Wheel-thrown & hand-built stoneware - functional design - teapots, dinnerware, special orders, large-scale platters & vessels. Local New Mexico clays & glazes formulated by studio potter Theo Helmstadter
The other day, through a friend, I acquired a couple very old ceramic pieces. The acquisition may really take a long time, years probably, to fully accomplish - still, for now, the new platter and bowl are sitting on my kitchen table and are like new companions, new creatures in the house. In the evening in the kitchen I glance over, mid-spoonful, and there they are, watching.
I am watching them too. They are not rare. The piece above, the platter, is Japanese umanome from the late Edo period. Probably produced in the Seto region, these platters, I am learning as I read online, were in prolific use along the Tokaido Road. Yanagi Soetsu cited them as an inspiring example of robust, brisk, ‘honest’ ceramics during the folk art revival of the ‘twenties in Japan - the Mingei Movement. Umanome means horse eyes. That’s what the circles are supposed to be, arranged around the perimeter of the form. Typically these platters have six…my platter has seven. During my first few evenings with my new ceramic pieces a favorite feature of the platter is…I have to say…not the eyes…the six small rough dots closer to the center. These were not made with the brush. I think these are scars in the glaze surface from wads that lifted the next platter up a bit in the kiln.
Putting down my spoon I reach for the platter and flip it upside down. Its foot is wide and low, just right for arranging on top of the wads placed on the platter below it - in the days before kiln shelves, the chamber was sometimes filled with pots that were designed to stack easily one on top of another, separated and kept from fusing together as the glaze surfaces melted by the use of little refractory pellets - wads. I look closely at the unglazed foot - yes, sure enough, there are the small rough dots. I picture my platter taking its place in the stack, the tall column of ware in the kiln. It was neither at the top, nor at the bottom.
My friend sent a follow-up email after I got the pieces. “Regarding your new antique pots,” he started, and helped me understand them by describing their histories a little, and, importantly, where & when it was that he acquired them himself, some sixty years ago. "Those aren’t horse eyes,” he said also. “Those are clouds.”
The second piece here on the table with me now is smaller, more delicate, higher-fired, and older. It is a Song Dynasty bowl probably made in south-east China & exported to Indonesia. Like bowls generally, as compared to platters, a more overt and prosaic flat form, this particular bowl is more graceful and ethereal. Bowls often have a hidden quality that platters lack - a shifting, musical, essence that you can’t see but feel. Bowls are more mysterious and cosmic - you use them more every day, though. No iron brushwork on this bowl, as the umanome platter has - instead, under the greenish crackly glaze, some sweeping, quickly-rendered, loopy designs. “Those are lotus flowers,” my friend said.
You can feel the motion of the potter’s hand, holding some short thin stick and trailing it through the still-wet clay, as you hold the bowl now. Better hold it with both hands - better stop eating and put the spoon down again, slow down and just look for a second.
Night, when I return to the kitchen and check on my new pieces a last time before sleep, it is the bowl I am glancing at as I switch the light over the kitchen table off, and as, from the window over the sink, moonlight fills the room.
This Oribe teabowl is from Kokeigama, a great ceramics studio in a big old pair of buildings at the top of a very steep hill in Tajimi, Japan. I arrived there on bicycle, thrilled to be there in the heart of the Mino ceramics region, eager to see as much as I could in a couple days.
Tajimi was my last stop before taking the train back to Nagoya, and from there to Tokyo, at the conclusion of my short but fantastic first trip to Japan. I am very grateful to a number of people who helped make the trip happen - people I was friends with already, people I became friends with during the lengthy learning & planning process for this trip, and of course, also, I am grateful to a number of total strangers who helped me out once I was there and got lost or was totally baffled about something. In the picture below, a typical ramen restaurant has a machine outside where you place your order - you feed coins into it until your menu choice lights up, then push the button. A little paper tag appears, and you take this in and hand it to the person who seats you. Sometimes, by the time you sit down your food is already appearing, since the kitchen learned about your order first.
