy mud rather than the sharp edges of wood and metal.

As Probert gradually earns Archie’s respect beginning by doing the tasks the older man assigns him, in time doing projects together, Archie’s ways seep into his music making. He writes, “…since getting to know Archie, I treated the score more like Archie treated his drawings, as a guide to an end product that, I was delighted to discover, was in my hands, or ears, as the case may be, to finish. I likened my music making to cabinetmaking and machining, where each of the parts fits perfectly to create a whole, an idea, its own unique architecture. I reconciled myself to the notion that art and craft are too closely allied to draw a line between the two.”

The book is a paean not only to working with one’s hands, but to tools and machines. It is a love story to the workshop, the space one creates in which to work. And though it is written as a man’s book – men working together – male friendship – men and their tools – it really is not a man’s book at all. It is a deep appreciation of a life in craft. “Within a fifty-mile radius of most people, there are craftsmen making the finest furniture, machining intricate pieces from blocks of steel, fashioning boxes, lamps, cabinets, model steam engines, and all sorts of gadgets. These are quiet people who judge quality by the way a thing is put together. They have enormous pride in what they do and how they do it.” Clay, wood, metal, glass, fiber – it’s not the medium that matters, but the attitude.

Happily, this small book, written nearly two decades ago, is still available. It would be perfect for a potters’ reading group. Is there such a thing?

Happy New Year!

A Book About Butter for Potters

At a recent show, a tall middle-aged man came into my booth and, picking up one of my dome covered Brie bakers asked, “Is this a Canadian butter dish?” I had no idea what he meant by a Canadian butter dish, but assured him that he could use it however he wished. He explained that in Canada, butter comes in round discs, not sticks as in the U.S.

In Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova, Khosrova tells us that during the Middle Ages and later, butter was often shaped into long tubes by the dairy maids who were responsible for butter making. Purchasers would bring a tube home, and slice it into rounds as needed. So, my Brie maker would have made a perfect butter dish not only for Canadians but also for fifteenth century peasants. The book is full of similar fascinating tidbits and facts. Though it is not specifically for potters – I exaggerated a bit in the title – if you are a potter interested in food and food history and the relationship of particular foods to pottery, it will be a fun read for you.

Khosrova, a former pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America, takes us on a world tour as well as a historical tour. The first butter, she tells us, was made from the milk of sheep, yak and goats. To make butter, she explains, the milk, or if it has been separated, cream, is agitated until it thickens and clumps. She writes, “The Sumerians of 2500 B.C.E. used special terra cotta jugs for holding the milk and a plunger-type tool (called the dash or dasher in English) for churning.”

Early churns were made of animal skins.  Khosroba traveled to Bhutan and describes the making of Yak butter in similar leather bags. But, as with the Sumerians, pottery has always had a place in butter making. Pottery jugs and pancheons were also important. Pancheons, which are one of the most beautiful pottery shapes that I can think of, were large, wide mouthed pans, with flaring straight sides, used for settling the milk so that the cream could be skimmed off the top. Churns were commonly made of wood, but glazed stoneware churns kept the cream cooler than other materials, which helped with the process, and was cleaner.

Curiously, Khosrova does not discuss butter dishes, French, which preserve the butter’s freshness with a water seal, or the various lidded ceramic dishes popular today. She does, however, conclude her book with a wonderful collection of recipes for pastries and sauces, each of which cries out for a pretty handmade serving dish. Or so it seems to me.

Lovely New Editions of Two Leach Books

Unicorn Press has reissued the classic A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach and his lesser-known travelogue, A Potter in Japan. Both have been newly typeset, printed on heavy, coated paper and bound in linen and paper over board, with satin ribbon bookmarks and gold stamping. Even if you already own copies, and think you have read each enough times, these editions are objects of beauty in their own right. They are worth having for the visual and tactile pleasures they offer, much like a good pot. They have a heft to them yet are a nice size for holding.

All the original drawings have been kept in A Potter’s Book. The publisher has found many color versions of the photos from the first edition. Where this was not possible, color photos of Leach’s pots have been used. In addition, other pertinent photos have been added “for clarity.” But don’t think this is a glossy coffee table version. This is a serious republication, done with respect.

