Influences are forces - circumstances, personalities, irresistible as the tide.
- Raymond Carver
I love Raymond Carver's essay 'Fires'. He talks about writing in a very in-the-moment way, and he talks about what has influenced him as a writer. "I don't know about literary influences. But I do have some notions about other kinds of influences. The influences I know something about have pressed on me in ways that were often mysterious at first glance, sometimes stopping just short of the miraculous," he says.
I had something along those lines in mind when I went back to visit the place where I grew up a few weeks ago. As a potter, I don't know about potterly influences - it's pretty hard to pin down what specific potters might have 'influenced' me - but traveling back to the place I was born, I hoped for some insight into influence in the more mysterious and miraculous sense. I stood at the intersection of Dublin Hill Road and Angling Road and took the picture above. In the distance you see the lake - it's about four miles away, down past that line of trees. I know, you can barely see it - but, it is there. As a kid the presence of that lake, and the sense of its being there even when you couldn't see it, was influential. In the night, from my bedroom, I heard its waves.
A few years back a former colleague of my father's found my gallery in Santa Fe, bought a piece, and then introduced himself. He and my dad had taught at the same place, back where I grew up, had sat through the same faculty meetings, stood around the same coffee urn. Come visit when you're back this way sometime, he said, and I wanted to do this now - he could tell me a little about life back then, he could give me a little perspective. Before knocking on his door I visited the lake itself, parking carefully where, back then, I would have just flung my bike down. I stood for a moment on the shore. It was just the same. The smooth shale stones felt the same, and by mistake getting my shoes wet...that felt the same too. The waves made a quiet, repetitive, questioning, sound, coming up and then going back. The lake was talking to itself, just as it was before, an endless sound, when you really crouch down to listen, waves stretching twenty miles in both directions up and down the shore.
Finally I went to my dad's former colleague's house. He and his wife welcomed me in and showed me around. Here's the piece we bought from you in Santa Fe, he said. This one here is from Mackenzie Childs. And here - this one is by Toshiko Takaezu. Did you know she came up for a workshop once?
Uh...really? To the college? I imagined myself pedaling around on Main Street, while Toshiko Takaezu was up on campus a couple blocks away. I would have been about seven.
Sure. When the new art building had just gotten completed. They wanted me to bring some people in, so, I thought why not start at the top? I called her up. We all had a fantastic time!
Wow, I said. I picked up a small but tall and casually-thrown bowl that looked like it had warped a little in the firing - a little bit oval. An opaque white glaze that is now a Seventies cliche - like Rhodes 32, a glaze I love and use all the time. Wow, I said again. I wonder if my Dad dropped by to watch her workshop. I have often thought of the 'circumstances,' as Raymond Carver would call them, of my growing up - a couple hours from Alfred University where Dan Rhodes was himself on the faculty at that time, along with Robert Turner; an hour from Syracuse where, when I was a kid, Garth Clark opened the First International Ceramics Symposium. The Everson Museum, with that fantastic collection. Our kitchen was always filled with stoneware, some of it made in that new art building up on campus and perhaps scooped up by my dad on his way down from his office.
This casserole was always around when I was little. It was in constant use, either in the oven, or on the table, or pushed into the refrigerator. As a kid I thought it was big, and very fine, and heavy. The stony glaze - that could almost be Rhodes 32, with maybe a little more feldspar in the mix - was elegant, earthy, and not decorative. Even as a kid I didn't like the word 'decorate.' The casserole was, for me as a kid, a satisfying unification of formality and urbanity on the one hand - just look at that lid pull at the very top - and a kind of easy-going, corduroy, every-day-ness. Kind of what I picture my dad's classes to have been like. I asked his colleague what he'd been like as a teacher.
Carefully I packed up the casserole and brought it home with me to Santa Fe. Maybe this'll turn out to be something really valuable, I thought as the plane took off - maybe it is an early work by Robert Turner himself.
In the bright light of my own ceramics studio, though, the casserole didn't quite look so good. I was surprised. The lid is ill-fitting, the glaze doesn't quite fit either, crazing deeply. The foot is trimmed with a tentative hand. I peered at the signature. 'Klym,' it said, the letters drawn with a needle tool, sure sign of a student potter. I was disappointed. Overall the casserole had a quality I'd never noticed - provisional, a step on the way, this was a piece made by someone learning how casseroles worked, what the form was, underneath. It almost seemed like...something I might have made.