Old-Fashioned Education of a Young Potter

Cover By My HandsOrdinarily, one writes a memoir after reaching middle or old age, but Florian Gadsby, the author of By My Hands: A Potter’s Apprenticeship  is young. Almost 900,000 fans follow his daily posts on Instagram. He has 1.45 million subscribers on YouTube. He  is widely renowned for his crisp, thinly potted tableware. That is enough to get a publisher’s attention, but it is not what makes the book interesting or sets it apart. What By My Hands does, is give us a deep look at a potter’s – Gadsby’s – education.

Gadsby’s serious ceramics education began at the Waldorf Steiner school in Kings Langley. He makes it clear that he is not a disciple of Rudolf Steiner or adherent of anthroposophy, but says he likely would not have become a potter had it not been for the school.  M.C. Richards, the influential potter/philosopher,  was interested in  Steiner’s thinking, especially his thoughts on agriculture. Guy Wolff attended High Mowing, a  Waldorf secondary school based on Steiner’s thinking. where he too became a potter. There is a thread here.

Gadsby shares with us what he is learning,  his questions and observations, his various mishaps. He is writing for his customers as much or more than for other potters, so he explains processes as he goes.

Next, he attends The Design and Crafts Council of Ireland’s Ceramic Skills and Design Training Course, in the Irish village of Thomastown. This is a rigorous two-year program. “The course was focused entirely on teaching practical skills,” he writes, “and taught potters to a very high level, providing them with kilns galore, a glaze laboratory and as much throwing tuition as you could dream of.” There is no room for slacking, and in fact, students who cannot keep up are sent home.  He learns to throw multiple identical  pots to specified shapes, to make glazes, and, ultimately, to fire kilns.

Afterwards he apprentices with Lisa Hammond at Maze Hill in London. In this section of the book, we get an intimate look at this great potter and the inner workings of her studio. We see her soda kilns and how she fires them. She is an exacting task master with high expectations of her apprentices, yet she is also generous with her knowledge and support. Her gift to Gadsby after his three years with her, is a six-month apprenticeship with Ken Matsuzaki in Japan.

Gadsby spends most of his time in Moshiko with Doi, Matsuzaki’s apprentice who was seven years into a ten-year apprenticeship. They begin their days raking leaves in the cold morning hours. Gadsby learns to use a kick wheel, grinds pots, wedges clay, and observes. The days are long. At the end of his apprenticeship, he, happily using an electric wheel,  makes and fires two kiln loads of work for an exhibition. One is filled with Oribe glaze, the other shino. And then, exhausted but elated,  he returns to London to begin work on pots of his own in a studio of his own.

If Gadsby’s goal in writing this book was to impress his customers with how much goes into the education of a potter, how hard he worked to acquire his skills, it succeeds. I think it also succeeds as a deeply personal look at the potter’s craft. And, best of all, it offers wonderful and intimate portraits of two very different – and legendary – potters, Lisa Hammond and Ken Matsuzaki.

 

By My Hands: A Potter’s Apprenticeship, Ten Speed Press 978-1-9848-6358-4

Creativity in the Late Years

The life so short, the craft so long to learn.

Geoffrey Chaucer opening lines, The Parliament of Fowls

Two books, Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again by Paige Dickey, and The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father and Me by Emily Urquhart have had an unexpected impact on me as we enter the second year of the Pandemic. They reflect deeply on creativity and old age. Can you still make meaningful art when your body and perhaps your mind begin to falter?

Neither of these books discusses pottery or ceramics yet they have something to say to anyone who is a maker. Dickey is a renowned garden designer and writer whose showcase garden, Duck Hill, won accolades. Faced with strained finances, and a seventy something body that could not easily do the intensive and meticulous maintenance her garden required, she and her eighty-year-old fellow gardener and husband decided to move and start anew.

The book is about leaving behind a decades in the making achievement. It is about uncertainty and change. This is not about moving to a condo or senior living facility. No, Dickey boldly moved to a seventeen-acre property in Northwestern Connecticut. She makes paths through the woods and fields and plants perennial borders close to the house.  Informality and nature reign, a stunning departure from Duck Hill with its crisply clipped hedges and traditional English garden style rooms, what she called “embroidered ground.”  She throws herself wholeheartedly into this new aesthetic. More importantly she discovers the pleasure of slowing down enough to savor what she has wrought, creating for herself rather than show.

Urquhart’s book more deliberately focuses on questions of age and creativity. She reads, does research, travels and conducts interviews. She tells us that the year Willem de Kooning was diagnosed with dementia, he made more paintings than any other year of his life. Claude Monet was in his sixties and suffering from cataracts when he painted his water lily series. Contemporary critics were harsh on both artists but today we know better.

Urquhart describes her poignant visit to Bruce McCall ‘s studio. McCall, eighty-four and suffering from Parkinson’s, showed her that he could not hold a brush and so could not finish The New Yorker cover he was working on. Unable to paint or draw, but also a writer, he left the unfinished cover on his easel, and instead worked on a memoir ten hours a day. He told Urquhart that he would have nothing left to do if he could not write. Write he did.  How Did I Get Here? came out around the same time as her book.

She tells us that Alice Neel painted her most important works in her seventies and eighties. At the age of eighty, she painted a startling portrait of herself – old and nude. Forty years later, this piece is still radical.

The thread that stitches The Age of Creativity together, the reason for the book, is Urquhart’s father, Tony Urquhart, the Canadian painter and sculptor (her mother is the novelist Jane Urquhart). He draws every day, nearly all day. He works in series. Even while seated at the table for a family meal, he faces a cork board pinned with his sketches and ideas. His knowledge of the work of other artists is vast and intimate. In his eighties, he is diagnosed with dementia. Yet, he continues to make art, to look at art. When he sketches, he is “transported to that unreachable place, the landscape of his imagination, as life carried on all around him.”

Old Potters

Not everyone gets to be old, let alone do one’s work into old age. Luck is a factor. I do not have statistics, but it seems to me that potters who live into their eighties and beyond, usually continue to create.  Many of our legends worked well into their late years: Lucie Rie, Warren MacKenzie, Michael Cardew, Karen Karnes to name a few. Some mastered a new art form, like Beatrice Wood who picked up the pen at ninety, or MC Richards who produced large paintings in her late years. As these two books show, what one does with one’s art late in life varies with the artist, but there is no reason to believe that creativity wanes.

 

The Age of Creativity by Emily Urquhart, 978-1-4870-0531-3, Walrus Books

Uprooted by Page Dickey, 978-1-60469-957-9, Timber Press