A Potter`s Perspective: The Learning Curve
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
It all begins with the touch of my hands. With them I see, hear, smell and taste:
they are my eyes and ears, they are my nose and tongue. I rely on the fingers to be
inclusive and precise. The palms are persuasive; their pressure is decisive and firm. The
pinky will incise and the forefinger compress. The middle finger teams up with the ring
finger as a paddle of sorts, carving a wider swath than either alone. And then there is the
thumb. It is an appendage all its own. Standing ever ready, juxtaposed, it will deliver as
none other can ever hope. These thumbs are the workhorses of the potter’s soul poised as
both brute and brother. Alone they can mash but in concert with family they create the
poetry we have come to call art. Many would surmise the hands connect back through the
wrist and the arms. But truth be told a potter’s hands are hard wired directly to the center
of the spirit, otherwise known, as Ch’i (Qi or ki). It is here that matter and spirit
commingle and vision takes on an energy that becomes force. When I set out to chronicle
my life as a potter I sat very still, braced my arms and turned my palms upward. From the
outside it would seem that I was waiting for a substance from above but I can assure you
this posture is for giving. It is within that all power resides and this is the pose that
delivers. Like a pinwheel spinning at the center, somewhere between my navel and pubic
bone, set inward just a bit, the juices start to flow outward. My minds eye choreographs
an image and my hands begin the dance; full of a rhythm, unique and simple steps, the
montage takes on substance and time itself inhabits space. Revolve, rotate, there is earth
and spinning. There is water and sand, there are walls and shape and bodies and feet and
shoulders and moons and shining suns and fiery infernos. The past is always a part of the
moment and tomorrow comes and comes and comes like a rush of electricity sparking,
There can be no more potent a metaphor for the meaning of a life than the potters
art. We are metaphysicians in perpetual pursuit of re-creation. Like alchemists we obsess
about the possibility that a small alteration might be all that separates the last lot from the
kiln from that unimaginably fortuitous discovery of the secret formula for creating
GOLD! Please, we must try again. From the moment the sticky earth is mooshed,
smooshed, sklooged and wedged between our palms we are trying to find that oh so finite
moment when the infinite is possible. In our crude way we are again at the beginning of
time injecting a primal energy into a static mass to find a likeness. What remote traveler
will we become as the form transforms and our trip melds into the eternal. Perhaps on the
way there will be some magic and some jewels but they too shall pass as is the way of all
things save the force, save the energy, save the passion; a potter’s passion: the peril, the
pearls, the person.
What follows are my own musings about learning. We are all on the wheel of
wisdom wherein teachers become students only to resurface as younglings ourselves, full
of wonder. I drink deeply from both troughs as often as possible and become enlightened
and enriched in ways unimaginable when the voyage began. I speak about community
and religion, family and partners, pots and money and art. But the message is in the
silent eloquence of the spinning pot; trust your heart, as I have mine, and your journey
will bring you to the center where balance reigns. Enjoy.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
There is no getting around the fact that potters will work their fingers to the bone;
that is if there is any bone left after the years of grinding effort kneading, mashing,
thumping and pressing. It is on my mind now more than almost any other aspect of this
chosen life. I want to rest. I live to relax and enjoy unhurried time. Just let me drift into a
retirement so I can take a deep breath and look back. I am most content when the cycle is
over. The kiln is cooling and I can let time lift me like a lazy current. Days will become
night in an instant. I’ve napped and snacked; perhaps I’ve done some reading or played a
bit of tennis. I am at peace and work is but a misty image in the future. It sits like a hippo
submerged and substantial; all seeing and unmistakably ripe like a sated tick. It was not
always like this. In my youth Work was a noble thought. In fact it wore a mantle of
great dignity; particularly Emanuel. I speak now of laboring by hand. At the tender age
of 18 I was completely unfamiliar with this activity. I had done some chore work. Taking
out the garbage, cleaning my room. Occasionally I was urged to partake in some yard
work. In high school the standard detention assignment was leaf raking. But Brother
Emanuel was a complete stranger. I had never sustained any physical effort other than an
athletic burst. And so it was with great anticipation, excitement and a fair helping of
anxiety that I began life as a potter’s apprentice in the shire of Cornwall in the southwest
of mainland Great Britain.
On August 11, 1970 I wrote:
And I rode back from Arthur’s
High on the hills, where
The sea fills the shore at
The bottom, in a beautiful
Deep blue to match the now-blue sky above the
Mountains that surround his
Beautiful little cottage nestled in barley and
Good-bye to my parents at
The pinnacle of the road just before it bent
Away and out of view.
I turned to walk down and they walked on
And we scattered our tears evenly on the path- and if
I were really poetic and profound I’d say where the tears
Fell now a forest overgrown, but no, still a path
And a road up and away, what
Shed those tears was already grown, full and firm – but then
A little nervous and
Mostly sad. The lips
Left quivering, with the wind howling, hard – and our hair doing dances – now
throwing up their hands now falling to the
Floor. It was beautiful and sad in Bray that day. And the
Air was chilly, the colors bright, where I turned from the top
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
Where it bent out of sight.
It occurs to me now that I had already served an apprenticeship of a sort. It isn’t
much of a stretch to compare the life of a child to the mentored experience. We are taken
on with no real previous training. In fact we are basically helpless. And then one day we
are let loose on a hillside to navigate alone. The irony of my particular nexus on the
space-time continuum was the perilous fork in the road to the future. At this point in the
late 20th century one path led straight to jungle thickets and real life tropical nightmares
dressed in fatigues and a harness of backbreaking packs filled with k-rations and
ammunition. I’d befriended de-limbed returning veterans, emotionally and mentally
broke; heard stories of massacres and snakes falling from trees while patrolling for a
ghostly enemy. Some so scarred and scared they’d committed suicide. It was
counterintuitive to think that this is the choice my parents had envisioned following that
early apprenticeship. My transport would take me 180 degrees from that morass and park
me at Michael Cardew’s Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall, UK. I’d taken a few
pottery classes in high school and had enjoyed a dreamy two-week stint as a paying
student at a small workshop in Quebec. At a mere 5 feet 8 inches I weighed no more than
135 pounds. Why would any business hire me? For Christ’s sake I was only 18! I simply
couldn’t comprehend it and I assumed for a long time that a mistake had been made. But
to my credit I resolved to become indispensable. After all if my sisters could grow to love
me why not my potting associates? This is peculiar reasoning but such are the strange
workings of the mind in a far away land, light years from anything familiar. And in
retrospect, this man Michael Cardew had made me feel important.
From the moment we met at the World Craft Conference held at the Royal Dublin
Society there was a chemistry. It is hard to be precise about something so ethereal but in
hindsight it most closely resembled love at first sight. I think we both swooned. From
my perspective the person that stood before me embodied all of the virtues of western
man. Dressed in a khaki safari suit he clutched a weathered leather briefcase under one
arm and held a plastic cup of lager in the other. His thinning white hair offset crystal
blue eyes as he stared intently,
“Are you Todd Piker?”
In front of me stood the worldly philosopher I had woven out of pure gossamer as I read
about a British potter that had left post-industrial England to work in the Nigerian bush,
digging his own clay and glaze materials and creating exciting, exotic woodfired
stoneware. I nodded and with that admission became one of the privileged few to enter
the inner sanctum of the complicated world of this 20th century
/O.B.E. and M.B.E.
“Well I suppose you’ll be coming back to Cornwall to work with me and Svend.”
“Svend Bayer. He’s 26 and is very lucky. He has found exactly what he wants to do. He
is already a very good potter. I don’t know how he does it. He is learning so very fast;
everything seems to come so easily. It’s really quite marvelous. He simply gets on with
“How long has he been with you?” I asked timidly
“I think it’s been about a year.”
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
And so the scene was set as was the bar. For the next few days during the course
of the conference we saw each other intermittently. Michael gave a keynote speech and I
began to see what all the fuss was about. Not only was he erudite but also his wisdom
and skill as a public persona provoked awe in almost all that listened. I suppose I was
desperate to have some of this renaissance quality for my own. It just seemed a fit.
The stop in Ireland was a strategic choice. The scheme to become a potter’s
apprentice somewhere in Europe had been hatched a year earlier. After close to one
hundred letters to their various workshops it became apparent that many would be in
Dublin in mid August 1970 to attend the World Craft Conference. Quite a few had
written back suggesting we meet there to discuss the possibility of an assistantship.
Cardew was simply one in a long list of alternative sites for me to accomplish this rite de
passage. I might have studied in Turkey or even North Africa. But the weight of peer
opinion and the clear, powerful and personal radar from our initial encounter were
overwhelmingly persuasive. In Michael’s mind once we had met, there had never been
any doubt that I would return to Cornwall and take up residence at Wenford Bridge
Pottery as his newest apprentice. My conflict was whilst hedging my bets I had agreed to
an offer to work in Scotland. It took many hours of painful introspection to convince
myself that I must sign on at Wenford Bridge and turn my back on Bridge of Dee. Hidey
Ho! Hadn’t I just been standing on 59th street in midtown Manhattan taking part in peace
marches, anti-war protests and demonstrations that would lead to evenings in jazz clubs
downtown? But at some point I must have misstepped and plunged down a rabbit hole
only to re-emerge in medieval times. Now I had to choose which troll would be less
likely to eat me – the Cornish one or the Scottish one.
From Dublin, Ireland to St. Breward, Cornwall in the United Kingdom is a
voyage from one section of middle-earth to another. One hops a slow ferry to Warrington
on the west Coast of the UK and then a train straight down to Cornwall. As I looked out
the window I had a strange sensation. The rat-a-tat of the rails from Warrington to
Bodmin Road Station in Cornwall became a metronome; but with each tick I seemed to
travel deeper into the middle ages and further back in time. I was certainly headed for a
simpler place. I assumed a place of quiet, pensive passion where Art was still a visible
element in everyday life. Just look at these long vistas of rolling lusciously green hills
dotted now and again with small packs of sheep. The only sign of modern life was the
occasional row housing built for the legions of workers needed to jump-start the
industrial revolution. I knew from my courses in European History that this was the
birthplace of the factory. But my overall first impressions were of a culture still
organized around feudalism. A small tremor went through me as my grip on the previous
world of teenage friendships, carefree summers, supermarkets and super malls began to
release. I was panicked again by the absolute fact that I was walking into a world where
skill was paramount and I had spent a life that included no practical training. What
would happen when I woke up for the first day of work and it became clear that I was not
a potter? For one fleeting second I weighed my options and (here’s the irony) the image
of me schlepping in lock step through the lowered door of a huge military transport on
the way to Vietnam brought a great comfort because nothing could be as frightening as
The Wenford Bridge Pottery was the terminus on Michael Cardew’s voyage as a
potter. To listen to him speak there was a degree of resentment against the Nigerian
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
government for exiling him back to his native England to end his illustrious career.
However, as an example of his eclectic complexity, he also spoke of this as his long
dreamed of setting for finishing his career. He was frank about the exhilaration he felt in
his 30 years as a pioneer potter in the bush of West Africa. These are well-documented
experiences working both as an independent potter (in the European studio potter mold)
and as a government employee for the colonial offices of the Nigerian government. He
spoke of two-year stints broken by three-month home leave that went on for much of the
time he was away from England. Originally his departure was precipitated by the advent
of World War II. Night blackouts made firing his large kilns impossible due to the
honing potential of the white-hot exhaust gasses pouring from the chimney. To remain a
potter he found a way to West Africa. Little did he know at the time that this career
move would also set him down a path that he describes as, “The happiest period of my
life!” I remember when I first heard this remark (he would repeat it many times over in
the year I spent there). I had to cringe because it was at a family gathering. Sometimes,
on occasional weekends his wife would come from London to visit. She and Michael had
never divorced although he had willingly spent the last 30 years away from her (save the
brief leaves he took). He always expected she would take up residence again with him at
retirement. But she had established a life separate from his when it became clear that he
would not be resuming their domestic lives together. She had taken their three small
boys to London, become a schoolteacher and quietly raised these boys in his absence.
His attitude, on the surface, was of a merchant marine. His work had precluded any real
domestic involvement but he had always planned to pick up where he left off. In fact
look at this wonderful home and workshop he had been building for all those years.
Every leave he would bring money for another improvement so that spread across the
twenty years of repairs it was now, in 1970, a charming habitat. In his mind nobody in his
or her right mind would turn down the opportunity to reside in such a culturally rich
setting. And then he would let fly with such an insensitive remark such as, “Life only
began for me at age 50!” What could he be thinking? I felt like I should take him aside
and explain to him, very slowly, that if he wanted this woman to cohabitate again he
would need to develop some courting skills. But at age 70 there wasn’t anything he
needed to know from me to straighten out his personal life. Little did I know then how
truly complex the world was for an Edwardian of his proclivities? It was with this
subtext that my year apprenticeship played out. Sunday night would arrive and Mariel,
Michael’s wife, would hobble to her car to begin the 7 hour trip back to her flat in
Lonsdale (a suburb of London). He was crestfallen and often begged her to stay. She was
immovable on the subject and looked relieved to leave. I know she was comforted by the
presence of the apprentices because she wasn’t leaving him alone. She certainly loved
the man, as he her. But time had driven a wedge between them and her independence
precluded her from a life as his minion. It was one thing to be blustery and moody with
the apprentices but the days of sitting in awe during his monologues about Plato and
Mencius, dissertations about tropical fruits or obtuse varieties of English wildflowers
were behind her. Best to leave that for those needing the full picture of this man: a
potter/philosopher of global reach. In August 1970 my arrival meant that Wenford
Bridge Pottery had an American and a Dane as the resident apprentices. We were the
latest in a list that had included Australians, French, Nigerian, South African, Ghanaian,
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
Ugandan, Irish, German, Italian, Japanese, Canadian to name just some of the many
internationals that had made the pilgrimage to sit at the feet of this master.
It was truly an honor to be taken into this inner sanctum. I wanted desperately to
live up to the promise many of his previous students had realized. But in hindsight my
startling youth and immaturity, both physical and emotional, were serious handicaps. As
mentioned earlier I spent the first three months alternately pining for home or desperately
depressed that I didn’t have the requisite talent to achieve. Looking back I can see that
part of the dilemma at first was due to the fact that my tenure as an apprentice was
fortuitously paired with work being done by a man Michael himself has described as, “a
force of nature”. Svend Bayer, of Danish descent, raised until the age of 16 in East
Africa and then sent to be educated to England, had arrived at Cardews, in his own
words, “to prove to an old girlfriend that he could be a potter.” I was shocked when I
heard that such a prodigious talent might have lain dormant save for the petty pouting of
a long vanished romantic event. To me this proved he was human after all. Because up
until I found out this caveat as far as I could tell his stature as a potter had placed him on
Olympus from the first week his hands had touched clay. You see, in the 40 years of my
potting life I have watched innumerable potters become professionals. With the
exception of Svend all have gone through a vetting stage before their true apprenticeships
begin. Within this period are numerous settings where one is exposed to the material as a
complete beginner. Often this is accomplished in a craft school or hobby workshop
setting. The budding talent gives over their ego to the instructions given by the resident
professional and mostly takes a back seat to the behavior of the clay. By this I mean
many of the early works will be formless, shapeless vessels that only a mother could
love. It is precisely this reason that targets mothers as recipients of early work. But as the
days, weeks and months pass an accumulation of sorts happens. The stored wisdom of
how clay behaves when very wet or very dry, when spinning or being coiled, while
becoming leather hard and bone dry, while being fired and glazed becomes an inventory
for the journeyman. My resume would include night classes at the YMHA on 92nd street;
the stint with Cardew, a summer of classes in Greenwich Village at the Baldwin Pottery
with Judy Baldwin. Then there were the two summers spent in Ways Mills Quebec,
Canada and not to forget the forgettable semester in high school with Betty Powell at the
George School. It all must be factored in and becomes an irreplaceable step in the
journey to becoming a potter. For not only must we become familiar with the material
we also must demonstrate a stubborn certainty that no matter how long the odds and
insurmountable the obstacles our urge to make pots overwhelms the reality that this is
one tough calling. However Svend Bayer breezed into Wenford Bridge Pottery at age 24
without the slightest previous experience “in clay” (as the saying goes). Within several
weeks he was making accomplished work that demonstrated an exceptional
understanding of form and an even more remarkable composure and poise rarely evident
until many years of what I term as ‘flailing’ have been logged. As added evidence of his
prodigy I point to the unquestionable fact that he was teaching himself much of these
techniques. For when Svend arrived at Wenford Bridge Pottery Cardew was approaching
his 70’s and his ability to teach the fundamentals was compromised due to some arthritis
and a disagreeable despair not uncommon in vigorous people that are coming to terms
with their mortality. Michael was none too keen on allowing this upstart to show him up;
the competitive juices were flowing and all I could do was watch. So watch I did and in
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
that short year when I was resident as apprentice #2 I sat at the foot of the Sorceror but
was schooled by his apprentice. I consider this placement a remarkable opportunity and
am proud that I wasn’t ground into a pulp by the meeting of these Promethean talents. I
made sure not to choose sides and revered them both based on merit. Svends pots were
glorious, accomplished, suave, sophisticated, bold and exquisite. Michaels work was
exciting, exotic and primal. Both were making what I consider to this day as ‘museum
quality’ work. And it was Michael that imparted the passion. His work throughout his
career was associated with fits of brilliance and risk taking. From the 1930’s when he
rekindled interest in Galena glazed slipware through his years in Africa the public
associated him with an artistic vision completely unaffected by style or popular culture.
His talent was raw and unfettered. Svend, although prodigious, was considered an enfant
terrible; exciting in its own right but requiring the test of time to assume the master’s
mantle. I was naturally allied with Svend as we spent hours, days and months together in
the workshop. Although it had taken some work, by the end of my time at Wenford I
considered him my best friend.
Anybody that knows Svend will agree that he is a guarded man. He is not given
to small talk and is capable of going long periods (maybe hours) without a single
comment. In this time it is impossible to know what he is thinking because when he does
speak often it will be a short comment verging on sarcasm. For instance, if I was trying to
start a small project of making small beakers and had weighed out my lumps, prepared
my wheel and asked him to give a demonstration the answer might well have been, “OK
Mr Peckler. I see you have no problem interrupting my incredibly important work. Fine.
A demo.” The only hint of comedy in this for me was his use of a silly pseudonym for
me. This would make me laugh and relieve the tension I felt for interfering with his
morning work. Then the virtuoso performance would begin and the distraction of
watching him make this mundane and routine exercise a graceful pas de deux between
the clay on the potter’s wheel and his entire consciousness would leave me profoundly
impressed. I know my awe was palpable and, in time, he began to believe that just maybe
this flyboy from the States might be as serious about the potting life as he. Getting him
to trust that I was the real deal and not another one of Michael’s American hippies
looking to return to the land, smoke some pot and throw off the fetters of crass capitalism
was a full-time job for the first few months. Part of the problem had to do with the fact
that there was an element of that in me. After all I was only 18 and hadn’t yet been to
college. He, on the other hand, had finished a degree in Economics from Exeter
University but was throwing the towel in on that profession. Becoming a potter was a
very risky decision while my motives were quite the opposite. I know this was a source
of irritation and it didn’t help matters that Michael was a secret hippie himself. I recall
that one of his most favorite books at the time was the Original Whole Earth Catalogue.
Part of his devotion to it stemmed from the fact that his book Pioneer Pottery was given
generous coverage. But also this was an indication to him that the counter culture in
America might well be on the way to saving the world. He was the beneficiary of Peace
Corps volunteers while in Nigeria and since that time had been on the lookout to bring
more Americans into his inner circles. I had fit that bill and Svend was fed up with the
superficiality. I was guilty before I had opened my mouth. So these first few months were
a dance of sorts. Svend would try to bring out the side of me that was shallow and
noncommittal and I would try to convince him of my dedication and seriousness.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
Looking back this too had a helix element to it because as I became more severe, partly to
assuage his fears, he became more relaxed, mostly because it is his true nature. A
watershed event in our relationship, from my perspective, was a river voyage on a raft.
Looking back now it was Lost Boys from Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and
Lord of the Flies all rolled into one. I see it all through the sepia gauze of a distant time
and place but my recollection is that there had been some stormy weather and the river
was running very high. Wenford Bridge Pottery is about a 5 acre tract of land that was
once, in medieval times, a pub. The tap room, now the main house, is built of huge
chunks of granite perhaps averaging 3 feet thick and wide and sometimes as long as 5
feet long. The house itself sits on a small road that connects St Tudy to St. Breward.
Open the front door and you can be in the middle of the street in four steps. Certainly
dangerous by day, at night there is a pub game played by the kids leaving the pub in St
Tudy, hopping on their motorcycles and beginning the descent into the valley, past the
pottery buildings at full speed and then on up to the St. Breward pub to finish off the
night. My room was right above the front door and just as I would be falling asleep I’d
hear in the distance the revving of a single engine and I knew the ball race had been
launched. Sure enough, within minutes that drone had become a full-fledged roar as the
bike picked up speed getting ready to whiz by my window and hurtle up toward St.
Breward. Every time that happened I cringed at the thought of the spectacular disaster
from a spinout. Bear in mind that this voyage was undertaken after many a pint had been
hoisted. But thankfully that never came to pass. On the west side of the property the
boundary was the River Camel. A small, meandering stream that wends it way through
the north coast of the Cornish countryside going south from the pottery but finally
emptying into the North Atlantic in the northern town of Wadebridge. It is possible to
put in at St. Breward and kayak to Padstow (about a 10 mile trip I think) but its not a
good idea unless you are very familiar with the terrain and someone knows when you put
in and when you’re expected out. Like all rivers there is much lore surrounding the
Camel. Much of it about various historic floods. I never experienced any serious events
although occasionally it would breach and the meadow leading up to it would be soggy.
But there are markings at least 5 feet off the ground all around the pottery complex to
indicate that the river was indeed dangerous at times. I had heard stories of a flood that
had washed into the downstairs of the house and sloshed around up to the kitchen
counters before receding. It was certainly a force not to be taken lightly. When Svend
and I during a walk upstream had decided to launch a log and float down the river it was
an exciting bit of teamwork that helped us ford what might otherwise have been an
uncrossable chasm between two people from different continents and disparate life
experiences. I think we spent some time thinking about building a raft; hewing it together
with vines and such but that never came to pass. Rather we spent a ribald afternoon
playing like little boys without a care in the world. I think we crossed a divide on this
day; one that forged a friendship of equals that grew into one of the most meaningful
associations of my adult life. In 1971, as I began to fashion a scheme to build a pottery
workshop of my own, the key player, from a technical standpoint would be Svend. My
family concurred with my assessment that to do it right we would need to bring Svend to
America to help get the business off the ground. To this day, I’ve never regretted that
decision. However, it worked out better for me than him. By the time our partnership
came undone I was left with a pottery to grow into and he returned to England with a
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
marriage that was on the verge of coming undone. But that is another story for someone
else to tell.
Without him I might never have learned the mechanics of pot making. I have
always acknowledged that it was Michael Cardew that stimulated my love of the potter’s
art. In Cardew I found a supporter for the kind of pot that most interested me. Into my
compulsion to make pots I had woven the stipulation that these pots must occupy a place
in the ritual of everyday life. I had identified these pots as the ones that were most
interesting. The living rooms and museums of the post industrial world are filling up
with accessories. A large pot in the corner or a deep charger posing self consciously on a
coffee table has a distinctly different quality than the large pitcher or planter that comes
to rest in these places. The useful pot has a history and cultural saga that authenticates
the globalization being attempted by interior designers. Otherwise the work is purely
visual and without merit as a work of craft. Martha Stewart has become a great champion
of this ruse. Just make it look right; no one cares that 90% of the accessories are
fabricated by sweatshop workers with no vested interest in their work. She has built an
empire on the backs of exploitation in the third world and is pawning off quantity in the
place of quality. Sad really, because in the beginning (back in the early 1970’s) she
would call me Cristmas eve for plum pudding bowls. But she’s never acknowledged her
ability to tell the difference between art and crass. Indeed there are designers that will
often substitute fiberglass imitations to get that ‘look’. Cardew was a conscious
supporter of craft as a living art. And his work always represented a profound respect for
materials and tradition although often blazing new paths and aesthetics. But had Svend
Bayer not been around to show me the path one follows to learn the motor skills of
making pots I never would have been able to navigate out of the eddies and find open
water. This kind of nuts and bolts is paid a lot of lip service but as an art form dies the
missing link is the craftsmen that knew how to make it. I watched closely as Svend
designed a methodical course from small and uncomplicated to gradually bigger pots. As
he succeeded at one challenge he crafted a slightly more complex one to continue his self
training. Making in multiples was always a part of the journey and we both learned that
‘the more you make, the better you make.” In fact one of our criticisms of the Wenford
experience was that it was primarily a setting for an older man winding down his career.
