Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pouring Complete!

The biggest step in building a wedging table happened this afternoon. I poured the plaster.

Actually, the wedging table has taken somewhat longer to build than I thought it would. I'd like to blame that on the holidays and winter in general, but in truth, it's just been a slow process. I underestimated the amount of plaster I would need for one thing. That and the fact that I'm no carpenter. But somehow it came together.

Here are a couple of pictures taken this afternoon as I did the pour. Plaster has to be mixed very carefully and in the correct proportions in order to get the best strength and absorbent properties out of it. And each kind of plaster (there are many different kinds) has its own mixing ratio. Thankfully, potters are a verbose lot and willingly share their knowledge on things like this so the information was not hard to find. This particular table required 9 gallons of water and about 95.5 pounds of plaster. But it's what I wanted and will be in use as soon as the plaster has cured and I have covered it with heavy canvas.

This shows the table with half the plaster poured:

And here is the table later in the day with the pouring completed. I doubt I will be moving the table again. At least not without help.

Once this is finished, the work can begin!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

New Link

I have put something new up on the web site. A number of people have contacted me looking for information on available products. Since my phone number is a cell phone and I'm not always (read not usually) at the workshop, it's not always easy to get that information to people when they want it.

So, by way of a workable solution, I decided to put up an inventory page so that people can see what is available right away.

Right now I am hard at work on a replacement for the rather basic HTML web site that I currently have up. The new site, which will have the exact same web address as the current one, will also have a complete online shop with a shopping cart. Orders can be placed through the site if customers wish to do that.

I like talking to my customers, and with so many products and options I can't see that relationship changing. Pottery is a very personal thing and getting it just right is always the goal.

Please do check out the Lowell Hill Pottery Inventory Page.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Taking Shape

Well, it's officially winter. There is snow on the ground...sort of...and it's cold. The house is finally banked, the plastic is up on the windows, the house is still rather cool though not uncomfortably so, and the cat is now insisting on sleeping under the covers. We both love flannel sheets and she is far more efficient than a hot water bottle.

Of course, the water is now drained out at the pottery. With no heat in the building there is nothing going on. I am now working on the studio space in my house.

It's a small house, but here is what is happening.

I decided that the corner of the kitchen that was intended for eating just wasn't going to get used for that purpose. It never has been. I prefer to eat in the living room and that is where I serve guests as well. So the kitchen table and the area it occupies has been collecting junk for a long time. If I have no place to put something - or more likely, if I just can't bring myself to toss out something I am not using - it gets piled somewhere until I can't stand it anymore.

Well, I decided I couldn't stand the pile int he kitchen any longer, so a lot got carried to the dump. What remained found new quarters elsewhere in the house. That left a nice area for a small clay studio. There was the issue of the wall-to-wall carpeting. I saw no sense in keeping carpet where I would be using clay and water, so I tore it up and removed it.

Have you ever taken up wall-to-wall carpet that has been in place for over 20 years in a high traffic part of a house? I'll spare you the gory details, but it was one entire day's labor to get the mess cleaned up.

Anyway, that left me with a nice (?) bare floor where the studio would go. Building the work benches would come next. I have built one work bench and will soon be able to start putting out small items like napkin rings and jam jar lids. Items like that are small enough to do in this space and can be carried to the pottery to be fired. Here is a picture of the studio space so far:

Yes, that's crappy plywood flooring. Not everyone can find beautiful hardwood floors under the carpet (like so many people I have known did). The first work bench I built is on the left in this picture. Right now, it holds all the tools currently being used, but most notably it has the extruder mounted at the right hand end. This is used to make napkin rings and handles for most pots that require them. To the right in this picture is the wedging table I am now building. Here is a close shot of that:

The well in the top of this table will be filled with plaster soon and the whole thing will be covered with canvas. Before I can do that, though, I will need a few more tools and another 50 pounds of plaster to add to the 50 I already have.

Yeah, it's going to be heavy. But that's the point.

After these benches are finished, I will build one more for making tiles and then I will be in business again. Pictures will be forthcoming.

Google-licious: I tried Googling "Lowell Hill Pottery" today. I seem to have done something right!! The entire first page consisted of hits on my web site! Try it out for yourself. Then have a look around. I am currently building a new site complete with an Internet store and shopping cart. My hope is to launch that in the early spring if not before.

I'll keep you posted.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Deed is Done

This morning on my way to that full-time job of mine, I could not help but notice the flakes of snow flying into my windshield. There weren't very many of them and the weather quickly turned to rain, but it was cold out.

