Saturday, December 30, 2017

Eva Zeisel

 I am reading On Design, by Eva Zeisel. Partly I read it for a bit of design education, something I have never really had, and lack.

Mostly I read it because she is my hero.

 I like her work, especially these soft, warm, curvy styles.

In herself, she is Ms Mid-Century, an influential product designer and teacher for decades of the 20th century. She encouraged her Pratt pottery students into competitions and into industrial work, in other words, into modern ceramics work.

And she is a wonderful model for daring and doing. She died in 2011, at age 105, working creatively almost all the way. She made her own path through life.

She grew up in an eminent scholarly family, and turned to art. Wanting a practical art to make a living, she learned pottery. In her cultural environment, handwork and practical craft could not have been much valued. My father grew up in a similar context; I've got a feel for this. He also would have loved to do more with his hands, but went, respectably into science and music.

 For adventure and opportunity, she moved from Hungary to the Soviet  Union, and made a career success, in a new country and language. Yes, she spent time there in prison. With her major scholar husband, she came to the US as a refugee from Hitler. She is quoted, in a video about her, saying about that time: "We were never poor; we just had no money." True: they had education, contacts, past successes, confidence, adaptability. But such courage and will.

Her son, John Zeisel, was an important teacher of mine, so I feel a personal connection to her. I'm finding it a pleasure, just to write about her.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Local Clay

A few weeks ago I visited Bob Deane, a potter in Media, PA. Among other choices, he uses clay he digs out of the local creek beds, takes home, cleans, blends, compresses. It's lots more work than buying a prepared box of a chosen clay body. But he likes it, finds it something special.

"Art, life, breathing is all about connection. Going down to the creeks I played at as child and digging clay feels so right, so connected to my childhood, to the earth, to the river. "

I have heard about and thought about using local clay (though I've never even stopped at the Pottery Canyon Park). I've been in a couple of ancient potting villages in the south of France, where people have dug and used local clay since the Neolithic. But I still buy prepared clay bodies I like.

I bought a little pinch pot from Deane, made of this Media clay. I find it special too. I have not lived there as an adult, had not even visited for many years, but it connects me to home too. It's a very simple thing, a bit rough, glazed with a rather forceful pair of glazes he likes, like a rock. It feels good in the hand.

 It sits peacefully on the desk. And here is the earth of my childhood, in my hand too.

Monday, November 27, 2017

December Nights

This will be the biggest, longest, wildest show I've ever participated in. It's San Diego's city Christmas festival, all over central Balboa Park. Everything is open, plus art sale plus performances plus food.

I'll be in the Artisans' Marketplace part of it, near the Botanical Gardens, the lath house.

December 1, 3 to 11 PM; Dec 2, 10 AM to 11 PM

Come by, sing me a carol, take over my booth and give me a break.

I haven't made these silly fish in several years. They are fun again. Use one as a soap dish, or to hold paperclips on your desk, or? Credit for the design to Reiko Campbell.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

" Fine Craftmanship is Attention to Every Detail."

I'm not sure who I am quoting, but it sticks in my head. To me it means pay more attention, take it slow enough to finish every step and detail. That's difficult. It's a version of the general difficult and very good goal: do less better.

Last weekend seemed focused entirely on this message.  I went to a concert by Richard Goode (marvelous pianist). I'm sure he attended to every note as he prepared the music he played; certainly he seemed always to know where the music should go and how to express what he heard in it.

I also went to the San Diego Potters' Guild show. Such a range of work in the same medium, all of it functional pottery. I saw everything from marvels to pots I don't even want to look at. Even if they are beautifully well made, and though I very much care about pottery, some of it is just far from my taste. I find taste fascinatingly variable. I'm sure it is something separate from quality.

For lessons in fine craftsmanship, I always look at Ellen Fager's and Merle Lambeth's work at these shows.  Have a look at the members section of

While you are at it, may I show you my new favorite potters there? Evan Lopez and Michael Ridge. And my perennial favorite, Roberta Klein. That's my taste. You, looking through the same set of web pages, might be attracted to entirely different work.

