Gratitude and Generosity

Deep-Winter is here.  Solstice long nights pull us deeper, and the moments of daylight seem precious and sweet.  The long dark nights bring colder days, lower hazy light, and ample time for reading and reflection in the evenings and early mornings.  There are at least three books in mid-read today, one by the bedstand, one by the couch, and one by the tree.  But my favorite part of this time of year is the opportunity to reflect into the past year, and set intentions into the next.

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I’ve been considering Gratitude during this past Autumn, and have found myself getting irritated.  I’ve noticed that we tend to focus on how wonderful it is that I have everything I need, that I have access to things I’d like, that I have love and friends, and on and on, usually about Me.  But eventually, I stumbled upon a few thoughts that shifted the focus.  The practice of Gratitude is the beginning.  Moving forward, Gratitude can lead to Generosity.  If I am so full of gratitude for everything, let it spill over, and move into Generosity.

Now that is something I can dig into.  Or at least I’m trying, beginning, starting to explore the deeper meanings of Generosity.  There is the line about building a bigger table if you have more than you need.  That’s one way.  Or being conscientious about what to do with leftovers or used items.  Giving to those who have less.  Being kind when one could choose otherwise.  There are so many ways….and I have so much more to explore.

But Generosity also brings me to asking myself if I can take less.  So often, we ask those that have more to give more, but what about taking less?  And let me tell you, there are many ways here, too, and I have only begun to contemplate and explore.  But the thought rings true for me. How about you?

And what does this have to do with ceramics?  With pottery? With being an artist living a creative life?  Oh so much.  I can’t even begin to say where these thoughts will lead specifically, but I can say that I am sitting with the complexity of what it means to be a maker of things in a time when we have too many things.  I ask myself how I can be a better steward of my property and my materials, how I can create a more meaningful connection with the clay that I create with, and how my studio and practice can be more connected to the land that it sits on. How can I continue to link into a creative community that holds these concepts as core values, and introduce others to these ways of questioning and making?

So in this Deep Winter, I welcome you to celebrate with me in all the ways that we love to celebrate, but also contemplate, go deeper, ask questions, and join me beyond Gratitude, in Generosity.

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Holding the Pose

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There are hundreds of poses that we hold each time we make something by hand, from beating egg whites to a soft peak with an egg whip and a copper bowl, to trimming the foot on a wet clay bowl with a favorite Dolan trimming tool.  These poses become meditations, positions that we hold over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times in our lives, and can be moments of pause, relaxation, meditation, or moments of strength and power, locking into the habit with strong intention.

At best, these positions of familiarity are moments that I can relax into, recognizing that I have been here before, and that each time I make these moves, I am the same person, and I am a different person.

Years ago, Jack Troy and I spoke about making things, and how some folks tend towards the Guppies version of production, and others towards the Elephants.  The Elephants produce one offspring at a time, and the incubation rate is quite long and slow.  The Guppies produce many, many offspring, do it often, and even eat some of them to survive themselves (akin to recycling of my own work?).  While I don’t think that I’m consistently on one end or the other of this spectrum, probably most often towards the middle, the realization of how familiar these hand positions have become points closer to Guppies than to Elephants.

Yet every time, the bowls are a little different. Siblings of their current batch, cousins to the ones who came before.  We are always changing and growing, taking in new ideas and influences.  Thank goodness.

But my hands….my hands and shoulders and core muscles remember, and relax, revisiting again and again the left hand fingers barely touching the rim, the right pinkie finding the balance, the left thumb connecting both hands, and my eyes in soft focus.

Creating Containers: the process of wood firing kilns

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Wood firing crew at Joy Bridy Pottery, October 2017.

Twice a year, a small group of curious and hard working friends gather to fire my wood fired kiln for three days, round the clock.  It’s a holiday, retreat, vision quest, sacrament, ritual, work party…and quintessential process in the life of a wood firing ceramist.  We build these kilns that we can’t fire alone, and then we create a different kind of vessel.  Not a soup bowl or tea pitcher, but the more abstract and slippery container of community: the kiln firing crew.

Ursula Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” has been on my mind lately.  In it, she describes the difference between the story of the hero (with a knife, sword, long spikey thing of choice) who tells the exciting story of winning, and the story of the container (gathering, holding, sharing) that tells the story of living.

  “If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again–if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.”  -Le Guin

Wood firing is a creative act in so many ways, and no aspect is more abstract than the creating of this vessel, this firing weekend, that holds all of the participants within, allowing for their moods and preferences, strengths and weaknesses, to be.  We all show up as we are, get to know each other a bit deeper, cherish each other and the process, take care of ourselves and each other, live in rhythm of food and sleep, finish with a flourish, close the gate behind us, and go back to our daily being.  Definitely a ‘carrier bag’ experience.

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As the kiln cools, rain falls, Nina Simone sings her things in my ear, my thoughts meander around the significance of creating this community vessel of a firing experience.  It’s an art form, an honor, and a continually evolving experience that I could never do by myself.  Thank you to the crew of October 2017 for filling the vessel, and all of the crews that I have had the honor and privilege to create the vessel with in the past.  May there be many more.

Community Ware / Community Connecting

Sometimes the making comes from the urge to get a new and personal idea down, to advance a form in a new direction, to bring a surface to life in a specific and inspired way.  Other times, the making comes from the intention to be an engaged community member, and to do it in the way that I can contribute best…by making good pots.