A Potter in Japan has not been given color photos, but it is still a handsome book. Written during Leach’s sojourn in Japan 1953 -1954, it is a travel memoir filled with descriptions and impressions and most of all, opinions. During his stay, he makes many pots and pictures, holds exhibitions, gives talks, and, in addition to writing this book, works on another, all of which he discusses. The book has a feel of immediacy. Describing Hamada’s workshop after earthquake jolts and rain, he writes, “Yesterday about 1,000 pots were carried in and out, three times for sun and shower. Today the pots stayed out until 4 p.m., then the whole lot, 2,000, were carried on boards down the muddy slippery path to the smaller kiln beyond the lower house, 250 yards away, and massed around the long shed on the ground. After tea, the biscuit-firing kiln-packing was started and was nearly complete by supper time. Finished afterwards by candlelight and the fire started, I have never seen anything like it. Everybody, except Richard and I, knew their jobs and had a deft control of their bodies.”

I congratulate Unicorn Press. I wonder if they might consider giving Michael Cardew’s books the same lavish treatment?

Amanda Fielding on Gillian Lowndes

Gillian Lowndes by Amanda Fielding marks the ends of the lives of both women. Lowndes, the radical ceramic artist died from cancer at the age of 74 in 2010. Fielding, known for her work as a writer and critic, died, also from cancer, in 2012 after completing this, her last book at the age of 55. This illustrated volume from the Ruthin Craft Center is a fitting tribute to both women.

Lowndes, who trained as a potter, began her career making coiled pots and wall pieces. She was never interested in domestic ware however, and after an extended stay in Nigeria with her partner Ian Auld, she turned to bricolage. She gathered discarded materials: old bricks, nails, fiberglass tissue, and wire together with luffa, sometimes called the sponge gourd. These finds she subjected to the intense heat of her electric kiln (one wonders how the kiln elements withstood such rigors). The fiberglass tissue and luffa she coated with slip before firing. The other finds she fired on their own before adding to her ceramics. She was one of the first artists working in clay who glued parts together post-firing, rather than having her work emerge whole from the kiln.

Auld, her partner, amassed a large collection of primarily African objects. These pieces, woodcarvings, pottery jars, textiles, jewelry, filled their home and influenced the spirit of Lowndes’ work. She made a series of ‘hooks,” long pieces of slip-coated luffa, fired and wired together, and brick bags, with actual old-bricks fired into distortion. Throughout her career, she taught and exhibited, though critics were not always receptive to her innovations.

Except that her work centered on clay and her kiln, she had little in common with other ceramists. Still, she saw herself and her work, as being part of the ceramic milieu. “I’ve always been involved in the craft world rather than the art world because I work in ceramic,” she told Fielding. “because I put things in the kiln. I always felt I was in a strange area, not one or the other. I was always quite interested in making things in different materials, but because I was so involved with ceramics naturally my understanding of ceramic materials and what would fire in a kiln was something which drove my art more than anything else. And it happened that I cold get exhibited in craft galleries. I’ve never been a great self-promoter, so I didn’t go out and search for fine art galleries. I waited for things to come to me and just made the work.”

I would have liked more photos of Auld’s collection of pots, textiles and carvings because I love these objects, but of course that’s not what the book is about except as inspiration for Lowndes.  As readers know, I am a lover primarily of functional pots and not particularly drawn to Lowndes’ sort of work. But she led an interesting life, took risks in her art, was wiling to explore and experiment. She makes a good subject to read about, regardless of your ceramic bent. And there is something primal about her hooks that resonate, even with a stubborn vessel woman like me.

Walter Keeler

Walter Keeler set up his first pottery in 1965 and moved to his present workshop in 1976. Though he is adamant in calling himself a functional potter, influenced by historical European pottery, his teapots and jugs are unlike those of any other artist.  In Walter Keeler Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding look at Keeler’s life in clay, his ideas and growth, and, the pots themselves.

“All my pots are functional,” he explained to David Biers in a Ceramic Review interview quoted by Fielding. “”It is a fundamental justification and a challenging starting point. If the pots could not be used, I would rather not make them.”