I loved these places! But the first time through, which happened to be my first night in Tokyo, just off the plane, the cook had to come outside and show me how the machine worked.
Here’s an article about the ramen shops at Shinagawa Station, which I managed to get four meals at. I have hundreds of pictures & lots of stories but to keep things brief here are just a few links to places I want to remember for next time:
Super Hotel Shinagawa Shimbamba Friends recommended this to me, and it was my landing point in Tokyo. Friendly, minimal, modern, elegant, with a bath on the first floor and a fantastic traditional breakfast
Ginza Kuroda Touen Also a recommendation, I headed to this fine ceramics gallery on my first morning. I met Shinji Suzuki, from Gifu Prefecture, whose show was in its last week, up on the second floor
Ookini I was lucky to be invited to a dinner at this sushi restaurant in Kyoto. Unforgettable - small, comfortable, exquisite food. At the end of the night the chef served us cherry blossom tea and sang o sole mio
Nukumori no Sato In Tanba, this was the first of three onsens I visited. Not for staying overnight - just for the spa. I felt so healthy & good during my whole trip! These spa visits had a lot to do with that. My other two onsen visits were in Tajimi: Tenko no Yu and Toki Yorimichi
Harada Farm I stayed here while visiting potters in Tanba. The generous owner, Harada Kenichi, whose great-grandfather built the main buildings, lent me his bicycle & also gave me a ride back to the train station
Tokiwa Ryokan of all the places I stayed at in Japan this ryokan was the most traditional, with beautiful wood paneling, tatami rooms, great meals, and a peaceful quiet
Tajimi Guest House My last two nights in Japan were spent here & it is perhaps the first place I would try to return to on another Japan visit. A warm welcome and a ride from the train station, a beautiful quiet garden, a bicycle rental…in Tajimi, the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art has a brilliant collection & I spent hours here
Ten days’ leave he has to spend - Will his journey never end?
Like many people I was at first a little horrified, and then curious, and then delighted that Roger Waters has released, this January, a narration of A Soldier’s Tale, that well-loved Stravinsky piece I play in my studio all the time. I play it once a season at least - three or four times a year - searching Spotify for the various productions, comparing the versions. People are always re-writing the narration but the music, arresting, angular, jazzy, is just so fantastic.
I know - Sony actually released this recording last October - somehow I only heard about it in January. The holiday whirlwind has thrown the calendar off & kept me from noticing half of what’s going on.
January has already flitted past - it has been a busy few first weeks of 2019 in the studio, with Thursday workshops on clay science, glaze science, with two firings, and a number of new people joining the Tuesday evening wheel class which is great.
Glazes are inherently alchemical & hard to pin down. Our resident potter Leslie has created an array of tests to hopefully take some of the guesswork out & create a bit of predictability - here you see her introducing it. Each piece on the array provides a demonstration of two interacting glazes, one overlapping the other, and then the other overlapping the one. As a potter you’re always balancing the known and the unknown…both are necessary. It’s really through experience, through using glazes over and over, that you come to get a feel for what might work, glaze-wise, on a given piece. This need for experience & repetition is one reason we keep to just a few basic glaze buckets in the studio rather than having a myriad of choices.
In A Soldier’s Tale, the Devil talks a naive young soldier, returning home on leave, into hanging out with him for a little while - just three days he tells him, but it turns out to be three years. When the soldier finally gets to his home town his mother thinks he’s a ghost, his girlfriend has married someone else, and he is out on his own. “Now what are you going to do?” the Devil asks, tauntingly.
This is just one of the numerous things to love about the story, this familiar fairy-tale trope - I love it because this is how the studio feels in a basic way. What potter hasn’t detoured into the studio for a few minutes, maybe just two or three minutes, just cover up those pieces and check the kiln - and then found he or she has been in there three hours?
