Deep dive

Apr. 10th, 2019 10:56 am
offcntr: (window bear)
I spent most of firing day yesterday cleaning my studio space. I've got a semi-private room, a step up from the main space, but also the hallway from studio to kitchen area. I like it because it includes two big shelf units, but... it includes two big shelf units.

One of them is readily accessible, and holds work fresh from the kiln, glazed pots being held over for the next firing, a constantly revolving array of work-in-progress and work bound for home and sale. The other is tucked in an alcove, hard to move ware boards in and out of, and tends to just accumulate... stuff. It's like an attic, or the back of the hall closet. You never know what's in there, or how long it's been.

So I put on my dust mask, because the amount of air-born clay you can accumulate over time is frightening, got a sponge and a bucket, and had at it.

The first thing I discovered was I could tell how long it had been. I found blank inventory sheets dated 2001 on the top shelf, among other things, suggesting that the entire side had been little disturbed since I took over the space from Corey and Kelly back about then. I also found silkscreens and ink, and a box of Off Center Ceramics t-shirts from an ill-fated attempt to expand into the "I'm traveling and can't take back anything fragile" market. I think I only ever sold two, one rooster and one cat. This was a box of a couple dozen cats shirts, screen-printed, but without the hand-coloring that differentiated a yellow tiger from a brown-point siamese. They were also weirdly mottled in spots. Apparently, newsprint contains enough traces of bleach that it can take out the color of a yellow shirt where it touches.

I donated the silkscreens to Maude Kerns; they're restarting their printmaking classes this spring. The ink and fabric paints went in the dumpster, the shirts will mostly go to Goodwill, except for a few Denise kept back to wear. Anyone want one? I've got medium, large, and extra-large.

I also found a variety of broken bisque, test tiles, and old magazines, dumpster-bound. A pasta bowl with scarred rim, kept because it heroically gave its life to hold up the shelves when a kiln post failed. Some books that, after dusting, will come home to my studio collection. A couple of burnished, pit-fired pots from an earlier series of work than never really found an audience. And a bunch of small sculptures.

I used to teach hand building and sculpture, both at the UO Craft Center and later, at Club Mud. I didn't keep all of my demos, but I did keep some, which is how I wound up with:

1. A goose with a mustache, double chin and work boots. ("Self-portrait as an animal of your choice.")
2. A nude torso, self-portrait with bar of soap. ("Make a nontraditional gargoyle, modeled solid and and hollowed.")
3. This rather nice primitive ram sculpture, pit-fired. ("Seal two pinch pots together and build a hollow sculpture from them.)

Not sure what to do with all this stuff; I keep thinking I'll put the gargoyle on a downspout when I eventually build a kiln and its enclosure. For now, I've just cleaned everything off and consolidated them on a single shelf. I've still got half a dozen shelves to go through, and a few ideas about re-organizing the space to make it more accessible, possibly paint the raw wood. We did that on the front half a few years ago, and it really brightened up the space.

Maybe in another 20 years.
offcntr: (radiobear)
Before I moved to Oregon, I worked as a graphic artist in a four-color print shop, La Crosse Printing Company. This was pre-digital photography, pre-flatbed scanner, just barely at the beginning of laser color separation. The latter required a large-format color transparency (4x5", typically), which was wrapped around a transparent tube, using mineral oil to be sure there were no bubbles or gaps between film and tube. The tube then spun very fast while a laser read the colors and recorded them as digital data, which could then be used to produce the color separation negatives.

This has nothing to do with pottery.

What does have to do with pottery is that, since we did so much four-color printing, especially for the local brewery, we needed a studio photographer in-house to shoot products, largely beer cans, though occasionally air conditioning units. (One of our other regular clients was Trane Company). When he wasn't working for the printers, he did his own free-lance work, and practiced at improving his skills.

Which is how he came to take all my slides for graduate school applications. I'd taken some of my own pictures previously, using tungsten film and what back-drop and lights I could cobble together, but Brad had a professional set-up, and shot my slides in return for (if I remember correctly) a set of four beer mugs.

Looking back on those slides, I suspect he's at least half responsible for my getting into graduate school. Certainly, the pots themselves were not all that strong, at least to my forty-years-later eye. There's promise there, but I had a long way to go.

Case in point: two teapots, both decorated with elephants, one professionally shot circa 1984, the other snapped with my phone cam on the shelf of my Holiday Market booth yesterday.

The current one could still use a little work--spout could be shorter, and I want to put the elephant painting on the other side next time, so the trunk runs up the spout. But I, at least, can see the years of practice and improvement.
offcntr: (Default)
Among the photos found in boxes buried was a black-and-white series from my graduate school days, recording an Advanced Ceramics class clay mix. We'd begin by dry-mixing hundreds of pounds of clay and minerals on a table-top in a 2x6 frame. Afterwards, we'd add blunged, screened slip from the recycle buckets, mix by hand, knead into a solid mass, then run it through the pug mill. In a three-hour class, we'd mix up a ton-and-a-half of clay, with time to clean up the shop and pose for a group picture at the end.

