Been thinking about Will Mattox today. He's responsible, as much as anyone on this random walk my life's taken, for the fact that I'm a potter today.
You see, I thought I was going to be a professor
I'd been a hobby potter after college--bought a used wheel and electric kiln, traded glaze mixing and recycling for studio time and gas firing at Viterbo. Ceramics rapidly took over all my attention and all my free time. Eventually, when my day job--graphic artist at a printing company--started getting in the way of my hobby, I decided it had to go. I applied to graduate schools for ceramics, was eventually accepted to the University of Oregon. I planned to get my MFA and teach, like my professor before me, like pretty much every other potter I knew in Wisconsin. I didn't know there was any other option.
And I did teach, for 10 years, part-time as resident potter at the UO Craft Center. I sent out a zillion résumés and slide sheets, applied for teaching positions all over the country. I even interviewed for a couple of jobs, flew out to Nebraska for one. But full-time teaching remained elusive.
And a part-time salary just didn't cut it. So I washed dishes. Answered phones during Christmas rush for Harry and David. Then a former student of mine, Becky Bruecker, introduced me to Will.
He had a studio, Slippery Bank Pottery, out in the woods west of Junction City. Five employees, all women, who slip cast and loaded kilns and glazed for him. He did the designs, the throwing, and decorating the more elaborate patterns. Sold retail at craft fairs, wholesale as well. He'd just signed a deal with a mail-order catalog to supply hummingbird feeders, and the demand was more than he could handle solo, so he needed someone to throw for him.
Becky had done a few, but didn't enjoy the work, or the volume, so she recommended me.
There's something to be said for on-the-job training. Will paid 75¢ for feeders good enough to sell at home, 90¢ for catalog-ready. I very quickly got them all to first quality. Then I learned how to scribe and inlay the hummingbird pattern and deliver them bisqued, doubling the price to $1.80. Then
I learned to throw them fast enough to leave time for my own work--and teaching--as well.
Nine dozen hummingbird feeders a week was about what I needed to make up the gap between my bills and my Craft Center salary. When he had enough hummingbird feeders, I made mugs. French butter dishes, egg separators, mini-pies, spoon rests. I designed and threw a new form for holding margarine tubs, and spent a winter recasting all his plaster casserole molds.
Then, at the end of December 1992, he laid me off.
The back room at Slippery Bank was full of bisque. Every 2-lb. and under pot in his line was well-stocked. I could have kept working if I was willing to drive out to Cheshire and throw plates, but I couldn't see doing that. Instead, I spent the rest of the winter working on my own pots, and in April 1993, opened Off Center Ceramics.
So I owe a lot to Will. While I learned to throw at Viterbo, I learned to be fast, efficient and consistent working for him. But I learned more.
When I got out of college, pottery was a hobby. In grad school, it became a discipline. Will taught me it could be a business.
I didn't follow in his footsteps. A lot of my early pots were in reaction to his work as much as influenced by it. I learned a bunch about being professional from him, but even more making my own mistakes with Market, with galleries, craft fairs. When Will retired from pottery in the mid-1990s, he tried to interest me in buying Slippery Bank, but I didn't want to go that direction. I'm still a one-man shop. But I don't think I'd be supporting myself with ceramics at all if it hadn't been for his example.
Tomorrow would have been Will's 65th birthday; he died of cancer November 6. Oddly enough, I don't have any of his pots; just a ton of memories.