Archives for the month of: August, 2007

When my grandma moved to a new senior residence, I was given her old canning supplies. This just tickles me to no end. Her farmhouse kitchen when I was a kid was a wonderful place where endless bushels of tomatoes were stewed and canned, where pickled beets stained hands and aprons and horseradish pickles sent a dilly vinegar smell up the stairs, across the screened porch and over the glider-chair where kids could spend an afternoon reading comic books.

Along with Grandma’s canner came a pressure cooker and my Great Grandma Parker’s old canner, a huge grey enameled beast with decades of well water hardened to calcium on the inside. Inside one big canner pot was a ziploc bag with several versions of the “Ball Blue Book” — a canning guide put out by the makers of Ball canning jars. I have the modern version in my own kitchen, but Grandma had a few vintage ones, scribbled with her notes and splattered with juice. One especially charming version had an artful arrangement of produce and jars pictured in too-vibrant color on the cover, and was published in 1941.

Inside the back cover was a brief essay from the Ball Brothers of Muncie, Indiana.

“To Save Is To Serve”, it was titled.

“Until now, homemakers have canned food in BALL jars because it is pleasant, convenient, economical, and healthful to have a well stocked pantry. Now, more home canning should be, MUST BE, done for the sake of personal economy and national welfare.

The transgressions of overseas dictators leave us no choice but to prepare to defend our liberty against possible aggressors. The debts for defense will be great. Each of us must pay a part. Some, perhaps all, must forego certain comforts and luxuries, but, unlike the peoples of the warring nations, we need not be deprived of neccessities. If we waste not, we shall want not.

All surplus fruits, and vegetables, and meats can and should be saved by canning. Every extra jar of home canned food will be needed — by you, your children, your neighbor or your Nation.

Today, the Stars and Stripes fly over a land of freedom and plenty. We can keep it so if we but remember that the wages of waste are high — and that to Save is to Serve.”

I am fascinated by the era of rationing, victory gardens, and the Great Depression. Maybe it is because I spent so much time as a folklorist interviewing people who lived in that generation. Maybe because it is so hard to imagine not having whatever we want at our fingertips. Maybe because “the wages of waste” are no longer a concern for most of us.

I have always canned peaches and tomatoes, and made jam, pickles and sauerkraut. This summer, though, it seems more important than ever.

Partly that’s due to my summer reading list, which included The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I can no longer buy lettuce shipped from California or CAFO-fattened beef without knowing just exactly what the price is — in fossil fuel, in pollution of the environment, and by extension, in human lives. For me to take part in the waste of resources — like by buying Florida strawberries when local farmers are selling fresh-picked-today — weighs on my shoulders, in the light of my new perspective.

It wastes my money not to grow my own, buy in season, pick and can. It hurts my community, to buy from elsewhere while local growers and small farms struggle all around me. It hurts the planet to take for granted that we should have watermelons in January, Chilean grapes, coffee and pineapples year round. The cost in fossil fuels to transport all that food is staggering.

And oil fuels wars. It gives power to tyrants. It makes beggars of out the countries with the highest appetite for fossil fuels. I am not ready to give up driving, to boycott my cup of coffee or live off the grid in a yurt… but canning my own produce feels right on so many levels. I can feed my kids home grown organic, even in winter. I can buy by the bushel from local farmers, bypassing all the middle men and chain groceries who get the lion’s share of the profit otherwise.

We build family memories, gathered in a steamy kitchen peeling peaches and lifting canning jars from the boiling water, lining them up to cool and hearing the “tink” of lids sealing. My kids love every part of it. They go out with baskets and come in with wild grapes, elderberries, cherry tomatoes to slice and dry — all from our little suburban back yard.

And the primal part of my brain likes the notion of stocking up for the cold weather. Deep down, we are cave men, and don’t grasp the fact that the Kroger store is open all winter and we are unlikely to starve. Fall means gather, harvest, prepare. School shopping just doesn’t do that for me.

And I suppose some of us — especially those of us whose imaginations were fired by Y2K scenarios, years back — also consider history to be a cautionary tale. 9-11, Katrina, earthquakes and blackouts in the past have reminded us that it’s important to have something in the pantry “just in case”. A friend who works in emergency management recently reminded us that quarantine would require provisions, as well, if something virulent were to break out. Visit the Red Cross emergency preparedness site and make sure you’ve got the basics in the house, ok?

I’m not stocking the bomb shelter or hoarding red beans and ammunition, and I am pretty sure our society will march along into some kind of Jetsons future without any major detours. Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I know my grandma didn’t can her produce because of the high price of organics, or becuse she wanted to support the local economy or save fossil fuels. But she had a pantry that was a work of art, and it fed us all wainter long with cherries and plum, fruits and veggies that tasted like summer itself.

Maybe that’s the final appeal. In the bleak grey of January, I can open a can of August – red haven peaches canned in fruit juice, golden as the summer sun, sweet and cold from the fridge.

After a rainy week we had a lovely Saturday for the annual pottery lawn sale at a potter friend’s home in Waterville. There were eight of us there and we each averaged a couple hundred dollars in sales.

The best part is always the company, a group of potters sitting at a table in the shade eating good food and talking shop. I feel a little like a gypsy with a traveling road show; out of my van come tables, shelves, fabrics, boxes of pots and an ez-up tent… and eight hours later, back in it all goes.

There are faster ways to make better money selling pots, but nothing replaces the information you get from watching people move through your booth. What do they look at? What do they touch? How do they react when they look at a price tag? If you loiter nearby, what comments do you overhear?

