Thursday, December 31, 2009

New York City

The combination of people in New York City really is incredible. I drove up to the Big Apple after Christmas this year and experienced NYC like never before. Every street, every neighborhood looked like Times Square; the city was packed. The streets were thick with bundled faces, some meandering, some purposefully pursuing. I tried to keep track of the number of languages, the number of nationalities or different states but after only two days, I lost count.

To see so many faces, various shapes, big noses, little noses, almond eyes, round eyes, wide mouths, big lips, no lips, huge hair, dyed hair... not to mention the fashion or styles people chose to cover or compliment or accentuate those features... I was as overstimulated as an artist could get! And to think that all of these features, natural or donned, stem from different backgrounds and cultures and experiences.

That combination of people brings out an amazing array of creative outlets that could not be showcased anywhere else the way it was here. Walking from Madison Square Gardens through Central Park to The Plaza, I experienced a trio of hilarious, energetic young men doing a stand up comedy routine with jokes said in unison and feats of gymnastics thrown in. We also saw a group of artists drawing people's portraits with charcoal in 2 minutes, a man selling Obama condoms, Statue of Liberty impersonators taking photos with tourists, Santa's looking lost, Toy soldiers enthusiastically managing and entertaining a line of frozen parents and crazy kids about a half a mile long for F.A.O. Schwarz, a ragged man playing beautiful saxophone holiday songs, a man in bare feet trotting through the crowds, a group of drummers and dancers celebrating Kwanzaa with ancestral beats, chants, and awesome shimmies and stomps, and a man in shorts and a tank top and gloves up to his armpits running 5 minute miles through the crowds. Through all of this, conversations, food smells, and faces around me were Russian, French, African, Spanish, Korean, Chinese...

If you've not had the opportunity to travel much, NYC (or London, I hear) is, you might say, a great bang for your buck. You get a HUGE variety of pretty authentic experiences from around the globe in one place. Aurthur Schopenhauer, an early 1900's philosopher wrote a number of essays now collected in a volume called "Studies in Pessimism." I read a quote from these essays where Schopenhauer says,
That is a strong encouragement to broaden one's own vision in order to better understand fellow man and the world in which we live. Reading, traveling, in conversation, art, fashion, food, work; all of these experiences

Sunday, December 20, 2009

House Beautiful

"Believe me, if we want art to begin at home, as it must, we must clear our houses of troublesome superfluities that are ever in our way, conventional comforts that are no real comforts, and do but make work for servants and doctors. If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

-- William Morris, 19 February 1880 --

Friday, December 18, 2009

Posts from a Spanish Diary: # 3 An escape to Milano!

While in Spain I met a great friend of mine, Abigail, in Milan, Italy. Italy ... oh Italy. What an amazing place, from the food to the fashion to the beautiful people to the passions running rampant! While I don't know from personal experience, I hear that Milan is quite different from the rest of Italy. Oh but it was still Italy. The Italians win for best language, hands down. The price of fashion and the amount of people who spent that much made me a little sick but, oh, was it beautiful!

Abigail travels to and from Africa frequently and keeps a blog (what a different life on that continent!). She recently posted about our trip to Milan here. If you are interested, you can read more about Africa as well.

Enjoy a little escape to Italy through those pictures and I have a few more here: Sarah's Italy photos. Also check out the awesome photos taken by Christopher Sabatini, our host. He is a photographer in Milan and wow, does he do a beautiful job. He captures the essence of a person so well. There are two links: Abigail and Sarah & the Photo Shoot.


The Holiday momentum is gathering and snow droops lower and lower in the sky. This time of year is so full but if you have free vacation time or visitors in town looking for something to do, check out some of the great exhibits in DC right now!

The American Art Museum

The Corcoran Gallery of Art has a wonderful looking show on Sargent and the Sea right now.

If you see any of these or any others, please share!

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Roger Scruton is a British philosopher with a tall mess of strawberry blond hair and an English fashion sense. His patterned suit coat, patterned shirt, and patterned tie played wonderfully into the British stereotype. That being said, his lecture did anything but.