Maybe fine craftsmanship is necessary but not sufficient to make something attractive. Or maybe it is not even necessary. I have been working towards making light-weight pots, and I am pleased that I am mostly there.  But some of the pots I picked up at this show were really heavy. Is that a flaw? A matter of taste?

Monday, October 30, 2017

From Lindbergh-Schweitzer to Talmadge

Where are these places? And can you tell I think of them as opposites?

I'll be at craft shows the third weekend in November. You could too.

Saturday, November 18,  Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary School Craft Show, 9-3. This is a busy, friendly, homey sale of handmade everything, relatively inexpensive. Near the 805 and Balboa in San Diego.

Sunday, November 19, Talmadge Art show, 10-4. This show is full of very classy, often expensive usable art. Lots of gorgeous handmade women's clothing. Liberty Station Conference Center, 2600 Laning, San Diego. Yes, let Google help you find it.

I tend to bring different pots to these two events. Without a real intention to do so, I make pottery that covers this range of quality and style. I'm just starting to wonder why. Part of the answer, I think, is that I am not yet set as a potter,don't have a standard collection of things I make repeatedly. Still exploring. Always, I hope,exploring.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What Grabs You?

I am much inspired by an article by Dubhe Carreno in the October Ceramics Monthly. (That's Carreno with a tilde, but I don't know how to find that here.)

What grabbed me first were photos of her pots, quiet, simple, loose, graceful, lovely.

She began aiming to be a dancer, then a potter, then became a gallery employee and then owner, then a studio potter and a teacher. So many changes, each leading ahead. The article is about her professional passages, each step loved. It's wonderfully open and brave and hopeful. She says "Change is the core of growth" and does it.

As a teen she worked to be a ballet dancer; deciding she was not going to make it as  major pro, she switched to clay. She had discovered it at a friend's studio, "a magical place." They still connect: "ballet is the discipline that formed my character and sensibility as an artist. Your dance cannot  be made to look better than it is, your hard work and true presence is there in front of the audience, no time for edits or after-the-fact fixes. This ingrained knowledge was naturally brought in when I started working with clay. I understood the need to dedicate time to build muscle memory by working long hours to tackle this new medium..."

Studying art, she worked at a gallery, kept that up after school and eventually opened her own gallery. "I lived in the gallery and absolutely loved it."

With the prospect of motherhood, she closed the gallery and started, part-time, to make pots. She took time to revive her working skills, and now loves this stage: "I love the utilitarian nature of my work and strongly believe in being surrounded by beautiful handmade objects that enhance your everyday experience."

"It has been really important to consider major life and career changes as chapters of a rich life. I questioned myself, whenever a change was upon me, am I quitting? But life has showed me that recognizing that you need to change and move organically to the next adventure is a gift. You carry with you all lessons learned. I am so grateful I danced so I can understand how to know clay better, and I needed to know clay better, in order to become an art dealer, and I needed to know how to cultivate a business running my own gallery to discover my own practice, I needed to develop my own practice to become a better teacher."

Perhaps life and changes look so connected, like such a blooming, in retrospect, rather than in the exploring. Perhaps not. I am impressed, both with  her current work, and with her way of living.

See more:

Monday, October 2, 2017

Photos: What Do You See?

I always take photos to keep a record of the pots I make. They are not particularly good pictures, nor interesting, but they remind me adequately. Like this.

Recently Alan Greenberg, a real photographer, took pictures in his garden of my pots. His purpose is to have more photos available for Talmadge Art Show publicity. He offers me the photos. too. What's my purpose beyond the record-keeping? And what do you see differently in his photos?

Look at these.

Do you see the pots or the background of garden? Does it matter? I think these are much more interesting photos.

The best ones are art pieces in themselves, not for the pots more than the garden, just the composition of interesting forms and related colors.  I really like this one, everything round.

 That's one additional purpose: a fine photo. I like having my pots used this way.

What about the publicity? I hope some of these pictures will be used by the Talmadge Art Show. I also use photos in my Etsy shop, to show the pieces for sale from several angles.

  That is certainly second best, for pottery, compared to handling the pot before you decide to buy it. These photos make a three- dimensional object into something two-dimensional, and a thing held in hands into an image for the eye. Not at all what you are getting.

