March 31, 2010

They Blew In On A Noreaster

High winds and sheets of rain blew them into the Philadelphia convention center. Carharts and Keens, slightly scruffy, generally caucasian and road-weary, (someone delivered David Eichelberger's pots from Lincoln driving 24hrs straight), the potters seemed uncannily set into the relief in the lobby of the Marriot where a contingent of very sharply dressed African-American church officials was also based. With the sun reemerging the next few days will tell whether the NCECains will find what they are seeking.

Mark Shapiro is a potter, workshop leader, and occasional curator from Worthington, MA. Mark is reporting from the 2010 NCECA conference in Philadelphia this week and will join the Sawdust & Dirt bloggers thereafter. Mark Shapiro has made wood fired functional pots in Western Massachusetts for the past twenty years. He is a frequent workshop leader and panelist. Mark's pots can be seen in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Racine Art Museum, the Mint Museum (NC), the International Muesun of Ceramics at Alfred,NY, and the Currier Museum (NH).

Starting Again

I unpacked the truck yesterday and put all of my show stuff away. Today I cleared a path to my Shimpo. It's a start.

March 29, 2010

Live Streaming Demos!

Log on and watch and listen to Christy Assaud, Andy Brayman, Ron Meyers, and Ellen Shankin as they demo at the NCECA pre-conference Making Through Living—Living Through Making: Studio Pottery in 2010 at the Montgomery County Community College.

Simon Says

Dear Simon Says,

I am really into boxing. I don't know why. I have been tracing the early career of Muhammad Ali from when he was Cassius Clay. The history really interests me, but I also really love to watch a good sparring match. My boyfriend thinks it is too violent, we decided that if you are a fan of boxing he would let me enjoy the sport without nagging me. Are you a fan? Do you have a favorite boxer?

-The Ring of Truth

Dear Ring,

I am into boxing, but I actually prefer double boxing. I feel it is much safer especially when, as you say, you are working with a glasseous clay. I just don't think the risk is worth it not to double box. Now I am not a glaze guru like Pete Pinnell, but I can tell you that Kona F4 and G-200 are a pretty good match as far as spars go. Using more of them should keep your clay from being so glasseous.

I can't really say I have a favorite boxer. Each of my apprentices has had their strengths and weaknesses in this skill. I hope I have helped.


Dear Simon Says

Okay, I am a fully committed male in a heterosexual relationship. The thing is, at work I have developed a flirtatious relationship with a member of the same sex. I guess you could call him my "Work Husband". My fear is that I might be leading my co-worker on, as well as confusing myself as to which "team" I play for. Not sure where to go from here?

The Talented Mr. Guilty

Dear Mr. Guilty,

Now a lot of people say that just because I am some macho woodfire guy I don't like glaze. That simply isn't true. I just don't want someone forcing the glaze lifestyle on me.
I believe strongly that there are two types of people in this world. There are those who divide people into two groups, and those who don't, and I am thankful that I am neither. That being said, there are three types of pottery, Heterosectional, Bisectional, and Homosectional. These categories are nothing new, they date way back.

This Mycenaean jar is made with symmetry in mind making it a great example of bisectional work.

Now you may say, well that was just the way of the Greeks. Jomon Pottery But look at how flamboyant this Jomon pieces is. Now just because a piece is flamboyant doesn't mean it is homosectional. In fact I am certain that this piece was made with the top section added, rather than being carved from one piece. Moving over to Africa we can see this point even clearer, this pot is very understated but obviously homosectional.

What is great about ceramics today is that we can make whatever we want without worrying about being judged. We owe this privilege to artists like Peter Voulkos who started out as a raging heterosectional artist with works like this.

Eventually Voulkos took this to an extreme and ended up a sectional deviant.

Confronting societal notions about pottery during the sectional revolution, such avant-garde artists have left us a legacy of freedom. So go out there Mr Guilty, don't feel bad, make what you want to make, just be yourself. I hope I have helped.


