October 28, 2011

Put In My Place

Don Pilcher lives in Champaign Illinois where he taught for many years at the University of Illinois. A gifted potter, thinker,and provocateur, Don shares his unique views on the field of contemporary ceramics. Visit Don's web site where you can read more of his stories.

When Ralph Bacerra wanted to deliver his final dismissal of some piece of work he’d say, “What is it, Don? Just a pot with a glaze on it.”

I thought this summation was much too inclusive. He couldn’t possibly mean to excuse the great Sung Dynasty, a hundred and fifty years of American salt glazed jugs, Swedish porcelain made under the name of their King and even some fairly recent wonders by Ken Price. And then I thought about the source; this was coming from Ralph Bacerra, who never let an empty space pass for very long and whose brushwork celebrated even the inside of his elevated foot rims. Reluctantly, I concluded he was just asserting his personal creative terms and that a pot with a glaze on it simply didn’t do anything for him. Turns out I was wrong.

Earlier this spring I received a letter from the Director of the Racine Art Museum, a small but very nice museum on the western shore of Lake Michigan. He was writing to tell me that some of my work would be on display throughout the summer in an exhibition of recent acquisitions to their permanent collection of American ceramics. He closed by inviting me to drop in and see the collection.

As luck would have it, I had scheduled a trip to Milwaukee that very June. My wife would be along and she has a real interest in these things as she’s the one who got me to return to ceramics twelve years ago. Racine is only a few miles off Interstate 94. Parking was easy. The exhibition was in several galleries on two floors. You could see the first and largest gallery as you approached the entrance.

Lots of major work there by a Who’s Who list of American potters. In addition to Ralph, there was Betty Woodman, Don Reitz, Beatrice Wood, Adrian Saxe and more. Not mine. Not surprising.

The second large gallery, adjacent to the first, had equally fine work by folks with a little less reputation; people like Paul Dresang. (How does he do those leather satchels? They look as if they are grown rather than made.) But no Pilcher. There was another large gallery upstairs and we struck out again. I was ready to skip it and get on to Milwaukee but Linda insisted that we ask someone and just then a museum assistant appeared. I told her my story, said we couldn’t find my work, and she said, “It must be in the intensities.”

INTENSITIES? I’ve been going to museums for six decades but I’ve never heard of an intensity. She assured me I’d find the intensity cases at the end of the hall. So out of the galleries, down the hall, past the restrooms, past the office spaces, past the janitorial closet and, finally, we reached the intensity cases. Still in the museum, but just barely. These are glass front cases, about chest high, the size of a huge office aquarium. Inside were about sixty pots - as tightly packed as any bisque kiln you ever saw, tighter than white on rice. Mine, a porcelain bowl with a black glaze, was larger and near the back, partially hidden by a Sandy Byers jar, a Heino bottle and a Natzler bowl. I think there was also a McKenzie pitcher nearby. The fact that you couldn’t see all of my pot was just as well; certainly not one of my best. Well, that happens.

But here’s the kicker. All of the pieces in the intensities, as Ralph would have it, were just a pot with a glaze on it. Not a mark of overt decoration anywhere. So prescient. What’s going on? Could it be true that a straight forward, finely made pot, beautifully, even exotically, glazed can no longer entertain, inform and gratify in today’s larger world? Or at least the cultural world inhabited by people like Ralph and this curator? Was the canon tossed while I was away? Does anyone still teach Yanagi’s theology about the unknown craftsman? I’ve been letting this museum experience turn in my mind for several months now. I have concluded nothing. The questions mount.

Do simple pots like this need an app to sufficiently and dramatically amplify the potter’s art? In this case, somebody thought so. For this collection, the museum boldly aggregated our expressions and then, like those photos of hundreds of nude people on London Bridge, intensified the viewing situation into something as curious as “Where’s Waldo.”