In retrospect, it was horribly unsafe. All that silica-bearing dust in the air, and us in cheap, disposable dust masks. (Even worse for those of us with beards, as dust-laden air gets in around the edges of the mask.) But it was a great team-building exercise; we had a read feeling of accomplishment, knowing we'd made the entire term's supply of clay in that three-hour class.

First add the dry ingredients, fifty-pound bags of fireclay (Greenstripe, Lincoln), ball clay (OM4, I think), Custer feldspar and talc as body fluxes. Possibly some silica, too, I'm not sure at this late date what went into a cone 6 stoneware. Then add the glop, five-gallon buckets of recycled clay slip.

Afterwards, it's like making egg noodles from scratch, everybody makes a well in the flour, pulls in some egg, mixes and kneads.

Lumpy, uneven balls of clay get rolled in more dry mix and run through the pug mill, then bagged for aging and eventual use.

Last of all, clean up and try not to look too exhausted for the group photo.

Time travel

Dec. 6th, 2018 02:02 pm
offcntr: (live 1)
In the day or two between the madness that was--glazing and loading and firing--and the madness that will be--unloading and sorting and an early morning trip to Olympia--I've been sorting through boxes. Old boxes, put in storage back in 2000 when we moved to this house. I've been finding lots of stuff to throw away, a fair bit to shred (tax forms from way, way back)... and some that's really kinda cool.

Like photos.

Here, for instance, is the earliest extant photo of Off Center Ceramics, circa 1993. Yup, our first year at Saturday Market, before we got a reserve booth, sharing a space (and points) with Kathy Lee, whose business, Useful Pots, provided the original of what later became the Off Center bear.

Contrary to Eugene-fueled preconceptions, that's not a bong I'm holding. It's a form of ocarina, an eight-note whistle, though as this one has one large sound hole rather than eight small ones, it's played by your palm, allowing all sorts of cool slides and partial notes.

I'm sort of appalled by how few pots I actually have in the booth, though I do see a stack of pie plates, dinner plates, banks and cookie jars. Plus some things I don't make any more, like an orange juice squeezer and a long oval fish baker. And the whistles.
offcntr: (maggie)

Reposted from

It seems like only yesterday.

We'd started the new year with me being laid off. I still had my very part-time teaching salary from the UO Craft Center, but the extra income I got throwing pots for another studio had dried up. The back room at Slippery Bank was full of bisque. Unless I could come out to Cheshire to throw plates, they'd call me in six months. Maybe.

Denise had picked up some money--along with a case of bronchitis--working the holiday rush answering phones for Harry and David, but though that might get us through spring, it wouldn't stretch much farther. So it was that I took a huge chance: I mailed off my membership to the Eugene Saturday Market, and started making pots to sell.

It was rough, at the start. We shared a booth with fellow potter Kathy Lee, who already had priority points from selling the previous year, so usually got a space. But we moved a lot, a different space every week. Eventually we collected enough points to start getting the same space consistently, but the sales were never consistent, nor predictable. There were weekends when both we and she got skunked.

But we were learning. What sold, what didn't. How to grow a customer base, manage a business. We went at it completely bass-ackward, no business plan, no marketing strategy, no nothing. Just made pots. Tried to sell pots. Made different pots. Gave out a zillion business cards.

Rinse, repeat.

Our first Holiday Market was a revelation; people were buying things. They'd been looking all summer, now they came back with their wallets open. I was playing catch-up making pots all that December. But Denise didn't have to risk life and lung working for Harry and David, and we were able to save enough money to last until April, when the Market opened again.

Eventually, I started applying to out-of-town shows. Started a website. Got some galleries, that promptly went out of business. Got some other galleries, some of which didn't. Even did a wedding registry, a couple of times. Took some interesting commissions.

This April marks our 25th anniversary selling pottery as Off Center Ceramics. (Pulp Romances got started a year or two later.) Twenty-five years of making pots, selling pots, meeting people and sharing their stories. We've been at this long enough to have produced family heirlooms. Been lost in the divorce (our pots, that is. Denise and I are looking at our 27th anniversary in June). Showed up in the Goodwill, more than once. It's been a heck of a ride.

And it's not ending anytime soon. I've already applied for this year's shows, started getting my notifications back. Fired the kiln already this year, and am working to fill it again. I just ordered another ton of clay.

Thanks to all of you for staying with us for all these years. We're looking forward to the next twenty-five...


offcntr: (rocket)
I was talking to one of Denise's friends at last week's book arts meeting (Denise was halfway through cataract surgery, so I got to drive). Turns out Elizabeth is taking throwing classes at Lane Community College, and enjoying it greatly, after a fairly shaky start. We commiserated about the challenges of learning to center (it took me the better part of a semester-and-a-half), talked about our favorite forms, and I showed her a few pics of my work on the phone.

