On Disappointment

Disappointments in life are inevitable and very much so in the pottery making business.
I was resisting writing this post because I want to appear as if my life is going perfectly smoothly
But I know everyone out there has suffered some sort of disappointment.
When I’m teaching, I always give a little speech to my adult students on the first day of class about losing a piece they’ve worked on.  I tell them children don’t seem to mind if what they make falls apart. They value the process over the product. They are much better at staying in the moment, having fun  and not worrying about “wasting their time.” I tell the adults, Please remember that you had fun while you were making it”.
I joke that the only reason I sell pots is so I can have an excuse to make some more. I love the act of making.
As many of you know, I recently moved to Minnesota. I have been warmly and generously welcomed into the pottery community here and almost immediately found ways to fire my work  -which was the chief problem I had to surmount because I do not  (yet) have my own gas kiln.
Once I knew I could fire, I began making work and mixing glaze and, over  a recent past weekend, glazed, loaded and helped to fire all my work (85 pieces) in a cone 10 gas reduction fire. Everything I’d made to date went into that kiln. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket! 
I will admit I was utterly spoiled at Lill. They fire off a glaze kiln as often as once or even twice a week. My work went through as I made it and if there was a bad firing (um… never?) I would have lost, at most, 15 pieces. Glaze tests could be run through whenever; this is the beauty of a really large group sharing  kilns.
So there I was with my Shaner Clear (which had been sort of tested in a soda kiln and in it, had formed crystals due, we thought, to the way the kiln cooled) and another (untested!!) clear; the recipe for which had been given to me by a new potter friend here.
I glazed about 2/3rds in the Shaner which was my old dependable from Lill and the rest in the new clear of which I had a smaller volume.
Fast forward to the  morning after the firing when even a look through the peep set off alarm bells in my head. Sure enough, after we unbricked the door, it became clear that the Shaner’s had formed crystals again, obliterating  my carefully carved designs on about a third of the work. 
I did not give vent to my feelings. I was with other potters and I was damned if I’d make them uncomfortable by indulging myself. The extent of my emotional reaction was some choice swearwords were muttered into the back of the kiln.
As I unloaded, I told myself the things that I’ve thought of to help with pottery disappointments. But I wasn’t really paying attention to that mantra which goes something like this:
You had fun making these things. This is a learning experience.  Thank goodness a third is in the other clear which looks great! It’s not a pot until it’s safely out of the glaze kiln. Think how much you learned today. You had fun making these things….
I felt heavy, I felt sad. I had so much hope for certain pieces. I had gotten a bit attached to several promising things. It was hard to see them ruined. 
Once home I took the time to sort and assess exactly the extent of the damage. I felt a huge gratitude to this friend who had pushed the other recipe on me. Those pieces has come out absolutely pristine.   I plan to use that glaze in the future. Goodbye Shaner’s clear. Good riddance.
I sorted things and found it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d thought.
Comparison between the Shaners (below) and the new Clear (above)
Later, in my studio again and carving another piece, I was suddenly struck with tremendous joy.
I love carving. I am  usually in “flow” * when I am carving or working in my studio. I don’t feel tired when I am working with clay.
The whole “you were happy when you were making these pieces” part of my mantra suddenly became vividly real at that moment to me.
I am happy. I am so lucky to be able to do this.
I guess my life is perfect after all.

Milkhouse Studio

As many of you who have read my blog in the past know, I recently moved from the city of Chicago to the countryside in Minnesota.

The first practical consideration of moving to become a “country” potter was: Where would I make pottery? And the place I thought of  right away was my grandfather’s old milkhouse on the family farm where my mother is living. I asked my mother if that would be okay and, as it was not in use, and had last been used as a chicken coop, she thought it was a fine idea.

It had what we needed: electricity and [cold] running water. It also had a lot of good memories for me. I feel so lucky to have known my grandfather for almost 40 years. He was a dairy farmer. I always took for granted that what he did was a natural outgrowth of living. Now I know that is life on a farm. He worked outside; he worked with living things.

Let me take you to a place I love, the milkhouse 40 years ago. Imagine for a moment these sounds and smells: the radio is playing, you can hear it over the rhythmic chugging of the milking machine and occasional lowing of the cows. Floury dust from the grain chutes floats in the path of sunbeams. You can hear the cows chewing and blowing into their grain. My grandpa is here. He’s here twice a day; moving purposefully, efficiently even lovingly around the milk house, milking his cows.

Patiently, he teaches me how to wash the cow’s udder and how to milk, filling up a little pan with warm frothy milk which I always drink. He lets me pull the line to send a portion of grain down to the waiting cow. I marvel at the fascinating system of ropes and pulleys, and weights he uses to open and close doors, gates, troughs and I am thrilled to be able to see the milk flow through the clear pipes which turn and weave through the ropes and rails and cows until they disappear through the wall and reappear in an even more fantastic tangle of floating balls and glass jars in the next room.

It was a wonderful magical place. I loved spending time there with grandpa. I can always find him here, whether it is the end of a long summer’s day when the buzzing of flies and the swishing of cows’ tails adds to the mélange of sounds or it is predawn on a cold winter’s morn, the waiting cows’ breath rising up, visible as I run past them into the steamy warmth and noise and light of the milk house…

There it is in the background (left) of me with my happy family carrying milk!

