Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘weather’
Sunday, December 18th, 2011
I have recently returned from a three-week holiday visit with my wife to the east coast. We stayed in Boston the first week and ended in Charleston, South Carolina the last week. During the second week, we stayed in North Carolina, in the Asheville and Seagrove areas. Judy and I have been there 2 or 3 times in the past. We love to travel to the Seagrove where over 100 potteries exist in a small village and environs. Often the making of pottery is a family affair, involving not only spouses but also their offspring in generation after generation of potters. It is a sort of ceramic paradise on earth. We know several potters there from previous visits. Fall is a special time on the east coast. It was warm and mostly blue skies, windy at times. The thick groves of tall trees were in full fall glory with intense outbursts of red, orange and gold leaves along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Falling cascades of whirling, dancing leaves had made some trees bare while others still proudly displayed flashing leaves of brilliant sun soaked color. There was little traffic on the roads and I could drive our rented car as well as view the lovely landscape. I did have to venture off the paved roads onto dirt roads to reach many of the potteries. City born and bred, to actually drive on a dirt road appeared to me a most dangerous and unwelcome adventure. I blissfully ignored the perils and drove down the rutted rustic lanes to the potential treasures awaiting me.
I can hear the hum of the freeway from my own garden in Glendora but here it is quiet and quite peaceful. I need the cultural resources of a nearby big city, having been born and raised in Los Angeles and living in one of its suburbs for over thirty years. I do value my occasional escapes to the countryside of Britain or rural regions of the United States. In the US, a suburb is often just an appendage to a large urban community; a bedroom community that empties out each workday for the commute to work in the big city. In contrast, a village in the rural countryside is an autonomous and unique community that is historically rooted in the local life of that place. Seagrove is that kind of village. When I went to a local restaurant, it was not like going to a franchised fast food place where I live, where you order food to take home or sit among strangers and eat the food in isolation. Here in Seagrove I noticed neighbors greeted each other when entering the locally owned restaurants, people who have lived their lives in close proximity and have known each other’s families and shared their common experiences from church socials to school assemblies. Does it take a village to raise a child? Am I romanticizing rural life, as I perhaps tend to romanticize potters and their glorious pottery? Or did I miss out on something important and precious in never experiencing rural or village life? What would rural folks say was missing with my urban attitudes and suburban lifestyle?
In “Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine”, Lewis Mumford talks about the very beginning of village life during the Neolithic period. He paints a very positive image of this life. Today of course, all over the world, there has been a profound and significant shift in rural populations moving to the bigger and bigger urban areas of millions and millions of people. What is the world losing here? Do villages today still possess some of the virtues as described by Mumford? He thinks so.
“Wherever the seasons are marked by holiday festivals and ceremonies: where the stages of life are punctuated by family and communal rituals: where eating and drinking constitute the central core of life: where work, even hard work, is rarely divorced from rhythm, song, human companionship, and esthetic delight: where vital activity is counted as great a reward of labor as the product: where neither power nor profit takes precedence of life: where the family and the neighbor and the friend are all part of a visible, tangible, face-to-face community: where everyone can perform as a man or woman any task that anyone else is qualified to do – there the Neolithic culture, in its essentials, is still in existence, even though iron tools are used or a stuttering motor truck takes the goods to market.”
I do wonder and speculate about the vast differences between rural and urban worlds today. What are the differences between rural and urban potters? Can you tell the differences in the pots themselves? Are rural potters inherently more sensitive to nature and the natural environment than urban potters? Aren’t all crafts, in their origins and character, essentially rural activities the world over? Maybe, because of modern technology, everyone is now exposed to what is happening everywhere else and the differences between rural and urban life are not all that different anymore. How do potters explain their choices between living in the peace and beauty of rural life and the contrasting tempting cultural riches of an urban life? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds?
