Garden Bells

The other day my granddaughters and I were going through boxes of somewhat tattered children’s books (books their dad and aunt and uncle had read as kids), when I unexpectedly came upon Potter’s Wheel Projects, a staple bound Ceramics Monthly Handbook compiled by the magazine’s editors and Ceramics by Elizabeth Constantine and Lewis Krevolin. I immediately set the treasured Dr. Doolittle down on the floor and opened the Potter’s Wheel Projects. I remembered the books of course, but thought I’d lost them long ago during a move.

I flipped the pages of Potter’s Wheel Projects and smiled at the penguins and owls and cats made of thrown parts, which I’d never had the urge to make. However, there were plenty of projects I had made, carefully following the directions. Now I think the Yunnan cooker might be worth revisiting, as it is a steamer that sits in a saucepan. But it’s the wind bells in the piece by Frank A. Colson that got my attention as I sat on the floor surrounded by piles of juveniles.

My first garden bells were inspired by these wind bells (I still have two of them). They have copper wind catcher tails (there are directions for bathing the copper in chemicals and treating it with heat) attached to the clappers with a size 10 snap swivel which means no matter which way the wind blows, it is caught and the bell rings. Clever.

Ceramics, the other stray book in the box, had bells also. Pictured near the front were three pinch pot bells hung on a suspended tree branch. There was a lot of ceramic bell making during that long ago macramé era of pottery. Bells lined up vertically on strings. Bells as screens. Bells as ornament. Bells as, well, bells.

Thinking about these bells reminded me of the bells May Davis describes in her autobiography, May. I rushed downstairs to my bookshelves to find my copy. Ahh, there it was, a small book with a bright blue cover graced with Bernard Leach’s sketch of May Davis when she was in her twenties.

May and her husband Harry Davis met while working at the Leach Pottery in 1936. Harry was already a highly accomplished thrower (he wrote The Self-Sufficient Potter later in life) and had had experience at a number of potteries prior to joining Bernard and his son David as a thrower. May had run a small pottery from a shed in her parents’ garden. They wed in 1938 and together they built remarkable careers as potters working in England, West Africa, New Zealand, Patagonia, Paraguay and Peru. It was Harry Davis who suggested Michael Cardew as his successor in West Africa.

May and Harry believed pottery should be functional, sturdy, and affordable. Theirs was all that plus exquisitely beautiful. They made dinner sets, cups and saucers, jugs, tea and coffee sets, jars, lidded dishes, serving dishes, bowls, bottles and more all glazed with glazes that Harry developed with materials he mined and processed himself.

May made the bells while they were in Izcchaca high in the Peruvian Andes. Instead of a hole and washer at the top of the bell, as directed by Colson, May’s bells had a little cross piece of clay inside from which to attach the wire for the clapper and a loop for hanging on top. There’s nothing revolutionary about her method but it is much better than the hole and washer assembly. I adopted it when I first read her book years ago.

I had forgotten that May also designed bells with a side loop so a string or chain could be attached and pulled for ringing. I have been thinking about making bells that could hang from a frame made of either copper tubing curved into an arch or large beams from the sawmill, two uprights and one crosspiece. A side loop would be perfect.

May Davis hung one of her bells outside their gate. “I was even able to hang up a row,” she wrote, “and get them to ring in thirds, quite an orchestra.” She was a talented violinist and had almost made music her life before choosing pottery, reasoning a potter could make music at night but a musician could not make pots at night.

I like bells in the garden because sound is an important element in the landscape: the sounds of birds and wind and water that nature bestows and the sounds of chimes and bells that we add. So I make bells for my own gardens and I make bells to sell to others for their gardens. I have one delightful customer who buys herself one or two new bells each year. One day I will go see them.

It’s interesting how things happen, the connections, and the paths that lead us to new places. We take ideas from here and there and make them our own. One book sends us to another. Your thoughts create new and different thoughts in me. My thoughts create thoughts in you.

Eventually, I did get back to the box of kids books with my granddaughters and we found some old favorites of their dad’s and surprised him with them. And I decided to reread May in its entirety, not just the very brief section on bells. She and Harry were amazing people who made wonderful pots. And I am having fun reacquainting myself with them through her book.