This past week I went into DC to a beautiful club for Scruton's lecture on Beauty. Scruton is boldly breaking from modern aesthetic philosophy on beauty to say that it is absolutely necessary, that it is about redeeming human life and making this world livable. I found the lecture very encouraging and thought provoking. I will try to give a coherent picture of his lecture (I'm going to quote him periodically. He was free with his language so I'm sorry if it is offensive to anyone):

He started by noting that beauty is not paid attention to much these days, saying that there is "nothing which to raise your eyes." In the world of art, he went on, beauty has been neglected; we are stuck in a moment in which art is not the pursuit of beauty but the desecration of it. He called this the tragedy of modern life and by neglecting beauty we produce ultimately useless things. We can see this in the buildings built and torn down without thought in contrast to the buildings that we want to save. Why? Because pure function "resigns things to oblivion."

One of my favorite points of the lecture came after this introduction. He clarified beauty to be beyond just "art". Scruton thinks of beauty and its place in the lives of real people; where does beauty fit in the lives of ordinary people? He envisioned a table set for dinner, an easy image to conjure at this time of year! The arranging of the items, the making of the food, the inviting people to participate ... its not just a matter of food in the belly. With that image in mind, contrast it to much of art today: not inviting others in; "its ME on display and f*** you if you don't like it." In the Q&A time afterwards a gentleman in the back asked Scruton to define beauty. Scruton gave a wry smile and said that that is like trying to define "red". Beauty is defining "a state of mind in the objects, the arragnging of the world so that you are at home in it."

So why is it, Scruton asked, that our tastes in ordinary things like food are not argued about but accepted as part of a person but with beauty we want to discuss what we like and why. He claimed that it is because these are things that actually can demean the human condition which matters incredibly to you, being part of humanity. The desecration of beauty is oppressive and being oppressed, there ought to be some discussion about this!

At this point I connected this to why there is a noticeable lack of interest in/engagement with art today: not only because the artist is not inviting the viewer in but because this needed "discussion" mentioned above is a difficult and blurry path to go down.

Scruton gave some interesting thoughts on education, saying that there should be some education in producing the things that entertain us, giving us a foundation of knowledge upon which to base an opinion of what we listen to, look at, enjoy, etc. And that way, he claimed, there might be some agreement in community of what entertains us.

Well, where does the desecration of beauty/humanity start? Scruton had what I thought was a great point, that it starts with the ruling thought that "I am alone." That is the downfall.

Well, I am not alone! And I hope that provoked you to some thoughts on beauty and humanity as well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Local Idea

Where are all of the artists!? Some times I ask myself that as I wander Northern Virginia. I know they are out there, hiding amongst the sprawl of the suburbs but finding them is the trick. There are non artists too who would love to support a local artist but how do they find them?

Well, I've stopped wondering and being frustrated and am answering those questions and problems with SYLA: Support Your Local Artist. SYLA is a free local connector for artists and non artists alike. I want to provide an easier way for artists to find kindred spirits and for non artists to know where and how to support local artists and own original local art.

SYLA will provide
- bios to know WHO creates art in your area,
- a directory to know WHERE to purchase local art,
- a description of mediums to know WHAT is being created in your area,
- and a calendar of events and shows to know WHEN artists are on display.

I also wanted a sense of depth in the artists we promote so I've established a mission statement for SYLA:


To promote connectivity, artists with artists and the local community with artists. We are comprised of artists dedicated to creating beauty which strives for three things:

1. To uplift humanity
2. To promote communication
3. To encourage the general public to re-engage with Art, sensing a lack of engagement today.

Check it out!
Since this is a free public service, I'd love to hear feed back as I develop the idea. Email with questions or comments:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A.S. Byatt

My sister posted a great quote from A.S. Byatt, a contemporary British author. I thought I'd share it too:
On Ceramics

"Early humans shaped and scraped clay to make vessels, cooked in them and realised they hardened, learned to make them impervious to water, and also to decorate them, with incisions and with glazes made from salts and metals. All pots are different, and all resemble each other (except for some defiant modern monsters). They are made elementally, using earth, air, fire and water. They represent the arts of peace, domestication, and elegance, whether of pure simplicity of form or of bravura demonstration of difficult mastery of techniques and images. They are where art meets craft, the useful meets the beautiful."

