About Inspiration (part 1)

When I was about 8, my parents bought a boat. A 21 foot Cabin Cruiser,  christened Finally because, well… finally. I remember vividly one of the maiden voyages. We pulled up to the narrow barrier island across the Great South Bay that keeps Long Island protected from the Atlantic Ocean. I can still see my kerchief-clad mom disembarking, approaching the ranger on shore, asking where we are. “Fire Island,” he told her. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that each beach on Fire Island actually has a specific name. We frequented Barrett Beach, which is the one that is nearly directly across from our hometown of Sayville.

All these years later, and although I live in the woods of Pennsylvania, Inspiration is not something that is necessarily intentional. When asked that ubiquitous artist question of, “Where do you find your inspiration?” it is less something that is found and more something that simply is.

I don’t know where my attraction to the apocalypse as a source of inspiration came from. There’s no childhood memory or personal experience from which I can pull that would suggest a connection.

But it’s not the special effects or the themes or the robots of the recent sci-fi movies. It’s the strong female characters, the colors, the texture of the film. Katniss, and Jin Urso, and Ray.  

I feel like I can reach into those movies and touch the fabrics. I want to dress like those women: arm bands, slings, layers and layers of quiet clothes. Worn, threadbare even. Having gone through a trial, and survived. Fierce. Yet soft. And vulnerable.

Like the beach houses that have withstood the ocean’s occasional fury and the old shacks that I sometimes see hiking in the woods. I’m not so much interested in destruction, but determination and quiet strength. Coming out on the other side of the battle. Survival.

That theme has power for me and inspires.

On Pig Walking

 Or “How do you decide what to make?”

When I first started making, the object that I most often made was a Mashed Potato Bowl. You know the kind - not too big, not too small. A just right bowl for buttery  mashed potatoes.  The making of the bowl was deliberate in terms of thinking about form. I had the proficiency to handle a certain amount of clay, and these bowls gave me the opportunity to explore the discrete parts of the bowl: a luscious inner curve, a lip that is strong enough to clank a spoon on (because that’s what we do to bowls). And the foot - or no foot.

 (Still making them.)

(Still making them.)

I love to make deep kitchen bowls for everyday meals. Big platters, that can hold all of the side dishes together. Tumblers.  Garlic jars. Honey pots, jelly jars.

 A trio of tumblers

A trio of tumblers

And mugs. Always mugs, the potter’s amuse bouche.  

 One of my favorite designs, after my Jess's sign off. 

One of my favorite designs, after my Jess's sign off. 

As a functional potter, with a special passion for food related items, I choose to make what I like to use.

But I also pig walk.

“Pig walking” is a term that I was first introduced to me by my sister Melanie. Melanie pig walked her way through the sunny Caribbean in her early 20s. In times past it was called Doing Odd Jobs, and even longer ago called Being the Girl Friday. But pig walking: “You need someone to walk your pig? Sure, I’ll walk your pig.” There’s something fun and ridiculous about it that I find immensely appealing.

pig walking.jpg

As a maker, I occasionally and yet inevitably am asked the question, “Do you make ________? I’d really like a _________” Well…. hmm… hadn’t thought of that yet. Yeah, maybe I do.

A dear lady recently told me she would love a salt cellar. Do I make salt cellars? I love salt!  Sure, I’ll make a salt cellar.

 The salt obsession continues. 

The salt obsession continues. 

My family is nearing the end of a butter bell phase. My dad suggested, “You should make a butter bell.”   Ok…

 In process

In process

The artist/owner/goddess of the beautiful bohemian shop that carries my work asked about smaller dishes. Perfect for the street fairs that the town holds. You know, like ring dishes?  So I began like this…

 Perfect for little kid bouquets-of-love/weeds. 

Perfect for little kid bouquets-of-love/weeds. 

Then added little handles…

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And proceeded to go even smaller. I really specialize in things for food. But these are my tiny vessels, and I adore them.

 So teeny.

So teeny.

It’s pig walking. I love to pig walk because it allows me to explore questions that I wouldn’t have thought to ask.

How do I make it so the butter won’t slip out of the bell?

How do I get the salt out of the cellar if my hands are potentially too sticky to reach in for a pinch?

And as a cook, the less things that I have to unscrew, uncork - generally unopen - the better. I really don’t want a lid for my cellar. So how to keep the salt from getting all clumpy? And now that I made this beautiful cellar, what kind of salt should it contain? Which leads to think about a future blog post on mine and Willie’s exploration in making seasoned salt. (Think: Merlot flavored salt. And me mostly suggesting and eating, and Willie making.)

