My Guy Wolff Book At Last

There are a half dozen books on my reading pile that I want to tell you about, but, exciting news, at least for me, my new book, Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden is shipping to bookstores now and should start arriving next week. It is, at last, an object that you can touch, pick up and turn the pages and yes, read. And it is beautiful! Between Guy’s wonderful pots and Joe Szalay’s stunning photography, and the excellent design work at UPNE, it is something to behold.

A book lives in one’s head for a very long time, and then there are editors and designers and indexers and sales people, and it is no longer your own, but still, it is not real and for the most part, it remains in your head, and on your computer screen and the screens of your publishers. Until, one day it is printed and bound and becomes real. For Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden, that day has come.

Guy is very well known in horticultural circles where his pots are highly prized. He’s a fast thrower, moving, literally, tons of clay a year. His pots are visually strong, robustly thrown, and connect with people on subconscious and emotional levels. In this biography, I have tried to capture him on the page, using his own words as much as possible. I was fortunate in being able to interview a number of people who shared their Guy Wolff stories – Hannah McAndrew, Todd Piker, Gordon Titcomb, Peter Wakefield Jackson and others, (and thank them immensely). The book is a look at Guy’s life in clay, how he came to be the potter he is, his ideas on the making of a good pot, and the pots and potters, especially the old time potters, that influenced him.

Joe photographed many of Guy’s pots and some of the early pots that he has collected and reveres (they reside in the loft over his workshop). He also brings us into Guy’s shop where we see the pots on his shelves, the tools on his walls, watch him throw, and glimpse his wife Erica’s gardens which feature some of Guy’s very large pots.

I think if you are a potter (and who but potters reads this blog), you will find Guy’s story interesting. If you are a gardener and own or covet his pots, you will enjoy knowing more about the man who made them. There is considerable flowerpot history in the book too, as Guy is an expert on early English and American pottery. I am hoping that even beyond our world of mud and plants, people will find his life by the hand, with its ups and downs, his work for Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, Joe Eck and others, intriguing.

Joe and I will be visiting a number of bookstores to autograph copies. Guy will be at a few special events. A list is on the Event page of my website.

Meanwhile, I have a making list that is long, so I will be in the studio, and the gardens need attention, but I will get to that stack of books that I want to share. My next book project, also with Joe, is on Sunken Gardens, and after that, a biography of a specific pot and the very different ways it has been perceived by various cultures through the years.

Taking A Break with the Bells and Baecher

All day, every day now, for the entire week, I have worked on the Guy Wolff book and pretty much nothing else. There are only six weeks until the deadline, and though it is mostly written, this is the stage with a lot of little details and last minute interviews, and OMG, I have to move that whole section to elsewhere in the book, and what was I thinking, and how do you spell Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata? Actually, that is the correct spelling for the very rare and much prized plant that Joe Eck grows at North Hill in an enormous Wolff pot. Oh, and yesterday I converted the footnotes to endnotes, which is what UPNE my publisher wants and for some reason, all the numbers were turned into Roman numerals! Double OMG.

So to keep myself in the right frame of mind, the book I have been rereading now and then for a short break and inspiration is American Redware by William C. Ketchum, Jr., published in 1991. I’ve had it since it first came out, and though it is aimed at collectors, I have gone through it many times. Those old redware potters sure made nice pots.

Some of Guy’s early American potting heroes are in the book: Anthony Baecher and Samuel and Solomon Bell and others. And yes, there are a few photos of early flowerpots.

Baecher worked in the mid and late nineteenth century in Thurmont, Maryland and later in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He made basic items for everyday use such as cream pots, crocks, preserve jars, and also fancy, heavily decorated pots like sugar bowls festooned with flowers. Plus, he sculpted goats and other animals as well. Today his pieces, especially his little sculptures, are auctioned off for an absolute fortune. Needless to say, and what interests me most with the project at hand, he made flowerpots and vases.

