Saturday, July 24, 2010

Making small cups

I've been making cups the past couple of days. Handled cups. Sort of small coffee cups, quickly made with wonky cut rims and beefy footrings. I make plenty of mugs - bigger, flat-bottomed, more capacity - but a few weeks ago started making these small things, really not much more than small teabowls with pulled handles. I fired a few in the kiln a few weeks ago and sold some to Kathy at Cataumet's Daily Brew. Kathy uses my mugs to serve coffee to her customers; she also sells them.
She liked the new smaller ones and told me she'd like to see some in the copper red of her own favorite mug. I use the red, but sparingly. Scares me a bit, like any kind of blue. But Kathy pays cash for mugs and cups, so that set me off on a couple of days of throwing and handling these smaller cups.
There's something a bit more personal about them than the bigger mugs. The handles are one-finger, once in a while two-finger. Smaller in capacity, easier to cradle in the hand, they feel less formal somehow. One that came out of the kiln a month ago was perhaps my favorite all-time cup. It had exactly the right curve to it, fat-sided but coming in a bit at the uneven rim, two-finger handle, a pale white Shino glaze with traces of light brown where it's thin. I drank coffee from it through the whole Arts Alive weekend and spent a lot of time looking at it to figure out why it appealed to me so much more than others. Sunday evening, rushing to pack up and get away from the show, I knocked the cup on the pavement and destroyed it.
You know, that happens more than I'd like to admit, and I usually don't care for much more than a minute. Stuff happens. But I really liked that cup. That may be part of what's driving me to make the 40 or so of the past couple of days. That and a couple of shows coming up.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"A Virtual Community," from Studio Potter

I thought I would post my unedited version of "A Virtual Community," the story about blogging potters that I wrote for the current issue of "The Studio Potter," for those who don't see the magazine. Meredith Heywood and I worked together last winter on the genesis of this piece, hoping that the magazine would pay attention to the blogging phenomenon and the upcoming October show in Southern Pines, N.C., called "Clay and Blogs: Telling a Story."
And they did indeed pay attention, with editor (and potter) Mary Barringer carefully reading and critiquing the two versions of the piece that I wrote. Mary and her crew did a great job polishing the resulting story and turning it into a fine layout with the accompanying images from a number of potters. The whole issue is terrific.
I encourage you to subscribe to the magazine, not least because good people edit it, but also because we need serious journalism on this clay thing that we do. Go to to subscribe. Here's the story:


I am a blogger, and have been for about two years. But you won’t hear me on MSNBC or Fox. I don’t write about the health care debate, foreign policy or domestic politics. There are plenty of people doing that.

I write about pots.

More specifically, I write about my own pots and the process that brings them about - making them, glazing and firing them, selling them, living as a potter..

So, though I don’t write about the Tea Party, I certainly do write about (and photograph) teabowls and occasionally teapots. And sometimes I write about how hard it is to go into the studio on a damp Cape Cod February day, or to pack for a craft show in August.

I complain, I whine, I exult, I muse, occasionally I show off when a firing has produced particularly good pots. I do all this for no pay, other than a response from readers.

And, remarkably, people write back to me by commenting on my blog. Most of them are also potters. Tracey Broome, Michael Kline, Ron Philbeck, Meredith Heywood and others all write back from North Carolina; Hannah McAndrew writes from Galloway, Scotland; Dan Finnegan from Virginia; Doug Fitch from Devon in the U.K.; Angela Walford from Adelaide, Australia; Brandon Phillips from Texas; Maria Bosch from Barcelona, and many more.

They all write back because I respond to them on their own blogs. We are part of a web-based community of blogging potters; women and men who two or three times a week write about our lives in and out of the studio, about our pots and businesses, dogs. children and evening meals. And we read others’ blogs. It is as if we met every day at a table in the local coffee shop. Through our blogs we have become friends.