My sister Michelle was my first pig walking experience. Can I make those holders for wine bottles, so that we can pour wine all day at the beach and not have to even consider that it may dribble down the length of the bottle and onto the counter? (Not that the wine lasts that long. But still.) Well… those wine holders are basically cylinders. Not terribly complicated for a new potter. Sure, I can do that!

My son Chris is waiting so patiently for me to answer his pig walking call to make plates. Oh, plates. To me: kiln hogs.

 Chris, I promise I'll get to them...

Chris, I promise I'll get to them...

Every request for new objects opens up new doors, new designs, new proficiencies. New questions and problems and solutions. The spark is provided and I embrace ideas and am inspired and set alight.

I plan to always pig walk. Keep them coming, people.

Because, sure!  I’ll walk your pig!

Things to do while waiting for my kiln to cool

548 degrees Fahrenheit. That's what I woke up to. 

I am firing my glaze kiln to cone 5-6 ish, which for my kiln is a top temperature of 2199 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it hits that temperature, it stays there for 5 minutes, and then starts a controlled ramping down. This top temperature is crucial; less than that the glazes will not mature into their full colors and sheen. Too much more than that and my sensitive clay can wind up with weird bloating. A lot more than that and the clay will completely melt. It's kind of funny that it is so important, yet I called it an "ish." 

 So lucky to have a spatially gifted husband. 

So lucky to have a spatially gifted husband. 

Opening the kiln before its time can cause a variety of problems, ranging from the piece cracking completely from thermal shock, to the development of fine surface cracks in the glaze.  And "its time" for me will be when it's around 200 degrees F. The descent from 500 degrees to 200 can be excruciatingly slow. 

So I eat breakfast. Take a shower. Look at Airbnb places. Post on Instagram.

Here's Mason, the most beautiful baby on earth. 

 Not one, but 4 pictures of Mason.

Not one, but 4 pictures of Mason.

These are homemade cornmeal gluten free waffles, made by Chris, my son. 

 (Why are there waffles in a pottery blog?!)

(Why are there waffles in a pottery blog?!)

Back to waiting. What is it about the last 200 degrees???

See that tiny post, right under the lid? I was hoping that propping the lid just a smidge would move the cooling along, but it really did not drop the temperature. At all.

 Photo taken thisclose to being cool enough. 

Photo taken thisclose to being cool enough. 

Say hello to my little friend, the Buddha perched on the lid. He is my kiln god. I bought him on a trip to Italy a few years before I rekindled my love affair with clay. He who overlooks my kiln is of fire himself, made from volcanic rock from Mt. Etna. 

 This guy is actually my second kiln god. The first one, pictured in the first picture above, bit it early on. I still have him in pieces. 

This guy is actually my second kiln god. The first one, pictured in the first picture above, bit it early on. I still have him in pieces. 

And at 353 degrees F, we're both still waiting. 

I learned about firing a kiln at the same place that I learned to throw, at our amazing local arts center. I loved going there, loved the teachers and the clay talk. It was wonderful to be around people who share my obsession. But honestly, my work really started to move forward once I bought my own kiln and went out on my own. I credit/blame my children and my husband for encouraging me and funding the purchase. Even after I bought my kiln (L & L Easy fire, nearly new on Ebay - who knew that my dream kiln would show up on Ebay in a 50 mile radius of home?) I hesitated to hook it up. I sort of sniffed around it, visited it, dusted it off. It's a modern beauty too. When my mom used to fire kilns back in the 70's, not only did they require manually changing the temperature, but also they were pronounced "kills." 

By the time I bought my kiln I had also set up my own studio, but I still rented at the community center. I threw at my studio and carted in my greenware to be fired, and then glazed, and then fired again. The studio manager and kiln master at the time was an incredibly professional potter, whose knowledge of everything clay is vast. We took a kiln class with him, and it's his voice that I hear in my head when I want to do something impetuous, like opening my kiln too early.

And so I wait, knowing that on the other side of waiting can be and probably will be reason to celebrate (the thicker slip/thinner glaze worked!). And devastation in some measure (the pourer does not fit in the olive oil bottle!). It feels like Christmas every time I open my kiln, regardless of the results.

But most importantly the credit and blame is all mine. This part of the process is mine. That's why I own a kiln, and will wait and wait and wait for it to cool. 