I’d love to share this experience with Ralph, but he’s gone now. Still, his caution remains and it resonates while I consider my place at the back of the pottery bus. After all, I was warned and it seems appropriate to ask oneself why this has happened.

Is it the pots? Is their sin simply one of being small and undecorated? Or is this a new time and place? Does America now move so quickly and loudly that we have no eye or ear for the inaudible yet very real chords of form, weight, color, texture and function? Maybe. These are qualities that were indispensable when most of the pots in the cases were made. But in the last fifty years, most Western nations have been overtaken by disposable containers. Time was, at most gatherings where a beverage was involved, the party ended with twenty minutes of kitchen time - washing, drying and putting away the china or glassware. Seems quaint now. As a result, we are living with a least two generations who know almost nothing about hotel china much less Royal Copenhagen or Rose of Canton.

If simple, quiet containers are now seen as simply dull, should I be moved to respond? At my age, do I want to be jacked around by overcrowding in Racine? Some good company there. Maybe I should be happy to be in any collection at all. And how much mind-time do I want to yield to this curator?

Then again, to think more ambitiously, every day that I walk into the studio is the first day of the rest of my life… as it is for all of us. I am retired to the extent that artists ever retire and I work primarily for the fun of it. Rascal Ware actually has a license from the State of Illinois to make whatever we goddamn well please…as long as they can collect sales tax. What’s to be lost with some new and very decorative moon shot at ceramic extravagance? (Whatever extraordinary hand skills might be necessary have now been lost to arthritis -and mine were never a match for Ralph’s - but there are ways around that.)

In a world of no coincidences, the current issue of Time magazine has an article on the “secret” that every parent has a favorite child. The gist is that the better looking child is usually favored over the plain child. I’m guessing the plain child is just a pot with a glaze on it.



So I conclude here with photos of two pieces; a Japanese cocoa pot that came to me via my great grandmother and a yunomi by Shoji Hamada that I bought directly from him in San Francisco in 1963. I have an obvious attachment to both. I leave the intensity question to you. The apples/oranges problem is clear. But be certain of this, in the actual museum world of Racine, all the oranges wound up in the intensity cases, gasping for air and light. What might we draw from that?

September 23, 2011

"Potter is what I do, who I am, where I come from."

"It is still an enigma to me how and why I enjoy potting. I feel about pottery what William Stafford said about poetry: 'I don't want to make good poems, I want to make inevitable poems.' Pottery is what I do, who I am, where I come from."

I was fortunate to be at Gerry's Penland slide talk a few years ago and left with my jaw dragging the floor as I put my folding chair against the wall afterwards. As with many folks that we think we know from various meetings and associations, we never really know them until they've spoken about their art or until they reflect on their work during a slide show. Gerry covered 50+ years of making in about 20 minutes, no small feat in itself.

Gerry's retrospective show, "A Life in Clay" opened Sept. 15th at the Sawyer Fine Arts Center, Marian Graves Mugar Gallery, and continues until the 22nd of October.

Copies of this catalog may be available at the Marian Graves Mugar Gallery.

Thanks Gerry for your pots, your vision, and your leadership in our community of potters.

August 16, 2011

Mr. Fitch

Here's wishing our pottery bloggery cousin Doug a very happy birthday!!

August 7, 2011

Summer Reading: Dave the Potter - Artist, Poet, Slave

By Laban Carrick Hill
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Published by: Little , Brown and Company 40 pages, color $16.99
Reviewed by: Martin Tatarka

If I am lucky enough to be home around mid-day during the summer the couch has been a place I can grab a short siesta and get out of the heat of the day. I don’t need much maybe just 15 minutes to a half hour does me right. But I can’t just flop down on the rust colored couch and close my eyes and nod off I need something to read or look at.

Recently I picked up the children’s book “Dave the Potter - Artist, Poet, Slave” and had it with me when I hit the couch. We don’t have kids around but I have always found pleasure in kid lit, there is something about the combination of words and pictures that is hard to beat. Short and sweet like haiku with drawings.

