Archives for the month of: September, 2006

After the long drive home from class last night, I meant to sleep in, but woke up grabbing for my notebook — full of ideas for the studio about beetles, and diatoms, textures and forms.

This afternoon I organized my studio and recycled clay, but on a whim I decided that I should harvest some honey from the hive, and pull off the empty supers on top before the weather gets cold and they have to keep all that warm.

I was too lazy to go get my gloves, gear, and veil, so I just pulled up the hood of my black sweatshirt to keep themout of my hair.I bet I looked exactly like a bear.

It’s been rainy and chilly and they were not in a great mood to begin with, and the guard bees kind of got in my face, but I managed to get through the process without getting stung.  The sweet reward is lined up on the kitchen counter, with chunks of comb in each jar. No antibiotics, no pesticides, just good new honey. I can’t imagine anything else I would be willing to put in my mouth after watching a few hundred insects crawl all over it. Molly will even stick out a finger and shove the bees aside to poke into a comb for sweetness.

I wanted more but I’ll go back on a sunny, warm day when they are not so crabby. Now I am off to teach at the Guild, and tomorrow night the circus (my son won tickets. I hate the circus.) Then at 6 a.m. saturday the busload of grad students leaves the EMU campus for Chicago’s art museums. I’m going to be one tired puppy by midnight saturday!

Anyway, for today, I’ve got a few jars of summer blooms distilled into something good for biscuits and herbal tea.

This is one of my favorites in the ancient gallery at the Toledo Museum of Art. I keep thinking about making vessels that can’t be set down in the normal way.

This is a rack in a ship’s hull, built for the storage of amphorae during shipping.

I’m really enjoying a conversation at the clayart listserver about the origins of the amphora. I’m printing all posts, and following all links.

Here are some details I have scribbled in my notebook at the library, just because they seemed interesting:

Different shapes of amphorae seem to determine year and region, but more importantly,  what they were intended to hold.  Wine amphorae held 41 quarts, and the “amphora quadrantal” was a unit of measure in the Roman empire. 

Apparently amphorae intended for liquids were lined with resin (because they were porous) or beeswax, and sealed with wet leather, wax, plugs of fired clay, and cork where available. Olive oil was a big commodity for the shipping trade, as was a fermented fish paste called “garum”. Garum was made from fish heads and entrails, fermented by the ocean to spare citizens from the smell, and sounds simply horriffic. Still, I can sort of picture it as anchovy paste (which I like) or the fish sauce in Pad Thai. And my prof pointed out that salt was taxed, and Garum was salty and used like soy sauce.

Walnuts were apparently shipped and stored in amphorae, as were olives, grains and dried fruits — likely due to our friend the mouse, who I credit with the boom in pottery around the time folks figured out agriculture. I suspect those nut/fruit pots had a mouth large enough to admit a hand and an arm.

Amphorae first appeared around the Syrian/Lebanese coast in the 15th century BCE, and apparently were made until about the 7th century.

Some were as much as 5 feet tall, but more around 18 inches. Little bitty ones under a foot long were called “amphoriskoi”.

I kind of do understand the pointy base on the long, rudely made ones, and the “peg foot” at the bottom of the larger bellied ones “Corinth” ones.  When I hefted my gallon of olive oil to make pesto today, w/ shoulders sore from wedging, I considered what 40-some quarts of it would weigh, and how I might lift it. One theory “out there” is that the point at the base (remember 5 footers were not the norm) was where one hand could grab for balance when the other hand had the handle or rim. These were basically shipping crates, and the way I figure it, they were passed hand to hand to load into a ship’s belly, and again to unload ( plus maybe hauled up by ropes.)

But the peg foot on big household storage jars makes sense to me in another way.  I had to move my rain barrel yesterday from its spot under the studio eaves, and it’s too heavy to lift, too spillable to roll. Five gallon carboys for homemade wine are the same deal.  The only way for me to get it going is to walk it along its bottom, rotating it so that it “walks” on its bottom rim. Wider top/smaller bottom would make that easier. Maybe that little hoof bottom also made it easier to lean a heavy container in the corner of a room, and better, the pointy shape would make it tippy, easier to pour out contents into a bowl or smaller vessel (or reach down inside, after fruit, in a big one) without having to navigate around bottom corners. Maybe?

Maybe they were not ideal, just plentiful and recycled for household use. Some amphorae were apparently reused as cinerary urns, or as coffins for small infants. There’s a poem there, somewhere.

Later amphorae had a rim that hung down over the tops of the handles, attached. Maybe that had to do with how they were sealed? Cork, instead of leather? Or is it a clue to how they were made? Upside down, on the wheelhead, handles attached and then the rim wheel-trimmed?

After the mid 4th century, stamps were impressed at the top of the handle curve or at its lower attachment. Letters, ligatures, monagrams, etc. may have identified the contents (though some argue the various shapes did that) or the merchant who was shipping them —  and there were pictoral symbols supposed to be potters marks. So maybe there was a certain amount of artisan-attitude in producing these? Pride in authorship, even for a simple “utilitarian” vessel? or maybe just a punched time card, to assure being paid by the pot when the community kiln was unloaded.

