Mud was my first love

Pueblo, CO, was built on ancient seabeds of clay and sandstone along the Arkansas River. Easy access to clay supports potters, masons and brickyards. High School provided an intro into ceramics for me, under the tutelage of Lyle Clift, who introduced me to salt-fired, stoneware. He had his salt-kiln that captivated me as soon I saw gleaming, orange-to-russet, mottled, stylishly functional objects emerge from its arched doorway.

Mud was my first love. Mud was my major in college, but I think that the impressive combustion going on inside Clift’s salt-vapor model, along with subsequent kilns I’d eventually learn to use, was a great attraction as well. Cone 10 temperature (2200 degrees) resembles nothing more than a whirling, breathing, lethal, living thing. Standing close to it makes one feel courageous, almost.

Painting may have been the safer place for me to stand, my first year at USC. I had the good fortune of taking Orlin Helgoe’s drawing class. He suggested I could make it as a painter, “if you take your work seriously.” Evidently, Orlin must have taken certain things too over-seriously, himself. May he rest in peace.

I really admired Orlin’s work and would have learned a great deal from his painting class, no doubt. Instead I plunged into clay. Carl Jensen headed the department at USC. The U of Southern Colorado, that is…Carl, Jim North and I built a wood-fired kiln and fired it multiple times. All I wanted to do was fill it to the arch with pots and load its fireboxes with fuel. Carl gave us opportunities like that, but he also made us learn about the history of the art and craft which we wished to get good at. It was challenging. We had to pass exams in glaze chemistry and such. Carl was known for pioneering photographic emulsion techniques adapted for glazing stoneware. He also sculpted audacious, cartoony caricatures in clay, titles like “Pink Lady With a Buffant Hairdo.” Why not? The sky is the limit with such a plastic medium. It was 100 percent natural too. I have always been into that.

My first pottery wheel was a manual kick model manufactured by Robert Brent. Centering a ball of clay on a spinning wheel was something I was able to learn almost instantly. Throwing production pottery, off a hump of mud with the help of a 100 lb, stone, whirling under bodily forces of my own, became second nature. The act of throwing pots is fluid and slick. The spinning wheel is as much an entity as the fire in the kiln. I spent 11 of my 12 year fascination, meditating over slippery, slathered, precisely centered, spinning balls of clay as if it were the living end. My efforts were concentrated on hand-thrown, functional stoneware, like people used in the old days. We’re talking about cups, bowls, crocks, plates, casseroles, jars, bottles, teapots, pipes and even an urn for someone’s ashes. Seldom did I attempt anything else.

Then, in 1990, my last month, at the very last ceramics studio in which I worked, I became drawn back to drama and storytelling. I got off that perpetually moving hundred-pound wheel, that perfectly-round-object-making-machine and started creating with my feet on the ground for a change. My work ceased being born turning around-and-around. It popped out of its exclusive symmetry, for once, and lay still for me. I spontaneously launched into sculpting masks and mysterious objects, with a slab roller as my device of choice.

That was a breakthrough that would likely have reset the direction I was headed, had I kept going, but that turned out to be my last lease on a clay studio, so far anyway. Right after this, my focus turned to video. In the meantime, I remain a huge fan of river trips, mud baths, clay facials, scrubs and such, the actual act of making stuff out of mud has been absent from my repertory these thirty years. But given time, it is bound to come back around. Possibly on a gigantic scale. To be announced…