Fielding notes that his Ideas on functionality are of interest. “The function of a pot, in a practical sense, is a very deep thing…because function goes beyond whether you can pick an object up by the handle or raise it to your mouth, it has other implications too,” Keeling explains. “In certain company you would not drink out of a mug, you’d drink out of something more refined…The fact that you can play with that, if you have a mind to – you encourage people to stick their little finger out – seems too rich and important…I think that if you work in the crafts, then somehow that’s where your heart should be.”

And, most tellingly, he explains, “If you make a very ordinary teapot, people will say, oh that’s just a teapot, and walk away, but if you make a teapot that poses questions – I’m a teapot, but what sort of teapot am I? Would you use me, how would you use me? – then people have to engage with that.”

Fielding describes his work as “mischievous, slightly subversive.” Cooper tells us that the shards he found as a boy first drew Keeling, like seemingly many UK potters, to pottery. He keeps his shard collection to this day. Inspired by metal cans and containers, Whieldon ware, Staffordshire creamware, and German salt-glazed pottery, Keeling works in both earthenware and stoneware. His pieces begin with thrown forms, which he reassembles, with carpenterly skill, adding extruded handles, generous pouring lips, and his signature sprig of concentric circles.

This is a thoughtful look at one of the more celebrated potters of our era and his personal philosophy of pot making. It is published by the Ruthin Craft Center. Sadly, we have lost both authors, thoughtful and important contributors to the ceramics literature. Happily. Keeling is still very much with us, and potting.

Michael Casson

“Function is the prime motivator for me as a vessel maker,” Michael Casson, known to everyone as Mick, explains in Michael Casson with essays by Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding. He was the quintessential functional potter, spending all his adult years making his own work, teaching, and leading the burgeoning community of potters in the UK. Born in 1925, he was initially attracted to pottery when he saw pots decorated by Picasso. With his brother, he took over a hardware store that his uncle had lost interest in running. His brother operated the hardware business while he ran the Marchmont Street Pottery. “ I couldn’t throw, couldn’t form a glaze and did not understand materials,” he told Cooper of the difficulties he faced.

In time, he and fellow potter and wife, Sheila Wilmott bought an old grocery store where they set up Prestwood Pottery. Here, they had the space they needed to do their work and raise a family. Their electric kiln was housed in a shed in the back yard. One night the shed caught fire and burned, not from the kiln, but from a box of ashes a “well meaning” friend had left for glazes. They built a new shed of bricks and continued to work.

Wanting the freedom to fire with fuel, without alarming their neighbors, in the seventies Mick and Sheila moved to rural Wobage Farm, where Sheila remains today. Here they could expand, fire with wood, and use salt. Sheila focused on the domestic ware, while Mick made larger, one off pieces. His favorite form was the jug. “There are robust jugs, refined jugs, humorous jugs and monumental jugs…” he explained. “A jug is essentially a Western vessel.  It’s about holding liquid, pouring liquid. It’s about picking it up and a jug’s got quite a few human attributes. You can talk about the belly of the pot, the shoulder, the foot, the lip. So the jug embodies all these human characteristics. I think it’s one of the most, for me, one of the most endearing forms that a potter has to make.”

Michael Casson is one of the larger, more ambitious books from the Ruthin Craft Center, generously illustrated with photos, many full page,  of Michael Casson’s pots, wonderful black and whites photos taken through the years, and in-depth text. I would love to have one of Casson’s jugs in my collection, but this book is the next best thing.

Books and Pots and Emmanuel Cooper

Amongst makers, potters, it seems to me, are the wordiest, giving us stacks of books. One of the most prolific and influential was Emmanuel Cooper, the late British potter and author. I have multiple well-read editions of his World History of Pottery, that in later editions became the more lavish 10,000 Years of Pottery. And what potter does not have a copy of one of his glaze books on their reference shelves? He also wrote two of the most important biographies of potters, Bernard Leach: Life and Work, and Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter as well as a number of shorter biographies. In 1970, he founded Ceramic Review, which he edited. Philip Hughes writes, “Ceramic Review was pivotal in Emmanuel’s life and in the evolution of British ceramics.” If he never touched clay himself, he would be lauded as a major influence on 20th &  21st century ceramics.