His interest in building a larger business to satisfy greater demand had ended decades
earlier. Now, the prospect of making and firing more pots simply made him tired. One of
his more transparent tricks was to summon us to do some yard work when he wanted to
slow things down. It would make Svend angry to be interrupted in that manner and I
would hear him grumble about having to leave the workshop and behave like some kind
of hired hand. Even though Cardew’s kiln was considered large by studio potting
standards I watched as Svend furiously sketched ideas for kilns 10 times that size on a
small chalkboard commandeered from the resident grandchildren. In this way Svend was
fashioning his own future as a potter and I wanted to be part of that vision. With a kiln
that large there would be continuous pressure to improve productivity and proficiency.
And perhaps there would be the potential to satisfy an even larger market. Even though
at that point I was simply along for the ride I had faith that someday I would become a
significant producer.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
A Spiritual Endeavor
My wife, Ivelisse, and I shared our home with our two daughters, Davina and
Elyse, so the house where we live is a window into our collective personalities and
characters. However, the nearby studio/workshop provides a direct view into my soul
exclusively. I have always considered that space a temple of sorts. Although I am a Jew, I
have never been affiliated with any synagogue nor have I engaged in any regular
religious activities. But if anyone should make the mistake of assuming I am without
religious conviction I would produce the log of hours I have spent worshipping in my
personal sanctuary. I assume conventional Judeo-Christian attitudes would not look
favorably on my uniquely fashioned strategy for communing with the Forces of nature.
Frankly I have grown weary of the stranglehold Christianity has on our collective
conscience as a country and I would be appreciative if our elected officials were less
assertive about the importance of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In all honesty those
three are complete strangers to me and many like me. But I am confident that the results
of my efforts within the hallowed confines of my studio are potent proof that Air, Earth,
Water and Fire deserve an equivalent awe. So I stand as a proud devotee of the power
inherent in a life committed to realizing Nature’s full potential in all of its’ Glory!
Surely this is a tall order. There is no denying that the humility I feel is largely
due to the enormity of this task. A potter must forever guard against the tendency to
covet achievement. There is a natural inclination to admire accomplishment and I am
often exhilarated when I have reached a plateau that seemed unobtainable. But no sooner
am I resting comfortably when the new horizon becomes an exciting challenge and the
voyage begins again. For example, of late I have felt a strange calm within the core of
my being. Upon close inspection it is as if I have passed through the disquieting stage of
life when early on we are without speech. As a child struggling to be understood there is
a transition period of profound struggle as we develop the skill to communicate. And so
it is with the artist within us. If we persevere there comes a time when the vocabulary
begins to be sufficient to form intelligible sentences. This becalming event is an
extraordinary sensation. A great peace prevails and for a moment there is the startling
possibility that the threshold of Nirvana has been crossed. I do not exaggerate. Part of
this ethic is the pursuit of Heaven on Earth at all times; a conviction that waiting for an
afterlife for such an experience is a clever ploy to avoid the painfully critical component
of challenge. But if we are true to our inner voice the moment of arrival is simultaneous
with the need for departure and the restlessness begins again. Calculus provides an
analysis of this event: the arc of the circle intersects as the slope and the line of trajectory
continues on beyond this the tangent point: definable only as an infinite narrowing of
upper and lower limits. We can never be precise about the spot because movement, by
definition, cannot be static.
There is a radio in my workspace. The team I work with generally listens to
popular music on local stations. It is curious but I have noticed that my aural senses are
tuned to my own inner sounds. In other words I rarely know what kind of noise is playing
in the ambient background. Rather I am sensitive to inner signals the likes of my
heartbeat and a meditative stream of consciousness in rhythm with the revolution of the
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
potter’s wheel. Each rotation becomes a mark of time; each pot but an expression of the
inexorable march. But is it possible for matter to transcend its’ atomic substance in this
way? Perhaps this is a graphic illustration of TIME as the 4th dimension. The pot exists in
height, width, and depth as well as time. I am still struggling with this concept but feel
content about the potential. There is great palliative value in any activity that can be both
meditation and concentration. “Throwing a pot” is such an activity. Aside from the
visual magic of a piece of earth being coaxed by the careful application of isometric
pressure whilst lubricated by a thin film of water there is also the compelling drama of a
substance spinning like the earth itself waiting for an assertive direction from a conscious
being. No wonder the great storytellers of the Bible reference potters and their trade:
Isaiah 64:8
But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the
work of thy hand
Jeremiah 18:4
And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it
again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.
Jeremiah 18:6
O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in
the potter's hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.
Romans 9:21
Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour,
and another unto dishonour?
"Woe to those who hide deep from the LORD their counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and
who say, 'Who sees us? Who knows us?' You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be
regarded as the clay; that the thing made should say of its maker, 'He did not make me;' or the
thing formed say of him who formed it, 'He has no understanding'"? (Isaiah 29:15-16)
Indeed Genesis itself might well be referring to a potting event:
"In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was
yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up---for the LORD God had not caused
it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the
earth and watered the whole face of the ground---then the LORD God formed [Heb: yatsar ]
man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [ruach] of life; and man
became a living being [nephesh]. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden [the word
means "delight"], in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed." (Genesis 2:5-7)
But the potter’s life as metaphor is far older than language more vast than the emptiness
of the universe itself. Please bear with me. The spinning earth is a treasure trove of
projectiles; some inorganic – stone, metal, gas; some organic – vegetable, animal. Is it
serendipity that these remote travelers have woven an earthly tapestry or are larger forces
orchestrating a complex medley? A potter finds the clay and brings it to the fire; but pray,
from whence the potter? Are we born or made?
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
When I was new to Cornwall Bridge, back in the early 1970’s, I would pay a visit
to the local dump. It is now a transfer station, meaning that no residual waste stays there.
It is all divided up into various forms of recyclable and sold or given to the next stop on
the voyage of a piece of trash. But back in the day we drove up to the top of the everexpanding pile and simply shoveled off whatever it was we wanted to leave behind. In
my case, back then, it was often an inordinate number of broken pots. The early years at
Cornwall Bridge Pottery produced thousands of pounds of shards. Millions of years from
now there will be evidence of my efforts. Perhaps the archeological references will read
something like this:
There are indications of the existence of a thriving ceramics enterprise. Shard collection reveals
that there may have been two locations of major manufacture: on Route 7 in Cornwall Bridge and several
miles down the road on Route 4 (in the vicinity of a long-defunct solid-waste Transfer station).
The employees of this facility are on the Town payroll and generally reflect
families that have been in Cornwall for many generations. Back in the 70’s when I was
new in town these gentleman were the unofficial greeters. They were full of a lot of
miscellaneous information such as the required length of residence to be considered a
“local”. I remember being informed that a 25-year minimum presence was a prerequisite
for “local” status. This seemed an impossible achievement for me so I just shrugged and
resigned myself to being forever a New Yorker. However, now that I’ve been around 35
years and raised 2 native Cornwallians the latest news is puzzling. General acceptance
has been raised to 50 years and residents like me are still interlopers. Although somewhat
tongue in cheek this attitude reflects a profound shift in native attitudes toward the
encroachment of non-resident landownership. The ever-dwindling pool of legitimate
“locals” seems part of the cost of a profound willingness to preserve the pristine
condition of this little hamlet at all costs. When examined from a “cost-benefit”
perspective it would appear that Cornwall, when choosing a path to its’ future, is
positioning itself to remain available as open-space in a world that is desperately looking
for development opportunities. We have identified increased population as a short-term
benefit and chosen the path of least expense by encouraging a shift in ownership to
residents that spend very little time inhabiting the second home they own. In this way we
achieve the maximum tax yield for the minimum provision of services. Happily property
values continue to escalate…unhappily these increased values make it very difficult for
the town to maintain diversity of any kind. The irony is that this very progressive
community remains ethnically reminiscent of the Aryan communities of northern Europe
and has become economically similar to areas of the Hamptons on Long Island.
Fortunately a potter is still considered welcome. And in all honesty, for the last 36 years,
civic blunders notwithstanding, I have felt embraced.
My home and workshop sit on the west side flush up against Route 7 just as the
road dips on the way north into the hamlet of Cornwall Bridge, one quarter mile down the
hill. Junction 4 defines the northern edge of the thriving commercial center composed of
1 grocery store, 1 hardware store, 1 rug shop, 1 package store, 1 veterinary practice, 1
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
bank, 1 plumbing/electrical service business and 1 fisherman’s boutique. On the
periphery there is a lumberyard and a gas station with an attached convenience store. Oh,
let’s not forget the potter as well. My location sits just outside of the commercial zone but
I am allowed to continue my mercantile behavior because I pre-date zoning. I’m sure
that if someone were inclined to make my life miserable a simple phone call to the
Zoning Enforcement Officer would trigger a flurry of activity to bring me into
compliance. For the moment I have dodged that bullet. The town boasts less population
now than during the late 18th century when iron was king. In 1850, at its populous peak,
there were 2051 hearty souls. Today there are approximately 1500 people. Based on an
average family size of 2.93 there are just over 500 families in town. Very cozy in one
sense, but as a potter making useful objects for domestic use I am afraid every household
probably is saturated with my work. You see, a high-fired stoneware pot is designed to
last a few millenniums. At this point I avoid trips to local tag sales in fear of seeing my
mugs and bowls sold for pennies.
Perhaps you are sensing a bit of emotional conflict in my attitude about my
community. I cannot hide the fact that I may well have overstayed my welcome here.
Back when my kids were in the local school and we were more fully engaged as citizens
and parents there came a time when it did feel like one very large family. Our
relationships with our neighbors were complex in much the same way brother and sister,
cousins, aunts and uncles raveled and unraveled the Gordian Knots of family life. There
were ribald Halloween parties, Christmas Caroling, Pig roasts and volleyball games. It
wasn’t always clean fun either. I remember hash brownie affairs that took days to
recover from; the present mayor hosted a party that came to be known as Jonestown. All
of the 100 or so guests attending had passed out in situ throughout his small farm from an
extremely potent mixture of grass brownies. But our kids were often the same age and
their friendships got us through the rough patches. Our respective careers rose, fell
separately or together. In my case many of our closest acquaintances are artist/craftsmen
of one kind or another. We know carpenters, sculptors, housepainters and fine artists.
There were printmakers and writers, musicians, playwrights and poets. This is the
Cornwall of legend and many on the outside looking in are envious of this eclectic mix.
It certainly is the group I think of as my peers and am most proud of the association. But
I also know there are many in town who have found it odd that a small pottery business
has been able to amass substantial real estate holdings. You see as a hedge against being
shut down commercially in my primary location I purchased a building in the commercial
section of West Cornwall and opened a store. I’m sure the indecipherable mumble
references “family money”. I rise above the fray by turning a deaf ear to the local
musings. But perhaps the effort to keep a healthy distance has created a chasm. “If you
would be known and not know vegetate in a village; if you would know and not be
known, live in a city.” (Charles Caleb Coulton, 1835). I first encountered the
provincialism in 1976 when my future wife and I paid a visit to Town Hall to obtain a
marriage license. The clerk filled in my ethnicity as white and my wife was categorized
as black. We looked at each other and then at the Clerk and I said very calmly, “Evie is
Puerto Rican. I think that would be classified as Hispanic.” There was an apologetic
moment and all was forgotten. But in fact, nothing was forgotten. From then on it has
been etched in stone for eternity. We licked our collective wound and carried on: after all
this was going to be our home whether we liked it or not; because a man with a
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
compulsion to make wood-fired stoneware pots must find a large plot of land in a thickly
wooded area to build the massive kiln that would redefine studio potting in North
America. I can still see the bank teller giggling when she opined, “So you’re going to put
us on the map are you Todd?” That was in 1975. Well here’s a strange fact to chew on.
When the warnings of impending severe weather are issued in Albany the banner that
runs at the base of all television screens in a 50-mile radius heralds the salient geographic
trajectory of the gathering storm. Imbedded in the times and place names are the words
“near Cornwall Bridge Pottery” and sometimes “near Cornwall Bridge Pottery Store.” I
suppose we’ve achieved a visibility of a sort. But not yet of the full variety we had set our
minds on.
A small New England village is a perfect place to recede into the woodwork. A
friend of the family refers to a life ethic called the 3L’s – Live and Let Live. In general
that is the modus vivendi. There are times when the isolation and remote behavior get
overwhelming and I feel an urge to sell it all and move to another small town. But
usually that passes with a quick reality check. Fact is that this is the way it is in small
town life. It’s feast or famine when it comes to attention. Fortunately when I’m in true
need of compassion and companionship I can turn inward, to my nuclear family. I think
that this is the safest way to navigate the fickle road of community life.
There is another, darker element of this small New England enclave. It is a
recurring theme that it would be remiss to overlook. I truly am in a love-hate relationship
with this pastoral paradise but feel there is ample cause for alarm as it flaunts a
willingness to feign progressive conservatism of a type not seen since pre-Civil War
America. Surely New Englanders, as was true of their ancestors across the pond, were
appalled by the southern version of plantation slavery. But lest we forget, Connecticut
had more slaves than all other New England states combined. What in God’s name does
this have to do with a discussion about quaint Cornwall, CT in the 21st century? It is with
great reluctance that I point to a continuing elitism that is fundamentally opposed to
enabling the American dream. Cornwall has always been a generous haven for the
downtrodden, but not the poor and huddled masses. I count among my tennis buddies two
infamous and successful personalities ransacked by the media and in perpetual hiding
from paparazzi. Although not technically criminal their behavior besmirched their
profession and undid generations of exalted legacy. Both of these millionaires are
comfortably ensconced in this community; content in a paradise of like-minded neighbors
willing to turn a blind eye to their deeds. After all this is a community of overachievers.
Captains of industry and commerce whose ambitious pursuit of wealth has helped them
amass huge portfolios of assets. Often their Cornwall residence and all the attendant
trappings – pools, tennis courts, service personnel and such – are but an incidental on the
list. They have fashioned lives that utilize their country retreat in the Berkshires for
weekends and holidays of escape from the reminders of the grim rat race that surrounds
them daily in their primary residences. Although uneasy, the alliance of native
Cornwallians, many of whom trace ancestry back to Plymouth Rock, with this powerful
interest group has produced zoning restrictions so exacting that even the slightest scrutiny
would suggest unconstitutionally discriminatory effort. How else does one explain a
population of 1500 for 55 square miles of real estate within the most densely populated
megalopolis in the world? I have tried to research the loan history of our local bank to
find any indication of suspected redlining (redlining is the slang term used to describe an
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
illegal practice of discrimination against a particular racial group to discourage the
pursuit of home ownership). But in 20 years of requesting these so-called “public”
documents I have never once seen the quantified report. I suspect it would be damning
and lend more credence to the fundamental purpose of these small New England villages:
maintenance of an old world order wherein feudal lords dictate economic and political
behavior through a complex web of power and influence flowing from a belief in
Sometimes I drive by the town green in the picaresque setting of the original village.
This section of town is now a campus of sorts: mostly elaborately renovated colonials
surrounding a baseball field for toddlers, two red clay tennis courts and a soccer pitch
used mostly for Ultimate Frisbee games on Sunday. There is a newly built library and a
cluster of petite structures that function unobtrusively as the Town Offices. One big stone
building serves as large gathering room for full town meetings. There are also two
churches – Congregational and Unitarian. As a Jew you can see how I would feel
somewhat remote in this setting. And there is a stinging reminder of the saddest day of
my life when I was hauled into a Town Meeting to plead my case against the local Fire
The First Selectman had approved a proposal to close the road in front of my store
on the busiest day of the year to give the volunteers ample time to prepare for a party that
evening. On paper a noble gesture but in fact a decree so debilitating economically it
threatened me (and several other local merchants) with financial disaster. Had there been
even a gesture to negotiate I might not have needed the purview of a meeting before the
town fathers. But the Department was allied not only with the seat of government but,
more importantly, one of the wealthiest people in town. A local property owner and trust
fund son of the most powerful publishing name in America had donated huge amounts of
money to the fire department after it had saved a majority of one of his buildings in the
course of dousing a nasty fire at his furniture workshop. The largesse got him Honorary
status (the only finger he lifted was to write the check). Odd that they would hold him up
as a positive exemplary model rather than issue a reprimand for unsafe practices (I
watched as a worker torched a tabletop to distress it during a Christmas party; I can only
imagine what went on during the workday). As a result of this liaison he had become
beholden to their efforts in a palpable way and when they came calling for a staging area
to facilitate their Memorial Day party and parade an alliance of the paramilitary/industrial
complex was formed. On the Sunday in question he would recede into anonymity while
the Department overran his workshop yard and parking area with tents and hot dog
stands. A little known fact - his normal business hours didn’t include Sundays. I don’t
blame the Mayor for spinelessly (and thoughtlessly) caving in on their request to legally
close the road. As Tip O’Neill inveighed, “All politics is local.” When I let it be known
there were other needs and considerations to address I was summarily dismissed as an
interloper who was demonstrating a disinterest in the needs of the most important
volunteer organization in town. After all, these men (mostly) protected life and property.
How dare an inconsequential merchant question the needs, wants, desires of this powerful
and purposeful group! It simply wouldn’t, couldn’t wash. So I strategized and huddled
with my small coterie of friends and family. In the few days of agonizing about the
disappearance of my rights as a citizen in town I read the statutes regarding road closure.
I concocted a scheme to host a fair of my own on the following day and requested a road
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
closure of my own. Of course, as I had suspected the First Selectman denied this and I
forced a public hearing (easily triggered by collecting 20 names; “three cheers for
Democracy!) On the evening scheduled for the hearing, wherein everyone in town would
be allowed to vent their opinions, there was no question about the ulterior motive.
According to the Fire Department, in a message to all of its cadres in hearing distance,
utilizing their newly purchased high-frequency intercoms (bought, by the way, with tax
payer money as well as $1000 I had donated after a fundraiser I had spearheaded the year
before) – “Piker is trying to stop the Parade and Party!”. Oh boy, now I was in trouble.
How did I ever get myself into this mess? Then I looked in the mirror and the penny
dropped. Staring back at me was a little Jewish man. I’d grown paes that curled
downward in front of my ears. A little beard encircled my face and a large brimmed black
hat covered my head. I was in a small New England village a mere 100 yards from the
open green where not long ago witches were held and pilloried in “dunking chairs” and
ridiculed in public in yokes called stockades. I could just see all these gentile supporters
gathering small bundles of kindling to bring to the meeting. Afterward I would be
dragged outside and burned at the stake. A fitting end to this small-businessman who
dared to put crass commercial interests before purposeful Protestant prerogatives! Oh
well, there was no turning back. On a calm and seemingly normal spring evening I
walked into a sadly familiar setting. My people in shtetls across the world had faced
public ridicule on levels far more sinister than this so I was resigned to my fate. It wasn’t
any better than I had feared. One by one people stood up to question my rights and
pontificate about the sacrifices made by this hallowed group of men(mostly) as they
answered their mid-winter late-night calls to attend to the towns emergencies. One by one
they looked at me with loathing and conviction that people like me would be the towns
undoing. In the undercurrent I heard murmurs of “greedy New Yorker” and the
omnipresent exasperation about lack of “patriotism”. The furniture maker was a Vietnam
Veteran and I was suspected as having dodged the draft. But the cruelest blow was that as
my eyes scanned the seething crowd I saw faces of people I had felt were my friends. It
hadn’t been easy for me to crack the inner circle of a town so closed and unwelcoming.
But I had stayed the course and reluctance had eased. But now it was as if the curtains
closed and doors slammed. I was to be shunned for eternity from this day on. The
meeting ended with a sweeping edict by the Board of Zoning. The Fire Department
wouldn’t need the full day as it had requested but would I agree to a 4pm closure instead
of the requested noon? I was relieved that there was a way to end the evening and I
quickly acquiesced. I stumbled out into the cool night and looked for a friendly face. No
such luck. The few that had been on my side had evaporated quickly hoping not to be
recognized as associates of mine. I was left to negotiate the now angry mob on my own.
One by one they came to me, leaning in and locking eyes to get one more stab into my
wounded carcass. A Pyrrhic victory for sure.
A Potter’s Epiphany
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
I’ve spent a great deal of my life being both a teacher and a student. One of the most
exciting moments I can remember was discovering how valuable teaching was for
learning and vice versa. It certainly seems intuitive that teaching something to somebody
should be a good way to reinforce one’s own expertise in any given field. And so it came
to pass that whilst demonstrating a particular form to one of my apprentice/assistants I
realized that I too needed a teacher.
The subject of shape, and its’ relationship to the art of “throwing” a pot, is
generally considered a subjective pursuit. In other words, there is no manual or book of
Standards that would dare identify quantitative values for dimensions that would define
qualitatively a “thrown pot”. Imagine giving awards for the best art made during the
Impressionist era or holding a Poetry Olympics. This concept of comparative superiority
in artistic effort has no place in creative endeavors so any hope of getting an easy answer
to the question, “When is the shaping finished?” would be futile. But I was now
consumed by this question philosophically because in a sense it is at the root of artistic
endeavor. The decisions an artist makes on the journey to creation are fundamental to the
finished work. And it must be assumed that any serious artist is on a lifelong quest.
Therefore individual works are but indicators of the progress being made towards
fulfilling the vision that compels us to continue. So the answer to the question, “When is
the shaping finished?” must be personal but certainly not final. However, in the
teacher/student relationship there is an unspoken responsibility for both parties to be as
honest as humanly possible. The teacher must be able to honestly tell the student, “I
believe you are finished.” And the student must honestly be able to say, “I, too, believe
the work is done.” It is within this interchange that I realized the complexity of the
endeavor and resolved to become as clear about the process of “shaping a pot” as
possible. In this way I hoped to develop a vocabulary for my vision and enable students
to trust their own.
So believe it or not the quest to understand and answer the question, “When is the
shaping finished?” was fundamentally about honesty. This was a concept that I had
wrestled with on and off since my decision to become a potter had first been made. As a
young man of 20 I had decided that perhaps being a potter would be too difficult and that
another career path might prove less problematic. So I happily embarked on a career as a
journalist after taking an entry-level position at Newsweek Magazine. 1972 was a heady
time in News publishing and Newsweek (owned by the Washington Post at the time) was
at the center of the unfolding Watergate scandal. I was full of excitement about my
affiliation and I enjoyed the prospect of being part of this historic moment. But there was
a persistent nagging deep within my soul and I soon began to understand that I had some
reckoning to do. You see the discomfort I was feeling was almost certainly as a result of
the unwillingness to be honest about my aspirations to be a potter. And the discomfort I
felt about the potter’s life was fundamentally a flight from the challenge of developing
the skills necessary to express the vision I felt so strongly. This is the same sensation I
encountered as I struggled to understand the concept of Form and Shape. Taking a cue
from my earlier struggles I took the bull by the horns and resolved to find an answer to
the question, “When is the shaping finished?”
