How could a potter with such a perfect name as Don Potter have left my consciousness? I know I had read briefly about Don Potter in Phil Rogers’ book Ash Glazes because I have two well-read editions the book on my shelves. Yet but despite his perfect name, he slipped my mind completely, until I read about him in Mike Dodd’s autobiography. Dodd not only praised Potter profusely, but recommended Vivienne Light’s book about him, Don Potter: an inspiring centurypublished by Canterton Books in 2002. Only a thousand copies were printed, but I was able to get a nice clean copy.
The man was a genius. He was a master of many crafts: metalwork, woodcarving, stone carving, lettering, and pottery. In addition, he was a talented cellist and expert lassoist. And an inspiring teacher.
He had studied direct carving with the great sculptor Eric Gill but knew nothing of pottery when he accepted a teaching position at Bryanston School where he would be teaching ceramics as well metal and wood. He turned first to Amy Krauss for instruction, so that he could stay ahead of the pottery students. Once the first year was over, he sought out Michael Cardew and Ray Finch quickly becoming highly skilled and a master of form. He dug clay and mixed glazes for himself and the students and became a fierce advocate of using local materials. The only thing he purchased was sand!
The pottery workshop at Bryanston was in the dark and dusty basement. Potter tore down the old coal fired earthenware kiln, and built a wood-fired stoneware kiln. Students recalled that he “lugged a great oxygen cylinder from the metalwork department” (which he also taught) and the “temperature soared.” Indeed, more than once the walls of the stairwell glowed when the he was firing the kiln!
Potter would take small groups of students to visit Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie where they could watch her work and look at her collection of pots. He invited Ladi Kwali to come to the school and demonstrate. He encouraged his students to look at pots wherever they went. In each of the disciplines he taught, there were students who went on to make it their life’s work and who achieved greatness. In pottery, in addition to Mike Dodd, Richard Batterham credits him as the inspiration for his career in clay. Other of his pottery students who went on to great success include Rodney Lawrence, Kit Opie, Michael Gill, and Terrance Conran who made a career in design and as a tastemaker.
Of course, I wished there were more pages devoted to Potter’s pottery – and more photos – but the chapters on metal, wood, stone and lettering are interesting also, if not quite as engrossing to me personally as the clay chapter. By the end of the book though, I was glad to have met this man, if only on the printed page: a man who could do almost anything with his hands. He was a maker and an artist, yet, as Light makes clear, he also thought deeply about the work he was doing.
I love the books and videos the Goldmark Gallery creates for their pottery exhibits. I very much love Mike Dodd by David Whiting which they published to coincide with last fall’s exhibit.
The book, like all Goldmark’s books, has elegant French flaps and is printed on satiny paper. It is an object of beauty, a pleasure to hold in your hands.
The cover, a photo of Dodd in his workshop, viewed through an open door is enticing. We see a tall vase on an old woodstove, a workbench, clay spattered chairs and a row of ladles (for glazing?) hung across the top of a window. Dodd is holding a vase. Immediately, you want to visit. Does every potter who shows at Goldmark live surrounded by pastural countryside and work in an enchanting, rustic shop? Feeling a tinge of envy…
Whiting’s essay, an appreciation, touches on Dodd’s life, his thoughts on potting, and, of course, his pots. Like all of Goldmark’s’ books, many of which Whiting has written, it is refreshingly jargon free. Jay Goldmark’s luscious photos show Dodd’s work in situ – in the garden, surrounded by grasses and ivy, on old wooden boards, by a pond. The photos and essay bring us into momentarily inside Dodd’s world.
Dodd, a potter’s potter, is known for his deep understanding of local materials. He makes glazes of ash and granite and iron that he gathers and processes. His pots are robust, known for the strength of their forms.