Or you’ve been in there three weeks, during which time your friends have gone on great vacations, and great new albums have been released - you never even heard about it. Glazes may be unpredictable, sure, but time, that’s the one that’s really hard to pin down. Time is what A Soldier’s Tale is really about…and its waltzes & tangos are fabulous, crazy.
Higher and higher over valley and hill Faster and faster, up and up they soar Till time stands still… Then everything is as it was before.
“One must have a mind of winter,” said Wallace Stevens, and in the cool white crackle of the shino glaze, above, with that smoky haze settling lightly on the edges of a few forms, I can feel winter’s approach. I was happy to get this last project completed just as snow began settling out by the kiln.
It is encouraging, of course, to feel the very-cold nights & imagine that a prodigious winter is approaching. You look eagerly at your skis, dusty from the long summer.
Limestone, chalk, marble, travertine - as well as pearls, seashells, and kale - these all contain calcium carbonate, a material used enthusiastically by potters all over. Potters usually buy this compound, CaCO3, as Whiting, and add it to stoneware glazes to promote hardness and translucence.
On the left, above, a bottle whose surface was thickly painted with a slip made from a brown clay found in the Chama river valley. Looks good, I thought…but how to make the glaze melt just a little more, and to make it more…dense and translucent? I spooned a little Whiting into the pint container of slip and mixed enthusiastically. The result of the second test is on the right, above - you see that the same clay slip has melted totally, due to the fluxing action of calcium at high temperature, and has become a thin, translucent, greenish glass. I need to go one more round, modifying my enthusiasm just a bit - maybe half the amount of Whiting so that the slip doesn’t loose all its viscosity & run right off the form.
And I’m going to need a larger supply of that Chama clay, too, once I get the formula for the glaze figured out - could be pretty frozen up there at the moment, though.
Meanwhile. Here at the gallery, we plan for the eleventh annual Open House - to be held Friday & Saturday, December 14 & 15. As always, terrific amounts of giveaway pots left from various projects throughout the year - as well as beautiful new work and of course doughnuts, packing & shipping, holiday cheer. Please drop by if you’re in town!
This year the Open House will feature work by student potters & by our two resident potters at the workshop-studio where we do classes. December is a great time to browse this new studio & see what’s happening. Every Thursday morning through the end of the year we’ll have a short workshop that you can sign up for even if you’re not regularly using the studio - drop in to watch the demonstration, or pull up a seat at the wheel & make work too, during the three-hour session.
Topics include: stacking wheel-thrown sections to make bigger forms, slab-building essentials, exploring micaceous clay, developing a design for your wheel-thrown dinner set, combining slab & wheel-thrown elements. In January, we look forward to a workshop on the science of clay - how and where it forms, why it behaves the way it does.
Wikipedia: “Every full moon has many names, and most are tied to the months of the year. But some moons are tied to seasons, such as the Harvest and Hunter's Moons.”
I snapped that picture in the middle of downtown Santa Fe, leaving someplace in the late evening. The air was crisp and the sky, after a few days of rain & snow, was starting to clear.
The days shorten. Frost on the windshield, and leaving the studio, evening, I cast a blanket over the clay mixer, half-full of clay scrap & water - I don’t want it to freeze.
It is easy to love October, always a delight and relief when it arrives - and a little sobering, reaching for a sweater, turning on the heat, closing the windows at night. One works with new vigor as the year declines - there is time for a couple more projects this year. Only a couple.
One recent project that’s been great has been a collaboration with Iconik, the coffee shop next door to Green River Pottery’s workshop studio. One day we gave Iconik fifty cups, all different, a collective study in variation. They put them out on the rack & when you ordered a coffee drink you got something like the above.
Spin-offs from the project are up at the Green River Pottery shop now. We may do a similar ‘Counter Encounter’ again with Iconik on December 15.
Meanwhile work proceeds across the street in my ‘other’ studio. New work is up on-line and the annual Holiday Open House is scheduled for December 14 - 15 this year, a Friday evening & a Saturday.
