Now Brought To You By Studio Potter

Potters like to write about their work. Nonpotters like to write about potters’ work too. And if they are not writing, they are portraying: today in photographs, yesterday in illustration. We see potters depicted firing their kilns on Greek vases and throwing jars on their wheels in ancient Egyptian tomb art. We see bustling workshops in Chinese paintings. Abu’l Qasim of Kashan, an early 14th century Persian explained various aspects of tile and vessel making in his famous Treatise. The great Italian Cipriano Piccolpasso gave us his remarkable Three Books of the Potter’s Art in the mid-sixteenth century, a wonderful book with still relevant drawings and instructions.

Today, there are so many ceramics books published that, unless she does nothing else morning to night, one person cannot read them all. There are memoirs, biographies, instruction books, monographs, histories, exhibition catalogs, stories for children, meditations, and guides for collectors. In addition, we potters have many periodicals to read and write for: Ceramics Monthly, Ceramics Art and Perception, Ceramics Technical, Ceramic Review, Ceramic Making Illustrated, to name a few. One of my favorites has been Studio Potter.

The first issue of Studio Potter came out in the fall of 1972, the project of a group of serious potters who wanted to share information in an ad-free format. I loved those early issues – stapled, without a spine, but beautiful to behold, printed mostly on thick, uncoated paper. There were plans for kilns, photos of potters at work, diagrams of burners, discussions of glazes and tools. The Summer 1973 edition devoted 12 pages to the Brookfield Kiln. Though I built two other very different kilns between then and now, my current kiln is a modified, somewhat enlarged Brookfield based on that early issue, and performs very well. The following summer there were pieces about the potential for solar and methane fired kilns! There was a lot of exploration and experimentation going on.

There were “visits” to potters in various states – Oregon, Texas, Maine, Colorado, California – with black and white photos, usually of the potters in their studios. Over the years, sadly, tributes and obituaries appeared as potters passed. And for awhile the Notebooks section, sometimes impossible to read because the handwriting was so difficult, gave a glimpse into the, well, notebooks of working potters.

During the ensuing four plus decades, Studio Potter added a spine and lots of color, and changed its emphasis from those early years of roll-up-your-sleeves optimism when American potters were trying to figure out how to make a life in clay, to an emphasis on “aesthetic philosophy.” Not all the work shown is functional. Many of the potters are in the academy. The pages are coated and glossy. Issues built around themes. The shape of the magazine is now square rather than rectangular. And, at the back, there are advertisements! Straddling two centuries, Studio Potter has changed and evolved with the times.

This is all a rather long way of pointing out to you that I have a piece in the current issue. It’s called It’s All in Your Head and I have to say, it does feel nice to have an essay in a journal that has felt all these years like a friend. To be honest, I do have two tiny complaints. Somehow two captions got reversed in the design process. However, if you read the piece, it will be immediately apparent that the captions are misplaced. And Joseph Szalay, who took the photographs, is unhappy with the color reproduction. He is a perfectionist and has a very critical eye for color. You would want him to take a photo of your work. Still, it’s nice to be in Studio Potter and I hope that there are potters to write for the venerable journal and potters to read what they write for another forty plus years.

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.

A Psychoanalyst Looks at Craftspeople

Photo by Joseph Szalay

“Paradise is lost; art making is search and rescue.”

Are we crazy to make bowls and cups and platters by hand when large corporate factories can produce them more quickly and cheaply? Is it insanity to spend years mastering a craft when other career options require less training and pay more?

In An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsman Make Their Way, psychoanalyst Janna Malmud Smith (Bernard Malmud’s daughter) does not offer the answers to these questions per se, but she does delve deeply into the minds and working processes of artists and craftspeople. “Because the point of arrival is enigmatic,” she tells us, “elusive, receding, because it waivers like a heat mirage upon the road, always before us only briefly with us, devoting oneself to mastering a practice unexpectedly leads through a time warp where past, present and future commingle. I find the contradictory notion comforting. Contemporary life is all excerpts, fragments, reversals and interruptions; it offends and delights us with its astounding, noisy discontinuity, but the work of mastery is very much as it was when artists thousands of years ago carved Cycladic figures, or cast Benin gold.” (Emphasis mine).

Smith examines the role of shame as impetus in the creative life of artists, and looks at solitude: what it is exactly and how in this era of social media it differs from the past. Is the making of art an attempt at immortality she wonders. As she probes, she uses her own writer’s processes as a lens and relates stories from artists she has known or studied, and anecdotes from her clients. She excavates myths and poetry for clues.

She continues on to such topics as Identity, Ruthlessness (really? us?), Going Public and ends with what she calls Coda. “Often,” she writes, “I suspect, the artist’s awakening follows an arc: from passionate pleasure, to identification with those who have created it, and a wish to become a creator.” She see an emptiness in those who have not found their way to an all engrossing pursuit.

Reading An Absorbing Errand, there is no misunderstanding that it is the work of one who spends her days peering into the human psyche. “Art,” she writes, “…enhances self-display: a flower garden, or anything beautiful we create, is a kind of peacock’s tail.”

Socrates proclaimed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Smith concurs and thoughtfully proceeds to examine the mental and emotional states of practicing artists today and, more interesting for her, those who aspire to make art but find themselves blocked. I imagine readers, upon finishing the book, seeking out discussions and arguments with their fellow artists and perhaps Smith herself if she were available. I know I would love to talk about her ideas with other potters.

Meanwhile, to the first point, I for one am at least just a little bit insane. But that’s okay, isn’t it?