Scaling Up

When I built my first chamber kiln, I couldn’t afford shelves for the top half of the second chamber. Realizing I had to fill those 3 feet, I began the long process of learning to make large pots. In the pre-digital world, information was scarce and distant. Letters took weeks or months to be answered and answers arrived at my mailbox – one mailed to a post at the end of the driveway. Discovery was slow but exhilarating. I poured over photographs of ancient storage jars, scrutinizing every mark and line for hints of process. As I worked out the mystery of centering 40 lbs. of clay, I was amazed to find it was not a wrestling match, but more a dance. I still remember rolling out a coil for the first successful base I’d thrown and feeling an instant and ancient connection to the old potters of Nigeria, Korea and Japan; a matter of debt and brotherhood.
The complications of drying, surfacing and loading large pots absorbed me as each firing delivered a rich blend of questions and answers. Each firing also produced a lot of retail-resistant pots, but I was hooked. Working large required a slow wheel which taught me a new, patient relationship to form. Waiting for a 32-inch diameter base to make a complete revolution before moving my hands up on each pull, taught me volumes about material, line tension and process.
I was surprised by the impact working large would have on my experience of an object and space. A 40-inch vase in a doorway, a large vase in the corner of a room altered my understanding of the door and the geometry of the room. I also found that rather than feeling an expected exuberance surrounded by large pots, I felt an almost contemplative intimacy.
I recently watched a documentary exploring Mark Rothko’s work in which Rothko talks about his love of music. He describes the experience of listening to Mozart as an immersion, completely surrounded by sound, producing intimacy. He wanted his work to surround the viewer, to create a similar intimacy. Big sound, big canvas, big pot – can intimidate and comfort.
Over the years, I’ve taught many workshops focusing on throwing large. Typically participants arrive on a Monday, anxious and skeptical. Some are unsure about their motivation for signing up. Others are crystal clear. After introductions, one asks, “You mean to tell me that we’re all going to make an 80-pound pot?”
“Count on it,” I smile. And they do. More importantly, they learn about letting go of control, about working slow with soft clay and about the power of becoming a community of makers instead of a room of competitors. At week’s end, 2000 pounds of clay thrown, we gather for a last afternoon tea and talk. Leather-hard pots are arranged, photographed and packed for the trip to distant kilns. A very different group of potters leave from the one that arrived Monday. They’ve worked through the many myths of working large, staying up late, often too late, to develop technique and understanding. I watch them help each other carry out and load their pots, joking and amazed. This is the goose bump moment for me, the moment I’ve been leaning toward, so many years ago when I was 6 shelves shy of a load, trying to get it right – now, passing it on.             Keep the faith. Kevin

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Mix it up

As our kiln crew has morphed from a primarily middle-aged team to a younger group, I’ve given a lot of thought to the demographic of kiln crews and workshop participants.  Over the years I’ve found the firings and workshops I’ve led were filled with thoughtful and engaged potters. Among these wonderful experiences a few stand out as being exceptional.  I’ve been taking a close look, trying to discover the elusive factor that tips a great experience over the edge of magic.  Turns out there are a lot of them.  However, the mix of ages and gender kept showing up on my radar.

I’ve found both workshops and firings can be inspiring with any blend of folks, but when there is mix –  not necessarily a balanced mix, of age and gender – a higher octane creativity and exploration kicks in.

When a homogenous group turns out to stoke or explore, they work with shared values and assumptions, resulting in a comfortably supportive experience.  Shake up the mixture to achieve significant gender and age variation, with a variety of backgrounds to thicken the plot and a certain tension fuses the collaboration.  In this group there are quick second thoughts about jokes told, music played and political remarks.  Assumptions about aesthetic choices and motivation for working become more complex.  A creative tension exists that provokes and encourages the extension of boundaries.

Young guys, hot off an MFA program are wheel to wheel with a middle-aged mom taking a break from kids and routine; who’s throwing complex forms with an ease the guys haven’t seen before.  They silently recalculate their place in the ceramic food chain.

During a tea break, a couple of mid-career potters listen to a young woman speak passionately about her work, the importance of clay in her life and why it matters in the 21st century.  They listen and hear an urgency, a fire that they’ve forgotten and see the lack of it in their work – good work, but safe work.  Their focus in the workshop shifts.  In this context, if all goes well, magic happens; and we leave the firing, the workshop, changed.

For now, this is my best hunch about what really comes down to mystery and grace.  Slippery to define, but we’ve all been there and we know it when we see it, yes?  Wheels turn.  Hearts open.    Peace, Kevin

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Ten Years, Twenty Firings, No Relief in Sight

We shut the door on the 20th firing of the Kawazu kiln here at Tye River. Perfect weather, gourmet food and hard work, good-humored crew. The morning after the firing I sat with the kiln, a bowl of tea, taking in the stillness as the memories and ghosts arrived.

I drifted back ten years, to the first firing on September 12, 2001. We gathered in the shadow of the aftermath of terror and dark sorrow. We found a quiet healing as we stoked, changed shifts and shared meals. The decade has seen changes to kiln and crew. The original team, predominantly middle-aged, held together for 7 to 8 years. They were a profound gift to me, becoming more family than crew.

This firing, only two of the original stokers were at the firebox and for one of them it would be her last. Her passion for drawing, writing and gardening along with neck pain, have convinced her to turn in her singed gloves. This time I can’t change her mind.