“Most of us started this as a marketing tool,” says my friend Meredith Heywood, from her home in Whynot, N.C., where she makes pots with her husband Mark. “But it’s not that now. It’s more of a network for clayworkers. The relationships have become deeper. I feel closer to you than just that blip on the screen.”

I have never actually met Meredith, in the 20th century sense. Or Doug Fitch, or Tracey Broome, or Paul Jessop in England. But I drink coffee here at the computer from one of Doug’s slipware mugs and I use one of Paul’s big earthenware tankards during throwing sessions in my studio. Paul has a couple of my teabowls and so does Tracey. Brandon Phillips and I traded teabowls last fall. Hannah McAndrew started a Secret Santa movement among us last Christmas; mugs and bowls criss-crossed the oceans for weeks in the international mails.

And now more than 50 of us will come together in October in the form of the pots we make in our far-flung studios. “Clay and Blogs: Telling a Story” will open at the Campbell House in Southern Pines, N.C., on October 1. The show runs through the month, along with an online presence. It is coordinated by Meredith, who came up with the idea in the aftermath of a fire that destroyed the studio she shares with Mark.

“After we were back working in our newly rebuilt studio I had an opportunity to curate a show at one of the local arts councils,” she says. “The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to ask potters who I had met though their blogs to join me. I also wanted this show to bring into focus the connections being made within this community of clay workers who blog. My thoughts about the show were to do the asking in layers. Kind of like making a pot; I wanted to first ask the potters in my own community who were writing their own blogs and then ask them to suggest someone else and so on. The first potter I wanted to ask was Tom Gray (of Seagrove, NC). Tom had been posting to his blog for a number of years and had been very supportive and encouraging of my early post. In fact, it was a conversation with Tom which gave me the name for the show. When I asked him, he said, ‘We are telling stories.’ So the name of the show became “Clay and Blogs: Telling a Story.”

From there, with North Carolina blogging potters suggesting other bloggers outside the state, the list of show contributors increased.

“I was amazed at how quickly my numbers grew. It did not take long to have 35 potters tell me yes,” Heywood says. “At that point I felt it was okay to announce the show. While I was putting a database together more suggestions came in and I continued to ask others. I finally capped it off at 50. Now, we have 51 potters with a wide variety of styles and voice.”

The common voice in this group, though, is the supportive one. It is the remarkable thing about this community, across the full spectrum of geography, gender, age, style and years spent making pots. I’ve been a part of other online clay forums. You can find unpleasant things in some of them - crankiness, nastiness, hurt feelings, bad tempers, rampaging egos and general pissed-offness. In the past two years blogging, I have seen no one - and I’m not kidding here, I mean NO ONE - ever tell another potter or lover of pottery to butt out of a discussion, or seen anyone criticize a firing method or speak down to someone with less experience.

This might be because we put our pots and our methods and our frustrations out to the world on our own blogs.

“I am really putting my whole life out there on the internet for anyone to read,” says Ron Philbeck, who has blogged since 2005. “It’s exciting to do that.”

Philbeck posts “about most everything I do around here, including cooking, yard work, pets, fears, worries, frustrations, passions, travels, my wife Sarah, journaling, drawing. So the blog became this big thing, bigger than I expected it would.”

When I unload the kiln here on Cape Cod, I take the dozen or so pots that I like best and photograph them, putting them on the blog that day. But, as I did recently, I also show the disasters. In March, I photographed a pile of shards that only a few minutes before were four or five vases sitting on a table, about to be glazed. It had been a bad day from the start and kicking the table and upsetting pots only made it worse. I was not happy about sweeping up the bisqueware, but decided to photograph and write about it because I suspected everyone has those days, even the veteran potters. And that’s what I heard when people commented on the sad and dusty little pile.

“It’s days like those when you should just walk away,” said Angela Walford from Australia.

“Thank God for bloggers,” Tracey Broome wrote from North Carolina. “We all have those days and no one else would understand if you tried to explain it.”

