This was originally posted in 2004 but given my recent posts on climbing, I thought I’d give a bit of context to how climbing leaked out into other parts of my life.

In the old days, a long time ago (1970-1980) I was a potter and made a living selling wares and teaching ceramics. Most of the photos of my work are in slide form and I have not gotten around to scanning them. Here are a few that I have.

Container, Cork, Perlon, side view

This is a small stoneware “jug” that had a “temoku” glaze on it and was then fired in a wood-fired kiln with salt tossed in (salt fired). At the time I was doing this work I was also getting seriously into rock climbing and I loved all the perlon rope and knots and such. So, I experimented with combining old and new.

Container, Cork, Perlon, top view

This is a top view of a similar piece, different way of securing the cork. The knot on the underside of the lug slides so that the loop on top loosens and tightens to hold the cork in.

Container, Gortex, Perlon

This piece is raku fired: quickly at low temperature. Being the outdoor type I was eating a lot of dried fruit at the time and had built a fruit dryer to make my own. This new material came out called Gortex and so, I bought a piece and put it on a pot, with some fruit inside, thinking that the way it dealt with water would allow the fruit to dry without spoiling (water vapor would go out, but no air would come in). It didn’t’ quite work that way but I liked the colors. This piece also uses a slider knot to tighten and loosen the perlon cord.

Primitive Technology: Pottery and Stove

Digging clay out of a streambed, making some coiled pots and firing them in a campfire. Then, making a cooking pot and a dugout stove for heating water and cooking. Brilliant.

There are many more of these great videos at the Primitive Technology site and for those who prefer, he has a Primitive Technology YouTube Channel.

[via The Kid Should See This]

Kintsugi: The Art of Broken Pieces

Kintsugi: The Art of Broken Pieces from Greatcoat Films on Vimeo.

Japanese culture has a term for celebrating the beauty of imperfection: wabi-sabi.

Kintsugi (golden joinery) is all about not only fixing broken ceramics with lacquer, but celebrating the repair by painting over it with gold or silver leaf so that the repair (the fixed crack) is part of the “new” piece.

Many high end ceramic repairs are done in such a way that the repair is invisible. Kintsugi is a celebration of the art of the repair. Brilliant.

[via Colossal]

David Stannard

David Stannard mug

David Stannard has just died.

David was one of my first ceramics teachers at The University of Oregon in 1972 and when I got an MFA in 1980 he was on my graduate committee.

David was a potter’s potter: he went deep into materials science, deep into process, and deep into philosophy. So deep in fact that many of us were intimidated by him; at times he seemed to speak in tongues or he’d get right to the technical point leaving out the introduction that some of us needed. Later when I became less intimidated I thought it was an affectation. Later still as I learned more about myself and broadened my experience with different types of people I not only got David, I admired him.

When he visited me here in Connecticut a few years ago we talked about the fact that both of us had suffered with learning disabilities although when I had worked with him I had very little knowledge of my own learning problems and he had already made a successful life for himself as a popular university professor. Still, we both felt that we had this experience in common and there was a real connection that I had not experienced with him back in Oregon. In retrospect I have a feeling that one of the reasons I fit in so well in that ceramics department was that all of us were “learning to a different drummer.”

During that visit David gave me the mug pictured here which he made in Alaska out of local clays and local glaze materials that he’d mined and concocted himself. That’s what David did there: started a pottery for a small village so they could make and sell ceramics. The mug itself isn’t particularly remarkable without the back story of it’s materials, its making, and David’s lifelong research, and that knowledge makes the mug remarkable. I’m going to start using this mug again to keep David floating around in my consciousness.

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Reflections From Owl’s Eye-2
© 1994 David Stannard

Twenty years ago I went with my wife and two pre-school boys to live in a village on the Bering Sea. Seen from this distant time and place, it was like coming home — no schedules, no stop lights, no TV, no 2nd hand experience, no arbitrary intrusions at all. Plenty of direct experience and rhythm, though! We slept, we woke, we ate, we worked. Night followed day, and day the night. Wind came every few days, died off, then returned bringing rain, sun, drizzle, or snow — on zephyr or driving storm. Neighbor kids and ours gusted in and out like leaves on the wind, mutely settling into a quiet corner of the one room, suddenly starting up and swirling out the door to fling noisily about the village according to some dance between inner pulse and outer force. Like a school of fish in a watery world each went his own way, though grouped by common purpose and locale. Each moved in that singular world of vision-in-action called intuition. Continue reading

Joy Brown’s pottery

Smoke and ash flashing on pottery

Joy Brown lives and has her pottery studio five miles up the road in Kent. I’ve known her for a while now and while I met her through her ex-husband (we drummed together) I now consider her to be a good friend.