This intention does not always come easy, but by not compromising on my skills and interests, I find that there can be a wonderful balance of true community utility (mugs and vases and race medallions that get the job done), and artistic expression and satisfaction, (taking the time to fit the form to the situation, and making sure that I love what I am agreeing to make).

This year’s Community Wares have taken me in a few new directions….one is the 25th Anniversary commemorative mug for Shepherdstown Farmers Market.  The form was an intentional choice, as it is not only an historic form, but also one of the earliest forms found in pottery, across cultures.  There is always something that has the ‘arms up’ form, as I call it: a slightly bulbous vessel towards the base that ends at the top in the shape that we make if we raise our arms over our heads in pure joy.  There was no other form to even consider.  (smile)

The images and writings on the surface of Community Ware bring a different kind of focus and pleasure…one of slowly writing and drawing, noticing and encouraging the slight variations of the hand.  From Middleway Days written in my own script, to the Mellow Moods or Sustainable Solutions logos, the process of interpreting the design, writing in liquid wax with a bamboo brush, rubbing away the surrounding clay with water and sponge (wax erosion), and glazing with a glaze that I formulated to break on the newly exposed edges continually amazes me when the kiln lid is lifted and the design is there, both recognizable and my hand’s interpretation.

Medallions are becoming more important in the studio (thank you, race organizers, for working with local makers!), and the process that I am working to hone, little by little, is also ancient.  It involves making a ‘positive’ of the medallion, just a little larger, carved by hand.  The second step is to fire the positive, make a set of press molds (clay pressed around the piece, then released), and fire them to a low temperature.  Thirdly, I make the actual medallions hand-pressing small balls of clay into the molds, over and over again, pop them out, let them dry a bit, hand finish and poke a hole, add my studio stamp…..you get the idea.  Many steps, each and every one of them done in the same way since the beginning of humans making things with clay.

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So, I owe my community a heartfelt Thank You, for the opportunities to make things that matter to you, for the gift of being part of our community in the way that I know best.  For being greeted with a smile, and introduced as ‘the potter’ or ‘the one who made that mug that you love.’  For the children who tell me that they wear their medallion to school.  You make it worth the effort, each and every little ball of clay.

Controlled Burn: spring freshening

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As luck had it, after a brisk walk at Antietam with friends, there was the most exquisite comntrolled burn being conducted along a field and valley. Sure sign of spring.  The breeze was just right, rolling the fire quickly along dead grass, skipping right around trees, bringing rejuvenation to the prairie grass and wildflowers of summer.

Something about spring, from late winter through to early leaves, sets my mind to pruning, clearing, burning….getting rid of old stagnant growth to make room for the new year’s growth.  Many a conversation has followed the elaborate analogies of the cherry tree, pruned a bit harsh, but not too harsh, brings on the most perfect blooms, followed by a full swell of summer fruit.  Prune too hard, and the suckers grow too hard, reducing the yield, as the tree has to work harder to gather what it needs to sustain. Prune too light, and the fruit yield breaks the limbs, bending them down to the ground, snapping where there is just too much to hold.

Burns as rejuvenation are a strong pull, as a wood firing potter and wood stove enthusiast.  The controlled burn, with many hands each with their eyes and focus on their specific task, is a group pruning, a team with the focus of rejuvenation together.  Cousin to the wood firing by their relationship to controlling fire, I draw analogies of burning the old scrap wood from the property (albeit in a contained brick vessel), setting intention as a group, and coming out the other end with something lovely to sustain us into the future.  The successful containment of fire will always be a thrill.  But the controlled burn….the containment is accomplished with people and water on the edges, a keen eye and understanding of fire and fuel, and serious coordination.

A friendly chap among a large crew, none of whom minded an enthusiastic observer with a camera, described the various jobs among the workers, marked by the colors of their helmets.  (White helmets make the calls and know the whole picture.) He also said that the grass will grow quick, the trees will not be damaged, and the cycle continues.

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So here’s to rejuvenation by fire. May your version of spring pruning and controlled burning be refreshing, and may the prairie grasses sprout soon and strong…

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Returning to the roots….

Time passes, pots spin off the wheel, water ebbs and flows…the Potomac River is spring-low again, and daily walks remind me how the subtle shifts, things we hardly notice, add up slowly to make the big changes. We age, islands erode, friendships deepen, and interests change. Yet we revisit certain places, friendships, habits….again and again, over time.  So, the erosion of time brings me back to the computer, to decide how it is we continually make the tiny choices of how we present to the rest of the world.

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The down-time…an important ingredient in being in touch with who we are, what we believe, and the directions we are looking.  The pots I make are decidedly different from the ones I made three years ago, at the time of my last blog post.  The way I approach clay has shifted.  My take on the wood, the kiln, the studio process has slowed way down, with more eyes and hands, and less automatic actions.  The Potomac River, Appalachian Trail, C&O Canal, and this little piece of home-land have been part of that shift. The pooch and the partner, other parts.

 

So stick with me.  There is more to come.  The exploration continues….

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Water Wednesday

The great lakes have been part of my life as long as I can remember, particularly visiting the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  Last week, I took my parents, Daniell, and the dog to my favorite shoreline, complete with stick-throwing, bare tootsies in sand, and a hike through the dunes and woodlands.  Water centers us, reminds us what we are.

So, an old-style snapshot to remember the day…complete with camera strap in the corner, and that dunes windblown look.  These are the same trails that I ran as a youth, hot summer days, straight into the water below.  The same trails that I hiked as fast as I could, to see if that high school date could keep up.  And now, the trails that I savor, leading to and from the water’s edge, lingering just one more moment, as it all seems so familiar.