It's not exactly throwing in the towel, but I stopped in at Blue Hill Plumbing and Heating and asked them to turn off the water for the winter. So it's done. I'm firing a kiln today and will continue to do that over the winter as I produce tiles at home. I'm even thinking of finding a low-cost (used?) wheel and bringing the extruder home so that I can continue to make napkin rings during this 'dark side' of the year. Not sure as yet.

I'm pushing my plans for a holiday tile into next year. I still have a lot to learn about working with plaster - at least in the die making department - and I have spent a lot of time filling orders and solving problems this year. All of those projects have ended successfully, so I'm sure the tile shop will do as well. But now is not the time to be adding new stresses. It's the time for planning and thinking.

I'll be taking orders over the winter for springtime production. The web site is now up and running although there are still many additions to put up. Please have a look at the Lowell Hill Pottery site and let me know what you think.

Until sometime very soon...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Return of Moss Agate

Moss Agate has returned! While it was never the most popular of the Rowantrees glazes, Moss Agate was always among the loveliest because of the manner in which its appearance changed depending on how thickly it was applied. Its reformulation was challenging largely because of my desire to capture that property. Some experimentation still needs to be done in terms of applying the glaze - it renders a beautiful red color when applied thinly but may tend to crawl if too thick - but as with all the other glazes to date, it promises to be a very good if not entirely exact replacement to the original. Here is a picture of a jam jar set in the new Moss Agate:

This glaze also works well with the current Duckshead Black. Here are two mugs - one in plain Moss Agate and the other in combination witht he black:

I'm glad to have this under control at this point in time as the studio will have to shut down for the winter soon. There is no heat in the building so the pipes will have to be drained out. So much has been accomplished to date, however. It will be much easier to start production up again in the spring since so many hurdles have been overcome.

The clay has been chosen, most of the glazes have been reformulated to withstand production requirements, and the few formulas left to convert are well into the process. They are the less-often used formulas, but they have their followings as well. Among these are Seagull Gray (for which a base glaze has been formulated - it's now a matter of adjusting color), Jonquil Yellow and Evergreen. Their day will come.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


I had a good old-fashioned Halloween scare this afternoon while glazing at the pottery. I looked out the window and saw...snow falling. Oh, it didn't last long and never actually accumulated. But there's something about seeing it fall that caused me to turn a psychological corner. I can no longer deny that the seasons are moving on. Up until now, I could ignore the gentle rumble of my furnace. I have put thoughts of banking the house out of my head. Plastic on the windows? Not needed yet!

But when you see snow for the first time in the year, it's time to stop denying. Winter will be here before long.

I have been using the wood stove in the pottery for a couple of weeks now. it doesn't really keep me all that warm, but it does keep the ambient temperature in the place well above freezing. It looks like I will win my race with the cold weather, though, as I have only three orders left to fill and have managed to put up some stock for the holiday season. Not bad!

But even better than all that is the success I have been having with the glazes. Earlier on, I wrote about the crazing issue. I have worked diligently on that and today finally brought me a victory. No crazing in any of the new lead-free glazes. This means a strong product that will last a good long time.

So in terms of where I am at this stage, I have found a great replacement clay body, I have succeeded in reformulating almost all of the standard line of glazes (Duckshead Black remains a work in progress for reasons I'll explain in a moment), and I have exceeded my production expectations.

I'll be putting available products up on the web site in a few days along with a price list. There will be gift items available in time for the holiday season.

This is all coming together. It's going to work!

For now, here are some pictures of the new glazes.

This is a condiment service set consisting of a jam jar, a large creamer and sugar set, and a dinner plate. It is shown in Heather Blue and White.

 This is a domed butter dish in Duckshead and Turquoise. As I said earlier, Duckshead is still a work in progress, but I am now using it in combination with Turquoise and Moss Agate red.

 The jumbo and coffee mugs are shown side by side. I currently have a cocoa mug and demitasse sets in the works and will add them to this composition for the web site. That will give the entire range of sizes. Coffee and jumbo mugs are standard items. The others will be made on order.

