How Ceramics Shaped My Life

Between 1970 and 1980 I worked and studied in the pottery studio at the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, a most unusual place filled with amazing people.

One of my teachers during that time was David Stannard. David moved to Alaska while I was still in Eugene and I heard tales about him building potteries for local villages to help them become self-sustaining but at that point the politics or significance of what he was doing and the kind of person he is was beyond me. I was pretty self-focussed at that point, trying to figure out who I was.

Recently, another one of my colleagues from that era, Hank Murrow, a potter still living and working in Eugene, forwarded me a post from a ceramics listserve he’s on. The post asked a simple question: “How has clay shaped your life?”

I’ve thought a lot about my past, less through the lens of clay and more through the lens of dyslexia but still, my experience with clay did shape my life.

Here is my response to that question.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’ve thought a lot about how I got where I am and what the key influences have been along the way. It’s all theory: always hard to reverse engineer a life but there are areas where I think you and I might see eye to eye on this, or could at least find points for discussion.

I went to college in 1970: University of Oregon, Eugene.

I took a ceramics class there on a whim (I was on my way to flunking out and figured it might be nice to take a fun class before I was exiled back to Los Angeles).

The U of O had a very Bahausian/processy art curriculum run by some very interesting and charismatic guys: David Foster, Robert James, David Nechak, and Allan Kluber, among others, and what hooked me was them as much as the medium. I’m pretty sure about this. Yes, clay is a most mistake-tolerant and forgiving medium, in short, a great medium to do some serious and fast learning with, but these particular fellows, among others (Hank included) were also quite charismatic.

So, like many of us, I got hooked, spent a lot of time, got better (80% of success is showing up; I showed up) and became a ceramics major.

I went on to get an MFA and teach ceramics but in retrospect, I’m pretty sure that clay was only part of it; the people I met in the clay studio were as if not more important.

During this time I took my new approach to process “out for a walk” so to speak. Many walks actually: read the VW idiot book and rebuilt a few engines; got into rock climbing and got pretty good at it, did a lot of building and was a lot more “handy” with everything. It wasn’t just a matter of being poor, it was also a matter of knowing I could do more than I’d done before. That feeling came from getting very good with clay but the fact that it transferred to easily and well was not the clay; it was the way I was taught; the process behind the clay.

I haven’t touched clay for well over 20 years, nor do I climb anymore nor do I work on my cars. I make a living as an educational technology consultant now and run a few web sites but I know in my heart that those years were the most significant of my life.

The question is, why? What was it about that time that made it significant? In my mind, you’re right to single out clay as a great medium but I also single out the people who facilitated my introduction and guided my personal quest. It was also the time: the ’70s were very different; it was okay to be “searching” and poor where now if you’re not on a career path and on the way to making money you’re a loser (not in my eyes but the general culture’s).

I can say in no uncertain terms that the years I spent with this group doing clay (and many other things) in Eugene have had a huge influence on my life. What I can’t parse out for sure is exactly how much clay the medium influenced all of this.

I do know that the pottery at the U of O was my first experience with heavy emphasis on process over product which not all clay studios shared. But, other areas of the U of O art school did share them: photography, printmaking, and others. So, this too takes a bit of the credit away from clay the medium and puts it more on the guys who designed and fostered that curriculum and working atmosphere.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I sent this response off to the guy on the list as well as Hank and Hank forwarded it to various people. David Stannard was among them. I had not heard from David (who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska) in over 20 years. We’ve exchanged some email in the past few days and he sent me the essay, Reflections from Owl’s Eye-2. I asked him if I could post it. It’s on this site now.

Here we are.

Whether or not anyone reading this has ever had a similar experience I want you to consider this:

I’m now at a place in my life where I can appreciate and enjoy revisiting pieces of my past (some of which were very painful) and opportunities to do so are popping up from time to time.

Thank you David.

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