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