-- AS Byatt, "The Wonders of Porcelain", The Guardian. October 10, 2009.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Posts from a Spanish Diary: Entry #2

At Masia Albadas (the name of Seth's home in Spain), the natural beauty of the surroundings completely captured my heart. I still wake up and think about walking outside to my terrace to look out at the mountains, almond and olive groves, red tile roofs, stone walls, and dry river bed. When I got to Spain in August the heat from the day remained in the terra cotta tiles on the terrace. This made for a warm surface to lay on at night and look at the stars which were deeply layered in the dark sky.

The interesting thing about this natural beauty is that while it was inspiring in some respects, I lost any interest in taking a sketchbook outside to draw. Maybe I was too overwhelmed. Maybe I saw a lot of stereotypical elements in my drawings when I did attempt it. I don't know. The further I am removed from Spain, the easier it gets to think about drawing it. So perhaps some line drawings will emerge eventually but for now, Spain stays in my heart.

This video is taken from a little hill down the road from Seth's house. Seth's is the stone house directly above the bend in the dry river bed (under my finger!) at the very end of the video.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Posts from a Spanish Diary: Entry #1

Since I had limited computer access and was not able to post all that I wanted to while in Spain, I will do periodic "Posts from a Spanish Diary".

The first is a series of videos of Seth putting his three piece pots together.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I walk amidst the leaves of autumn in familiar Virginia again, having left just 3 short months ago. No more horizon with mountain peaks out my front door, no more almond and olive groves to climb through, no more Seth and proper British ways, no more enthusiastic Spaniards speaking rapidly to me. My time in Spain is definitely over. That reality must have crept in over night last night, like a large looming rain cloud, because today, day 6 of being home, is the hardest.

As expected, it doesn't seem real. I took a grand leap in my artistic life and am on the other side of the chasm now. I thought, as I sat on the plane on Monday, that I would wake up on Tuesday morning, in my very own bed, and imagine I dreamt the entire experience, a long, elaborate and wonderful dream. It does feel like that now ... though when I woke on Tuesday morning my first thought was, how do I get to the bathroom!?

I went through all of the motions of leaving: packing, cleaning, stripping the bed, saying Adios to people and places, but I couldn't comprehend not being there anymore. At 3am on Monday morning I walked into the courtyard, through the antique wooden door ornately carved by a Spaniard years ago, passed the garage where Seth keeps his "girlfriend" (An antique car, the Morris 8), passed the ruins of old goat stalls, passed the empty river bed which gleamed in the dark with it's white stones, bent beyond the cliff and out of sight, to the red Spanish van I learned to love and hate.

As we drove out of Masia Albadas in the dark, my mind flooded with the things I would miss most. I thought of my walk to work each day, down the stone stairs I so meticulously weeded, crumbling and uneven, passed the newly jacketed kiln, passed discarded pots and into a dirt and stone floored wonderful mess.

I thought of the work that I had come to learn, work which energizes and exhausts, work which brings each customer a period, even if its just a brief moment, of contemplation - that life is more than your 9-5, life is more than greyscale predictability, that we are more than ants scuttling from place to place.

We can touch, smell, taste, feel, and see such a range and variety that even with the awareness of thousands of years of human creativity we still have the urge to create, share, and try to communicate with each other what is beauty and goodness and what is not.

To ignore this is to isolate ourselves, a very unnatural and spirit crushing mental state. Modernity has made it easier and cheaper to surround ourselves with factory produced 'beauty' but the lack of human touch in the objects is akin to a human with no contact, an ultimately stoney and cold thing. It evaporates the potential for long lasting beauty.

I have many things to share and stories to tell but for now, for today, thank you for reading. Thank you for learning along with me what it means to share, to enjoy, and to appreciate the rugged beauty in human creativity and creation.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A place to call home

I returned to the gorgeous colors of fall in Virginia yesterday. While pottery in Spain ended with a bang, pottery here is just gearing up! Our Fall Sale starts this coming weekend (see image on right or details below). I have two shelves full of bisque ware ready for me to glaze so, with no time for jet lag, I'm glazing away immediately. I've been decorating pots pretty consistently for the passed 3 or 4 weeks so I am in the groove of glazing ... I just have to wrap my head around the fact that I'm back in my own basement every once and a while!