Beginnings

I came into ceramics early - way back in the early 1970s. Remember those basement ceramic studios? My parents had one in the little pink house where I grew up. It was here that I had my first experience with ceramics. My dad would spend Friday nights and Sunday afternoons in the garage, pouring slip (liquid clay) into plaster molds, and fitting them together with giant size rubber bands. Opening up the molds revealed greenware statuary that my sister and I would cart into the house.  

venus de milo.png

My mother would hold classes in the basement for the ladies of the town. A parade of Venus de Milos, Christmas trees, and assorted gnomes/elves would result. In our heyday, my mom was the kiln master of three electric kilns and dad presided over 500 different molds.  

I am now a middle school social studies teacher with a passion for world cultures. I have spent hours and hours teaching about people, reading about people, and even standing in front of the greatest art and antiquities made by people.

I am drawn to simple objects made of clay, especially ancient functional ware: water jugs from Cyprus, grain containers from Mesoamerica, rounded bottom amphora from the seas around Mesopotamia. Basic, everyday necessities. Utilitarian, simply adorned. And yet monumental, since they moved human evolution forward.

Feeling the pull of the ancients, I answered the call of the clay. I enrolled in a pottery class at an amazing local arts center, Goggleworks Center for the Arts. And I was smitten.

The wheel-throwing process that I utilize now is entirely different from the early processes of my childhood. But the material, with its earthy smell and its silky feel, took me right back home.

I continue to hone my skills and take classes. Most recently, I completed a two week immersive class at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine taught by the rock star potters Naomi Dalglish and Michael Hunt of Bandana Pottery.

As a potter, I work to coax the elements to work with me - form the earthen clay, dry using air, lubricate with water, and fire my work to its final vitrified state.  I learn something new each time I work with clay.

The resulting coffee mugs, jugs, bottles are different from those that are factory made and mass produced. No two of my pieces are the same. I have guided them through a process that in its essence is simple, yet is quite complex. They have a force, a vibration, that is left there by human hands - the hands of a passionate potter.

The legacy continues. Each piece is an invitation. Hold it in your hands - a collaboration is made.

 

The Why... (or Artist's Statement #1)

No matter who you are or what you do, there’s a good chance that you have a favorite mug, or dish, or bowl. We form intimate relationships with everyday, utilitarian objects.  There is a sense of recognition, grounding, and even comfort in their use. I am fascinated with how the simple temporal object, such as a mug, transforms to become indispensable and beloved.  It’s a hallmark of our humanity.

 Espresso cup, for Chris,  2016

Espresso cup, for Chris,  2016

Pottery gives evidence of our daily life and culture.  Throughout history, the importance of pottery to people is clear. Its presence or absence helps explain historical and modern population patterns, trade activity, technical sophistication, and collective knowledge. The use of pottery for cooking  allowed for the growth of our brains as we unleashed nutrients that were trapped in raw food. Through pottery, people are understood, nourished, and caffeinated. Communities came together and people evolved. Our story is both written and told.

 A REALLY old pot

A REALLY old pot

My work is utilitarian and functional, truly meant to be used. I identify with the Mingei aesthetic, the idea that the ordinary and necessary objects of our lives can and should be - must be -  both functional and beautiful. As is true with all artforms, pottery displays the marks made by the maker - those left behind by the potter’s fingers and tools, as well as those specific to the materials themselves. As a wheel thrower, I leave behind many personal marks. Unique to pottery though is the incidental mark of the user. The simple coffee cup comes to life when filled with aromatic coffee. Bowls are empty vessels whose relevance comes from the food a hungry person arranges within. I’m interested in participating in this natural and unintentional collaboration.

 Mermaid Revolution, 2016

Mermaid Revolution, 2016

Much of the clay I choose is naturally gritty; portions are left unglazed and naked. In this way, the user literally touches the earth. I use slip decoratively for the fluidity and uncertainty that allow me to embrace imperfection, and drives me to consider the point at which imperfection becomes defect. Many of the glazes I choose are muted and earthy, but others can also sing rather loudly. I love to create simple, clean and somewhat loose objects with negative spaces, meant to be filled. The current themes I consider are the ramshackle cottages with their greying cedar of the beaches of my childhood. The storm fencing that winds a path down the wintry beach. The rustic cabin in the woods across my street. Each of these even contain the echo of a people.   

 Sand Box, 2016

Sand Box, 2016

Pottery binds us together, in fellowship, history, and both to and from the earth. My work is an invitation and an opportunity to continue to tell our story. I seek to collaborate and connect.

 In the studio with Charlotte, 2016

In the studio with Charlotte, 2016

Copyright 2017 Melissa Harris