Still no apologies

Almost five years ago I wrote, “Maybe the most revolutionary and playful thing we can do is to play unapologetically, to give ourselves permission and to stop seeking it from anyone else.   Play is revolutionary.”  I wish I could say I’ve carried through with the revolution by now, but I’m still working on it.

Thanks to Topology Magazine for re-running this early piece.  It’s a good reminder to me in what has been feeling like a very un-playful time lately.  I hope you will find in it some support, encouragement, and permission to let loose and play with your whole being this week.

And now for something completely different

“Meet George Jetson, Jane his wife, his boy Elroy…”

It was a scattered summer and the time I had hoped to devote to pottery went to other things. My summer pottery class produced just four pots and so far I’ve only fired one. Here it is and, yes, I realize it looks like something from The Jetsons or maybe an homage to Ho Jo’s or a slightly-miscolored attempt at UVA colors. There are a lot of ways in which it isn’t really a “me” pot.

Maybe someone will see this and know just the right home for it (and if that’s you, let me know). But I’m proud of it because it represents a lot of New. I made it in the first class with a new teacher and I was attempting to make something in her style, thrown then altered by stretching and cutting the clay. I was also trying out underglazes for the first time, which are painted on (the outside of this bowl) or sprayed on (in the center), rather than dipping the pot into them, and whose colors stay true through firing. Even the colors I chose were departures from my usual earthy palette.

Before my very first pottery class four years ago, I was so hopeful I’d be “good.” I recognized my mind starting to count on that outcome and gave myself a talking to. I showed up early for the first class and said to my teacher Nan, “I hope I can do this and that I’m good. But no matter what, I want to have fun.”

Summer was full and fall is looking the same. Times like these tempt me to treat play like another job, one more area of work in which to push myself to excel/produce/accomplish/check off the list/insert-more-impressive-and-exhausting-things-here. It’s good at precisely these times to remember and reclaim that original intention, to have fun when I’m supposed to be playing, and not to turn it into more work.

So, no apologies for “only” making four pots in the last class and there will be no production schedule mandate for the fall class. And no apology for my Jetsons bowl, which isn’t me at all, but is definitely new and even a little playful.

First kiln at City Clay

not food safe mug_summer2015

So, this one will become a pen and pencil holder rather than a mug. It’s one of two mugs whose form I liked and whose glazes were swirly in almost all the right ways, but which are both casualties of my learning curve with new glazes in a new studio.

I wrote in February about the final kiln at Nan’s studio. I’m about to embark on my third class in the new space, each with a different teacher. I’m still trying to get into a rhythm there, learning the routines of the studio, learning from new teachers, rearranging my schedule from semester to summer and back again while also trying to hit the open studio times just right. Summer seemed to hold the promise of extra hours and longer studio time but that didn’t pan out as I’d hoped.

Neither did some of the new glazes. I didn’t fire any test tiles so everything was an experiment. I’m mostly pleased with the results, including the colors and effect on the non-drinkable mugs. Next time I’ll go easier on this glaze combination so it doesn’t pool and bubble (into breakable glass pockets) in the bottom.

Here’s where you can see the modest take from the kiln so far, with thanks to my husband for the great photos. On to the third class!

Final Kiln at Nan’s


I walked into Nan’s pottery studio the day before Easter four years ago.  Woody and I were eating lunch nearby, saw her brochure in the restaurant, and decided to follow the directions to her studio.  It was a lovely, rare, ambling afternoon, a little adventure of meandering the unfamiliar back roads leading to her long, sloping gravel driveway.

I knew I’d like her pots.  She had some on display in the restaurant, where I’d picked them up one by one and seen the same ”NR” stamp on the bottoms.  Even though we arrived as she was shooting a demo video she cheerfully stopped and gave us a tour.  I wandered through her cottage-like studio and showroom admiring the glazes and forms and bashfully saying, “No, I’m not a potter, but I’ve collected pottery for a long time.”

“I teach classes here.  I usually have a long waiting list but right now I happen to have an open spot, if you’re interested.”

That’s when things changed.  All the way home in the car Woody and I talked money and timing and how long the drive to class would take, but it was already a done deal.  I was doing it.

Becoming not just a potter, but Nan Rothwell’s student, has been one of the unexpected blessings of these past few years.  Pottery is a grounding and spiritual practice that gets me out of my head and back into my body, fully in the present moment.  I’ve written a few things about it here but this probably sums it up best.  I always knew, even before I held my first lump of clay, that I’d love working with it.  What I didn’t know until I became Nan’s student, was how much I needed a teacher.  Those of us in her classes said all the time how lucky we were.  We counted our blessings out loud, regularly.

Life keeps changing and one of those changes this past year was that Nan and her husband decided to try city living for the first time in decades.  In October, Nan closed her teaching studio and we fired the final kiln there.  Here are the last pots I made at Nan’s.

Nan’s teaching at a new place and I look forward to taking classes with her there.  It will all be different, but no matter how many places I sit down at a wheel and no matter how many teachers I learn from, Nan will always be my pottery teacher.  She’s the one who said completely obvious things that came from deep wisdom and forty years of throwing pots, but which were not obvious enough to me before she said and demonstrated them – things like, “Just because the wheel’s moving fast, doesn’t mean you have to.”  Nan has helped me move more slowly and deliberately at the wheel and in life.  She’s the one who let me become a student again and walked me over the threshold from admirer to potter.

