Michael Simon: A Life in Pots

The following is an account of the current Michael Simon exhibition, A Life in Pots, at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis by my friend and clay colleague Theresa Cullen who was able to attend. The images are all generously supplied by Mike Gesiakowski who was also there.

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My Own Private. . . Minneapolis?

When I took off for Minneapolis, I didn’t know much about the city; in fact, all I really knew came from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It looked pretty cool on television, but how was I to know that the wind chill would register 5 degrees Fahrenheit when I opened the door exiting the airport?

But I had to go in March, and I talked three others from Athens into going with me, not that it was hard to do. Ken and Quida Williams and Hester Meyers were willing to take off with just a week’s notice to see something that will likely occur only once in our lifetimes. My favorite artist, Michael Simon, a rock star in the ceramics world, was having a retrospective of over thirty years of his work, not just any work, but the best pots that he had kept back for himself from countless firings. And we were invited.

Why Minneapolis? Michael grew up in Minnesota and attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. And the phenomenal gallery/studio Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis was the perfect place to have a huge show. I don’t know what went into getting the show together—years, I imagine, and incredible amounts of work. But whatever it took, it was worth it. The room with Michael’s pots, the regular gallery where food and wine were being served, and a room for Michael’s friends’ pots (all well-known potters in the ceramics world—Wayne Branum, Randy Johnston, Mark Pharis, and Sandy Simon) were jammed. None of Michael’s pots were for sale, so people who had come from all over the country weren’t in a frenzy; simply put, all were there to see some of the most beautiful pots made in the United States in the last almost four decades. The pots were there in all their gorgeousness under lights and under glass, skillfully arranged, and minimally “explained” by Michael on small white cards.

Everything that I love was there, the small plain cups, the exquisite Persian jars, a huge bowl with a swan, pots with horses, pots with trees, the salt glaze, the minimalist stroke of a paint brush, faceted three-legged vases, pots with fish, jars with lids, and pitchers lined up from the 70’s to 2003 in order to show the evolution of his form, and did I mention teapots? My favorite is simply titled “Round yellow bowl, closed, 1993, salt glaze, h. 6 X14 inches.” What the title doesn’t state is the color of the inside—a luminous amber that looked under the artificial light as if alive with sunlight. And if you look carefully, you can see two faint small circles, almost as if drawn casually with a pencil, with several lines coming off the circles as if they are spokes. What would I pay to own this pot? What wouldn’t I pay to own this pot? It doesn’t matter; it’s not for sale, and that probably makes me want it even more. But I digress.

Michael seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention as he signed his book. You see, you really don’t have to go to Minneapolis to see the show, though you really should because you owe it to yourself. You can see most of the pots on exhibit in the marvelous book that Michael’s wife, Susan Stokes Roberts, edited: Michael Simon: Evolution (Northern Clay Center, Minneapolis, 2011). The forward is by the renowned artist Warren MacKenzie, who was Michael’s teacher and mentor at the UofM. The book also has essays by Mark Pharis and Glen R. Brown, as well as an interview by Mark Shapiro. It is wonderfully done, but the pictures say enough. The pots are almost as beautiful in print as they were at the show.

The next day we attended a talk at the University of Minnesota where Michael and the four potters who were his classmates and who went on to become wonderful professional potters/teachers all chatted and answered questions. All four seemed delighted to share the spotlight with Michael. The room was standing room only, and an overflow room had to be opened for those who couldn’t find room to stand. I came away from it with amazement that these five artists were all in the same place at the same time. They were asked what they thought created the climate, and they all looked at Warren MacKenzie, and then they looked at each other, and then they smiled broadly. You could tell they genuinely liked each other back then, and they still like each other now. It sounded like a wild time to be making pots in such a cold place!