One set of amphorae that were analyzed were found to be made of clay containing quartz silt and chert (what the heck is chert?) and the red and grey clay inclusions were mudstone and tuffite. (again… ???) 

The part that really tickled me — being married to a biology geek who thinks diatoms are amazing — was that they found microfossils of radiolaria, which is also found in the roof tiles in Corinth kilns, in sculpture there, and other forms of  “coarseware”.

My brain is really rolling with ideas. Things without bases, like the boar’s head drinking rhyton at the Toledo Museum of Art — like Don Davis’s tilted bowls — like the mango shaped cups I made in Polly Ann Martin’s workshop, which sat in a little leaf-nest base and required my kids to return their empty smoothie cups to the kitchen in order to put them down, when empty. Brilliant mommy move, that one .

I have been looking at the carrot amphora in the documentation, the glass beets in this month’s American Craft mag, and thinking about storage — how a parsnip and a person came up with the same shape to store the winter’s starch and sweet.

And I have been throwing, early in the morning, late at night, whenever I can get out the back door to the studio. I have an enormous bucket of failed attempts, several promising parts-to-be-assembled taking forever to stiffen in the humid, rainy fall weather, and one that I tripped and dropped on its side, a bellied, pointy thing with throwing rings, which now looks so remarkably like a bee larva that I have put it aside to think about later.

It kills me that in high school I spent a week traveling from Greek island to Greek island, but had more eye for the sailors than the pottery…

I have learned by throwing that: the shoulder/neck juncture of an inverted amphora won’t support much weight, whether assembled parts or thrown coils. Some time under a heat lamp didn’t help much in later attempts, and I don’t have the patience to wait the appropriate amount of time.

A small amphora can be thrown as a very tall closed form, and as always, once the air is trapped inside, a potter can take great liberties with shape without losing stability — including making a rim at the bottom, before cutting it loose from the bat.

A three part thrown sequence of middle – attached to top, with or without rim — then inverted to add a pointy bottom seems to be the best plan for very large ones, though I will spend some time tomorrow morning scheming a tall cone shaped chuck for the ones I threw upside down. I am finding that a coarse, chunky clay feels right for the project, and will be firing up the pug mill tomorrow for more.

A little amphora has hung on a fat nail outside my studio door for almost a decade, but it’s dorky, one handled, has a pouring spout and weighs a ton. I made another two years ago that stands on a high shelf unglazed, a yard tall but with a definite list to starboard. This time around, though, I have a head full of reading, a folder full of clayart posts and printed images, and the memory of this shipwreck stacked with amphorae that blew my little potter mind once, in an exhibit in a Connecticut maritime museum.  Plus I have hands with more practice, and a professor who has assigned me to make (and then interpret) a historical pot.

Thanks to Vince Pitelka for having fired me up on historic pots for the first time in an Ancient Clay workshop at Appalachian Center for Craft. I made a little stirrup handled, shiny black, terra sig frog “effigy jar” in a smothered bonfire that week, and it has been sitting on my studio windowsill ever since. This summer, with the window open, the grape vine that covers one side of my studio grew in between the panes and wrapped a thick green tendril around its handle. I didn’t notice until I had to close the window against the cold, and the frog hung (still hangs) suspended in the plant’s little spiral fist…

Feeling like there are too many ideas and too little time… I’m off to bed.

 

 

 

 

I’m in the middle of week two at Eastern Michigan, and it’s very much the same feeling as post-workshop brain overload. I suppose it will become the norm but for now it’s a cross between adrenaline and exhaustion, inspiration and despair.

I feel lucky that I am able to “compartmentalize”. I have a block of clay/art intensive time, and then come home to a full home-and-mommy focus, plus a full day in my own studio.

Since Jeff went to a conference for a few days, he and I have not had dinner together for nine days — and we won’t tonight or tomorrow, either. I have to admit, that part is hard. The kids have a lovely dinner every night with one or the other of us, and their lives, schedules and homeschooling are singularly undisrupted, but the handoff of child care means Jeff and I can go days with only voice-on-the-cell-phone contact.

The good part is that when friday comes, we waste no family-together-time by staring at tvs or monitors, or otherwise ignoring each other. I find that I am much more able to “be here now” on the days when my main role is “mommy”. Mommy guilt will always seep in, no matter what we do.  Mine used to be about all the times a kid has asked me to bake with him, or go out to the hammock with her, hold somebody’s guinea pig or play a game of chess — and gotten an exasperated list of how much laundry, bill paying, dinner making or kiln loading I have to do right now. 

Now, it’s as if the break from my routine helps me appreciate the things I had taken for granted. So when we are together I am better able to be in the moment, sit still, listen, chat, monotask. A lot of things will just have to get done when they are in bed for the night.