Seagrove does not have a total monopoly on potters and potteries in North Carolina. We drove out to Pittsboro to see Mark Hewitt, an absolutely great potter of huge, magnificent jugs as well as a multitude of containers and vessels. I enjoyed his good company and of course left his lovely rural home, studio and gallery with several wondrous ceramic objects. Mark was able to talk to me while at the same time working at the wheel, spinning balls of clay into highly refined bowls one after the other. In his book, co-authored with Nancy Sweezy, “The Potters Eye”, he defines tradition as a dynamic process, not a static and rigid freeze of something from the past.
Does change, in art as well as life, have to bring disorder? By creating disorder in the artifact, does one gain control over unwanted change elsewhere and thus restrict its impact to manageable proportions? Is any kind of stability and order, in life, in art, in theory, just a fairy tale spun by a most insecure species? Does conformity to tradition promise an illusionary order that exists only in the artifact, not in reality? Do those of us who talk about pottery in particular make a choice of craft over art? Doesn’t everything complex, including people and pots, contain inherent contradictions that enrich the complexity and thus demand forgiveness of the contradictions? For anyone who has ever viewed one of Mark’s jugs or vases, there is no possible distinction between the designations of potter and ceramic artist, craft and art. They are one and the same thing in this person and his pots. He provides proof in his work of my more general assertion that one does not have to abandon or destroy the vessel to become a ceramic artist.
As a potter, is it a false pride to insist that what you are doing has never been done before? In confessing those potters and that pottery that has influenced your own work, are you thereby reducing the claims of your own originality? Why is novelty so prized today in the arts? Why does tradition seem like a dirty word? I cannot go on without offering you a brief quotation from this very thoughtful potter and articulate writer from his book about tradition as an active agent. In his introductory essay, “Tradition and the Individual Potter”, Hewitt makes the case for the value of tradition in art.
“Tradition is good, tradition is beautiful, tradition is valuable. To say so is unconventional and a little dangerous, for as T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, ‘Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure.’ Indeed, tradition is often perceived as a hindrance to individualism and artistic originality. But I agree with Eliot that the opposite is true. In his words, ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists’. Thus we must look to the past to the very roots of our art, to guide us toward new forms of self-expression. Potters and ceramic artists use ceramic history and particular traditions to inform their work, and those traditions inspire rather than discourage innovation.”
I will continue this discussion and my visit to Mark Hewitt and other potters in North Carolina and the village of Seagrove in the next blog.
Tuesday, November 1st, 2011
I have often stated that I have a passionate affection for pottery. It is indeed in the very title of this series of blogs. I must confess, and I know my wife, Judy, will be relieved, that I have never felt real passion for a potter. I know this will disappoint, if not devastate some of my potter friends. Don’t get me wrong. I am really very, very fond of a number of potters I have known for many years. It is a special delight to realize that beautiful pots often come from the same kind of person. I would like to feel that it would be unlikely that a truly beautiful ceramic object could come from a truly unlikable person but I might be a bit naive if I made that declaration. How do potters get along with other potters? Is there a natural rivalry and competition for my attention? Again I will remain within the romance of my illusions, not wanting to know those things that could disillusion me in this regard. Maybe it is a good thing that I don’t take the potter home with the pot. With all that energy it takes to make pots, they probably eat a bit more than the average person and they might find out where I hide my scotch
In my 30th letter from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I discuss my relationship to pot and potter,
“Christa, do I communicate with the potter when I gaze onto the pot? After the point of purchase, the potter does not go home with the pot. Yet I do interact with the author of the text. I question the implied assertion, accept and slide inside the style, hoping to catch the rhythm and mannerisms of language and metaphor. I accompany the author’s journey and surface her argument, seeking knowledge and wisdom for my own purposes. I never surrender my independence, but provide a leap of faith that must eventually be rewarded. To answer my earlier question, I do think I engage the potter as vigorously as the author of the written text; seek to discover the creator’s intention, to locate those imaginative deviations that mark originality, to place the object in context. The potter, fresh in the miraculous creation of the pot, might immediately claim a unique status for that object unmatched in previous ceramic history. As collector and perceiver, I must humble the pot by placement in a communal context that attaches that object to my world. The company of other pottery in my collection does not represent a hierarchy, but does teach that no individual pot or potter has a monopoly on creativity or aesthetic accomplishment.
