Today I had a visit from a customer who has been using Kaleidoscope pots for a long time. She and her husband did a wedding registry many years ago. Over the years some pieces have broken so she wanted to replace them. While she was browsing through work we talked and I got to hear some of her story about collecting the work. She said something that I have heard many times over the years of talking to the people who collect Kaleidoscope Pottery: “It started with a spoonrest.”
Apparently she and the man who eventually became her husband were together at the Norwalk (Connecticut) Oyster Festival many years ago and saw our booth. They didn’t know it at the time, but the spoonrests they bought that day (one for each separate household) would lead to a set of dinnerware for their combined lives, purchased for them by friends and family for their wedding.
There’s something about stories like this that make me profoundly happy. Part of what I make becomes a little piece of the story of someone else's life. It’s this sort of connection that I’m always looking for in creating hand-made work for people to use. Some people use it only on special occasions, others use it every day, but if I succeed in making the world a little more beautiful, I feel like I am doing my job very well. There is great satisfaction in that.
One of the things I do frequently is get ready. I get ready to make pots. Get ready to glaze them, get ready to load the kiln, get ready for a show. Coming up this weekend is a big event on my calendar. It’s our annual Spring Open Studios in the wonderful old factory-converted-to-studios where I’m fortunate to have my space. I have a lot of getting ready to do.
Over the last twenty or so years, I’ve been part of the group at Cottage Street Studios that organizes the events that are our Open Studios. In just the last few years, the spring Open Studios event has paired up with a new group—members of a subcommittee of the city arts organization (Easthampton City Arts+) group that managed to get the State of Massachusetts to declare our street a “Cultural District”. To celebrate the designation last year, we decided to have a little party and call it “Cultural Chaos”. It was so much fun that we decided to do it again. So in addition to getting ready for the Open Studios, we’ve also been getting ready for “Chaos”. I have to say, I so enjoy working with this energetic group. It has really been fun to get out of my studio a few days every month (or every week as it’s been for about the last month) and work to make a really fun event. We have a shoe string budget but our eyes are always looking to how we can have more fun: dance, eat, enjoy artists and music, and share our great little slice of town with the larger community.
So, I still have a few more days to get ready. Tomorrow Anna and I will move tables around, change the production room into a display space and price and move a lot of work from my office into the display. Friday I will run around the building trying to tie up loose ends for Chaos. I will help chalk off spaces for the outdoor makers market, gather keys, trash cans, floor mats—all just tiny parts of the whole that I hope will make the festival run a little more smoothly. On Saturday, people will come. They will see our studio looking cleaner than ever, lots of great work for sale, and if they venture out beyond the building there will be a crazy street fair put together by a small but dedicated group of people who tap into all their community connections just for the sake of bringing attention to a very special little part of the world. I’m very excited about getting ready for it. Hope you can join us.
A few details:
Cottage Street Open Studios is June 13 from 10-5 and June 14th from noon-5
Cultural Chaos Festival is June 13th only from noon-7p.m.
After so many years (heading into year number 23) of doing production pottery I am rather set in my ways. I have particular systems and there are a lot of tasks I feel I can do in my sleep. Even after all these years, though, I sometimes marvel at the number of tasks we do in a given week. The last two weeks in the studio were kind of unusual. Most of the time we alternate what I call “production” with “processing.” On production weeks, we are actually making work. Processing involves moving work through the kilns, and preparation for making more work. Alternating the weeks allows, among other things, multiple uses of table surfaces and a certain order to what we’re doing on a given day. I also manage to fit in the bookkeeping most of the time. In the last two weeks, however, a variety of factors led us (“us” being my fantastic! assistant Anna and myself) to determine two weeks in a row of production would make a lot of sense. For starters, my other (equally fantastic!) assistant Leah is available only three days a month, and this was a week where she would be out of the studio. In addition to that we are looking forward to Open Studios. It’s coming up in about three weeks. In potter’s time that is like tomorrow. In order to offer the work for sale, it has to be dried, bisque fired, glazed, and fired again (and each firing takes about 12 hours to heat up and the same to cool down--so a full day is dedicated to each firing--plus a half day loading and unloading on either side). Finally, we were dealing with the ramifications of the “wear item” classification of our equipment. One of my two big glaze kilns, Otis, developed some pretty serious cracks in the lowest ring. Since Otis is an elevator kiln (you might be able to imagine how he got his name) cracks mean when raised, the bottom row of elements was threatening to fall out. So, Otis had to go offline while we waited for a new base to be made and shipped (see my facebook page for some thrilling photos of the base replacement). The offline kiln meant being temporarily at half firing capacity and one half of the time usually dedicated to filling glaze kilns was going to be free for two weeks. The only logical thing to conclude is that we should make more work.