I have had (what is it about women and their advice?) comments from friends and relatives conveying the subtle opinions that I am neglecting my children by starting an MFA at all. I have to say that this is a new one to me. When we slept with babies in our beds for the first two years, when I quit my job to be home with them and then decided to homeschool, the criticism I got was that I was a hover-mother, smothering them with too much attention, and that I would lose myself or lose my mind if I didn’t put those toddlers in day care/ put those kids in school and get on with it.

So I am pretty well vaccinated against the how-can-you-do-this-to-your-kids argument. Most of their peers have a window between school bus, homework, team sports and sleep where they see family, and everybody seems to be thriving just fine. Mine are still underfoot 24/7, with me, or their dad, or their beloved grandma (who has them working on a quilt on the tuesdays they don’t deliver Mobile Meals together.)

My biggest problem is not pushing out school when I am at home, it’s forgetting about home when I am at school.  Jeff has been traveling, which made it more complicated these two weeks – for last Wednesday night’s class, I brought the kids to Diana’s house with a movie for a couple of hours. The last Monday class, Jeff’s flight was hung up in Denver and I drove to Ypsilanti with the kids, left them in my MFA studio drawing and eating Diana’s crackers until their dad could get there from Detroit airport. They thought it was great and got to meet Patrick, but I felt like my attention was divided until they all were safely home, having navigated the semi trucks and rain.

What helps in this case is what helps in “full immersion” experiences like at Appalachian Center for Craft: being too damn busy to be able to think about it. From the time I arrive at my Monday evening class, the ball starts rolling and is uninterrupted except by sleep.

In class, we make pots (or sculpture, like Reem) and Diana “works the room”, offering critique, suggestion, advice. Her warmth and real affection for us make the crits a little easier to handle — there is clearly a separation between who we are as people, full of ideas and intentions, hopes and bravado — and where our pots are (which apparently is not as far along as we had assumed!)  ;0)  Diana brought brownies one week, fresh bread the next, shows slides every session of ancient pots that flash up on the screen in the darkened studio like potter fireworks — oooo! aaaahhhhh!  — enter the eye and implant themselves somewhere in our brains, forever. Likely they will show up in our work sooner or later.

We will be making and then translating some pot from antiquity, sharing the research for a collection on historical works, making and testing our own clay bodies, learning glaze chemistry, and that’s just the beginning of the syllabus.  And doesn’t include the pot assignments. But the hardest part, really, is what happens between me and the clay.

It’s kind of like dental work, the process of asking for critique. The bad teeth have to come out, the cavities need to be filled, we WANT the work done, but we know it’s going to be complicated and possibly painful, in that annoying-but-not-too-traumatic way. In a few cases I asked the other instructor for a “second opinion”, and got a whole different set of comments, but with the same general diagnosis of which bad teeth had to go.

This week I brought a box of the pots I had made during the Thursday in my own studio, packed in foam in a box, and pulled them out to line up like runway models for a crit. I had finally managed — alone in my space with nobody watching — to throw the forms which had eluded me in class. Diana is not unkind, but doesn’t waste any words with ego stroking, either — the problems are here, here, here. I needed to write them down, there were so many light bulbs going off. It’s a gift, being able to put to words what it is about a pot that makes it dorky, awkward, squatty, tight, controlled, unbalanced. Patrick and I have learned that while our hands are skilled at doing whatever we ask them to do with the clay, we do not yet have the eye to design an elegant or expressive pot (which we’re calling phase two) or the ability to take that skill into making “our own” work (phase three).

Reem and Patrick, the MAs and a couple of undergrads are wonderful company, and I had underestimated how much of this experience would involve my peers. The three MFAs, in particular, seem devoted to looking out for each other.

When Reem struggles with the text in the seminar readings, as English is her second language, we help her out. When I don’t know Hegel from hash browns, Patrick gives me a crash course. When Patrick is cooking a midnight frittatta at Diana’s, I am sitting at the table re-reading our chapter aloud (we discussed and debated about art history and theory, until one thirty in the morning. Diana was working in the other room, but came though on her way to bed to read us a relevant section from “Homo Aestheticus”.)  When more grad assistant money became available, we each privately went to Diana and lobbied for it to go to one of the others, even though we’re all pinching our pennies. And Reem in her little car ferries us class, or to our own dark parking lots after class.

In short, the whole cut-throat competitive thing I was warned about between grad students has certainly not raised its ugly head thus far. It helps that we all met — and continue to meet — over food at Diana’s, and that we have learned to keep each other laughing in the wake of crits, deflated egoes and frustration. Patrick does a great imitation of a Scottish shopkeeper from Saturday Night Live, in finally surrendering his hopes for a few of his pots — “It’s CrrrrrrAP!” 

Me, I am using a more euphemistic category, like for the pots I brought in the box, all deemed not worthy of University kilns and sent back to Toledo  — “Some idiot will probably buy it”.  Wrap laughter around all of it, in a circle of wheels with familiar faces laboring over them — it all seems like good, worthwhile, hard work.