Simon Levin is a regular contributor to Sawdust and Dirt. He lives and makes pots in Gresham, WI. To find out more about Simon Levin and his pottery go to
If you have questions for Simon he can be reached at

March 25, 2010

First Peek:34, Sort-of

If you are a Facebook fan, or if you follow me on Twitter, you may have already seen this. I thought I would give you guys the first peek. But for all the rest who are just now seeing these, enjoy the thrill of the surprise! The above shot was taken by sticking my camera (and arm) through the stoke port from the POV of the firebox. I like the contrast of the pots and the lava flow on the bag wall bricks! The pictures below were taken through the spy holes

top of a chicken waterer

spout of a pitcher
yum, a tenmoku over hakame cup at the bottom front.
that's cone 10 and 11 standing.
perfect heat!

more tenmoku with under glaze black brushwork

Backstory: 34, The Firing

the stack for #34

As I gather my thoughts about the events surrounding the loading and firing of the kiln, my first thought is that you wouldn't believe me if I told you. But I guess I've decided to try to tell, anyway. Since I took a bunch of pictures of all of the calm moments, but none of the near disastrous ones, you'll just have to give me the benefit of the doubt. OK?

Tim Ayers came down from Penland to help me glaze my pots and eventually load the kiln. Tim and I worked steadily, mixing glazes and dipping pots. But I must have been in la-la-land to think we could glaze all 300 pots (usually a long days work anyway) and load the kiln (usually a ten hour job) in time for me to get a few hours sleep before starting the firing early Sunday morning! It just didn't add up, but we carried on. [Maybe this is a clue as to why I didn't make it in engineering school so many years ago??!! But, wait, this is simple math! ]

Not to dwell on long ago failures........after a couple of speed bumps during the loading (read: after stopping to glaze more pots) I found my energy lagging as I began the second tier of shelves. It was after supper and I continued to feel a kind of dread. I was thinking at the time that almost every step of the way during the past week had resulted in some minor disaster due to my poor planning. My resolve to work at all hours was getting me only so far and time was crunching down on me.

Then out of nowhere, the storm hit. My kiln shed is pretty big, but it doesn't have siding and it completely open to the weather. When the rain comes down (and horizontal) everything gets wet. And it did that night around 9 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. Just when things seemed to calm down so I could focus back on the loading, another wave would come through. Very high winds and lashing rain continued. Like sea captain tied to the steerage of his ship, so I seemed tied to the kiln. I stayed on course to get the pots out of the rain and into the kiln!

As I worked through the storm I noticed, and was very grateful, that it was fairly balmy for this time of the year. I should have know what that might mean. shortly after this realization, of course, the thunder and lightning came! So now I'm listening to the "thrash metal band" of trees being bent over by the high winds, tin roofing that covered a wood pile flying away in the dark, and thunderous cracks exploding all around. No one should have been out in that, much less loading a kiln. But being in the state of denial that I was in, I kept telling myself, like the little engine that could, to "keep going, that the storm would pass", etc.

The storm continued for more than an hour and then the next plague: power outage! HA! Of course, just when I thought it couldn't get any worse it did! When any rational, sane person would seek shelter and say the hell with it, I thought in my own seemingly rational way, ..."well, let's see, I can get a flashlight, headlamp, kerosene lamp, etc" So I did. I retooled to finish my job.