Here is a jumbo mug in Duckshead. As to its status as a work in progress, I am using a black glaze that looks very attractive in combination with Turquoise or Moss Agate (I'll be posting a picture of Moss Agate after the next kiln comes out). But while it works well in that context, it still needs a little work before I produce pottery glazed exclusively in this black glaze. Duckshead has always been a "recycled" glaze, meaning it uses leftovers of all the other glazes as part of its composition. Right now, I don't have enough leftovers to make Duckshead in the traditional way. But it won't be long!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Riddle Me This

Well, it's not really a riddle. But I do want to invite anyone interested to take my customer survey.

You can find it here.

I've been meaning to put something like this together for a while but only got to it a couple days ago. Really, it will provide me with some very useful information and help me in deciding not only what sorts of products people are looking for, but also what colors and patterns I should be concentrating on.

The more I know, the better served the customer will be!

Many thanks in advance. This probably won't be the only poll I put up, but it's my first and very important.

More news very soon. I have been busy!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sneak Preview

A while back I mentioned my intention to create an ornament tile for the holiday season. At this point, I have designed one for Christmas and am giving some thought to other religions. Suggestions are always welcome. For now, here is a preview of the Christmas tile. Note that the colors are not accurate. What appears as red is actually bare clay and all colors are web safe. What actually comes out of the kiln will look a little different.

I estimate the dimensions at about 3.5 inches square to keep them as light as possible so they can be hung from a tree if desired. I'm currently making the plaster dies that will make the imprint. Once that is done, the rest will follow pretty easily.

Thoughts and reactions are always welcome!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Boil, Little Porridge Pot!

I was reminded of this little line from a childhood story last night as I hovered over a large kettle of boiling water. I was subjecting three pieces of pottery to one of the most brutal tests you can imagine. It's called the Boiling Water/Freezing Water test and it is the acid test for glaze crazing. In a nutshell, you immerse a pot in boiling water for three minutes, remove it and immediately immerse it in ice water. After three minutes in the ice water bath, you quickly drop it back into the boiling water. You repeat this cycle three times. Once finished, you use a dauber and rub black ink or paint into the pot. After a few minutes, you wash the excess ink off and then examine the pot closely to see if any crazing is present.

Any pottery that can withstand this test is probably strong enough to last a long time. Nobody that I know of exposes their dinnerware to this kind of treatment, but the test is intended to duplicate the ravages of time in a hurry.

Last night I was testing the newest version of the white glaze on both the newer clay body and the old local clay. Results were slightly mixed, There was no crazing on the pot made from local clay, and no crazing on most of the pot made from the new clay. Where crazing did appear, it was not surprising. The glaze was too thickly applied in that particular spot and had crawled slightly, making that area prone under any circumstances.

There was no crazing at all on the moss agate test. This despite some crawling in the bottom inside.

All of this is very encouraging. More when I have more time.

Monday, September 20, 2010

That's How it Goes

Ah, those lovely bean pots in the photo to the right. They stand there awaiting their first firing, slowly drying in the warm late-summer air.

Well, they got their first firing a couple weeks ago. Not one of them made it out intact. All but one cracked so badly that they are only good for landfill or plant drainage. The one that was still in one piece had a small crack in the bottom that isn't easily visible and does not go all the way through. Still, I would not sell it as anything but a second and I would never advise using it in the oven. All the same, it makes a nice display piece.

That's the way it goes in this business. Pieces crack even under the most watchful circumstances. You can't take it personally.

The glaze research continues. The first attempt at a craze-free white disappointed but showed that I was moving in the right direction. The first attempt at a craze-free turquoise was upended by my failure to add tin oxide to the batch. Well, I can still check it for crazing, but it looks bizarre!

I am now looking closely at the moss agate red. I have discovered that it likes to be applied very thinly indeed. One coat is all it requires and it is a rich brown color. I'd like it to be more red, and that is the goal of the next test. If I can achieve that, I will be happy. For now, it remains a work in progress.

On the immediate horizon, the plans are simple. I will be focusing on jam jars and coffee mugs and will be turning those out for the holiday gift-giving season. They are the most popular of the Rowantrees line, and make excellent gifts. I hope to have them up on the web site next month.

In addition, I am planning a special limited edition, numbered series of ornament tiles for Christmas. These will be Lowell Hill pieces, not Rowantrees reproductions. They will measure roughly 3 to 3.5 inches square and will have a Dove of Peace done in a stained glass motif on them. I am planning an edition of 250 and they will sell for $20 each.

But I get ahead of myself. There is still a lot of testing to do and the weather is getting, well, downright autumnal. Cold weather is my nemesis and I am struggling to maintain my schedule to stay ahead of things. Tiles I can make in my kitchen and still fire at the pottery, water or no water. So the thrown pieces will be the priority for now.

