January 12, 2014

the sweetness of light

When the sun is shining I can do anything; no mountain is too high, no trouble too difficult to overcome. -- Wilma Rudolph

Just to continue the theme of joy and of cultivating a sense of gratitude, I share the above quote on this sunny day in NC (and hopefully your neck of the woods). Wilma Ruldoph was born in a community outside of my hometown of Clarksville, TN. After the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, she was widely considered the fastest woman on earth, the Italians nicknamed her “La Gazella Negra” (The Black Gazelle). Rudolph overcame polio as a child to be the winner of 3 gold medals! She of course was legendary in middle Tennessee and around the world.  But how did this person shake her childhood leg braces and become a world record holder?

I remember my very first pottery class in the summer of 1983. I only had a vague idea of what clay was. At that point I knew very little about the material, but I had visited a pottery class with a friend and seen a potter make a pot on the wheel. During that visit I also saw the class fire some pots in a raku firing. It all seemed so much exciting than ANYTHING I had experienced in three years of civil engineering that I had struggled through.

During the first night of class I just squished clay together and hand built a funny sack-like pot. I was shown how to roll out a slab and I was also shown coil building. There were lots of wheels in the room, but they were off limits to me as a beginner. (Maybe that’s why I was so ambitious to learn to use the wheel?) Anyway, this sack-like vessel was made with “coils” that I sliced from slabs, squarish coils that I scored and slipped together.

Sorry, I don’t have a picture to share with you. It’s a picture that exists in my mind only. What a strange time it was. very few people had cameras on their cell phones. Oh, actually no one had cell phones.
Yes, I’m a dinosaur.

But let me try to get to my point on this sunny day. It’s a point about perseverance and skill. (maybe patience?)

After that first class, I was hellbent on finding out about the pottery wheel. After all, I was inspired and transformed one night watching someone throw on the wheel. I have heard many people describe their reaction to watching a potter for the first time. It usually involves the word “magic”. But I soon found out that it wasn’t magic so much as it was practice and maybe, knowing a few of the magician’s secrets! aha!

Well, even after learning some of the secrets (its no wonder we use the words, tips and “tricks”) I found it really difficult to center, much less throw a cylinder. I worked on this “centering” that whole summer. When making on large pots, I still work on it!

But I was SO determined. I was convinced that I could learn it. I saw all the students around me doing it. Surely, I thought, it was something I could learn.Eventually I did learn to center, but I remember that it seemed like SUCH a long time. I was SO impatient. After working so hard, for so long, it seemed like at some point I forgot that I was trying so hard. It had become such a mission for me, that I made it happen by sheer will.

Maybe you have had this experience with something you are determined to do? We can be so driven! WE can dive so deep into something when we are REALLY interested and REALLY curious. Learning how to recognize what we are really interested in, what we really enjoy, takes time.

Last night I was cleaning the studio and ran across a project of very little significance, really. My staple gun that I had bought in art school didn’t work anymore. This mundane object had a LOT of significance to me. I had used it to attach canvas to the stretchers of my paintings. I used it to canvas UTFC posters and band posters all over the strip in Knoxville! Wanting to save such a tool doesn’t mean I’m a pack rat does it? After all, I was using it just the other day to staple a tarp over the chicken coops! I guess I also just hate to throw things out when they break! Since this tool didn’t have any electronics or rivets, I thought that surely i could take it apart and find out what the matter was. I won’t bore you with the details. But I was really motivated by my nostalgia and my DIY pioneer determination to fix that damn thing!

Just when I was about to give up and toss it, I had a realization that the staples were getting stuck right at the end of whatever you call the place where they slide to the end. It appeared that with the thousands of staple that had been pounded into poles and whatever over the years the staple feed had also been pounded.

Anyway, bless you for sticking with me through this. Maybe its time to make a point. I guess I’m trying to make a point that the same irrational impulse to pursue such a silly project may be the same irrational determination that drives me in the studio. Just maybe. It was all about getting lost in the process. Granted there is always the risk of failing, but there is also the prospect of success, which is sweet!
When we challenge ourselves or to put it another way, when we find ourselves challenged, we are usually engaged at a higher level than when something is easy for us. When something is easy for me I’m not as motivated. Do you find this to be true?

Picking up that first ball of clay, way back when, seemed so foreign to me. My only prior experience with clay was probably playing as a child in a Tennessee ditch! But with clay, or anything that speaks immediately to your senses, there is resonance. We feel it! No tools are really required! We can get lost in any process that captures our imagination and engages our senses. That is what joy is, I think.

I have gotten lost in this writing.

Well, the sun is gone over the hill in the same way as I have lost sight of the original topic.

Something about the sun, I think?