I read Mike Doddwith Dodd’s own book, An Autobiography of Sorts, also available from Goldmark though not published by them. This is a longer, more
in depth look at Dodd’s potting life. It includes articles that he has written and published over the years, essays and interviews that others have written, in addition to some material that he wrote specifically for this volume. He describes the various workshops and studios that he has inhabited, the kilns he has built, and his thoughts about pot-making. There are many pages of formal photos of his work, allowing us to study them closely.
An Autobiography of Sortsis not as beautifully designed as Mike Dodd, but the two books taken together give us a nice look at Dodd and his work. They are the next best thing to owning one of his pots.
“First experiments involved rolling mothballs down a slide into the saggar, and also inserting oily rags at the ends of sticks, but neither were successful, with Caiger-Smith nearly losing his eyebrows in the process. Then he had a brainwave and inserted pieces of fudge on a long metal rod, these melted as soon as they started to burn, enabling more fudge to be immediately inserted, so keeping up the reduction without the risk of being gassed. At last there was success,” Jane White writes in her brilliant new book, Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Potter
Caiger-Smith spent years perfecting his highly prized lustreware inspired by the luminous pots made in 800 CE in what is now Iraq and later in Spain and
Italy during the Middle Ages. By the twentieth century though fine examples of lustreware could be seen in museums and mosques, knowledge of how to achieve this effect were forgotten.
From his earliest potting years, Caiger-Smith was intrigued with the beauty of
lustre, preferring it to the Chinese and Japanese inspired pots of Leach and his followers. Through trial and error, (at times disastrous), extensive research, and by translating Ciprian Piccolpasso’sThe Three Books of the Potter’s Art,published in 1557, he at last mastered lustre and gained a wide audience for his work.
Caiger-Smith also specialized in tin-glazed maiolica and is known for his brushwork. He wrote two definitive books, Tin-Glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World: The Tradition of 1000 Years in Maiolica, Faience and DelftwareandLustre Pottery: Technique, Tradition and Innovation in Islam and the Western Worldas well as numerous essays and articles.
White’s approach is particularly interesting and lively. Rather than write a conventional biography of Caiger-Smith, or a typical monograph with appreciative essays by various authors, she focusses on his workshop, Aldermaston Pottery, and the potters who worked there. At Aldermaston, individual potters saw their pots from start to finish; throwing, glazing, decorating and firing, to the shop’s standard designs. Other workshops operating at the time separated tasks with different people working as throwers, glazers, decorators or kiln men and women. Caiger-Smith also believed that it was crucial to bring in people who fit well with one another and after that, everything would follow. Sometimes he took on potters with no skills whatsoever because he liked them and then taught them all they needed to know to take a pot from start to finish.
White tracked down numerous potters who worked at Aldermaston Pottery and sprinkles quotes and old photos from them throughout the book, giving us vivid descriptions of life in the workshop. Caiger-Smith not only trained and paid his potters but provided them with housing in the village. They had parties, worked together, took on difficult challenges such as making very large exhibition pots, and became friends. Many went on to open their own potteries after they left.
The book concludes with a warm postscript from Alan Caiger-Smith, now almost 90, in which he shares a few memories and gives generous thanks to the many involved in the book and in his life and work. Those who read this blog, know I have a fondness for biographies and profiles of potters (and wrote a couple myself including Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden). Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Potteryranks amongst the best.
Before the holidays, my good friend NIkki Mutch gave me a copy of Leonard Everett Fisher’s The Pottersthat she rediscovered amidst the many children’s books in her collection. Lucky for me, she thought it belonged in my book collection. And belong it does. What a little treasure!
During the sixties and seventies Fisher wrote and illustrated a series of books on colonial American crafts for Franklin Watts. The Pottersis part of that series. It is illustrated with detailed, powerful scratchboard illustrations, a technique for which he became famous. We see a potter digging clay, wedging, throwing at the wheel. Best of all, there are images of pots–a beautiful slip trailed plate, jugs and crocks.