A week later, Michael Kline was in the midst of loading his Carolina wood kiln late one night when a storm blew up.

“My kiln shed is pretty big, but it doesn’t have siding and is completely open to the weather,” he wrote. “When the rain comes down ... everything gets wet. And it did that night around nine p.m. I couldn’t cover the pots with tarps, because the wind would gather up the tarps and sling the pots away.

“I just held on and prayed that the storm would pass quickly. It didn’t. ... Very high winds and lashing rain continued.”

Michael’s blog post continued on past his usual few paragraphs, telling of a nightmare night in the woods - a flying shed roof, cracks of thunder, power outages, emergency power crews down the road and the realization as he bricked up his kiln door that it was gradually spreading apart and would need even heavier chinking than it had the last firing. Time to work out yet one more problem before the next firing.

And then three days later, the storm long past and the firing complete, Michael posted photos taken through kiln ports of his distinctive pots, still hot, but just fine inside the kiln.

That kind of exposure - of technique, difficulty, uncertainty, frustration and finally success - is what characterizes this transnational community.

Hannah McAndrew makes slipware pots in what she calls “the middle of nowhere,” in Galloway, Scotland. “I love the fact that I can get feedback and encouragement, which we all need. I love the fact that I have made potting friends across the globe which I could never have dreamed of doing prior to blogging. It makes you feel far less alone in the big world. I know I'm not really alone but sometimes it can get to feel that way -can't it? - especially in the depths of winter.”

Last year, Ron Philbeck went to the United Kingdom with his wife, to put faces to the names he knew from blogging. Philbeck had recently switched from high-fired stoneware to making slipware pots and got help from a group of slipware potters in the U.K. Matt Grimmitt, Doug Fitch, Paul Jessop and Hannah McAndrew are all regular bloggers and fine slipware makers. “I knew a lot of potters here in the U.S.,” Philbeck says, “but it’s been great to meet new ones via the blog and especially to meet the ones in the U.K. Andrew Douglas and Doug Fitch were the first two potters abroad I met via the blog. I found Andrew’s blog by chance and we became friends, soon Doug chimed in and now we all keep in good touch with each other and have met in person. Same with Hannah McAndrew; she came on board with us and we are like a family now, just spread out, but connected.”

It’s taken me a few days to write this piece. While I did that, I sneaked away from the keyboard a couple of times, once to photograph my wife, Dee, painting the trim in what will be our new gallery space. I posted her photos on the blog. I also posted a photo of local hardshell clams and a recipe for clam chowder, requested by a couple of people commenting on an earlier blog post.

So, it’s not all pottery that shows up on our blogs. But it’s all about what makes up our potters’ lives.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On my front step ... one barn, four magazines

I peeked outside early this afternoon to see what was happening out on Boxberry Hill Road and my eye was caught by a couple of things stacked on one corner of the front step. They might have been there since yesterday; we were down-Cape and returned after dark last night. At some point yesterday or this morning, the postman brought a package of Studio Potter magazines and a box from Chapel Hill, NC.
Both were lovely surprises. If you haven't yet seen the latest SP, you should, especially if you're a pottery blogger. Meredith Heywood, of Whynot Pottery in NC, and I worked together on a story I wrote about blogging potters and the upcoming "Clay and Blogs: Telling a Story" show in Moore County, NC, in October. The editors did a great job laying out the story and including a number of photos of pots done by people in the show. The main photo layout is in the image above.
The box from Chapel Hill had Tracey Broome's name on it and the word "Fragile" rather prominently and numerously all over it. I suspected what was inside. Turns out it was indeed one of Tracey's beautiful handbuilt barns. In fact, it's her very first, which I know is a difficult thing to let go. Thank you, Tracey, I love it. I had figured I might buy one when we come down for the blogging show in October. Now it lives on a table in our dining room, flanked in this photo by a pot of mine and a teabowl of Phil Rogers. If you don't know Tracey's barns, take a look at her blog in the column of blogs to the right, under "A Potter's Life for Me." This first one has led to a community of lovely vernacular clay architecture in miniature, her translations of the barns of the Carolina countryside.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Why I do craft shows and art fairs ... why do I?

