Tonight, June 21st, marks the end of this series. Technically, yesterday may have been the accurate marking of the solstice. But the 21st is what I think of as the the longest day of the year here in Virginia. It really feels like true summer. Hot, humid and still we worked in the depths of the kiln. I am grateful for the long hours of daylight. It’s hard to find a poetic sense of completion so I write as if I had the last pencil on earth to capture evening glimpses of light.
Write as though you had in hand the last pencil on earth,
-Charles Wright, from “Body and Soul,” A Short History of the Shadow, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002
I often describe firing the wood kiln as akin to steering a large ship. It takes a long time to gain momentum, to load, and then to change direction. The pandemic has skewed my sense of scale and time. It has left me thinking about the things I miss and making work for the kiln has me asking what is missing from the accumulated body of work. The desire to fire the kiln is like a boat that is parked outside my studio with a captain who has been blowing the signal-horn. Every time I walk by our whale-shaped kiln it shouts out, waving bright flags instead of the reality of mouse nests, crickets, and spider webs. I have been checking my inner timetable. Today we opened the door, cleared out the crickets, chased the mouse away, and began to load pots. I have always loved the sea, but this whale-shaped kiln set into the hillside calls my name.
Missing The Boat
It is not so much that the boat passed and you failed to notice it. It is more like the boat stopping directly outside your bedroom window, the captain blowing the signal-horn, the band playing a rousing march.
The boat shouted, waving bright flags, its silver hull blinding in the sunlight.
But you had this idea you were going by train.
You kept checking the time-table, digging for tracks.
And the boat got tired of you, so tired it pulled up the anchor and raised the ramp.
The boat bobbed into the distance, shrinking like a toy— at which point you probably realized you had always loved the sea.
-Naomi Shihab Nye, Different Ways to Pray, Breitenbush Publications, 1980
I used to imagine the day I was born but later I realized all the images I pictured were from my father or my older brothers’ perspective, not from my Mom. When we cleared out my parents’ NYC loft we had huge arguments about who should house my mother’s journals. Eventually my oldest brother agreed that I should keep them on the proviso that I also took the years of Museum of Modern Art date books my parents always used to keep track of their lives. Last year I paged through to look at my Mom’s notes leading up to my birth. I found these little daily notes had way more information about my history than I had imagined. There were the dates of when she had been exposed to German measles and when it was no longer a threat. There were doctors appointments and end of school celebrations for my brothers, visits with her siblings. These specific events are what shaped my life. My mother taught me to celebrate the everyday, the flowers on the side of the road, the city gallery, the candle at dinner, and the fireflies off the porch. She taught me that we are making this life up as we go along, between sunset and the clay between my hands holding tight.
won’t you celebrate with me what i have shaped into a kind of life? i had no model. born in babylon both nonwhite and woman what did i see to be except myself? i made it up here on this bridge between starshine and clay, my one hand holding tight my other hand; come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.
-Lucille Clifton, won’t you celebrate with me, from “Book of Light,” Copper Canyon Press, 1993
I love the momentum of making pots for the wood kiln– a long cycle of throwing and building and imagining how each piece will fill the organic space of the kiln. At the end when I have to quit I feel as if I have scraps of ideas that roll around my brain like incomplete poems. It’s always hard to say, “ok this is it, no more for this cycle.” There is excitement for the firing but a wave of sadness for the unmade.
& then there are those scrap poems, the ones too beautiful to finish writing, ones that would bring us too great a sadness if we ever thought they could really end. There are many of those.
-J. Todd Hawkins, from “Hooks Brothers,” in This Geography of Thorns: Blues Poetry from the Mississippi Delta & Beyond, Poetry Society of Texas, 2020.
I am at the end of the cycle of making for the wood kiln. I have had intuitive lists of things to make. Some shapes take more effort and forethought but at this point I cannot second guess what I make. Often on the last day of wet work I feel like I don’t have enough tall narrow things. So I make a final series as supports for other objects; it feels like I am making aesthetic kiln furniture. This time around the last things in process are coming from my artistic ancestors. I can see the influences of native American pots or Silla dynasty Korean forms. There might be a bit of the syntax of Japanese Shigaraki storage jars or Chinese Han dynasty compositions. But there is always the influence of the Virginia clay soil that grows so many flowers as well as the porch dinners where pots are used and shared, arriving at completion.