And then the final event of our weekend unfolded. Following the talk, we went to “the party” held at a fabulous house outside Minneapolis. It was a house to die for, a beautiful, modern, not ostentatious place filled with art. As I looked out the windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling, I saw snow banked up three to four feet, but inside there were people who loved pottery and wanted to be around people who loved pottery. It helped that we went with Hester; she knew just about everyone there. When I sat down at a big granite table with about 12 or 15 small pots at the center, I started chatting with a man sitting there about the pots in front of us. I will admit that I probably tried to show off a bit about which pots I liked (I’m not a great conversationalist at parties when I don’t know people), and this went on for a while until someone walked up and asked if I had been introduced to the man I was talking to–Warren MacKenzie. I didn’t say anything else about pots, but he did. He told a story about how his son dropped a Hamada pot years ago and how upset he (Mr. MacKenzie) had been. He couldn’t talk about it he was so upset, thinking about the pot itself, the history, the cost and the sheer loss—everything. That same week, his wife dropped another Hamada pot (what are the chances, right?). And to cap that horrendous week, he dropped a third Hamada pot himself. I just stared at him when he was telling this story. He laughed and said, “At the end of those seven days, I knew a pot is just a pot.” What was I hearing? Would one day I break a Michael Simon pot and have the grace and insouciance to say, “Well, a pot is just a pot”? What do you think?

It was one short weekend in my life, but I can say that it will remain one of the best. I have the book to remind me of everything I saw, I have Ouida, Hester, and Ken to share stories with, and I have Michael’s pots that I have collected all of my adult life to look at and touch. Thank you, Michael and Susan, for making all of this weekend possible.

Michael Simon: A Life in Pots will be in Minneapolis from March 12 until May 1, 2011.

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Here’s a link to the Northern Clay Center’s video of the exhibition:

http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1899910051999

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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19 Responses to Michael Simon: A Life in Pots

  1. Michael says:

    Oh! how envious I was as I read this! But also, how excited, thrilled, and grateful for any word of an event I wish I had the time to go to myself. If it weren’t for that darn pottery habit I have! ;-)

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful recounting of the weekend. I was a faithful student of Michael’s even before I took a fateful workshop from him at Penland in 1989. Like many potters of my generation I think of Michael’s pots often as they seem to have left their mark on me like a newly hatched chick. I’m so happy that Michael is beginning to be recognized (again) as the genius that he is.

    I look forward to getting my copy of the book.

    Thanks for making my day! week!

    • Scott Cooper says:

      “…as they seem to have left their mark on me like a newly hatched chick.” Sweet. How could you ask for better imprinting than that?

      Say, any chance you have any old photos hanging around from that workshop? I know that was back in the dark ages of film, but it’d be great to see something from that.

      Oh, and I just got the book in the mail the other day. It’s excellent!

      • I second that request for any pics you might have. Or maybe you remember someone from that workshop who did take some?

        Thanks everybody for commenting! Theresa did such a wonderful job of putting her experience into words and Mike was so on the ball to have thought to keep a visual record of the event.

        This lovely internet contraption is such a wonderful device, and is populated with such generous and thoughtful travelers. We are truly fortunate to live in this age where sharing these experiences can be as easy as a few clicks on a keyboard. Thanks everyone for contributing to our excellent community! You are helping make the world a better place by sharing your kindness and unique way of looking at things with your brothers and sisters.

      • Michael says:

        Just another reason to envy you, Scott! I’m looking for a copy of it at nceca. What do you think the odds are? ;(

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I got mine by calling NCC: (612) 339-8007, ext. 301. Not sure how well they’re stocked…

      • Michael says:

        I’ll look around. I do have a snapshot of me and Michael on the volleyball court. If Interested I’ll dig it up! ;-)

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Hi MIchael,

        While I’d rather see a shot of a young(er) MK practicing his brushwork with Simon lingering over his shoulder, a volleyball snapshot would be pretty good, too. Maybe digging it up will prompt some anecdotes about that workshop, hmm?

        (This isn’t the proper time or place for it, but that reminds me of my All Time Potters Volleyball Dream Team list. It’s a work in progress, but you’re starting at Middle Blocker — height, fortitude, finesse hands. I’m starting opposite you, but only for similar height and some actual court experience. Otherwise, I have no business being on a list with MacKenzie (Setter), Voulkos (Strong Side Hitter) and Simon (Super Sub).)

        What’s bizarre to me is that twenty years ago it was completely common to do a whole workshop and have only a photo of rec time to show for it. Nowadays, you’d have 100 camera phone pics live on your blog by the end of the first day’s demos! Now that’s progress.

      • Scott Cooper says:

        @MK: Oh, hey, that’s the stuff! I should know to look at the Internet before I start commenting on it:
        http://klinepottery.tumblr.com/post/4330314954?ref=nf

  2. john bauman says:

    Coincidentally, a few weeks back I was sent a proof copy of the Strib (my friend, Bill, is an editor there) story about the exhibit and made a few corrections to the story.