The graduate studio seminar also promises to be a wonderful experience. I am starting to understand what people
meant during the most recent clayart MFA conversation when they said they learned more than they expected from the artists/students in other disciplines. Around the table are welders/metal artists, graphic designers, printmakers, painters, and more, and last night’s conversation was enjoyable, intelligent and animated. I think the raucous, opinionated potters added to the energy in the room. I gave my presentation with slides of my work, and got to see the work of the other students — some of it very inspiring.

So from class to throwing late after class, to the seminar discussion over Patrick’s frittatta, then a few hours of sleep. Before I had settled into my first cup of morning coffee, though, it began again. There was Diana with pots, books, conversation about what needed to be done, what we’d be spending our GA hours on this week. Patrick had two lidded casseroles plunked in front of his breakfast plate and we chewed while Diana talked about lids, rims, feet, balance, form. The lady wastes no opportunity — it’s “all clay, all the time”.

I headed for the studio after breakfast and spend one entire day just making bowls. Maybe a third got recycled after my own crit, Lee’s or Diana’s, and the rest will probably hit the slop after I trim. It’s not an easy shift, we’re finding, to go from “making for the marketplace” (ie: some idiot will buy it) and making with an eye to design, perfection, a higher bar and Diana’s standard.

At one point I found myself making a simple bowl, and finding that whatever I remembered to do right, I was forgetting and doing two things wrong.  Angle, rim, proportion, balance, thickness, dance.

I told Diana it’s like learning to water ski. Five people in the boat are giving instructions — all of them crucial, and to be done simultaneously – “Keep your knees together!  Keep your tips up!  Straighten your skis! Lean back and let the boat pull you out!  Keep your knees bent!”

and meanwhile, I’m wallowing in the water with boards strapped to my feet, tangled in the rope and trying not to drown…

Yours

Kelly in Ohio… where the kids are up and I’m off to make them a frittatta for breakfast…

 

 

(The photo: a grape vine climbed in my open window and selected a little pit-fired stirrup vessel sitting on the sill. When I had to close the window against the September chill, it held on.)

 

Thursday, Sept. 13th: I’ve recently started reading Michael Pollan’s book, “The Botany of Desire”. It’s an interesting read, so far. He suggests that, in the same way bees and apple trees use each other to fulfill their own purposes, we could step back and look at humans as another sort of bee: a tool some plants use to succeed environmentally, replicate themselves and carve out a niche in the ecosystem. 

He says it can be argued that, despite our human tendency to put ourselves in the lead role, agriculture and human “domestication” could just as rightly be thought of as “something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees”.

This kind of head tilting perspective just tickles me to no end.

One of his quotes, too, seemed to weave itself into the studio, and my ongoing inner dialogue about art and intention, goal and process, failure and experiment. I feel like trying risky new work, making things that are spontaneous or poorly planned, or destined to failure and thus volunteering for extreme measures — is part of the process, however nerve wracking. Problems arise and the solutions to them can become new paths to follow to uncharted territory.

Pollan says, about the ant that cultivates its own fungus garden, or the insectivorous plant that smells like carrion to attract flies, that evolution has little to do with intention or will, but rather it’s a slow function of trial and error.

“Such traits”, writes Pollan, “are clever only in retrospect. Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose”.

I have come to realize that the main reason I decided, against all logic, to pursue this MFA, was that my sales pitch is — and long has been —  better than my pots.

I write easily, (if not well), and enjoy the company of potters. As a typical firstborn, I tend to tap-dance for approval, and make a lot of noise about whatever little things I manage to do. I have a few articles in ceramics magazines and blather a lot on the clayart listserver. So at workshops and conferences, I often  meet people who know who I am, even though my pots are pretty unremarkable.

In school, when I got good grades, it often had to do with people skills, general apple-polishing, and an ability to write as if I had done my homework. I never felt so good about those A’s, though. I crashed and burned on subjects that were really hard, or imposssible to skate through on charm and bravado alone.

And so it is with my “art”. I am not a total hack, as a potter, but when I got a column in Clay Times, I wasn’t sure I belonged there. I am just a writer who makes pots. I want to be a potter who writes.

And so, in my determination to overcome a lifetime of all-hat-and-no-cattle, I determined to see what I can do besides show off.  An MFA program seemed like the place to do it.

Potters wrote me and said, “It’s going to be life changing, painful, transforming.. Hold on to your marriage, your sanity, your balance.”  I laid awake nights over those emails.

Other potters wrote and said, “Meh, it’s a cake walk. You can do it with one hand tied behind your back. You pay the tuition, you get the piece of paper.”

Honestly, that possibility scared me even more. What if I turned my family upside down for two years, spent that much money, presented myself for trial-by-fire and found I couldn’t even break a sweat? I SO do not want this to be an easy ride, dumbed down, just another laurel I don’t really deserve.

Well, after the last few days, I’m not worrying about that any more.

