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Monday, August 12, 2013

The Box of Formulas


Stephen's been hanging out at the house and not doing much pottery.

His shoulder and left arm are tied up into a huge contraption of black foam that he calls 'the couch'. . . designed to immobilize his forearm, arm, hand and shoulder all at once, till his torn ligaments, which were just operated on, recover.

Meanwhile he's thinking of just about every possible thing he can do to move his art along without actually sitting down at the wheel or lifting heavy bags of ground rock to make glazes.

"I'm under doctor's orders. I can't touch anything that weighs more than ten pounds. I think we can probably fire around the 16th, when I get back from Maine. I'm working out some ways to hold some big platters and glaze them."

The air outside his house, situated on a bluff in Fairhaven CT, was sweet from the smell of a walnut tree that grows over his driveway.

"Unless you want your car hood redecorated I'd move your vehicle"

The nuts were falling fast, big and heavy and round like hailstones. If you have never smelled a fresh walnut, they have an intense scent, like lavender or camphor. 

"I keep four or five in the truck to keep it smelling nice."

I brought over a small bin that we scrounged together yesterday. And Steve had promised to hunt up some recipes for overglaze washes and slips.

Stephen Rodriguez is one of the best potters working anywhere, someone I have a huge respect for. More than anyone he educated me in this art.

I was in my late 30's when I took it up, and started attending Steve's class at CAW on Audobon St. in downtown New Haven. He demonstrated wedging clay, huge rounds that spiraled like the petals of a flower. We built a kiln together, his design and supervision, he's guided me in glazes, clays and working through all the problems that hit potters at some point or another. He's fired kilns from New York to Maine, built and rebuilt more kilns than he can count. He's been my master, and inspiration to dozens of local potters who got their start in his classes. Yes, I have learned enormously, from others too, a workshop with Malcolm Davis, firings with Tony Moore at his wood kiln in Cold Spring NY, and all the many other potters who comes with their work. But Stephen's the one who has been around all my potting life.

He's seen me languish, diverting energies into construction, poetry, and painting, but he calls me back regularly with the handle, "Hey you making pots?"

Steve throws big, with eyes practically closed, arms deep in the center of a wet wobbling jar, a Beethoven struggling to hear notes from the clay.

Years later I have my own studio and am starting to make more work. Lately his bad shoulder has been the impetus for a series of firings we've done together at my place. I lift the shelves into place.

"Let's light this baby.". . . . "Potter wipe the bottom of that pot!!"  . . .  "All the girls at CAW spend time VACUUMING the kiln!"

But particularly whenever I'm glazing or firing alone, I just have to begin work to hear Steve's voice, echoing between my ears.

"Put it on thick. Be generous. If you put it thin it will break up . . ."

or . .  

"This one wants to be thin . . . thick and it will craze and fall off the pot . . . Be careful."

or . . .

"Have a good look in the spy. Do you see atmosphere? Is heat building? The flame should be visible."

or . . .

"Aw hell, we're not even hot yet!"

We went into Steven's kitchen.

"Here are three SCOBYs for your new Kambucha. You need some horsepower. Two gallons is a lot!" Steve was referring to a large glass container we purchased together yesterday at Walmart, sized to keep my family in endless Kambucha.

"Now taste this!" He poured out some of his home brew. "It's got George Cleveland's wild cherry juice in it. Hey, reach on up and grab that box for me would you? It has all my glaze recipes."

The box was quite large, and packed with folded, creased and torn pieces of paper, old copies, magazine reprints, hand-written glaze formulas transcribed from index cards, from word of mouth, from everywhere. A lifetime of chemistry on the surface of pots.

The names are magic . . . Chuck's Shino . . . Virginia Wirt's Shino . . . . Bill Murphy's Green . . . 

"Here's a wash that will stay black. Copy this one."

We made a huge stack for me to take home and copy. Practically every glaze in the mammoth pile Stephen had mixed or tested at one time.

"Most are terrible. Not worth the time. This yellow was great, but something's changed. I've mixed up five buckets and never been able to get it right again."

"You can help me . . " he added. "I'm looking for 'Judith's Ochre Celadon' 

Sure enough we found it. . . . the only way to know was the scraps of paper it was on, barely, held the last two letters of her name . . ."____th's Ochre Celadon". It was bent and creased and stained and smirched with bits of glaze chemicals.

What are glaze formulas but mixtures of the various rocks of the world, ground up?

Liked recipes for baked bread, they have the same ingredients again and again, flour, sugar, yeast . . . or rather Kona F4 Feldspar, Nephelene Synenite, Red Iron Oxide . . . Each holds a mystery, the promise of a color, a texture, a feeling, a behavior much as different parts of the earth 'behave' under pressure and time, and turn magnificent in the glint of the sun.

That is the potter's foray into terrestrial alchemy. Unity formulas, batches, test tiles, but never the same result exactly. We're not about industry. We're about nearly, and often, and sometimes. The blessings of a kiln God. The luck of the fire. 







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