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Pottery Thoughts

Making Enough Pottery for the Season and Preparing the Soil for Planting in Door County

Making Enough Pottery for the Season and Preparing the Soil for Planting in Door County

small pottery studio production

John loads up the glazing table with cups and covered dishes for me.  These are two of our most popular glazes. 

There was a time, years and years ago, when Ephraim was our family's vacation destination.  Then my folks bought a hotel in Ephraim and I started cleaning bathrooms.  I got summer jobs in the tourism industry, mostly housekeeping and dish-washing and as a server. I went to college and finally married and moved to Baileys Harbor to become a ------ dairy farmer/dairy farmer's wife. Yeah.  How did that happen?

Years after that, once I sold the cows and machinery, I moved myself and my four children to Ellison Bay and married a potter.  It didn't take long before I noticed that the seasonality of my previous dairy life was similar to our studio and gallery life. 

On the farm in Baileys Harbor, the job I hated the most was picking stones in fields, preparing them for planting.  Hate is a strong word, I understand that.  But it doesn't even get close to how much I loathed that job. 

Door County's soil is mostly rock with a little dirt thrown in.  If you've gardened here you'd be nodding in agreement.  Look around as you drive through the county and you'll see those cute rock fences.  Those were made by farm families every spring.  Parents and children, and if they could afford it a hired man, would walk out or ride the bucket attached to the front of a tractor, to the first field to be cleared of stones.  A seed planter can be damaged by rocks and stones in the field, so this was a very important, never ending, chore.  Winter with it's freezing and thawing heaved new rocks and stones up from the core of the earth to make my life a living hell each spring. 

In small fields we'd fill up the bucket on the tractor and Dave (my first husband) would then drive it over to the rock fence that seemed a little thin and drop those rocks. With larger fields, we'd pull an old manure spreader into the field and fill that up.  We'd each carry a white plastic five gallon bucket and fill it. Then walk over to the spreader. Dump. Repeat.  Our two older kids shared the bucket and would help each other carry it to the spreader, but they needed Daddy to pick it up for them.  They were probably better at picking rocks than I was because I was so crabby about having to do this task. 

It was a cold, damp, dirty, hard job.  But vital to our survival and success on the farm.  We all worked together as a family, something that built a strength in our family. 

When I moved my family to Ellison Bay, it wasn't obvious to me just how much my life on the farm, with it's cyclical nature, would have prepared me to life in the tourism industry.  Farms had better months for milk production and pottery galleries have better months for pottery production and income generating. 

The seasons corresponded as well.  January milk production would drop based on the fertility of our cows and, as everyone knows, Door County is totally closed after Christmas.  (That's a joke by the way.  It's people's perception that everything is closed so they don't come up and then businesses have to close for the winter because no one comes up; that's the Circle of Life--cue the music).

What we did on the farm in the winter was maintain and repair machinery.  We deep cleaned the milk house and updated records. Researched how to get a better yield with better seeds and how to improve the genetics of our cow's offspring and keeping our cattle healthy consumed us and increase milk production.  I'd spring clean the house in the winter so in the spring I could be outside picking those damned rocks. 

In the studio we learn what pottery sold the best last year, what glazes were most popular, what new items we've been thinking about should be made.  We create plans for events, for inventory building, for maintenance and repair inside and outside of the gallery. Paperwork.  Improvements in the business, advertising to try and to drop. And we make pottery, lots of pottery, so that our shelves are full when we open the doors in May, or April, or whenever people start driving down the driveway a lot and we put up the open sign for good. 

Building an inventory can feel not so arty and more like a business, yet we have to think of what we do as a combination of creativity and taking creative risks and practical pragmatic decisions and jobs that must be done.  In order to keep our creative muscles strong we give ourselves some time each day to play with clay, to experiment with textures, or shapes or watch a YouTube video on a different way to fabricate a box or mug.  There are jobs that are not so cool such as recycling scraps of clay using the pug mill, with smells really bad and is loud.  That's John's job.  Keeping the inventory straight is mine.  All of these little things combined plus commitment to going to the studio and working every day is both ordinary and extraordinary. 