What is the difference in my relationship to pot and potter? As a friend, you are always welcome in my home. I would even extend that invitation to all the potters represented in my collection. As host, I would try to provide my potter friends with food, drink and exposure to my beloved collection, home and garden. Your pot, in contrast, would join my family. I would take responsibility for the care and safety of that object. Accepted and housed, the pottery cannot cause me pain or disappointment. People are more volatile and uncertain in their possible behavior. This does not diminish the value and need of love and respect for family and friends. The risk is greater. As a teacher, my rewards were in the engagement with students. Whatever the differing degrees of anxiety, I still seek out and enjoy friends and family, the pot and potter. The creation and appreciation of pottery is a manifestation of the complexity and virtue of human beings and human culture. These gifts of the human hand encourage my contact and appreciation of people. I do not have to make a choice. Revealed insecurities do not embarrass me. I consider myself self-sufficient, social interaction does not come from concerns about individual isolation. Reading and art do not require the company of others. The sources of my life preferences and habits can be traced to the origins of my existence. A virtue becomes operational when it successfully compensates for the more obvious inadequacy. It is the inadequacies that give me humanity, it is the virtues that give me grace. Whatever virtuous habits I do possess, including the love of reading and pottery, they reflect both the joys and pain of a long life. I have no reason for complaint.”
I must admit I do so enjoy reading what I have written in the past. I am especially impressed if the portion I re-read was published as text on a printed page from a book with my name on it. Is there an author who would not admit what I have just confessed? Yes, yes, I do occassionaly re-read a passage I have written from my book and am a bit embarrassed and wish I could do it over. Is it similar to how a potter feels about their own work? Surely there must be a surge of pride when you walk into a gallery and see you work on exhibit? Can ceramic artists gaze on their own work and not admire it? I fully understand the high demands and standards artists or writers make of themselves, never fully satisfied and always seeking to improve. I too feel that when I write and will indeed often go back and revise and try to improve a sentence or paragraph. Sometimes it’s a single word I change, sometime a complete sentence, sometimes I simply delete a paragraph and start over. As a collector I am constantly moving my pottery around, always seeking to improve the arrangement of ceramic objects. Sometimes after moving a single object from one shelf to another, or even just turning it around to the side formerly facing the wall, I marvel at what a difference it makes and wonder why I didn’t do it years ago.
In the quote above, I try to explore the idea that I place a single pot in the company of other pots in my home that are initially strangers to that pot. Do potter’s like that idea? That a collector sticks their pot alongside pots from many different potters? Could your pot get lost on that shelf with twenty or more other pots of mine? In a gallery like I have with several hundred other pots all around it? Have you ever been to a collector’s house and seen a pot of yours and your heart sank because you believe it was in the wrong space and with associated in close placement with the wrong pots? I feel that all my pots are equally presented and displayed. I honestly don’t play favorites but rather enjoy all my pots. Admittedly I will sometimes spend a bit more time with a few pots for a day or two, enjoying the discovery of features that I had not fully perceived before in those particular objects. But if a parent would never confess a favorite among their children, surely you would not expect that kind of confession from me. Some pots seem to attract attention because of their size or rather spectacular shape or glaze. Sometimes I am in the mood to fully appreciate that bravado display but there are other times that the subtle variations of a smaller or more refined pot brings other kinds of aesthetic rewards. No, I don’t play favorites and that is the end of that.
I like the idea of placing pots in close proximity that are very different in character and type. For instance, maybe an antique pot that displays a highly disciplined and traditional character sits next to a contemporary pot with maybe a more outlandish attitude; a pot from an indigenous potter showing its local or regional distinction sits next to a highly sophisticated pot no doubt from a potter with at least an MFA from Alfred or some other distinguished institution. I also place ceramic animals from various sources among my pots, plates, cups and other kinds of vessels. I mix them all up, wanting to feature a central claim that I have always made as a collector – that human creativity and genius is not limited to one group or nation or culture – but is inherent and embedded in all groups, nations and cultures. It is this amazing diversity and infinite variety in the ways that diverse personalties and groups express themselves that proves the glory of the hand-created ceramic artifact and comprises convincing evidence of the rich achievements of human culture. I must also claim that all my ceramic objects eventually become friends with each other, relate to each other by their shared space, and compliment each other by their very differences, all coexisting and cooperating in my domestic community of ceramic objects.