(Have you heard the story about Picasso accosted by someone on a train, who complained about his unrealistic paintings? The complainer showed Picasso a photo of his wife, and said, "this is realistic". Picasso politely peered at the photo, and said, finally, "she sure is small.")

 Etsy suggests we show our pieces in use, to make this form of presentation more realistic. Kitchen and dining pots in the garden are not more realistic. But interesting, eye-catching. Maybe even odd and attractive.

For Etsy I do try to make better photos. Other than a few of pots sitting on a table, all have a plain  background, to focus on the pot. Compared to these photos in the garden, I find that focus does not make them interesting. And there are thousands of pots for sale on Etsy. Interesting and unusual photos may help.

Perhaps less background, to highlight the pot?

Not that one but the next one?

What do you see, the pot or the garden or the photo?

I think I've learned how to make my pots stand out on Etsy. Thanks, Alan.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A Fit of Teapots

After several years, I am making teapots again, with pleasure. It's a very rewarding form, complicated enough to be challenging, variable enough to suggest always more possibilities. Oh, dear, there's a limited market for them. What shall I do with them all, if I keep following the options as long as they are interesting?

My taste is clearly for smooth, simple graceful form. Sometimes I succeed, more or less. For other people, teapots, more than other shapes, seem to invite us to go wildly creative.

We see references to other things in their shape or parts. They encourage art.


The above pictures from a book are in The Ceramic Surface by Matthias Ostermann.

Commercial pots, too, express hints or forms of other things.

That's so friendly and homey, though few of us have ducks on our counters. It's the resting shape of a duck that is also a teapot, and makes the feeling. Thanks Becca.

Look at this spectacular teapot by Ellen Fager.

It's the real fish, and, if you dare, a functional pot for tea. Thanks, Ellen.

Of course people make art in other standard pottery forms  --  cups, bowls, plates. But there is something special about teapots. Perhaps because they have so many parts, they ask for manipulation and variation, for changes of proportion, and so refer so effectively to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Art and/or/versus Craft, Take Who-Knows-How-Many

This is one of my on-going issues. Where does functional, handmade pottery fit into the world these days? Do potters have to be artists? Do I?

Octavio Paz offers the clearest, most sensible distinction that I've seen yet, and adds industry as a third relevant category. He wrote an introductory article for the First World Crafts Exhibition in 1974, which I've read in In Praise of Hands, a 1974 book about the exhibition. So, not news, but new to me.

The rest of this post quotes his article, "Use and Contemplation".

"A vessel of baked clay: do not put it in a glass case alongside rare precious objects. It would look quite out of place. Its beauty is related to the liquid that it contains and to the thirst that it quenches. Its beauty is corporal: I see it, I touch it, I smell it, I hear it. If it is empty, it must be filled; if it is full , it must be emptied. I take it by the shaped handle as I would take a woman by the arm, I lift it up, I tip it over a pitcher into which I pour milk or pulque  --  lunar liquids that open and close the doors of dawn and dark, waking and sleeping. Not an object to contemplate: an object to use. ...Handcrafts belong to a world antedating the separation of the useful and the beautiful." (In Praise of Hands, page 17)

"It is not simply its usefulness that makes the handcrafted object so captivating. It lives in intimate connivance with our senses and that is why it is so difficult to part company with it. It is like throwing an old friend out into the street." (page 19)

So art is to contemplate, and has no other use these days (well, a commercial one). Craft is to use and enjoy as sensory experience. Not quite; our contemplation of art is a sensory experience, and art pieces we are attracted to may become old friends, too. Not so separate.  Perhaps the problem is just in our categorizing.

But there is a distancing in our relation to artworks; "Being made by human hands, the craft object is made for human hands...We look at the work of art but we do not touch it. The religious taboo that forbids us to touch the statues of saints on an altar  -- "you'll burn your hands if you touch the Holy Tabernacle," we were told as children  --  also applies to paintings and sculptures. Our relation to the industrial object is functional; to the work of art, semi-religious; to the handcrafted object, corporal....The handmade object is a sign that expresses human society in a way all its own: not as work (technology), not as symbol (art, religion), but as a mutually shared physical life." (page 20)

Is that true? I hope people who own artworks touch them; I do. It is only the museum protecting them from too many hands that keeps us separate. That is most of our experience of art, though, and may affect our relation to it in the way Paz says it.

