Summer Reading

Summer has traditionally been a time of work overload for potters. In many cultures, it was a time of getting the crops in, irrigating, harvesting, cutting firewood and, in between, firing a whole winter’s worth of pots. In other cultures, summer meant a respite from winter rains so pots could be made and they would actually dry. In more recent years, it became the season of craft fairs with potters hauling their works from one town to another.

But stretching out in a hammock with a good book? Curling up in the old wicker chair on the back porch and spending hours reading? Certainly potters deserve this indulgence, this opportunity for quiet moments to take in an author’s works as much as vacationing nine-to-fivers do I suspect however, that even though a stack of must-read books calls, many potters feel compelled to stay in the studio.

So I have been delighted with the Summer Reading thread on John Britt’s popular Clay Club blog. What started with a recommendation for the Steig Larson bestselling mysteries has turned to pottery related books. Yes! You could even say, guilt free reading (not that anyone should ever feel guilt for reading…).

Summer, it seems to me, might be the time for fiction and memoir (I know, recently there has been evidence that some memoirs ARE fiction, but surely not potter’s memoirs). For fiction, we saw the YA A Single Shard on the Clay Club. May I also suggest Jose Saramago’s The Cave about an elderly potter who just wants to keep making his pots. Saramago, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, died a year ago. All of his works are worth reading, but this in my ceramic heart, is his best.

Potters have written quite a few memoirs. One that I go back and reread over and over, at least parts, is The Invisible Core by Marguerite Wildenhain, published in 1973. She writes, “The war was still on, and I had been about a year and a half at work when one day I happened to run into the workshops where the model-makers were throwing models on the potter’s wheel. I was simply hypnotized, and in that second I decided that that was what I was going to do, not those stupid flower designs on vases.” Stubborn and determined throughout her live, she followed through, often under very difficult circumstances, never doubting herself (or her talent). The Invisible Core takes us through her youth, the war years, to Pond Farm, the rural California hilltop pottery where she worked for the last thirty years of her life, often alone, and without sufficient funds, but an inspiration and tough teacher to the students who followed here there. Sadly, the book is out of print, but there is an abundance of used copies available online. I worry what this means. Aging hippy-potters sent to nursing homes or the grave, their personal libraries bought by dealers? My copy has a torn jacket. Maybe I’ll try to find a better one.

Meanwhile, check out the ongoing summer reading suggestions on the Clay Club if you haven’t already.

Pots on My Bookshelves

As soon as the repairs from the winter storm damage were completed a few weeks ago, Joe spent hours painting the new walls. I, however, took off for New York for work, and then after returning and seeing it all done except for cleaning the dust and debris off the shelves and putting the books back, procrastinated. Why clean when you can play with mud in the studio?

Finally, I got to it (company was coming – pressure!). As I worked, I was surprised at how much pottery I keep on the bookshelves, especially the gardening section. I think of the shelves as crammed with books, but as I put the pieces back in their places, it was clear, that there are a lot of them. Of course I dawdled with each piece, touching it, thinking about it. There is a small brown horse made by Louise King given to me by bookseller Fran Keilty after I signed copies of Clay at Hickory Stick; a small Bizen ware bottle that Ann Charters brought back from Japan; a very small bottle, heavily iron spotted from my old hard brick catenary at The Stone House; two earthy pieces from Ecuador, Inca replicas; a small gray jug my son Dan made as a child thirty years ago at The Stone House; an old man with a beard, fired black, made by the Falashas in Ethiopia; two small  three legged cooking pots, burnished and fired black, also from Ethiopia; and a pinch pot made by M.C. Richards.

The pinch pot sits on the top of the shelves, near the ceiling, between the two cooking pots. You need to cup it in two hands to hold it, and hold it you must. It is glazed a glossy milky white, with streaks of light and dark blue, and blushes of yellow. The clay is a deep tannish brown. The pot is signed and dated 1987. It is similar to the pot on the 1989 cover of her now classic book, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. Centering, first published in 1964 has never gone out of print. The book has touched and influenced generations. It is a book to reread and ponder and discuss every few years.

“All the arts we practice are apprenticeship,” she wrote. “The big art is our life. We must, as artists, perform the acts of life in alert relation to the materials present at any given instant. This is not a simple requirement. For each instant, as it ticks off, ticks off into the past; but the past is present in the forms we have taken. We stand between past and future, between the forces that have shaped us and those yet to lend their transforming power to our growth…”

I had the honor of working with MC during the last year of her life. We were preparing for a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Worcester Craft Center, then under the direction of Maryon Attwood. Karen Karnes and Ann Stannard guided the project. My task was to write the catalog, which became Imagine Inventing Yellow: The Life and Works of M.C. Richards, 1916-1999.

That last summer, she frequently called me up, and in her husky voice made suggestions.  Or, more truthfully, she gave directions. She sent faxes of handwritten pages. She would tell me a fascinating story and then, when I wrote it, tell me to take it out because it was too personal. She wanted her interest in agriculture emphasized, something the others involved in the project thought not the best idea. She wanted the word numinous. After much discussion, I said ok, we will use the word numinous.

I came to believe that she was more meticulous with the written word than with pot making. Today, when I hold her pinch pot in my hands, I can feel where her fingers touched the clay, sense the spontaneity and speed with which worked. The pot is light-hearted and free. But working with her on the catalog, and reading her books, it became clear that each sentence was carefully wrought to convey her thoughts and ideas. Each sentence was polished to perfection. MC was a philosopher potter and a poet. I am lucky to have her books and one of her pots on my shelves.