When the kiln opens

pottery tumbler

When the kiln opens in June, reuniting me with objects that began in February as moist and malleable lumps of clay, there are always surprises.  Even when I’ve used a particular glaze combination many times before, this kiln firing may have produced a different effect.  Though I’ve been following these now-finished pots through each stage in the process — wet clay, leather hard, dry-and-fragile, bisqued, glazed, and now fired — I’m always surprised.  A piece I thought was inelegant has undergone its final transformation, the glaze smoothing over the least graceful spots to make a pleasing whole.  Sometimes it’s a surprise in another direction:  the form I loved in one piece now seems a bit marred by the glazes I chose and how they fired.

But the long process isn’t really finished the day the kiln opens, no matter how elated or deflated I am with certain pots.  All these pots end up somewhere, part of someone’s daily life, holding flowers or fruit or coffee or pasta.  That’s the abiding surprise:  something I made and tended over months and seasons now graces someone’s table and holds the things that sustain life.

Here are the latest pieces, wonderfully photographed by my husband, Woody Sherman.

Return to Pottery

return to pottery

Two roads diverged…Go left for pottery! (My teacher’s studio sign.)

Last week I was so full of anticipation, driving to my pottery teacher’s studio, I stopped in the road to take this picture.

We usually have a break in the class schedule from late October through early January.  This year our teacher had an unfortunate break in her ankle, so the pottery pause was even longer as she recuperated. Even in a normal year, two months is a long time to be away.  The first day back is awkward as we try to remember where our hands go and precisely how we manage to move clay around into shapes.  On purpose.

But last week we finally sat at our wheels again and got gloriously messy.

Soon enough I’ll have pictures of pots.  Today I simply give you a giddy woman’s mid-road-pause-picture, full of anticipation for what’s next.

Bartering like it’s 1899

stoneware pottery yarn bowl

This swoopy cut delights me.

Last Advent I was captivated by a friend’s picture post of her newly knitted Advent calendar.  She made 24 little red, green, and winter white mittens and hung them on a garland.  Inside each one was a slip of paper describing that day’s special Advent treat or excursion.  My friend is also a fantastic photographer, so the picture itself was gorgeous.

I kept going back to click on it again and drink in the colors and coziness of her creation.  When I finally asked if I could commission her to create one for me for Advent this year, she said, “Why don’t we barter?”

So I’ve been working on my first yarn bowls in pottery class this year.  They’re designed to hold a ball of yarn, so that when you pull on the end (fed through cool cutaway patterns in the bowl) the ball doesn’t roll away.

Unexpectedly, bartering my pottery for her knitting made me feel more like a “real artist” than selling a piece or two.  I love the exchange of art for art, work for work.  When I went to the pack and ship store yesterday to send the yarn bowl off to my friend, I paid attention to the cool weight of that blue bowl with the gorgeous swoopy cutaway.  And then I handed it over to make its way to another state and another home, where mittens are taking shape to eventually make their way to me.

Of course, in the barter age they didn’t have pack and ship stores or the internet. 

(Click on over to my potter page to see what else came out of the kiln this month.  I also tried making lamps for the first time!)

What’s a sacred pause?

shino glaze, center stripe bowls

Sacred pauses give us breathing space and a moment of connection with God.  April Yamasaki encourages us to look for and cultivate those pauses in the midst of daily living, transforming our ideas about what “counts” as spiritual practice.  Today I’m visiting with April, author of Sacred Pauses, at her website. 

She has included me as part of her interview series, where I’m reflecting on the practice of making pottery as a sacred pause. 

What’s it like to keep company with clay over time?  And how is this similar to the way God keeps company with us?  I hope you’ll click over and join our conversation.  Come on, take a moment to breathe with us.

Fresh from the Kiln


tea bowl and cards

A kiln opening is like Christmas morning: delightful, surprising, satisfying, communal…Holding the still-warm pots in my hand is a wonder-filled full circle moment.   From the beginning lump of clay, wet and messy, through discovering its shape, sanding off some rough edges, firing, glazing, and firing again…and voila!

Click on over to my Potter page to see pots from my latest firings, fresh from the kiln last week.


Dust and Clay

(Getting ready for Lent to start again in a few weeks…  This post was originally written for the NCMA blog on 2/23/12.)

This week, on Ash Wednesday, we will have ashes “imposed” on our foreheads, marking us with a dusty, ashy cross as we set out on the journey towards Easter.  We will try not to be self-conscious when we see ourselves in the mirror, or clean off the stray ashes as they fall on the bridge of our noses.  We will go about our day, marked so that no one can miss it, while trying to pretend it’s business as usual.

learning to throw bigger cylinders on the wheelI’ve been thinking about Ash Wednesday a little differently this year as I’ve worked on the liturgy and prepared myself to say to people, one after the other, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I blame it on the pottery classes I’ve been taking.

Each week, with my hands in the clay, I am reminded that I am made of the same stuff.  Each week, when we ladle soup into bowls I’ve made, I am reminded that they used to be lumps of clay.  Each week I form lumps into new shapes and I am also being formed – not just into a potter, but into someone who pays more attention.

On Wednesday as people come forward during worship, I will be holding a small blue bowl I made, which will, in turn, hold the ashes.  Dust, holding clay, holding ashes.

The journey of Lent is simply a reminder of our bigger journey:   pilgrims on the way, dusty from the road, and marked by the cross.  The journey is to practice:  paying attention, knowing who we are, seeing the big picture.  Remember that you are dust.  There is no other business than this.  We are all lumpy clay, with the Potter’s fingerprints all over us, forming and transforming us until we transform once again into dust.