This is a children’s book meant for the middle grades. Nevertheless, it is clear Fisher did considerable research. He includes a map of New York showing the location of the (now revered) Remney-Crolius Pottery as well as Pott Baker’s Hill and the Corselius Pottery. He discusses Andrew Duché, the Savannah potter who learned from the Cherokees of a pure white clay which he (correctly) thought could be used for porcelain. Unfortunately, this enterprise failed due to a lack of funding. Most of all, Fisher celebrates the many redware potters making sturdy domestic pots before the Revolutionary War. To me, reading it as an adult, I see the book as an appreciation.
Fisher, born in 1924, has illustrated over 250 children’s books, 88 of which he wrote. He studied with such luminaries as Reginald Marsh and Serge Chermayeff, and has won numerous awards. After the series on American crafts workers, he illustrated most of his books with vibrant paintings yet his scratch board illustrations, even in this age of color, still speak to us.
During my bookselling and Connecticut Children’s Book Fair years, I had the honor of meeting and hosting Fisher, and even tried to convince his publisher to make a Cyclops costume based on his book of that name. Nevertheless, somehow, I knew nothing of this delightful early book, The Potters. How wonderful to have it in my hands now.
Reissued a few times by various publishers, The Pottersis now out of print. If you are seeking a copy, look for the original Franklin Watts edition from 1969.
I have been working on a book for Timber Press called Anatomy of a Garden. How I came to be writing such a book is a story for another day, but it’s a fun project. The histories of ceramics and horticulture have been linked for millennium and, like many potters, I am deeply interested in gardening.
One topic about which I knew little, however, was the grotto. A grotto is a watery garden feature, a retreat, often subterranean, inspired by the ancient Greek grottoes made in seaside caves. They are decorated, we might say encrusted, with shells and sparkling minerals and offer a cooling environment. Beginning in the fifteenth century, Italian nobles and kings became interested in having grottoes constructed for their own gardens. Status symbols during the Renaissance, and laden with meanings, they were a celebration of art and nature. And it turns out, two potters are part of the story.
The sixteenth century French potter Bernard Palissy, known for his magnificently glazed earthenware decorated with fantastical but realistic flora and fauna – snakes, frogs, crustaceans, lizards, crows, ferns, moss – was also a maker of grottoes. Palissy had spent fifteen years developing his bright, translucent glazes, sometimes, by his own account, at great cost. During one firing, filled with glaze tests, he ran out of wood before reaching temperature. In desperation, or perhaps I should say, with determination, he yanked the trellises from his garden, tore up the floor boards in his house, even chopped up his table for the necessary wood. Many of his molds were life casts which he would assemble to create a larger mold for his basins and platters.
Anne de Montmorency who was an influential and wealthy member of the French aristocracy, a statesman, soldier, and diplomat, admired Palissy’s pottery covered with leaves and reptiles and most famously, snakes, and commissioned him to create a two-story grotto. It was a perfect project for Palissy’s rich imagination. He would festoon the grotto with swags of ceramic fruit. There would be a fountain with ceramic shells, frogs, lizards and fish. The second story of the grotto would have “terms,” life size statues that mysteriously appeared to evolve from their pedestals. Palissy worked for nearly a decade on the grotto, making wondrous ceramic objects to completely cover the interior.
But he was also an activist Protestant in Catholic France. The Catholic authorities raided his atelier and destroyed his fired and unfired pieces along with many of his molds and tools. They sent him to prison to await execution for heresy. It is unclear if the grotto was installed but most historians believe that it was not. How annoying to make all those intricate and carefully glazed pieces only to be hauled off to jail!
Released with the help of friends in high places, he next worked on a grotto for
the garden of Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother, perhaps using some of the surviving molds. Archaeologists believe the walls were covered with glazed bricks covered with ceramic shells and moss, as some have been found. Interestingly, the grotto was not made in place, but at his workshop and transported. However, he later planned a grotto that was completely glazed inside and fired in place. The thought of that is almost enough to make me want to try!