I'm off and running...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

The insanity of the Blue Hill Fair is upon us. I have a glaze kiln firing starting at 3 am tomorrow morning (thank the powers that be for delay timers). If it comes out looking good, I will fill most if not all of the orders I have on the block and will have a good display for the Fair booth. I managed to inherit the display space that Rowantrees has held for decades, which was a major thing for me. I'll put up a picture of the display when I get it put together.

But about decisions...

You have to make quite a few of them when you start out on a new venture and I am no exception. Let me tell you about one of the decisions I have made.

I have decided to switch to a commercial clay. Rowantrees used the local marine clay throughout its history but that part of the tradition is not practical for me. The clay required a lot of refining to make it useful and that took machinery and time that I will not have. Besides, under the best set of circumstances, the clay often ended up with tiny rocks and other impurities in it that made for a high rate of loss in the firing. The remaining clay that I have been using is full of pebbles and it's unbelievable how many pieces I have lost in firing.

A commercial clay not only has none of these problems, but it is also manufactured for quality control. When you are doing all the jobs in the studio yourself, you have to decide what you can realistically expect of yourself. Mixing and refining clay takes a lot of time - time that I can be doing other things.

I have chosen a red earthenware body and am currently working with it. If throws nicely and is very tough and forgiving. It dries slowly and fires beautifully. It also has a higher temperature range than the local clay, which means I can experiment with increasing the firing temperature at some point in the future. This may increase the durability of the product (which isn't bad now).

There are some issues resulting from this. The glazes I have formulated do not fit the commercial clay. While they work just fine on the local clay, they craze on the new stuff. For those who have not seen it, crazing is a network of tiny cracks in the glaze that tend to show up over time. That's a matter of chemistry and I expect to get it taken care of without too much lf a fuss, but you can never tell. Sheila Varnum has been my mentor in the craft of pottery and says that there is always a problem to solve. If this is a series of mysteries, I'll roll up my sleeves and get on with it.

Fixing a crazing problem means reducing the thermal expansion of a glaze formula. I have a test of the white glaze reformulated with a lower calculated thermal expansion. It's not a drastic reduction, but it may be sufficient.

Why worry? Lots of pottery crazes. In fact, there are potteries that put out products that are purposely crazed as part of the overall decorating scheme. Fine. But those products are either purely decorative and not intended for food service or they have a "liner" glaze over the crazed layer for protection. The problem with leaving a glaze to craze is that bacteria can get a foothold in those tiny cracks. The result can be unpleasant and I have no intention of allowing my customers to get sick from using my product.

Even if pots don't turn into a science project, the crazing can weaken the pot and cause it to fail structurally. The strength of a pot lies not only in the clay matrix but in the fit of the glaze. Clay and glaze must match for maximum strength.

Ok, enough science. How about another decision?

I have intended to make tiles as part of my Lowell hill line of products. While Rowantrees reproductions will be the main focus, they will not be the only product line. I am hoping to get a small manual tile press constructed soon that will allow me to put out an ornament in time for the holiday season. While I don't plan to operate the pottery over the winter (the building has no heat and I can't afford to install any right now), I will make tiles during the cold season. Even when the temperature is below freezing I can still use the kiln to fire tiles that I make at home. With any luck I will have a modest line of tiles for sale in a few short months. Still, there's a lot of work to do to get that happening.

And when (not if) it happens, you will find out about it here. I will write more after the insanity of the Fair is over.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


You found me! And now it is time to let you in on what has been happening.

I told the story of my entry into the American Arts and Crafts heritage through my time at Rowantrees Pottery. Now it is time for me to take a new step.

While it remains open as a business, Rowantrees is not producing ware. In her speech at the book signing on July 31, Sheila Varnum announced that negotiations were underway with "a young man who used to work for me." to produce Rowantrees reproductions.

Well, that "young man" is me. I am 51 years old, but it never fails. Someone will always call you young no matter your age.

In his book Dune Frank Herbert noted that a beginning is a very delicate time. That is why information has to be carefully managed. That is why I have been so circumspect in my earlier posts.

We are at a beginning moment. While Rowantrees is not out of business, it is no longer producing ware. That is where I come in.

I have started a new business called Lowell Hill Pottery, named for the hill on which I live in Penobscot. Lowell Hill Pottery is currently in the process of negotiating to become the sole authorized maker of Rowantrees reproductions. That means that the beauty and grace of Rowantrees Pottery will again be available.