Day one: Monday. I spent the morning at home, teaching Molly how to do long division with “the little house thingy” and remainders… pulling boxes of fall clothes out of the attic for cooler September mornings… taking the kids to the metropark for our weekly “park day” with half a dozen homeschool families… filling the gas tank, the bank account, my cell phone card and the refrigerator. Late in the afternoon I headed for EMU while Jeff took the kids to Tae Kwon Do and gymnastics, and then dropped them at their grandma’s in their jammies, with book bags full of Tuesday’s homeschooling.

The EMU faculty union strike has been in and out of negotiations, suspended for day long intervals. While it is not yet resolved, luck was with me and my classes fell on the days that teachers were teaching. Diana’s house is always full of pottery students, though, anyway, drawn by a welcoming atmosphere, abundant good food, “bad wine” and strong coffee, and the fact that she lives right on the edge of campus (and will occasionally let us park in her yard.)

So between Monday evening when I arrived, and 30-some hours later when I headed for home, there were caucuses and conferences, learning experiences both formal and informal, from Diana’s kitchen to the ceramic studio in Sill hall, from critiques of the bowl holding our soup, to slides of ancient pots, Diana’s pots, discussions of books, technique and philosophy. My syllabus sits now beside my keyboard, waiting for me to finish here and find used textbooks on line.

I slept in Diana’s guest room monday night, in a brass bed with a fluffy duvet, and woke to the cell phone.  My husband, already at work, made the promised wake up call, offering time, temperature and the news that EMU professors would be off the picket line and in the classroom that day while negotiations continued. Fortified with coffee, I headed to the studio with Diana and Patrick where we made clay, and set about getting organized. Students will all be making small batches of experimental clay bodies using a coarse kaolin, making shrinkage and absorption tests, and comparing results to choose one for class use.

If I had ever questioned whether I needed to be here, doing this, all doubt faded by Tuesday afternoon.

In the insulated environment of my own studio, and in the classes I teach at the guild (where I do demos like a trick pony for mostly beginner adult students), I can often convince myself that I know quite a bit. In the big pond, though, it has become clear very quickly that what I do not know — even about basic stuff — could fill volumes.

New clay, new space, new wheels. I blamed all of those things, in turn, for the fact that I suddenly could not throw a decent pot to save my life. I threw and threw, and the folded, abandoned bowls piled  high. Diana sat down and did a quick demo of four bowl forms — the v-shaped rice bowl, the English bowl with the flat rim, the round boule, and the Islamic bowl with its little pedestal and angled-in profile. Quick, simple. “Try these.”

Probably sixty pounds of clay later, I still have not managed to throw a bowl worth keeping.

Tuesday lunch was a delight, because lovely, arty, enthusiastic Marta Matray (whose work is in many of the 500 series Lark Books) had arrived for a few days, to visit, look around, and make pots. Again, of course, Diana provided a lovely meal, and potters gathered to select this bowl, that cup, this plate from open cupboards. Reem brought baklava. Gotta love Reem.

An afternoon in the studio flew by.  Lee — the other instructor, and apparently a very smart man– stopped in to point out what was wrong with the few pots I had allowed to survive my throwing ventures. (In a masochistic sort of way, this felt good. This is what I don’t get, working in isolation.)  Then it was time to bolt (in a downpour) to the graduate studio seminar.

If my inability to produce a decent pot had been humbling, three hours in a room full of MFAs in various disciplines completed the job. I have no BFA, (and an unconventional MA,) and have very little background in 2d art, except a few  drawing/life drawing courses and a 2d design. When the prof asked us to go around the table and explain what art history classes we had taken in the past, I was impressed. A Chinese student in graphic arts had studied a wide array of art histories. The Korean photography student had started with art history in middle school, and listed undergrad and grad classes. There were similar “resumes” for two metal sculptors, a painter, a printmaker, and an MA-art education guy.

Now, I am not a total doofus on the subject. I have done some reading, I have taken courses like Ekphrastic Writing at the art museum where my mom was a docent, and where I spend a winter day every week in the galleries with my kids.

My MA focused on anthropological art, though, and folk art, and it quickly became clear to me that there is a language of talking about Capital-A-Art that is unfamiliar territory for me.

Right here in the middle of my life, though, I am learning that that’s OK. I don’t need to blather up something to make myself sound smarter than I am. I don’t need to give up on those #*&% Islamic bowls and start making things I know I can succeed at, just to prove to the students around me, “no, really, I CAN throw pots”.

The seminar class is both daunting and promising. Next week we are to present a 15 minute, informal, slide or powerpoint presentation of our work, just to introduce ourselves. We’ll be required to do “the real thing” at the end of the course (14 long weeks away) when we have learned how we might present our work to a gallery.

We will visit every class member in his/her studio to see and discuss the work, and will be assigned to write about the artwork of someone in the class. We’ll take field trips to galleries, draft and revise artist statements, and keep journals discussing the distributed readings.