The volunteer firemen had the road blocked down below with a powerline down from a fallen tree and the only lights were the flashing reds and my florescent battery powered lamp I was using to load my kiln. Eventually, the rains slowed and the winds moved on to terrorize the next county over. Eventually the firemen got curious to know what was happening with the back and forth moving light up on the hill. They drove up my road thinking they was some kind of arcing power line or something, but they just found a half crazed potter trying to load his kiln. What a strange sight that must have been, to walk up to this dark shed with this big shadowy hulk of a kiln and chimney and a funny looking soaking-wet guy with a hand held lamp going in and out of said kiln! I tried to explain my dire predicament. What part of deadline and loading a pottery kiln did they not understand?! Ha! They were glad that everything was "OK" and chuckled as they walked back to their truck with their flashlights. I got the kiln loaded eventually by about 2 a.m. The power company brought their cherry picker to fix the line and I sadly watched as they drove on down the road, but still no power. Damn. I guess there were more lines down. So I decided to rest a bit and wait until the power came back on to put the door up. It came back on around 4 a.m. and I woke up and went to work on bricking up the door. The door bricks are in pretty bad shape and I made a firm note to replace the bricks before next firing. Also I noticed the door of the kiln is spreading a bit. So the picture below shows how much chinking I needed to fill the gap!

After making this epic confession of poor planning and bad luck, I'll try to keep the rest brief and leave it to the captions. After all, I have a kiln to unload today!

this is how it all starts

balmy sunrise through the pines after the storm

like a dog soaked to the bone, my shed

my clay pit flooded with about three feet of water.
proof of the big rain!

later that afternoon the weather had another surprise, sleet

Lindsay Rogers stoking, notice the smile on her face and the
snow/sleet on the ground?

Lillian tooling up for her stoke!

staying warm by the kiln

Salt! Success!

I realized that our damp stack of wood was disappearing and that we needed maybe another half hour of stoking to get the temp we needed. So I used my "phone a friend/lifeline" and called Courtney and John up the road to take them up on their offer of dry wood. Courtney's kiln is just 0.8 mile up the road and it has the same firebox length, so the wood is the perfect length for my kiln, too! We barely used half of what they brought and got the kiln even all around thanks to Lindsay's great stoking. The Snow Creek Pottery Posse rides again! Thanks Lindsay, Thanks Courtney!!

By 11 p.m. the epic firing was over, and as all potters must hope in a moment like this, when all has been done that can be done, I hoped for a good firing.

Check back (if you have the time) to see pictures from the kiln!!!

If you're still reading, thanks for indulging me to recount this crazy epic.

March 24, 2010

Back Story:34 Painting

As I desperately try to regain some order and get a night's sleep before the craziness of unloading a kiln load of pots and get them ready for this weekend's pottery show, I realize that I have some straggling images from the painting and glazing session that lasted a mere 3 days. Usually I take 5 days, but I had no choice but to cram 5 days into 3 and failed miserably and had to postpone the firing by a day. But it all got done in the nick of time. But it means that instead of two days to prepare for the show I have one! Well, with no further are some pictures of some of the pots I painted and deemed worthy in their beautifully bisqued state to be put in the record.

Tomorrow I will unload the kiln and will try to get the "after" shots of these. Enjoy...

despite the tight time frame, i went the extra
mile and painted the inside of these bowls and many others.
Creativity knows no schedule.

one of the "boxes" for the Crimson Laurel show.
Let's hope this one makes it through
the firing!

top view of the above box

another of the Crimson Laurel pots.
this one is painted in my black wax.
I then dipped it in white slip.

some hump molded dishes painted in underglaze black.
more dots! I then glazed these with tenmoku, very thinly.

platter with black wax and plain wax

Temperance-minded Potters

Carry Amelia Nation, described herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus,
barking at what He doesn't like."
There has been a lot of talk lately in the area where Michael and I live about the upcoming referendum on alcohol sales. Last year, Spruce Pine (in Mitchell County) fell to the inebriates. This year, the voters of Burnsville (in Yancey County) will take to the polls in early April to decide if liquor will be sold in town. This includes liquor by the bottle through an alcoholic beverage control store licensed by the state of NC, liquor by the drink at eating establishments, and beer and wine in the super market. There are 100 counties in North Carolina. Only two are still dry counties, where there are no sales outlets for alcoholic beverages. If (or when) Burnsville falls under the spell of spirits, there will be only one left.