I mentioned the job I hated on the farm was picking stones.  One of the reasons was that there are so many sizes, from grapefruit sizes to Cadbury Egg size and smaller.  We had to have a limit or it would have taken days to clear one field of all stones and rocks.  But there was an upside.  Sometimes I would find pink quartz.  Sometimes I'd find granite rocks.  Sometimes I would find amazing fossils.  If I could get over my disgust with this essential job I could get into the treasure hunting excitement that even my kids, who were under 10, had.  Learning about the geology of Door County became a passion of mine.  I've always collected rocks and stones and they moved with me for over 40 years.  I remember where I got each one.  My Mom collected stones and rocks, as did my maternal Grandmother and they kept those collections close, like lining up the precious stones on the window sill in front of the kitchen sink overlooking the garden they came from. 

Then one day I meet a potter and begin learning a completely different aspect of stones. Of granite.  Learning where clay comes from. How it's created, by the earth, over millions and millions of years.  How we can transform this sticky plastic material into a kind of stone when we fired it just to it's melting point. 

I miss so much of my previous farming life: working with my children in the barn or field.  Dealing with my 'girls' in the barn and out in the field.  Fetching my 'girls' in the pasture at 4:00 am every morning and seeing shooting stars and amazing northern lights.  Slipping into the barn at 10:00 pm to give them one more slice of hay.

Then I think of how I, right after dinner, slip into the studio to cover up some project I've been working on, watch John at the wheel, sketch my ideas everywhere, write, meet people who fall in love with John's work, greet returning customers.  I get to create a display in the gallery. We get to have a picnic on our porch for lunch every day during the busy season. 

 

picking rocks in the spring

I didn't take photos when we were picking stones in the 80's so I've borrowed this one from a dairy mom in Ohio.  I had no idea Ohio had rocks in it's fields as well. 

 

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2014 is our 40th Anniversary at EBP---THE YEAR OF THE BOWL 2014

 

Just a fast post to announce that 2014 is many things, but the most important is that it will be our 40th year here in Ellison Bay.

John bought the barn in 1974 and it took him almost 3 years to get the well and septic in. Camping in the barn--sounds like fun, right?

We also Announce that 2014 will be THE YEAR OF THE BOWL.

This year, 2013, was THE YEAR OF THE MUG, and it was such a success and so much fun we've decided to repeat the challenge of making 100 one of a kind bowls.  Since we've already committed to one of kind China Bowls for those who joined us earlier this year, and which you can still become a part of, it seemed to be a seamless move to expanding this and BOWLING everyone over.

Sorry, John's the pun-ner and I am not, so you are stuck with my lame efforts.

I'll be sure to post more as we know more about our year.

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A Potter's Life: What we learned in China: Part One

There is good and bad food in China, just like here. The good food was very very good--like street food. Mmm. The bad was just UGH!
I should have brought more warm clothes. It was gray and gloomy for most of the trip.This didn't stop us from enjoying ourselves and doing what we wanted, of course.
Chinese pottery is mostly traditional pottery. Students learn from masters to follow what has been done before and to never vary. Students chafed at this. This made for interesting conversations.
Traveling with people we hardly know was easier than I thought. Probably because we were organized by the itinerary not created by us. There is a freedom in not having a say in what we do, where we go and when. I have to say we were always running late!
Two weeks, with three days in each place, is not enough time. We knew this going over and our bodies did get tired of moving all the time. It was grand fun, though.
Symbolism and metaphors are everywhere. Everything means something. History is alive in China.
A nice student at the Art Fair in Jingdezhen, China
gave us a short tour of the best ceramics by contemporary potters while she practiced her English. And then she offered to take our photo.
Absorbing everything we saw, everything we ate, everywhere we went, everyone we spoke to takes up a lot of time. We get to tell our story and each time we learn something or remember something. It's going to take all winter to actually process it all. But the most important lesson so far is that we are indeed a part of an old and honorable tradition--the clay tradition. We have a responsibility to the potters before us and to those who follow us.

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