At the root of an answer to a question such as this is the feeling of satisfaction. I
believe the Buddhists would refer to this as a moment of Bliss. Certainly as the shape of a
pot gets closer and closer to approximating the inner vision a calm descends. And it is
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
here that the root cause of comfort and despair resides. In effect we have reached a
tangent point in a discrete assemblage that banishes the doubt. It is at this moment that
we have attained Beauty and a quiet descends. This would prove to be a part of the
answer. But I needed more explanation for the conviction I had that this expression of
Beauty, although not a universal absolute, seemed enigmatically evident in a wide range
of folk pots that potters, like myself, admired.
This was a moment for scrutiny because I was beginning to fashion an aesthetic
that was right for me but perhaps not for others. I am particularly interested in an
explanation for the powerful visceral response certain pots engender. In my case, when I
see a pot that interests me there is a kind of conversation that begins. It might go as
TP: Well hello there….something about you has caused some excitement. I can
tell because it is a sensation and I would like to spend some time with you
because it will give me pleasure on many levels.
Objet d’Art (OA): At last someone that can appreciate me as more than just a
TP: It appears that you were made by a very skillful thrower. Your proportions
are classical and fluid. Your balance is exquisite and the attention to detail
thorough but not labored.
OA: Well that is very poetic and you are very nice to say these things. But don’t
forget, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
TP: That may be true. But perhaps you can help me understand why many, in a
way that transcends doubt, admire you? After all the museum has chosen to
add you to their collection, your photo has been circulated by many and when
potters are in your presence there is a palpable humility.
Throughout history potter’s and their work have had an anthropomorphic association:
…the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground….(Genesis 2:5-7)
We refer to various components of a pot with human nomenclature. There is the shoulder
and the waist, the lip and the belly; the foot, the neck. So wrapped up in all of our
responses to the question of “When is the shaping finished?” is a mental silhouette that
has unique characteristics that vary from person to person but almost certainly are
influenced by prevailing cultural norms passed from generation to generation. I did not
have to search long for a possible correlation between the concept of beauty as we have
come to know it in the Western world and an analysis of the human form:
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
Leonardo da Vinci, study of human proportions according to Vitruvius, c.1485-1490.
This iconic drawing illustrates Leonardo’s own interpretation of Vitruvius’
written account of how the ideal proportions of man, with arms and legs
outstretched, would fit into the geometric forms of the square and the circle. In
order to achieve a coherent solution, Leonardo chose to adjust the relationship
between the circle and the square - only the centre of the circle coincides with
the navel, while the centre of the square is located somewhat lower.
In this drawing, he corrected inconsistencies in Vitruvius’ measurements of the
human figure, guided by his own observations and deductions based on the
study of life models. Through the precision of his own measurements, he
created an image that is accepted as a true representation of Vitruvius’
findings, and a perfectly credible albeit constructed image of the ideal
proportions of the human figure.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
I felt a momentary euphoria when I stumbled on the idea of the Golden Mean
(also referred to as the Golden Ratio, Golden Rectangle, Golden Section, The Divine
Proportion, The Fibonacci Series and Phi). It was as if I had found a teacher that would
tell me about beauty and that teacher was myself. In the drawing by Leonardo the human
figure was encased by a circle and if there was one shape that spoke to me in a language I
could understand it was the circle and the sphere. I had already been studying a pot as a
stack of microscopically thin rings; the element of shape defined by the changeable
diameter of each discrete ring. I had expanded this by suggesting that mechanically a pot
could be compared to spiralling in structure comparable to the “Slinky Toy” I had grown
up with. With sufficient information relative to my pursuit of the “divine proportion” I
could immerse myself for many hours in the metaphor of the human form as
porportionally perfect. I embarked on a crash course to understand the concept of the
Golden Mean; like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, I began to scurry along a fantastic,
never-ending journey of tunnels and doors.
An analysis of the Da Vinci drawing reveals a man, a rectangle and a circle. If
one follows the outreach of the horizontal arms to where they intersect the rectangle this
would define a square. The “divine proportion” would be the height of the square to the
height of the navel is equal to the height of the rectangle to the height of the square and
both of these ratios would be equivalent to Phi:
Height of Square
Height of Navel
Height of Rectangle
________________ = 1.610803…(Golden Rule)
Height of Square
What's the significance of this number? It's the "golden ratio" and,
arguably, it crops up in more places in art, music and so on than any number
except pi. Claude Debussy used it explicitly in his music and Le Corbusier in
his architecture. There are claims the number was used by Leonardo da
Vinci in the painting of the Mona Lisa, by the Greeks in building the
Parthenon and by ancient Egyptians in the construction of the Great
Pyramid of Khufu.
I was intrigued by another, more personal, association. If one looks at the da Vinci
drawing as a circle drawn on a graph then the left side of the rectangle defines a Y-axis
and the bottom would be the X-axis. Where the right hand intersects the circle would be
considered a tangent point. Now that I had a tangent I knew I was in the vicinity of an
abstract concept that would relate to making pots. After all pots were a stack of
microscopic circles of varying radii; each one of those circles would have a definable
tangent point.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
I n the place of the human figure I drew the shape of a vase with a wide belly and short
neck. I was relieved and delighted to see that the drawings that most interested me were
those that also approximated the ratio found in the Golden Mean. It became clear that
there is a cultural aesthetic, accumulated during the thousands of years that Western man
has been philosophizing about Beauty. Being born in the 20th century in North America I
was predisposed to this concept of beauty and I at last had a way to address the enigma
“When is the shaping finished?”
In the book The Power of Limits (Georgy Doczi, Shambhala) there is a formula
for the celebrated Golden Section:
The author calls this a “uniquely reciprocal relationship between two unequal parts of a
whole, in which the small part stands in the same proportion to the large part as the large
part stands to the whole.” (p.2) The drawing above is representative of a personal inner
vision that has behaved like a beacon on my own quest to satisfy the sensation of arrival
pivotal on a potters journey at the wheel. So I have studied the form in relation to this
theory of a classical proportion. I have noticed that the distance from the bottom of the
vessel to the beginning of the neck there are 20 boxes. To satisfy the principles of the
Golden Section there should be some salient and important feature at the 12th box (or
more precisely 6/10ths of the way to the beginning of the neck. Coincidentally, or as
Doczi would say “Dinergistically” (p.3) the widest point of the vessel approximates this
position. “Dinergy” is the word coined by Doczi for a universal pattern-creating process:
the union of complimentary opposities. The sun and moon, male and female, positive and
negative electricity, Yin and Yang. “The two parts of the golden section’s proportions are
unequal: one is smaller, the other larger.” (p.3) In taking this metaphor further I began to
understand that my sensibilities were most excited when both the widest moment was
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
slightly higher than the halfway point from base to neck and the volume of the pot above
the halfway mark represented somewhat more than 50% of the total volume encased by
the lower orb. And it was in this analysis that I began to see a need for some precision
that would identify the amorphous position described by “slightly higher than halfway”
or “somewhat more than 50%”. After all, to be so nebulous about something so powerful
seemed at cross purposes. I began to opine about the possibility that there was some
mathematical discipline that might have grown up around the fact that a series of
changing values (like one would find in a spinning pot being shaped by a potter) had
dynamic values that were identifiable. I thought long and hard about this and then
remembered a long-lost tool I had learned in high school for defining the tangent point of
a line on a graph. Many of my musings about shape have been primarily exercises in
drawing to scale. Graph paper has proved of immeasurable importance. In examining
the silhouette of a shape I began to realize that the shape of anything is but a collection of
points so finely drawn that their overall impact is to appear as a line. This is the
fundamental principle of Calculus:
Calculus deals with change and motion and allows us to view our world as
dynamic rather than just static. Calculus provides a tool for measuring change whether it
is change in position, change in temperature, or change in demand (Change and Motion:
Calculus Made Clear. Prof Michael Starbird. The Great Courses p.5)
But the math that Calculus employs has a wonderful facility for allowing an ambiguity
within the stricter parameters of precision. This principle is referred to as Limits and in
the imagery of Georg Doczi, it is a definition that recognizes points above and points
below, narrowing the space between greater and lesser in infinite increments until the
final point, simply stated, is the undeniable point between two definable points. I love
this kind of analysis because it fits so beautifully into the idea that a potter is forever
finding the final shape by having an internal dialectic about “not enough and too much”.
Bernard Leach, the famed British potter, refers to the shaping process as a dialogue
between head and heart. The right hand is cerebral, situated on the outside, containing the
left hand deep within the form as it rides the centrifugal forces willing to shape everoutward. One imagines a discourse:
Right hand (RH): That’s quite enough.
Left hand (LH): We’re not full; we’re still waxing.
RH: I tell you the moon is full!
LH: It cannot be because there is not yet maximum brightness.
RH: Be careful, maximum brightness can blind!
LH: Oh you are much too cautious. Get on board and it will be glorious!
RH: If you’re not careful you’ll end up with nothing but a splat on the wheelhead.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
This kind of exchange is typically dialectic. The synergy released is unattainable any
other way. Calculus recognizes the intricacy of systems that have a multiplicity of
variables yet require an analysis that is rooted in observation. A potter functions in much
the same way. The process of self-teaching relies on tenets of experimentation. A theory
is postulated and then tested. Information is gathered and organized. An assessment is
made based on results and the process begins again. With each new effort there is an
accumulating database and as the shape of an idea begins to form predictions can be
made; however reliance on such prescience is risky. An artist knows that Chaos is the
only certain condition; how can we satisfy both the Muse of Order and the Conductor of
Cacophony? It is a delicate act to tame centrifugal force as an instrument of balance.
Centering is such an effort. As a state of mind it places a limit on the infinite energy
stored in a spinning lump of clay. Such restraint must be measured, steady and sensitive.
The result is pure alignment. All the microscopic discs known as “clay particles” are
neatly stacked, much like a deck of cards. Their energy is stored as potential in the lens
of water surrounding each sliver. They lay dormant awaiting a gentle, persuasive
pressure to set the magic in motion. Just as the magician lifts the corner of a deftly
spread stack of 52 and triggers the waterfall of cards as they flip from left to right, so too
does a well-trained potter guide the uncoiling of those tiny wafers as they defy gravity,
unwinding in unison one on the other racing to create an inside and an outside as the
potter cries out to be heard:
“Careful now; too fast or you will spin into oblivion! Pay attention to my heartbeat
and the rotation of the wheel. If we can synchronize then we can approach the shaping
with our wits about us. After all, when it’s time to change from a cylinder to a sphere
we will need to understand that “shaping a pot” closely resembles “inflating a
balloon”. The goal is to expand in all direction together. This will require
But it is impossible to be several places at once. If the inside hand is dictating the outside
shape is there any hope of simulating the waxing moon, inexorably filling in all
directions simultaneously? The answer is a wonderfully enigmatic, “yes and no”! Our
perception is that shaping a pot requires an inside pressure outwards and an outside
pressure inwards. We have spoken about the Yin and Yang, the head and heart, waxing
and waning. But these are all philosophical and metaphorical concepts about shaping.
The most remarkable fact about a piece of clay that has been started on the voyage to be a
pot is that in the hands of a very sensitive potter the pot will make itself. The will to
become a vessel is set into motion as soon as the wheel begins to spin. From this point
on all of the forces of the universe are set in motion and shaping becomes a conscious
process of reproducing in three dimensions a subconscious image. Certainly each point
on the sphere is moving outwards centrifugally, albeit imperceptible by the naked eye.
But if we agree that the eye is a poor transmitter of important imagery then it is a short
leap to a comprehensive understanding that the full complement of neural receptors are at
work deciding “when is the shaping finished?” The answer to this question replicates the
answer to all the other important questions:
“We are finished when it is over; not before and certainly not after.”
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
Art and Commerce
I became a potter to make beautiful things for people to use. It seemed so simple
as an 18-year-old discovering Japanese tea bowls and Chinese water coolers for the first
time. Growing up in late 20th century America as a child of the Long Island suburbs
there was nothing remotely resembling such an ethic (or aesthetic). First and foremost,
there was nothing around that anybody had made. Our homes were built by traveling
laborers, invisible journeyman moving from one tract development to another. The lawns
and landscaping were all the same. Each living room had a couch, a dining table, a
telephone and television. Upstairs were bedrooms with non-descript beds and downstairs
were basements or “playrooms”. Sometimes a ping-pong table, the more affluent had
pool tables. In the backyard there was the occasional pool, more likely to be above
ground; always a fence and sometimes a patio. But never would there be carved bowl at
the dinner table, certainly no thrown pots anywhere. No handmade furniture or blown
glass; no paintings by Mom or Dad, no knitting or homegrown food. Suburbia was for
little league moms and commuter Dads. The concept of Quality was a complete stranger
in the 1950’s. That’s the world I woke up in and it made me long for warmth I sensed
but never suspected I would find in old cultures from far away lands. It wasn’t until I
went away to boarding school and met a girl whose grandfather was a well-known
architect that I was fully exposed to the world of craft. Susie Raymond was Antonin
Raymond’s granddaughter. She and I had a passionate affair during the end of my junior
year of high school. She was a day student. We met in the spring and suddenly I was
swept into her world. I was allowed to visit her home, a thirty-minute drive to New
Hope, PA on the weekends. Although primarily focused on the pubescent excitement of
kissing and such I remember it played out against the background of a spectacular wood,
stone and glass home overlooking the rolling hills of a gentleman’s farm in Bucks
County. Not only was the southern wall of the living room totally sliding glass doors
encased in cedar framing but the floors were gorgeous wide planking high gloss, deep
brown hardwood, the windows were covered with shoji screen, the furniture was made in
a shop on sight, the fireplace was native fieldstone, the closets lined with cedar, the
lighting by Isamu Noguchi and all the bowls, plates, mugs and teapots in the kitchen were
exquisite examples of Japanese country pottery from the 20th century. The coup de grace
in my memory is a magnificent Korean vase from the Koryo Dynasty. Bulbous and
slightly off-center it was as big as a 50 lb pumpkin, glazed off-white; no decoration.
Simply austere but with the dignity worthy of any great museum in the world. In fact
years later I would encounter a similar piece at the Victoria and Albert Museum in
London, nodding appreciatively as I recalled the casual company I had kept with its
brother making out on a Kashmir throw rug on the floor in front of the low book shelf it
stood on. Had it enhanced my life…you bet!
I also spent some very formative time at a small pottery just north of the Vermont
border in Ways Mills Quebec. As a high school student I had an interest in pottery and
discovered that I could enroll for a two-week course at the Rozynska Pottery and study
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
with Wanda Rozynska. She and her husband Stanley (known as Buddy) had converted
an old school into a number of small bedrooms. These rooms opened onto a long
hallway that bisected the building and led to a common area with a huge harvest dining
table smack in the middle of an open kitchen. On the other side of the hallway were a
large room with many pottery wheels and a small kiln room. Wanda was the potter and
Buddy managed the school. He fired the kiln, built the wheels, repaired the plumbing
and kept a careful eye out for all of Wanda’s needs so she could concentrate on providing
the best possible experience for her students – young and old. She was a very committed
potter and looked upon the parade of summer students and a series of workshops from
June through August as the lion’s share of income for the whole year. This allowed her
many months of solitary time to pursue work that she considered her “own”. Buddy was
a sculptor and the two of them spent September through May creating art. At least that
was the plan. I’m not sure that Buddy was as productive as Wanda in this regard and he
was brutally honest about his criticisms of his work ethic. To me it appeared he worked
very hard, with great discipline. But I must say I never did see him sculpt anything.
Wanda, on the other hand, made pots all day long unless she was gardening. The long,
wide hallway also served as a gallery for her work and it was chock-a-block full of her
creations. Now and again a customer from the outside world would find their way into
the building and sometimes she would sell a piece. At age 16 I had no concept of the
importance of this kind of transaction. I was focused on the fantasy life I saw around me.
Here one could literally roll out of bed, across the hall, onto a potters wheel and be
throwing a pot at any time of day or night. The harvest table in the kitchen looked out
over the abundance of a vegetable garden in continual bloom. Cucumbers, lettuce, snow
peas and tomatoes, summer squash and zucchini poured forth like a continual cornucopia.
The lunch table was festooned with sliced tomatoes smothered in diced onions, stir-fried
squash and snow peas, fresh corn, fresh carrots, fresh lettuce and radish. All served on
sumptuous stoneware made right there. To top it off there were people from Nova
Scotia, California, Montreal, New York converging for meals. And there was Buddy and
Wanda with their tales from a previous bohemian life in Greenwich Village. The talk
would turn from politics to art to protest to craft to gossip and around again like the
spinning of a pot on a wheel. When I had sated on tea and dessert I would pick myself up
and wander back to the studio and burrow into the project I had put on hold to break for
lunch. The afternoons would whirr by and it was dinner. This meal might go on for
hours. But whatever time it was I would end the day past midnight in the studio. I didn’t
know it then but here is where the groundwork was laid for my future. That experience,
along with the apprenticeship I served in Cornwall, United Kingdom, burned an indelible
mark into my psyche and I must have resolved to find a way to live a life like that
because it is, in large measure, the life I am content to lead even now.
At what point did this elaborate fantasy of living the life of an artist require an
intersection with the reality of the marketplace? The laws of economics are profound and
an artist must meet a demand on some level to be able to continue creating. As I pursued
my apprenticeship I was fixated on developing enough skill and efficiency to feel
competent as a maker. I had no real understanding of the accounting that a small business
must address. Expense and income were simply 2 expressions with no more meaning
than the words clay and glaze. In fact I paid far more attention to the materials of the
trade than I did to the concept of profit. Looking back I wish the term “balance” had
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
influenced me to the same extent as “centering”. But here it is over 30 years since the
first firing and I am still in business. From a purely technical standpoint the fundamental
rules of business are violated on a daily basis in most small enterprises. The universal
shortcoming is investment capital. Not only for start-up but also for research and
development, increased production, facility upgrade etc. These types of infusions simply
can’t come out of cash-flow, they must be borrowed. Borrowing puts enormous pressure
on available cash because of the cost of carrying the debt. It is a vicious cycle that a
small business will generally avoid. After all a bank will not permit missed payments;
this would put an immediate end to all activity. But how do they survive the pressures of
depreciation, the need for innovation, the tooling-up for large orders and such? The
answer is at the root of the American dream. The privilege of being your own boss
generally means excruciatingly long hours, great personal sacrifice, indebtedness to
extended family and a tunnel vision that makes the journey to materialize the dream a
compulsion. Of the well-known rags to riches stories very few are about producing
artists. The exception being entertainment artists who are able to capitalize on the
demand by producing work that is distributable to the masses. Writers are of a similar
pedigree but once again there is an economy of scale accessed only by contractual
association with a publishing company. A painter or sculptor or potter is engaged in what
manufacturer-representatives refer to as “onesy, twosey” businesses. In other words
usually there isn’t enough production to partner with any type of middleman. For any
small business, facing a demand that exceeds productive capacity can be a nightmare.
But for a business that is a labor of love “tooling up” for greater volume might well be
the end of the love affair. Therefore navigating issues of scale without trading the
sensitivity of an artist for the low cunning of an entrepreneur brings to mind Odysseus
strapped to the mast, with wax in his crews’ ears to avoid entrapment by the Siren’s of
Anthemoessa. On a balance sheet it is easy to see that a capital investment might well
increase yield but no balance sheet will ever reveal the emotional toll that this kind of
financial risk involves. When an artist, their creative drive and the inspiration that
propels their productivity become less important than goals targeted by investors looking
for quick financial return there is the potential for disaster. After all “you cannot make
love by proxy” as my mentor Michael Cardew once said in response to a suggestion he
leave the potting profession to design for mass production.
The decisions I make as a manager when selecting which pots get made in any
given production cycle are based on many factors. At this point I have a good feel for the
condition of inventory at my Store. There are some basic pots that I feel we should
always have available. Mugs, pitchers, bowls, plates, tumblers, honeypots, casseroles,
pie plates are given prominent placement and therefore need to appear fully stocked. If I
determine that we are short in any of these fundamental items I will prioritize their
production. Sometimes my staff will not have had sufficient training to take on certain
assignments. In this case I will be responsible for making these standard items. If I feel
confident that any student/assistant can meet the challenge I will generally assign them a
pot that will test their skills. This is at the root of the training process and I don’t like to
miss an opportunity to provide them a chance to stretch their accumulating inventory of
skills. This will have the added advantage of providing me an opportunity to explore
ideas that I have been developing and would like to bring into three dimensions. But
there will always be a part of me that prefers the role of anonymous, production potter.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
Sometimes I feel that I have worked so many years to achieve the opportunity to merely
wander into the studio and sit down to make the simple, unassuming pots that represent
the most basic and utilitarian fare that one thinks of when picturing a potters work. It is
the mug and bowl, plate, pitcher and tumbler that accompany us from morning through
night. Being able to provide these at a reasonable price satisfies a profound calling that
has compelled me as a potter from very early days. I am also keenly aware of the
inventory that I maintain for my resellers. Partnering with a potter is a leap of faith. The
ability to deliver in quantity at consistent levels of quality is generally beyond most
potter’s ability. This is due in part to the vagaries of the materials we use. Clay is
notoriously difficult to standardize; so is the wood fuel and the trained manpower. In
short there is ample reason to avoid the many pitfalls to which a potter is likely to fall
prey. This makes producing for resale a very difficult proposition. One way I have
managed to avoid many of these difficulties is by maintaining an inventory for my
resellers. Once I have established a good rapport with a business that can demonstrate a
continuing ability to sell my work I will try to maintain a minimum level of inventory for
them so that when their need for more pots comes along we can deliver quickly and at a
consistent level of quality. On paper this has proven a good idea. As long as my
customer base remains modest I will be able to honor these tenets. Here is a case when
“small is beautiful”. Because when I am contracted to deliver bowls or plates or pitchers
there is a level of quality that is expected.
Every pot I make has a story. I can trace the inspiration and the evolution of its
design through a myriad of experiences. When someone buys one of my bowls they have
purchased both a vessel and an idea. The vessel is very high-fired. It has a glaze that fits
the clay body like a glove making it extremely strong and durable during the rigors of life
in a kitchen. From table to sink to dishwasher to cupboard and back and forth throughout
the house this bowl will do yeoman’s work. It will rarely chip, and will hold the heat of a
meal or the cold of a dessert for as long as necessary. The idea comes along as added
value. Some of my small bowls are direct descendants of a northern Chinese pot that
found its way into Korea and to this day functions as a soup bowl in many small
restaurants. I was astonished to see that this same shape shows up as prehistoric bowl
dated to 3000 b.c. in southern China. In addition there is a decorative motif that appears
throughout the pacific rim from the islands of the south seas all the way around to vessels
found in central America. I try to recreate that kind of historical pedigree for even the
most humble of pots. My pitchers are inspired by country jugs from Devonshire in
England. I make a boullabaise bowl that was similar to a pot made by my mentor
Michael Cardew. His was more of a single portion, small pot. Mine will hold a full meal
of shrimp, scallops, lobster and clam chowder. All you would need for a sumptious meal
would be a slab of whole wheat bread and a tall glass of white wine. You see it’s more
than a bowl or a mug or a pitcher. It’s a way to connect with the fullness of life.
Art and Commerce have always had a link albeit awkward and strained. The artist
needs funding and sources for materials; the marketplace needs innovation and
productivity. An artist needs approval and appreciation; the world of commerce loves the
competitive synergy this sets in motion: high risk effort attracts excess capital which
leads to revolutionary product design. An artist cannot be an island. No matter how
unique the vision or prodigious the ability there will be continuous intercourse with all
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
matter of discipline and an artist needs to be respectful of this symbiosis, for without the
marketplace there can be no vitality, only a vast and endless warehouse for dark storage.
Kiln Calamities
For a potter it is the kiln that generates drama. The dance of producing can be
very exciting but it rarely triggers the intensity of adventure, challenge anxiety and
mystery attendant when the efforts of weeks and months are loaded into the kiln and
taken on the journey of trial by fire. At this point a piece of clay is forever transformed.