Jennie has been working around the clock getting her beautiful work all set for the show. Her enthusiasm after 30 some years of working in clay is as fresh as ever. In fact, the work I saw last night for our show is the best I've seen yet. Her colors and strength of line is more confident, making for an eye popping collection. I was really blown away and incredibly proud to not only work with such an artist but be able to call her my teacher and my mother.

I hope you will be able to make it to our show one of the weekends. I will have freshly glazed pots thrown prior to Spain as well as some pots from my time with Seth Cardew (getting those home was quite the trick ... my luggage weighed a ton!).


Opening Weekend:
November 20, 2pm - 8pm
November 21, 10am - 5pm

Also Open:
Nov. 28, Dec. 5, Dec. 12 10am - 5pm

Check back for updates on the kiln firing in Spain and other adventures!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Last post from Spain...

Here are some of the things I've been decorating over the last few weeks. Seth uses a cobalt stain and an iron oxide over a white glaze, under a transparent glaze, and under a celadon glaze. He also has a shino, white, and transparent as "raw" glazes (meaning it is used on greenware).

The pictures show my decoration before the firing, obviously. So, the black color you see is the iron oxide (will be brownish/black) and the reddish brown color you see is the cobalt (will be blue).

A Spanish/Moroccan inspired plate with a Sarah twist.

The firing starts tonight. We begin the warming at 7pm and the first stoking shift is at 3am.

This will be my last post from Spain. I have much much more to share and will do it from the comforts of my own home in the States! Adios for now!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Traditional Spain

Traditional ceramics around these parts is very influenced by the Moors/ Muslims (as is most of Spain, I think). Here are a few pictures of local pottery.

These are traditional wine and water jugs. They are probably 100 years old or so.

Very Moroccan influenced!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bisque firing

Earlier in the month we completed our bisque firing. We fired in Seth's wood kiln rather than an electric kiln the way some wood firing potters do. If you remember, the bisque firing is the first firing a pot gets. This hardens or sinters* the greenware (raw clay) but leaves the pot porous enough to soak up glaze. (*To sinter means to heat the ceramic elements enough to fuse them together without vitrifying them.) We loaded the kiln over 2 days, moving steadily from the back of the chamber, building up pots and shelves. (As you will see in the pictures, my other master potter, Jennie, came to visit and was able to be there for the firing!)

We bisque fired to cone 05. "Cone" is the method by which potters measure temperatures. It is called "cone" because it is literally a cone that is placed upright in a small window inside the kiln and wilts down to a lovely curve when the desired temperature is reached. The temperature for cone 05 is 1800 - 1900 degrees Fahrenheit. (Seth's glaze kiln goes up to cone 10 or between 22oo - 2300 degrees F. At home in VA, Jennie and I glaze fire to cone 6 or between about 2265 - 2365 degrees F.)

The studio was overflowing with work, of mine and Seth's as well as some friend's and other student's work. Near midnight we lit a small fire in the fire box to begin the warming.

Setting my alarm for 2am and 4am, I stumbled down the hill and stairs to check the fire. At 2 it needed a little stoking (but not too much) and at 4 I had to relight it. The warming is to let any remaining moisture escape from the kiln before raising the temperature. Around 7:30 am Helen and Seth checked for steam coming out of the chimney and finding none began to raise the temp by stoking the fire.

We stoked for about 10 hours and at 5:30pm the cone had wilted and we were finished. The kiln over fired just in the last few hundred degrees but the work was fine and still porous.

We are now in the throws of decorating. Glaze firing set for November 11th!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


You may remember me speaking of Mel Jacobson, my forever teacher and friend who I studied with in MN a few years back. He started something called, "ClayArt". Clay Art is an online forum for potters which has become quite popular. He recently wrote a little something about me and my family which I was tickled to read. I only heard about it through other people, that sneaky guy!

Thank you, Mel!