I think we have one of your bowls, she said. It has a raccoon on it. We bought it for my father-in-law, who used to feed them in his yard. 

I allow as how it might very well be mine, though might also have been by Gordon Ward, another potter who used to make painted-animal pots in Eugene in the eighties and nineties. She says they inherited it when he died, and offers to send me a photo.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the heirloom Off Center Raccoon Bowl. It's definitely one of mine, though old. The rim isn't quite in my oldest version--it has a spiral cut into it, but it doesn't have the radial marks I added later. And the raccoon is posed completely differently than its modern counterpart. I think it's actually inspired by a quick watercolor sketch I did of raccoons in our carport (they used to come in after dark to clean up the spilled kibble left by the outdoor cats). Later pattern evolved from photos I took of the self-same bandits.

offcntr: (rocket)
Many years ago, I taught for a couple of summers at a camp in Connecticut called Buck's Rock. They were a pretty amazing place, focussing on visual and performing arts. Performance options included band, orchestra, choir; drama and clowning; there was a radio station and a computer shop. They had a garden, and a farm--complete with a pregnant heifer, guaranteed to calve sometime during the session. They had shops for silkscreen, batik, fibers; intaglio and letterpress printing; painting, drawing, sculpting (with bronze casting), woodworking, ceramics, and hot glass.

Let me repeat that, for emphasis. They had glassblowing for 8 to 17-year-olds.

I was in ceramics, of course, shop head my second year. But I played around. I joined the choir for the first half of the summer, making up the entirety of the tenor section. Batiked a bandana in pattern of holsteins on fields of green. Printed some cards on the letterpress, using a block I made from bisqued clay. And I wanted to try glassblowing.

wanted to try glassblowing.

The shop only had two adult counselors (plus a seventeen-year-old junior counselor and a couple of fourteen-year-old counselors-in-training), with two work-stations--bench, glory hole, marveling table--so it was more-or-less in constant use by the campers, JC and CIT's. While all the rest of the counselors looked on with longing.

Gus and Steve were saints. After working all day teaching kids and adolescents, and keeping them from setting themselves on fire, they came back to the shop after put-to-bed to do their own work. They didn't have to offer lessons to the rest of us at night, but they did. What with the level of demand, we basically got one chance per summer. My first year, I brought home a shot glass. The second year, I made a little squared-globe vase about the size of a baseball.

Glass-blowing was equal parts familiar and foreign, fascinating and terrifying. I very quickly noted similarities to throwing. Heat was analogous to moisture: wet(hot) objects are softer; dry(chill) your piece to make it firmer. You rotate your piece to address all parts uniformly, though the axis of rotation is horizontal, not vertical. Apply and remove force gradually, no abrupt changes. And gravity is always the enemy.

On the other hand, you rotate the piece back and forth, unlike on the wheel. And you form your pot from the inside, with air pressure, then turn it upside down on the punty to shape and finished the lip.

Now fast-forward 26 years.

Denise and I have a tradition, for Valentines Day: we do an art project. We've made mono prints and woodcuts, bound books and made tiles and pulled paper. This year, we blew glass.

Valentines Day was really awkwardly timed this year. February 14 also happened to be Ash Wednesday, so chocolate and fancy dinner were kinda out. The following weekend had a federal holiday, though. Presidents Day gave Denise a three-day weekend, so we went down to the coast for the weekend.

The weather was terrible: rain, sleet, even snow. So we looked for things to do indoors: galleries, bead stores, the aquarium. And I found a glass studio that offered lessons.

Oregon Coast Glassworks is located just as you enter Newport on US 20 from Corvallis. It's an unassuming little blue shed-like structure, with gallery in front, hot shop in back that's about the same size as at Buck's Rock, space for two people blowing, with a little extra room for spectators.

We arrived right at opening Saturday, and got lucky. You normally need a reservation, but they hustled us in before their first scheduled lessons. We each chose a form to make, and a color scheme. The teachers did the initial gather, then showed us how to pick up the bits of colored glass on the marver. We held the pipe and glass in the glory hole, rotating back and forth until it was well melted, twisted the glass on the table, introducing a spiral to the colored bits. The very tip of the gather was pinched off, leaving a bright marble in the scrap bucket, then additional eddies were introduced by twisting the surface with needle-nosed pliers. After another trip to the glory hole, the glass is forced away from the pipe by the edge of the table, then rounded off in the block, a water-soaked wooden cup.

The instructor introduced the first bubble, a quick puff of air trapped in the blowpipe by their thumb on the mouthpiece. Expansion of the air by heat forces it out into the glass. Afterwards, they attached a hose to the mouthpiece, allowing us to inflate the glass while they slowly rotated the pipe to keep the piece on center.