Samuel and Solomon Bell, part of a large potting family that worked in Pennsylvania and Virginia were competitors of Baecher. They were in Strasberg, Virginia a bit earlier and around the same time as he was, and like him, they made little clay dogs and other sculptures. They also made flowerpots, some of which they decorated with manganese or copper on the outside, as well as an array of domestic pots.

I do like the shapes of the old earthen milk pans and jugs, and hump-molded platters. Today, the pots with splashes of copper or manganese dioxide command the highest prices from collectors but I do not like them as well as the kitchen pots that were glazed only on the interior. The simple, everyday pots saw heavy wear and many were lost in use. The fancy pots were more likely to be treated carefully and passed down in a family.

But, enough fooling around looking at photos of antique redware and reading about the potters of the past! Time to get back to work on the book about a very much alive redware potter. And hopefully, I can even figure out what to do about all those Roman numerals.

My Friend Annie Bearing a Gift from Sweden

Yesterday, New Year’s Eve Day, Annie Charters called and wondered if she might stop by. She said she “had something,” for me and also wanted to share her stories of attending a few of the Nobel festivities for Tomas Tranströmer, who, with his wife Monica, is a long time friend of hers and Sam’s. “Yes, of course, come anytime!” I told her and an hour later she was at my front door.

She brought a few photos of herself in a simple black dress with Tomas (who is wheelchair bound after suffering a stroke) at a celebratory luncheon. In 1975 Oyez, a small Berkeley press, published Sam’s translation of Baltics. Almost a year before the Prize was announced Cavern Press of Salt Lake City asked Sam if they could reissue the book. Now the world is clamoring for it. It will contain Sam’s translation and the original Swedish.

Annie had very good news: the book will also contain her black and white photos of the Tranströmers taken that same year, the essay she wrote in 1975 that was never published, and a new essay.  Though best known as the authority on the Beats and Kerouac, Annie’s black and white photos are as widely acclaimed. Her photos of the Beats and of many blues musicians have been exhibited, and were collected in two beautiful books: Beats and Company and Blues Faces: A Portrait of the Blues, (published by one of our favorite still independent publishers David Godine) which she did with Sam. So this new book promises to be very exciting.

“Yes, yes,” you say, “but what did she bring you?”

Lovely beads made by Swedish potter Gertrude Bäge.  Plus three postcards with photos of her pots. The beads are simple tubes with a softly glossy glaze, and causal markings in a goldish brown. Bäge has purposely made no attempt to create identical beads or to carry out any sort of symmetrical arrangement. The necklace is unselfconsciously evocative of the distant past. Taking them in my hands I think of polished bits of bones or shells, a prehistoric gift perhaps, or maybe a string of talismen. Yet, they also seem modern. It takes a sure hand to pull a necklace like this off without making it appear trite.  And the beads are very pleasant to touch. I can see it will be difficult not to fiddle with them when I wear them.

Annie told me that Gertrude keeps a shop that she and Sam love to visit in the old section of Stockholm. “You must come. We will introduce you.”

One day… I promise myself…

Of course Bäge must have a website, I thought as I typed her name into Google after Annie left, but no, it appears that she does not. So, I did what I always do, I perused my bookshelves, and there she is in Raku: A Review of Contemporary Work by Tim Andrews. “Gertrude Bäge fires her raku work at the workshop of Lena Anderson {note: this was in the mid-nineties}. Several times a year, loaded with boxes of bisque-fired plates, she boards a train to the countryside. There the two potters have built an oil-drum gas-fired raku kiln, and the next four days are intensively spent firing a considerable volume of work.”

Andrews also notes that though raku was gaining widespread popularity amongst Swedish potters, many continued to make “traditional Swedish ware of pale colours and perfect finish.” By the looks of her postcards, Bäge produces both.

Happy New Year!

Addendum: I am a list maker and most list makers also make resolutions. I am no exception. My main resolution this year is to complete my book on Guy Wolff for University Press of New England before the September deadline. I will keep you posted on my progress.