Palissy was a writer as well as a potter. One of his last published works contained an essay which included detailed written plans for his ideal garden. As it turns out, this is the only full description we have of a French Renaissance garden. In it, his ceramic grottoes are a key feature.
Two centuries later, a successful terra cotta manufacturer, James Pullman (the second in a line of four James Pullmans), invented an artificial stone, which he called Pulhamite, for the construction of grottoes. With artificial stone, one could make a grotto anywhere. You didn’t need a natural cave or boulders. In his pottery, Pulham made terra cotta birth baths, flower pots, and other garden ornaments and also did stone work. With his invention of artificial stone, he and his descendants became the leading creators of grottoes and landscapes. They could provide everything but the plants.
To read about Palissy and his ceramics, with details about his ceramic grottoes, turn to Barnard Palissy by Leonard N. Amico. This is a carefully researched biography of the great potter and of course, includes a wealth of information about his rustic pottery which is what most of us think of when he we hear his name. For the Pulhams, turn to Rock Landscapes:The Pulham Legacy. Sadly, it does not have much information about the Pulham family’s work in clay, as its focus is on Pulhamite. Still, it is interesting, especially if you happen to be interested in grottoes.
Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery is both an exhibit and a book that if you are in any way involved with clay, you must not miss. The exhibit is currently at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT where it remains through December 3. It moves to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK where it can be seen March 20 through June 18, 2018. Really, you must go see this.
The book, a hefty tome, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding contains thoughtful and provocative essays, splendid photos of the works on exhibit, a timeline, and, of particular delight, photos of potters by Ben Boswell. No, you cannot curl up with Things of Beauty Growing. It is too heavy and too large. Find yourself a comfortable chair where you can open it across both your thighs, or read it at a table. And you probably shouldn’t eat or drink while you are reading because if you spill on one of the pages, you will cry.
Glenn Adamson tells us that the title Things of Beauty Growing is taken from a Michael Cardew quote: “If you are lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it.” He explains that the curators wanted to show “the sense that pottery has a life of its own.” He goes on to say that the “exhibition takes typologies of the vessel as its organizing structure. It shows that archetypal ceramic forms mark out their own internal chronology, as well as stages in trajectory thinking.” The focus is on the twentieth-century.
The first half of the book includes essays on such topics as exhibits, the factory, pottery in popular culture (love the record album covers!), origins, and what Edward S Cooke, Jr. calls “The Ideology of the Wheel.” This is followed by the catalog itself which is divided into thematic sections: Moon Jar, Vase, Bowl, Charger, Set, Vessel, Pot, and Monument. This is also how the exhibit itself is arranged.
Neither the exhibit nor the book is a survey of British studio ceramics or a history, or even a “best of.” Potters you love and admire, potters I love and admire, are missing. Nevertheless, collectors and potters will recognize all the names, and will be familiar with most if not all of the works, if only from years of looking at photos in books and magazines. I was glad that I had read the book before attending the exhibit. Still, I was not prepared to see “in person” pots I had seen as images all my potting life. Even after looking at them portrayed in highly professional photographs in the book, I was stunned.
We begin with the story of the 18th century Korean moon jar that Bernard Leach shipped home to England in 1935 and which eventually became Lucie’ Rie’s and now resides in the British Museum in London. There are two photos of this legendary jar in the book: the jar itself, and a photograph of Lucie Rie seated next to it in her London studio. The exhibit opens with Adam Buick’s interpretation of the moon jar followed by the moon jars of Akiko Hirai and Gareth Mason. From the moon jars we move onto Vase. We see not only Bernard Leach’s interpretations, but also a few of the Song Dynasty vases that inspired him.
These were under glass, but the two-handled jar made by Edwin Beer Fishley in Devon about 1900 was out in the open on a pedestal. I had all I could do to keep from running my hands up the walls to feel Fishley’s throwing. Of course, I knew better, and the guard, probably reading my body language as I peered inside the pot, kept her eyes on me. This pot is beautifully photographed in the book but no photograph can completely convey the power of the volume of this pot, the strength and rigor of the throwing lines, and the incredible dark green glaze breaking to deep purple.