Lastly, the instructor chills the glass at the end of the pipe with a cold file, then separates it with a brisk tap. A dollop of hot glass seals off the end, making a hanging loop (on mine) or a base (for Denise's). Then the piece goes in the annealing oven to slowly cool overnight, for pick-up the next morning.

I didn't get any pictures of Denise working, as I was busy on my own project. Which blew out coming out of the glory hole; apparently the violet opal glass is weaker than the blue and I had too much in one place. A second attempt with a more even distribution of color was much more successful. Denise, bless her, got my phone out to take some pictures, even catching a little bit of video of the pinching and twisting process.


Jan. 23rd, 2018 09:14 pm
offcntr: (maggie)
Reposted from, January 22, 2018.
variety pack

It's a new year, and that means back to the studio for me. I'm at the wheel today throwing odd lots: six small covered crocks, six honey jars, six cream pitchers. Two tumblers, four stick butter dishes. It's a big change from yesterday, when I was all about the production: 28 soup bowls, 20 more for the Empty Bowls sale. Two days before it was twenty tall mugs and two dozen painted ones.

It's still slightly amazing how easy throwing comes after all these years. It certainly didn't start that way.

I was a terrible pottery student. Oh, I loved the clay, worked hard at it, but I Could. Not. Center. I braced and I pushed and I wore the lump down to a nubbin and still, when I opened the hole, it was off-center. (No, that's not where my business name came from; that's a story for another time.)

I drove myself crazy. I drove my instructor crazy. She finally made me get off the wheel, go back to hand-building for the rest of the term. (She's also the sabbatical replacement teacher who missed the fact that I was throwing backwards, left-handed. But I digress.)

I came back to the wheel from a different direction: I'd seen a film about traditional Korean potters (narrated by Mike Wallace, interestingly enough), who used the wheel for coil-building. Pots were roughed out from enormous coils, the size of your wrist, then paddled together and thrown thinner using wooden ribs. I didn't achieve that scale, but tried the technique out with smaller coils and wound up making some progress, and a nice set of big fat coffee mugs for my class final.

Some time in my second semester, I finally learned to center, by working one-handed. I'd apparently not been coordinating what my hands were doing, and what one hand centered, the other pushed off again. Keeping only one hand on the clay--the other locked on my wrist, maintaining pressure--allowed me to finally produce a centered lump of clay, a centered opening, and (since I'd learned all the raising, thinning and shaping techniques while coil-building) centered pots. And then I was lost forever.

I kept throwing after class ended. Heck, I kept throwing after I graduated. I learned how to center properly, and made so many pots. I traded glaze mixing and kiln loading for studio time, spent all my evenings and weekends in the studio, bought my first kick wheel from a student in the art history class I was teaching (as a sabbatical replacement). I had my first experience with art fairs (barely made gas money at Norskedalen) and the value of celebrity endorsements (when the band on stage at River Fest--Smith & Mayer--told people to come check out my pottery, they did. And bought things.).

I took summer pottery workshops. Two weeks in Tuscarora Pottery School, in Nevada; a week at the Pigeon Lake Field Station in northern Wisconsin. And I spent a week's lay-off from my graphics art job researching and applying to graduate schools. Which brought me here, to Eugene.

Tally ho

Nov. 10th, 2017 05:47 pm
offcntr: (rocket)

What's more embarrassing than finding old pots? More embarrassing than finding old booth photos ?

Finding old sales tallies from 1995.

We started Off Center Ceramics in 1993, selling at the Saturday Market in a booth we shared with fellow potter Kathy Lee. By '95, she'd quit Market and we'd gotten a reserved booth on the east edge of the Market. On the first day of the new season, Saturday, April 1st (no foolin! says the tally), we made $40 during the day, another $35 while we were taking down after 5 pm. The following Saturday, April 8, we made $20.

We skipped the following weekend, because it was Easter, Passover, and crummy weather, but on April 22, we made $30. April 29, the tally says No Sales. Rain. To add insult to injury, the $7 booth fee and $15 reserve fee were due at the end of the day.

May starts out better: $72 May 6, $115.50 on May 13, Mother's Day. But the following two weekends, we sell $8 each. These are gross sales, by the way. Booth fee was $7 per day plus 10%, so my net on those days was 20¢. I'm amazed I'm still doing this.

The two weekends we did in June brought in $77 and $98, respectively. The first three weekends of July, $50, $60 and $40. July 22 was a brilliant day, $140, but the following week we were back to $25.

The record ends on Saturday, August 5, with sales of $156, the best day of the summer. Don't know how the rest of the year went; I remember Septembers being crushingly bad, between poor sales and no teaching money from the Craft Center. Yet somehow we managed.