Guy Wolff and Isaac Button on Throwing

Some place in this house is a copy of Making Pottery by John Anderson. It should be on the shelves with all the other books on ceramics that crowd my living room, but if it is, my eyes are passing it by. I hope I am not becoming like my now deceased friend Francelia who in her later years, had to keep buying copies of the same books because she was never able to find her copy when she needed it. Sigh.

I am looking for it because, as I recall, it had a bit on Isaac Button. Button, sometimes called the “last true country potter” in England, operated Soil Hill, near Halifax England. He could and did throw a half ton of clay a day, swiftly making hundreds of repeat shapes – jugs, flowerpots, crocks, cider jars and so on. His ability to throw fast and large is astonishing to us today, but was typical of the way old time country potters worked. Fortunately for us, a few years before he died, John Anderson and Robert Fournier filmed him.

I drove out to Guy Wolff’s pottery on Friday to interview him some more for the book project. Wolff is also a repeat thrower and throws fast and large. Toward the end of the interview, he mentioned how much he liked the Button video. So, before beginning work on the chapter I am writing, I watched the video again myself (thanks YouTube) and then searched futilely for the book.

The film is over 40 minutes in its entirety, but here is an extract of Button throwing.

And here’s Guy Wolff.

Auricula Theaters


The other day I was on bookstore business in West Hartford, so, being just a few miles down the road, I slipped over to Farmington for an hour to hear Steve Silk talk about the Sunken Garden at Hill-Stead. It was the first of Hill-Stead’s three-day May Market, so white tents filled with horticultural goods surrounded the beautiful farmhouse mansion designed my Theodate Pope Riddle for her parents.  There were perennials and shrubs, look-at-me straw garden hats that could only be worn to a party but that were attracting a lot of attention, antiques, paintings, whimsical cement statues, bulbs (I bought three Mondriaan Oriental lilies), jewelry, and amazing scanner photography by Ellen Hoverkamp.

But I was not there to shop. I am of course including the Beatrice Farrand garden at Hill-Stead in my book on sunken gardens and was interested to hear what Silk, a garden designer and writer and world traveller, had to say about it. He made it clear that he was not going to talk about the plants or even much about the history of this notable garden but “share his impressions.” We (the audience) sat in the shade of the summerhouse in the center of the garden. The talk was worth listening to, and I took a few notes. After a walk around the garden, I headed to the edge of the lawn on my way to the field where my truck was parked.

That’s when I noticed the lovely, rustic Auricula Theater with pots by Guy Wolff. Wolff is the subject of my other writing project. I could not believe my luck. I realize it’s a bit self-serving to be writing about books I am working on instead of reading, but really this was quite a day.

Auricula Theaters are tiered displays of primroses in pots. They probably originated in 17th century France or Belgium and spread to the rest of Europe, particularly 19th century England. They were designed as a way to show off one’s collection of these colorful mountain gems and give them some protection from harsh wind, rain and sun. They could be simple affairs, with open boxes such as the Hill-Stead display, but wealthy estate owners often created elaborate Auricula Theaters with fancy woodwork, gold leaf, even curtains and painted backdrops. They have lately regained popularity. In fact, the April issue of Gardens Illustrated features one.

However plain or fancy the theater, it’s the pots with the primroses that are the show. Wolff, surely the most important horticultural potter working today, has interpreted the Auricula Pot for the Hill-Stead.  His pots, perfectly sized for the bold yet diminutive flowers, are subtly flared with thickened rims. They are show showstoppers. The volunteers told me they were selling very well.

Visions of Auricula Theaters appearing in gardens all over New England popped into my head as I pulled my truck onto the highway. I suppose though, many people will keep just one or three Auricula Pots rather than a theater full, or even plant something other than a primrose.

No matter.

What I really like about the Auricula Pot, and Wolff’s in particular, is the idea of the humble flowerpot as drama. Not the prop; half the show. Yes.