The readings were another reality check. It’s been 20 years since I was compelled to read something so dense, abstract or challenging that I would otherwise have tossed it aside for an easier read. This is the highlighter-and-dictionary kind of reading. I was kind of sighing over how difficult it would be, until, during a break, Reem began to ask the definition of words she had jotted in margins as the class discussed a slide of a painting. “What is dichotomy? What is bleak?”

I decided that if Arabic-speaking Reem and the two Asian students could get through the English readings with dictionaries and determination, I should just cowboy up and get to work.

I got home late Tuesday night. Jeff had picked up the kids at grandma’s, where they had delivered mobile meals, gone to a movie, eaten ice cream, watched cartoons and otherwise suffered in my absence. They all were tucked in bed by the time I got in, and Jeff himself was turning in, since he had to get up at 5:30 this morning to leave for a conference in Montana. (btw, 20 hours later, he’s stuck in a bad motel in Denver, after a day of delayed flights and missed connections… though his luggage did make it to Missoula without him.)

Wednesday morning it was back to laundry, long division, punctuation, multiplying fractions, Spanish future tenses, parts of the tooth, and history. When we settle into our rhythm, I hope to do my homework while they do theirs. It occurred to me that I could have Tyler read my art history/theory assignments to me on long drives. He has a lovely reading voice, and he might be suitably impressed about how hard you have to study in college. The afternoon was for chores, Tyler’s saxophone practice and Connor’s piano, and art class at the botanical garden.

Since Jeff wouldn’t be coming home from work today, in late afternoon I loaded the kids in the van, picked up a pizza, and off we went to Ypsilanti again. I have to admit that repetition is making the 45 minute drive seem shorter — one cup of coffee and I am in Dundee, then there’s the prison, and before you know it, exit 34. It helps that you can drive 70 once you cross the Michigan border. Tyler brought a CD he got at the library with some nice saxophone parts, and Molly read a chapter book about Rex the Cat Detective for the third time this week. We had to smell the pizza for the entire ride.

I dropped the kids at Diana’s with the pizza, and immobilized them with a Madagascar DVD (guaranteed to keep them riveted in one spot, glassy-eyed and unresponsive to outside stimuli.) We have a “no screen time rule” in effect at home now that school has started, so they consider this a treat. I consider it a good way to keep them out of trouble for a couple of hours. Bad mommy, bad.

I headed off to the studio/class, and quickly learned what the parking folks meant when they called my hang tag a “hunting license”. I had managed to throw two halfway reputable pots at home and had brought them in the van, to finish them in the studio (and provide some evidence that I was not a total waste of studio space) but I had to park a mile away, so they never made it out of the van to save my ego. Diana likely would have offered a frank assessment of them, anyway.

I continued to throw miserably, but it was great to watch what the other students were making. Marta had created a hollow swirl-form that looked half flower seed pod, half animal. Patrick was throwing a series of traditional looking juggish-forms. I thought about doing some handbuilding, but had to be honest with myself: it was a way to show off, and avoid practicing those damned Islamic bowls. So I stayed at the wheel.

I kind of felt like my heart was in two places at once. It was getting near the kids’ bedtime… I kept stepping out into the courtyard to call and check on them. As always, they humored me, answering questions patiently, one finger on the pause button.

At the end of the session, Diana offered us brownies and slides of some wonderful ancient pottery, including clay versions of Chinese watch towers, and “mountain jars” and other fascinating pieces with insides and outsides, doorways and windows, small figures and details.

After class, back at Diana’s, the kids chatted with Marta and Diana while we got ready for the drive home. Diana apologized to me for her straightforward critique of some of the too-small, tight, mechanical pots I had thrown, and my tendency to make things “squatty”. I assured her that this was exactly what I was paying for, and as long as she didn’t tell me I was a bad person besides, I certainly wouldn’t get my feelings hurt over her assessments of my pots. Which, my gut tells me, have been right on — putting a name to symptoms of my more unsatisfying work that have nagged at me, but for which I had no diagnosis.

On the way home, I called to reassure my mother, who clearly had not been happy that I was hauling her grandchildren down a highway after dark with careening semi trucks and a hundred other worries. Then Tyler and Connor took turns reading essays out of Dave Barry collections. Connor sometimes giggles so hard in mid page that he can barely finish, which gets us all laughing at once. They headed straight for bed, and here I sit, still, at two in the morning, still too wound up to sleep.

Tomorrow, maybe I’ll do my homework when the kids do theirs, between breakfast and lunch. I have a private wheel student in the afternoon, and then my first guild class of fall session, in the evening while the kids are with their lego robotics team. After the last three days, I might just have to show up for class and confess to my students that I don’t know a damn thing about making pots, and they are all on their own. Or maybe once I am back with familiar clay and familiar faces, I will get my confidence back and be able to throw again.

Maybe I’ll demo one of those nice Islamic bowls…

Back to School, the signs say. My kids have never gone to school, but this year the signs are for me.