This week Otis is back together and has already fired quite nicely twice. And we are now literally up to our elbows in the process of moving all the things we made through the two firings. The results of this are stacks and stacks of work all around the production room.
I must admit I absolutely love it. There is something so exciting and satisfying about seeing all that we are able to do and knowing that most of the pieces hold the promise of bringing someone happiness on a daily basis. So many customers tell me, “This piece makes me happy every day.” I get tired from other parts of my work but I never get tired of hearing that.
I spent most of yesterday running dozens of pieces of bisque ware through the glaze bath. Anna wiped glaze from dozens and dozens of bottoms. Anna and interns Marie and Noelle processed dozens and dozens of pieces of bisque ware. We loaded and unloaded kilns numerous times. Today I opened two glaze kilns and it felt like my birthday.
Next week will be more of the same. In addition, there will likely be some more packing and shipping to do. One of the most gratifying of my jobs is pushing a box full of carefully packed pots out into the hall for Eric the UPS driver to pick up on the way to a gallery or retail customer.
And the amazing thing about it is that even after 23 years, I’m really excited to see what comes out next week. I’m looking at week two of more of the same--loading bisque kilns, firing, glazing, loading glaze kilns and crossing fingers that an element doesn’t go out or a lightning strike interrupt the power supply during the firing. And in another week, so much of that work will be through the kilns. I’ll take pictures of the best, add price tags, pack and ship out some to waiting customers around the country. And after Open Studios, we’ll start the whole process all over again.
A pottery professor of mine once told me, “I don’t trust potters who don’t like to cook.” While it may not be true that all potters love to cook, I have met few studio potters who actively dislike taking ingredients and transforming them using methods of heating. This description applies to cooking and making pots so in a way, it seems a foregone conclusion.
The potters in my guild (the Asparagus Valley Potters Guild) spend almost as much time talking about the food we bring to our meetings as we do talking about the pots they’re in and the business of making a living by selling our work.
Anyone who likes to cook knows there is a flip side to the Joy of Cooking. I call it "The Wretchedness of Cleaning". I’ve noticed from attending various dinner parties that people have different styles of cooking and cleaning. Some are incredibly fastidious--assembling ingredients ahead of time, following a recipe (down to that level half cup of walnuts), and taking great care to avoid a mess in the first place. Others cook with reckless abandon--pulling ingredients as needed, substituting when in a pinch, using the recipe as more a general guideline, and not worrying too much about what’s splashing and spilling because the cleaning will happen later after the food is enjoyed. With either cooking approach one can get some great results. In my reality, the way the food is presented is as important as how it is made. Great pots make good food even better.
After the dishes are cleared, however, it is my major preference that the dinnerware can end up in the dishwasher. So many customers tell me, “I would never put your pottery in the dishwasher.” I always respond that I’ve lost more pots to slipping into the sink while hand washing than I ever have in the dishwasher. To land on my table for regular use, a pot has to be durable enough to go through the dishwasher (see Dishwasher Safe for instruction on how to test dishwasher worthiness). In fact, I have to honestly say, I am unaware of a piece of Kaleidoscope Pottery in my possession ever being broken or chipped as the result of washing in the dishwasher--and I have pieces I’ve used every day over the last 23 years. I believe the only time a plate has been damaged in my dishwasher has been from dropping something from the counter down onto one.
So, whatever your cooking style, I do hope you will feel free to put Kaleidoscope pots into the dishwasher. The only reason I’d recommend against it is if you don’t have one.