But he did touch clay. Throughout his life, he was a maker and it is his making that informed his writing. Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938 – 2012, published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre to coincide with a touring exhibition of Cooper’s work, celebrates Cooper the potter with essays by Chris White, Sebastian Blackie, Jeremy James, Josie Walter, Alison Oddey, a forward by Julia Pitts and Philip Hughes, Colophon by Philip Hughes and an introduction by his longtime partner, David Horbury.

We learn that, unlike so many other potters in the UK, he was not intent on a rural life, and worked instead in an urban basement studio. Sebastian Blackie writes, “An interesting aspect of Cooper’s making environment that is not evidenced in the work is the relative chaos of his studio. Cooper’s writing required a very ordered mind so it is surprising to discover this side of his character…a cramped basement littered with precarious stacks of half finished pots and other ceramic detritus.”  His partner David Horbury in describing the three basement rooms where Cooper worked says, “All around on makeshift shelves were hundreds of glaze tests, their colour and textures obscured by dust and debris, and in every space there were pots – fired and un-fired – huge thrown porcelain bowls, jug forms of all sizes and variations, large platters and hand-built work and, in the darker furthest corners, the remains of his production ware – a relish tray, a bread crock, a stack of saucers.” The keeper of a “chaotic” studio myself, in the basement no less, though a walk out basement, I find Cooper’s messiness reassuring.

Potting in an urban studio, he did not have the old barns and sheds that his rural colleagues possessed, and with no place to house large wood burning kilns and stacks of wood, he embraced the electric kiln. His glazes are proof that good glazes can indeed come from an electric kiln.

Cooper was a production potter for his first twenty years, producing tableware and dishes, selling largely to restaurants.  This work informed his later individual pieces. Blackie writes, “Cooper’s individual pots, made in small batches, have an authority and clarity that is the product of years of repetition throwing. It is an apprenticeship few of today’s makers have benefited from. His work always remained domestic in scale and it is interesting that he continued to weigh his clay for all his pieces…”

Throughout his life, he made pots while he wrote and taught and conducted his thousands of glaze tests. The book is illustrated with black and white biographical photos, two-page close-up spreads of glazes, and color photos of the jugs and bowls that were the shapes that defined him.

Long an admirer of Cooper’s research and his books, I was grateful to discover some of the man and his pots here on the page. He deserves as fulsome a biography as he wrote of Lucie Rie, but for now, Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938-2012 is a most welcome addition to ceramic literature.

David Frith and Margaret Frith Potters

It doesn’t get more pottery-romantic than David Frith, Margaret Frith: 50 Years of Brookhouse Pottery by Jane Wilkinson. Published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre in the UK but new to me, the book is a delight. I spent an hour happily turning the pages and poring over the photos, fantasizing, before actually reading a word.

The pots are luscious: David’s stoneware, Margaret’s porcelain, meticulously thrown and glazed, pick-me-up tactile, all evoking pot envy, or at least covetousness. David’s platters are large enough to hang on an exterior wall. Margaret’s teapot invites a brew of Earl Grey. We see jugs, bottles, large jars and a wonderful array of tea bowls expertly made and photographed.

And then there is the pottery itself. Who has not dreamed of restoring a quaint old stone mill by a riverside and making it one’s workplace? Brookhouse is what you imagine when you think of a country pottery. Margaret has planted abundant gardens. There are spacious outbuildings on both sides of the river, and an airy kiln shed that is beautiful. Paths. Bridges. Potted plants. Flowerbeds. Decks. Large windows. Did I say the kiln shed is beautiful?

But a place such as Brookhouse, and such great pots, do not just happen. They take imagination and years of hard work and dedication. David and Margaret Frith began working together more than fifty years ago, starting with a line of slipware. In 1975 they bought a semi-derelict 18th century woolen mill turned brewery called the Malt House and began arduous renovations, converting the property into a home and workshop. They renamed their picturesque North Wales haven Brookhouse Pottery. Here they have raised a family, made pots, entertained guests such as David Leach, Michael Cardew, and Mick Casson, hosted exhibitions and taught workshops. Their work continues today. The book is a nice look at the Friths lives and work together.

