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Thirty Years:  A Life Built Around The Pursuit Of Clay

by Dick Lehman

It began innocently with a question from one of my regular customers:  “So, just how long have you been making pottery?”

I replied with a ‘knee-jerk’ response, telling her that I had been in business as a full-time potter for nearly 23 years.

“No, no” she insisted, “I mean how long have you been making pots – including all your student and hobbyist years.”

I needed to pause for a moment to do the math, not having thought about this in long years.   “It will be exactly thirty years, next spring,” I responded, with a bit of a surprise.

“So what are you going to DO to celebrate 30 years?” she asked.  Good question, I thought!  I recognized that I should plan some kind of celebration of acknowledgment of the occasion.  But what to do?  Some people celebrate such anniversaries by putting forward an exhibition of their most-current work representing the culmination of all that they have made.  Others choose to select a retrospective show of their accomplishments, gathering pots from collectors and museums and their own secret “stash”.

Neither of these ideas quite enlivened me.  Not knowing what to do, I decided to take a temporary detour to revisit some of my earliest influences.  Thirty years ago the studio pottery movement in North America might have been described as underdeveloped, or perhaps neglected, at least by comparison to today.  Most aspiring American clay artists, who thirty years ago had the vision to become studio potters, had few contemporary American examples.  There were relatively few models of working studio potters here in the United States, and even fewer American ceramics texts or books or periodicals.  As a consequence, most of us from that generation found our inspiration and influence from people and writings that originated outside North America – mainly from Japan and England.

My earliest influences included Susan Peterson’s book about Shoji Hamada, older Japanese and English texts and exhibition catalogs, and pots from museum collections.  Later, the writings of Bernard Leach and Soetsu Yanagi joined the chorus of influences.  It was thirty years ago that I first touched the clay, and was touched by some of these texts and works…..and stirred also, by the idea that it might be possible to build a full and wholesome life around the pursuit of clay.

So in October of 2003, I decided to re-read the books and texts, to review the catalogs, and to look again at the pots that had been my early influences, in an effort to see how they looked to me from this vantage point, three decades later.

As you might imagine, there were many interesting differences in the two readings, now separated by thirty years.  But the most interesting outgrowth was my decision to more-explicitly pursue some of the “aesthetic attractors” that were part of my initial read, but which I had never allowed myself to pursue:  approaches and methodologies like glaze-trailing, wax-resist-and-glaze-trailing, enamels, and rope or textural patterning.  And I also decided to return to slab-built trays and side-firing, both methods that I had earlier addressed but which I had briefly abandoned.

And this commitment led me to offer myself ‘permission’ to investigate at least one other unambiguously-Japanese influence – the Seto “horse-eye” (umanome) design – in ways that were both explicit in their reference, yet personal in their response.

Overall, my interest was not in copying or trying to re-make the works that had so-influenced me those many years ago.  Rather, my commitment was to try to appropriate some of the methodologies and approaches, to filter them through my three decades of experience, then to mount an exhibition of new work that would mark this thirty-year “filtration”.

To make a commitment to mount an exhibition of “first time” work, seemed a bit risky to me.  Yet, the idea of looking backward and looking forward – of filtering influences through a career’s worth of making – seemed to me to be worth the risk.

The results took me places I could not have imagined:  the glaze-trailing on square trays let me to wish for contrasting blocks of color on the pieces.  This caused me to try using my normal studio glazes in multiple layers.  (Actually I tested 12 of my studio glazes in “triplet” layers, leading to the possibility of 1728 different color combinations!)  I discovered many new glaze colors and textures by using combinations of glazes that were already in front of me, but which now I began using in new ways.

I spent time exploring the traditional Japanese rope-texturing approach.  It was only after I had been doing it for some months that I discovered that most Japanese potters put the pattern on finished shapes.  I had mistakenly assumed that narrow, thick-walled cylinders were rope-textured and then later expanded from the inside to create the finished shape.  This ‘misunderstanding’ or naivete, allowed me to make forms and textural patterns that would have been impossible or impractical by the traditional methods.

My interest in texture caused me to question the wisdom of merely using old methods.  “What might be a more contemporary approach to texture?” I wondered to myself.  A trip to the local hardware store supplied many contemporary materials for creating texture.  My favorite:  the “woven” non-skid rubberized material that one places under throw-rugs and under silverware trays inside kitchen drawers.

My return to side-firing incorporated some of the ‘textural learnings’: rope-patterning and sodium-silicate-crackles covered by carbon-trapping-glazes on side-fired pots yielded a brand new palate of results.  The color-boldness of my new enamel work and my glaze trailing nudged me to add a dash of color to the ash applications on the side-fired pieces, expanding the color range of these works.

And about the umanome design:  as the story goes, these ‘horse-eye’ designs were made in huge numbers by Japanese potters, starting several hundred years ago in the Seto region of Japan.  The potters – usually the husbands of the family – would make the pots.  And the children and wives and grandparents would be taught to do the decorating – or so the story goes.  It is said that after hundreds and thousands of these repeated patterns, that the act of decorating became almost mindless, and in so doing, matured to a ‘mindless perfection’.  (And indeed, some of the old umanome plates DO look perfect to me.)

While wishing to acknowledge my indebtedness to these Seto decorators (yet while not attempting to merely recreate their work, whose perfection I could not hope to match, since I don’t have a lifetime in which to practice only one decorative motif), I chose to create a form of the pattern which is applied with trailed glaze instead of a stain or wash.  The glaze is trailed on top of other glazes, and upon forms that cause the motif to “move” just a bit.  The result is a pattern altogether different from umanome, but which seeks – while offering a grateful nod of thanks for the inspiration – to harness the liveliness and gesture and energy of the original.

Thirty years.  A pause to look backward and forward.  An opportunity to remember, discover, and rediscover.  An exhibition of gratitude and recognition and discernment.  A good way, I think, to celebrate a life built around the pursuit of clay.


Dick Lehman is a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly magazine, and maintains a studio in Goshen, Indiana, USA.  www.DickLehman.com

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the March 2005 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

Dick Lehman
Copyright March 2005
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