One great joy of doing craft fairs is meeting other artists and collecting their work. Over the years I’ve had fun times with people I’ve met at shows--and managed to pick up a few nice pieces of pottery along the way. Many years (possibly several decades ago) at the Guilford (Connecticut) Handcrafts show I met a potter from Providence, RI. In addition to his wonderful functional pieces, Dwo Wen (aka Luke) Chen (http://www.threewheelstudio.com/) makes great sculptural work. I was familiar with his floral painted work but hadn’t seen the sculpture before. He had a small caterpillar that I had to buy. I didn’t even think about it, it was one of those rare times where I see a piece and it must come home with me. Luke happened to be out of the booth so I paid his assistant, Martin, and proudly put the piece on my bowl unit shelf so I could look at it and send my customers over to see his work when they were done in my booth. A little later, I saw Martin and he told me that when Luke came back to the booth his first utterance was, “What happened to the baby?” They had both been referring to the piece I bought as “the baby” for some reason. It was so long ago, I’m not sure if it was because they had a group of caterpillars and it was the smallest one, or if it was really special...or some other reason. What I do remember is that when he got the chance, Dwo Wen came over to my booth to visit it He also gave me a story (you know, the one mass produced work just doesn’t have) about how it was based on imagery from an animated film I had never seen (the fantastic “Spirited Away” by Japanese director Hay ao Miyazak). I knew a little of how he was feeling when the baby leaves the booth. When one makes a living selling work one comes to terms with parting with the occasional really special piece. With hand made work, every piece is unique of course, but once in awhile a piece is made that is harder to let go. Once in a great while I just take a piece home but more frequently, I put a price on it that will more adequately compensate the loss. It always makes me happy when another potter buys one of those pieces.
Which brings me around to the actual topic of this post. I’ve been working on some new pieces and must now figure out what to call them--or what to name the babies? I frequently have a hard time with this. Do I call my new rimless bowls, “Rimless Bowls?” “Simple Bowls?” or do I go further to hint at their possible uses: Ice Cream Bowl? Rice Bowl? Dip Bowl? French Toast Dipping Bowl (yeah, just kidding about that one even though that is my current favorite use for it--see above photo)... Low Bowl? I eventually will come around to calling them something fairly concise but just like actually creating the pieces and putting them in to production successfully, it takes time and consideration.
I have now incorporated two of the new bowl shapes into my home collection and already feel as if I can’t live without them. I still am not quite sure what to call them, but that will come as I start sharing them with customers and getting feedback about how they are different from the bowls already in my production line. Whatever I call them, I hope I will make at least a few that I’m really sorry to see leave the booth.
“So, what’s new this year?”
Having been making pots for so many years, there’s a certain amount of predictability to what I will be doing in any given season. Historically, the first quarter of my year is a slower time. Because of this I tend to think I will spend the first few months of the year designing new work, looking at what worked (and didn’t) in the previous year, and planning how to make it better in the coming year. This year, like every year, there is a discrepancy between what I think I will do and what actually happens.
First of all, I run a production studio. Every week the primary task is to produce work. All other tasks in the studio must fit in around time spent making and firing work. Making the work is my favorite part of all the things I do, but there are myriad other things that have to be done.
Early in the year gallery owners always want to know what new pieces I’m making. I always feel like I should have a definitive answer by the end of January. My actual approach doesn’t really work like that. I don’t set aside time to design new work. Instead, I cultivate ideas, create prototypes (along with my regular production items) throughout the year, bring them to shows and then refine the process based on feedback from customers. Of course, the best feedback is sales. For me, design is not something I just sit down to do one day (or even several) out of the month. It’s an ongoing process. Sometimes it’s a few years before I know if a "new" item will stick around long term. Usually by the time I have the production bugs worked out and know how the piece will sell, it’s not really a new item any more. My new work grows into the line. By the time I feel I can announce that I make it, most of my customers have seen it before (many have already purchased it) and it doesn't feel all that new.
I want to announce what’s new in the studio, but I won’t know what works until I’ve been making it for a year or two. My most recent successes in the “new items” category are soap dishes, garlic graters, fantasy design plates (in “Jurassic” and “Safari”), ring holders, and small ikebana style vases. I started working on most of these a few years ago and they are now ensconced in my usual production line.