All of this got me to thinking about research I had done long ago on the Kirkpatrick brothers, proprietors of the Anna Pottery from 1859 to 1896 in Anna, Illinois. The situation vis-à-vis alcohol in those days was exactly opposite as this upcoming referendum in Burnsville. You see the brothers were temperance-minded potters. I know that seems like a contradiction in terms. Potters, like most laborers, have long been accused of spending their hard-earned cash on beer and booze. But in the late 1800s, temperance was a topic that could boil your blood in the way abortion rights, gay-marriage rights, and gun rights can generate a heated discussion today.

I have heard the argument put forth in Burnsville that allowing alcohol sales will go against tradition. In the U.S. during the 1800s the situation was just the opposite. The widespread consumption of alcoholic beverages was the tradition; temperance was the Johnny-come-lately. The imbibing of alcoholic beverages in those days was seen as an inalienable right by most Americans, keeping in mind that fermented and alcoholic drinks were safer historically than milk, apple juice (cider), and even water. All of which were bound to harbor many more microorganisms than alcoholic beverages. In other words hard cider was safer to drink than apple juice, and milk was more dangerous than beer. Water purification systems were generally desired, but needed invention.

Fulper Pottery stoneware germ-proof water filter made about 1900

Many potters tried to figure out how to build a better stoneware water filter. Most Americans drank alcoholic beverages from childhood as their main source of liquids.

This was the situation the temperance movement was trying to overcome – widespread alcoholism supported by standard accepted practice.

John Greenwood, “Sea Captains Carousing at Surinam”
painted about 1755

Of course, this kind of behavior produced a laundry list of bad habits that are still associated with alcoholism, not the least of which were poverty, chronic shirking of social responsibilities, and abusive tendencies toward wives and children. No wonder some members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (Carry Nation is probably best known of them) routinely busted up taverns and bars (Carry called these actions “hatchetations”) that they considered scourges on their communities. All they wanted was for men to go easy on the booze. Prohibition, an extreme form of temperance, became the law of the land in 1918, but not before many states had passed their own rules.

image of NC newspaper headline, 1908

Well, what does all this have to do with two potters working in a small town in southern Illinois? Alcohol consumption and temperance were major subjects of the Kirkpatricks’ work.

Like most American potters in the 1800s, the Kirkpatrick brothers made lots of crocks and jugs for use in the homes and on the farms of their neighbors.

Anna Pottery packing receipt, ca. 1881

These sturdy containers were beginning to pass from favor, being pre-empted by glass Mason jars, which were easier to handle. The Kirkpatricks filled in the gaps in their income by mining and selling clay (for the ceramics as well as other industries, including metals, paper, paints, and confectionaries). They had a small work force that mined the clay and prepared it for shipment from a nearby railroad siding.

In addition, the Kirkpatricks had five or six journeyman potters working for them who made the standard crocks and jugs at the pottery. This left the brothers free to play in the clay.

They made all manner of whimsies that were sold at agricultural and mechanical fairs in the towns and counties throughout the Midwest, including frogs on shells which functioned as inkwells, whistles in the shape of owls, little brown jugs, mugs with frogs in the bottom to surprise the drinker, and many more.

One type of novelty particularly favored by fair-goers was the miniature jug or log cabin (about one inch tall) containing a Stanhope lens (small magnifying lenses). The jugs and cabins were hollow for stanhope insertion. Users could hold the jug or cabin to the light and view something magnified by the stanhope. These pictures included a miniature rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, a picture of a snake coiled to strike, or a naked woman. (Surprised? You probably thought Marilyn Monroe calendars were the first of their kind.)

All of these fair novelties are fun to contemplate, but it’s the brothers’ sculptural work that is truly amazing. More about these objects next time I visit the Sawdust & Dirt blog.

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at
The loading and firing weren't exactly smooth, but in the end, hopefully will be worth the series of challenges brought on by deadlines, weather, and sheer physical endurance. Unfortunately, one doesn't have time to jot down the activities as they are happening nor were there reporters embedded with yours truly. But I am putting together some posts that will try to recreate the last weeks events for you. The kiln cools as I write this and I'm off to a show in Hickory over the weekend. There's much to be done to prepare the booth, the pots, and the potter!