It’s likely that I won’t edit this post, clicking the send button is so much easier! ;-) So I apologize in advance for any untied threads or deep ends I leave you hanging in. But I do thank you for your diligence in getting here to the end with me. If anything struck a chord feel free to share your thoughts in a comment or email me directly.

I love hearing from you.

January 11, 2014

The Spin

This started as a comment to Tracey Broome’s recent post on Branding. Hence the salutation and so on. But I got so long-winded that I thought I would spare her comment column and publish here. Basically I wanted to share some thoughts on branding and later some thoughts about business.

Hi Tracey, I hope you are well. Nice thoughts. I always enjoy reading your posts when I make the time to catch up with them! You have SO many thoughtful posts, a treasure trove! What about diving into some of your wonderful writing to pull together material that best describes who you are and what your intentions as an artist are? Pick out some themes that go to the core of who you are. What are the re occurring topics you write about that might allude to your “brand”?  I guess if I ventured over to the article you shared, I would find such a suggestion. :|

You also mention the reevaluation of your business strategy and I seem to be doing the same thing every year around this time, too. ;-) It’s something that we all do, I suppose. I think about it a lot, actually! As for me, I think I have too many irons in too many fires. But it's a condition of the times, I suppose. I’m always looking for an edge, an angle. Something shiny and new. I am forever hopeful! I guess it’s a way of fine tuning. One thought that has been coming on for a while this the concept of enjoying what we do. I wonder what would happen if I would cut out the experiences that I just don't enjoy and do more of what I DO enjoy?

Somehow I have made it this far and I wonder how. It hasn't been easy and I have come to the realization that I probably won't ever be wealthy beyond belief, but I can enjoy my work and be grateful to still be making pots after so many ups and downs in the various economies over the past 25 years. Making pots would be unbearable to me if I didn’t enjoy the activity. Maybe this is the clue to our marketing and business strategies. Joy? Sounds a little hokey, no?

I really enJOY doing our Cousins in Clay shows and other "home" sales where the setting is intimate. I truly enJOY meeting folks at my studio and selling directly out of my showroom. I also enJOY getting checks, big or small, from the few galleries that I still sell through and groups shows I am invited to. Teaching workshops has been a lot of fun! I love to travel and meet folks. With all that said, I feel like I still need to fine tune more and find better balance between all of these outlets. It's an ongoing process.


Is it possible to have a great time, enjoy what we make, AND enjoy some modicum of success? Maybe the first thing for each of us to do to brand or re brand, is to define success. What is enough? Can we be more aware of what we really enjoy doing and do MORE of whatever that is?

And can we give up what we don’t enjoy doing?

Seems a little simplistic, but I guess it's a start.

January 9, 2014

the timelessness of night


 The thaw is happening, I think. During the #hunkerdownbythewoodstovepolarvortex the kids got home schooled and I beat a path from wood stove to wood stove, studio and house, respectfully. I also checked water pipes, chickens, road conditions, email, calendar. Seems like I would have had plenty of time to make pots, to get that studio hoed out and crystallize my vision for a bump free flow.

[insert perplexed, vexed, and cross-eyed emoticon]

On the heels of my declaration of a 500 word guarantee here on ye olde blogge, I stood there like a deer in the headlights of the big brain freeze, mental frostbite. So, just as one rubs hands to create friction, thus heat, thus thawing, I will try to rub some brain cells together and make a clickity clackity sound with this keyboard to illustrate a few "thaw-ts".

So, here we go. [pause, deep breath, now go!]

Something interesting happened at the wheel the other night. Yes, I did say night. That time of my day when it is quiet and all are asleep, except for me. The darkness of night has a timelessness that, MS and I used to jokingly referred to as "3 o'clock in the morning". Timelessness in the sense that the darkness (outside) is not specific, compared to the light of the sun, glaring morning light through to pink o'clock, then dark.

Unable to train my thoughts on much through my day, I was able to sequester and focus on the pots later that night. With headphones on, some music playing in my head, I was able to get some pots made. Some really great pots, IMHO. I know what you might be saying. "This guys has some kind of mental problem, either distraction, or maybe something worse!" Could it be that I go through a brief period of ADD or PTSD before the highly prized momentum flows? I'm sure someone more qualified than I can diagnose what potters, like moi, might be experiencing.

[note to self: don't stray, get to the point]

Oh, right. I do want to share something other than a pathology of distraction with you.

So, I've heard potters speak about the wheel as their sketchbook and I would say, yes! It's the only way I can "draw" pots. Some potters are very good at portraying pottery in 2 dimensions, I applaud them and I think that a 2D sketchbook is a must, but in reality I don't draw pots in mine. I use my sketchbook to work on patterns and loosen up my "brush-mind" (I'm about the start a new one that Stacey gave me! A beautiful new sketchbook (made by John Hartom) for Christmas!) So, yes, put me in that group who think that the wheel is a better sketchbook for pots. Ha! Maybe our wheels are the original 3d printers!