There is no going back. The plasticity gradually disappears as the moisture is removed
into the ambient air. But this is not an irreversible event; crush up the piece, add water
and Presto! Change-O! it’s plastic and moldable again. But the chemically combined
water – the H20 bound up within the clay mineral – is driven off as steam above 212
degrees F. This is an irreversible reaction and must proceed with great caution. A
precipitous rise in temperature at the range when this occurs can create an explosive
event. Many a kiln has been littered by the sad shards of a pot shattered into smithereens
by an impatient and/or inexperienced potter hurrying the flame. The fundamental
challenge is to raise the temperature in a measured way; nudging the increase steadily
upward in order to avoid the thermal shock that comes from either too rapid a climb
and/or decline. The most exacting fuels to control are the so-called solid fuels like peat,
dung, straw, coal or wood. These require initial gasification before their energy potential
is released. It is the process of turning a solid into a gas that cools the flame therefore
with every new charge there will be a period of temperature decline. These are the
bumps that can be disastrous if not delicately monitored. A sensitive fire-tender will
stoke as the temperature rises in order to smooth the inevitable downturn as the newly
burned fuel gasifies. This will minimize the potential for thermal shock. It’s beginning
to sound like a science and there are certainly many learned tomes from fuel
professionals, full of equations and data examining chemical reactions, exothermic and
endothermic behavior, and discourse concerning reduction, oxidation and delivery. To
ignore these studies, or dismiss them, is perilous for a potter. Our needs are much like a
sailor’s: navigating a safe journey for our passengers (pots) can be done intuitively but
the wisdom gleaned from previous voyages is indispensable. We’d do our charges great
disservice to be dismissive of scientific advance. And those of us that become firestarters are duty bound to learn from past errors whilst furthering the wealth of communal
wisdom with anecdotal information. But even the most learned, experienced and
accomplished are time again touched by the wand of mercurial fate. In my estimation it
is these moments of unexpected extremes that bear analysis. The shock and despair that
accompany any catastrophic event will linger for eternity. There is no need to experience
it more than that single moment of initial breach. And though there would be value in a
capacity to dispose of that sensation with it would go the compassion necessary for
healing those newly in need. Without that defining ability we are arguably no more than
savages. In the interest of communal healing I offer the following potters’ anecdotes for
the pantheon of wounded craftsmen so others might find strength to forge ahead.
My first firing was in September of 1974. The kiln had been built during the
months of May through July. We also mixed 4000 lbs. of experimental stoneware clays
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
for pot-making and approximately 10,000 pounds of refractory clay for making kiln
furniture. The kiln itself was built with 8,000 bricks mortared together with several tons
of local china clay that we had dug nearby and processed by hand. In all the first firing
contained approximately 20,000 lbs of unfired clay. While building the kiln and kiln
shed, we had renovated an old barn to serve as the pottery studio. We also built our
potter’s wheels. We made our own kiln shelves and brick, and managed to create
hundreds of pots for the first load. In addition we had been collecting local hard-wood
and soft-wood slab and edging to be used as fuel in this first firing. Being unfamiliar
with the local woods and frankly naïve about the importance of dry and seasoned wood
for the extremely high temperature required for a stoneware firing we did not have
sufficient space to dry and age our wood. On Sept. 7, 1974 we lit the fire and attempted
to fire our kiln and its 20,000 pounds of clay for the first time. After 57 hours of
continuous stoking during an unexpected deluge of rain from a passing hurricane we
stopped this first effort when we realized all of our remaining wood was soaking wet.
During the firing we had watched in horror as pots loaded in the kiln exploded and entire
stacks of brick and homemade shelving vanished in a single instant. We were exhausted
and completely spent emotionally as we wandered away from the kiln in total shock. We
declared this first effort a ‘Failed Firing’. A few days later, after some substantial rest
and recuperation we braced ourselves for the unloading of the kiln. It was not much fun.
Aside from the litter due to various shelving collapses there were an overwhelming
number of pots that had been cracked by excessive steam from the thousands of pounds
of raw kiln furniture and clay mortar used between the newly laid bricks. However we
were careful with the pots that simply needed a re-fire. In our resolve to learn from the
mistakes of the first effort we planned to fire again as soon as possible and these would
seed the next charge. After two months we had made enough pots for back-to-back
firings. We had also collected and dried a sufficient quantity of seasoned wood. We then
loaded up the kiln again and fired twice within a three-week period. Both of these firings
were spectacular successes and then my partner Svend Bayer returned to England. The
accumulating weight of marital problems made concentrating on the problems of our
fledgling business impossible. He and his wife Jane decided to return to England to start a
pottery of their own. It would be 10 years of trial and error effort before I could repeat
this level of quality with any consistency.
I recently heard an absolutely spectacular kiln disaster. I wasn’t in attendance at
this one but the man that recounted the tale had been an expert witness at the insurance
trial because he had built the kiln. Although there was an effort to pin the liability of the
disaster on his construction it was clear early on that the owner had requested a specific
modification that was ill advised. Even so the institution continued to request the
construction change. In theory the extent of the damage was a direct result of this
modification. As I understand it, the kiln was being fired to an extremely high
temperature, perhaps it was approaching 2300 degrees Fahrenheit when the explosive
event occurred. Fortunately there was no one near the kiln when it happened but the
noise was loud enough so that those people in a neighboring room heard it and came
running. What they saw was a tangled mess. The kiln was still glowing red but the door
of the kiln was slightly skewed indicating all was not well on the inside. As they pried it
open what they found inside almost defies description. The cart itself, that had been the
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
floor of the kiln had been rotated 90 degrees and was now sitting on its edge. Of course
thee contents of the kiln – refractory shelving, supports and the entire load of artistic
efforts – were strewn about either as shattered bits or large, rended fragments. Save for
one piece, a sculpted fox whose nose was jammed between two arch bricks in the dome
of the kiln. It alone remained intact, suspended like a ridiculous Christmas ornament.
When the pieces of this monumental puzzle were parsed and reassembled forensically it
became clear that the earlier warning about the potential weakness in design of the sandseal concept was directly to blame for this event. It would appear that extremely hot
gases escaped the firing chamber and impinged on the concrete floor that served as the
solid footing for the heavy kiln walls. The metal for the track that the kiln floor and door
rolled in and out on was secured to the concrete directly under the setting. The sand seal
was theoretically meant to contain all the heat from the interior. However it was through
this seal that the offending heat escaped. The resulting explosion was almost certainly
due to the rapid release of water vapor from the impacted concrete and the continuous
pressure exerted by the relentless combustion of gasses taking place at the burners
positioned outside of the kiln to heat the interior of the kiln. This is an example of the
unique nexus of science and art for the ceramic artist. The potential for loss of limb and
property while in the pursuit of fine art is generally not associated with the artistic pursuit
but beware when attempting to transform clay to stone; the enrgy required to make this
transition, if not properly controlled, can do a heap o’ damage.
The story of Naysan McIlhargey is an example of the most severe test imaginable
for a young potter. After leaving me and Cornwall Bridge to establish his own workshop
in Yellow Springs Ohio he chose to build a variation of the same kiln he had worked with
as an apprentice here in Connecticut. This was a prudent move. It shortens the learning
curve for a new business to be able to be fully productive from the first firing. It also
enables a young potter to continue developing techniques that were not fully realized as
their apprenticeship came to an end. It seemed such a straightforward project. The tube
kiln we use is a very simple design. It is basically just two parallel walls that support a
catenary arch. There are no interior walls to be constructed and in Naysan’s case, there
was no side door. His access to the setting chamber for the ware would be through the
front or back of the tube. The one complication was building exit flues in the floor of the
back of the kiln so that the exhaust gasses would pass down and under thereby enabling
clear access through the back wall. But this is a minor engineering feat and doesn’t
complicate the building process. As Naysan started his building we were in constant
communication to help facilitate the process for him. One of the shortcomings of an
apprenticeship experience is that the act of building a kiln is impossible to include. Most
potters have just a few kilns through a lifetime and it would be very expensive to stop
production every 24 months and build another kiln. So the skills required building such a
structure must either be bought (contracted from a professional kiln builder) or learned on
the fly. The latter approach can be exhilarating as the project itself will require a
multitude of expertises – carpentry, masonry, excavation and project management.
Moving forward the exposure to these other disciplines will be of paramount importance
in keeping a workshop maintained and fully functional so it is important to be engaged in
as much of the kiln-building as possible. But the peril in pioneering this job is that a
poorly designed and/or constructed kiln will be a millstone around the neck of a fledgling
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
business. Naysan and I are both very committed and talented potters but our gift as
engineers is notably absent. Had I realized that the buttressing of the kiln walls was
critically important BEFORE the arch form is removed so that the thousands of pounds
of thrust from the newly placed bricks would remain suspended I would have reminded
him, “Don’t pull out that arch form until you buttress the walls” or “Don’t even think of
building the arch forms and setting the arch bricks until you buttress the walls.” I guess
you see where this story is heading. Like most catastrophes this one took a very short
time from start to finish. I heard about it by phone when Naysan called and told me the
arch had collapsed while they were inside the kiln. I was speechless for a few moments
as the enormity of the event penetrated. I needed to hear what had happened and if
anyone was hurt. He said that although both he and his stepfather had been in the kiln as
the bricks came down miraculously they were bruised but not seriously hurt. We tried to
piece together a timeline to ascertain why the arch had collapsed. When I heard that the
event took place soon after the arch form had been pulled out I asked if the walls had
been buttressed. Naysan answered, “No.” I needed no more information. We both knew
that the work ahead would be finding the emotional energy to clean up the mess and
begin the rebuilding. Any other strategy would be a squandering of the wisdom gleaned
and in a way it was the only useful morsel left of the project. Turning and running was
simply not an option so I focused on helping him find the inner strength to forge ahead.
With Naysan this took very little effort. Within a few short minutes of conversation he
saw the importance in continuing and was strategizing about how to best buttress the
walls once the fallen bricks had been cleaned out. This event set him back a few weeks
and now that he has had several very successful firings its’ primary significance has been
to demonstrate the grace this young man manages in the face of struggle.
After 32 years and 258 firings of my own kiln I recount a cautionary tale for
potters that believe their expertise has surpassed the potential for extraordinary surprise
from a kiln unpacking. By all indications it had been a very routine firing. The weather
was just fine; very seasonable for an early September day. My labor force was adequate
-- neither too few nor too many hands. The wood supply was perfectly seasoned and dry.
When I arrived at the kiln at 10 pm to begin a 6 hour shift the preheat had been underway
for the usual 34 hours. In that period of time the entire contents of the kiln is very dry
and ready for what I refer to as “full fire”. This means the stoking becomes a sustained
event reaching a crescendo in 20 hours and consuming about 6 cords of hard and soft
wood. My own shift finished at 4 am without incident. When Tony Arru, my assistant,
took over the cones in the front of the kiln were reading almost precisely like the previous
firing and the digital pyrometer that records the back chambers’ progress indicated the
firing was smack on schedule. I went off for my 6 hour rest feeling confident that Tony
was now sufficiently trained, having been in attendance at 4 previous firings. At 10 am
when I returned to resume the helm my suspicions were confirmed. All was proceeding
with remarkable routine. Wood consumption was standard, cone progress was as
anticipated. Had this been the intercontinental flight to New Delhi (as is often my
metaphor when I first light the fire) I would probably start to think about attempting to
sleep. But of course the pilot of the vessel can never really sleep. We have no autopilot
controls and the kiln’s voracious appetite for fuel requires continuous stoking. The firetender has to be very sensitive to the kilns needs. The ashpit must be stirred and
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
rearranged every so often in order to keep an efficient combustion. The stoking pattern is
designed to introduce wood before the peak temperature of the previous charge so that
there is minimal cooling as the new batch begins combustion. In this way the inevitable
dips and valleys of the climb to top temperature are flattened and the potential for thermal
shock from uneven heating minimized. Once again the plane flight analogy is useful. A
bumpy temperature rise when using a solid fuel is inevitable but an experienced kiln
tender tries every way possible to avoid turbulence. By 12 noon the main firebox was a
raging inferno. This is the ideal and most of the 30 feet of the fuselage (kiln interior) was
glowing white hot. At this point all hands are on deck for the next 6 hours to nudge the
temperature up to its final 2300 degree summit. There is a general frenzy as the front
firebox is charged with wood and the side stoking ports are monitored. When the flame
has receded enough and the atmosphere cleared small pieces of edging are slipped
through brick size openings to boost temperature in the upper reaches of the kiln
chamber. This ensures an even heating throughout. Through trial and error I have
learned that there is a delicate balance between front stoking and side stoking. Too much
of one or the other can stall the kiln indefinitely. Here is where intuitive skills are
paramount and the kiln master must have the temperament of a conductor: the slab wood,
like the base drum, provides a steady rhythm; brief bursts of edging-stoke creates a
staccato; then a long and leisurely period of legato composition define the interstices
between charges as the flame turns from soot and smoke to white-hot pure inferno. Any
imprecision within this carefully orchestrated pandemonium is a sign of insensitivity and
a lesser talent. At this point I think of myself as Michael Jordan Joe Torre Leonard
Bernstein Mikhail Baryshnikov all rolled into one and ushered in for the finale of this 57
hour symphonic game-winning grand slam swoosh at the buzzer! And after that last
piece of wood is slipped in, the ports closed and sealed there is total silence and three
days of profound rest begin. The whole crew wanders off to the showers and after a brief
meal we stagger off to bed to crash into the coma-like sleep that follows any event that
has taken such a huge toll emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically. There is a
wonderful, magical Japanese film titled UGETSU. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. The
plot surrounds the strange and exotic life of a master potter in a Japanese village.
Embedded in the production is a scene of the potter’s village as it falls under attack
during the firing of their enormous wood-fired kiln. In panic and haste they resolve to
finish the firing before heading into the hillside to hide. A frenzy of stoking begins, the
kiln is raging with the final stoke. All is closed up and sealed and it is days before
anyone returns to the town. Upon unloading the kiln the potter and his wife find the very
best firing results they have ever had. I love the image of this peaceful community
coming together to collectively protect their labor of love and deliver it into the hands of
the kiln gods. Their work done they blend seamlessly into the surrounding foliage like
any of Nature’s other creatures. When danger has passed they quietly resume their
encoded duties with a generous gift from the all-knowing Provider for their age-old
pursuit of beauty. Eastern temperament is uniquely suited to a tale such as this; here in
the west the potters might well have stayed to defend their kiln, unwittingly over-firing
the contents in a heroic burst of Ego. But I digress…my story is the flip side of this tale.
My firing was uninterrupted. In fact it was a very uneventful affair. Surely it was very
hard work but when I left the kiln shed to allow for several days of cooling I had a
complacent feeling that it was a job well done. In an ironic twist I had a visitor that was a
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
potting enthusiast. Knowing that the kiln had been cooling for at least 48 hours I felt it
would be OK to open one of the small side ports and reach in with gloved hand to take a
pot out as a present. I thought to myself, a gift from the most recent charge of pots that
still has residual heat left from the trial by fire is truly a high form of flattery. I put my
arm all the way to my armpit into the cavernous chamber and swept back and forth with
my hand in an area that I knew were several tumblers. With my fingertips I sensed I had
brushed by one and returned to grab it with more authority so as to pull it out the kiln,
snaking through the small port. With attendant clanging and clinking I was able to pull 2
to daylight. They were very sweet pots and had a terrific patina from being fully exposed
to the flyash from the main firebox. These are potter’s pots and I happily gave one to my
visitor and resealed the kiln knowing that in a day or so we would be unloading the
remaining 6000 lbs of fired ware. I slept like a baby that night never suspecting that
almost every pot from that point on would come out of this particular firing inflicted with
a rare unexplainable surface blemish so heinous as to render each pot virtually unsellable.
One by one they emerged from the cavernous cocoon. Generally the voyage from
the dark of the kiln through ambient light to bright sunlight is an exhilarating progression.
A pot that looks interesting in the shadows will often be even more exciting as the full
range of its patina is visible. And to add insult to injury these pots in this firing, as a
group in situ enshrouded in the dark of the kiln chamber, were mystifyingly normal. The
colors seemed rich and I recall thinking that I must have done something right finally
when choosing the precise moment to end the stoking in the front of the kiln as I
transitioned to finishing the back chambers. In particular I was recounting the two sweet
pots I had snaked out of the kiln the day before. But as I got closer to the setting I had a
visceral uneasiness. Something was amiss. I simply couldn’t put a finger on it until
ironically I reached out and touched the surface. In an instant a full morality play passed
before my eyes and into the deepest recess of my humanity. Here before me were
thousands of pots (my children, so to speak) that were not the exquisite reflection of their
appearance. En masse their affliction, although not life-threatening, predicted a future of
rejection and sad lament. I was sorry for us both; the pain so deep that I became the
subject of an Edvard Munch painting. In the recesses of my subconscious my hands
clasped both cheeks, my eyeballs rolled upwards and a wail of complete supplication
came from my very center, the place where it all begins for a potter and their pot.
In looking back to those first few days what I recognize most poignantly about my
response to this event are the neatly ordered psychological responses. Having studied the
Kubler-Ross stages of grief I am sensitive to the coping mechanism resident in us all
when tragedy strikes. I watched as the parade of emotions - denial, anger, bargaining,
depression, acceptance – came trundling out of the paneling in my psyche. It was their
appearance that convinced me of the gravity of the experience. One by one: ‘maybe just a
few would be so severely afflicted’ DENIAL; ‘I am going to throw every last pot off the
back hillside and smash them into smithereens’ ANGER; ‘I will go and sue the clay
company for the monumental mess they have made of my business and life…’
BARGAINING; ‘but then who will mix my clay and what will become of my livelihood’
DEPRESSION; ‘Given time I can move on. I will sort through the mess and stay true to
my values. A potter’s life is full of one challenge after another. If I quit now there can be
no redemption.’ ACCEPTANCE. The process of ‘moving on’ is fundamentally about
allowing TIME to work its magic. Of course there will be remnants of the event floating
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
about like flotsam and jetsam for years to come. Instead of obstacles to progress they
become incidental irritations that need occasional attention. Gradually their impact will
recede and the calamity itself will become a footnote in the, hopefully, much longer list
of successes. I remember Michael Cardew reminding me to “believe in your rising star’.
At that time I thought he was referring to a galactic success that awaited me but his words
have proven more cautionary and mundane; perhaps advice for coping and more
pedagogic than profound.
Ivelisse: My wife, my passion
There can be no life without collaboration and suggesting that the behavior of an
individual, of any species, has no causal connection to others would be ridiculous. There
are the obvious biologic requirements for assembling genetic material. We now know,
with certainty, that the DNA helix is an exquisite French twist resident in all living forms.
As a road map for deciphering many mysteries of the dance we call life it will, in time,
answer questions about attraction that might have otherwise remained mysterious. But
happily I will not be around when the seminal work begins to determine which
chromosomal pairing on the bonded coil triggered the unrestrainable energy released as
Evie and I fell in love. You see, I return to that initial instant of eye contact for the
remnant heat and its residual warming. When these sensations have been reduced and
quantified there is certain to be a sadly cooling effect due to scientific codification. And if
you take the hot out of a potter’s persuasion with it goes the purpose: PASSION!
In truth I fell in love with pots about the same time I fell in love with Evie and the
parallel aspect of those events puzzle me to this day. Although I prefer to believe the
contemporaneous timing to be coincidental I have an intuitive sense that their trajectories
are inextricably linked in a twisted braid every bit as complex and meaningful as the
double-helix known as the dance of DNA. I have referred to these two events as both
curse and blessing: In hindsight finding the very thing one wants to do for the rest of life
and the person to be with at the early age of 19 is, on balance, a positive occurrence. But I
was on the cusp of significant life choices that on the surface appeared to flagrantly
disregard the stern warnings of convention. Now that I am a parent I can feel the anxiety
and disappointment my parents must have felt as their child chose a life-path predisposed
to bring financial struggle and social ostracism. The very word ‘potter’ is a synonym for
poor and I had found a mate without any of the hoped for compatibilities: race, creed,
color or religious persuasion.
We all have a sovereign circle of indeterminate diameter that serves our
instinctive need for identity. As needed there are invisible rings that progress inward
until, at the center, there is just one ring that defines a tight fit from shoulder to shoulder
and extends above our head and right the way down to our feet. Some people use this ring
as protection, calling it personal space and reserving it as a preserve. In my innermost
circle I include another person. Evie and I occupy the same footprint; we define the same
outline and have for the last 35 years. It’s a wonder that we can get in there together.
Although our volume footprint is similar there is little else visually that would explain the
compatibility. I am an east European Jew. Many of us are scattered through the world
because of the scourge of pogroms across the centuries. When I tell others about this
they nod in understanding. My blond hair and light eyes would indicate the presence of
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
rogue genetic material almost certainly the result of a random rape during one of the
interminable sieges an untold number of generations ago. Evie is about as brown as I am
beige. Her color has a beautiful, soft, almost edible, quality. And her eyes are more of the
same. A product of an interbreeding herself; maybe or maybe not forced like in my
family. When I told her that my father had a problem with us having children she asked,
“Why?” I paused and was sickened but had to tell her, she had to know what she was
marrying into, “He says our children would be mulattoes.” Cringing, I was afraid I had
said something so vile that it would hurt her so bad she might never talk to me again. She
is in my innermost circle because of her lightness and ferocity of spirit. It both protects
and propels me. She gave a moderate laugh and looked me dead in the eyes, “We’re all
mulattoes.” She was saying this directly to him; the words passing straight through my
heart, a heart she was convinced was pure, and decisively proceeding directly to him. It
was her style of confrontation: respectful, deferential but precise. With a single sentence
she summed up the shame that had been accumulating for generations in my family;
many American families really. Often starting as terror and violation by a rapacious
invader for us there was continued horror when the family passed by the burning cross on
an Ohio neighbors Midwestern lawn. What could these people have done to incur such a
wrath? In the instant our eyes met in this exchange we knew it was time to stop the grief
so this bond has become common ground as our legacy.
Ivelisse Clemente Perez (known to all as Evie) is Puerto Rican. A multi-ethnic
blend of native Taino Indian, African and Spanish, there is no way to determine the
proportions. As the first generation of her family born in the United States she learned to
speak English at 5 and lived up until the age of 16 in tenements and project housing in
Spanish Harlem and the Bronx. At 16 she ran to the police away from a restrictive,
physically and sexually abusive home environment that housed her grandmother, 3
uncles, an aunt, 1 brother and 1 sister: 7 people (when all were at home) for 3 small
bedrooms and 1 small bathroom. And this was a more upscale residence. Stories about
earlier homes include walkups that were often out of hot water and heat in the winter and
dangling ones hands out of the bed was sure to attract nibbling rodents explaining bloody
fingertips in the morning. Because it was the weekend, the police remanded her to the
only facility that would guarantee her safety: Spofford Detention Center, an infamously
violent house of detention for juveniles. This was purely a holding tank until a spot
opened up in a locked-down home for wayward girls. Run by nuns, this catholic facility
kept order through intimidation and physical beatings. Obviously not much better than
the home she had fled it was her resolve to be free to define herself away from an
environment of fear that made her continue the search for a more positive setting. After 6
weeks she managed to find a placement in another catholic shelter. But this time it was a
moderately relaxed group home in the Bronx. It was during this point in her life that we
met. I had just returned from my apprenticeship with Michael Cardew in Cornwall,
England and eager to reacquaint myself with the New York scene. My younger sister
Kim and I had moved to the Big city with my parents just a few years earlier. Hilary, our
older sister, was already off at college in Boston and beginning her adult life. We had
been enrolled at a well known private high school. I had entered as a senior she a
sophomore. When I went off to England she decided the rarified setting was not for her.