Things on the drawing board this year are some simple (rimless) bowls in varying sizes, small upright vases and perhaps some other unnamed items I have been receiving many requests for over the years but have yet to develop in a way that satisfies my need for efficient production, durability, and good craftsmanship. As you can see, I’m reluctant to commit to what I think will succeed in becoming an official part of my line by the end of the year. You (my faithful customers, friends and followers) will know it when you see it. I will keep making the best sellers (and improving on the new pieces). What stays is determined by the feedback I get from you. So, look for new items and let me know what you think. I will make more of the things I can’t seem to keep in stock.
Today I changed out some thermocouples on my middle-aged electric kiln, Jupiter. I call it middle- aged because I have two other kilns. Ellie (who used to be named Bertha) has been in the studio longer than I have (pre 1992) and I got Otis in 2007. Jupiter came along in 2004, thus the "middle aged" moniker. I noticed recently that there was a pretty big temperature difference between the top and bottom which is not ideal. The diagnosis was that I probably need new elements but also the thermocouples (which read the temperature in different parts of the kiln) were shot.
When I first started making pots the idea of repairing a kiln was sort of up there with performing dental work--not something I would imagine I could ever do. I've been lucky in the kiln repair department because the building manager at 1 Cottage Street is an electrician and really understands how kilns work. One of the things I've learned from him is to accept that kiln parts are "wear items." Something about heating things to over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, then cooling them to room temperature, then repeating the process again and again over the course of months causes them to break down eventually.
After the kiln repair I spent the day in my office. Anna and I packed a huge order to go to Ansel Adams Gallery. I also had to attend to some web site updates and order some supplies. I wanted to order new dental "explorers"--which is the best tool for getting leaves back out of the clay after the imprint is made and the background color is sprayed over the top. The ones we have are about 15 years old and a few are wearing thin.
I'm sorry to say Darby Dental Supply informed me that I now must have a dental license to order tools from them. Apparently other people are not as averse to the idea of "do-it-yourself" dentistry as I am and I guess they just don't want the liability. I tried unsuccessfully to sincerely impart that I would not be performing root canal, or even a basic cleaning and the tool really was going to be for use only in my pottery studio. Despite my sincerity, I could not procure the desired tool. They suggested I search Ebay or Amazon. I was able to find a few and ordered the last 3 in stock. They were not exactly what I wanted, but they will do. And while they, too are "wear items" they will likely last for another two decades or so, by which time I hope the need for dental explorers will have completely disappeared from society.
Customers sometimes ask how to tell if a piece of pottery will be durable. It comes down to what kind of clay has been used to make the piece, and whether the potter fired it to the right temperature using a glaze that fits the clay at that temperature. It can be tricky for potters if they assume the clay will be mature just because the piece looks good or they fired it within the recommended range from the clay supplier. Sometimes a pot can look good, but if the clay body isn't fired to a high enough temperature it will not be durable. Sometimes clay manufacturers offer a wider range of temperature than is realistic and unless the potter knows this information, and tests the finished work, they may unknowingly be selling pots that are actually under fired.
I learned a long time ago that purchasing a piece that chips easily from normal daily use makes me very sad--even if the design is appealing. For that reason, when I am thinking about buying a piece, one of the first things I check has to do with how water tight the clay body is. If clay is not fired to a high enough temperature--to the point of "vitrification" (a technical term that means the clay begins to transform into glass)-- it will still be porous (meaning it has tiny holes) and will absorb water. I realized how very much I care that the pottery in my personal collection is durable after looking around the studio and my house to try to find a piece to illustrate this. It turns out I don't have any pots that look fine but are under fired. I just don't buy them. I did manage to find a tile a dear friend brought me that is clearly under fired. What you see in the photo here is what I call the "wet test." The little oval spot on the lower left is what happened after I wet my thumb and pressed it against the tile. Do note, the yucky looking blob at the top is some glue used to hold a little plastic hanger in place. Just try to avert your eyes from that as it goes into a topic for another time about craftsmanship and pride in work but has little to do with the topic of this post.