Please drop by if you’re in town! There’ll be a free shipping offer, too, if you’re out of town & shopping on line.
for details about both.
Wikipedia: “A signal conditioner is a device that converts one type of electronic signal into another type of signal. Its primary use is to convert a signal that may be difficult to read by conventional instrumentation into a more easily read format.”
I know. Not really common knowledge, at least it wasn’t to me, before this fall. One learns the significant things in life not through curiosity but through necessity. I have fired my kiln hundreds of times over the past fifteen years without being aware that the millivolt signal leaving the controller gets ‘conditioned’ by this simple little device on its way to the proportional gas valve.
I had occasion to learn.
In news of more general interest, we had a terrific time during the Lena Street Lofts open house this October. Thanks to everybody who dropped by & thanks especially to our two resident potters, here in the workshop-studio, who helped anybody who felt like trying their hand at the potter’s wheel. Leslie & Melina have been doing more of the teaching this fall, to the delight of students, and me, and, hopefully, to their delight as well. We are fortunate to have such talent here in the workshop studio.
Influences are forces - circumstances, personalities, irresistible as the tide. - Raymond Carver
I love Raymond Carver's essay 'Fires'. He talks about writing in a very in-the-moment way, and he talks about what has influenced him as a writer. "I don't know about literary influences. But I do have some notions about other kinds of influences. The influences I know something about have pressed on me in ways that were often mysterious at first glance, sometimes stopping just short of the miraculous," he says.
I had something along those lines in mind when I went back to visit the place where I grew up a few weeks ago. As a potter, I don't know about potterly influences - it's pretty hard to pin down what specific potters might have 'influenced' me - but traveling back to the place I was born, I hoped for some insight into influence in the more mysterious and miraculous sense. I stood at the intersection of Dublin Hill Road and Angling Road and took the picture above. In the distance you see the lake - it's about four miles away, down past that line of trees. I know, you can barely see it - but, it is there. As a kid the presence of that lake, and the sense of its being there even when you couldn't see it, was influential. In the night, from my bedroom, I heard its waves.
A few years back a former colleague of my father's found my gallery in Santa Fe, bought a piece, and then introduced himself. He and my dad had taught at the same place, back where I grew up, had sat through the same faculty meetings, stood around the same coffee urn. Come visit when you're back this way sometime, he said, and I wanted to do this now - he could tell me a little about life back then, he could give me a little perspective. Before knocking on his door I visited the lake itself, parking carefully where, back then, I would have just flung my bike down. I stood for a moment on the shore. It was just the same. The smooth shale stones felt the same, and by mistake getting my shoes wet...that felt the same too. The waves made a quiet, repetitive, questioning, sound, coming up and then going back. The lake was talking to itself, just as it was before, an endless sound, when you really crouch down to listen, waves stretching twenty miles in both directions up and down the shore.
Finally I went to my dad's former colleague's house. He and his wife welcomed me in and showed me around. Here's the piece we bought from you in Santa Fe, he said. This one here is from Mackenzie Childs. And here - this one is by Toshiko Takaezu. Did you know she came up for a workshop once?
Uh...really? To the college? I imagined myself pedaling around on Main Street, while Toshiko Takaezu was up on campus a couple blocks away. I would have been about seven.
Sure. When the new art building had just gotten completed. They wanted me to bring some people in, so, I thought why not start at the top? I called her up. We all had a fantastic time!
Wow, I said. I picked up a small but tall and casually-thrown bowl that looked like it had warped a little in the firing - a little bit oval. An opaque white glaze that is now a Seventies cliche - like Rhodes 32, a glaze I love and use all the time. Wow, I said again. I wonder if my Dad dropped by to watch her workshop. I have often thought of the 'circumstances,' as Raymond Carver would call them, of my growing up - a couple hours from Alfred University where Dan Rhodes was himself on the faculty at that time, along with Robert Turner; an hour from Syracuse where, when I was a kid, Garth Clark opened the First International Ceramics Symposium. The Everson Museum, with that fantastic collection. Our kitchen was always filled with stoneware, some of it made in that new art building up on campus and perhaps scooped up by my dad on his way down from his office.