Clay Art Thread:

my former apprentice, sarah coffin is in spain, living and working at seth cardew's studio for six months. she is having a ball. she just loves the place, the people and the work. seth and his wife are a delight.
you must remember, seth is getting much older, sort of my age. he is still working, but has been slowed a bit.
this is one of those cases where a young person just took a chance...i told her `people can say yes or no, it is up to you to ask, seek, and be ready to go.` seth said yes...and she was on a plane for spain in a heart beat. so often people make assumptions that...`why would he let me come and study?' sarah has all the tools to be a great potter. she was very active with me and the `chinese` study. a great help. she is trained.
she lived that summer with her grandfather/grandmother that are neighbors...he was a minnesota govenor, and lived a great deal of his life in washington d.c. (congressman) where sarah grew up with her mom and dad. jennifer coffin/mom/ is a terrific potter, and their mom, grandmother gretchen quie was considered one of minnesota's fine female artists.
their father, grandfather al quie is in his 80's and is still very active in conservative politics in minnesota. al still rides his horse every day, goes on long rides in wyoming, and is as fit as anyone i know. he is one of the most classy, honest men i have ever known. not a blemish in 85 years. integrity, what a concept.
from: minnetonka, mn
clayart link:
new book:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lisps and dill

I used to work with a spitfire of a woman from Poland. Her English was nearly perfect and her Polish accent clipped or lengthened certain words, giving everything she said a seductive glaze. She occasionally asked for correct pronunciations which I gave gladly but couldn't help feeling that the way she expressed it had a fullness which my tone completely lacked. Despite this, she often mentioned how embarrassed she was of her English. I tried to encourage her that there was never any question of what she was communicating - something I long for now. My Spanish started off so vacant and looks I got in response were too. I imagine that if my Polish friend could hear her English when she first began, she would not be so hard on herself. As I hear myself trying desperately to communicate in the local language, I know that its laughable. The glimmering moments when I've done it on my own and the poor Spaniard across from me responds with an affirming "Ci!" are precious to me.

The other day I went to the grocery store, a tiny two aisle place in Els Ibarsos, and walked around looking for the herb Dill. It wasn't in my dictionary, so I proceeded to try and figure out how in world I could find it with out the actual word.
Rather than giving up, I told the grocer, a small Spanish woman who is used to seeing me and dealing with my fumbling of her language, that I was looking for a green herb sometimes used with pickles. That took some time.

I wasn't sure we had done the job but she was confident that a certain herb was exactly what I wanted. The one she pointed out, "eneldo", happened to be one that I remembered seeing back at the house, unopened. I thanked her and thought I'd go home to smell it and check the larger dictionary before buying it. Sure enough, she and I had understood each other perfectly! "Eneldo" was dill! I went back a few days later and successfully communicated to her that she had been right and that eneldo was what I had wanted! We were both so giddy at the moment, it was wonderful.

All of this thought given to communicating simple and complex ideas made me think of, what else?!, pottery. I remember working as the Ceramics Lab assistant in college. One of my duties was to be present during lab time to assist students fulfilling their studio hours. I loved sitting down with beginners to help them progress. Each person had a different approach to the wheel.
Looking back I see the incredible similarities to language: I was teaching them the language of pottery. The feeling of the clay spinning between thier hands was as foriegn to them as the feeling of a purposeful Spanish lisped word in my mouth. I helped them center the clay or pull up the wall of a pot to give them a better sense of the proper pronunciation with their hands to the clay.

The same glimmer (and virtual affirming "Ci!") came to them when they finally communicated clearly enough to the clay that their first few pots came off the wheel. They were not beautiful by any means -- standing alone and out of context -- just like my Spanish. But in that moment they hold a different sort of beauty, an interpersonal beauty, like a mother appreciating her child's first scribbles.

As I learn the language of pottery, of art, of beauty, I can feel certain aspects becoming more fluid, more natural -- the way English is to my mouth or Polish is to my coworker or Spanish is to my neighbors, Pepe and Rosa. I look back at my first attempts in this deep and complicated language of pottery and appreciate how much I've learned. But I see and work with potters so much more fluent then myself. There is always more to explore, more to understand, more to communicate. I love to hear my pronunciation change slightly as I'm corrected in my Spanish, just as my pots change slightly as I create and learn. While I'll always have my accent, I have a lot to learn to smooth and give coherency to all of my words, all of my pots, all of my work.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Hola! I am traveling briefly and have fast internet! This means I can finally get pictures to you. Please check out the two slide shows in the right hand column. One is of the pottery and the other is random images from Spain. Enjoy... I know these guys did!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A New Kiln Jacket

Seth fires in a wood kiln (one of the many reasons I wanted to come study with him for a little while). A wood kiln is a long firing. The kiln has to be heated slowly and reach the high temperatures with wood being thrown in at various intervals.

