Mill Creek Pottery
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Someone had asked me to write a review for my time as an apprentice as if it were a clever Yelp review. This is my attempt. My academic ceramics experience prior to starting with Simon was severely limited. My original goal when I first got into contact with Simon was to learn ANYTHING. His response: You seem rudderless. Nice, I'll take half a star off your review only because its true. I was rudderless. I took some time to learn from Tom and Maggie Jaszczak at Penland School of Crafts (featuring Hamish) and pushed for a little electric firing back at home. With my new body of work I was marginally less rudderless; I knew I wanted to learn about atmospheric firing. I was accepted into the apprenticeship in February of 2019 with almost zero expectations because my level of research was poor. I didn't want to have any higher or lower expectations based off of past apprentices experiences because they have different background experiences with clay.
The beginning of the apprenticeship was hard. I struggled with the line of where 'boss' ended and 'friend' began. This didn't have anything to do with Simon's actions or decisions but rather how I grew up. This is where the word 'mentor' come into play. We both became aware that my ceramics vocabulary was limited and I slowly started looking more intentionally at what I was making and dissecting its parts into elements that could be related to each other. The word 'poetic' came and I'm not sure if I liked the word. I remember Simon asking me to critique my cup with one word...I'll be honest here and say that I came up with the word 'stoic' only because I thought it fell in line with the 'poetic' theme. I think I prefer 'intentionality.' The next four months were pretty much the same, filled with mental anguish about the boss/friend line, poetic words, and absolutely crushing Simon at any board/card game available.
Tell me the mug above isn't 'stoic.' It's fairly standard and exists as a gift given to a friend of mine. I was not proud of my first round of pots that I made when I was with Simon. I felt as though I didn't know how to make pots. I ask other people all the time: 'What's the first step to being good at something?' 'Being bad.' I'll let you know now, I did not give myself the same pep talk at the time of my first firing.
At some point, I had the opportunity to assist Linda Christianson and Simon at The Archie Bray Foundation in Montana. Simon's association with Linda brings the apprenticeships review back up to 5/5 from 4.5/5. Let's not forget, this is a professional review. Linda was able to reinforce what Simon had been pushing me to observe about my own work. I understood talk about 'visual weight', one word crits, and the relationships between elements. Adjectives and descriptors were important. I learned its not my job to tell you what you get out of my work. But if you tell me something I never intended to be read/seen in my work, I have to attend to it and 'name' it. I went back to Pawnee while Simon stayed in Montana to finish out his residency. I started cranking out work to try and fill the Anagama for our upcoming firing in Wisconsin.
I started paying some amount of attention to surface but I was timid about rim and foot. To be honest I didn't think about them at all. Lines are cool, right? Tapered lines? Even cooler. They weren't great but no one here is expecting great. More importantly, they are better than before. That's all I need. I had my first online sale on my own website soon after this firing and had Simon's full support and access for advice. I didn't sell much but it felt good. Soon after this firing is also when I decide to accidently jam a dirty gloved thumb into my eye, scratch my cornea, and get made fun of in all the right ways. Its not terribly relevant but I still think its funny. My eye is fine, thanks for asking. Also lets retroactively welcome Dan Pfohl. He'll be working with me for the remainder of my time as apprentice. Dan's addition to the studio was awesome. He provided some structure and was good to bounce ideas off of and is goofy. During this time, the three of us received a 10,000 dollar grant to improve our experience as apprentices and the program itself.
I was lucky to be able to meet Liz Lurie and Steve Rolf in August and September. They both had very different approaches to making which confused me. Steve was very calculated and clean about his steps making sure to prep future steps within earlier steps. Liz loved existing in the messiness and awkwardness of additive and subtractive methods. I had felt as thought I was trying to make like Steve but I found out that I am way more comfortable following Liz's method. I was drawn to Steve's forms and decided to use one as a starting point while trying out Liz's method of making. It led to the little almond looking bud vases above and the serving bowl soon after. This is where things started to pick up. Simon labeled the slabs I was adding as 'zarfs' which is a type of metal container meant to hold glassware. They are more commonly seen as cardboard coffee sleeves.
