So many gifts…

This is the phrase Kevin keeps uttering as we sand, price, and prepare his pots for the upcoming spring sale.  This time is a gift, when we can hold and inspect each of the nearly 1,000 pots which came out of the most recent firing.  Sanding the foot of each ashy teabowl, I revel in the complexities of the long-fired surface.  Each square inch of the pot reacted differently to the flame, of course, but in addition to that, the deeper you look into the skin, the more there is to see.  There are reduction blues, glassy green ash rivulets, and crystalline growth matte-ing the surface.  There are shino-like ash accumulations, satiny with freckles, on many.  On the wall of one bowl, I notice confetti-like gold specks overlapping one another, a surprise party captured in molten glass.  When I point this out to Kevin, he responds, yet again with patient acknowledgment to my giddy joy, “So many gifts…” and continues sticking prices on bottles across the room.

The body reduction on this teapot is highlighted with green ash

The longer you look at pots from this kiln, the more gifts you receive from it.  Recently at the studio, Kevin’s friend Chad led us in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  During the ceremony, both the server and the guests are afforded time to appreciate and give thanks to the teabowl itself.

Despite a few split pots, the front of the anagam looks lovely drenched in ash

If there’s one thing I’ve learned here at Tye River, it is that going slowly is always worth it.  Whether it is the six days we take to reach temperature in the kiln, or the extended moment we take to appreciate a fresh pot afterwards, the time given is always rewarded manifold.  It is in these quiet moments that I am able to engage in my favorite spiritual practice – cultivating gratitude.  So many gifts…

Getting all fired up…

It’s firing time again here at Tye River Pottery.

Susannah tending the preheating kiln
We preheated the kiln for a week this time around. Preheat is a time to keep the fire slowly burning, catch up on your reading, or finish that pesky knitting project.

We fire twice a year, allowing for a five-month throwing cycle and a month for loading, firing, and unloading.  I thought six months between firings would drag on, but the time has flown by!  My second firing as apprentice here at Tye River Pottery took place this last weekend.

Our kiln has three chambers.  There is an anagama chamber in the front, a climbing-style wood chamber, followed by a salted chamber at the end.  The back two chambers are loaded in about a week, while Kevin takes his sweet time loading the front or ‘tube’ chamber.  When it’s the fire that paints the pots, the loading is when the potter makes the surface compositional choices.  Each region of the kiln has its own climate when it comes to reduction, ash, and flame speed.  Kevin has spent the last 19 firings exploring the personality of this kiln.

The kiln is cooling now from its twentieth firing.  Last weekend the pottery was swarming with firing crew members and other curious peoples all eager to help with the 5-day firing.  We need many hands to stack and stoke the 7 cords of wood burned in the firing.

And what a fabulous crew it is!  We have a dedicated firing crew including potters from Hinckley Pottery in D.C., the Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, and the Brambelton Center in Roanoke.  They swoop in on the Thursday of the firing weekend and sign up for six-hour firing shifts.  Stoking the kiln, moving wood, and feeding the crowd is a round-the-clock task.  I learned so much from observing the way these experienced stokers thought about the combustion cycle, fed the fire, passed the wood, and talked about their journeys in clay.  Everyone has pots in the kiln, a devotion to the wood-fire aesthetic, and a love of great food.  What a pleasure it was to fire with them!

And now, we wait.  After a week of cooling, we will open the kiln on Saturday.  Unloading the spoils of a big firing like this one, with anywhere between 1200 and 1500 pots, is something like a pottery Christmas morning.  Until then, I’ll be circling like a vulture, sweeping and tidying the kiln area, while resisting the urge to peek.  What a sweet suspense.

Teabowl musings…

Tem, or Temmoku, the studio dog, lets us know when 2:30 rolls around each afternoon.  His belly knows it’s lunchtime for dogs, which happens to coincide with teatime for humans at Tye River Pottery.  Over afternoon tea, Kevin and the apprentices discuss the forms we’re working on, the upcoming firing, and the ideas we’ve been simmering.  Sometimes, someone brings a poem to share.  Often there are muffins involved.  Regardless of the conversation or the snacks, we always drink out of tea bowls.

It’s a difficult thing to admit to, but I was raised in a mug household.  (Whew, it feels good to have gotten that out in the open.)  This whole handle-less tea consumption thing was a bit strange and uneasy for me at first.  I like throwing tea bowls; they are a fast form to make and trim, they have a broad range of acceptable sizes and proportions, and they are a form that can be as funky and distorted as the potter’s whims may lead her.  For me, daily use of tea bowls is something fairly novel.  Tye River’s daily tea-ceremony-of-sorts has been quite the education.

