Simon Leach on Making Pots

No matter how long you have been potting, you can always learn something new. That’s the nature of a craft that is so ancient. For this reason, I always look at how-to books, even very basic ones. And being an admirer of his work, I have especially been looking forward to Simon Leach’s book, written with Bruce Dehnert, Simon Leach’s Pottery Handbook.

Leach is the grandson of Bernard Leach and the son of David Leach. He fooled around in his dad’s pottery as a kid, but left to become an engineering apprentice at a helicopter factory. He loved making balsawood model planes and thought aircraft was the thing for him. To his dismay, it was painfully boring, and when the opportunity arose, he left to travel. Out of money, he went to work for his father for “six months” and discovered that indeed, pottery was for him. Six months stretched into years. When his father asked him if he would like to run the pottery, he decided to go out on his own. He has subsequently had potteries in England, Spain and now the US.

Leach has produced more than 800 YouTube videos on making pots and has an extensive following. The book comes with two DVD’s and has pages and pages of thorough illustrations. This is primarily a handbook of throwing. He does talk about glazes and firing but not about handbuilding. The premise is, that with the book and the DVD’s you can learn to throw on your own. I think you could.

What I personally learned from the book is an interesting way to use wood ashes. Yes, ashes again. He burns them in a metal lid, sifts them and mixes them with water to make a thin liquid, which he runs through an 80-mesh sieve. Then, depending upon the temperature he is firing to, he adds Gerstley Borate or Feldspar. He sprays the mixture onto the exterior of a bisque pot with an atomizer. There is a delightful photo of Leach blowing through the mouthpiece of his atomizer. The results are very beautiful.

I sometimes sprinkle ashes onto my damp pots (I single fire). Or I give a bone-dry pot a light wash of Gerstley Borate and Yellow Ochre and then sift ashes onto the surface. But I like the look Leach is achieving with his method: it is more organic and speaks of wood and flames.

The book has a spiral binding, which is not my favorite type of binding because the pages can rip out. But if you are using to book to learn to throw, with the spiral binding, you can open the book and lay it flat so that you can easily see two pages at once.  You could open it to the chapter you are working on, and glance at it as you work.

The DVD’s contain short videos to accompany the chapters. Leach explains what his hands are doing. You know he is having fun, because now and then he starts to hum or whistle! His motto, on the videos and throughout the book, is “Keep On Practicing.” A good motto for all of us!

Krevolin Collection

Disclosure: About six years ago Lewis Krevolin phoned and asked if he could come and talk to me about writing an essay for an exhibit of his collection of pre-contact pottery. Intrigued, I said yes, and he and his wife Jenny drove down to Connecticut from upper New York State and over tea and coffee, we discussed the project. I was immediately fascinated with Krevolin and his collection and of course I agreed to write the piece. After I accepted the assignment, he sent me notes and images of his amazing collection.

Krevolin, not exactly a household name, has had an amazing career in the arts. He attended Alfred University where he studied ceramics, art history and design. He worked as an industrial designer for several illustrious firms, eventually creating his own line of dinnerware. In 1965 he began teaching at Dutchess Community College where he remained a popular member of the art faculty for twenty-five years, teaching ceramics and design. Two years after beginning his teaching career, he published Ceramics, which he wrote with Elizabeth Constantine. In the late eighties, he founded Archatrive to make “Deconstructionist Furniture and Decoration” by repurposing artifacts. Recently, Krevolin exhibited his quilts made of old tobacco cloths at the Montgomery Row gallery in Rhinebeck.

Throughout this illustrious career in the vernacular arts, Krevolin has had a deep interest in pre-contact pottery and amassed an extraordinary collection of these beautiful pots. He is particularly interested in how each pot was made and has spent considerable time coming to understand the forming and firing techniques for each piece in his collection. He worked with National Geographic and later showed his pots at the Museum of the American Indian. By the time he came to see me, he had given his pre-contact pots to the Schein Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University.

I wrote my piece, which Krevolin said he liked. Susan Peterson was also to write an essay, but sadly, she passed away. Ezra Shales then wrote a piece and Krevolin of course, wrote much about the pots. I was generously paid but the project seemed to falter. The museum closed to undergo renovations, delayed the exhibit, and seemingly, was not eager to publish the book. I made multiple phone calls to determine the status (books are not just about the money, they are about readers) and then I stopped thinking about it. Too bad for Krevolin, whom I had come to admire, and his collection, which I considered important, and too bad for me, but publishing, especially museum publishing, is a fickle world.

So imagine my astonishment when googling something else entirely, I came upon Out of Clay: The Krevolin Collection of Pre-Contact Pottery: A Study Guide published by the Schein Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art Alfred University! I immediately ordered a copy from the Museum and I must say, it is lovely.

The book: There are over 200 photos of the pots (not the entire collection), with descriptions, dates, the name of the culture that produced each piece, the location (provenance), and what Krevolin determined about the manufacturing process (such as oxidizing fire, burnished, coiled, molded, etc.). A vast array of cultures is included: Mississippian, Chavin, Inca, Chancay and more.

The book is divided into two illustrative sections, Form and Function and Surface and Narrative and within those there are subsections such as Spouts and Handle; Bottles; Building Tooling and Stamping; and Painted Decoration. You can spend hours with this book (I did and will again). It is meant to help the viewer, especially a student of ceramics or a visitor to the collection, to fully understand the pots.

Krevolin writes of pre-contact pots made in the Western Hemisphere, “…I argue that calling the craft of low-fired unglazed pottery primitive is a form of western elitism that discounts the completely controlled first step in the evolution of the story of ceramics technology. We do not call Etruscan or Greek pottery primitive…why can’t we compare a Mayan painted clay cylinder with painted Etruscan or Greek wares and recognize that they both were made within the same primary technology?”

Out of Clay is a deep appreciation of pre-contact pots. It is a statement of Krevolin’s strong belief in their high place in the ceramic canon. It is not about history or culture nor is it a theoretical critique. It is a book of intense focus, simply and boldly about the pots; a celebration of their good design and manufacture. Krevolin loves and admires these pots. He wants us to come to the same appreciation. That is his mission. With Out of Clay he has succeeded.