And art is usually handmade; by "the handmade object" I think he means a handmade and used object, his definition of craft.

OK, industry. "Industrial design tends to be impersonal. It is subservient to the tyranny of function and its beauty lies in this subservience. ...Technology is international. Its achievements, its methods and its products are the same in every corner of the globe...(page 22).  Craftwork, by contrast, is not even national, it is local. Indifferent to boundaries and systems of government, it has survived...Craftsmen have no fatherland: their real roots are in their native village...craftsmen defend us from the artificial uniformity of technology...: by preserving difference, they preserve the fecundity of history." (page 23)

I think he is talking about traditional craftsmen, not us. We influence each other all around the world, borrow freely from traditions, are interested in and rewarded for innovation. But we are locally based. I even find it odd to sell pots online, where people choose pots only by look, and cannot feel what they might be choosing. And a product of industry, however uniform, changes with different contexts of use. I once saw a set of photographs of those basic resin chairs, in settings all around the world. Wonderful variety, emphasized by the one object that links them. But, yes.

"Between the timeless time of the museum and the speeded-up time of  technology, craftsmanship is the heartbeat of human time. A thing that is handmade is a useful object but also one that is beautiful; an object that lasts a long time but also one that slowly ages away and is resigned to doing so; an object that is not unique like the work of art and can be replaced by another object that is similar but not identical. The craftsman's handiwork teaches us to die and hence teaches us to live." (page 24).

I think he overdoes the differences among objects we place in these categories. But it is a clarifying and convincing perspective, to me, and lovely, and encouraging. Back to the potting wheel!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Cooing over Chun Glazes

I love that look.

In the latest Harvard Magazine, there's an article exulting over their recent collection of pots in the original Jun glazes. The collection is a gift from Ernest and Helen Dane, the collectors, to the Harvard Art Museums.

These are the original pots, from the Song dynasty in China or a bit later. Fancy as they look, they are flower pots, for the emperor's palace, of course. The article says, in scholarly tones, that "Jun techniques in fact persisted much longer, at least into the Ming era (1368-1644)".

Actually we still make and fire these glazes, very happily, and usually spell the name "chun". Take a look at Pinterest or Etsy.

Aren't they wonderful?

I love the glaze. I'm not sure I love the pots. (Are we allowed to say that, about grand, historical marvels?) These 3 from the Harvard collection are published in the article. I find the long, rectangular piece wonderful, balanced, calm, beautiful. The others look chunky to me, which makes them seem heavy. And I have a hard time appreciating anything ornate, like the pot with saucer. My limitation, perhaps, not a less than wonderful pot.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Art in the Village

Come visit if you please. I'll be at Art in the Village, Carlsbad, on Sunday August 13, all day, 9-5. It's a nice show, big and variable, comfortably on the coast, in downtown Carlsbad.

And, yes, of course, new pots. The latest kiln load came out well! And rather blue.

Friday, July 21, 2017

How much Do You Plan?

There are people who plan a pot in detail before starting to make. They sketch the pot and its parts and decoration, and decide what glazes will go where. They do design. But what do they do when the plan doesn't work?

There are people who follow what comes, who make "what the clay wants". They work through intuition.

In Potters on Pottery, a lovely very British book from 1976, sculptors Alan and Ruth Barrett-Danes describe the ways they work:

Ruth: "I... probably draw a lot around the subject before I begin, but my work is not something which is thought out beforehand. I feel that ideas come through working  -- what might not necessarily have been a very good idea to start with has to go through the process of working, and from that other things follow."

Alan: "The making has got to be directed at an idea. A lot has to be thought around the subject, and then you move into the making slowly, going farther and farther from the original thought, until finally you make something which has nothing to do with it and throw the work away."

Most of us, I suppose are in the middle, in the amount of preplanning we do and the value we place (or see) in pots which come out very different from our intentions. The Barrett-Danes are competent; when their pots diverge from the original idea, it is probably not from mistakes in the making.