I will not list all the names – Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Alison Britton, William Staite Murray, Hans Coper, Lady Kwali, Magdalene Odundo – and on and on, that you encounter walking through the exhibit or turning the pages of the book, as that is not the point, though it was dazzling to see their works all together. No the point is to see the sets made by Lucie Rie and Ruth Duckworth and the chargers made by Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew and Ralph Toft and the bowls, and vessels and pots. Topology!
My bias is towards traditional, functional wares but that is not the bias of the book or the exhibit. We see Julian Stair’s monumental jars that can hold a person’s body, and Grayson Perry’s decaled and gilded urns. We see Edmund de Waal’s a place made fast (dare I say it? – I love his books but was disappointed in his installation but glad to see it for myself after seeing photos of it). The exhibit and book close with Halima Cassell’s installation of vessels made from clay she has collected from around the world.
And then there is Clare Twomey’s Made in China installation, which includes 80 vases, 79 made in Jingdezhen, China and one in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. The 79 are decorated with decals and identical. The one from England is hand-decorated with eighteen-karat-gold. Of course, you must find the one, not an easy task when they are all the same size and shape and red and gold. Happily, I did find it, and immediately realized that one of the amusements for the guards is watching people search for the 80th jar. The guard knew as soon as I had found it, and came over and chatted, a light-hearted way to end a museum tour, though I realize Twomey’s installation is political and not light-hearted.
Exhibits are ephemeral but books last. With Things of Beauty Growing, the book/catalog brings depth, discussion, and insight. The essayists do not all share a point of view; they have different opinions and outlooks, which is enriching. This is a book you might talk back to. Even if you can’t get to the exhibit, though I strongly urge you to see it if at all possible, the book is an excellent addition to a potter’s library and education, a book to return to again and again.
“The main restrictions that I have at the moment are a small studio and how I transport my work, unfired, in a trailer that I tow with my bicycle to the kiln service,” Canadian potter Dawn Vachon tells Australian author Amber Creswell Bell in her new book, Clay: Contemporary Ceramic Artisans. Bell profiles fifty-three potters, mainly from Australia, probing how they became involved with clay, why they make what they make, and how they think about it.
The only potter I was familiar with (which doesn’t mean you wouldn’t know who the rest are) is media savvy Frances Palmer of Connecticut whose work was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, and Architectural Digest. Palmer has been making pots for more than three decades, primarily porcelain but also white and red terra cottas. And avid gardener, she photographs many of her pieces with flowers and posts daily on Instagram. Despite her success, she tells Bell, “You have to be prepared for failure and yet still enjoy the process. There are many aspects to making pots that are out of one’s control and I find it all a metaphor for many things in life.”
Indeed, dealing with failure is a common thread throughout. Holly Macdonald of Australia talks about the importance of not becoming too attached to one’s work while making it lest it not survive drying and firing. “There are certainly a lot of opportunities to practice non-attachment in working with clay. Non-attachment in relation to the physical things you are creating and the expectations you have of them. I think it’s a good thing, and is a positive influence on the other areas of my life.”
Several of the potters touch on their ever-present sense of the long and ancient history of ceramics. Florian Gadsby, a young London based potter who apprenticed with Lisa Hammond writes, “The methods have barely changed in thousands of years. Losing such an important craft as we enter a digital age would be devastating, as it represents centuries of historical advancement, culture and beauty.” Australian potter Tania Rollond adds, “For almost as long as we humans have walked the earth we have scratched or printed our individual marks and traces into the malleable, receptive surface of clay, and we have formed it into objects that play intimate roles in daily life.”
Clay: Contemporary Ceramic Artisans is a handsomely produced book. There are 231 illustrations. Many of the pots are dramatically photographed holding flowers. There are also photographs of the potters at work, or of their studios, as well as many photos of individual pots or groups of pots all printed on thick, creamy paper.