I discuss this very idea in this except from my 41st letter from my book,
“This process of haphazard appropriation is essential for my temperament. It was not by accident that my MA thesis was on collage, the collection of disparate and discarded elements at one place on a two dimensional surface. The meaning comes later, after the relationships among the newly situated elements become more obvious. Placement and context invite improbable and novel relationships and alliances. It is difficult to be self-conscious and knowledgeable about the patterns of placement of ideas within my own active mentality. Multiple influences impact me, yet are filtered through a resistant and stubborn persona that eventually takes credit for any summary or results. It is difficult to calibrate or assess their consequence in my behavior. Yet there is a continuity to my attitude toward a number of things. The placement of my pottery within my collection is overt and visible. I do create a visual and physical collage with my pottery, an original composition that occupies each room and all the items within that room.”
Can collectors claim a moral imperative in what they do? After all, isn’t collecting the very essence of a selfish act? I buy art and craft and it becomes my personal property and I take it home where I lock the doors of my home every night before I go to bed. My home is my private space, not a public one. All those artifacts, over 1,200 of them, are reserved for me, my family and invited friends to enjoy. How can I weave a convincing story that changes this reality to a noble one? In this next and last excerpt from my book, taken from my 44th letter, I talk about stewardship and what it means to me. I am totally sincere about this role and responsibility and will continue to argue that the protection and preservation of our cultural legacies is as important as the protection and preservation of our environment. At a time in our society when there is a profound gulf between the pursuit of individual private profit and the collective attainment of civic welfare, this might be a difficult argument to make credible.
“Stewardship is another concept from the environmental literature that has great meaning for this collector. I care about things -I care for things – a grove of oak trees, the pottery in every room of my house. Stewardship is always brief – a lifetime or less, an essentially transient obligation that must be ultimately transferred to others. What we seek to cherish and maintain is under constant threat and carries a finite term of existence due to the mortal limitations of nature or the incidental accidents of history. We seek to lengthen and prolong that existence, believing in their sacred and irreplaceable properties. Nature has inherent recovery systems and can renew itself if our abuse of nature can be discouraged and finally denied. Our cultural traditions and treasures are more fragile. Our devotion demands heroic resistance to those forces that would threaten the endangered subjects under our care. Here the collector can claim a moral function, similar to those who seek to protect the natural environment. It springs from an altruistic dedication that transcend self and self profit, inspired by a transcendent love for the highest attainments of the species, of human civilization.”
I plan to continue this discussion at least in the next few blogs. Summers are interior months for me. Perhaps an hour or two early in the morning in my garden, then a hasty retreat to my air-conditioned house. I read an article or two about global warming in one of my journals while on my exercise bike this morning. Summer is not a good time for me to read articles on global warming. I reach out to a few vases for reassurance and they are still cool to the touch. It seems we are living at a time right now when systems are breaking down – natural, cultural and economic systems. Collectors needs stability as much as investors do. The maintenance of various systems are now global and require intimate cooperation because we have somehow all become interdependent.
Maybe it’s the hot weather impacting my morale but right now I huddle with Judy and my pots within the refuge of our home, uncertain in a world that seems to be growing ever more uncertain around me. I cannot compare my time to the turmoil and tragedy of Edmund de Waal’s family as discussed in Part 2 blog in this series. That story took place in the context of the previous century. The tides of history do not always predict an easy time or guarantee everyone a happy ending. De Waal’s book did demonstrate one thing, collections have their own unique history. This history includes the succession of people who care for them. In contrast to his story of the Japanese netsuke, my pottery collection is still young in its rather brief history and certainly younger than this old collector and blog writer who finds so much joy in taking care of them.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011
What impact does weather have on you? This is not just about whether you need to wear your coat or take the umbrella when you go outside but involves much more than that. Does the weather impact your very soul and morale? I would think what some people call ‘bad’ weather –be it rain or snow or a cruel cold wind, would be good weather for potters. Aren’t potters indoor people? A nice warm studio, maybe a cup of coffee or hot tea, and you can work on that wheel to your heart’s content regardless of what is happening outside. The worse the weather, the more appreciated is that enclosed and insulated studio where you spend so much time and derive so much joy. Do I have it right?