Between the time period and my skill level, I guess the prices were fair: animal banks were $20-25 (they're $40 now), dinner and dessert plates were $15 and $10 respectively ($28 and $23). Candlesticks and soap dishes were $5 each, pie plates $20 (now $33). And colanders and batter bowls were both $25 ($40 and $39 now).

But the truly mind-boggling thing: we only had--and needed--$25 in change in the pouch.
offcntr: (rocket)

Actually, more like 23 years. Found this picture in an album we brought back from Denise's mom's house. Her dad, Del, took it on their first visit to Oregon, in what must have been 1994. This was our first reserved space, on the East lawn of the park blocks, our second year selling. I remember struggling to sell pots there, and looking at this display, I don't wonder why.

It's a mess. Pots are arranged more or less at random, there's not much coherence in the designs. Way too many animal banks and blue iris pots. Pie plates and bowls stacked up so you can't see what's painted in them. Which is probably more irises. And Woo's Blue glaze on everything, even though it pinholes like crazy if you're not careful. Geez, what was I thinking?

Basically, I was trying stuff out. Throwing everything against the booth wall to see what stuck. I can barely make out a blue cat painted in one of the bowls; and a very awkwardly painted squirrel on a jar. That long, skinny thing is supposed to be a salmon baker, with fish painted in the bottom. It's way too small for a whole salmon, and the wrong shape for filets.

I know there are chickadees painted on a tall pasta jar, because I never did sell it; it's sitting in my cupboard full of spaghetti right now. I count a dozen different kinds of animal banks. The number doubled later on, then got trimmed back to the eight best sellers I still make. Teapots with ridiculous hoop handles that are less about actual function and more about showing off how big I could pull a handle.

Some things haven't changed. Pig and elephant banks, stegosaur and brontosaurs. (The triceratops has been replace by T. rex.) The display bench is still in the booth, as are the shelves, though they're on the left these days. I also cut the one large folding ladder-support down to two smaller ones, as it swayed dangerously whenever anyone bumped it in this version.

The bears definitely haven't changed. That's Bigfoot and Benjamin, the exact same two who were in the booth with us last Saturday.

offcntr: (live 1)
I've never really had a mentor.

Wasn't really close to my professors. Only met with my graduate committee twice in three years. It may be I'm too independent (bull-headed, my father would have said). But I think there's also a healthy dose of reticence, a holdover from the shyness of my childhood. I'd rather figure something out for myself than bother someone else, asking for help.

So it was with some trepidation that I got in touch with my Viterbo pottery professor and his wife, Tim and Mary Crane, about visiting them while we were in Wisconsin. Sure, Mary encouraged us to stay over. We have a guest room! Do you have any food preferences? How long can you stay? But I still didn't want to intrude. Didn't want to be a bother. (I'm so Midwestern sometimes.)

So glad we did.

The conversation went all over the map. Pottery, of course, and "Where are they now?" reminesces. But art in general, literature, college and life experiences. I showed pictures, they showed pots. Visited the wood-salt kiln, still there after 35 years (though the kiln shed had burned down in 2014 and been replaced), the studio, showroom. Went for a long walk along the ridge--they still live in a rented house beyond two fields and three cattle guards--looking at birds and plants and other points of interest (Wolf scat? You have wolves?). And the beautiful rolling hills of SE Minnesota.

They also invited Tim's ex, Diane (who also taught me at Viterbo) and her partner Bets to dinner, where the conversation started all over again.

We left with a stack of books (including a noir trilogy set in La Crosse), a couple of pots, and an open invitation to come back... and some wonderful memories.
offcntr: (window bear)

Visiting my brother in Wisconsin, which, in addition to revisiting embarrassing family stories, allows me to revisit embarrassing pottery.

Actually, it's not that bad. A lot of the pottery I've given him over the years is still recognizable: a large bunnies serving bowl, robin cookie jar, batter bowl with the happy hen pattern. This one, though, goes way back. Not quite to my Wisconsin days, I don't think, but certainly pre-Off Center Ceramics.

It's an oval baking dish, about 6x9", glazed in Craft Center temmoku and Woo's blue. I did a lot of these, early on. The walls are thrown first, with no bottom, then formed into an oval. At soft leather hard, a slab bottom and crock-style handles are attached. Can't tell if these handles were pulled from a (very small) coil, or whether they were thrown and then cut and attached. They're a little small for practical use, almost dainty.

I still use this technique to make oval platters, but not bakers. The failure rate was too high both in the making (cracks along the seam if moisture wasn't correctly matched between bottom and sides) and, occasionally, the baking. Apparently, a slight mismatch in moisture, not great enough for cracking, might still introduce stresses that would show up when they were heated in the oven. Much safer to go with my current, squared bakers: thrown in one piece, deformed slightly while still wet, then pulled handles attached at leather-hard.

Though this is a pretty, pretty pot.
offcntr: (spacebear)
It's kinda like visiting the Grand Canyon. Going down the trail, watching the strata in the walls, moving deeper and deeper in time. I feel like I should be hitting the river any minute now.