In the meantime, I've recently been asked by several people to answer surveys/interviews of one sort or another and have been working on them. Although I haven't worked through all of the questions, here is a brief outline.


I respond to materials and to the results of the kiln in a cyclical way versus a linear way. Along this spiral I am constantly updating my "versions" whether it be a form or a pattern, or a glaze effect. I guess it's a bit like the chicken and the egg (or which came first) question.

I'm a bit of a reenactor as I approach forms and patterns, looking back at historical precedents. But by some kind of filtration and amalgamation, my unique work emerges. I'm not sure if this is such a unique approach, but it's what I do.


I look at the results of a load of pots after a firing and make notes of the results. I have a massive library of pottery books and look at lots of pictures. I read blogs and see what other potters are doing. I use pots that are different from my own.
I read Studio Potter magazine, as well as Ceramics Monthly. I go to conferences. I talk to other artists. I write a blog that helps me to clarify the ongoing conversation in my head.


It happens more than I would like to admit. One thing I do when I'm not inspired is to just clean up the shop, put things away. Another thing is to try to make something from the cupboard that I have been using or find interesting in some way. Recently I did a series of "covers" that became a really interesting exploration of form, style/voice, and process.


I usually start by session in the shop by making small plates. I fill up my tables and any horizontal surface I can. These plates are relatively easy to make. This act is more of a "jumping into the water versus dipping my toes" way of doing things. But it usually follows a day or two of piddling around the shop, mixing clay, cleaning up, etc. But in this process of preparing the clay, weighing it, throwing it, turning feet, I get myself rolling and other ideas follow.


I wish I had an average day! I guess my ideal day is starting with a cup of black coffee and a survey of my favorite blogs. Sometimes it involves writing a post, myself. But I usually do that late at night after a day's work. Then I head up my hill to the shop and check-in with the previous days work. Sometimes this means immediate action, sometimes it's means covering stuff in plastic and waiting until later to work on. I have a whiteboard that I make notes on and go over. I check off or add things as I think of them. I usually start working by 9 or 9:30 and break for lunch at 1. I work in the afternoon till about supper time at 5:30. Sometimes I will work a little while after supper. As I approach my firing deadline I work late into the night as I always seem to be behind and need to cram to get everything done. Sometimes this is a result of having to do work in the daylight such as cutting kiln wood, or working on the kiln, etc. and I do my pottery (indoor) work in the evening.


After a typical day and evening of work, I check back in with the blogs and download images I have taken with my camera during the day. I make notes of possible topics, but usually I try to put down in pictures first and then reflect on themes that reveal themselves in the pictures. I often see things in the pictures that I missed as I was working. This happens a lot and I'm grateful to be able to review the work in this way. My blog is a great record of what I do as well as a database that I can search. Just like a sketchbook or journal, it holds ideas and images that jar the memory and help me keep threads/ideas alive.

March 21, 2010

Guest Blogger: Terry Gess

Here is a post from the past that I really like. Yes, I could have just shared it on Facebook, but many of you aren't on FB. Yes, I could have just linked to it, but I wanted to put it front and center in hopes that Terry might write more for the blog! So if you like this as well, email mail Terry and let him know, i.e.  Let's fill his Inbox!! ;-)

Terry Gess is a potter, storyteller, and former resident artist at Penland School of Crafts. He is currently the Chair of Professional Crafts-Clay Program at Haywood Community College. See Terry's pottery at

You can reach Terry at

Take, Make, or Break

There’s a story told about a Cherokee woman who wore her thick black hair in a long woven braid halfway down her back. Her young husband told her often and with pride about how he loved her beautiful hair, how it represented for him so much about their heritage and her beauty. One day he came home and found the braid, a scissors and a small note on the rocking chair that he always sat in, close to the wood stove. “You love my hair so much, I thought I’d see how much you loved me.”