I am going to integrate passages about the weather from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter” throughout this blog. If it turns out long enough, I might even stretch this out to two blogs. Weather is an active agent in the contextual reality of our lives. I make references many times to the weather in my book. I often introduced a letter with comments about the weather. It sets the mood and frames the atmosphere in which I operate and experience all other things.
4th letter – September 1, 2002
“Warm greetings from a very hot place. I sit comfortably at my desk, safely barricaded behind the window, observing the defeated intensity of the sun. No gardening today. Plants don’t do well in this kind of weather. The flowers wilt and the plants do not have the energy to move. No breeze from the bay for us. We wait for relief, dependent upon the uncertain predictions of television weather reports. We live in a valley close to the foothills. The air quality has improved so much that the mountains that formerly disappeared for several months each summer are mostly clear and near now. From the crest of a nearby hill, we can now actually see the placement of our home above the freeway and below the ridge line of mountain ranges We live in a ‘Mediterranean’ climate that is rare in the world. I have compromised this habitat by the placement of dozens of sprinkler heads that allow a lush garden with plants that cannot claim indigenous status. In the abstract, as a matter of principal, I endorse the untouched natural environment as seen in the mountains above me. In practice, I have created a garden environment that could not exist without my constant intervention. I rationalize that this kind of honest confession at least partially excuses the violation.”
Does your pottery also represent a climate? Some pots are warm in their earth colors and glazes, convincing you that the warmth of their colors might also make them warm to your touch. Others seem cool in their soft blue, grey and green glazes, leaving doubt that they ever felt the awful heat of the kiln. Surely a potter should be grateful for that searing heat of the kiln – even if it is unnatural in that it does not emanate from the rays of the sun. What would you do without the fiery hell of that kiln? We know what temperatures are required to make your pots whole. Well, what temperatures do you require to flourish?
I am not an objective or reliable witness regarding the weather. I am a native Southern Californian; any kind of ‘bad’ weather is quite traumatic and upsetting for me. I am content to exist in the almost continuous bubble of moderate, sunny weather. In fact I don’t even like the imposition of weather – it disturbs and disrupts my gardening and represents a general inconvenience. Thus I confess a bad attitude toward weather and seek the more expected and obvious patterns of the sun coming up at a certain time in the morning and a dependable sunset that implicitly promises a sunrise the next morning. I guess it is hard for old people to have their accustomed schedule and habits threatened by the dire warnings of late night TV news regarding their weather predictions for the next day.
I do not think we can establish the claim that there is a perfect weather for ceramic artists. I am aware that they flourish in all climates in almost all regions of the world. I do not know this – it is an honest question – but is the clay or soil better for ceramics in certain areas of the world that might have some relation with the weather of that region? Does earth baked in desert heat make better clay to be baked in the kiln? You must forgive me if these questions seem naive but I must start from my innocent curiosity if I am to learn anything at all. A self-conscious ignorance is the most promising beginning of any active learning. The only thing I really know about the earth beneath me is as a gardener. Where I live in Glendora it is an opaque adobe soil, non-absorbent to water, hard to dig in the summer heat. I use lots of bags of soil amendment when I plant my roses and perennials. Is adobe soil any good for making pots? You would think that someone whose blog is sponsored by a clay company would know something about clay, wouldn’t you?