You can test the bottom of any pot (or in this case, a tile) by putting a little water on the unglazed bottom. Miss Manners suggest using some bottled water, not your finger and saliva--that would be YUCKY (although if you just don't have a water bottle with you when considering a piece for purchase, at least try not to let the potter, gallery owner, or other members of the general public see you performing the wet test with your own saliva). By applying a small finger stroke of water to the non-glazed part of a pot, and observing if (or how quickly) it absorbs, you can learn a bit about how durable the piece is. If moisture is absorbed so quickly your wet finger practically sticks to the piece (as happens with the tile shown above--it soaked up the water so fast I could barely get a photo with any water still showing) that's a real problem. Unless your only plan for the piece is to enshrine it on a stand it would be a good idea to rethink the purchase. Finished pieces that absorb water are not good for anything except decoration. Glaze will likely pop off the piece eventually. It is also likely the pot will chip from even a finger scratch or a sidelong glance. You can completely forget about putting a porous piece of work in the dishwasher. Water will be absorbed under the glaze and it will pop right off. If after the wet test, the moisture absorbs more slowly, you have a piece you could use gently but not put in the dishwasher or microwave. What you really want for a durable functional piece is a finished clay body that is not absorbent at all. Kaleidoscope pots repel liquid because they have been fired to the hottest temperature our clay body can endure without melting. That's why they hold up so well to dishwasher use and are pretty difficult to chip.
In spite of the low durability of this porous under fired tile, I completely love it. It hangs on the wall in my production room and makes me happy on a regular basis. It doesn't really need to be super durable because its function is only to hang on the wall. If I were going to eat or drink from it, or tile my floor with a hundred like it, that would be another story with a sad ending.
I occasionally hear from customers because they've had a little pottery mishap. While I'm proud to say Kaleidoscope pots hold up about as well as any, there are times when a piece meets up with something even sturdier. The result is breakage. The means of demise can range but those of us who love pottery know the feeling.
My most recent personal experience with this came a few days ago when I dropped a bowl my husband made. It wasn't really just that. It was the only bowl my husband ever made. It was the bowl he made shortly after we met just 27 years ago. The bowl he made in my very first personal (not part of a school or group) studio on a kickwheel long gone now...a bowl I have taken for granted for many years now.
I live with a lot of pots from different potters. I use them all and rarely break them. January, 2015, however, was a bad month for my pottery collection. I broke a beautiful Sam Taylor bowl the week before I broke Kevin's.
After I recover from the initial shock of breaking a piece I look at it with my potters eye. How even are the walls? How did the potter's fingers shape the various parts? What can I learn from this pot now that I can see the inside walls? If it's a clean break the piece will go in my yard against a wall where I'll see it pretty frequently when I'm carrying in the groceries or going to get the mail. I like to find a use for a pot even after it's no longer possible to use it in the kitchen. I always suggest this to customers who have had a mini tragedy with a Kaleidoscope pot.
My husband and I (and my son is learning this) have an agreement. When a pot is broken the person who did NOT break the pot has to look the person who DID break the pot in the eye and say, "I love you more than I love that pot." It can take a little while. Sometimes there is a needed mourning period, but in order to live with (and use) pottery we must accept that sometimes they will break. And in order to keep our long term relationships we must sometimes swallow one love for the sake of another.
I am now looking forward to two things. First, a shopping trip to Sam Taylor's Dog Bar Pottery (he lives one town away in Westhampton, MA), and second, a reason to get my husband back into the studio to make another bowl. Enough time has passed that I am able to look at it this way. I'm also happy to say the Sam Taylor break was a clean one so it will grace my outside wall of fame (as soon as the snow melts enough to decide where to put it).
I found a beautiful little shriveled fern frond on the studio floor last week. Ferns are one of the leaves we work with frequently in the winter months because they are hardy enough to freeze. This one was discarded for one reason or another and after a night in the dry studio heat, I was amazed to see the way parts of it resumed the fiddlehead shape it had as it was forming new in the spring. The leaves often remind me of connections to very different seasons of the year. This time of year, it is most welcome to be reminded of spring.
_Outside of the studio, I spent a small part of last week in the stultifying New England cold helping my good husband clear the ice from atop my show van. Even with a ladder I am hard pressed to reach the top. He kindly took care of that for me. I helped clear the street after he knocked down the ice and snow. My objective was to unload my retail show booth into a cleared section of my production room in hopes of improving it for the 2015 show season. Now is the time of year when we assess things from last year, determine what worked and look at what needs to be changed. Many changes are afoot in the earliest part of the year 2015. I'm looking forward to all the year brings.