She wanted a more intense city experience and my parents agreed to let her attend the
nearby public high school Julia Richmond High on 66th street and 2nd avenue. Back in
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
the late 1960’s this school was already becoming renown for its’ tough, street-smart
students and I know my parents were anxious about her safety. But very shortly she met
Evie and they became inseparable. My father once told me that it was that friendship with
Evie that allayed their fears because he could tell by the look in Evie’s eyes when she
looked at Kim that she would personally see that no harm came to her. Kim is two years
younger than I and was my fiercest ally throughout our childhood. We were as close as
siblings could be up until I was sent off to boarding school at age 14. When I came back
from England Kim made it a priority to see that I was taken care of and quickly
introduced me to her friend. “Wait until you meet Evie!” I was in England buried up to
my elbows in clay and single-minded about a potting life when Kim showed up in the
tiny hamlet of St. Breward. She’d come to visit, knowing I was very homesick for the
U.S. and in particular for a girlfriend that I hoped was waiting for my return. However,
several hours into the visit I found out that this old girlfriend had phoned Kim just as she
was leaving to fly to the UK and asked that she convey to me her sorrow about the end of
our relationship. I’m not sure what made me angrier: her rejection of me or her cowardly
use of my sister as a messenger. I know the chronology of it all is confusing and I’d like
to lay it out more formally. But that wouldn’t be true to the nature of the time.
Historically the world, and in particular the United States, was in a mad dash to throw out
everything that had come before. Music, fashion, convention of all kinds was suspect.
Anything that smacked of arbitrary authority and unquestioned obedience would be
relegated to obsolescence. We were a culture in the grips of reinvention and really didn’t
have the time to be methodical. Everything seemed very messy indeed and my life,
particularly my romantic life, was no exception. Evie was just what the doctor had
ordered and I had my little sister Kim to thank. How easy it would be…if only I had
known how to play the game. But I was a flower child and didn’t really pay attention to
the rules of courtship. I pretended it didn’t matter but truth be told, I didn’t understand
how to play the game. I kid you not but at 19 years old I had never asked a girl on a
formal date. Never called someone up to go to the movies or spooned on a porch waiting
for the moon to be just right to plant a goodnight kiss. I’d had plenty of girlfriends but
never a conventional date. Luckily Evie was studying to be a modern woman. Within a
day or two of our introduction I got a phone call. “Let’s go to the movies.” I said, “OK,
I’ll tell Kim.” Evie was quick, “No, she’s doing something else.” Finally the penny
dropped for me…we were going on a date. One date led to another, and another and
within a few weeks we were spending all of our time together. As I look back on the
falling in love I can remember some very specific forks in the road. One huge, looming
wedge was a mere 4 weeks off. I had applied to colleges while in England and been
accepted at a school in Ohio. I was to start my freshman year at a small ultra-liberal
Midwestern school just a mere month after meeting and falling madly in love with this
city girl. What was I to do? I kept putting off the inevitable day until at long last it
arrived. We had set up house in a seedy tenement apartment in Greenwich Village. The
first piece of furniture we owned was a waterbed. To save money I had opted out of the
frame. So the beast sat like a large blubbering, slug on the floor. It was cold and wobbly
when we lay down but we were together and the thrill of living in sin was so
overpowering that nothing mortal mattered. Gradually doomsday approached and I
packed for my departure. We swore to stay together, and in fact we kept the Greenwich
Village studio for a bit. We had no lease as it was on loan from a friend. The first
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
semester at Antioch College was also my last. From October thru December I think I
made three trips back to New York City. On the final one I had secured a work-study
position in the mailroom of Newsweek Magazine that would keep me in New York City
for the second semester. I moved into an apartment in the Yorkville section of the Upper
East Side with my sister Kim. Evie was in a group home in the Bronx by this time but
she spent every waking minute at our apartment. Indeed sometimes she showed up even
before I awoke because we were on her route to Julia Richmond High School and she’d
stop by very early in the morning and crawl into bed with me. Once again we’d found a
way to be together despite the complications of life and I was happy but very restless
about my future. Evie, on the other hand, was certain of one thing. She had found in my
family and me the perfect companions. She loved us all – my sisters, my mother, my
father and me. For her anything other than this would be a disastrous setback in her
march toward independence. But I was on a voyage to adulthood and was skeptical of
my precocious happiness. Although a willing participant in our commitment I kept the
future as vague as possible in order to avoid anything deeper than lovers. Evie was
willing to ride along for the time being and I took advantage of the opportunity to have a
girlfriend but not plan a future. In retrospect a very selfish position to assume but
appropriate considering our extremely young age (I was 19.5 and she had just turned 17).
We certainly were neither physically nor emotionally prepared to be fully committed
regardless of the indications that we had found true soul mates in one another. It would
have been a disaster for me to embark on taking care of a family at that point. It would
certainly have required a complete break from my self-professed desire to be a potter and
an unhealthy abbreviation of an early adulthood meant for gradually coming to terms
with monogamy. Against Evie’s better judgment I insisted we find a way to put some
distance between ourselves and find out if we were capable of being apart. Following the
one work-study semester I withdrew from Antioch and enrolled as a morning student at
Hunter College. In the afternoons I worked at Newsweek Magazine, promoted in a way,
to the Letters Department I was beginning to feel that I might give up the strenuous
potting life for a desk job a journalist. We lived as a couple in the upper eastside
apartment. My sister Kim was our roommate. But the reality of our predicament just
wouldn’t go away. My time at Newsweek became more like incarceration with each
passing month and I could no longer put my dream to be a potter on hold. In the fall of
1974 I withdrew from college (only completing the beginning of my sophomore
year)moved to Connecticut and soon after Evie enrolled in Eastern New Mexico
University in a tiny town near the Texas border. She loaded up her car with all her
worldly possessions and drove with her cousin Barbara cross-country to a town that had
never heard of Puerto Rico. We had broken up or so it seemed. We spent time with
other people. We both had an extremely serious relationship with another person;
someone more fitting our profiles. Her boyfriend was a big-man on campus, handsome
athlete. An afro-American from Louisville, his family embraced Evie and loved her for
everything she was, never for a moment suggesting she could, or should, be more. My
significant other was another potter that had come to work with me and learn about
woodfiring. She was very artistic, a hard working, talented craftsman. We had a great
deal in common having attended the same Quaker boarding school. We also had equal
amounts of education and similar cultural experiences. She was partly Jewish and totally
in love with me in the same way Evie’s boyfriend had fallen madly for her. And so our
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
lives hobbled forward. But we stayed in touch thanks to a WATS (wide area telephone
service) line that a good friend of Evie’s made available to her. We talked for hours on
the phone, several times a week. In this way we stayed connected and conveyed to each
other and (in my case) to myself that the flame still burned. I was trying in every way I
knew how to conform but my true nature was far more assertive. I became proud of my
adventurous side and slowly began to feel that there was nothing wrong with love
regardless of the origin and to hell with the nay Sayers. We’d just have to prove them
wrong. We gradually extricated ourselves from the other relationships and by 1976 we
we took a stab at being together. Evie moved from New Mexico and took up residence
nearby for a time. She took a job at a local lunatic asylum and in a bizarre twist of irony
came to find out that she had been born in that institution. Twenty-two years earlier her
mother was 15 when she became pregnant with her and was sent “upstate” to this
institution because at that time it was a Home for Unwed Young Mothers. Evie’s birth
certificate is in the town of Wassaic, New York. The work was hard and dangerous. She
would tell me of being told to hose down the residents and she befriended one
particularly aggressive woman. This is a characteristic quality of Evie’s: an ability to be
a friend to those in need and a steadfast guardian for those who are defenseless. Surely
some of this originates in a comradeship of the downtrodden. She has spent so much of
her life struggling to overcome arbitrary persecution: as a Hispanic woman in a world
dominated by men both white and Latin. Machismo is as much about subjugation as is
the racism that drives the engine of elitism for the old boy network. Since before she
could talk Evie has been wrestling to free herself from these titanic oppressors and
therein lies her particular genius. No one taught her about equality or the history of civil
rights. The closest thing she has had to a role model is her maternal grandmother who
took in, one by one, the illegitimate children delivered to her doorstep by her own
daughters, their brothers or the clients of her illegal abortion business. She was the
original noble savage that ran the household with an iron fist. Her only failing a
willingness to allow alpha males the right of uncontested supremacy in the refuge she
lovingly built for them. It didn’t matter what ignominious reputation they had on the
street, in their domicile they would be the king and the girls their subjects. But Evie
wouldn’t stand for it and at age 16 picked up and left, never to return.
There is an element of enfant terrible about Evie. Although a proud Puerto Rican
she has been completely disillusioned by the code that defines masculinity. She has
never made any bones about the fact that it would be very unlikely for her to fall in love
with any man from Spanish Harlem (or any Latin for that matter). I certainly never
questioned her motives; after all I was the beneficiary of the brutally cold shoulder her
father had turned when she was a very young child in need of some connection. Her
mother (Lillian Garcia) isn’t much more compassionate. Her first three children were
raised by her mother (their grandmother-Magdalena Clemente). All dropped off as
infants their only memories of her (Lillian) are as a person so self-centered and enfeebled
by ignorance that she is more a subject of pity than criticism. The closest we can guess,
Lillian was 15 when she had Evie. She was never gainfully employed although probably
spent a significant part of her early adulthood as a prostitute, perhaps also on drugs. So
the grim picture gets more grim and for me the question gets more profound: “How did
this woman, Ivelisse Clemente Perez, manage to develop a personality so deep of
character without the slightest hint of the conventional role models and influences so
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
much touted by child psychologists and early development specialists?” This is a
question worthy of close inspection. In light of her extraordinarily stable behavior and
exemplary parenting skills the only explanation that satisfies across the board is that she
is endowed with a specific genius that has filled in the gaps. Many others have fallen
through those same chasms into snake pits of substance abuse and neuroses so profound
that their lives can never be remotely normal.
Lest I paint a picture of perfection it should be noted that her one affliction bears
a striking resemblance to conduct associated with compulsive/addictive behavior. She
buys and consumes about 3 cases of TAB (the original diet soft drink) per week. If you
do the math that adds up to 10 cans per day. Many of them drunk in their entirety the rest
lay about in various stages of consumption like discarded cigarette butts (or played
cellophane bags once full of heroin). Waiting to be tidied up but also a prominent display
of someone in the grips of a compulsion more aggressive than agreeable. To many it is a
quaint peccadillo; the conversation generally triggers astonishment that TAB even still
exists. The most often heard comments are “TAB! I didn’t know they even still made
that. Didn’t the FDA put a stop to it because of the saccharine? Wasn’t it the first diet
soda?” The answer to all of these is YES.YES.YES. It is so scarce now that we have to
go directly to the Coca Cola Bottling Company and have the delivery truck make a stop
at our house just for our order. I doubt there is another family in America that has its own
delivery truck like this. Most people are willing to shop retail for their habitual needs and
God forbid they ever stop making it because we may never find a way to wean her from
the beverage. It would be like making someone go cold turkey from coffee; never a pretty
sight. So she didn’t escape Scot free from the torment of dependency so prevalent in her
communal genes. This remnant is a towering beacon for those of us that love her and she
will forever be queen of her domain however compromised. If you can’t accept her for
who she is then mind your own business; after all she isn’t hurting anyone. That too is
our fervent hope. This same person has also battled a smoking addiction. She stopped for
the birth of our two daughters but started again after the baby years were over. However,
as an example of her capacity for self-mobilization she has quit several times. This last
time with the help of the patch at age 50.
I want to avoid becoming bogged down in the details of her life. It is no secret
that she has carried into adulthood an assortment of weaknesses resulting from imperfect
family conditions. Her grandmother, who lovingly raised her died when Evie was 20 a
victim of a staph infection in the hospital. Although both her parents are still alive they
have never been involved with her or her life in any way. Evie raised herself. The years
on the run took their toll in her educational opportunities and she had to stop at an
Associates degree. But that degree was in Early Childhood education because it was an
area she loved and naturally excelled in. She has been in the daycare field for the entire
28 years of our marriage. Save for a brief stint helping to start the retail store and taking
a stab at designing and making beautiful soft leather handbags for our pottery store she
has worked as a teacher for pre-school kids. Her daycare experience sort of bookends the
profession. First she taught in a Head Start program designed for needy and
disadvantaged children and as she winds down her career she has been teaching at a very
well endowed center established primarily for the children of teachers and staff at the
Hotchkiss School a prestigious prep school nearby. Her time spent at the Astor Home
was exciting and challenging but finally she burned out on the sadness of her charges. I
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
think she saw too much of her own life in that world and found it depressing to be unable
to make significant changes in their futures. I think when she realized escaping the cycle
of poverty is generally as much about luck as effort she recognized this as a sign of
We have raised two magnificent daughters of our own. We parlayed every ounce
of skill and wisdom into their years at home and they are bright, articulate and capable
people. They also are as proud of their Mom as it is possible to be and love spending
time with her, as much as she loves being with them. It’s been hard to let go of those
seemingly carefree years as their childhoods recede into our distant memory. Their
departure into adulthood has been a profound bittersweet sadness for us both and we may
never recover, as our elder years cannot replace that companionship. In fact the danger
now is depression. The irony of this is that when life for Evie reached its miserable
nadir, back in her early teens, there was never a sign of depression, quite the reverse. It
was a stunning truth about who she was. No matter how bleak the future might have
appeared she maintained a positive perspective at all times. It is as if that demeanor was
preparation for the role model she would one day become and now that that dimension of
her responsibilities are behind her she has mostly shed the aura and allowed herself the
all too human entitlement of depression. Who can blame her; growing old sucks! But she
remains the vitally radiant and beautiful girl I met so many years ago. I have only wished
I could have given her more than the opportunity to walk lock step with a poor potter.
Please let me explain. I am not looking for sympathy with a statement like this. It
may appear as a self-serving comment with little regard for her sensibilities and freedom
of choice. So much of relationship convention deals with the concept of “providing”. As
the only boy in a family of three I remember my sisters commiseration that I would need
a profession. In their case the future was not so oppressive in this regard. Women’s
liberation has accomplished a great deal that is positive. But one of the negative aspects
of the progress is that now both women and men are enslaved by the prospect of an
adulthood of perpetual income producing enslavement. My choice to become a potter
was, in a certain sense, a subconscious rejection of enforced servitude in a job that had
only one purpose: to produce a paycheck week after week after week. My father, for all
of his weaknesses, had the strength to tell me over and over I should do something I
wanted. This was in large measure the prevailing attitude ushered in by the progressive
and forward thinking advocates of a more humane society. We must take our hats off to
the first generation American immigrants that fought World War II and then returned to
America with the attitude that as good as we were we still could be better. These are the
heroes of the Hip generation. For all the revisionist history about their drug infatuations
and obsession with free love (read sex) the core of the movement was about realizing
potential. I think the message penetrated and when the time came to decide it was as if
the decision was made both for me and by me. I resolved to seek a life of passion
disregarding the limitations of income. I think I hung on to the thinnest thread that there
was a possibility for success on many levels. But I did a poor job of researching how
those limitations might impact others that I cared for so deeply. In this same way I chose
my mate. After years of conflict as to whether it would be a wise choice I opted for
happiness because that had substance. Being tactile I suppose one could say I could feel
it and touch it and it seemed right based on the life I was choosing to lead. In hindsight
there is an element of cowardice that enshrouds the realty. In the case of my relationship
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
with Evie it was highly unlikely that I would be required to answer to any in-laws about
my chosen profession. Just imagine for a second, if you can, a young man at a family
gathering during Thanksgiving trying to explain to his girlfriends’ father that being a
potter had merit. It takes a very well developed and compassionate person to deliver
one’s child into a life of so much yearning. My sense then and to this day is that it was
best I managed to steer clear of that kind of pressure. Few couples can withstand it. The
expression, “life is hard enough” gets stood on its head in a way. So it is this
stubbornness that Evie married into and it has only been of late as I have watched my
contemporaries and friends amass huge earnings and portfolios of assets and wealth that
the longing to buy her a piece of valuable jewelry has eclipsed the earlier need for
fulfillment. I know she’d like that although you’d never hear it said.
There is no doubt in my mind that I did the right thing in marrying Ivelisse and
making a life with her. She has given me nothing but support in all of my indulgences as
an artist. She has consistently supported my refusal to compromise and urged me to stay
true to my fundamental belief that a potter’s rightful occupation includes making things
for everyday use. As an exceptional chef (now parlayed into a catering business) she is
alert to the newest pots and if she sees something that interests her she’ll grab it for our
home kitchen and use on the job. Little by little over the years our house has filled up
with her “picks of the litter”. She never tires of her choices and will not allow me to
remove a pot she has previously chosen. It makes me very proud when that happens and
convinces me that we are on the same wavelength in many more ways than may seem
possible, considering the diversity of our backgrounds. However, at this point in our
lives, we have spent far more time together than apart. I am sure that ours has not been a
perfect union but I spend absolutely no time thinking how life would have been different
had we chosen different mates. I simply cannot imagine a life now that didn’t include her
particular courage and values; and I remember with precision the excitement of our
younger days. That passion of yesterday, although not quite as hot, is every bit as
compelling. To this day when we kiss good-bye in the morning thinking of seeing her at
the end of the day fills me with anticipation. It is that joy, that promise that gives me the
energy to forge ahead regardless of the obstacles.
Clay is Our Lover
We all know that only Nature can produce a true diamond. It wasn’t until the
Superman character came along when it became commonly known that the compression
of a simple lump of coal could transform those sooty Carbon atoms into a shiny multifacetted gem. This was an inhuman parlor trick requiring unimaginable strength. But
Superman’s super-human powers compressed more than substance. A feat of that
magnitude transcends mere molecular rearrangement. It’s not good enough to just mash
those atoms like some nuclear reactor shooting them together at high speed. A geologic
process involving compression takes TIME! More than we mortals can fathom:
thousands, millions, billions of years sometimes. So don’t try this at home and by the
way, the same goes for clay.
My mentor, Michael Cardew, use to say “clay is our lover”. The phrase is a gem
of its own for me; I must have turned it over and over a thousand times as I admired its’
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
mystery and was dazzled by the multitude of reflections every angle yields. At 19 it
seemed but a small chip but now at 55 that nugget weighs-in like the Hope diamond.
Clay. The word itself comes from the Latin glus meaning “glue”; through
German klei meaning “mud”; to an Indo European base of glei- “ meaning to stick
together”. From here the Old English version of claeg became the Middle English (and
more familiar) clei. The word clammy is an adjective derived from the Middle English
clam meaning “viscous mud”. It is here that we see the first etymological indication of
the observed fact: Clay is a magical dirt. This fits the romance. It is fitting that a potter’s
fundamental element be a substance that dazzles the gallery. Imagine the scene: 3
million years ago; a line of wandering hunter-gatherer Homo Erectus. One hairy beast
bends, trips and falls into a recently drained puddle. On getting up he/she notices the
sticky, clammy, gluey substance unlike any other common soil. This early hominid is
transfixed by the texture: slippery yet tenacious; slimy but clean. In getting up he/she
opens a clenched fist and the dirt that would have fallen away in a crumbling cascade has
stuck to his/her fingers. In fact his/her hand, now with opposing thumbs, suddenly bears
a striking resemblance to the paw of old. In a panic he/she tries to separate out that
indispensable thumb. In relief and awe the sacred digit is restored. In an absolute fit of
ecstasy he/she turns to show this phenomenon around. A loud grunt or squeal, with
widened eye as he/she bolts from one fellow traveler to the next. All are frozen with
delight as the implications of this magical substance penetrate. For most the experience
is but another in the continual stream of sensorial firsts. But this one hominid has potterlike tendencies. As the parade continues he/she stoops to collect more of this clammy
glue. In his/her eye is the sign of glee as handful after handful are smeared from head to
hairy toe, “I’m bringing some home!”
For the next 3 million or so years we have been studying this gem of Nature. Like
air, it is simply too plentiful to become expensive. In fact it has more value as a payload
than in situ. This explains why potters, in days of old, would settle where the deposits
were plentiful. “Why pay a middleman?” is reputed to be an expression first uttered by a
potter. Geologically speaking there are 3 clay-depositing processes: Primary, Secondary
and Tertiary. Primary formation defines clays that are found where Nature created them.
In other words, there is an event involving an exposure of certain stones to hot gasses that
occur only deep within the earth that transform these stones into clay. If geologic forces
extrude these formations close to the earths surface and then through weathering or
mining procedures this in situ deposit can be exploited the resulting clay is considered a
primary clay. Secondary clays are classified as having been primary originally and then
transported, generally by water on a journey back into the earth through the ocean.
Somewhere along this twisting adventure a primary clay will settle along with other
minerals of similar particle size that may or may not also be clay. These sites include
lake, river and pond bottoms; swamp land and anywhere these might have been
throughout the millions of years of geologic history. These clay/silt materials are referred
to as secondary clay and often form the inventory used by the clay industry because the
resulting inclusions are impurities that help to lower the vitrification point. Primary clays
are often extremely refractory and highly resistant to deformation at very high
temperatures. As a result they function well as a material for the creation of bricks and
other equipment required to withstand extremely high temperatures over and over again.
Secondary clays are much better suited, when coated with a glaze, to applications that
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
require very smooth surfaces and can withstand the rigors of domestic life. Tertiary clay
is of much less interest to potter’s due to the excessive contamination it undergoes while
traveling to its final resting place in the ocean. Aside from being very difficult to exploit
it often contains large amounts of calcium impurities that can lead to catastrophic failure
at normal firing temperatures. For the purposes of potters and their potmaking we
concern ourselves mostly with the primary and secondary clays.
The ideal scenario for a potter is to step outside his/her back door and dig with a
shovel on their own property and find that serendipitously the local geology has blessed
them with a clay that is exactly the right composition to use without any additional
additives. Generally it works the other way around. To whit, the clay that is local is
suitable for a particular use and dictates the kind of ware that gets produced. Hence the
growth of indigenous flowerpot traditions in many of the worlds cultures. This kind of
pot -- relatively low-fired -- can be made from most any clay; and as clay is plentiful this
is ample explanation for the rise of ceramic traditions worldwide. We are a busy and
productive breed. Pots and potters are a true testament to the natural human inclination
to toil with great industry. Often, in days of old, potters were farmers in the summer and
potmakers in the winter. But like most other professions there is now a marked difference
between potters of pre-industrial societies and those in post-industrial societies. The
former are still humble craftsmen using a local material as a resource; the latter, like
myself, have artistic aspirations and have taken on clay as a lover, as Cardew would say,
not merely a companion.
I was not one of the lucky ones. When I chose to settle in New England and
establish my workshop in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains I knew I had made a
choice to import the raw material of my trade. I was born and raised in the northeast and
had a cultural affinity for the pace and attitudes found north of the Mason-Dixon line.
When the decision to settle arrived there was a tract of land already in the family in
northwest Connecticut. I knew well the glacial past of this region and understood that
there would be no commercially available local clay that would be acceptable to produce
vitrified woodfired stoneware; certainly none that would be useable as-dug. I would have
to source this from the long-established clay-mining industry in the southern and
Midwestern part of the country and finally settle on a blend that had as many of the
preferred characteristics as possible. Even so, with the cost of shipping as an add-on it
was possible to buy these clays delivered for ten cents per pound. The other material I
would need in abundance was wood to fire my kilns. Thankfully there is still plenty of
this in this region albeit expensive to cart.
In 1974, as I began the lifelong project of establishing a workshop the first order
of business was blending and testing clays. I contacted as many companies as I could
identify (much more difficult before the age of Google). I would phone and request to be
patched through to the technical departments. Even at the tender age of 20 I was able to
converse with these ceramic engineers. My tutelage with Cardew had enriched me with a
profound respect for the chemistry of clay. I’ve immersed myself in the physics of its’
behavior and am an eager student of the myriad facets that this gem presents. The
technical departments would be more than willing to send me 50 lb. samples of their dry
materials for my testing. And the first firings had many different pots made from a
variety of different clays. At the end we collected all of the remaining, unused, batches
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
and blended them together in what we referred to as the All American clay body. There
are still pots that I see we made back then that I recall being of that vintage batch.