We're back in Wisconsin, helping clear decades of stuff from Denise's mother's house: old clothing, magazines from the 1940's to present, Denise's school clothes and children's books. The last time we were here, I got to be on a first-name basis with the Goodwill guy and the fellow at the Recycling Center. We're back for another pass.

But that's not the time-traveling I'm talking about.

Every time we sit down to eat, I see about 25 years of pottery arrayed on top of the china hutch. Christmas presents from Denise and myself from the year we married onward. Dinner plates, bowls, a pie plate (currently half-filled with apple pie), pasta bowl, jam pot. Lots of mugs in lots of different sizes and colors. It's like an archaeological cross-section of my pottery career, extending back even before Off Center Ceramics.

The dinner plates, for instance, a set of four in temmoku and Woo's rutile blue, standard glaze colors at the Craft Center where I taught when we were married. The two-tone blue coffee mug, likewise.

The tiny jam pot with painted Pooh came from the year we found a chain-link fence covered in untended grapeviness by a vacant parking lot. We brought home grocery bags of grapes, cooked juice and made jelly, wax-sealed in little pots that we sent everyone for Christmas that year.

The pie plate and pasta are next oldest. I know this because they're painted, but with irises. At some point around the fifth or sixth year of Off Center Ceramics, I stopped painting flowers. Since then, it's been animals, birds, insects, fish.

There's a whole series of early painted coffee mugs, tiny ones, scaled to fit in the mini-microwave of their RV. Soup bowls of the oxidized-but-still-pretty-nice variety, a toddler bowl in the loon-and-chick pattern that I haven't made in years. Dinner salad bowls, a form I really liked but which never caught on with my customers.

Newer work, like the stew mugs, cream pitcher and painted dinner plate are much more similar to my current work, and the small oval baker could have come out of the kiln yesterday.

I've written in the past about how unsettling it can be, abruptly coming across your early pottery. (Skeletons in the Cupboard, anyone?)

This isn't like that. It's not embarrassing, because there's context. Instead of one amateurish piece, there's a dozen. Each a little less amateur, each a little more polished. Showing a progression, an improvement, till we arrive at the latest piece, and the last one I'll give my father-in-law, Del.

The urn that's holding his ashes.
offcntr: (chinatown bear)
I did brush drawings long before I made pots, india ink on paper, high-contrast still-lifes and figures. I loved the speed and fluidity of the process, so different than the interminable gradations of shade and value from pencil or charcoal, or the endless cross-hatching of pen.

I started painting on pots in 1984, at Tuscarora Pottery School, using an iron oxide wash derived from a Michael Cardew recipe. I still have two of the first painted plates I ever made, one a grouping of California poppies, the other a landscape, featuring the Ruby Mountains and a tumbled-down dynamite shack.

I did a lot more brush decorating in the year following, but quickly got bored with the brushes. I could only afford the cheapest sumi-e brushes back then, $5 being about my limit, and using them was like drawing with a Sharpie, or a technical pen (I was also cartooning with Rapido-graphs at the time). Each brush gave one thickness of line. If I wanted the line thinner or fatter, I'd have to change brushes. And remember what I'd dipped it in last, so as not to contaminate the rutile with cobalt, or the cobalt with iron.

So I decided to experiment. I talked my sister out of a couple of squirrel tails from her hunting days, and made a couple of brushes. Tied off a bunch of hair with thread, cut it loose, and wedged it into the split end of a dowel, wrapped it with string and paraffin wax to hold it all together. They were the very definition of crude, but the long, flexible tips let me draw with a line that would vary from very thin to very broad in the same stroke, as the brush flexed, deformed, sprang back.

I stopped painting in graduate school, concentrated on unglazed sculptures, but went back to it afterwards while teaching at the Craft Center. I'd picked up experience with new materials, primarily bamboo and two-part epoxy, and had inherited a bunch of tools from another pottery student that included some fine cake decorating tips. So my new brushes were a good deal more sophisticated than the originals.

I still use the hair from the side of a squirrel tail (either recycled from roadkill or purchased at a fly-tying store), but I tap it down into a cake-decorating tip to graduate and taper the hairs, before tying off the bundle and setting it with epoxy in a bamboo handle. The resulting brushes are far from high-end sumi-grade, but they're kinda elegant, and moderately unpredictable, which is what I want from them, after all.

Which brings me to this last Saturday morning, up on the Clay Fest demonstration stage. I've got a dozen bisqued Empty Bowls, my brush station, a basin of glaze. I've also got squirrel tails, thread, bamboo and epoxy. So I spend my two-hour demo alternately taking decoration requests from the kids (and adults) in the audience (parrot, heron, hedgehog) and making paintbrushes for the potters in the crowd. Around the 1:45 mark I glaze the last bowl and test the last brush, so have 15 minutes for clean-up before the next demo goes on.
offcntr: (chinatown bear)
When we were first starting out as Off Center Ceramics, we were cheap (Frugal, Denise corrects from across the room). We had no idea if this pottery thing was going to work, after all, and certainly no money to spare. So we shared a Saturday Market booth with another potter for the first year and a half, and when she said she wasn't going to do Holiday Market, we signed up for the smallest, cheapest booth they had.

