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The Mug that Changed My Life

by Dick Lehman

Several weeks ago a woman came into my studio. She spent the longest time just looking among the mugs: handling, fondling, carrying several around the studio while hugging them. She checked the handles for how they fit her hand. The rims she put to her mouth to see how they felt. Several times she declined my offers of assistance, saying she was "doing just fine." After nearly half an hour she called me to wrap up her choice. She had a satisfied smile across her face, a pleased-with-herself stance.

I was curious about the circumstances under which one would spend so much time looking for a simple mug. But before I could pose a question, she offered a comment.

"You know, life will be better now."

My blank expression clued her that I needed more information.

"You see, I had one of your mugs for several years. I always started my day with coffee in your mug. But recently I broke it. And, you know, life has not been the same since. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but life for me was better when I started the day drinking out of that mug."

I mumbled something unintelligible, while fumbling with tissue to wrap the piece. As she was leaving the studio she paused and turned to me. "You know, I didn't drive all the way from Ohio just to come here….but this was the real reason I decided to come to Indiana just now." And with that, she left.

For several hours I mused at just how theatrical this customer had been - making a big deal over so little. But then it struck me. I had almost missed the wonderful gift of this curious exchange.

Melodramatic or not, was not her response just exactly what I hope for in the making of my pots? Isn't it my fondest wish that the work of my hands will actually change someone's life, that the investment I make in clay will make someone's life just a little better? Of course it is!

It is seldom that we as clay artists get this sort of undeniably direct feedback. Yet as we invest our work with integrity, vision, and spirit, I am sure that many folks' lives are equally enriched.

There was another benefit from my encounter with the woman from Ohio. I began to reflect on the many ways my own life has been enriched from working with clay over the last twenty years.

Like many potters, my earliest encounter with clay was accidental. My friend Bob Smoker, who was pursuing an art education major, had a kickwheel on the pack porch of his mobile home. After some arm-twisting on my part he consented to give me a few pointers. He then encouraged me to come over to practice on the wheel, which I did. This experience led me to sign up for a clay class at the first opportunity in my college schedule. There I met Phil Yordy, also a student. Phil had more experience than I, but as I look back on it, we seemed to "egg each other on," pushing each other to accomplish more than we would have on our own. Phil is now a recognized full-time studio potter working in St. Jacobs, Ontario, Canada. It is probably no accident that of all my professional peers, Phil is one with whom I stay in close touch.

After graduation, I located a studio: a 10 foot by 16 foot chicken house. It had been dragged behind a tractor to the farm of a furniture builder, Larion Swartzendruber. In the process, bouncing over low tree stumps, all the floor joists had been broken out, like fallen dominoes. But it looked wonderful to me, and I thought it had all the space I would ever need. I repaired the building in trade for rent, and built a kiln. It was wood-fired, not so much because I had developed an aesthetic for wood, but rather because I was so poor that the free source of wood I'd located made the fuel decision for me.

My interest in clay persisted as I worked for four years in an administrative vocation, and as I then went back for a three-year stint in graduate school (not in clay). I was 28 years old, staring at the last semester of graduate school, eyeing that giant chasm of vocation on the other side of graduation, and for the first time I discovered that I had a passion. I allowed myself to believe in this feeling that had been building inside of me since I'd first laid my hands on clay. I dropped out of graduate school (probably the only thing in my life which I started and did not finish) and opened a pottery.

As I look back, I appreciate the naivete that I brought to this business venture, for it was probably one of the things that helped me to survive those first lean and traumatic years. So much happened: I developed a 1000-square-foot studio, built a kiln, and in short order got kicked out of the building because of a freakish eminent domain lawsuit. I set up another studio and started over, with triple the space, alongside a furniture builder. Today, a covey of seventeen businesses, The Old Bag Factory, draws 125,000 customers to the location each year.

With growth has come a certain stability for me. I have fine staff to work with, an eighty-piece product line of utilitarian ware, opportunities to utilize alternative firing methods including raku, saggar-firing and wood-firing.

I owe a great deal to Randy Schmidt from Arizona State University, who took a chance inviting a relatively unknown studio potter from Indiana to come to ASU as visiting artist/adjunct professor in 1988. That experience was a turning point in my professional career. It transformed me from a relatively isolated studio potter to one who now enjoys the benefits from connection with a variety of networks of working artists: the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, the Studio Potter Network, the Potters Guild of Indiana. and others. These organizations offer the possibility of a network of connection and support to individual artists that can actually improve our lives. They can offer each of us what my association with Randy Schmidt offered me: an opportunity to move out of a more isolated environment and to begin to see ourselves in new ways. And, perhaps more important, association with such organizations offers us a chance to give back, to offer to others what we have so richly been given. Without the Randy Schmidts, the Bob Smokers, the Phil Yordys in our lives, we would be all the poorer.

And without our contributions, others will miss that word of encouragement, that gesture of support, that opportunity to grow which may be the turning point in their lives.

As a result of my involvement as a business professional in my community, I have been invited to be on the Board of Directors of the Center for Community justice. The Center focuses on visionary alternatives to justice issues that are more restorative and less punitive than traditional approaches. Some programs involve bringing victims and offenders together to work at restorative reconciliation. As an alternative to incarceration, the Juvenile Reparation Program lets young offenders make right what they had made wrong as an alternative to incarceration. I have come to see my involvement in this organization as being in keeping with what I try to do with the rest of my life.

I have also taken up large format landscape photography. The slow and cumbersome cameras help me to see with new eyes, to notice things I would otherwise overlook.

Recently an acquaintance asked me whether I plan to be a potter for the rest of my life. The way the question was asked sounded to me almost like an accusation…an indictment: "Is that all you are going to do with your life?"

Sometimes I get so involved in the week-to-week and the day-to-day that I forget to look far ahead. As I thought about the question, I asked myself some others: Can you imagine doing anything that would give you greater pleasure? Are there some things you really want out of life that you are not achieving, or which seem unattainable? Are you happy with life? Is there enough of a challenge and mystery to keep your interest? Does life, as you receive it, supply you with sustaining relationships of intimacy and support?

As I looked at my life as a potter, I concluded that I am genuinely pleased with its direction, and should I keep my health and my imagination, I could very well enjoy doing this for the foreseeable future.

All of these musings started for me as I thought about the woman whose life was made better by a mug. As I stop to think about it, so was mine.

Reprinted from The Studio Potter Network Newsletter, volume 6, number 2, Fall 1993.

© Dick Lehman, 1993. All rights reserved.