Edmund de Waal on Porcelain

Three hundred years ago the Jesuit priest Pére J’Entrecolles wrote letters to his superiors describing in rich detail the manufacture of porcelain. The Catholic priest had been sent to Jingdezhen to proselytize to the local residents of this bustling eighteenth century Chinese city. Many of his potential converts worked with porcelain. His reports described all aspects of porcelain production from digging the special materials to firing. At the time how to make porcelain was a mystery to potters at home. A few years ago, Edmund de Waal, the acclaimed British author and potter, who has had a long obsession with porcelain, “brought” Pére J’Entrecolles along as his initial guide on his pilgrimage to discover the roots of porcelain. He carried and consulted marked up copies of the letters during his trip to Jingdezhen. He tells the story of his search in The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession. “This journey, “ he says, “is a paying of dues to those that have gone before.”

His quest takes him to China, Germany, South Carolina, and through his own England. The book is peopled with fascinating characters. Even if you have read numerous accounts of the alchemist Johann Frederich Böttger and his keeper/overseer Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and how, while desperately trying to make gold, they discovered the secret of porcelain, you will find de Waal’s chapters about them worth reading. In his mind he is there too, with them, trying to understand what they were thinking, feeling what they feel, and he brings the reader along.

I was fascinated with the chapters on William Cookworthy, the Devon pharmacist who also was obsessed with making porcelain, and who succeeded, only to be outwitted by Josiah Wedgewood. And then there is Thomas Griffiths who, after crossing the Atlantic,  travels hundreds of miles into the wilderness of the American south, suffering rain and cold, to obtain “white earth” from the Cherokees and ship it back to England. The Cherokees, it turns out, also valued the clay and preferred he not make holes in it.

De Waal nicely intersperses his personal artistic journey – youthful years making stoneware, his struggles with firing, and thoughts on his studio practice – throughout the narrative. The book is divided into cups so that you feel he is not only making a book but that he is making pots to coincide with each section. The cups symbolize the book. Or perhaps the book follows the cups.

“You drop the lid of the huge lidded jar you have finally made,” he writes, “and it becomes ‘Jar for a Branch’. And you move on.” He shares his philosophies.  “Sets are a way of controlling the world. If you need this mortal world to reflect another kind of order, then things must match.”

I was immersed from the first page of the book. I love history. I am  intrigued by descriptions of how other potters work. He gives us both. The book is episodic, often written in the first person, so you feel immediacy. Towards the end, while he is writing, he is also in the process of moving his studio to a new spacious location. He tells us what he is reading. What he is thinking. How he works. “I sit at my wheel,” he says. “It is low and I am tall. I hunch. There is a ziggurat of balls of porcelain clay to my left, a waiting pile of ware boards to my right, a small bucket of water, a sponge, a knife and a bamboo rib shaped like a hand axe in front of me.” He has a space upstairs where he writes. There are books. Oh dear! Is that jealousy I am feeling?

Two complaints: The book does not have an index. Yes, I am an index junky, but really a book with this much history, so many facts and locations, and such intriguing characters, should have an index. And though de Waal read deeply and did extensive research, the book has neither endnotes nor a bibliography. Instead, the reader is directed to his website, where indeed you can find all that you want to. Still, I found this annoying and hope that other publishers do not go this route in an effort to save money. I suspect these were publisher decisions and not de Waal’s, but who knows.

Wherever you are personally in the pottery world, and whether you admire de Waal’s installations or eschew them, you will want to read The White Road. It is an insightful and deep examination by an artist into his antecedents and the inspiration that sprung from them. The book is rich, multi-layered. Refreshingly, there is no art speak. Instead, it is a personal telling of well-researched history. It is an important book for the field, and the larger world.

Note: Edmund de Waal’s The Pot Book was released in paper late last year. I wrote about that in 2011 (Nov. 6) when it came out in hardcover.