Seth's wood kiln is a few years old and has had one "jacket" put on in its life time. A jacket is another coating of wire and cement for the outside of the kiln. He wanted one more put on (making a total of two jackets on top of the original kiln), to strengthen the kiln and take care of any cracks that have appeared as the it has settled in the firings and weather.

As our bisque firing date was fast approaching, we had to quickly cut horrible thick wire, mix load after load of cement and layer the kiln. Another Brit in the area, Helen, came to help. She is a fairly new student of pottery and eager to know more. Seth and I were grateful for the help to say the least. It was hard work.

First came the wire cover which required shaping the wire, cutting it, and twist tying it together. Then we carted numerous wheel barrow loads of sand from the top of the hill, mixed in cement and calcium (for plasticity) and stuccoed the kiln over the wire. It was especially hard to get the cement to adhere around the doorway and other curves.

With a fresh jacket on, the kiln stands proudly, ready to be fired and the owner looks at it with a new appreciation. We definitely earned our siestas over those three days!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Spanish Toast

Spanish Tomato Toast: The Breakfast of a Potter

Every morning Seth has Spanish Tomato Toast for breakfast. Its amazing! Give it a try and DO NOT skimp on the olive oil.

Its a very easy recipe!

Slice of Toast (not just any toast: light and airy, similar to ciabatta, wood fired, crisp outside and soft, bubbly, tender inside)
Tomato (Roma is best)
Cloves of Garlic
Olive Oil
Kosher salt

Slice a thick piece of bread and place in toaster (turn over, if toaster doesn't do both sides).

Open one clove of garlic. Once bread is beautifully brown on both sides, take out and rub the clove of garlic generously on both sides of the toast (use another if that one gets too small).

Then take the half tomato and rub it generously, pushing down, all over both sides of the bread. This will squish the tomato and turn the bread a beautiful pinkish red color.

Place tomato and toast on a plate. Then pour, don't sprinkle, olive oil all over the bread. Be sure to cover the crispy outside as well as the middle. Sprinkle with kosher salt if desired.

The combo of the tomato and the oil soften the toast. Eat with a fork and knife, taking a bit of bread with a bite of tomato.

*Add ham and/or a strong cheese if desired.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Larger than life

You may recall a few posts back and a few countries away, I tried a tall vase. You may remember it as my flop of a large pot? Things change when you have a teacher. Seth threw three large pots a while ago. They are subtle, graceful curves, springing up from their bases and coming in at the neck for a high shoulder and proportioned mouth.

Some potters throw big pots like this with one hunk of clay. They strain themselves to do this and usually wear muscle tees to show it. Others will do as I tried before and add coils. Rather than throwing with coils, Seth throws his large vases in sections.

He threw three bases on bats. Oh boy, that may sound like gibberish to some of you! If you don't know pottery, you have either just imagined a bunch of baseball items thrown around or some ugly black flying things that come out at night. Lets try again. Seth turned a large amount of clay on the wheel in the shape of a wide, tall walled cylinder. The cylinder is slightly wider at the top in order to start the gradual curve of a tall vase. He made three of these bottoms (for three different pots). Then, measuring with calipers, he threw donuts (bottomless) to the width of the base he just threw. And to finish it off, he threw another bottomless form that looks like a bowl on a pedestal which is the top of the vase up side down. Just think about that for a minute and try to envision it. The pot at the top left might help. If you divide that in three even pieces and turn them upside down, you've got it.

I was keen to give it a shot after seeing it and was
relatively successful on my first go! The shape lacks the graceful quality of a more experienced potter but that will come with each large pot I throw ... because there will be more!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Painful pruning...

I'm waiting for a friend at a local gas station. A beautiful tree next to me has large oval leaves with an incredibly fabric-like crinkle to them. There are vines growing around the root of the tree, bursting from the cement that surrounds it and I just noticed that there are grapes hanging from these vines. The land is prolific!

I love to go for runs and take long walks. There are endless directions for my expeditions around the Masia (the term for a cluster of houses). I usually end up in groves of almonds or olives where the earth is churned up regularly by local farmers. This loosens the dense clay and rock around the trees and rids the tree of its competitions -- weeds. The trees all have curious growth patterns very carefully monitored (or in some cases not so carefully) by the farmers. Branches are pruned so that the nutrients can flow well to the fruits. Each tree has branches that reach out, droop down, and splay back up with the fruits popping out all over. Its interesting to think about the process of trimming off fresh, healthy growth in order to achieve more fruits in the future. That takes a serious amount of trust in the process and foresight.