At this point, I make it my goal to add zarfs to everything. My pots started to relate to each other and I somehow end up with these funny curves that I can manipulate and mess around with. Pitchers, vases and bowls were most of what I could come up with. I had dabbled with cups and mugs but the zarfs felt too clunky. So the most rational decision is to forget about it for two firings in a row. In my defense, I had a number of things I needed to clean up before feeling comfortable in the the exploration of mugs and cups. By now I've been with Simon for almost a year and, to my surprise, I was invited to ClayAKAR's yunomi show around this time. I did not have a cup/yunomi form. In a panic, I decided to crank out bland Simon-Brian hybrid cups that had no business coming to life.
Simon looked at one and said, 'You're not doing your thing. The thing you normally do.' At this point, I had cranked out around 15-20 of these things and called it a day on the ClayAKAR show and worked on pitchers and bowls. I panicked and came up with these:
Simon was right about me not doing what I was normally doing. I would add another star to the 5/5 but the max is 5. Nothing I can do about that. Sorry Simon. These not only sold out at ClayAKAR but also set me up incredibly well for mugs later down the road and got me started on contrast between the vessel and the zarf. Keep in mind, it was here when I ACTUALLY start thinking about the foot. Previously, I was doing what I thought was 'standard' to making pots. What if these vessels looked like they were floating? How much contrast can I add that wont get obliterated by the ash in the train kiln? How can I emphasize the curves on the zarf and make sure they are continuous and draw the users eye around the pot?
I thought I was making huge progress and that I would slow down for a bit. I wasn't wrong, but I was still not noticing a ton of things. How sharp do I want the foot? Visually, does the zarf contrast the vessel? Why does the foot have a thrown quality? Does the vessel look stiff? What about the rim? Simon threw all these questions at me and it threw me into spiral of creative angst in a good way. He knew how to get to me and understood my drive to answer these questions while I moaned and groaned about having to answer them. We're probably around the time when Covid-19 lockdown begins and I was lucky to be able to continue making in Simon's studio. The making slows a little due to two important side projects. The first was an air-release dinner plate mold The idea came from Simon's air release tile mold that I helped him make. The second was an overbuilt kickwheel that took 2 weeks to design, 3 months to start, another month and a half to finish after a month break, and 1 week of being nervous about using it after waxing the deck. The kickwheel was the brainchild of my friend Brandon, which I was able to start and see through into completion.
The kickwheel was put on hold due to unforeseen hiccups in making, frustration, helping Kenyon Hansen build a soda kiln Dan had designed, and going up to WI to fire Simon's anagama. I am also really proud of this moment: ClayAKAR invited me back for the Americano show for December of 2020. Had I stuck with my 'standard' looking yunomi without Simon's persistence for me to actually think about my work, I don't think I would have been invited back. I come back from the trip feeling good even after losing the front stack of the anagama. The three of us got right back into making with fresh ideas and responses to the anagama firing. The train kiln firing after the anagama was incredible. Simon also invited out Chad Hatanpa to fire with us which was a good time. The dinner plate above a from that firing. The colors were vibrant and the flame path was visually volatile.
I had figured out how I wanted to position my pots to help increase contrast between the zarf and the vessel. I also tweaked the rim and handle to relate some curves and add some ergonomic comfort, respectively. The next making cycle was my favorite by far. The tweaks made to my mugs were subtle, however, they visually fixed so many aspects of them. Simon mentioned how the foot had a thrown quality that didn't visually fit in with the rest of the piece. I fattened them up, that's about it. And holy shit did it make a difference. I also found the large handle a little awkward and I made them fatter and into 'one-finger' handles. I'm not attached to it currently but I like the idea of having options between one and two finger handles for my mugs. Finally, I added a deeper groove between the vessel and the zarf that improved the contrast between the two by almost 100%. I had also been messing around with a slip that corrodes around bits of sand in the zarf that adds a contrasting texture to the vessel.
I have a few other forms that I finished during the apprenticeship but I won't mention them as that's not what this post is about. The point of the mini tangent about my work is that Simon cares about the development of my career in clay and expected me to put in the work. I hope that I delivered within the time frame given to me and even then I can see how far my work has come. Let me reiterate, this was not easy and even now I still struggle with the boss/friend line but I am more comfortable with its 'grayish' nature. I feel very well set up for my future clay endeavors and am excited and a little nervous to struggle and resolve another aspect of my work again. I am unsure where I will be next but hope to be at Penland for a workstudy gig to explore color and surface design with Matt Repsher. I would have been at Red Lodge Clay Center for a 3 month residency but it was rescheduled due to rising Covid numbers. I'm still excited to go. It'll be the good kind of struggle.
Final Yelp review: 5/5.