So you can imagine that I would love to spend my day there filled with warm memories, surrounded by greenery and the farm my grandfather created. A wonderful place to make things.

Last year, before we moved, I brought up my kiln and wheel and a few supplies on a spring trip to Minnesota so they would be out of the way and ready for me when we arrived.

2 months ago, as soon as we got settled in, my husband and I began to make the milkhouse usable for me. We moved out all the old bits left over from when it was a chicken coop, nesting boxes, etc. Machinery stored there was taken away and then we began to clean, scrubbing the walls, and floor. I removed chicken wire from over the windows and washed the grime from them to let in light. There was a temporary enclosure of paneling that had been put up to protect something and when we removed that we were delighted to find 2 sinks and a lot of the original machinery my grandfather had installed in his super-modern milkhouse. My favorite are the glass pipes in which, you could see the milk flowing. I love having that on the wall and using the sink he used.

We also worked to clear a huge amount of brush from around the building. Many brambles had grown up around it and wild grape had begun to take over the upper reaches.Quite a few volunteer weed trees were also taken down. Here is how the milkhouse looked on  previous visits:And here it is after we cleared around it.  

You can see the huge pile of brush and grapevine that we cleared in the bottom right of the photo. And it looks even better now!

I could feel the light and energy begin to flow much better in and around the building. I had planned to make a list of all the areas I needed (I am heavily influenced by Emily Murphy and her post about her wonderful studio) but I have less space and since I really don’t want to change anything about the building or permanently install anything because it is still, at its heart, my grandfather’s milkhouse, I am more constrained. Things evolved a bit more organically.

As things were made and moved in; the table went in the middle, the wheel went by the east window since I usually like to throw in the morning with the light coming in.Yes, that’s an old swallow’s nest in the upper left of the photo and the chair is salvaged from a shed.

My carving area is often outside but for rainy (or mosquito-y days) we found an old wooden ironing board in the garbage and made it into a counter by the west window for carving in the afternoon light. Shelves were fit in where we could . My grandfather’s area where he kept track of his cows and which ones he was breeding with what prize-winning bull is my area to track my calendar and production. His cupboard where he kept iodine and bovine medicines is where I have my slip and wax and colorants. I do not really have enough room to have a separate  packing area or a photo area or a glaze-mixing area- as much as I would love to have those but they can all be done in the general studio area.

My husband built me a beautiful table and we covered it with canvas. The clay is stored under the table in a built in area. Until I could get my box of studio supplies that the movers buried in the middle of our storage unit, I went to the junk store in search of a few supplies: a plastic lazy susan to use as a makeshift banding wheel when I carve as well as a rolling pin, some molds etc.

Another day was spent trying to refurbish a huge kickwheel friends had lent/given us. That resulted in a much better understanding of kickwheels, how ridiculously heavy they are and why we wouldn’t be able to really get this one working very well.

A friend of my mother’s generously donated a dresser, some shelves and a comfy arm chair;a quick trip up to Minneapolis to Continental Clay where they were wonderfully helpful and I was ready to go!

Further work has been done- the area where the cows used to get milkednow has juvenile chicks in it. I chose all black and white chickens for inspiration!

The small interior area is more than made up for by having a lot of area outside to develop!

On one side of the milkhouse is a slab where the cows used to wait to come in. The fence around it is all rotted and gone but we shoveled the dirt off it and pulled out the small bushes that had grown up in it and made a little patio area. To the north I’ve put in a couple of flower beds and much of the dead wood was set aside for firewood in the winter.

My mother gave me her old wood stove for this coming fall and winter. We will need to put in a good stove pipe (there is one but I don’t trust it). I really look forward to going out there and building a fire in the morning and making it cozy. I’ll let you know how I feel about that when it’s 20 below zero!

In the course of this journey found out my kiln needs much more power than the little milkhouse is wired for. We had an electrician out I learned a little bit about amps and panels and mostly that we can’t afford to upgrade the power to the milkhouse. Instead, I feel very lucky to have the Arts Guild in town which will allows members to bisk their work for a small fee and also that several potters in the area do a group firing of cone 10 reduction kiln! So my current firing needs can be met until we decide how we want to tackle the “kiln problem” which is as much a creative choice as it is a financial and technical one. By creative I mean, what kind of firing do I want to do? Electric oxidation? Wood, soda or gas?

So here I am, 2 months into our big change-of-life, I’ve got about 50 pots made and often, as I stride across the farm yard, I flash on my youth, my many crossings and journeys across this particular space in time; my path only dictated by buildings now missing or inhabited by my grandfather and his cows in that time instead of me and my pots now. The milkhouse seems so happy to have purpose or perhaps to contain purpose again; to be used and inhabited by a human and animals (the chickens) certainly it is now my place of work, of creating. I hope my clay dust will not obliterate the slightly milky smell it still has.

Since she passed away, I have often thought of my grandmother, I always carry her with me, as she was the embodiment of home life, kitchen doings and indoor games. She is portable and home tasks and crockery evoke her. But grandpa is of this place; of these fields of driving a tractor under this huge sky and the crops and the pastures. It is he who I envision walking across the space out back, carrying 2 bales of hay, strong and patient. I love being here. I love honoring both of my grandparents with hard work, patience, with just the sheer joy of the beauty of this place and the pleasure of existence that comes from purpose and gratitude.