Last week Seth introduced me to his way of making pitchers. They are rounded bodies with taller, straighter necks than I'm used to. After watching him throw once I sat down to my second teacher, the wheel. Well, I spent the day with these blasted forms and had three mediocre ones to show for it by the end. I was so frustrated and disappointed that once Seth left the studio I sat down on one of the rickety old chairs (that almost toppled) and cried pitiful tears. All work has its frustrating days and art is no different. I had run out of steam completely.

I was being pruned. Painfully and laboriously. I had mentioned to Seth that I was having a hard time. He merely said to keep throwing and there would eventually be that moment of light ... hopefully. I just stood there with my eyebrows raised and mouth open. That was it.

So, I threw more. I threw smaller versions at Seth's suggestion and then upped the weight as I felt more comfortable. Yesterday I threw some. I asked Seth, who isn't one to come checking up on me, to come look. My form was a bit rounder than his but echoed the idea quite well. I was ready for his short comment on what was wrong, ready for a good pruning but got almonds instead! He said thoughtfully, yes, yes thats quite nice. Different but rather nice. Maybe that will be the new Albadas (the name of his casa) syle.

It was brief and not much but it was growth. My eyes popped and heart fluttered. I wonder if thats how the trees feel as the almonds finally emerge?

Friday, September 11, 2009

A thoughtful potter

A large mound of clay in the shape of a large box sits on one side of our wedging surface. This is the reclaim clay, shoveled out of the bucket and slopped onto the table top to set up. The air in Spain is very arid, a perfect bonus for a potter. The breezes and the sun streaming into the studio give the reclaim and thrown pots a quick turn over time. Seth's usual practice is to throw in the morning, leave the pots out, eat la comidar (lunch), and come back to pots ready to trim. Remember from previous posts that a pot has to be at the "leather hard" stage to trim the bottoms. Trimming gives the pot a "foot" on the bottom, a nice finished, grip-able foot.

Why should a potter make a foot that can be grabbed? Why should a potter think about the bottom of a pot? Why does a customer lean toward one pot and not another? Why do you gravitate towards that certain bowl or mug in your cupboard? A good artist, a good potter, knows the answer to all of these questions. The success of a pot relies on the consciousness of the artist even if the reasons for success are inexplicable to the user/admirer. Seth mentions the"washer and dryer" a lot as we are making pots. He says that a good potter must think of a person holding the pot, using the pot, and washing the pot. Is it easy to hold? Is it comfortable? Is it convenient to wash? These are wonderful things to imagine as thought goes into every aspect of every pot, from the smallest bowl to the largest vase.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Throwing to the nines!

The trek down to the pottery everyday requires a sure foot. Stairs, rocks, slopes, and plants are ready and waiting to makes sure you are awake. It has been part of my 'slave labor' to take care of some of that. While waiting for pots to set up or clay to stiffen or soften, etc. I would head out to the path, gloved and stubborn, pulling out all sorts of weeds. Today I completed that task and stepped back with a satisfied sigh to see a wide, clear path leading to the studio.

As Michael Cardew says in his book, Pioneer Potter, much of a potter's life is comprised of hard physical labor which seems boring at first. But he quickly follows that with saying that those tasks gradually become less boring as you yourself become less boring. Interesting concept. Pioneer Potter is required reading given to me by Seth. It is his dad's autobiography and incredibly interesting for potters, artists, and really anyone. He and his teacher, Bernard Leach, were philosophers of sorts. They thoroughly thought through their aesthetics and were devoted to learning.