Our long Labor day weekend at the lake — with my grandma, parents, husband and kids — was, as always, the last gasp of summer. Cooler nights have made the lake too chilly for swimming, but we swam anyway, before pulling in the rafts and docks and rolling up the awnings. We can still go up and visit, enjoy the fall color and do some kayaking, gather nuts and make a fire in the fireplace, but summer is done. The boats and skiers circling the lake were mostly cottage people, giving it one last run before closing up for the season.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have felt sad about Labor day at the lake. The geese are making practice flights — already? When did the fireflies disappear? Did I bring a sweater? Summer meant freedom, trees to climb and bikes to ride. The end of it had a sense of gravity… time to get back to work. 

In my studio at home, I’m glazing shelves full of bisque, but with a sense of obligation and no real joy, as if the pots to come have already made these less interesting. I moved my wheels from the covered porch back indoors, setting up for private wheel students who will start next week. I’m also sorting boxes of tools, packing up duplicated for the studio at EMU, putting my indispensable ones in a tool box to haul from here, to the guild, to school and back. 

Three MFA students will share a nice big room in Sill hall, around the corner from the rest of the clay studio. We’ll work and learn and hang out in the main studio, where the action is, taking advantage of all that good cross-pollination. But we’ll also have our own room, our own shelves, work tables and coffee pots for “personal space”. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

I keep thinking about that room. Reem started working over the summer, and Patrick moved in a week ago and already has rows of pots drying on his shelves, but I don’t start until Monday night. So I am mostly planning, still.

I thought a lot about what makes a good space, for me. Good lighting is one. The room has no windows, and high institutional flourescents give me kind of a tinny headache after a while, even if they don’t whine. Good air is another biggie, as I get asthmatic in winter months… and a cool breeze, as I am apparently entering the era of the hot flash. Clean space is nice, and keeps the dust down as well.

So I picked up a cheap little tower air filter that blows clean air at face-level… a couple of the plants my library book says are very good for air quality… a plant light, and a daylight-lamp… a white board and a cork board. 

I was on campus last Friday for grad assistant orientation. Then this morning, since I had to drop off my  I-9 tax form at the grad school, I made another trip to Ypsi.

We went right after breakfast, the three kids and I. My house is more and more like that automated house in one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories. The reading lights over my kids’ beds are on timers, and go on just before bedtime, snapping themselves off right at ten.  Then they go back on at eight, to wake everyone up for the day. A timer starts the coffee, a timer has the oatmeal ready in a crock pot, and after a summer (ok, more like a decade) of sleeping until we felt like getting up, the house is now running on schedule. Tyler jokes that it’s like military school, but I guessed that at West Point, they probably would frown on his coming to class barefoot, in pajamas, with a cup of milk-with-coffee, and his shaggy red hair standing up in a wild assortment of cowlicks. And that for sure his brother would not be allowed to come to breakfast with a pet rat in the hood of his sweater, or take his math outside to do it in the treehouse.

Anyway, this morning they packed their homeschool stuff into book bags, filled water bottles, and loaded themselves into the van. It’s 45 miles exactly from my driveway to Eastern Michigan University’s campus, but Michigan highways post a 70 mph speed limit, so it goes quickly. It’s not especially scenic, though the goldenrod fringes the ditches, and the corn, wheat and beans are going golden.

My kids are skilled at spotting hawks, at intervals, and know the landmarks along the way… Cabela’s, with the cool taxidermy.. the Milan penitentiary, full of dark stories, and ringed with guard towers and razor wire… besides that, it’s mostly a changing array of bloated roadkill raccoons, and the thrown treads of semi truck tires like black alligators sunning on the gravel shoulder.

Both boys were done with the book part of their homeschooling before we got to EMU (leaving computer stuff, piano/sax practice and Tae Kwon Do practice for the afternoon.) My Molly, though, has her mother’s infinite distractability, and spent more time looking at cloud shapes, losing and finding her pencils, and asking random questions that seem to come from nowhere. What do the lyrics mean in “Uncle John’s Band”? Is the sugar alcohol in this gum the same kind that makes people drunk? Why don’t school busses have seat belts? Why do turkey vulture wing tips look like fingers?

We pulled into a campus parking lot near the absurdly phallic EMU water tower, which I alternatively think of as a silo or a big thermos. I love that the first building I see on campus is the old Normal Training School, a teachers college founded in the late 1800s. My father’s mother lied about her age and started school there at 16, in 1916, on her way to teaching at a country school in Petersburg, Michgan. I have her old dorm regulations book around here, somewhere… as I recall, extreme hairdressing and use of face powder was grounds for dismissal from the university, back then. I am not sure what they would have made of piercings, tattoos, and that visible expanse of skin between shirt bottoms and jeans-tops.

We beeped our support at the striking profs along the road, looking for Diana Pancioli among them. The kids know her, as she sat at my kitchen table last spring and critiqued the pots I kept bringing from my cupboards and studio… and then months later invited them for lunch at her house when she helped me photograph my work for submission.