When someone asks me how I sell most of my pots - and people do ask that question a lot - I usually say, "Well, we have a gallery at our place, but I don't see many people there, and that's OK. And I have things in a few shops around Falmouth, but that's not a great amount of sales. Ummmm ... mostly I do craft and art sales from June into the autumn, Falmouth, Marion, Welfleet, Chatham, Charlestown, a few others. That's where most of my income comes from."
That seems to satisfy people, though I suspect it doesn't sound like enough income to make up much of a "living." The kind of living people expect of a working person, anyway.
Any working craftsperson or artist who sells at art fairs knows that most of them are a roll of the dice.
1) Economic times may be bad and people may not be spending money (like the past couple of years, for example ... ).
2) The weather for warm weather outdoor shows is a constant worry; the second day of the Wellfleet Oyster Fest last year resembled a hurricane more than anything other than an actual named hurricane. Most of us broke down Saturday night and went home in the wind and rain, giving up on a usually lucrative Sunday.
3) The crowd might not be your crowd. Last summer's three-day art and craft fair in Chatham drew thousands and I did pretty well, but the stunningly wonderful prints of the New York man opposite me never moved off the walls of his tent. He wasted his time, his entry fee and his meal and living expenses for about $200 in sales. You just never know ...
Which brings me to this past weekend in Marion, a small and relatively wealthy yachting center on Buzzards Bay, across the water from Cape Cod. The one-day annual show in a lovely little town park is run by and benefits the local art center. Nice people running the show, lots of nice people wandering the paths of the park, looking at paintings, pots, plaques, carved fish and birds, jewelry, felted sweaters, wooden bowls, the usual assortment of handmade work.
I've done this show for the past three or four years, as long as it's been going on. And I've usually done reasonably well. Not this year, though. At least, not income-wise. And that's why I'm writing this.
With expenses to get to the show, time spent packing, unpacking and traveling, chicken salad sandwich for lunch, breakage (lately I've been breaking pots ... ) entry fee and 10 percent to the art center after sales, I just about made money. I'm used to that happening now and then, but it always makes me wonder whether I should continue to do a show when there seems to be so little ... ummmm ... inventory movement. Especially if other potters at the show are doing well.
But here I go back to Reason 3 - "the crowd might not be your crowd." There were two people who came to my tent Saturday who were, I think, "my crowd." One woman spent a half-hour comparing one small irregular-rimmed poured-Shino bowl to another wildly irregular and unbalanced faceted poured-Shino bowl which I almost didn't bring with me. She would hold one up, then the other, then the first, then the second ... on and on like that for 30 minutes. "I love these. I LOVE these," she said. "I have the perfect place ... " Finally, she decided on the smaller of the two bowls and reluctantly left the other behind, but very happy that she had bought the smaller bowl.
A short while later, I saw another woman come into the park and recognized her as someone who had come to my tent each of the past three years. She worked her way clockwise around the tents and finally arrived at mine. We know each other a little now, after talking a few minutes each year for the past few. She always picks up many pots, spends long minutes looking at the glazes and the shapes, asks many questions about how they came to be, and always buys something. Usually, it's a bowl. The same thing happened this year. She was in my tent for about a half-hour, looking at and asking about Shino- and ash-glazed pots. Why was the rim uneven like this? How do you get the iron-red spots on the gray glaze? What is this glaze? Why did you start making pots? She smiled the whole time and genuinely wanted to know the answers to her questions. "Your pots just have a ... feeling," she said. And I took that to be a good thing.
She ended up buying three pots, my biggest sale of the day. But believe me when I tell you that her purchases were the least important part of her coming into the tent. For 100 people we get who walk in, sweep their eyes across the pots and then leave, mumbling, "Beautiful work ... " we might get one woman like these two, people who seemed to truly connect with the pots. As I was packing up in the sudden downpour a short while later, I knew I hadn't made much money, but I was thinking to myself that that kind of encounter with a buyer or two who clearly just love what I do is probably enough to keep me doing the show.
(Above, a few of my pots from recent years, just to have some photos on this post ... )

Friday, July 9, 2010

A podcast from Japan, and apologies to Meredith ...