Seth has carried on much of his father's philosophizing. In that, though, there is a definite realistic edge. He had me throw bowls, the Cardew way. He sat down and threw one, talking through it pretty quickly as he threw. I stood and watched, mentally taking note of his nine
1. open (after you've centered, you thrust your hand confidently into the clay and make a shallow opening, keeping the bottom thick for a nice hardy foot ring)

2. pull (thin out the walls of the pot)
3. flute (while keeping the bottom tight, he opens the top way out so that the shape of the pot at this point is like a trumpet)
4. flatten inside bottom
5. undercut with thumb (to tighten the base of the pot and "give it a good spring" as Seth says)
6. shape (you can only do this once, to retain the grace and flow of the curve ... sometimes I tweak it!))
7. sponge (clean out the inside)
8. stick (clean clay from around the base of the outside)
9. wire (and cut it off!)

The "not boring" 9 menial steps of making a "satisfying to use" bowl. (all quotes mean as Seth says, if you haven't picked up on that already!)

Monday, August 31, 2009

First Impressions

[Thoughts I jotted down when I first arrived] 'I padded softly across my room to the sun roof, my swollen travelers feet felt quite nice on the cool terra cotta tile. I am alone for the first time. Seth and I have been together for a few hours but he just sent me upstairs to unpack while he "plays host" and cooks dinner. My room is white washed and sparse. There is one sky blue wall behind the wooden French-made bed and a set of blue shutters off the the side. These lead to the sun roof and are always open. There is a "screen" of plastic coils hanging in the doorway; they flutter in the breeze and keep bugs out ... or so they say.'

I am in the remote mountain region just off the coast of the Mediterranean. The land, people, trees, shrubs, flowers, and buildings are all at once moving and still, fresh and old, full of color and sepia toned. It feels like an old loved leather chair, comfortable, full of stories, and regal in some way. I imagine my impressions of Spain are rather different from others since I was swept away to the mountains right away.

Seth Cardew is very proper (imagine 1940's London!), but friendly all the same. His pottery is just a short walk down a hill or down stairs, which ever way you want to take.

The pottery is rustic to say the least. The floor is dirt and the walls are the same white washed simplicity found in my room. I do have some slave labor to do before I can throw. I wedged a great amount of clay the other day, moistening it to ready it for throwing. I have more of that to do tomorrow. Seth has a pretty free approach compared to some potters. He doesn't set down and make me throw 50 of one shape until I can do it in my sleep but he does have a critical eye. He won't smash pots because he says that I must use them to learn other steps as well, such as trimming, decorating, etc.

I can't wait to share more about some of the philosophy of pots I've heard from Seth and other tid bits. But I'll give them to you in small doses. All at once and you might feel like you've had your head stuffed, like I do.

Or, even worse, you might not read.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Hola Spain!

Dear Friends,

I have not figured out computer time yet but wanted to report that I have arrived safely! I do not have internet but am working on when I can post. Please stay tuned!

Seth and I made tall hollow ware today. The sun lights the studio, the shutters swing open to let fresh air in, and the mountains in the distance provide quite the backdrop. Peaceful and heavenly setting for artwork.


Monday, August 24, 2009

I wrapped my unfinished pots with plastic a few days ago, leaving them on a low shelf where they will await my return. As I stood looking at my clean, empty work space I ceremoniously turned off the lights and stood there for a moment in the dim drone of a distant florescent. When I come back to this, what will it look like to me? What will I want to change about it? What will I have missed the most? How will I have changed? How will my pots have changed? Oh, what an adventure this will be!

I love knowing that when I return to sit at my wheel, my very own wheel, that I will be different, will have grown, developed, matured as a potter and as an artist. My hope for this trip is threefold:

1. To develop in confidence as an artist and especially the combining of mediums. Seth studied as a painter. He draws and paints as well as potting. He has successfully meshed the two and is so comfortable in that dual role. I want to see that in action. I want to know what he thinks about as he makes a form, as he looks at a form, as he analyzes the pot and his decorations.

2. I want to learn more about the firing process. Seth and I will be starting at the beginning, throwing the raw clay, and working together to fill his wood kiln. I'm hoping that being one of the primary potters involved in the firing will really piece together my bits of experience and knowledge of firing.

3. Seth has grown up with pottery and worked in it for many many years. He understands what it takes to make a life of it. He knows potters around the world that have done the same in various ways. To get a better grasp on the possibilities for making this artistic calling a sustaining vocation is invaluable to me. I think of a college kid's perspective; the job possibilities are basically limited to the ones they grew up around. As they search and meet people and expand their perspective, jobs that they did not know existed begin to surface. I feel a little like that. I'm excited for ideas.