Every poem has poetry ancestors. My poetry would not exist without Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival,” without Mvskoke stomp dance call-and-response, without Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” without Meridel Le Sueur or N. Scott Momaday, without death or sunrise, without Walt Whitman, or Navajo horse songs, or Langston Hughes, without rain, without grief, without—
-Joy Harjo, from Every Poem Has Ancestors in The Paris Review [Link]
Last night visiting friends we lingered at dusk picking blueberries. Their bushes were brimming with berries.Today mid-afternoon we went back and filled more small containers. We felt rich and lucky, loving the ease of the southern high bush berries versus the tasty wild low bushes in Maine. At our house we are between harvests. The earliest is all done and the mid-season has not yet ripened. Our bushes are somewhat shaded. The deer and birds often snack, but to my knowledge the bears have not discovered them.
Some berries fall: those are for squirrels. Some are unripe, reserved for bears. Some go into the metal bowl. Those are for you, so you may taste them just for a moment. That’s good times: one little sweetness after another, then quickly gone.
In 2012 we did an exhibition of plate and bowl sets with Omen-Azen in New York City. When we were working on the calendar/catalog Mikio felt that each set should have a poetic name. Warren and I tended to give our pots pragmatic names like fat vase or iron brush strokes. Mikio suggested thunderstorm or moon vase. We had to listen hard to hear the names the plates used to refer to themselves. Since that year we have tuned our ears to hear the names of the pots.
Give me the names for things, just give me their real names, Not what we call them, but what They call themselves when no one’s listening —
-Charles Wright, from The Writing Life, in “Appalachia,” Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1998
I try not to repeat myself in a given series either in the pots I photo, or the flowers, or veggies, or quotes. But sometimes I work as if I was touching the undersides of pots. So the plants in the garden and the objects all need to be touched again.
I’d rather be loose fire Licking the edges of all things but the absolute Whose murmur retoggles me. I’d rather be memory, touching the undersides Of all I ever touched once in the natural world.
-Charles Wright, from Bicoastal Journal, in “Oblivion Banjo,” Farrar, Straus Giroux
In the studio today I made dust prints on teacups. This involves sifting wood ash on my table surface and scribbling through it then pressing/rolling the cups into the words on the table. I work from a specific text, a poem that I have recently read or one written by my mother and found in my archive of her words. The process feels like a mix of a meditation on a poem and a form of time travel that allows me to visit the mind of my mother. Whether it’s a poem about walking in Greenwich Village on a Sunday or her worries about what her children would do with her collection of books, when I get going with the transcription it’s as if the words come so fast I cannot stop for spelling; sometimes the words come out as squiggles or straight lines or like the bitter sweet vines that tangle with the milkweed. The more I dig in my mother’s work and play with asemic text I think the line between poems and drawing is very thin.
“I’m working as fast as I can I can’t stop to use periods / sometimes I draw straight lines on the page because the words are too slow.”
-C. K. Williams, from Yours, in “Poems 1963-1983,” Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988
Last summer’s woodfiring had a lot of experiments. In January 2020 at STARworks in North Carolina I had spent three weeks making small clay body batches based on wild North Carolina clays in different combinations. As I made pots with each mix I not only numbered them so I could trace back to my notes, but I made them different scales and shapes so that they were easily identifiable. In this year of staying home I am working with one clay body, using a few different materials for surface prints.
In the spring the New York Times asked 75 artists, “Did you make anything that mattered?” “Who and what comforted you?” “Which moments will you remember?” “Which ideas would you like to forget?” “What would a do-over look like?” “What’s still on your to-do list as ‘normal’ comes into focus?”
If they asked me I would say I don’t know yet if what I made this year mattered, but I am grateful for the habit of the studio. I have thought of yellow as my color of protection. I bought a pot of yellow pansies at the grocery store. I loved having them on the porch and gained strength as I glimpsed them out of the corner of my eye. Now as they fade in the heat I am studying the Calendula each day as I make my way to the studio, gaining strength and commitment from the power of the yellow blossoms.
Sean Scully (artist) “Lately, I have fallen in love with yellow. At the moment, I seem to be using it in every painting. I’m not sure I understand why, though maybe it offers a kind of protection against the cold, or against the sorrows of Covid. One of my new paintings is called “Yellow Yellow.” Another is called “Wall Orange” and has blurs of yellow and orange seeping into each other. Yellow is complicated.”
From The New York Times: 75 Artists, 7 Questions, One Very Bad Year [Linked] Musicians, authors, directors, comedians, painters and playwrights open up about trying to be creative, and sometimes failing, in quarantine.