It was eight feet deep by only six feet wide, and barely had room for the two of us, a tiny shelf unit, and the five-foot-wide bench I'd built to display our wares. (Five feet wide because that was all the wider the back seat of my car would hold.) Getting in and out of the booth in the foot of space left to us was a real challenge, as neither of us were exactly svelte.

Fortunately, our neighbor had a 10-by-8-foot corner booth, and kindly offered to leave an aisle along the back wall so that we (and he) could get in and out. Andy sold oil-soaked incense sticks in a dizzying array of scents, both full size and four-inch mini sticks, along with stick-holders in various exotic hardwoods that he got by recycling fork-lift pallets at the international Port of Coos Bay.

I think it was the winter after our second year that I got the idea to make him a thank-you present: a ceramic incense burner in the shape of a dragon, sized for mini-sticks. I saved it for spring, took it down to the Park Blocks for opening weekend and gave it to him as an April Fools/thank you gift. I hoped he'd like it, figured he'd take it home to enjoy, putting it somewhere up out of reach of his cats.

He did like it. He liked it so much that he stoked it with incense and fired it up right in his Market booth. He figured people would stop and admire it, and then buy incense.

You see what's coming, of course. They stopped and admired it. And wanted to buy it. Or one just like it.

In no time at all, I was making dozens of them, first selling in Andy's booth as a package deal with his incense (for which Market needed to create a new rule exception--normally, you're only allow to sell what you make yourself), later from my booth when Andy retired and sold his business to someone else.

They're not as popular as they once were, for which I'm grateful. They're a lot of work, you see: wheel thrown body, handmade eyebrow, ears, arms, feet, wings, tail. Plus the mouth and nose get plugged and reshaped from the original bottle-mouth. And the eyes are made from colored porcelain. And of course I have to cut them apart at leather hard so you can lift the top off and load the incense. All told, there are seven distinct processes involved in making them, and that doesn't include waxing (twice) and glazing them (three dips). I'm amazed I used to sell them for $20.

Old Tricks

Sep. 10th, 2015 10:58 pm
offcntr: (window bear)
I haven't always been a potter.

I did the usual mix of sumer jobs as a student--house painter, factory worker (La Crosse Garment Company making sleeping bags for the army, and thank God I wasn't in the feather room). Dishwasher, for four days one time before my ankle gave out.

But much of my pre-pottery career was in the same field: graphic artist. Keyliner. Design, layout and paste-up.

I got my first freelance job, assembling a catalog for a paper supply company, the summer of my junior year in college. Two more catalogs paid the rent and groceries through senior year before I handed off the fourth and final one to another art student on graduating.

After graduation, I was hired by my college fine arts center for a limited run, designing and producing their season program. When that job ended, I moved across the street to take the artist's spot in the publicity office. After a couple of years there, I left to take an opening at a four-color printer, where I stayed until a brief layoff, combined with the expansion of my ceramics hobby into all my available free time convinced me it was time to look at graduate programs.

Even after I enrolled at the UO, I couldn't leave the business behind, designing flyers on work-study for the Alternative Education program. And my first GTF (Graduate Teaching Fellowship, what the UO calls TAs) didn't involve teaching at all. I produced--writing, photography, design, layout and paste-up--the Fine Arts departmental magazine, Artifact.

That's where I was introduced to digital--though we called it desktop back then--publishing. UO was an early adopter of digital design and animation, and a beta-testing site for Aldus (later Adobe) Pagemaker 1.5. So I literally got in on the ground floor.

I don't do graphic design for hire anymore, I'm relieved to say, but I still keep my hand in. I design business cards and publicity material for Off Center Ceramics, and for a couple of pottery shows I'm involved with. I'm particularly proud of the posters and mailers I've done for Clay Fest over the past 15 years. Here's this year's poster that I picked up from the printer this afternoon.

You might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but the old tricks are still worth keeping in practice sometimes.


Aug. 1st, 2015 09:41 pm
offcntr: (spacebear)
Slightly Off Center is one year old today! Have some (virtual) cake!

I feel old

Jun. 8th, 2015 04:47 pm
offcntr: (window bear)

I feel old… no, correct that. I feel antique.
Took a little walk, Saturday, from my Market booth to Oregon Art Supply, and on the way, I looked in at the neighboring antique store.
What I found… okay, let's see if you spot it.
oh look, a sidewalk sale!50% off!customers swarm inhey, wait a minutewhaddya mean, antique?
Yup, that's an antique Off Ceramics Cow-handled mug, circa oh, 1989 or '90--maybe '91. Very white clay body and glaze, almost majolica-like; I vaguely remember experimenting with cone six oxidation, making copper green, chrome-tin red and of course, cobalt blue cows. Price was marked $6, which seems about right to me.