This casserole was always around when I was little. It was in constant use, either in the oven, or on the table, or pushed into the refrigerator. As a kid I thought it was big, and very fine, and heavy. The stony glaze - that could almost be Rhodes 32, with maybe a little more feldspar in the mix - was elegant, earthy, and not decorative. Even as a kid I didn't like the word 'decorate.' The casserole was, for me as a kid, a satisfying unification of formality and urbanity on the one hand - just look at that lid pull at the very top - and a kind of easy-going, corduroy, every-day-ness. Kind of what I picture my dad's classes to have been like. I asked his colleague what he'd been like as a teacher.
Carefully I packed up the casserole and brought it home with me to Santa Fe. Maybe this'll turn out to be something really valuable, I thought as the plane took off - maybe it is an early work by Robert Turner himself.
In the bright light of my own ceramics studio, though, the casserole didn't quite look so good. I was surprised. The lid is ill-fitting, the glaze doesn't quite fit either, crazing deeply. The foot is trimmed with a tentative hand. I peered at the signature. 'Klym,' it said, the letters drawn with a needle tool, sure sign of a student potter. I was disappointed. Overall the casserole had a quality I'd never noticed - provisional, a step on the way, this was a piece made by someone learning how casseroles worked, what the form was, underneath. It almost seemed like...something I might have made.
Summertime, and it's easy to get caught up in the swirl of passing days, they are long, and blend into one another as if the calendar itself is melting. The fleeting cool nights are often spent working too, wheel spinning, clay trimming, pots firing. It is usually four in the morning when I put the kiln in 'reduction' to begin the consequential part of the process - chemically altering the atmosphere swirling around the white-hot pots, enriching the glaze colors, darkening the claybody.
All of this is good. The days fly by. Unloading the kiln the other day I took a moment to study some of the work emerging from it - I noted that students in Green River Pottery's new studio for classes are making beautiful, personal, radiant, contemplative, humorous, pots. A good sign! I like to say that what matters most is how things feel when you're working, not what work you produce - I'm not a fan of the word 'product' - still. Click on some of these images above, these 'products' of student effort over the last month or so.
In a similar way, I can scroll through a file of images downloaded from my phone over the last month or six weeks - a record of the swirl, the passing melting days, the fleeting events, rainstorms, road trips, concerts, long afternoons. Here: heading up a favorite highway, passing San Antonio Mountain & entering Colorado, en route to the Arkansas River...
Or here, catching the last rays of summer sun in a cottonwood tree along the highway to Albuquerque. En route to the Sunshine Theater.
I love stopping to see those cottonwoods, they are never the same twice. The air, the light, the changing time of year - this is all recorded in the form & feel of those trees when you get close to them. Times when I retreat to my own studio to get back in step with my own work & make a few pieces I keep this in mind - a good pot is like those cottonwoods - has a life of its own, still seeming to evolve, never the same two different times you encounter it. I sit at the wheel - or stand - and try to keep up -
- and try to keep up with what's going on across the street in the teaching studio too. I leave a dusty track of footsteps in the street between 'my' studio and the 'teaching' studio every day. Convenient to be so close to Iconik Coffee Roasters - and to have a little space - just enough - to set work outdoors for quick drying.
It is great to have some interns & residents at work here - Open Studio hours are ever-expanding & space is available. Now is a good time to sign up for a class by the way!
At concerts I try to resist taking pictures but this one time - at the Sunshine - I couldn't resist. Many potters have remarked on the close relationship between music and work in clay - what is up with that? Not sure, but, the more often I steal away from 'work' to go hear music, the better my work gets.