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."
By HOLLIS L. ENGLEY
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.