For 10 years we gathered every 6 months too fire the kiln for a week. While learning the kiln, we saw each other through relationships, births and loss and the challenges of parenting. Cones dropped, years passed.

The demographic of the crew now is mostly 20 to 30 something’s. The energy and focus is taut. They lean on the veterans for guidance and are eager to be of use, to find competency. Keeping tradition alive, they are excellent and generous cooks. A transition is taking place with respect and grace.

After salting the last chamber, tents come down, sleeping bags and gloves are packed and that mysterious bond, built over long days and nights of doing one’s best, holds us. We hesitate, unable to let go of what has held us together.

Soon it is just Linda, the apprentices and myself, stoking for a couple more hours. It is leisurely, effortless work. Someone spots a black snake muscling up the workshop wall, headed for the phoebe’s nest over the door. Linda grabs a rake and holds it deftly against the siding and the snake pours itself between the tines. She carries it far beyond the kiln and it ‘s gone. We let go.

Now I finish my tea and recall the first kiln I built here, long ago. I feel that same electricity I felt as a very young guy – dreaming of a kiln like this – a life like this; and still find it hard to believe, that in spite of myself – here it is. Here we go. Peace, Kevin

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May 18, 2011

We live in rural Nelson County, Virginia – a community with a tradition of support when one of the many faces of trouble knocks at the door. Six months ago, a close friend was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer.The oncologists had little to offer. A specialist took a look and told Phillip about an untested procedure he developed and for which he felt Phillip would be an ideal candidate. Phillip signed on for an arduous 6 months of radical chemo and radiation. Today Phillip is cancer free. The rare happy ending. Phillip is an uninsured artist and knee deep in debt.
Over the years a template of support has evolved and we pulled it out for Phillip and his family. In his life, Phillip has touched many lives throughout the county – as soccer coach, musician, sculptor and friend. I knew a benefit would draw a crowd.
A few phone calls quickly brought 8 of us together, ranging in age from 23 to 62. We roughed out a time line for an evening that would include food – lots of it, a series of cake walks, an auction of art and services and music by 3 local bands.
We met weekly over the next month, coordinating sound equipment, parking, art donations, food and clean-up. In communities across the country, artists are asked to donate work for all manner of causes. Ours is no exception. Each potter, sculptor, painter, and musician responded with quick generosity. I considered the stereotype widely held about artists – that we are reclusive, self-absorbed loners. Here we coach soccer teams, volunteer in the schools, show up at county meetings and help get out the vote; what Gary Snyder refers to as “the real work”, modeling both creative and social responsibility for the next generation.
The next generation went to work getting up a web page, designing and printing posters, doing radio spots and organizing volunteers.
The evening was magical. My wife, Linda, emcee’d the evening, weaving a mysterious blend of healing circle and block party. Young and old danced, laughed, ate and told stories until the last song faded. Out came mops, trash bags and many hands to take down and haul a couple of truckloads of music equipment. Outside, unable to let go of the night, friends leaned against car doors talking under the moon.
Tired and overwhelmed, Phillip was aware that he had offered us all the gift of celebrating our community with him and each other. I recalled a wise woman telling me, “the tumor is the messenger; the healed and the healer are one.”
A lot of money and love was raised that night. We woke the next morning, knowing as if for the first time that art, music and community are essential to the work of being human. That healing is possible and that when the chips are down- and for each of us sooner or later the chips will be down – all we need is love.
Keep the faith. Kevin

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April 18, 2011

Spring morning in Tye River, Virginia.  Sun just up and my wife Linda out the door.  Ron Philbeck, a potter from Shelby, NC arrived last night and is still sleeping upstairs.  Ron is here to rendezvous with Dan Finnegan and three visiting potters Dan hosted at his Libertytown Arts Center, where they gave a workshop on English slipware.  The presenters were Doug Fitch- Devon England, Hannah McAndrew- Scotland, and Angela Walford- South Australia.  They’ll arrive for lunch and then be carried by Ron to Seagrove, NC to continue their rapid immersion in American clay culture.

Meeting Ron for the first time last night, we turned over the many issues potters everywhere chew on, including blogs; of which I am both ignorant and skeptical.  I found Ron so good-natured and informed and up to his hips in the blogosphere that my skepticism softened.

Later in the morning, my apprentices, Lisa York and Susannah Goodman, arrived and we began prepping the workshop for 3 days of wadding.  Ron pitched in and raised the bar for wadding conversation.

I invited Nan Rothwell, old friend and fellow potter, to the impromptu gathering.  Lunch was 3 hours of food, tea and talk of all things clay. Doug, Hannah and Angela proved to be the best of company; engaging, curious and open.  While standing in my workshop, Doug mentioned that he’d never seen a hummingbird, just as the first one of the season landed on the window feeder.   Doug motioned for Angela and Hannah to join him and there they were – three potters having just crossed an ocean, mesmerized by this tiny bird, just arrived from Panama, staring at them.  Good as it gets.

After kiln talk and trading tales and pots, Ron herded his charges for the haul South.  Dan said his reluctant farewells and then they were gone.  The workshop suddenly quiet.  I felt a tribal connection to those potters I may never see again.  Grace.

We put dishes and teapot away and returned to our wadding; touched and changed by the intimacy of this community of makers.  I recall Ron telling me that the English Slipware event was made possible by their blogging relationship.  If blogging is capable of making afternoons like this possible – I’m in.    Peace,  Kevin Crowe

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