The work itself ranges from vases and tableware made by throwing, pinching, handbuilding and slipcasting to intricate sculptural work reflecting a variety of points of view and processes. Bell does a good job of presenting the thoughts and philosophies that the potters have about their work without making the essays sound like formal artists’ statements and without using the jargon so often employed by critics. She and her subjects exclaim at the “buoyancy” of the market for handmade ceramics today and share optimism for the future.
I knew that even if I hadn’t spent eight hundred plus dollars to fix my truck (it failed emissions), I would not be able to afford to participate in the Crocker Farm March auction. Still, I indulged myself and ordered the print edition of the catalog. Oh what a lovely thing it is. There are over five hundred pieces of early American stoneware and redware pots, all beautifully photographed, and described.
Crocker Farm was founded in 1983 by Anthony and Barbara Zipp and now includes their sons Brandt, Luke and Mark. They have made themselves experts on early American ceramics by studying eighteenth and nineteenth century census records, newspapers, city directories, books, local lore and the pots themselves. They deeply research each of the pots they auction and share that information in their online and print catalogs, in videos and lectures.
The pages of the March 2017 catalog are filled with wonderful pieces. There are lead glazed redware dishes and jars, splashed with manganese or copper; salt-glazed stoneware vessels with cobalt decorations – incised, stamped, brushed; Albany slip and alkaline glazed stoneware. Jars. Jugs. Pitchers. Churns. Inkwells. Oyster jars. Plates. Impressive big ware – a ten-gallon pitcher thought to be for a showroom window. Miniatures, perfectly thrown.
I especially loved the signed and dated stoneware jar by Dave, the famous slave potter. It holds about eight gallons, a testament to his legendary skill on the wheel. It is covered in a lovely tan, alkaline glaze. There are pieces from the well-known Crolius family, one a particularly wonderful ovoid jug, the elegant swelling form they perfected, plus pots from the Remmey family of Manhattan.
Most remarkable and interesting to me are the pots made by Thomas Commeraw, who was a Manhattan contemporary of Crolius and Remmey. The catalog includes several fine examples. There’s an ovoid jug with an especially nice form, swelling gracefully from a narrow base to a curved shoulder. It features a “heavily-tooled spout, decorated with an impressed and cobalt-highlighted drape-and-tassel motif resembling clamshells.” There’s a stoneware jar with an “impressed Federal Drape Design.” This does not have quite the swell that the jug has, but it does call out to a potter’s soul.
Commeraw’s work has been known and recognized for years, but he was incorrectly assumed to be of French descent. Poring over the census records, Brandt Zipp discovered that Commeraw was a free African American potter with a shop in Coerlears Hook on the Lower East Side from around 1796-1819. Commeraw has become a passion for Brandt Zipp. He has devoted himself to extensive research and now, for the past several years he has been writing a biography of him. Hurry, Mr. Zipp! I want to read it! Surely, once published, the book will give Commeraw his rightful place in not only ceramics history, but American history.
Covering Brandt’s research for the New York Times, Eve M. Kahn wrote in Oct. 13, 2011. “Mr. Zipp has uncovered details about Commeraw’s clients, including black church leaders and abolitionists, and tantalizing hints that the ceramist helped soldiers protect New York forts during the War of 1812. Around 1820, the American Colonization Society sent Commeraw to Sierra Leone to govern a new colony of free blacks. He sent back copious letters about conditions there.”
You can view all of the Crocker Farm catalogs online. If you are interested in early American ceramics, it is worth spending the time to view the catalogs and watch the videos. They are a treasure. Of particular interest are the videos in which Brandt Zipp talks about Commeraw. Plus, he has created a website dedicated to Commeraw. Crocker Farm’s next auction is in July, so we can look forward to that catalog (or bidding if one has the funds), while we await the biography of Thomas Commeraw.
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.
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?