The process of creating and utilizing a blend of clays and other materials as a
composite mix for the commercial production of a stoneware pot is ongoing. Part of the
challenge in my particular case was that I’d identified that time spent loading and firing a
kiln was less time spent making pots. In order to bring the cost/benefit ratio into a
manageable range I’d settled on a large kiln that would only be fired 5 times per year.
This meant that testing in this kiln would be impractical; or, put another way, each firing
was, in essence, a test. If change was required the problem would be identified, an
alteration made and the next firing a critical correction undertaken. This went on for the
first 5 years (1974-1979) as I refined my techniques and gradually honed in on the mix
that was most reflective of my needs – aesthetic and technical. By 1980, with the first
rebuild of my kiln I was producing work that I felt represented a new plateau of
capability. I’d also found a very satisfactory arrangement for the outsourcing of my clay
mixing operation. This freed up an enormous amount of time for the making of pots, my
true love and the most profitable activity in a potter’s life.
At this point my clay body was composed of the cardinal triumvirate of 3 clays in
relatively equal amounts (to offset any significant sudden compositional change) and
small additions of highly controlled industrial products like silica(7%), feldspar(8%) and
grog (5%). Unlike clay, these mined and/or manufactured additions are generally of
guaranteed purity. But the composite mix takes on a personality of its’ own and my work
with Cardew has made me very sensitive to the problems that can arise. Once again, the
metaphor of romance is apropos. Even under the best of circumstances, meaning that all
attention lavished and great respect paid, there remains the simple fact that great love can
go sour. Through no more fault than the vagaries of relationships a sad result will occur.
Perhaps the heat has been applied too fast, or not fast enough. Maybe the mix has sat too
long or not long enough. A premature frost or unseasoned wood has created an all too
steamy atmosphere in the kiln. The result can be cracks or bloats or worse. I was taught,
“Never blame it on the clay; it is your mistress and such accusatory barbs will do no
good.” So, the corollary is retrace your steps until you find the weakness and then make
adjustments to avoid a repeat of said calamity. Playing the blame game in this romance is
of no value. The clay and its components are, of course, without guile. The potter must
assume sole responsibility for the deviation and alter course accordingly. In reference to
my “kiln calamity” of Essay 7 there was a stark perception of wrongdoing. It was as if
my clay was crying out to me in the only way it could. On each and every pot, every
square inch was afflicted with gross protrusions, many of them nasty sharp and crusty
like small scabs. This was a rape of a kind. A vendor somewhere in the chain of
distribution, sensing the intimacy all potters assume had invaded our relationship with a
startling casualness. In my usual forensic posture I began the search for answers. I
scoured my kiln-firing notes for clues but, as I have written, all was routine. The charted
course was precise; a proud testament to 30 years of firing experience. The fuel was the
same and the weather too mild to have any impact. So I quickly eliminated all exterior
sources for the failure. This left me with a single frightening theory, “The defect resided
within the composite clay mix itself.” I was crushed. How could my lover be so severe?
In times past when an adjustment was called for the tuning process was subtle. Now, 35
years as a performing potter the time for snapped strings was long past. At most I’d
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
engage in slight tuning to restore pitch: stretch taut to sharpen, a gentle turn back to
eliminate the edge. But what lay before me in this failed firing echoed with such a
heinous cacophony I began to question the instrument itself. And then it struck me again.
I could no longer hide from the truth that this inanimate friend, my lifelong companion
and intimate partner had been attacked. I had meeting after meeting with the people that
had assumed responsibility for the blending. I tested and retested with singularity every
component of the composite clay mix and nothing seemed amiss. I then remixed and
retested the composite blend itself and in startling contrast to the failed results the
revisited batch performed fully normal again. Just as I began to prepare for the
eventuality that I would never know precisely what had transpired I received a phone call
that another potter had suffered an event exactly similar to mine. With this opportunity to
cross-check I continued the sleuthing with renewed vigor. By identifying shared
components I now was convinced that human error was to blame and the quest became a
crusade. I was supported in this by the opinions of two experts known in the field for
their sober methodology. With their help undisputable evidence surfaced that my clay
had been polluted and based on these findings and further testing I theorize that my timetested formula had been rendered moot by the substitution of a rogue inferior medium
duty grog for the carefully regulated high duty product I’d chosen with precision. I now
would need to convince those that had assumed responsibility for the mixing that it was
their mistake and would need their undivided attention to move beyond.
In the unspoken humility of the relationship a potter has with the clay there is no
place for rancor or revenge. Further, the person(s) contracted to do the work of mixing
must assume that this intimate relationship is theirs by proxy. Among other things this
means if there is a failure all effort must be made to ascertain the cause. Simply throwing
up one’s hands in resignation and walking away is not sufficient. Due diligence must be
undertaken and a good faith effort made to determine the cause; without this energy
intimacy will atrophy and the love affair end. A potter’s passion knows no bounds; my
protective instincts were fully engaged and the more this Jobber hid behind the
willingness to blame the messenger (my clay mix and it’s inherent frailties) the more
certain I became that I would need to come to its’ rescue. If no one speaks up for the clay
it becomes an easy target for perversions by non-stakeholders, after all, to them it is
simply mud.
In fairness to the Jobber (and in particular a certain person in his employ) there
was a preliminary surge to identify a cause. Every phone call to this Customer Service
person was answered and an initial strategy for testing commenced. But as I indicated in
previous paragraphs there was absolutely nothing in these tests that bore even the
slightest resemblance to the affliction let loose on my pots. Early on there was some
suspicion that the grog addition should be closely investigated due to a puzzling notation
in the mix-ticket. My Jobber keeps quite thorough records of each mix as a means of
assuring quality from batch to batch. A Lot number assigned by the Mill of Purchase
identifies each component of the blend. However, in the field that should have had the
Lot Number for the Grog addition there was a tell-tale description that spelled the word
“None”. As I became more intrigued by this notation both the Jobber and myself began
to suspect that the company responsible for that material should be brought in to address
the potential for a corrupted material. Samples of the bad pots were sent out to the
Midwestern headquarters of this company. One of the samples was a teapot. Teapots are
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
made in several stages. First the body of the pot is thrown and later the spout is thrown.
After drying it becomes more rigid, the spout is pared to size and then attached to the
body of the pot. After this the handle is applied. This particular teapot body had been
made one day with the final clay from the previous batch mixed months earlier. When
the new mix arrived the spout was thrown. Then a day or so later the pot was assembled
as described above. After firing this pot demonstrates that it was the specific components
in the new mix wherein the failure occurred because the body of the pot is without
blemish but the spout and handle (both made from the new mix) are full of the
characteristic pox, When comparing the mix tickets of both batches the only glaring
difference is a new Grog and this mysterious notation “None” in the field where the Lot
Number usually is recorded. Because of my large kiln and infrequent firings a loss of this
magnitude endangers more than my sensibilities as a potter. The economics of a small,
fragile business like mine issues a shrill warning siren when the mathematics of doubleentry bookkeeping becomes covered in red. The journey to assign blame and perhaps
recover some losses began.
My first phone call was to my own insurance company. I had a sincere hope there
was some coverage in the reams of invoices I’d paid over the years that might protect me
in a loss like this. I was told that my insurance was primarily to protect me from a loss
incurred by the public due to my negligence. So the obvious next step was to have a
frank discussion with the company that mixed my clay. After all, they were the last
people to touch my clay before I used it and there were these other nagging realities: a
similar loss by another potter (as mentioned before) and the mysterious absence of a Lot
Number referencing which Grog had been used. So with great regret I sat down with the
owner of this establishment knowing that it would be the end of our 27 year relationship.
Although he had been sympathetic with my plight he also had remained very distant,
making very little effort to facilitate the sleuthing required to come to grips with the true
source of my disaster. This, too, did not sit well with me. I had called him on several
occasions to please come and visit my workshop to see the pots all arranged outside of
the kiln. Our locations are a mere forty minutes apart; we actually both sit on the same
major roadway. His trip would have required one right turn out of his driveway and one
left turn into mine. Hardly an inconvenient journey. One excuse, which reverberates for
me because of its callous indifference, was “I’ve got to go flying; I’m studying to get my
pilot’s license.” So to this day the only visit this man has ever made to my workshop was
27 years ago, when he persuaded me that he could mix my clay for me.
Vocation as Metaphor
Ironically the baggage I carry that is the heaviest is the choice I made to be a
potter. The further away I get from the decision, made when I was about 20, the more
puzzling it seems. I often conjecture that I am my own parent (father and/or mother)
when the decision to be this person first manifested and wonder what may have
contributed to their willingness to aid and abet this misguided career path. Let’s be frank.
A potter is not one of the top three. Lawyer, doctor and/or Indian Chief were the
preferred titles as I grew up in the sandy suburbs of Long Island’s North Shore town
named Port Washington. I had an absolutely idyllic childhood, or so it seems from the
distance of about 45 years. My father was an executive in a family owned manufacturing
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
firm and his income in tandem with my mother’s dowry made it possible to live in one of
America’s premier suburban locations. Although cloistered on something of a compound
(my best friend in childhood writes that to this day he believes we were training
Sandinistas) the full acre footprint was contiguous to a newly minted collection of tract
housing replete with a local school and 50 families virtually identical to ours: two parents
with household composed of working veteran fathers and stay-at-home Moms raising
anywhere from 1 to 4 children. A noteworthy exception is that in my best-friends family
(virtually identical in composition to mine save the fact that the youngest Piker was a girl
and theirs was a boy) the Stay-At-Home Mom happened to be a pediatrician who had a
home-based practice. But I digress…the premier interest as I drifted through those
dreamy days of childhood was playing. The majority of games involved a ball and had a
professional sport association that changed as the season’s cycled. As we went back to
school the Little League baseball season had come to a close and all equipment – bats,
balls, mitts, batting helmets, etc – were stowed and football’s paraphernalia – helmets,
cleats, pads and footballs – became omnipresent. For the next 10 weeks all my friends
and I thought about was football until late in January a large bouncing ball, shorts and
sleeveless shirts appeared as Basketball became king. Within 6 weeks all of the heroics
of this third sport began to fade and with the sounds and sights of spring came the return
of the mighty diamond. The mitts were reclaimed, often replaced with the newer Micky
Mantle autographed version or Willie Mays’ five-fingered replica designed to execute his
legendary basket catch and we grabbed our bats and headed for the school playground to
enjoy endless homerun derby or the neighborhood favorite – a game of stickball played
off the outer wall of the local, and recently built, primary school. We all attended this
institution from kindergarten through sixth grade and gradually made our way out of the
La Brea tar pit of a perfect childhood. We (my little group of friends) were sports
lunatics, and nowhere was there an indication that the arts might figure prominently in
my choice of career. But here’s where my Freudian sleuthing gets methodical.
Somewhere in this competitive, highly testosterone charged macho youth the seeds for a
solitary pursuit of beauty was sown. Looking back I credit an extremely enlightened fifth
(and subsequent Sixth) grade teacher for introducing me to the richness and variety of the
world of art. The curriculum of those two years included close study of a number of great
works of art. We read and performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I acted the role
of Puck (typecast because I stood less than 4 feet tall even then); we parsed the opera La
Boheme and subsequently made a class trip to see it when performed in New York City.
Same with Tchaikovsky’s Sorceror’s Apprentice; as an added bonus we were in the first
audience to see Fantasia (the feature cartoon) when Disney opened it at Radio City Music
Hall in 19 62 (?). The most obtuse, but powerful, exposure was to a little known musical
piece by Strauss called Till Eulenspiegels. We studied it as the opera and then
choreographed our own ballet to accompany it. We performed it for the whole school
and I remember the thrilling opening night as I pranced around in two-toned tights with
my best girl-friend from across the street. These are profound childhood memories that
seemed to take a back seat to my sports proclivity but my sneaking hunch is that they
suited me better than the sweaty, bone-crunching life of an athlete. At the time I just
didn’t know it but I suspect those perplexed parents of mine were resigned that I was
more Nuryev than Knute Rockne and allowed me pursuit of a passion rather than a
paycheck. Now a parent twice over myself I know this moment, when a child chooses
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
their career path. It requires interactive spectating rather than sideline coaching. It is a
simple fact that my being a potter, for my family and me, had the seeds of both blessing
and curse. The blessing of course is that choice was not necessary. This decision was
made deep within my DNA and my parents were enlightened enough to know that the
collateral damage of making me suppress this mighty urge would be catastrophic. The
curse for us all has been sitting back and forever helping to mitigate the financial disaster
that accompanies a career choice in the arts. The older I get the more compounded the
effects. At times I feel like I’m hunched in a prenatal position as the walls of
depreciation continuously crash all around me. Oh well…it will all be over soon.
But the journey has been mostly exhilhirating and indulgent beyond most
people’s wildest imaginings. I hatched the scheme to establish my own workshop in
long, romantic conversations with Svend when we were apprentices in England (see
Essay 1 Apprenticeship). The vision I had was in large measure a variation of a medieval
craft village. The facility required housing for the workers/craftsmen and a structure that
would function as a workshop, housing the wheels and pots required to fill the
“giamungous” kiln Svend was designing. Although the motivation for an enormous kiln
is primarily the significant economy of scale, both Svend and I felt it was high time the
modern potter’s of the western world stop paying lip service to the idealization of this
concept. Cardew’s kiln, at 125 cu. ft. was considered overly large back in the 1970’s.
The first kiln built at Cornwall Bridge Pottery in 1974, and still in use today, is 5 times
that size.
My first executive decision, at the tender age of 20 in 1972, when I approached
my father to partner with me in a business to make and sell functional wood-fired pottery,
was to convince both he and Svend that to get the business up and running we would
need Svend’s expertise. It took almost no persuading to convince them both that
conceptually this was a good idea. In 1973 I invited Svend for a visit to New York City
so that he could visit a piece of property my father had bought in a small village in
northwestern Connecticut. I was of the opinion that it had many of the qualities I was
looking for in this renaissance workshop I envisaged and I needed Svend’s blessing so I
could wholeheartedly embrace and commence work. Svend arrived in late November and
was promptly escorted to 2 thanksgiving meals in a row: one at my parent’s apartment
and the next (a mere two hours later) at Evie’s grandmother’s home. Excess of this
magnitude was a typically American characteristic and I began to feel that Svend’s ideas
about pots and potteries were more suited to the grandiosity of the US than the restrained
constraints of post-empire UK. A bit ethnocentric in hindsight but fundamentally still
Svend and I, accompanied by both of my parents made a trip to Connecticut. Our
initial concern was identifying if there was a plentiful source of wood. Originally we felt
that siting the workshop near the clay deposits would be the most sensible. We had
identified several southern states (Georgia, Kentucky or Tennessee) as perhaps the most
logical locations for this fantasized potting workshop. But when the property in
Connecticut seemed to fall in our lap I contacted many of the clay pits that would have
supplied clay had we settled in the Deep South. The post-industrialization of these clay
industries had streamlined their distribution so pervasively that the problem of shipping
to any location in the contiguous United States was minor. Clay at the mine was “dirt”
cheap. By the time it got shipped to us in Connecticut it was still “dirt” cheap. So we
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
both became resigned to the fact that we would import the clay but utilize the wood from
the local saw mills, of which there were many. The two major hurdles had been vaulted
and Svend was intrigued with the challenge of helping me establish a pottery along the
lines we had dreamed about back in our apprentice days in Cornwall England. As an
historical aside there was a compelling coincidence at work: the village in the US that we
were planning to call home and build our workshop is named Cornwall and the district in
the UK that we had both trained in was also known as Cornwall. Svend gave his blessing,
returned to England and married his long-time girlfriend (Jane Holden) and set off for the
Far East on a working honeymoon. He planned to study the kilns in rural country
potteries in Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia hoping to be fully prepared to begin the
kiln-building upon his return to Cornwall, Connecticut in February of 1974. My
responsibility would be to have the house livable, the workshop ready for potmaking and
a source of bricks for the kiln found. Both of us lived up to our partnered commitment
and when February of 1974 rolled around, Svend and Jane were picked up at Kennedy
Airport and hustled up to Connecticut to face what Svend referred to as “the coldest
weather he has ever been in.” My father and mother were both convinced that my instinct
to partner with Svend was of paramount importance. My apprenticeship with Cardew
had been somewhat abbreviated. In the year of my study I had come away with a great
deal of inspiration but very little practical from a training standpoint. With Svend in
Connecticut with me I could continue the hands-on tutelage that would make it possible
to leap frog from the ranks of dilettantes known as Apprentice to the solemn standing of
Journeyman on their way to Master Craftsmen. We were all heady with excitement and
the work that stretched out in an unending ribbon of effort was of no consequence. In
fact it had an appeal not unlike the endless afternoons of playing that had typified my
happy childhood. Sometime much later, well into my 40’s, I overheard my mother’s
answer to a fellow parent. When asked, “Did you see anything in Todd’s youth that
would have lead you to think he might be a potter?” she paused and then opined that,
“Todd has always been very athletic with an interest in many different areas and loves
hard work. Being a potter requires a great deal of physical effort and skill and
incorporates many disciplines. It is simply a fit for who he has always been.” In that
brief moment I learned more about myself than I had a right to know. Rarely are we
privy to such an objective but loving enlightenment. Only a mother’s love would be
capable of such compassionate objectivity.
Without question the single most exciting find for all of us engaged in building
this workshop was the remains of the H.K. Porter Refractory kilns just a mere hour down
the road from where the pottery kiln was to be built. In one of my many phone calls
around the country while looking for clays I learned that this plant had recently closed. It
was the latest victim in the mass exodus of industrial facilities from the expensive labor
pool and high real estate values that had transformed the landscape of New England.
Once a veritable Mecca for all manor of manufacturing endeavor the late 20th century had
forced many “smokestack” concerns like H.K. Porter into the Midwest, deep South or
(god forbid) the Far East. This particular facility had been the crème de la crème for the
material we were looking for. The kilns that had been dismantled were made from the
highest quality and most heat resistant firebrick that money could buy. They had served
their purpose and had been bull-dozed to the edge of the river that bordered the
compound. When I heard that it was a matter of days before the whole lot would be
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
pushed into the river to rest in perpetuity tumble-stacked next to brethren already firmly
ensconced in the shoals I rallied the troops and we visited the plant. It was abandoned
when we arrived. A bit like a ghost town or some contaminated nuclear waste site.
There were cavernous rooms mostly emptied out save an occasional fork lift or pile of
pallets. One room seemed to have been a testing room and that turned out to be a
treasure trove of small lot oddball materials like sample clays or oxides used for testing.
What was being tested and how remains a mystery but we loaded our little Volkswagen
station wagon secure in the knowledge that if we didn’t take these remnants the river
soon would. But the most spectacular site of all was the piles and piles of what appeared
from a distance to be rubble. But as we got closer there could be no mistake. The heft
and purity of these bricks was unmistakable. We’d stumbled on a pirate’s ransom. A
few phone calls to local trucking companies and within a few days we were hand loading
bricks into a payloader bucket; those bricks would soon be sitting neatly stacked in our
courtyard next to the site of the 625 cu. ft. kiln we planned to build once the spring thaw
made foundation preparation possible. We bought two 40,000 pound loads
(approximately 10000 bricks) for $700 dollars delivered. The chemical analysis of these
bricks indicated they were 95% mullite and even in the 1970’s they sold, when new, for
$5 per brick. If you do the math you can see that this purchase alone made our little
fledgling enterprise a viable business concern. We had saved close to $50,000 dollars by
scavenging, as any self-respecting potter should. Most of these bricks are still in use
today, 35 years and 250 firings along. Save a thin skin of slag buildup they are still as
white as driven snow; a testament to their extreme refractory capacity. They are sure to
outlast me and the next savvy potter that is fortunate enough to carry on following my
Svend and Jane had arrived in February 1974. The brick purchase was completed
by March. We used the intervening winter months to receive and test clays and source
wood from local saw mills. We also spent a lot of time insulating and equipping an old
barn as our workshop. Meanwhile we had decided after a lot of conversation that we
should build the simplest kiln we could, as this would be our virgin voyage as kiln
builders. Many of the designs Svend had seen were quite complex structures with
compound arches requiring elaborate buttressing. The kiln that appeared the most
manageable from an engineering perspective is one that is known as the “tube” kiln.
Svend refers to it as a “sino-korean tubular pipe kiln” and those that are familiar with
Japanese kilns call it an “anagama” (single chamber) kiln. It is two parallel walls buried
in the ground and spanned by an arch. Imagine if you can a piece of bamboo split
vertically and laid on the ground. Many that happen upon it say it looks like the fuselage
of an airplane or submarine. It is pitched upward at about a 10 degree angle; so
positioned to encourage the natural transfer of heat from the downward end where the
main firebox resides upward through the “setting” of ware and eventually out the
chimney on the higher end. Strictly speaking this is a cross-draft kiln. Aside from being
simple to construct it also is rudimentary in function. Cross draft kilns are notoriously
uneven in heat distribution and therefore comparatively inefficient when compared to
more modern (later than the 10th century) kilns. But I argue that the absence of interior
walls mean that all of the generated heat goes to firing sellable ware and therefore the
inefficiencies are offset by the phenomenal yield once the kiln is fired correctly. Some
designs just can’t be improved on: like, for instance, the wheel! I feel like a protective
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
parent about this kiln. It has been through three rebuilds and continues to serve me
We were busy as bees throughout the spring and summer of 1974. As soon as the
frost broke we contracted a man with a backhoe to excavate the hole for the kiln. My
father, in characteristic myopic fashion, had instructed us to dig the hole by hand. In
retrospect it is a true Monty Python moment. There was a brief moment when the lunacy
of the concept passed over us all but our earnestness to prevail ignored the fact that the
amount of dirt to be shoveled would equal the full volume of a large train boxcar. But the
deal breaker would be the twang of the first thrust with the shovel. Oh Yeah; it’s New
England and mostly large boulders at every turn. We figured the backhoe was the answer
to all of our problems until the day after its’ arrival a gasket blew and the large rusty
metal eyesore sat stranded for weeks until the a replacement hose arrived. Each passing
day became an encounter with the fundamentals of problem solving. Svend and I parsed
them one by one. Our working relationship had been forged in the lonely Wenford
workshop of Michael Cardew. This was the fifth pottery Cardew had established –
Winchcome Pottery (1931) in Gloucestshire, Vume (!945) Pottery in Ghana, Abuja
Pottery (1952) in Nigeria, Darwin Pottery (1966) in Australia. All over the globe he had
worked pure magic when he managed to create a product from raw materials that he
conjectured were in neighboring soils. His vision then turned to the practical challenges
of organizing like-minded souls to undertake months of struggle to create pots from
nothing but a dream. Our minor skirmishes seemed insignificant in comparison to his
mighty battles with the elements. In one very notable encounter with an uncrossable
chasm Michael had been on the verge of starvation. This was the role model Svend and I
kept tucked in our hip pocket. Out of sight from the general public so that no one would
think us any more deluded than we already appeared. We knew how bad things could get
and we were continually putting our fingers in the holes as they sprung leaks. One by
one: we needed expensive kiln furniture, so we made it; we needed clay as mortar to lay
our bricks so we dug it off the mountain nearby and processed it in our workshop; we
needed samples fired so we found a local potter to help us with this task. The list was
never ending and through it all we kept one goal in mind – make enough pots to have our
first firing. We were like Odysseus passing the island of the Sirens. All of the shrill
cacophony around us could not stay us from attempting to realize the shared vision. That
is until Svend’s marriage began to show the effects of the strain.
