Posts Tagged ‘pottery’

Last weekend we went to the St. Louis Art Fair, which is held just a few miles up the road from us. We bought a pottery sculpture called “Stacked Primitive.” He’s a guy with a sort of Easter Island head, and when we spotted him he had his arms up and his tongue stuck out.  We admired his attitude, and decided to take him home.

The artists, Ken and Pam Larson of Larson ClayWorks, told us that the purpose of this little guy is to say, “Pffffftttt!” to critics. There are even hieroglyphs carved on his base that read For the Critics in Larson ClayWorksese. I expect the Larsons intended him to  razz art critics, but I bet he’ll be equally effective against literary, fashion, and food critics.

I need a visible talisman against negative criticism, because otherwise I tend to let it stick in my head and interfere with my work. This is, of course, silly.  Critics don’t know everything, after all. This fact was proven with a vengeance during the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in fiction competition. Ultimately, in spite of the jurors’ passion for the three choices they submitted to the Higher Powers, those Powers cruelly decided not to award a winner at all!  Stunned by this fecklessness, one of the jurors wrote about the experience in The New Yorker, and concluded:

Utter objectivity… is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

– Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year

“Pffffftttt!” to the Pulitzer Powers.  What’s wrong with them? I don’t know, but I’m going to try to keep Cunningham’s words in mind as I continue to try to light my own fictional fires. Our cheeky little sculpture will help.

As Ken was wrapping the little fellow for surviving the drive home, he demonstrated how little we understood of its raw power. He proved to be a sort of primitive action figure:  His head comes off, and you can turn his arms so that they point down rather than up. We can even remove his little wooden tongue!  Now I can use him to reflect how I feel about how a writing project is going—hands up, tongue sticking out on a day of triumph and joy. Hands down, tongue removed and placed in a drawer for safekeeping on days of sadness or low spirits.  

To see him in action, you can visit Larson ClayWorks online and check out the video.  Don’t you agree that he, too, contains trace elements of magic?  

Of course, he needs a name….

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Daddy declared it a fine time to search out our autumn pumpkins, given the glorious display of changing leaves and the fact that soon he would be obliged to spend his Saturdays raking the glory out of the yard.

Mama said that she would enjoy an outing, and perhaps we could take in one or two of the pottery shops in Seagrove, which despite the name lay within rolling waves of green hills and nowhere near the ocean. All of us in complete accord, we headed out on a bright Saturday morning with sunlight tangled in the red and yellow leaves of the tree-tops.

At our favorite pumpkin farm, we took our leisurely time picking out two fat pumpkins and enjoying the farm’s cold apple cider. Mama bought a jar of lavender honey and a half gallon of the cider to take home. Then we drove further out in the country as if pulled by the lure of Autumn, until we came by way of the back roads to the pottery village of Seagrove. Mama sat up and became considerably more alert.

She directed Daddy to stop at Pleasance Pottery, which she deemed a likely place to satisfy her yearning for art. I liked it even better than the pumpkin farm. The shop was tucked back from the road in its own world. Cats stretched out in every sunny patch, and pottery toad houses and bird feeders further brightened the edges of a small pond ringed by purple and golden asters. Three massive cedar trees crowded against one side of the shop, and I saw more toad houses tucked among their roots like a village in a magic forest. Daddy put Bethany in her stroller and we walked around to examine it all while Mama went inside. Daddy pointed out a sassafras tree, with its leaves of two entirely different shapes fast turning a deep orangey red.

When we joined Mama inside the shop, Daddy advised Bethany, “Stifle your Shiva tendencies, dear heart, and touch nothing.”

Mama was trying to choose between two vases. “What do you think, Dixie?” she asked. She lifted them both to the light.

The first was a beautiful creamy white, with a crystal pattern that looked as if whiter pansies had been pressed into the surface of the clay before firing. It made me think of ice crystals and frosted windows. The other had a similar crystal pattern, but it was two colors: butternut and deep, bright blue, like a wondrous globe of some different Earth.

“I know,” Mama said, looking at my face. “It’s impossible to pick.”

