One of clay’s lessons

I think the first thing I really had to learn when I started out as a beginning potter was patience. There is a lot I could say here, but that’s not what I’m thinking about right now. Probably the second life lesson clay had to teach me was the impermanence of things and how to deal with their loss. Potters get to know this one really quickly. Most of us start out with an exaggerated attachment to the pots we make, and as more and more of them get sacrificed to the learning curve and the sheer accidental losses of the process we learn to get over the ‘precious pot syndrome’. The fact that we have so much time and effort and imagination invested in each of these creations  eventually is overshadowed by the knowledge that we can make them all again, and that newer ones will most likely be better than what we lost.

And when we eventually come to live surrounded by pots, handmade by ourselves and others, we experience again how short lived some of these objects can be. And then we have to relearn just how temporary some of them are, and that ones made by others are not always replaceable. A chip here, an accidental drop in the sink, all sorts of natural hazards face a hand held used piece of pottery.

Well, this morning I had an unexpected surprise. It is somewhere in the mid ’70’s here in Athens GA, and I decided to open my windows and doors and do a little ‘Spring’ cleaning. My kitchen is full of pots, and all these dust collectors were overdue for a good cleaning. Well into it I reached for one of my all time favorite pots, probably my favorite by my old instructor Michael Simon, a small wood fired paddled hut jar that I picked up at his studio many years back. After putting it on my kitchen table I noticed that there were some clay crumbs near where I had put it, and then I saw where they had come from.

Not just the rim, but one of the feet is crumbling. And this just from sitting on my shelf over the Winter. Drat! I had had problems with teapot spouts and some of the rims of his cups chipping, but this is a first. I guess this one was really under fired! Once upon a time I would have been wrecked. The pot was amazing and irreplaceable now that Michael is no longer working. Now I am better at dealing with it. It had a great life in my kitchen for many years. Back when I was storing herbs and what not in the jars in my kitchen I used this one for thyme. It still smells like it. Good memories of good times in the kitchen and the beauty it has brought me. I will find a spot for it somewhere else in the house where I can still admire and learn from it. You win some and you lose some, I guess, and learning to let go is a lesson all potters have to deal with.

Any stories out there to be shared?

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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6 Responses to One of clay’s lessons

  1. Becky says:

    I know exactly how you feel.

    About 12 years ago, I did a study abroad program in Cambridge, England. I took a pottery class from a potter I met at a sidewalk art show. While I was there, I bought a very smooth, dark green mug from my pottery teacher. This cup survived quite a bit. Since my study abroad, I moved (wait, I’m counting) 8 times, and the cup managed to make all the moves with not even a chip. Then, one day, I’m washing the cup and I drop it in the sink. It broke into 3 big pieces. First I swore (very, VERY loudly), then I started crying. It was my favorite cup. It was my husband’s favorite cup, and my sister’s favorite cup. It was sad. Brian came running upstairs, trying to figure out what was wrong, and I showed him the cup and he said he’d get rid of the pieces so I didn’t have to look at them. I told him that I would keep the pieces and use them for something (texturing pots in the studio, mosaic etc). So now they’re in the studio, and I use the edges to add texture to my pots. It was sad, but it’s not the end of the world (although it felt like it at the moment). Isn’t it funny how we get so attached? I even wrote a blog post about it. 😉

    http://willowavenuepottery.blogspot.com/2010/03/sad-thing-happened-yesterday.html

    • I’m so glad you found a new life for your broken mug. That was a really inventive way to keep this treasure close to you. Ten years is also a lot of life for something like a mug, especially if it is the go-to cup for several people.

      I remember the first real special pot from my collection that broke. Needless to say, I had not yet learned the lesson of letting go gracefully, and I’m sure I pitched a fit that the neighbors could hear. Having lost so many pots over the last few years has trained me to stay calm and now I just sigh that the inevitable has taken place.