Svend’s wife had been terribly homesick from the first minute of her stay in the
States. I was no stranger to that emotion having suffered through it continuously while
away at boarding school and then again while an apprentice with Cardew at age 18.It’s a
horrible sensation and can’t be rationalized away. Like many phobias it takes an
unbreakable grip and then thrashes around. The more effort one makes to break loose the
tighter and deeper the fangs penetrate. This new business endeavor was full of stress from
morning throughout the day and well into the night. The complexities of my relationship
with my family heaped on top of the uncertainty of Svend and Jane’s future as a newly
married couple and their status as employees versus owners made for some extremely
vague working and living conditions. Svend and I did a magnificent job of keeping the
doubt out of our relationship but the more powerful our teamwork became the more
oppressive life around us seemed. Come August, a mere 7 months after their arrival
Svend and Jane decided to return to England. Svend offered to stay until we’d had three
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
firings. It was a very generous move considering his marriage was hanging by a thread
and I resolved to do everything within my power to make that happen as soon as possible.
By late August the kiln and kiln shed were finished. We’d also managed to make
a load of pots (generally about 3 tons of ware) and many thousands of pounds of
homemade kiln shelves and bricks to be used as shelf supports and had collected what we
thought would be enough wood for our first firing. The first match was struck fittingly
on Labor Day in September of 1974. For a complete chronicle of the drama that unfolded
in conjunction with Firing #1 please see the essay “kiln Calamities”.
In hindsight the struggle to be a potter was just beginning. Svend and Jane left
just before Thanksgiving of 1974. Evie and I drove them to the port of Montreal where
they took the long, slow boat home to England. When I returned to Cornwall Bridge it
was the first weekend in December and I felt bereft. I had lost my good friend and work
partner. The pottery workshop became a cold and lonely place for me but I kept
revisiting the Cardew chronicles of hope overcoming despair. I chose to see my glass as
half full and simply took each day as a singular event. Before long I was surrounded by a
team of eager students interested primarily in working with the large woodfired kiln but
also attracted by the ethical commitment to make beautiful functional pots that would sell
for a reasonable price. As the years have passed and I have matured as an artist I realize
why it took the Chinese multiple generations to reach the zenith of their ceramic
accomplishments. I am through a good portion of my working life and I still feel just a
babe in the woods regarding the skills to make myself understood. Part of me hopes there
may be a way for others to pick up where I leave off and keep trudging toward the manna
of beauty. But I fear this endeavor, turning clay to stone, will go the way of the covered
wagon. A quaint reminder that there were those with a passion to work hard and get dirty
while pointed toward the horizon.
Family, Friends and the Game of Tennis
There is not a life lived, human or otherwise, that isn’t a collaborative effort. In
the context of a memoir this statement, both wide and general, encompasses biologic
nurturing and physical/emotional co-dependence in a single sweep. None of us, no matter
how well endowed can accomplish an unassisted arrival. But the journey, once begun,
will proceed with an endless progression of variables triggered by communal interaction.
Some of these encounters become encumbrances, others prove enriching; some yield a
sense of empowerment while others extract energy like some kind of vacuum. My older
sister sent one of the most provocative New Yorker cartoons I’ve ever seen after our
families had converged in Las Vegas. The descriptive title along the bottom reads
Family Reunion. The drawing depicts what we can assume are father, mother, aunts and
uncles, nieces, nephews etc. in bathing attire on a potentially fun-filled outing standing
next to what appears to be a large lake or pond of some kind ready to take the gleeful
plunge. However, the sign identifying this body of liquid cautions: “La Brea Tarpits”. In
the realm of family interaction there is a primal ooze of complexity that serves to protect
but often spills over as excess. Very few of us escape a lifetime without the smothering
suffocation that began as a gentle, nurturing good night kiss. Approval, rejection,
support, neglect, pride and embarrassment are powerful motivators. Decisions about life,
particularly career, are made within the context of the elaborate web spun around us to
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
manage our journey. Like it or not, our family and friends are stranded observers in this
intricate weave and, passive or engaged, exert influence that often exceeds their
conscious grasp. Making sense of this becomes either a life lived chasing or chased. In
either case the effects are here to stay and, in my case, require some parsing to achieve
some clarity.
I’ve written briefly about the moment that I walked out of the apprenticeship I
was serving in my parent’s house (see Essay 1-Apprenticeship). We had traveled to
Ireland together as I embarked on the voyage into adulthood. At that point there was
absolutely no indication that my career path would set me down the road to being a
potter. I wrote of my parent’s willingness to let go and their encouragement that I was
prepared for the journey, whatever might come my way. What I haven’t written about is
the great sadness that befell my father as he watched me walk away. To this day I am
certain a part of him was terrified that I might just walk out of his life.
Both parents became enchanted by Wenford Bridge Pottery and Michael Cardew.
Soon after my arrival in Cornwall to begin the apprenticeship Michael embarked on a
several week tour of the US as a visiting potter. His primary goal was to introduce the
American potting community to his work and vision while serving as the Chief Pottery
Officer in Abuja, Nigeria. Accompanying him on this tour was Kofi Athey and Ladi
Kwali. Kofi, a Ugandan potter that had become a pivotal figure in Michael’s life
throughout the African portion of his career, served as a translator and protector for the
much esteemed Ladi Kwali as she traveled from site to site within the US. Ladi Kwali in
her role as one of Nigeria’s most respected potters had legitimized Michael’s efforts by
embracing his vision for the Abuja Pottery Training Center. Michael felt the timing for a
visit by these highly motivated, skilled craftsmen would be particularly interesting to
African-Americans. Bear in mind this occurred in 1970. Alex Haley had just published
ROOTS (an autobiography chronicling his own search for the West African ancestry that
pre-dated his slave genealogy). Cardew’s concept, although well-intentioned,
underestimated the suspicions a Colonialist from Great Britain traveling with African
entertainers would engender. This became something of a lose-lose proposition at the
universities where “black power” had become the battle cry. But removed from those
politically charged settings, within the sanctity of craft groups and enlightened liberal
garden parties, Kofi, Ladi Kwali and Michael Cardew became dignified Ambassadors for
a civilized, exotic and unique exchange of new ideas and magnificent creations. There is
some footage somewhere of Ladi Kwali crafting one of her signature hand-built pots in
front of riveted Americans. The finished work is a stunning example of grace and skill
utilizing primitive techniques to create a huge, beautiful water jar in a matter of minutes.
Michael had hoped to fundamentally alter African American attitudes toward craft with
this trip. He was saddened by the narrow impact his trip had achieved in that regard. I
could feel his pain. As a college student I too had hoped to have an impact on the chasm
that separated me from this same segment of American society. Michael’s efforts,
although of modest immediate success, were a clear example of a person deeply
committed to the principles of equal opportunity falling short while aiming high. I was
consumed with pride in my association with this 70 year-old man that had the courage to
even attempt such a task. I had urged him to seek out my parents while in the New York
City segment of the trip. That encounter, between Cardew and his Nigerian friends and
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
my parents at our New York City apartment, became as important to my friendship with
Michael (if not more so) as my entire year of cloistered study.
In the context of a father and his, perhaps primal, sense of loss with me so far
away and pointed towards a life path very different than the conventional post-war
business model, his exuberance upon finding in Michael a new and fascinating friend
turned into a quest to become familiar with the mechanics of a potter’s life. In this way he
saw an opportunity to reestablish the partnership that typified all of his closest personal
associations. My father was the quintessential small-business man. Although he had the
ability to think and behave as an anonymous corporate cog his temperament made him far
more comfortable in intimate business relationships that had the potential for sizeable
leveraged return. In his lifetime he was partnered with 7 close family members in at least
5 distinctively different businesses. He helped start a manufacturing company, a fast-food
restaurant, a health food grocery store, a financial product business, an advertising firm
and a pottery business. He dabbled in real estate and the stock market and was quite
successful in both although never professionally engaged in either. Making pots, as a way
of life was something that seemed to engage that most basic cautionary advice he would
float my way: “Todd, find something you love and are good at.” So he made it his
business to understand the professional potter’s challenge in the event there might come a
time he would be called on to nurture a startup with his son. Beware of self-fulfilling
From Michael’s perspective this new friendship touched a multitude of important
nerves. I think primarily he was relieved for me that my parents supported my choice to
bypass college for the time being and spend time as a potter’s apprentice. But beyond
that there was now a newly established pied a Terre in a very important world city. It
wasn’t long after Michael’s visit to New York City that my parents made an excursion to
Cornwall UK to visit with me and get a first hand experience of the pots and the potting
life I had found in this small Cornish village. What they found enchanted them even
further as the erudition of this 20th century philosopher/scholar was profoundly evident in
the extraordinary personality that defined Wenford Bridge Pottery. In the short span of
the week visit my parents met Michael’s three sons, Seth, Cornelius, and Ennis and
learned of the large part that music played in the family life. Seth is an accomplished
clarinetist and Cornelius, before his tragic and premature death, was a world renowned
musician of alternative music styles. Certainly a well trained classicist, like his father he
chose a decidedly unique avenue to explore as a professional. Michael was full of pride
for Cor (as he called him) but remained somewhat skeptical about the cacophonous
scores he wrote and performed with the motley group of musicians he gathered into the
Scratch Orchestra (organized primarily to have fun and perform his latest creations).
This was my first look at the circuitous and synergistic nature of human expression.
There is no way a person born at the beginning of a century could fully understand and
embrace those artforms positioned as vanguard efforts almost 100 years later. Whether it
be painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, pottery the definition of “NEW” must
accompany an admission that provocation is a goal. The test of time will determine
whether the experiment is a success and Michael was reserving judgment. In Cor’s case
musician’s like John Cage had blazed the trail that he was on until a freak swipe by a car
on a London street during a snowstorm ended his life. Ennis, the baby, seemed to define
himself as the one Cardew that was capable of leading a conventional life and building
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
significant financial assets. Not only was he an accountant but he also managed to court
and marry the heiress to a Greek Shipping fortune. Michael was very proud of the
wheels of Parmesan cheese and cases of Chilean wine Ennis was able to commandeer
(presumably from ship rations allocated for commanding ranks) and at the pottery they
were served at every opportunity. Without fail, no matter how many times he had said it
previous, as he poured the wine or carved off a hunk of the magnificent Parmesan he
said, “This is compliments of Ennis and Josephine. How very nice of them to spoil me in
this fashion!” I leave Seth, the eldest, to last because of the complexity his life brought to
Wenford while I was there and since Michael’s passing. As my mother likes to say,
“There are no short stories only sagas!” and this one reflects almost epic
father/son/grandson issues. When listening to Michael talk about Seth and watching the
relationship perched, as it were, on the sidelines I would liken it mostly to a Greek
Tragedy. Having been a Classics scholar at Oxford Michael was no stranger to this
artform and his sadness when interacting with Seth seemed attended by a hidden Chorus
wailing and moaning just barely out of sight. Michael referred to Seth as his “nemesis”
and was visibly disapproving and shaken when three months into my apprenticeship
Seth’s wife Jutta and their three small children, Aeschylos, Ara and Gaea were parked at
the pottery in Cornwall while Seth remained in London sorting out his life. They were
sequestered in an empty attic space just above the potting workshop. It was a scene out
of Dickens. No heat, minimal light and nothing but the warmth of family love to sustain
them for the many long months of separation from husband/father. Although Michael
acted the curmudgeon Scrooge, in hindsight it is clear that his generosity in taking them
in and providing a stable environ for the kids to continue school and share in the world of
their now-famous grandfather was noble indeed. Not to mention Jutta began to bring a
domestic dimension to the pottery setting that had become decidedly crude and bachelorlike. The sharing of the cooking chores faded as Jutta became queen of the Larder and
assumed the responsibility for shopping and cooking. After about six months or so Seth
finally moved from London to Wenford Bridge and began a long-expected apprenticeship
of his own with his father. This made Michael supremely happy for it meant that the
legacy of Wenford as a functioning pottery owned and run by a Cardew would continue
after his death. There were any number of previous students that would have been glad
to take over the daily tasks of managing the workshop but Michael was clear that the
whole enterprise would pass to someone in the family so no need sticking around unless
you were willing to work for Seth. My only comment is that although an apple from the
tree, Seth Cardew fell and rolled into some kind of science experiment and became a
hybrid fruit. His loyalty in the end became the Church of God and his life as a potter has
always had the look of expedience rather than conviction. After Michael’s death Seth and
his middle child Ara ran the pottery for about 10 years until a fierce enmity drove a
wedge between the partnership as the physical plant collapsed in a heap between them.
Wenford was sold in 2005 to non-potters and all the memories and archives at that
history reside at the Victoria Albert Museum for any caring to research the colorful life of
potter Michael Cardew. A biography, supposedly full of lurid details, is planned for
publication in 2008. The remaining family has tried unsuccessfully to expunge certain
facts but soon the world will get a peek at the complex Edwardian whose life began at the
start of the 20th century. His personal tale holds a mirror to many important issues of our
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
time and if closely examined will yield a portrait of a man of passion who kept his head
just above the roiling surf of the worlds he chose to inhabit.
My own parents were smitten by the Cardew magic. Not long after my
apprenticeship they returned to Wenford to produce a wonderful, award-winning
documentary of Michael. It is called Making a CoffeePot and features a narration written
and spoken by Michael himself. The accompanying music is a clarinet-recorder duet
performed by Michael and Seth. It is a charming and exquisite work in its own right. It
also paints a noble and dignified picture of the Cardew family. This is an example of the
reach a close network can accomplish.
When the line between friends and family begin to blur there is often an
opportunity for the most productive of all human interaction. The bond forged between
the Cardew family and the Piker family was precipitated by the extraordinary friendship
that developed between Michael Cardew and me. This original relationship was founded
on a mutual fascination with the substantive yield of a creative life. We seemed to hold
common values in the assessment of issues about Quality and Good and understood
implicitly the profundity of falling short in effort. There was no need to spell out the
subtlety of this communal understanding and in fact recognize the futility of such an
endeavor. There is an extended family that encircles those of us who travel within the
parameters of these uncharted sensibilities. Michael introduced me to the work of Robert
Pirsig and his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a tome penned to
plumb the depths of the philosophical correlation between Aesthetics and Ethics. Cardew
maintained that these concepts were fundamentally one and the same al la Wittgenstein
when in his Lecture on Ethics he quotes Professor Moore, “Ethics is the general inquiry
into what is good.” To this day I continue the search for instances of simultaneity as in
Art and Life, family and friends, time and space. The Fraternal Order includes those who
have no fear of hard work, understand the nature of challenge and sacrifice in the pursuit
of productivity, recognize the virtue of a life committed to happiness and have the
patience and fortitude to swim against the tide when it turns.
In the 35 years that my home has been the setting for both my personal and
professional life I’ve tried to blend the best of cottage industry with communal life; a
setting not unlike Cardew’s Wenford Bridge Pottery. My home is a small, colonial
farmhouse that shares the lot with several other buildings. The largest outbuilding
became the pottery workshop and housed the wheels and kilns. The workers – myself
(and family) and the student/assistants – occupied the main house communally up until
the early 1990’s when both outbuildings were renovated as domiciles for the itinerant
potters that sought me and the workshop out as a setting to continue their training to
become production potters. In an effort to remain a small enterprise I’ve eschewed
markets that would yield orders requiring me to “manage” instead of “make”. This would
have taken me into an entirely different profession and Cardew had warned that excessive
mechanization by a potter would doom the effort: “One cannot make love by proxy!” I
knew just what this meant the minute I heard it said and have resigned myself to seek
riches measured by the quality of my life as opposed to the quantity of my possessions.
As a potter and a teacher I have experienced a bounty of intimate friendships
across the 35 years in the profession. Since 1974 I’ve partnered with approximately 35
people as collaborators – teaching and being taught -- in this experiment to create a
setting sympathetic to an almost Utopian ideal. Certainly no life is perfect and the
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
realization of my model is no exception. But in retrospect there are many indications that
I didn’t fall too very short of the mark. What follows are vignettes, chronologically
presented, that examine some of the players and the complexities of their interlocking
role in the jigsaw composition of my story.
Svend Bayer
Svend Bayer looms as one of the largest figures in my life (see Essay 1).
His influence permeates almost every facet of my personality. I will never forget our first
meeting at Wenford Bridge Pottery. He was out in the kiln shed when I first arrived. I had
gone in search of him on Michael’s urging and encountered him busily preparing to pull
handles for some very large and unbelievably beautiful jars he had just made. He had
been at Wenford about a year (I’ve written about our relationship and his remarkable
prodigious progress in Essay (?)). He was just beginning to feel his way towards
mastering the ability to make very large pots using Michael’s technique of adding
sections to achieve volumes far greater than possible throwing a pot from a single lump
of clay. The pot to which he was about to attach a handle was a cider jug that was itself
inspired by a shape Michael had become identified with through his career reviving
English slipware in England. I immediately recognized it as an interpretation of the
Master’s form but endowed with an indelible personal quality. In an instant I understood
the value of this kind of learning -- apprentice, jouneyman, Master -- and took Svend’s
enthusiasm as an endorsement of the process. For all practical purposes I became his
apprentice and shadowed his every move for the next year. Unfortunately my progress
was anything but prodigious and the arc of the voyage to competence much more
circuitous. But once our friendship was cemented I looked to partner my strengths with
his as a lever to move heaven and earth in my quest to realize the dream of becoming a
David Rubenstein
In 1976 I met a couple from the Boston area that had been instructed by
their 18 year old son to investigate the Cornwall Bridge Pottery. Their boy had recently
taken a passionate interest in the art and was busily getting deeper and deeper into the
many facets of the profession while “employed” as the technician for the Radcliffe
Pottery in Cambridge. During their visit with me, his parents went on at great length
about David and the contagion he had transmitted for the kind of folk art they had
perceived at Cornwall Bridge Pottery. I suggested I stop to meet their son next visit to
Boston. I was there often because my older sister had relocated outside in Belmont
following her undergraduate years at Boston University. She and her husband were
running a fast-food restaurant called the Underdog and I loved to take time away from
Cornwall and visit them in that city full of young people and young energy. I was looking
to take on an apprentice at Cornwall Bridge and thought maybe David would be the right
person. According to his parents he would be a perfect fit so I scheduled to interview
him on the next visit to Boston to visit with my sister. My younger sister Kim was living
and working with my older sister at the time so when I set off for the meeting with David
I took her with me as company (and another pair of ears). I found David in the cavernous
halls of a basement in a large brick building owned by Harvard. He was firing a kiln I
believe and was walking around barefoot while attending to other duties. We shook
hands and began to talk. The encounter lasted about 45 minutes and I felt, based on his
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
answers to many of my questions, that he was perfect to fill the vacancy I had for an
apprentice at Cornwall Bridge. Later my sister Kim wondered aloud about my
interviewing tactics, “You made the job sound pretty miserable. But every time you told
him things like “low pay’ and ‘long hours’ and ‘lonely countryside’ he seemed to become
more convinced that this was what he wanted to do. What’s with that?” I hadn’t realized
this before but certainly this was part of joining the Order. I needed to establish that he
had what it was going to take to persevere in this thankless endeavor. Somehow my
instincts told me it was best to paint the bleak picture and see what kind of person it
would flesh out. I knew that David had the necessary moxie for the undertaking, what I
was to learn as time went on was how his precocious talents would help my fledgling
Mark Hewitt and Robert Barron
Mark Hewitt is an English potter that began his career as a Cardew
apprentice a few years following my tenure. The romantic setting and powerful legacy
that surrounded Wenford Bridge Pottery had smote him, like me. He’d been swept up in
the tales of an Englishmen that voyaged to Africa to work at times in penury in pursuit of
an ideal setting to make pots. His personal fascination compelled him to travel to the
source of Cardews African years. After his apprenticeship with Michael he traveled via
Land Rover across the Sahara Desert to Nigeria and spent time visiting Abuja Pottery. As
Mark looked to the future to cement the skills necessary to become a production potter he
sensed that he would need a workplace that had greater demand for production than the
sleepy retirement business that Wenford had become. His instincts led him to seek out
Svend Bayer who by this time (in 1978) had established a pottery with an enormous
woodfired kiln in North Devon, UK. His primary instinct was to work with Svend and
learn the tools of the trade in much the way he had been apprenticed to Cardew.
However, Svend’s vision of potmaking did not include a team producing ware but he
recommended to Mark that he write me and perhaps there might be an opportunity to sign
on to the Cornwall Bridge Pottery and thereby helping grow my vision. As has become a
signature of his success, Mark’s timing was perfect. I was indeed in search of another
assistant/apprentice having lost David Rubenstein through attrition (the 4 year mark is
something of a final threshold for an apprentice journey). Mark came to study with me on
a visitors Visa and stayed one way or another across 4 years time. In the end he married
a girl local to northwest Connecticut and the two have established residency and a pottery
with a large woodfired kiln in North Carolina. Mark has become a beacon in the world of
woodfiring potters. His level of success is legendary and the body of work produced,
with an ever-changing team of assistants also, over the 30 years he has been in Pittsboro,
North Carolina establishes him as one of the most prolific and talented studio potters of
the 20th century (in my humble opinion).
Robert Barron is an Australian that phoned from Quebec, Canada around
the time that Mark Hewitt arrived. I had recently become a party to a wildly successful
marketing phenomenon with a local nursery of some renown. White Flower Farm, one of
the country’s most successful mail-order nursery’s (founded by a writer named Bill
Harris) had decided that a flowerpot I made would be a sensible add-on for a newly
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
created forcing bulb called a Jasmine. The marketing hook was it “bloomed in the dead
of winter” and they sold 40, 000 of them for several years running. They projected that
10% of those sales would go also choose to purchase a woodfired, stoneware planter and
so they placed yearly, juicy orders for pots from “a local potter”. We were that “local
potter” and with such a large order in house for the foreseeable future I felt I would need
the help of potters eager and able to make and fire lots of pots. Robert, like Mark, hadn’t
had a lot of production experience but was keen to learn the trade and in particular work
with the large wood-fired kiln. So from about 1979 thru 1985 the pottery was staffed by a
cosmopolitan crew of potter’s from literally all over the world. Along with an Australian
and Englishman, a German came for a residency of a year or so as well. Earlier in the
1970’s I had hosted a Nigerian potter and a young Japanese potter. Cornwall Bridge was
beginning to emerge as a western extension of Cardews Wenford Bridge Pottery.
Something akin to the next generation with orders and an ever-changing staff of
energetic, youthful and committed potters. In retrospect I couldn’t be more proud of this
happenstance but at the time I recall feeling besieged by the continuously changing cast
of characters and wondering as the 1980’s came to a close if the tumult might be
deleterious to the sense of stability I had hoped to foster for my 2 young daughters.
Mark Skudlarek , Hoyt Barringer and Nancy Tighe
Mark Skudlarek was another referral from Svend Bayer. Mark had been
living and studying to become a potter in the small pottery village of La Bourne in the
southern part of France. The village of LA Bourne deserves a pottery book all to its own.
Sometimes referred to as Mashiko ( a legendary Japanese pottery village) of the Western
World it is the home of no fewer than 30 potters and their families. Many of these potters
make functional ware and fire wood-burning kilns. When Mark arrived for his interview I
was as intrigued by tales from La Bourne as anything else he had to say about his
previous experience. I knew, almost immediately that I wanted him to become part of the
Cornwall Bridge pottery team. He was friendly and direct and had (has) an inward
humility that resonates with an almost sanctified purity. He is the youngest of 9 children
born to a very hard-working farm family in central Minnesota. The years of struggle and
visceral understanding of a life of manual labor predisposes him to a potter’s life almost
genetically. He attended St Johns University in Minnesota and has a brother that is a
Catholic priest (otherwise he, himself, might have ended up joining that Order).
However, he is cosmopolitan and visionary in his professional life. He married Michael
Cardew’s granddaughter and they have established a pottery in southern Wisconsin.
Mark was at Cornwall Bridge for 3 very productive years. His name is engraved on a
plaque I’ve dubbed The Harris Bowl (in honor of William Harris: the man that founded
White Flower Farm). Mark holds the record for having made the greatest number of
these planters (434) in one weeks time.