I know that a large percentage of EMU students are “non-traditional”, but you sure wouldn’t know by walking across campus. It has been 20 years since I started my last degree, and I had forgotten that odd world where everybody seems to be in their 20s. No babies, no old people, no families. One student saw our little parade, laughed and asked my kids what they were majoring in…

Once my paperwork was turned in at the grad school, we dropped off some homemade elderberry jam and peach fruit leather on Diana’s doorstep, and went to Sill Hall to my new studio space. The kids helped me carry my stuff — the air filter, lights, mop and plants — and I used my brand new key to open the door.

Nobody else was around. We were there for maybe an hour. Tyler set to unpackaging the gadgets, reading instructions and assembling parts, while Molly set to work on the wide, canvas topped table with a fat wet sponge. We soaked and scrubbed up a layer of slip and then squeegeed it off with a borrowed metal yardstick, several times, until it looked pretty clean. They took turns mopping, and argued over the sponges to wipe down drawer fronts and shelves.

Meanwhile I hung a plant over my space and a plant light above that, and set up the lamp and air filter in a corner of the table. (It was 80F in there, so the breeze was delicious for my hardworking crew.) I put some of Connor’s artwork on the cork board — a sketch of one of my teapots — and stuck a copy of my schedule up for anyone who might want to find me.

And that — so far — is it. No ceramics monthly posters, not yet, anyway. It’s a blank slate, a place for ideas to form. I did have one odd thing in my bag that I left on the shelf to think about later. It’s something I came across in a cluttered, odd-smelling little Asian food store — a glass jar of tiny silver fish, maybe half an inch long, packed in perfect rows against the glass. I have no idea why I went back to buy it, except that I had seen it on the shelf a month ago and had thought about it several times since. Some things just seem to volunteer themselves to your attention, like odd dreams, and ask to be thought about. So there it waits, for me to have a block of time set aside just for thinking about pattern, and shape, tessilation and repetition.

I am determined to come to my MFA with an empty cup to be filled, and avoid the tempation to declare who I am and where I am too quickly, or trot out my best tricks like I am auditioning. I’ve already been accepted into the program, and what will happen next seems more important to me than what is happening now. The bisque on the shelves in my studio is fine, and competent, and somebody will buy it… but making the commitment to spend two years stretching my boundaries means I plan to start from scratch, and not haul a lot of baggage behind me. Including concerns about whether someone will buy it.

That’s a little scary, though.  Patrick, Reem and I sat in the silence of the big empty studio the friday before classes began, talking about new territory.

Reem has been doing sculptural raku work in Libya. Now she’s in a new country, with new clay, new materials, new firing temps and a whole new language and culture.

Patrick is a big old soft-spoken southerner, accustomed to country living and ^10 gas kilns… now he’s in for Michigan winters, and a whole new approach to firing.

I am a backyard potter who, after a decade of tinkering, has finally started to come up with a workable palette of ^6 glazes for my electric kilns. Again, not on the menu at EMU.

All three of us are looking at a brand new box of unfamiliar tools. Terra cotta. Maiolica. ^6 reduction. Wood. And the new salt/soda kiln we built over the summer, and have — as yet — no idea how to fire.

But I am proud of us, already. It takes some courage to leave the place where you feel competent and familiar, and set out on a new adventure knowing you’ll be –at best — an awkward tourist, for a while. But Diana is smart, and we are hungry, and this whole journey just can’t begin soon enough to suit me.

If all goes as planned, and the strike is settled, and “lord willing, and the creek don’t rise” — I’ll be making my first batch of clay next Monday. 

For now, though, my task is to get the household running like a well oiled machine, meals planned and lessons planned, chores charted and schedules laid out so that whether they’re with mom, dad, or grandma, my kids can continue to homeschool and play sports, gather with friends, eat healthy meals, play their music and get lots of fresh air andexercise. I am willing to give up a lot of things for the two years I’ve carved out for this MFA, but only if the people I love most are doing OK.

It’s probably good timing. My kids are pretty independent, and there are a lot of areas where I should maybe step back and let them be. I have tried hard not to be the stereotypical homeschooling “hover mother”, but it’s tough. It’s like when they were little, and I’d realize I was tying a kid’s shoes out of habit, when he knew how to tie his own.  They grow up at such a dizzying pace, it’s hard for a mom to keep track of all the ways her assistance has become superfluous.

Today, anyway, they had a nice day. At dinner, they told their dad all about their adventures in the world of college, and their lunch at a little campus sub shop, and how they got me all set up in my studio space. When I am not here, for a few dinners, and one overnight a week, they will know where I am, and can imagine what I am doing there. It helps to have a phone in my purse. I am sure I will be glad for it when my kids are driving, and dating, and otherwise making me a nervous wreck.

Now, though, I am up past my scheduled bedtime, and my new fancy simulated-dawn alarm clock will be waking me at 8 am with bird songs and bright light. The plan is to fool my inner rhythms into thinking it’s still summer, and ward off seasonal blues. Deep down I suspect those ten minutes of light bulb and canned tweeting in the morning won’t win over dark mornings and grey, sleety days… but I’m an optimist. And late for bed.