OK, first off ... I apologize to Meredith Heywood for simply blanking on her name in the middle of an interview I did yesterday with David Morrison Pike, an American ex-pat who works as a potter in Nara, Japan. I have this brain-cramp thing that happens sometimes and it happened yesterday when Dave and I were talking about pottery blogging. I believe I call her in the podcast "a woman in North Carolina," which is true as far as it goes, but ... I mean ... come on ... I KNOW this woman. And did I think to mention the October show of blogging potters? Nooooooo ... jeez.
So, OK, aside from those two things, this might be an interesting thing to listen to if you're curious about how another potter does his work or prices his work or sells his work or got his influences or the sound of my voice or ... anything else I could say in 40 minutes.
Dave's a good guy and makes good wood-fired pots and certainly is in an interesting place to be a potter. And he likes to talk to other potters and find out what makes them do what they do.
You can find the podcast here ...
And I'll put a couple of Dave's pots up top so you can see a bit of what he does.
And again, sorry, Meredith ...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Heating up an already hot day on Cape Cod

Temperatures here on the Cape have varied from the high 80s to the mid-90s over the past few days. What better time, then, to fire a load of pots and push up the local thermometer ever farther? So for the past few hours, temps in the studio have lingered up around 120 degrees F. I don't spend much time in there when I'm firing, especially in the summer. Just long enough to turn up the gas and check cones, then I'm outa there.
I turned the gas flame on low for an hour, starting at about 8:30 p.m. and then did the routine hourly turn-ups and body reduction and so on, up until about 2:30, when cone 10 was down at the top and bending at the bottom. That was shutdown on another six-hour or thereabouts firing. I left the studio doors open to dissipate the heat and went into town for an iced coffee and a bit of reading at Coffee Obsession. That post-firing coffee - hot in winter, cold in summer - is a routine I enjoy. And the afternoon is usually a less chatty time in the coffee shop, so real reading can be done.
Yesterday I took a break from glazing to photograph some of the summer flowers Dee has growing around the yard. And I ran into another worker there on the echinacea, undaunted by the heat, doing his job.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Back after a blogging pause ...

Summer's here on Cape Cod. I know for a few reasons: First, the lines are ridiculously long at my regular morning coffee shop, with lots of young parents and children visiting from across the bridge. Second, I got my first "f--- you" Friday from a speeding pickup truck with New York plates. Third, Dee's two sisters are visiting, Marcy from New Mexico and Ellen from New York state. (No, Ellen wasn't the one who yelled from the pickup.) Ellen is staying here with us, Marcy is in a yurt in a campground in Sandwich. Anyway, welcome to summer.
I took a sort of unintentional blogging break for the past couple of weeks, mostly because I felt I didn't have anything to say that I hadn't said before. I'm making pots, faceting bowls, weighing out clay, talking to the occasional drive-up buyer, getting ready to fire a kiln in the next few days, sneaking in a few hours of World Cup football so that I can keep up with my UK friends.
I'll fire maybe Wednesday or Thursday. Lots of mugs and creamers in this load. A couple dozen mugs went off last week to Dana's Kitchen, where they're already doing heavy coffee duty with visiting breakfasters. Got to get a few more to Kathy at the Daily Brew in Cataumet.
Three more World Cup games left. My choice is Spain or the Netherlands.
Photos are a few greenware pots lined up and drying a couple of days ago.