8th letter – November 10, 2002
“Fall has sponsored the first rain of the season. I am not fond of weather. The very demonstration of weather is traumatic for Southern Californians. As a former teacher, I knew that the shattering impact of rain outside the classroom windows was a dangerous source of discipline problems. In the same sense that fish do not know water, Southern Californians do not know weather. It has rarely intruded in my life. We are encased in a unchanging cocoon that does not allow significant contrasts. The impact of seasons on my garden are blurred and faint. A few leaves falling, plants activated with flowers at different times but blooms in the garden all year around. Variation in heat requires minor adjustment to the interior thermostat that controls the air conditioning unit. The umbrella is stored in the closet, a largely unused and exotic accessory. The weather in Southern California rarely has the power to determine our behavior or plans. It gets very little attention. Our notoriety with others is based on earthquakes and smog, not hurricanes or tornadoes, not banks of snow or flooded rivers overflowing.”
Can you tie the character of people and their culture to their weather? Here we must be cautious in not falling into historical patterns of racism and ethnocentrism in our thinking. There has been an historical prejudice on the part of some northern cultures that people who lived in the hot tropical climes near the equator were more lethargic and indolent. The rise of the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and the accompanying military and economic power of northern Europe might have been a factor in this claim. I wonder how the contemporary expansions and successes of nations like Brazil, China and India square with that old prejudice? Of course the quality of a civilization cannot be calibrated solely by material wealth and GNP. What are the advantages of adjusting to the real weather and living in the honest environment of the weather itself? I hide out in my air-conditioned house in the summer. What I am missing? Maybe people in tropical countries have the right idea in adjusting their life style to the weather. What do you think?
Speaking of that, there is a most interesting contemporary movement, having to do with ‘slow’ food and slow living that is related to environmental concerns. In fact I just found a website called “Slow Food” that is highly informative. They support nutritious, clean, healthy food, grown locally. They also support local small farmers and biodiversity in their corps and the care of the earth. They are a reaction to the ‘fast food’ franchises and industrial agriculture and the growing problems of obesity among youth and the general population. Health concerns are directly related to the kind of food we eat. They sponsor ‘earth markets’ where farmers can form cooperatives in selling their food. They encourage people to grow their own food in community gardens.
10th letter – December 16, 2002
“We are back from Washington, D.C., ready for the family gatherings and rituals of Christmas, adjusting to a series of rain storms after surviving snow and freezing conditions back east. Regional distinctions exist and do matter. They build different kinds of houses and wear different kinds of clothes than we do in Southern California. Things happen to the natural environment back there that is completely skipped in the changes of seasons here. We saw the naked skeletons of trees. I discovered that they are not really dead and there are as many varieties in the forms and twists of their trunks and limbs as in the former shapes and colors of their lost leaves. We visited every memorial devoted to past presidents and heroes of previous wars. Perhaps the evident limitation of space on the Washington Mall for further memorials will influence decisions about future wars. Despite the climate, and with the help of the fine subway system, we visited almost every museum and gallery, paying tribute to art collected from all realms of geography and culture.
When you visit a previously unknown land, it is important to look as carefully at the totality of the landscape as the fixed objects organized for your stare at the museums. The entire world becomes quaint in your voyage of discovery. The people encountered only exist during your visit, surely they cannot live in that weather beyond your own endurance. Because you must actively overcome the prejudices of your own time and place in encountering new experiences, it is valuable that you first observe the ‘other’, whatever that might be, in the innocent bias that allows incredulous astonishment. The heavy price of assimilation and acceptance is to reduce the exotic to the familiar. Few individuals, in my view, are able to consistently renew passionate encounters with familiar objects and landscapes. They are just too comfortable to make the effort. The dislocation of travel inspires fresh insights into your previous orientation.”
How do potters relate to this? Should they join local farmers in protecting the earth and its biodiversity? Aren’t farmers and potters natural allies in protecting and conserving the earth both for the food and clay it provides? Don’t both farmers and potters make their living from the earth beneath them? Isn’t the very act of experiencing ceramic art (or any craft or art for that matter) a ‘slow’ experience? As a gardener, I am willing to join the emerging movement of ‘earth people’ who are grateful for the bountiful gifts of the earth and how they contribute to our well being. Don’t potters have special reasons to celebrate ‘Earth Day’ every year?