Thoughts about Pottery

Yesterday evening, I strolled (by myself, itself a rare treat in the dinner/bedtime zone) downtown to see the Mark Shapiro, Maya Machlin, Michael McCarthy, Daniel Garretston; The Apprentice System: Stonepool Pottery show at the Artisan Gallery. I'd been speaking to a couple of the potters featured in the show–Mark Shapiro and Michael McCarthy–over the phone for a story I'm working on for Preview Massachusetts (the story's about a wonderful potters' tour, the Hilltown 6; the story will be in the magazine's July issue and the tour is July 25th and 26th, and you'll have to find the magazine story at a gallery, museum, restaurant or market–no online link yet available). Mark Shapiro and I were talking about how people relate to pottery. Some admire it; others live with it; still others seriously collect it.

In this Valley, filled with potters making work that has strong national profiles, more of us should be–I think–putting ourselves into that latter collector category. Why do I think this? Obviously, first off, because there's so much beautiful work to care about. Secondly, I have a longstanding attachment to potters and their work. Writing for Preview Massachusetts, I have enjoyed writing about potters immensely. They seem to me to be, to a one, great storytellers. I'm in that second category: I live–very happily–with a lot of pottery. When I moved into my first house in Northampton (over twenty years ago), I stocked my shelves with Kaleidoscope pottery, then made by Kathy Hibsham and Barry Schecther and next by Christy and Pete Knox (I did a story about Kaleidoscope for Preview, now owned and created by Evelyn Snyder). Our wedding registry had some requisite kitchen stuff, but was largely ceramics (and antique silver). The silver, we can never quite figure out how to use, but the ceramics come into play often, especially when we have people over for meals. And besides having a number of bowls and platters by her, we have tiles in our bathroom by Hadley artist Donna McGee. Thirdly, collecting pottery is not out-of-reach pricey the way collecting some other art forms can be.

Before I go further, I started writing this to say: go to the Artisan Gallery and see this show. It's a real treat.

The funny story last night was seeing Michael McCarthy's work (some of which I'm familiar with from seeing in shows–and obviously in the last couple of weeks while writing my story, I was looking at images of his work). However, there, in front of me was a platter I recognized from my house. And it wasn't just any old platter, either. It resembled our beloved fruit platter, a gift we received from our friends Oona Coy and Ben James (of Northampton's Town Farm and Tuesday Market) to thank us for hosting their wedding reception, was it maybe five years and one-and-a-half kids ago? This week, my just-turned-eleven year-old pulled something from the microwave oven while I was tucking his six-year-old brother into bed. Somehow, and apparently quite spectacularly, the glass tray fell from the machine and shattered on the floor bringing the fruit platter along with it. The ceramic platter did not shatter. Two big chomps came out of it, though. For now, we turned it around to have most of a fruit platter. I was sad, though, because I love that platter. It's stony grey ringed with terra cotta, a generous and simple piece of pottery that holds a lot of fruit. The platter then looks really lovely as the fruit disappears and the piece of pottery is again revealed. I peered on the bottom of the platter for a name, but it was unsigned. I'd been meaning to call or email or wait till Tuesday Market to ask Oona and Ben if either of them knew who made it, because despite a recession-motivated major tightening of the household budget, I am determined to replace my beloved platter. And then there it was. I was happy to share the sad news and the happy discovery with Michael McCarthy. Once I sort through the finances, I now know I can easily procure my replacement.

I woke up this morning thinking about two things pottery-related. The first, is, when you love and live with pottery, things break. That's the nature of ceramics (and the nature most especially of living with ceramics with kids). This has actually been the year I've become easier about this truism. A few favored items broke this year. One was not a handmade piece, but a very good pale green bowl, the largest of a three-bowl set. It was just one of my favored mixing bowl, a fetching pale green (think, yellowish hue not blue). Fortunately, the mid-sized bowl endures (my favorite dinner salad bowl) and so does the smallest (Lucien, my eleven-year-old loves this for salad, and Hosie, my husband, for rice). A small, white porcelain bowl made my Cambridge potter Terry Hass (mother of my pal Rachel) was tossed to an unceremonious end by Saskia (which reminded Kathryn, babysitting at that moment, why we keep a large stash of plastic bowls). Terry's work changes continually, so I am guessing I'll have no happy McCarthy endings here. Fortunately, I have a number of cherished Terry Hass items that are holding up just fine, including celadon tea mugs (which were a wedding present from Rachel and John; my favorite has a tiny rust colored mark on it–we have two) and two bowls made more recently, which I cannot stop using (I will wash separately to use again before a dishwasher run). The last two years, I've given Hosie some replacement Kaleidoscope pottery for his birthday, because, things break. It's fun to fill in the missing pieces with new favorites. Because, in part, of the kids, we don't only live with handmade ceramics; we do have a pile of cheaper rice bowls (which also, periodically, break).

The broken pottery thought made me think about how I really struggled–for a couple of days–when one of my two individual bowls by Allentown pottery Raymond Gallucci. Besides the two small bowls, I have a matching serving bowl. They are simple: a grey glaze, unadorned (this link to a vase, just gives a sense of his work). Gallucci, well regarded in my hometown and a graduate of Tyler art school's MFA program, died a few years ago (small obit in the class notes section of that link). I got them when I was sixteen and worked at a crafts store in Philadelphia (in Chestnut Hill) called The Little Nook. I decided I was going to work there when I was ten (and did, from sixteen till I left for college). That work experience merits its own essay. But I remember thinking to myself that most sixteen year-olds did not collect pottery. Maybe, I fall in between the people who love living with pottery and the collectors.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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