A bowl of mine from the Fall 2010 firing at Tye River

What makes a good tea bowl?  My answer to that question these days is very different than it was few months ago.  I enjoy drinking out of small bowls, so the tea isn’t cold by the time I get to the bottom.  However, I like bowls which are broad and open at the lip to allow the tea to cool enough to drink on hot Virginia afternoons.  I desire a substantial foot in order to lift the bowl off the table top, but not so high as to threaten the bowl’s stability.  Prodding other tea-drinkers about their own tea bowls preferences is one of my favorite tea-time practices.  In truth, I could discuss the architecture of the ideal tea bowl for quite a while.

I’ve read Sue Bender’s Everyday Sacred more times than I can count.  It is an extremely satisfying little book of meditations and musings on bowls of all kinds.  Bender highlights many of the rich and deeply varied traditions surrounding tea bowls around the world.  In Korea, tea bowls are said to be seasoned by the tea; over time, the interior of the bowl takes on the color of tea itself.  In Afghanistan, if a treasured bowl is broken, the pieces are patched together with veins of gold or other precious metals.  In both of these cultures, the bowl becomes more valuable with time and use, and that intrigues and inspires me.  The bowl’s lifetime and life cycle is respected and honored.

In the tea bowls I’ve been throwing of late, I strive to capture the Japanese aesthetic quality of shibui, or quiet beauty.  The words and works of Japanese-American potter Toshiko Takaezu introduced me to the concept.  She finds shibui at the place where disciplined engagement and graceful spontaneity converge.

“It is this interrelation that she credits for the quality of shibui in her work, a Zen term that she understands as ‘understated aliveness.’  As she said, ‘You can’t force [the clay] completely … So you’re in tune.  You play.  It’s interrelation, interplay with the clay.  But the clay has much to say on its own.  You can’t really control that … And when you finish a piece, the piece is alive.'”

Daniel Belgrad, The Culture of Spontineity, p174

If you couldn’t tell, I can get lost in the literature of aesthetics.  As for my questions about tea bowls, I have found far too many answers and far too few conclusions.  When that happens, when I find myself tangled in my left brain, I know it’s time to go back to the wheel and ask the clay for myself.

The apprenticeship is sailing…

I’m currently writing from the only coffee shop in Nelson County, Virginia, the lovely Rapunzel’s Coffee and Books.  I moved to this one-stoplight-county for one reason only, the great wood-fire potter Kevin Crowe and his Tye River Pottery.  I have now been his apprentice for six months, and have in that time, discovered a plethora of reasons to love this place.  Nelson County, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, is a friendly, rural, and charming corner of the world.  The fabulous farmer’s market, the blooming Bartlett Pear trees, the two micro-breweries, and the infectious music scene are just the highlights of my life here in “The County.”

The apprenticeship, my first draw to this place, has been kicking my butt.  From nine a.m. to five p.m. Monday through Friday, I work at the wheel next to Kevin.  He has been dismantling my throwing style and re-building my techniques in his own ways – and I feel stripped bare.  My standards for my own work are getting tougher by the day, by the hour.  Each time I sit at the wheel, I feel capable of more than the last time, and the pots I made yesterday rarely make it to see tomorrow.  Out of the nearly forty teapots I threw and assembled in February, only four will make it to the kiln.  It is truly a privilege to have this time to devote to the learning process, and not feel the pressure to produce large quantities of salable work.

This form of learning – apprenticeship – has a long and varied history in the world of craftspeople.  The master-apprentice relationship has been used to pass along skills within a guilds of crafts from one generation to the next for more than a millennium.  For apprentices in the most traditional forms of that role, their lives would be centered around making work good enough for their master to sign and sell as his own.  My relationship with Kevin is quite different from that.  He guides me through his method for creating a particular form, and then I explore that form for a number of weeks.  I never make his work.  I am surrounded by his pots, and his eye certainly informs my pieces, but the pots I throw are truly my own.  Each day we do studio maintenance tasks, have small critiques, eat lunch together, talk pots, make pots, drink tea, and clean up the work space.  It is a work-exchange where I earn my keep by cleaning and mopping and recycling clay, and Kevin passes along both the knowledge of his life’s work and his passion for it.

This is an intimate form of education.  When I first arrived at Tye River Pottery, I was haunted by the concern that I would lose my voice in clay.  I was worried that, under Kevin’s tutelage, I would learn to make his pots and forget how to make my own.  With six months under my belt now, I now know that concern is unnecessary.  No matter how hard I might try to emulate Kevin’s work, I could never reproduce it.  I trust my  eye for form and I know it will make itself known in everything my hands produce.  Daniel Rhodes, in his book Pottery Form, says it best,

“Pottery as meditation, as selfless concentration, requires the abandonment of anxiety and the perfection of skill to the point where it can be forgotten and one’s consciousness becomes absorbed in the tactile sensations of process.  In this state, the work will form itself, and the potter may feel presumptuous even to take credit for the happenings which emerge from his kiln.  The question of originality will have been solved.  Who asks whether their own pattern of speech and expression are original?  No one, because we all achieve originality in speech by a lifetime of concentration on what is said, rather than how it is said.”   p239