As usual, the pots most people seemed drawn in by, and interested in, weren’t the ones that sold the most. This time it was my lottoe ewers for soy/oil/vinegar/whatever. As I sat up late pricing the night before, my son Connor filled each one and poured it to make sure it didn’t dribble or glug. I had a stack of small funnels for folks to take when they bought an odd one with a narrow fill hole. I sold a couple of really good ones, but many more bowls, trays and lidded jars. My prof hates the little faces I put on things but the public seems to snatch them up.

I made a slide show of all my new ewers, and posted it at primalpotter.com (actually, three slide shows with ten slides each.) Most of those ewers are still for sale, so if anybody wants to adopt one, they are twenty bucks. Just email me. Comments and critiques are welcome, as always…

Yes, I brought home a trophy… nicely discounted for workshop attendees, too!

This weekend was spent at the lovely 577 Foundation in Perrysburg. The former estate of the area’s wealthy Stranahan family, the foundation has nature trails, education programs, community flower and veggie gardens, a geodesic dome full of steamy green plants and fish ponds, and a thriving ceramics studio which Edith Franklin pioneered years ago (“when you all were just babies!”, she’ll say.)

Now Julie Beutler is at the helm, and she brings in some great workshops.  (Two years ago, Mel jacobsen came.) This year’s offering was Nick Joerling, and that’s where I have spent the last two days — in a padded metal folding chair at the pottery barn, from 10 to 5, watching.

I wanted to see how he made the animated, dancing potsI had seen in mags, in books and on posters. Since I have spent the summer using the wheel mostly to make parts — to be assembled later — I was fascinated with his views on altered pots, and the book he and Gay Smith and Suze Lindsay are cooking up about altered forms.

One thing he said was that, for better or worse, altered forms are more photo-friendly than, say, symmetrical, volumetric pieces like big open bowls, that have no obvious “front” or “profile”.

Nick said, “Some hope their images are as good as their pots. I hope my pots are as good as my images.”

He says his work comes from a “drawing sensibility”, and it’s clear that his thought processes run that direction; his rims frame moving lines, he points out, the way a comic strip’s frame encloses a figure that might be moving past the boundaries of the box. The curved decorative lines he makes on tall forms are like the lines showing movement in a cartoon… “If I could make them outside the edge of the pot, I would.”

He’s from Western NC near Penland, surrounded by good potters, and he’s a neighbor of Paulus Behrenson.  He shared stories about teaching, learning and collaborating at the art/craft schools like Penland, Haystack and others, places with a special sociology where “everybody leaves their category behind, and gathers around the material”. 

He also volunteered (or patiently fielded questions about) his own evolution as an artist. He talked a bit about  where his pots began. In grad school, he said, he made “a real timid and serious pot and tried to rescue it with decoration”.  Clearly, now, his pots have become anything but timid.  While he has no interest in “cute”, he feels that humor can be substantial in ceramics, not just superficial. It works the same way humor in conversation does — “it opens our ears to hear other things”.

He was incredibly generous with private information about his life, his business and studio practices, health insurance, and other personal stuff we interrogated him about. He even shared the story of his fairly recent near-death experience when, overcome by exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide (from a kiln behind a closed door, in a room with open windows) he passed out alone in his studio next to a firing kiln. His girlfriend found him hours later and he was life-flighted to the hospital — and lived to tell the tale, but not without cautionary advice about taking kiln ventilation seriously.

I came home last night a bit wound up from a whole day spent sitting, and drinking coffee, eating a huge potluck lunch, and the visual overstimulation of good slides.  I laid awake thinking about a lot of what he said about making pots. 

He made the point that potters can enter the market too quickly, and be pushed in the wrong direction.

He suggests that there is a point at which you need to stop taking in images of other people’s pots and let your work feed off your own work.

He encouraged us to stay with a pot, past the point where the learning curve seems to stall, instead of moving on to more exciting novelties.  He suggested that working in series can help a pot evolve, and fine-tune unresolved details.

He points out that innovative, functional pots are worthwhile, but warns against a tendency to “try too hard to be novel”.

And he points out that potters’ final products often hold a clue as to which part of the process they like best, in the making. Wet, soft clay? leather hard? decoration? firing?

At any rate, it was well worth my $75 admission, and I bought a plate as well. I likely will kick myself when EMU tuition is due and my studio account cupboard is bare, but I have pad pots in the glaze kiln right now, and a sale next weekend, and hope to be able to make up the difference.

Nick left us with a good feeling, some useful tools and tips, and a sense of familiarity I can’t put my finger on. Tall and slender, like David Hendley, … soft spoken, like Robert Piepenberg… a great smile and sparkle, like Josh DeWeese… a great sense of humor, like just about every potter I know.

I brought home a great plate. Jeff sighed. “We have to hang it on the wall, don’t we?”  Poor Jeff has wanted some hand thrown dinner plates for as long as we have been married, but I have yet to make work good enough to want to see every day. And frankly, if I made it now, I’d rather have the money! So at least for while, we’ll eat off the fake willow ware we got at the grocery store in Texas  with our frequent customer trading stamps.

This evening’s adventure included the Wood County Fair, barbershop quartets, chainsaw carvers, champion dairy cows and laying hens.. but that’s not a story for tonight. I’m off to the bathtub to soak, and will be up early to unload a cooling glaze kiln of pots for this weekend’s sale.

 

What a nice guy.

What a nice pot.

Stop by! Support your local potters!

Bring wheelbarrows full of money!