In the past I have certainly played around with this notion of the wheel as sketchbook. Throwing a series of pots can result in a board of pots all the same or all different, depending on one's intentions AND skills. I've written about the impact that first pot can have on the rest of the pots and how there is redemption in a series of the same.

The other night I had a bit of fun chasing down something that happened unexpectedly. Rather, maybe it happened from some sort of prodding by my sub conscience?(the best kind of prodding?) Maybe I was bored with the way I usually make swirl ware and that boredom exerted itself and prompted me to take a risk, after all, it's just clay, as Cynthia Bringle would say. But I tend to think, or better yet, obsess, of the times that I have failed when I take a chance.

I never think of those momentous times when my whole body of work has shifted because of something I tried that was out of the ordinary. Hmmm, more psychological evidence of pathology...But why are we afraid of risk if the outcome of something wonderful, something truly personal, and new can come of it?

Most people would probably say that pottery is a pretty safe business. But think of the speculation, the risks that a potter makes/takes when submitting our pots to the kiln?! Not to be too melodramatic, but, instead, to make the point that potters aren't to blame for playing it safe because of this looming risk of the kiln, but does playing it safe promote healthy living pots?

[OK, now I've done it. Which rabbit hole should I take?]

Let me reel (real?) myself in just a bit. Which risks do I decide to take, which sleeping dogs do I let lie? We can't always work at the edge. We can't always run at full clip. Pace is everything. Change is slow, Just ask Carl Sagan. But when we, as potters, are ready for change, we make it happen, perhaps prompted by a kind of boredom, perhaps triggered by our sub conscience.

So I guess I was ready to insert the wrench into the way I make my swirl ware. It wasn't something I put on my to do list that night. It was something that happened spontaneously. Maybe this emerged from the noise of the day, from the "urgency" of the day, or maybe from the desire to see something different.

This new "twist" on my technique was kind of thrilling. In this small way I am changed and I am motivated, jazzed, pumped up! The hexagonal wheel makes a light bump and down the road we go. It's an exciting thing when this happens in the shop. As potters, it is our challenge to make this happen, over and over again. Give life to the pots. Give our life to the pots. No pressure, as my friend Scott would say!

When we talk about giving life to our pots, what do we mean? When we talk about pots having something special, what do we mean? I guess we mean that something from our soul has somehow been transferred to the clay. Something that can't be written, something like a quality without a name. Maybe it's simply an excitement we feel when we are making . Maybe it's a kind of joy we are experiencing?

Hey, come on, it's just clay, right?

January 7, 2014

cooped up

Your plate is always full, for better or worse. - Kyle Carpenter, friend, family man, and potter

Kyle Carpenter and Ron Philbeck and I have an ongoing convo. We check in with each other throughout the day [via a group iMessage] and it's a great camaraderie of pottery, family, food, drink. Whatever is going on we keep in touch and share what's on our plate. It's our "water cooler".

I commented that I sounded like a broken record in yesterday's blog post. It seemed like the kind of post I had written a few times before. By broken record I guess I was questioning whether I was saying anything different, was I revealing anything new, had I learned anything since the last time I wrote that blog post. I guess like pottery making, life has its seasons and blogs have their cycles of reflection. Kyle's response was right on and I felt that he was doing me a favor, saying that it was a fact of life for all of us. Maybe especially in this 24/7 news cycle culture and the world of selfies, facebook updates, and the always flowing streaming river of content. But I always have time for gems like this (thanks Doug)!

Thanks for the email comments everybody sent. I'm sorry for those of you who couldn't leave a comment directly on the blog. I'm working on the problem. Like my sluggishness in remembering and reacquainting myself with the longhand blog post, the commenting machine is a little slow to take all of your input all at once. But don't stop trying.

Here are a few thoughts I received today.
For me it's all about momentum...I always piddle around before stepping up to the wheel as it seems important to get my world in order beforehand. Once I start a new cycle I feel an urgency that lets me ignore all other tasks, so putting things in their physical or mental place before I start keeps my mind clear. With the sale of the art center I have much more time for dreaming and playing, but I have to learn another new way forward. Thanks for your comments on my blog...I always admire the way you think!

--Dan Finnegan
And this one,
Great post and so true! I can feel my procrastinations, mutterings and mumblings in your words. Sometimes it is hard to dive in to the icy water but once you are in all is fine. As your friend Mark Shapiro has told me 90% of getting to work/flow is just showing up! We tend to put up roadblocks at times and maybe that is part of the contemplative process. Just saying "Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" may work, but you can miss the quiet, nagging voice of uncertainty that may be needed to process direction. There may be no correct process for productive work. Maybe it is just being mindful of the process and not give in to long to the deer in the headlights scenario !  