The meat of the book is the story about how Dave made pots in Edgefield, South Carolina in the mid 1800’s. It starts with getting clay ground in the pug mill and carried to his studio and follows with kneading and glazing. Sometimes he would start with as much as sixty pounds of clay on his kick wheel. There is a center fold of paintings with four stages of throwing a pot, centering to bringing up a cylinder. Later he builds up the pot with coils till it reaches the desired height. Before the pot has completely dried Dave takes a stick and writes a short poem or couplet. An example on one of his pots was written on August 16, 1857, “I wonder where is all my relation / friendship to all- and, every nation”

The book's illustrator Bryan Collier uses a unique combination of watercolors and collage. The palette he uses is mostly earth tones with browns and tans dominating the pages. The text is placed on the sides on what looks appears as textured and colored paper. The illustrator says that there is no visual record of what Dave looked like so he found a model who he feels represented the spirit of Dave.
The text itself is mainly descriptive of the processes that are illustrated and pretty straight forward. There is a bit of poetry in the writing as in: Dave’s wheel spun “as fast as a carnival’s wheel”, and likening the pulling of a cylinder to that of a magician “pulling a rabbit out of a hat”. Personally I prefer the poetry examples written on the pots by Dave given at the back of the book.

I think that the illustrations really carry the story. The pages are loaded with images and fractures of real photos and textures and atmosphere.

The last few pages are really for grown-ups with a bit of history and notes by the author and illustrator. Finally there is a bibliography and a list of a few websites to follow up any interest the reader might have.

I think that clay offers a wide range of activity and importance for many. For teachers this book connects the making of pots with history, geology, physical activity and poetry. For potters it reminds us how much things have stayed the same; the wheel, glazing etc. For collectors of pots it provides a context with which to understand certain historical work. For historians his work provides a voice of an artist and slave, a quiet but lasting sedition to a repressive system.

So next time you are heading to your couch for a short snooze think about taking Dave along. There is enough in this little book to dream about.

To learn a bit more about Dave check out these links:


For Martin Tatarka the highest form of art is the art of living. “Making our surroundings and aesthetic choices artful is just as important as what we do in the studio”, he says. He has taught in Africa, lived in Spain and been a fishing guide in Alaska and earned his MFA in Sculpture from Cranbrook. Martin lives in Asheville, NC.

Editor's note: read more about the making of the book here.
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June 6, 2011

Cousins in Clay 2011

OK, Ok, just a short ditty to point you in the direction of the Liberty Stoneware blog and Bulldog Pottery blog for more pictures of the Cousins in Clay/Seagrove event last week. Then it's back to my break from blogging and designing my Mountain Cousins in Clay flyer in time for this weekend's Toe River Arts Council Summer Studio Tour.

That's all. If you would like to continue to hear my pottery, news please subscribe to my newsletter here.

Thanks so much for reading .

June 2, 2011

Fare Thee Well

Summer is here! The kid's last day of school is tomorrow and I'm making plans for the next Cousins in Clay event that will be here in the mountains in late August.

me, Peter Lenzo, Jack Troy, Samantha Hennekke, Bruce Gholson
in Seagrove for Cousins in Clay, 2011

The Cousins Seagrove event was awesome! Peter Lenzo and Jack Troy were our invited guests this year and it was truly a thrill to spend the weekend together. There was great conversation and storytelling throughout meals and in the evenings while we enjoyed the fireflies light show and tree frog's song.

But now there is pottery to make, and potatoes to hoe!


But the news for today is that I've decided to put Sawdust and Dirt to rest for the time being. After the last cycle of work I've decided that so many things are being preempted to maintain the blog. I want to spend more time with the family and kick back every once in a while, and I have a lot of gardening to do. (I'm also putting together my scythe crew to mow my fields.)