On the shelf in our kitchen there’s a small slip-cast porcelain cup. I visited a potter who lives alongside a small, wooded lake in the north of Finland and she gave it to me. She made it straight sided, clean & cool in the Scandinavian design aesthetic that is so admired and celebrated. It’s been in our kitchen cup collection for years.

This cup is glazed a hard, shiny green, as pedestrian as Cone 6 can get. It’s an example of how challenging glazing can be, with thickness, application, temperature, and atmosphere all conspiring beyond our fingers to take, make, or break a pot. For me, glazing is the hardest part of making good pottery.

What I really admire in this cup is the handle. This Finnish potter has fashioned it from a thin, lean piece of branch, a young, smooth wood with very fine specks or dots in a subtle pattern all across the bark. The cut off ends reveal a dense, yellow sapling wood, like beech, or ash. She has subtly turned the branch into a handle through some kind of hidden plug. The handle seems to float as if by circumstance alongside the cup, like an odd juxtaposition of two friends that don’t seem quite matched to each other. There’s nothing particularly special in the form or glaze — in fact I don’t think that I’ve ever even drunk from this cup — but the handle keeps it in our kitchen, an object of repeated interest, a memento of a trip to Finland, a connection with another sensibility, an approach to form that is beyond my own.

Then one morning it broke. A plate was moved and in the moment of liftoff the plate caught the lip of the little cup and sent it over the edge, down to the floor. The crash was spectacular for something so modest and thin-walled — a shattered, splintered explosion as if some pent up rage was contained in that cup, or perhaps some complex spring-loaded contraption. Amidst the slivers and shards, there laid that handle, still attached to the bit of clay lapel that bridged it to the cup. Almost as if to say, “Maybe you like this handle more than you liked this cup.”

Loading 34

Just a brief note to all of y'all keeping score at home!

Yesterday the fabulous Tim Ayers came down from Penland where he is assisting Tom Spleth, to lend his help getting the pots glazed and ready for the kiln. Lindsay Rogers came by, too, to finish up some last minute details to some kiln shelves, etc. but by 4:30 I was still glazing pots and realized that the loading wasn't going to happen and that I needed a good nights rest. So I put the firing off until Monday.

Unfortunately that means that my main fireman, Alan Gratz won't be able to make the change to Monday because he'll be going to Japan! He'll be badly missed but we wish him a Bon Voyage. Alan is mainly going to teach a writing workshop there, but maybe he'll get to fire some kilns in Japan while he so does his writing residency. I heard they have a few. Have a great trip Alan. We'll save your stoking slot for #36.

That brings us to who will be there to fire this kiln and once again the Snow Creek Pottery Posse will save the day! The posse includes Lindsay Rogers, Courtney Martin, and yours truly and we all live within a mile of the Snow Creek Road Pottery Corridor. Seems like we should get one of those fancy highway signs like they have in Seagrove to direct the masses who crave our pottery!

Well, speaking of traffic...the weather was really wonderful for glazing outside and we had a few visits over the last few days as people are starting to come out and tour the early spring landscape! The first visitors since the New Year!!!

The shop will be closed today, but I'll be around back at the kiln getting it loaded up with pots, if you care to stop in! But expect to wad some pots! I'll try to send some pictures of the loading as I go along. You can also follow my twitter feed (to the right in the sidebar) for quick updates.

Other News: last weeks Poll is closed. The tallies were pretty consistent from the beginning with about a third of potters who read the blog having internet connectivity in there studios! Wow, it was a higher percentage than I would have guessed. Thanks for everybody who took the poll. I'll try to post my next poll tomorrow.

That's all for now.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

March 18, 2010

Save The DATE!!

Lunchtime Deco-rotation Update

the usual dance around the buckets

some starters. simple pattern. i'm using black underglaze
on all of these pots
quick, messy brushwork

i decided since I only had a day and a half to paint 300 pots,
i'd better be thorough and paint the inside too!

what the heck, got to go for it sometimes!