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


About kevincrowepottery

I am a wood-fired potter and live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Tye River.
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