Because I have a background in ceramics, hanging out at a successful, working pottery is not novel to me but it is novel these days; up until last year I hadn’t touched clay in over 25 years. But, Joy has me making things again if for no other reason, to put them in her huge anagama wood fired kiln which is fired once a year and takes a week to fire.

Anagama kiln warming fire

That fire is going on now and I routinely volunteer to stoke for a day or two. I helped yesterday for a while and while there, wandered around her place taking pictures of her work which is scattered all over the place, tucked into weed patches and piled in the woods.

Joy lived and studied in Japan for many years so her work is heavily influenced by traditional Japanese ceramics. I think her work is outstanding and it’s a lot of fun to photograph. Check this flickr set for more of it. I’ll be taking more pictures today and adding them to this set.

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.

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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.

One person’s path to literacy

Note: this was first published for the now defunct web site: Half the Planet and has been online there or at ldresources since 2000.

I’m 52 years old, married, live in a nice house, have a successful career as an educational consultant, and I have a learning disability, dyslexia. My life was not always so great.

I was a premature breech birth, had meningitis, polio, and every childhood illness. I was tested for everything including language problems from an early age so I was labeled “dyslexic” early. I went to a special school until 6th grade where I had plenty of extra help and remediation. Still, I had to repeat 6th grade at that school. I suffered the rest of my school days in public schools where I did poorly.

When I went to college my life improved markedly because this is where I discovered art. The art world gave me a chance to express myself without words, so I took a lot of art courses. I got good at making things with clay and I learned my first important lesson about my language disability: I could be smart and articulate with clay and still have a language disability which made it hard to be smart and articulate with words.

My next big life lesson happened a few years later. I drove Volkswagens because they were the only cars I could afford. I knew little about cars and had never even changed the oil in one. One day the engine in my VW bus seized up and I didn’t have the money to have it fixed.

I bought the book How to Fix Your Volkswagen for the Complete Idiot. I started reading, slowly. I bought a few metric tools, pulled the engine, and dragged it into the backyard where I took it apart. Two weeks later when I got the engine into the car and it started I learned that when you feel good about yourself and are willing to take risks you can transfer confidence from one domain to another. I knew nothing about engines but took the confidence I’d gotten with art into a totally new domain.

My next domain was rock climbing. Hey, I don’t bungi jump; I’m not crazy. I got into climbing because it was a fun thing to do with friends. We all got into it at the same time and were all chicken from the start. However, we noticed that the more we did it the easier it was to take “exposure.”

So we did it more. And the more I did it the better I got. It wasn’t a talent thing, it was practice. After about five years of climbing I found myself in Yosemite Valley on a big wall. What had I learned? I’d learned that if you enjoy something and do it all the time you get better at it. Practice makes better.

Later I took that idea into a very scary place. I decided to see if I could actually learn how to read and write by practicing. I read and wrote every day for two years. This may seem obvious to you but it wasn’t to me; I had no idea that most people read things every day. I had avoided reading things as much as possible and avoided writing completely. Nevertheless, for two years I took my prior experiences and mapped them into learning how to read and write, and at the end of two years I’d learned a lot. Most importantly, I was literate.

Then came the dawn of personal computers. Once I used one, and then bought one, my writing and then my reading improved at a rapid clip.

Here’s the point: had I been given a computer as a child in school I doubt I’d have been mature enough to take full advantage of it and I doubt the school would have allowed me to use it in a way that would have been meaningful to me. I needed to go through the long, messy process that I went through with art, cars, climbing, and reading and writing to get to a place in my life where I knew I was smart enough to dive into an area that was totally unknown, hard, but interesting.

For me growing up was particularly painful and messy. My father used to tell me the bumps would build character and I would roll my eyes. Well, he was right. And even though I wouldn’t want to go through it all again I have plenty of character because of it all. And I can read and write.