Mine, yes. I make mistakes and benefit often from them. With the intent to make teapots, I've made a couple of jars I like. Just too big to be practical as teapots, but skip the spout and handle and they will be fine jars.

Most of the interesting detail in my pots start as mistakes.

I very much like the bent footring. Sometimes I make it on purpose, often not.

The braided edge is the most interesting part of this bowl, added because the rim was thin and irregular without it.

All this says I am inclined more to the intuitive, a way of keeping the process loose, in hopes of results with a light looseness. Fun, too. It requires constant close looking, to see how the pot may develop.

Friday, June 30, 2017

"Without Wonder, One Can't Create Anything."

I've been reading In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri. It's fascinating. She is an Indian -American writer, who took on Italian as a preferred language. She lived (still does?) in Italy and writes in Italian; this book is about the process of learning and identifying, more or less successfully, as Italian. So, a creative person, stretching mightily. She says that, in Italian, she has a different voice as writer, is a different person.

The relevant part to making pots: She quotes Carlos Fuentes: "It's extremely useful to know there are certain heights one will never be able to reach". And says "I think that these heights have a dual, and substantial, role for writers. They make us aim at perfection and remind us of our mediocrity... I think that an awareness of impossibility is central to the creative impulse. In the face of everything that seems to me unattainable, I marvel.Without a sense of marvel at things, without wonder, one can't create anything."

I'm thinking yes, and no. It's not so just for writers, but potters too, actually anyone aiming for any action of quality. To marvel at wonderful work and be alert to the distance between that and my work inspires me and impels to improve.

But impossibility? mediocrity? It never occurred to me to aim at perfection. Maybe she does. All these extremes seem overdone to me. Her perspective is wonderfully unsentimental, though. No silly "shoot for the stars" nor "everyone is fabulous".

Back to work,  nose to the potting wheel.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Do Less Better

I've heard that often. I've said it often. But doing it!

In the past week, I've had my nose rubbed in this idea. I've played concerts, not well enough, by not preparing thoroughly enough. I've gotten pots back from 3 different firings, and most are seconds at best.

What are seconds? In the fruit market where I worked in high school, they were the misshapen fruit, sold for less. In some ways good, but not good enough to be fine. In my pottery, they are the pieces that are too good to be trash, but not fine. It's a judgement call, and one I find hard to make. It's about having and using standards for quality. Making less better means raising standards.

For example, this one is good, to my eye.

But  all these cups have serious problems. Trash?

 I love this glaze and I like the shape, and those things came out partly well. But each cup has spots where the glaze was thin enough to come out boring, and thick spots where the glaze crawled, leaving colorless areas.

And one has glaze where it shouldn't be at all  --  the glaze is white when liquid and I didn't notice it there. So hard to toss in the  trash.

That's another thing to learn, not to treasure each piece, or past effort. In Grossmont College's ceramics studio, I've heard, there used to be a bullseye target set up over a trash can. Students could express disappointment by hurling a bad pot at the target. That seems overkill to me; you learn by looking closely at failures too. But a good lesson in letting go. This is not only about pottery, of course. How hard is it to toss material relating to work I haven't done in years and won't do again?

I've recently seen very high standards at work. Helping unload Ellen Fager's kiln, I followed her judgements of the quality of her new work. Some beautiful things are seconds to her.

And I've been in a number of galleries in Portland, Oregon, that also reminded me what spectacular pottery looks like. Check out the Eutectic Gallery, And the Skutt factory hallway gallery

That's maybe 14 inches across,by Meira Mathison.

Yes, a nice set of Stephen Hill piece.

With all that help, I'm intending to raise my standards for my own work.  Not easy, but a step ahead.. Make less better.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ashraf Hanna-- oh, wow!

I was in London a couple of weeks ago  --  and isn't it fun just to say that?

I've been there often enough that I have a round of favorite ceramics galleries to see. At the Contemporary Ceramics Centre, there was an exhibit of Ashraf Hanna's relatively new work. It's stunning. I stood on the street and stared, before even going inside.

His pots are hand-built, from large coils, pushed and I guess paddled and reshaped.

This one really caught me. It's maybe 20 inches high. It sits quietly, exuding presence and glow.


Oh, you aren't in London? Not the same, but websites are everywhere.