That's not to say I won't be spending time behind the camera and the screen. I will be finally designing my web site and stocking my Etsy store. I will also try to send out frequent announcements and news from the studio to my email folks. Sign up if you'd like to be on the email list.

So, until the next one, have a great summer and stay in touch.

Thanks for reading!

Lillian in a jar

May 23, 2011

The Cousins Are Coming!

'm really excited about heading over to see my pottery cousins in Seagrove this week! Our third annual Cousins in Clay will feature South Carolinian artist Peter Lenzo as well as Jack Troy of Pennsylvania!

Samantha, Bruce and I are VERY excited to be hosting these two amazing artists and spending the weekend together in pottery cousinship! We hope you are planning a trip to the 'Grove to meet Peter and Jack and see their amazing work. Click here for more details.

This year's "Cousins in Clay" provides a rare opportunity for any of you Jack Troy fans who want to come out to Seagrove AND we are having a POTLUCK for Sunday May 29 lunch!

Bring your Jack Troy books, some food to share, we will have a pasta salad and drinks.

I will be demonstrating my special cousin brushwork at 1:30pm

This is a wonderful opportunity to talk with Jack Troy about pottery and see his pots. He will also have his poetry books available! Wooo Hooo!

Come see us!


Speaking at the dedication of the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College dedication of the Artisan Center. I designed the clay studio and wrote the curriculum for the program. My former apprentice Chris Greenwood is teaching there.

Simon Levin is a regular contributor to Sawdust and Dirt. He lives and makes pots in Gresham, WI. When Simon is not making or firing pots, fighting fires, or caring for his lovely family, he is creating such wonders as WikiClay! To find out more about Simon Levin and his pottery go to woodfire.com. If you have questions for Simon he can be reached at simon@sawdustanddirt.com otherwise please leave comments for Simon here!

Simon Says: Plankin'

Simon Levin is a regular contributor to Sawdust and Dirt. He lives and makes pots in Gresham, WI. When Simon is not making or firing pots, fighting fires, or caring for his lovely family, he is creating such wonders as WikiClay! To find out more about Simon Levin and his pottery go to woodfire.com. If you have questions for Simon he can be reached at simon@sawdustanddirt.com otherwise please leave comments for Simon here!

May 18, 2011

38: More Pots: Preview of this Weekend's Big Shoe

Today's Unloading: Preview

scene from the chimney, Sunday


combed jug

big jars

a bird in the hand

Here are a few pictures of today's unloading of the wood kiln. I took a few pictures as the pots came from the kiln. Here are a few of those.

Maybe more later!

First Peek 38!

First view 38 on TwitpicNot the best picture, but so were the first images from the moon!

This weekend!

As I unbrick the kiln door, a thought popped into my head, "have I made any announcement of the kiln opening on ye olde blogge?" The pace has been so swift that I don't think I have mentioned the sale yet! Maybe too late for those wanting to fly in from Guam, but maybe you are close enough to visit? I hope so.

Come early and get one of these! I have about 50 copies of this commissioned letterpress limited edition print by Ragamuffin Press!

I'll have more on the pots later this evening after I unload and attempt to comprehend!

May 16, 2011

Time To Clean The Shop Pots

After the Firing, or as it became known in Stonepool parlance as ATF, is that special time reserved for all the things that should have been done, if it weren't for the rigorous demands leading up to a wood firing. Because after the firing there's the waiting.

One of the things that I managed to do today in my dazed-zombie-potter state was to bring the mugs down from the shop for their periodic washing. Coffee, morning noon and night, delivered by these great and noble cups, helped me make it through this unreasonable workload of a cycle.

Like a lot of folks, my dad drank coffee to make it through his work day. Lots of it. It's just one thing we had in common. He was born on this day on 1929. I really do miss him.

May 14, 2011

A Potter's Got To Eat!