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    Great essay, Theresa — thanks so much for sharing it! I particularly appreciate hearing more details about the show and the events that weekend, and your perspective as someone from Athens is intriguing, too. It speaks to the distance Simon created between those places, but all their similarities with regards to pots, too. (As much as I’d love to go see the exhibit, I’ll probably have to be content with paging through the book over and over again, so this makes up for some of what I’m missing in person.) And thanks to Mike for the excellent photos here, too.

    “What would I pay to own this pot? What wouldn’t I pay to own this pot? It doesn’t matter; it’s not for sale, and that probably makes me want it even more.” Perfect! I think this really sums up the way that great functional pots affect us. We want to possess them, to take them home where we can see them everyday, in different kinds of light; to feel how they hold a warm or cold drink; and to learn about their details and intricacies, like “two faint small circles”, over years of getting to know them.

    Your story about talking to MacKenzie is a gem and, unfortunately, far too familiar! (Wouldn’t it be great to get a few do-overs on the times I’ve shot my mouth off before realizing the esteemed company I was in?) His story about breaking those Hamada pots is a classic; there’s so much wisdom about functional pots in that compact anecdote.

    I linked to this Minnesota Public Radio interview in Carter’s comments before, but am repeating it because it’s so directly related to your post. It’s great to hear MacKenzie tell that story in his own voice: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/about/features/2007/05/rochester/#onair

    And there’s an interesting variation between them, too. In the radio version, he said, “That’s a fortune in pots — a fortune we never had,” which to me seems like a subtle, yet significantly different lesson to take away from the experience than, “At the end of those seven days, I knew a pot is just a pot.” I really like both versions.

  4. ron philbeck says:

    I should fly up there immediately! I fly up to see Warren’s retrospective and I’ll never regret doing that. I spent over two hours in the gallery that day walking around and looking at the pots. It would be nice to go and see Michael’s pots on a day when the gallery wasn’t crowded. I sure hope this exhibit travels. Surely it will at least come to Georgia.
    I ordered my copy of the book last week. I can’t wait to get it.

    Hey Scott and Carter, let my know if you want to meet up at the airport!! You too MK.

    • ron philbeck says:

      That’s supposed to say ‘flew up’. Oops

      • If it comes to Georgia, or anywhere near by, say Shelby or Bakersville NC, you know I’m gonna be there! Sorry Scott that I can’t promise to make it up to Fillmore, although the exhibition arriving in your backyard would probably tip the scales on when my eventual visit to you would be. Why don’t you and Cindy and Maggie just move down South to be closer to some of your brethren and sisters and pottery groupies? Brandon has already given word that he plans to someday move East, so why not you?

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Sounds great! All we’d need is a tenured gig teaching photo, a part time web developer job, and a good daycare. So as soon as that’s locked in, let me know and I’ll call the moving van! Alternately, while I know it’d be a bit more inconvenient, maybe y’all could just move up here. Our 4.5 months of winter each years are hard to beat.

    • Theresa Cullen says:

      I have heard rumors that people with connections are trying to bring the collection to the UGA museum, which has just undergone a wonderful new addition. Apparently the calendar for shows is done years in advance, but surely there is room for such an incredible retrospective from one of Georgia’s own (sorry, Minnesota). Maybe some letters from potters and collectors throughout the USA?

      The ticket prices to Minneapolis weren’t that bad, so you guys really need to think about going–seriously think about going.

  5. Lee Love says:

    Theresa, Potters are one of Minnesota’s most important exports. Relating to Carter’s most recent post: where else can you make pots and only be concerned with function and beauty?

    • Scott Cooper says:

      Lee, 
      I totally agree! If i made a list of my favorite potters, the proportion of them from MN would be huge. I wonder how much of that is purely attributable to MacKenzie… If he’d taken a teaching job all those years ago in, say, Colorado, would think of it as a great exporter of potters today?

      • Great question! I guess a large part of location is historical accident, but you have to wonder if planting seeds in other fields will hit fertile ground or find only barren rocky earth with only enough soil to feed shallow roots. Damned interesting question!

  6. Pingback: The blog year that was | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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