I took it inside and had a laugh about it with the salesgirl. She didn't know where they'd got it, though she said the owner had be visiting estate sales lately, so there's another customer I've lost.

A few minutes later, on my way back from the art supply, I saw a teenager girl pick it up and check the price. Don't know if she bought it, but it made me feel happy to consider the possibility.

Empty Bowls

Apr. 3rd, 2015 07:49 pm
offcntr: (live 2)
I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, in what you'd call a cash-poor but resource-rich economy. We never wanted for food, nor wood for the furnace. Livestock feed was a little dodgier, what with weather being variable, but stuff we had to buy, like shoes and school clothes were sometimes a source of stress.

We never felt poor though, because most everyone we knew was in the same boat. Even the annual Parish Bazaar fundraiser. They sold chicken dinners, of course, but the major source of income was the annual cattle auction. All the farmers set aside a heifer or steer in winter, raised it and grazed it and then brought it down to Willard to be auctioned off. Sometimes another farmer bought it, though most of them went to the two local (competing) cattle buyers, Laufenberg and Panek. The church pocketed the proceeds, and the farmers were out only a calf, some time, and a bit of grass from the pasture.
baby chickbarn swallowpurple butterflywren
This is why I feel so comfortable with Food For Lane County's Empty Bowls sale. I don't pony up a cash donation, but rather, livestock. Soup bowls, in fact. I use recycled clay, or sometimes donated clay from Georgies, fit them in around the regular pots, a few in every firing, and by the time the sale comes around in June, I've got a hundred head of soup bowls to drive away to their market.

I always take advantage of the process to experiment: try new forms, details, glaze patterns. Some of them find their way into my production pots, some disappear, never to be seen again. I don't know that the exposure translates into any sales in my own booth--though a lot of people stop by to tell me about their empty bowls treasures--but having been short on food in my adult life, I feel very strongly about supporting this charity.
offcntr: (radiobear)
I first tried out for KLCC in 1987. The station was planning to add a new folk show to the line-up, and was also hoping to get another folk substitute on the roster. Three of us trained in and submitted demo tapes. Pete Lavelle got the new show, The Back Porch; Neil Bjorklund became the new sub, and eventually, host of Friends and Neighbors. I got my radio operator's license.

Instead of doing radio that fall, I joined the UO Cultural Forum, where I produced concerts by Garnet Rogers, Greg Brown, the Red Clay Ramblers, Doc Watson, and brought Rosalie Sorrels to the Willamette Valley Folk Festival.

In 1990, I got a call from Diane Sontag, then host of the Saturday Cafe. She needed a substitute for St. Patrick's Day weekend, and no one else was available. Was I still interested? I recorded a new demo tape that passed muster with the Music Director, and the next weekend--25 years ago this week--I was on the air, KLCC's newest volunteer. Seven months later, Diane moved to Japan to teach English, and I took over the Cafe. I've been here ever since.
It's been a wonderful 25 years. I've heard--and played--a vast amount of great music over the years, met many wonderful musicians. A daytime show on Saturday is the perfect opportunity for live guests, and I've had more than four hundred of them in my time on the radio. I've also enjoyed so much support from listeners, by phone, mail, email, or in person everywhere I've been in our listening area all these years.

But it's always been in conflict with my day job. Balancing my living--which I love--and radio--which I also love--has never been easy. I have art shows to attend many weekends, and Saturday Market when I'm home. And while radio has been a lot of fun, it's also been a lot of work: previewing music, updating the calendar, picking and playing and filing, researching and recording and archiving interviews, posting playlists to the website and the internet. And oh-so-many radiothons...

So last December at Holiday Market, I found myself thinking, "Twenty five years is a nice round number. I think it might be time to retire." I sat on that decision for a month or two, waiting for second thoughts, regrets, but all I felt was relief. Last month, I told my colleagues at KLCC, and today, I'm telling you.

March 28 will be my last day as regular host of the Saturday Cafe. To counter any tendency to get maudlin and weepy, Denise and I will celebrate the last weekend of March as we have for so many years now, with humorous songs for April Fools Eve (Eve, Eve, Eve…) After that, I'm off the weekly grind, though I'll probably stick around for the occasional substitute stint on the folk shows.

I didn't create the Saturday Cafe, though I did manage the place for a good long time. Though the name will retire with me, I expect whoever takes over the time slot to leave their mark on this radio station, just as I and Diane and Jamie May and Charlie Akers did.

I feel lucky to have been a fixture in so many homes all these years. It's been an honor and a privilege.

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