Best, W
and this,
And a little pressure always helps!!

-- ap
Thanks for the reassurance. I welcome all of your comments, either through the blog or directly via email.

Just to keep you up to date,
  • It is currently -2 and howling here at the shop in Boonford.
  • I have spent the better part of the day dashing in and out of the bosom of home (and wood stove) to cover pipes, install heat lamps and seal up the hunkered down chickens in their coops. Listen to my favorite chicken podcast here.
  • Not much has changed in the shop except the dryness of the pots I made yesterday. The swirl ware yunomi are tucked under some plastic and await foot turning (trimming) tomorrow.
  • Must send pots soon to St. Petersburg, Fla for Florida Heat Surface Symposium show and to the Charm City for the Southern Hospitality show. Grrrr, more packing!
I hope you don't mind the sea of text. My aim is to try to write at least 500 words a day here on ye olde blogge. (not counting the above as writing, just some sort of public reminder) It's like Ron's Whole 30 goal oriented living.

I do hope you are safe and cozy this winter's night.

January 6, 2014


When I start a session in the studio, whether it be a long one or a short one, there are some obvious tasks that need to be checked off the list.
  • schedule firing date
  • mix and pug clay
  • clear wheel
  • clear wedging table
  • piddle around for an undetermined amount of time
OH! Yes, the last one is a very interesting one. I could expand on that last one quite a bit, and might if I had time! But like a dog circling around a resting place a few time to prep the area for lying down, I circle around the studio, thinking of all kinds of things that need to be done. There are all kinds of things that have very little to do with making pots and are barriers to just getting to the wheel and turning it on.

Part of the issue for me is the clearing of piles of random stuff that finds its way to my work table, residue of finished and unfinished projects. Packing materials, tools, yesterday's afternoon cup of coffee. You get the picture, right? Maybe you have the same stuff getting in your way?

But these things can all be put away routinely. These aren't the real hurdles for me. The real challenge to getting my work started is some kind of psychological-emotional leap of faith (maybe self doubt) There's a kind of re-remembering that I has to happen.

I have to remember to breathe, clear the mind, and prep my hands, arms, back! Each part of the process has to be re-membered each time I start, whether it be throwing, decorating/painting, glazing, cutting and stacking wood for the firing, firing the kiln, even stacking the bisque kilns.

It seems that these activities require lots of hats and a lot of remembering. They are usually contrary to one another, like working with the wetness/dryness continuum in forming the pots, then the abrupt change to painting hard, pink bisque ware, then firing the wood kiln.

There's a LOT to remember, right? It's fascinating and perplexing at the same time. In the beginning it sometimes feels like one is starting down the pottery road with square wheels. (Well, maybe they're hexagonal.)

I guess my point is that my particular processes can be bumpy, turbulent. I guess it doesn't have to be, I've certainly tried over the years to smooth out some of the edges with some alterations to the process, but I guess I've settled into this process, because it produces (or I produce) the kind of pots I like to make!

The pots would be different if I change course. It's not that I live and "never" learn, although it might seem so sometimes. Evolution happens, sometimes.

But beginnings are slow. Momentum/Flow takes time. After some time passes and I remember that I am in the shop to make pots and the way is made clear and the clay is wedged, the wheel spins. Ideas come forth, remembering happens, momentum build, pots fill the shelves.


Now, what is that firing date?

January 4, 2014

false start: apologies

red dirt and stoneware blend

My goal today was to get just a few pots made, not EVEN 12x12, but all I managed to get was the temperature up in the shop, some warm water to throw with, and this pile of clay sorta blended.

Then my buzzer went off!

Does this ever happen to you?!

For those who are anxiously awaiting something more elaborate or, in my FB words, longform, I guess that will have to wait too.

My apologies. But thanks for coming around and checking.

January 1, 2014

Conference 2014

l-r, Martha Grover, Ronan Peterson, and Jake Johnson at the 2012 NCPC (photo: Pincu Pottery)

I hope everyone had a wonderful start to the New Year and shares my excitement for what's ahead!

It will be a busy Spring for me as I will be on a panel at this year's NCECA conference in Milwaukee and I will also be going to the NC Potter's Conference!

It's always great to reconnect and network at these events, but especially great to get charged up by seeing OTHER people make their work. My bro-in-clay, Mark Shapiro will be demonstrating at this year's NC Pottery Conference along with Michelle Erickson, and John Gill! I'll also get to hang out with my cousins in clay and my other bros in clay, KC and RP! At $225 (which includes Lunch and Dinner on Friday & Saturday, and Lunch on Sunday) conference is a no brainer for this potter!

So, I hope to see you at one or both of these get togethers! Let's conference!

Thanks for reading.