She finally decided on the blue-and-butternut vase, and while Ms. Pleasance wrapped it in layers of paper and tucked it inside a box, Daddy left the stroller with Mama and walked through the rest of the shop. I followed him to see what he’d do.

The shop had three small rooms. The main room had been filled with light, and contained displays of the crystalline pottery in all sizes and shapes, all of them beautiful. The second room had a half-gate across the door, and inside we could see a work area, with two pottery wheels and an air of industry. The predominant color in there was the flat, chalky gray of the clay. Finally, there was a room that nestled like a cave among the large cedar trees we had seen outside. The trees cut off the light from the room’s one window.

“Well, well, well,” Daddy said. “What have we here?”

It was like a different time inside that room, with its rough wooden shelves, an old Hoosier cabinet for displaying pots, and a pine slab table in the center. Even the floor was different—rolling, packed dirt. The pottery was rougher, too, in keeping with this environment: plain golden-brown plates, crimp-edged pie pans, sturdy crocks in dull Quaker grays and blues. But Daddy had fixed his sight on something even more interesting—a green jug with a face molded into the side, with great crooked teeth and staring blue eyes. He picked up the jug and before long he was talking to it easily, like a friend.

“Dixie, come say hello to Brother Carl. What’s that?” He placed his ear next to the jug’s open top and listened intently. “Dixie, put your ear at the top of Brother Carl’s head, here, and listen.”

All I heard was a faint sound like trapped breezes. I told Daddy that Brother Carl was whispering, and I couldn’t make it out. “He’s pleased to make your acquaintance,” Daddy interpreted. “He wants to go home with us. I believe Brother Carl to be my foster kin, and I say we owe him a permanent residence.”

I asked him what he thought Mama might feel about offering Brother Carl permanent residence, and Daddy advised me that we would soon find out. He hooked his finger in Brother Carl’s handle and hoisted him onto one shoulder, as if he wished not to miss a word that the jug might let slip. 

Sure enough, Mama was appalled. “Frank, where on earth are you going to put that hideous thing?” she asked, as we returned to the car. Her tone held a familiar note of despair laced with amusement.

“I’ll make us a deep walnut shelf,” he said. “We can put your piece and mine, side by side for the world to look at and wonder. ‘Truth and beauty,’ folks will muse, ‘are they one and the same, as Keats would have us believe, or do they diverge and lead to entirely different destinations?’ Visitors will leave our house better people. A satellite picture from the depths of space would reveal a stream of curious light emanating from our door as the newly enlightened depart our home.”

“No,” Mama said. “Yours is not going to sit on a shelf next to mine.”

“Don’t be like that, Mel. You’re standing in the way of enlightenment and that is not a comfortable place to be.”

Daddy placed Brother Carl snugly between me and Bethany’s car seat in the back, and put the seat belt over him for added security. As we drove home, Daddy declaimed about the value of plain truth, rugged simplicity, and homespun wisdom. He grew excitable. “You know what we should do, girls? We should carve our pumpkins to look like Brother Carl’s family. Won’t that be nice for him?”

“You are not going to hijack the girls’ pumpkins, Frank,” Mama said. She turned in the seat. “Dixie, you can carve your pumpkin any way you like.”

“Oh, she can, she can,” Daddy said. He raised his eyes to the rearview mirror and grinned at me.

I said that my pumpkin could be Mrs. Carl, and Mama mock-wept into her hands.

Daddy patted Mama’s knee. “Never mind, Mel; this thing is bigger than we are. Truly a bountiful harvest. Put your ear to Brother Carl’s spout again, Dixie, and see if he has any words of wisdom for you. I’ve got a feeling he’s about to say something profound. Go ahead, now.”

Daddy watched me with quick upward glances in the rearview mirror, so I leaned to my right and put my head next to Brother Carl’s mouth. The ring of fired clay settled cool against my ear, and I listened again for the low hum of miniature wind currents circling the jug’s interior, knocking against its sides.

The jug spoke. A deep, nasal voice—loud and authoritative, but seemingly affected by an overabundance of teeth—filled the car:

Love is a funny thing
Beauty is a blossom.
If you want to get your finger bit
Stick it at a possum.

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