I thought I better take a break from stacking the kiln and have a bite to eat and there's no better way to digest your supper than to sit back a write a few words on ye olde blogge. I've actually loaded 2/3 of the kiln. I am also running out of small pots, fillers. Luckily, I have a board of tumblers and have a few dishes to paint.

I'm getting very excited about next weekend's Spring kiln opening, and the following weekend's "Cousins in Clay" over in Seagrove. (More about all of that in my newsletter going out on Monday.)

Sign up for my mailing list to receive that, if you haven't already.

OK, back to stacking ye olde wood kiln! Firing #38 coming right up! I'll be tweeting kiln side with pictures and more. Follow the firing!

May 9, 2011

'til the Midnight Hour

I feel a little crazy rationalizing today as the last "wet" day for next weekend's wood firing, but here goes...

I finished these jars off this evening and will get them to drying with a little help from the weed burner, gonna "fitch" 'em! They're all about 30 inches now. The one on the left will sport a lid. I'm not that thrilled with the forms and regret not mapping these out. The bases were a little narrow for the height that I

planned on making and it would have helped to sketch them out on graph paper just to keep a better eye on the overall line.

I have a few more plates to make and maybe a board of 6 lb jars for the back of the kiln and then it's a race to dry them. I plan on loading the kiln on Friday. These jars will be raw glazed and loaded green. I usually have a few pots in every firing that I make at the last minute and load green, but not on the scale.

I'm heading to the doc in the morning to have him look at my leg. If you remember I took a fall last week and it doesn't look like it's getting better. My schedule and constant standing while I make pots hasn't helped matters.

But on a very positive note, the opening Saturday was a great success and a very fun evening. I'm sorry I didn't make it to the after-party at Shane Mickey's, but I'm glad that I got these big jars one coil closer to today's finishing.

This promises to be an interesting week and firing 38 will probably have to least number of pots, but some of the biggest pots, yet.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

May 7, 2011

C U. K?

The reception for our show is tonight!
(as well as the Containment II Show,
and Eric Knoche's "quick look at function")

Come on out! Reception starts at 6 p.m.
Hope to see you at the opening tonight.
Should be a packed house!

I'm winding up my last days of making pots for the upcoming firing. Looks like these will get raw glazed! No time to bisque.

Red Dirt Crockery Revival

Ahhh, finally, some red dirt crockery in the house!

May 6, 2011

What I Wrote

I wrote this for the "Rubies and Vines" Show which opens tomorrow at the Crimson Laurel Gallery in Bakersville, NC. Also opening are "Containment: The Inside Story", a group show of pots that contain, and Eric Knoche's collection of functional work, "A Quick Look at Function".

May 4, 2011

Get the Preview: Lane & Kline, Rubies & Vines

Tiered Green Stone Necklace with Silver Links
and Encrusted Bronze Chain of Flowers and Swan Clasp

Our show is up for preview at the Crimson Laurel Gallery web site. Check out the collections!

porcelain plate with blue and black vine

May 3, 2011

Falling and Painting Walls

wearing my brand new Ron Philbeck T.

I spent yesterday afternoon painting a couple of the gallery walls at Crimson Laurel Gallery in Bakersville in prep for Stacey and my show that is hopefully all set up as of today. [that's one sentence y'all]

The wall was covered in red dirt clay from my field, but only after I tripped over some short black pedestals just inside the back door entrance to the gallery and spewed my clay ALL over the display along those walls. As I came tumbling down the clay went flying and I ended up with a welt the size of Texas on my shin. Not a good way to start a day. The irony was that as I set to spreading the remaining clay on the wall inside our gallery, David, John, and Deb cleaned the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and all the pots out in the hallway. [You'll be happy to know that no pots were broken during my Chevy Chase moment.]

I'm back at it with the red dirt this morning, making jars and pitchers. Last wet day is Saturday, also the day of the reception at CLG. Hope you can make it and see the completed walls in all of their snake-ified, bird-ified, and moth-ified glory!

(Oh, and the pots and jewelry, too!)