      Its a weird cycle. The pots we love the most are the ones we use the most, and the ones we use the most are the most likely to break. If we stopped using them we would be diminishing our loving interaction with them and we would love them the less for it. So, we can’t win. Either we use the pots we love, and learn to accept their inevitable loss, or we tuck them away somewhere safe and stop our daily rituals of loving on them.

      Thanks for sharing your story Becky. I hope you have many new favorite mugs to fill the void.

  2. ron philbeck says:

    Hey Carter, nice post. All true. We have many pots that we use everyday some are mine but most were made by others. I treasure many of them and hope they really outlast me. Those pots all show some wear from daily use. A chip in the rim or on the foot or even a nice patina on the bare clay from baking or making pasta with butter and garlic. There are a few pots I will not leave the house with, others I’ll take with me in the truck and they end up in the floor board on the ride home after I’ve finished my tea.
    I have put a few pots up and away. Ones I know that would be impossible to replace. I do get them down from time to time and use them, even if it is just to have a bowl of Cherrios or something. Eating my Cherrios out of a Don Reitz bowl is a nice ceremony.
    We have quite a few of Michael’s pots and I swear every one of them is chipped somewhere!! Ha. That clay was a bit weird. I used his formula for about a year and just never could get used to it. Anyway the chips are fine and it shows we’ve used those pots. I got several of MS pots out of a box a couple weeks ago when Brandon Phillips came by. They had been packed up from when we did our kitchen renovation. It’s great to have them back out now. I drank my green tea from one this morning. (By the way I have that same style paddled hut pot, we keep chocolates in it, I bought it from M. one day for $12, it was a second b/c of a crack in the rim. It’s holding up fine. and I love looking at it and holding it and emptying it to see the great volume inside).
    Wow, what a ramble!! Ha. Well, I can’t wait to come back down and see you sometime. I want you to give me a full pottery tour of the kitchen cupboards!
    Have a good week. Thanks for having such a wonderful, thoughtful blog!

    • Aw shucks…. Thanks Ron! Hey, I can’t wait for you to make another trip back down here either. Maybe I can scrounge a ride up to Shelby one of these days too. I’m workin’ on it!

      Great story about the ceremonial cherios! Yeah, I keep some pots just for special occasions too. I have a nice medium sized Liz Lurie pitcher that I use to make Chai tea with. She was down in Athens for a few years, and actually was one of the co-owners of the Wood kiln on Geoff Pickett’s property where I used to do my wood firing. She also used to live in Michael Simon’s old studio after he moved, and she and Carey MacDonald used to have sales out there and fire Michael’s old kiln (or maybe they built their own salt kiln, I can’t remember). Anyway, its perfect for the job and it reminds me of a friend I haven’t seen in many years. A good ritual for a special treat to myself.

      Yeah, Micheal’s pots all seem prone to those little chips. The word was that he fired to only about cone nine and sometimes the clay was a bit short of maturity. That hut jar is seriously under fired though. It is wood fired, so its not from his kiln, and I don’t really know where it came from. It was one of the only wood fired ones I have seen, and I was glad he let me buy it. I have a larger version that is from his kiln, and that is holding up well.

      I’m so glad you and Brandon got those pots of Michael’s back out of storage. Maybe you can give us a tour of your kitchen on the blog one of these days. I think we’d all love to see some of those treasures in the home where they live.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    My favorite story about risking the use of irreplaceable pots is from this interview with Warren MacKenzie. His family used the Hamada pots they owned, until three of them were broken in the span of one month.

    “‘That’s a fortune in pots — a fortune we never had.’ I said at the end of the month, ‘OK, no one breaks a Hamada pot again,’ and we haven’t to this day.”

    • Thanks for the link and the story! Hard to get less replaceable than three Hamada pots! All broken in one month, no less.

      I’ve been pretty fortunate in my home, with only a handful getting broken accidentally over the almost 20 years of collecting these things. Of course some are more painful than others, but my record is pretty good considering the cavorting cats and assorted humans I have shared my house with.

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