Hoyt Barringer arrived soon after Mark Skudlarek (sometime in the mid
1980’s). Hoyt had been making pots with his girlfriend Nancy Tighe in a small Irish
village. They had established a small woodburning kiln but felt they needed more
production experience before they put down roots and established a pottery workshop.
Hoyt sought me out after hearing about Cornwall Bridge from an Irish potter. As a native
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
of Connecticut he felt his years in Europe, although full of romance and music, had left
him long on experience but short on practical skills. A stint at Cornwall Bridge was just
what we both had in mind after our meeting. As added value he brought a remarkable
musical gift. A beautiful, soft, sonorous tenor with an ability to pull out a guitar at any
moment and serenade away the days troubles. Many were the hours spent listening to
Hoyt strum and hum while downing a few refreshing Guiness beers and talking about the
joys of living in Ireland. I know that is where he longed to be but the reality of making a
living there as a potter seemed impossible. For the time being Connecticut was his focus
and shortly after his arrival his girlfriend Nancy Tighe joined the Cornwall Bridge
Pottery team also. Within a year or so they were married in a small ceremony at a local
Cornwall church. The pastor that performed the ceremony has come to be known as the
potter’s pastor for he’s married at least 3 couples that called Cornwall Bridge pottery
home for the tenure of their apprenticeship. Hoyt and Nancy left Cornwall Bridge soon
after they were married and worked helping Simon Pearce establish his workshop in
Quechee VT until they were ready to start their own workshop further up in the Northeast
Kingdom region of northern Vermont. I used to ask Hoyt if people there walked around
with bells on the ends of their shoes. It sounds like a magical place to live and work and
many fine pots were made there by Hoyt and Nancy.
Cary Hulin
In 1988 Cary Hulin and his wife Elaine came to Cornwall Bridge. Cary
had been the Head Potter at a pottery factory in Wisconsin and was the first potter I
retained that was fully trained as a thrower before he started work with me. The work in
Wisconsin was primarily a “piece-rate” position and exacted a large toll on the spiritual
value Cary placed on being a potter and living the potter’s life. This was an eye-opening
association for me and helped restore my own convictions at a time when I was
beginning to reach a low ebb in the arc of inspiration that has kept me a potter. Cary had
sought out the counsel of Cornwall Bridge Pottery. He was primarily interested in
learning the art of wood-firing but he also longed to join the potter’s community that was
becoming characteristic of those that had spent time with me in Connecticut. I was both
flattered and inspired. Surely the flattery had palliative value but the inspiration was
much more valuable for my work. With Cary came a renewal in my own belief that what
I was attempting here at Cornwall Bridge was indeed of value and reflected an important
structural difference in the potting community. We spent four extremely productive
years together and he continues to be a close friend and confidant. He is the consummate
potter to this day. He has a humility about the profession that makes his work strong and
persuasive. Whatever you do, be very careful about getting him talking because he has
volumes to tell you. If he gets in earshot of a fellow traveler you might as well get
comfortable because he relishes the exchange.
Philippe and Bela Selendy
In this same pool swim Bela and Philippe Selendy. These brothers were my
neighbors in Cornwall when as teenagers back in the middle of the 1980’s their mother
Janine drove into the driveway and basically booted them out of the car. She marched up
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
to me and suggested I utilize their boyish energy in any manor of manual labor to give
them a taste of the ennobling aspect of “working with their hands”. Ideally she would
have liked them to learn how to throw pots but their tenure – a summer vacation from
school – was too short to engage in any form of motor skill training. In essence they
became apprentices and received virtually no remuneration if my memory serves. In their
mother’s eye their reward was to become a part of the communal unit at Cornwall Bridge
Pottery and learn the art of life. I owe Janine an eternal debt of gratitude for delivering
these two extraordinary people into my orbit and me into theirs.
It is my recollection the elder (by about 18 months) Philippe began as a day
laborer first. He embraced every task, be it wood moving, bat scraping, clay preparation,
floor sweeping or the like, with a healthy and characteristic enthusiasm but quickly
understood that the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand would be to
manage a crew. So within a few days of his employ his brother Bela appeared to help
with the latest project. I remember hearing Philippe explain the intricacies of the woodmoving task to his brother. Bela, in characteristic fashion, jumped in with great
enthusiasm. In hindsight I recall thinking how very quickly Bela became extremely
proficient and how very clever it was for Philippe to concoct this graceful segue out of
one of the more brutish tasks that face a woodfiring potter. Not only was this vintage
family dynamics at work but I was seeing, for the first time in this precocious 15 year
old, the kind of intellectual wizardry that defines his present professional life as a top
litigator at a prestigious law firm in New York City. As that summer came to an end
Philippe resumed his academic life as a boarding student in a school near Boston. Bela,
on the other hand, began a career as a day student at the nearby Hotchkiss School and this
kept him available to me as an occasional wood-mover and assistant throughout his
teenage years. Although I remained very close to Philippe and the family in general the
friendship that started with Bela as a mentor relationship turned into something more like
a collaboration. As I spent more time with Bela it became clear that there was a treasure
trove of creative talents roiling within the restrictions this fancy prep school was trying to
quash. Visiting the pottery and spending time with me seemed to give him ample
opportunity to be fully engaged as a contributor based on merit rather than privilege. I
recognized that his precocious behavior was something of a millstone for him and that
given the opportunity he loved to relax, laugh and create in a playful way rather than
perform and produce prodigiously as had become the norm. And so, an unlikely (due to
our disparate ages) friendship began that has remained to this day.
His creative abilities are certainly a remarkable and defining trait. As a mere
youngster (perhaps 9 years old) he had a weekly column in the local paper called Bela’s
Mazes. The whole region knew him only as Bela. He me t weekly deadlines and
produced enough of these puzzles to compile and print a books’ worth of them that he
sold. All of this before the age of 15. When I met him in the early 1980’s he was already
a wizard with desktop computers and was writing programs to create Mazes with the
fledgling machines. When I heard about his computing prowess we devised a project to
computerize the Pottery’s growing mailing list. He managed the DBASE program
“DOMAIL” that I used for years following his heroic (and paid) efforts entering the
8000+ names into the data file. To this day I see invented names that I’m sure he entered
perhaps 20 years ago. Names like Harry Houdini or Ralph Mouth. His sense of humor
was infectious and he was a joy to have around. As his teenage years came to an end and
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
he went off to college at University of Chicago we stayed in touch across the summers. I
knew of his growing interest in the film world and the work he had been doing with his
mother and her various nonprofit projects. While he hung around the pottery we would
talk about the possibility that we might together produce a short slide show about
“making a teapot”. This went so well that we decided to enlarge the project to become a
video about the pottery itself. This short documentary went on to receive a citation at the
New York Film Festival in an albeit small category named Best Short Documentary in
the Home category. But we were excited and proud of the accomplishment and finally
created a teaching film I had wanted to do for years that would explore many of the
theories I was developing about the art of potmaking as a result of my now-decades long
career as a professional potter. When it came time for the narration Bela urged me to sit
and script the text. It was that writing that initiated my belief that perhaps I had
something useful to say as a potter. Without Bela’s prodding and friendship I never
would have presumed I was capable of that kind of organized philosophical thinking nor
the film product that followed, Fundamental’s of Throwing: The Potter’s Dynamic. The
musical score is a typical Bela solution to a problem characteristic of many small budget
films. Instead of borrowing money to use music that might be protected by ASCAP
royalty requirements Bela fired up his digital piano and composed an original score. The
music is exciting and appropriate and completely original. Yet another example of his
ability to weave a marvelous tapestry from the colorful strands that life leaves scattered
around. His life now is another example of the same genius at work. Married to a
Swedish woman he has taken up as an expat outside of Stockholm with her and their 2
children. Although he is fully fluent he has chosen to be an internet entrepreneur rather
than join the workaday Swedish world in order to be the stay at home parent and raise the
kids. His wife, a chemist that has been promoted to management status, does battle in the
marketplace as Bela sits at the controls of multiple websites built by him and designed to
generate ad revenue as a result of their popularity with web surfers. Most of these sites
are full of columns he has written – some satirically as in the case of
www.avantnews.com and others well-researched for subjects like
www.homebuilders.com or simply public interest sites that speak to a deeply entrenched
primal love of poetry like www.everypoet.com. He broke his ankle recently and spent the
first month in recuperation writing a novel. He’s got a mind that is continually engaged
and an intellect that sees no topic as too large or imposing. I was 45 years old when he
left the US to marry and take up residence in Sweden. I knew it would be a sad goodbye
but I wasn’t ready for the sense of loss his absence would create. In the few years
leading up to his departure he had become a continuous fixture in my life. It was as if I
had found the long, lost brother I had misplaced early in life. We were together a lot and
what I remember (and miss) more than anything else is all the laughter. When I see him
now it’s not long before we’re laughing again and a great comfort descends.
As luck would have it, just as Bela’s physical being vanished from my radar a
curious likeness arrived to eclipse that gaping void. Older brother Philippe, with whom I
also had developed an extreme fondness, chose, with his new bride, to buy his mother’s
share of a Cornwall property. In typical fashion Janine Selendy (Philippe and Bela’s
mother) had identified and purchased a strategically well-priced parcel in North Cornwall
and had planned an elaborately engineered passive solar dwelling that would eventually
function completely independent of the conventional power grid. In addition to thermal
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
mass storage, photovoltaic generation of electricity and very large amounts of insulation
it was going to employ a clives molstrum septic plant designed to minimize water usage
for processing household human waste. The 1500 gallon tank had been delivered to the
site and sat poised like a piece of abandoned equipment from the recent Bush I “War in
the Desert”. It was just about this time that Janine’s elaborate plan ran afoul of the
realities of budgeting and expense. Fortunately for the family, Philippe and his wife had
both been hired by a very prestigious law firm and felt they could swing the ownership of
this parcel. In hindsight this purchase was a masterful economic coup but at the time it
seemed a stretch albeit a generous and appropriate endeavor for this new couple to
undertake. They employed the talents of Cornwall’s most favored architect to take the
building to a finished condition without the burden of creating a watershed ecological
masterpiece as well. My wife and I have been the beneficiary of their vision many times
over as we’ve enjoyed hours and hours of mornings, afternoons, and evenings in the yard,
by the barbecue or around the fire enjoying life in Cornwall at its’ most comfortable and
Philippe loves to light a fire. Nothing satisfies his primal instinct more than
collecting kindling and arranging it vertically on the back wall of the fireplace and
gathering choice logs felled from trees culled from his own land in teepee fashion around
those super-dry twigs. He beams with glee as the whole pile lights and turns into a
crackling mass, certain to warm the house with both a sensuous warming and the added
value of the fulfillment of his communal responsibility. I’ve used wood to warm my
house for the last 35 years so for me the warming fires of winter long ago lost their
romantic charm. But watching and sharing as Philippe revels in the process I am
reminded how very fortunate for me that I have a friend such as this with whom I can
unabashedly revisit the simple joys of country life: deep breathing the crisp, clean air,
early morning tennis, late night ping-pong, brunch, lunch and dinner. We’ve even
implemented a ritual barefoot run in the snow on New Years Eve. Ours is a mature
friendship that includes both our wives and children as full participants in the routine of
our relationship. We all travel together and share in the inevitable roller-coaster of our
respective lives. He is my most astute collector and I swear he can smell it when there are
new pots, freshly emerged from that wood kiln of mine. Nothing excites him more than a
strong form that has been blessed by the flame. He’s got a potter’s sensibility and will
not be persuaded that there is any room for ego or whimsy when it comes to a potter and
their work. He has a sensory ability that detects artistic dishonesty as if it were a bad
odor and is a fierce supporter of the quiet battle I wage to survive as an artist. I am
humbled by his allegiance and find great motivation in his careful scrutiny and cautious
Of course I could carry on and fill volumes with anecdotal vignettes to further
detail the profound impact friends and family have had in my particular voyage. Through
the 1990’s and here into the first decade of the 21st century there are another dozen or so
student/friends that deserve some discussion. Matt Jones, Chris Giuliano, Bridget
Duxbury, Naysan McIlhargey (see Essay 6), Steve Provence, Jeff Butler (presently
rehired here and perhaps a future partner), Grace Pejouhy and Tony Arru. I think of these
relationships and the role their influence plays in shaping who we are as the defining
characteristic of our species. I’m not a particularly gregarious person but even I, in the
circumscribed and cautious world I’ve created, have hundreds of significant people who
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
have contributed to my personal saga. I will pull the shade on this window and spare you
any further voyeurism. But in the interest of full disclosure I offer this final rendering of
the potter at play. You cannot know me without knowing the role the game of tennis has
played in my voyage.
The Game of Tennis
Take a small pink ball that has a lively bounce and pings on impact and enshroud
it in a fuzzy felt. Embed a loop of rubber similar to the stitching found on a baseball and
pack three to a can sealed in a vacuum. When the top of the tube is popped a whoosh of
air rushes in to fill the void then wafts out again carrying on its current the odd but
strangely appealing smell unique to the game of tennis. Many of us that love the sport
hold these fresh, new balls up to our nose and sniff deep. Soon after, the three balls are
clutched by the thumb and fingers in a claw-like grip; dropped one at a time to detect the
unmistakable hop of a lively, unused ball. As if this weren’t enough sensuality, this
libidinous afternoon also involves the use of a paddle to strike the ball. A flat wooden
mallet would be an offense to the soft silence attending the quiet of the rubber-soled
footwear called ‘sneakers’ and inappropriate for the oft-idyllic setting bathed by beautiful
summer breezes wafting through low shrubs surrounding a well-sighted ‘court’. So the
paddle becomes a rim with a handle. The open hoop is now a netted swatting device
woven closed with thin, sturdy filaments stretched and gleaming in the midday sun. The
fuzzy, felted orb when smacked by this “strung racquet” makes a soft, popping noise as it
is launched in a direction away from the player. The bright yellow ball with its black
identifying markings make an oh so sweet cluck and begins a trajectory across a swatch
of braided rope stretched like a fisherman’s netting between the opposing players.
There is 8mm film footage taken of me as a 4 year old trying to play tennis with
my father. The racquet was as tall as I and the top of the net hovered a full foot over my
head. But it was clear even then that I wouldn’t be daunted by such trivial obstacles. My
head, heart and hands were obsessed with learning how to play and any suggestion that I
wasn’t ready to be competitive I looked upon as child abuse. My nickname as a toddler
was Rumpelstilsken and efforts to usher me off the courts often precipitated the
legendary tantrum.
I’ve always been a fairly small person. I’ve just barely managed to reach an
acceptable adult height of 5’9” (my wife insists I’m 5’8.5”). As a child I was miniscule
relative to others my age. But luckily I was endowed with a mighty hand-eye
coordination so all of the ball sports were of great interest to me. I played football and
basketball and baseball and excelled as much as any small guy could. But tennis, as an
individual sport where size gave only modest advantage, had the potential of being a
venue that I might actually achieve some real prowess. So I stayed with it although I had
very few friends that devoted any time to learning the sport. Part of my interest was that it
was a place I could hide out and thereby avoid the fiercely competetive qualities of the
world my peers and I inhabited. Throughout my childhood and into my late teenage
years I played the sport and learned the fundamentals. My father and I found it a great
place to bond and in retrospect some of my most treasured memories of him are
associated with the game. He always found a way to get tickets for “the matches” at
Forest Hills. I have great memories of watching Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
and Chuck McKinley playing on the exquisitely groomed grass courts at the West Side
Tennis Club in the days before the Open era when the American Slam event was played
at the venerable ivy-clad club in Forest Hills. We’d watch as these giants in the sport
would prevail or succumb and I’d hang on every observation and commentary my father
would proffer as to the cause of their respective success or failure. He was never so
astute as when he was opining about the merits of their game and often expanding the
moment, realizing it gave him the opportunity to give some fatherly advice by way of
metaphor. He would say, “You see Todd, he’s tired and taking a few more moments to
rest up by bouncing the ball before he serves. He’s tossing the ball up to see which way
the wind is blowing and to make sure the sun won’t shine directly in his eyes as he
serves.” Sounded like straightforward advice on the logistics of the game but looking
back I now know he was giving me insight about strategies for living in general.
The political atmosphere of the late 1960’s made me look with disappointment at
the game of tennis. What I saw were very exclusive clubs of privileged men and women
and their children and I became ashamed of my own inclusion in such a setting. I had
what now appears to be an extremely overactive awareness of the inequalities that carve
our society into have’s and have-nots and I chose to align myself as much as I could with
the have-nots. Tennis, as a game, became a casualty of this myopia and from the age of
18 until about age 25 I never picked up a racquet. When I finally rediscovered the sport I
was in desperate need of distraction and the physical benefits of aerobic activity.
Although saddened that I had lost 7 years in my progress as a player I resolved to find the
time to reconnect with the sport and have been playing continuously for the last 30 years.
For me the sport satisfies on a multiple of levels. Primarily there is great value to
be found engaging in an activity that can distract. Everyday stress and the intensity of the
workaday world require an opportunity to regenerate otherwise productivity suffers. But
even more profound is the damage that results from aging without a strategy to stave off
the inevitable changes in metabolic behavior. I’ve used the sport of tennis to provide me
with stimulation to engage physically, mentally and emotionally within the context of the
changing needs of my body, my mind and my spirit. Now that I am firmly entrenched in
middle-age I have begun to find great solace in my ability to pass along the love of the
sport as a teacher and mentor for other players. My competitive ability is compromised
by a decrease in stamina and strength but I realize that the arc of my life as a devotee of
the sport of tennis is reflective of a crescendo precipitated primarily by the aesthetic
satisfaction I find in the game. For a short period of my career I was a highly competitive
player capable of winning against most players of comparable ability. But that part of the
game, for me, has never held much value. Winning is a transitory sensation, as is losing,
and serves as a very poor motivator (unless there were some significant monetary
elements). Far more important each time I step on a court is the sensory joy that comes
from the tactile elements of this game that are unique but strangely similar in tempo,
cadence and pitch to the subtle physical satisfaction that is, for me, a defining quality of
the art of potmaking.
A good tennis player, like a good potter, values balance and grace as virtues.
Both endeavors are primarily engaged in a search for the center. The taut strings of the
racquet have a “sweet spot” in the middle of the weave. Hand, head and heart coalesce in
a sweeping motion to complete the circuitry triggered by the bounce. When the firm,
felted orb encounters the mounting momentum of the racquet reversing diametrically its’
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
trajectory there is a comforting sensation that runs throughout the body, starting in the
fingers and forearm, running up the arm across the shoulders. The ears and eyes pile on
with sweet sensorial delight; a thwack, the swat, quiet but firm a rebound like an acrobat
leaving behind the trampoline, the ball (now a bright yellow fruit) asserts itself on the
return journey. As it clears the net it’s as if the horizon has been breached and the journey
from that point on becomes an explorer’s adventure as strange and exciting new territory
is mapped. And so it goes, back and forth (often between friends and /or family) until a
lapse of concentration precipitates the rally’s end and a pause to refresh before it starts all
over again.
In my years as a potter I have met many aspiring to join the ranks. Generally
these people show great earnestness about their conviction and it would be hard to
identify a success or failure based on their resolve. Usually they understand the long
hours and guarantee of minimal remuneration. I often look to ascertain the level of
physical capacity they possess for surely those long hours will include a significant
percentage allocated to what’s referred to as “donkey work.” There will be kilns to be
built and fired, clay to be moved, sheds to be built, glazes to be mixed and bricks to be
stacked. If this person has a commitment to fire with wood there will be unfathomable
amounts of wood to be shifted. I refer to this as the “million” rule. One cannot be
admitted to the SOBP (Society of Blessed Potter’s) without completing the checklist of
basic requirements. Their portfolio of activity must include one million:
Rotations of the potter’s wheel
Bricks moved from one place to the next and back again
Glaze buckets sieved and washed
Slab (or edging) stacked and unstacked
Cone packs assembled
Pounds of clay bought, pugged, and reclaimed
Handles pulled
Feet trimmed
The list is truly never ending and a testament to a mental state so distracted by a
compulsion to produce pots that no amount of abuse will dissuade the voyage. But even
with the fulfillment of the above there remains an elusive predisposition, the absence of
which will negate all the earnestness and hard work manifested by the “Wanna Be”.
A potter suffers in the way all addicts are afflicted. In the presence of pots that are of
interest a craving for information - about the maker, the clay used, the firing technique
employed, the year made and the location and kind of kiln that it was fired in – becomes
a kind of drug. The more of this we receive the more we need to know. Every potter I
have ever known is like this about pots and it is a tell tale indication that the sorry soul
will need to make pots to ever find happiness. There is the possibility of profound
happiness within the constraints of all of the above-mentioned challenges. And lucky is
he or she that manages the courage and fortitude to persevere in the trade. Luckier still is
he or she that was born to the calling.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
I consider myself a lucky man. I have found a way to engage with the world on
my own terms in a profession that holds endless fascination for me. The only other
activity with this kind of unstructured discovery is something known as “child’s play.” I
am unabashedly proud of the fact that I have managed to spend so many years in such
self-indulgent pleasure and I have come to theorize that most adults, if given the chance,
would roll back time to the last memory of carefree frolic. For in truth this is the last
vestige of freedom for a human life devoted, from that time on, to the relentless pursuit of
wealth accumulation. It hangs like a cloud over us all. In earlier times the burden of this
workaday routine fell heaviest on the manchild. The manifestation of a career path
mentality confirms healthy testosterone levels much the way facial hair and an interest in
girls puts all at ease. Woman’s Rights has secured an entitlement to a comparable
adulthood. But from where I sit they often have traded one form of slavery for an equally
insidious variety. In fact their prize has been the opportunity to bear both the burden of
childbirth and then, piled on, the excruciating role of bringing home extra bacon. Surely
there is more significance to living than can be measured by such criteria. Indeed the
notion of employment for financial remuneration is the last frontier of slavery. As sure as
I am about the nose on my face, there will come a time in the evolution of human
consciousness that we will free us from this institution. When the shackles are removed
there will be a universal realization that human potential is most creative under
conditions of maximum play. Work will become an effort engaged in primarily as an
opportunity to be productive. Such productivity will be the cornerstone of progress and
fundamental to the survival of the human race. I know this is a Pollyanna concept for the
moment. I trust that very few of you will take this idea seriously. But history shows us
that human enslavement never prevails. The trend will always be away from anything
that undermines our basic birthright of a life of unfettered freedom. I will leave the details
of the precise configuration of a society without employees to future generations.
For now let me say for all that will listen, from my perspective a potter’s
life is a voyage of discovery. Every step of the way we are part of a learning curve that
begins the day we are born and proceeds, if we are lucky, in an uninterrupted arc through
all the stages of life. I am a prisoner to some extent, as are we all, to the fickle
requirements of a market economy and in this regard I must continually compromise to
sustain good relations with all my creditors. Loans were never a part of my sandbox
focus. But occasionally there is a patch of smooth, uninterrupted concentration. Anxiety
falls away and I can return to the essence of this trip. I sense consciousness as a
continual spiral that spins around me regardless of other worldly distractions. My secret,
gleaned from years of studying things that spin, is if you can time it right there will be a
moment to jump on for a ride. But look for the spiral; it’s the circle that’s spinning a
thread upward. It’s impossible to ride it without pause and if you don’t hang tight and
concentrate there is the danger of slippage and when you alight you might find yourself
below the spot you first grabbed hold. But that’s the beauty. As long as you stay alert
and centered within its sweep there will be another opportunity to ride the wave. And
next time you will release your grasp only after you’ve found your footing in a land that’s
new, where the scenery is fresh, the challenges invigorating. This place will be higher
than any other you’ve ever seen because that’s the nature of spirals. They go upward and
outward forever and always.
Todd Piker
A Potter’s Perspective: The Learning Curve
Was this manual useful for you? yes no
Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the work of artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Download PDF