Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Meg recently sent me a pic of a porcelain plate that we made together back in the early 80s. We started working together in the late 70s and continued on through the 80s. When we started I had in mind playing Picasso on Meg's wheel thrown pottery. I think Meg was hoping for someone to help with all the dirt work involved in running a pottery ~ the shelf scraping, glaze formulating & mixing, kiln tending, and floor scrubbing - perhaps as much as having an arrogant and headstrong teenage "artist" decorating plates, but in any event we soon became fast friends and made many hundreds of plates, vases, bowls, etc - you name it, using every method of constructing, firing and decorating clay that we could come up with.

The results of all this clay manipulation were mostly sold in Cincinnati. I didn't keep many pieces myself - the only ones I have are rejects; experiments that, in my eyes at least, failed, or pieces that were broken but interesting enough to me that I glued them back together.

The plate jpeg, (a bit blurry...) was accompanied with a question about how it was done. I used so many approaches to decorating that it took some thinking to remember that this plate was carved with a lino-cutting gouge, tinted with mason stains and coated in a clear glass-like final glaze before firing. The colors fuse and pool in the grooves of the drawing, darker in the low places, lighter on the high ones. The curvy line (which also occurs in several paintings of the early 80s) was the hard part - the blue stain had to be carefully controlled to get it only in the thin groove, even a speck on the porcelain was an indelible mar. I'm pretty sure that I made an entire set, 6 or 8, of these plates, maybe with matching bowls. And I remember that I considered this particular design to a medium difficulty one ~ these somewhat stylized carp were easy for me to draw, the carving took time and care, but not so much as the much larger set of plates, platters, and bowls carved with variations on Hokusai's woodcuts of sea creatures. (The lobsters and shrimp were a lot of work, and their antennaes required hair-raising cuts of accuracy across the porcelain. There's nothing worse than an in-elegant antennae in my book. And what an annoyance to spend and hour carving all the various spines and shell parts of a lobster only to wreck the design with an off curve antennae. Well that never happened ~ so I know I was paying very close attention.) The Hokusai style porcelains were more expensive too, and that's why I don't have any of them! I think that Sarah has one...

Meg used to say, "You make some, and you break some." And we actually did break the ones that were too far south of perfect. Meg had a hammer and pile of shards behind the studio. It's a kind of release, I suppose, to shatter a disappointment, but I learned a lesson thereby that stuck with me.

I gave a vase, (itself what Meg & I called a "second" meaning not first quality, but not bad enough to shatter,) to couple, close friends that I saw often in those days, who lived a very modest life in a 3 room house with no plumbing, milking cows for a living on a small farm about 15 miles from dandyland. My friend's mother, a country woman with a corner cupboard packed with treasured china and knick-knacks, saw the vase as an object of beauty and desirability. My friend told her about the shard-pile and the hammer, how we busted the rejects. His mother, knowing that the vases were expensive, asked her son tell me that she knew she could never afford a piece of my art, but wondered if I would consider giving her the pieces of a broken one.

Shamed, humiliated and flattered, I gave her a nice vase, not a broken one. And I resolved then and there to be a little more humble about "perfection." I stopped burning all the drawings and watercolors that fell short of my standards (well, ALMOST all... some things are just plain mistakes...) ~ though it is a dilemna keeping "everything," and a worse one to give a second-rate gift. What I've tried to do is realize that I don't have to always be the final arbiter of what is good enough.

Meg's Fish Plate; 1982, carved porcelain

Mouse Plate; (broken) handbuilt, drawn with stain on a light bodied stoneware

Fish Plate; white slip on stoneware, incised drawing with colored stains

Rabbit Bowl; resist drawing on stoneware, (I think this is the best drawing on a bowl I did.)

4 August Moons and Lilies Plate; (broken) porcelain slip and colored glazes on incised stoneware, (This was the first plate that I made. The background glaze was supposed to come out brown. When I saw that it had heat-flashed to light blue I was so disappointed that I came close to breaking it on the shard pile. Now I like the blue and don't know why I disliked it so much at the time. I wanted brown I suppose.)

Blackberry Dish; handbuilt, stains and colored glazes on light stoneware ( I did this pattern when I couldn't think of anything else ~ I remember considering it as the lowest quality - toss off stuff.)

Chinese Design Bowl; carved and stained porcelain, (Sometimes when I had a lot of pieces to decorate and not enough ideas, I would choose a historical piece and make my own version of the design. I believed then, (as I do now,) in the Chinese idea of copying as a way to gain insight into the methods of the masters, as well as a way of discovering one's own idiosyncracies.)
When this bowl came out of the kiln, we put it on a shelf in the studio and the studio cat promptly tipped it off and broke it. I glued it back together, not much minding because, after all, it was a copy.)

Mum Vase; (collection of the magician) carved blue slip on porcelain.


megpots said...

Hey Dan, I have more "seconds". Thanks for posting the description of the process & all the pictures. I'll dig mine stuff out. I have the moonmoth vase somewhere.....

Apifera Farm said...

I started out as a potter, and I would be smashing pots in the studio and friends would wonder in and cringe. I think your lesson you learned, about not 'always' being the final judge is a good one, and I have learned it too. Still, I feel very uncomfortable when people come into my studio and gush over a pile of sketches/doodles or mediocre art. Someday I hope to do pottery again, Martyn showed interst in using some of APifera's clay.

SBD said...

You must photograph my firsts!!! Meg, glad to see you on the blog!

Dan Dutton said...

Hey Meg ~ yes, the moonmoth vase would be nice to post! It was fun to remember the times and ways of these lingering artifacts.

Hey Api ~ I remember talking to Martyn about the clay! I didn't know that you had potted!

Hey Sis ~ YES - you have some of the 1sts - including one of the Hokusai fish bowls I mentioned. Just wait for Antiques Roadshow & you're set.

William said...

I've got a couple of those early Dutton platters, one with a flower and the other depicting the Fox ballad. Dan told me they were too heavy, but screw that, they are beautiful.

I've got another fabulous platter by Meg that is amazingly light with an impression of what I believe is field grass with seeds set on.

SBD said...

Life was good in the days of yore when we all had some of our screws loose and our pots lopsided!
And the old studio to celebrate and dance in....

Dan Dutton said...

I wish I could remember the line in that song by the Smiths ~ the gist was don't forget the songs that you loved back then, even if they seem a little juvenile now. You're right, they were happy times, because we made them that way ~ & we'll continue to find that, even when times are tough. (I know Cebah does.)

I've gotta give credit to Dave & Nancy, for deciding to rescue the old studio for another round of fun. We've had a blast working on it!

Cathy said...

Oooooh! (I'm a total ceramics slut.) I love the blackberry dish, and the incised fish plate.

Nancy said...

David gets all that credit. I rescured some Megpots from the old stuido, which I am going to clean up and bring back to the tea house. A tea house needs little vases for flowers and tea cups.