The time line is not definite as I am playing a few things by ear for the moment, but as things develop, I will keep you posted.

I know this much; I will not be in operation during the winter months. The building is very old and has no heating system. I am not able to put a heating system in at this point, and since little pottery is purchased while there is snow onthe ground, there is little point in producing it.

That does not mean that orders can not be taken! Please feel free to contact me through this blog or via my (albeit very young and rough) Lowell Hill Pottery web site. As products become available, they will show up there.

Here is hoping for a very bright future for Lowell Hill Pottery and those who have always loved Rowantrees.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A New Start

It's almost like being called home. Not in the religious sense, but in that very real world way we find ourselves gravitating to what we know. I have been making my living as a paramedic and manager of Peninsula Ambulance in Blue Hill. I have enjoyed that career and still find the work rewarding.

Given what I said about a career in medicine in the first part of my story, it's more than a little ironic as well.

But I was always happiest with mud on my hands. And regardless of any other choices I made or the reasons for them, I knew I wanted to return to pottery. People in emergency medical services don't make the sort of living that allows a leisurely retirement. For that matter, very few do. I began thinking about a retirement job that would suit me well and the idea of opening a pottery studio immediately came to mind. After all, if you are going to have to work for the rest of your life, you should be doing something you love.

One person I know refers to this as intentional living. I like the sound of that.

So in 2007, when I got a phone call asking if I would be willing to join in on a project to reformulate the glazes at Rowantrees, I reacted in a predictable manner. I was extremely reluctant.

Change. You dream about it and then get all crampy when it presents itself.

I gave it a lot of thought and picked up my phone. Yes, I would do the research and see if I could reformulate the glazes. I was nervous about that, but I had done a lot of work on this very project about 18 years before while working at Rowantrees. That gave me a good base to start from. And believe it or not, I had saved all my notes. Call it prophetic, but I was actually prepared.

To back up just a bit, I should point out that the original glazes used at Rowantrees were formulated with lead. They were very beautiful and unique glazes that stood up well. And I'll share another little tidbit with you; I always felt they were safe to use. To this day, I have many pieces of Rowantrees in my kitchen and I continue to use it.

But the problem with lead is more than its toxicity and the need to keep it food safe. Science on the issue has changed over the last couple of decades. What was once considered safe is not any longer. Changes in federal standards caused Rowantrees to issue a recall on their products a few years ago, but few if any customers decided to return their pottery.

You can't buy loyalty like that. It is earned over many years, and Rowantrees had earned it.

But laws are laws. And eventually, it became illegal to purchase lead. Even ceramic stains and commercial glazes containing lead disappeared. I guess we can call that progress, but a lot of beauty has vanished.

So the glazes needed to be reformulated and I stepped up to the plate.

The best replacement for lead is boron. It's non-toxic and not only helps a glaze to melt, but it also forms glass. It has it's own properties, limitations and advantages, but it is a radical change in the chemistry of a glaze. Copper, normally used to produce shades of green in a glaze, tends toward blue with boron. Surface textures that are glassy smooth with lead are far more difficult to achieve. Firing can take considerably longer with boronated glazes.

But if pottery is nothing else, it is a constant challenge. You are always solving a problem or puzzling out a poser of one sort or another. This keeps a brain active and young, I think.

The process was slow, and in the midst of it, I began to think seriously about taking over the Rowantrees business. I went as far as to talk with the bank and a counselor at the Maine Small Business Development Center. While this particular idea never got off the ground, it gave me another.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What about the glazes?

Well, most of them remain a work in progress. But not all of them. Two of the most popular colors are reformulated and almost indistinguishable from the original. These are the Heather Blue and White glazes. Here is a picture of a Rowantrees coffee cup and saucer glazed with the original lead glazes:

And here is the reformulated, lead-free version:

Of course, a lot can affect the exact color; thickness of application, amount of overlap, firing time, even the water used to make the glaze. But variations in color and size are the hallmark of hand crafted items. They show the hand at work behind the object and remind us not only of the endless variation in nature, but in ourselves. That is what keeps things new and vibrant.

I will post more pictures of the glaze project as the reformulations progress.

And soon, I will tell you why all of this matters!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Finding My Way - Part 3

The Christmas vacation of 1981 could best be described as magical. I headed to Blue Hill for my apprenticeship at Rowantrees having no idea in the world what was going to happen, but fully receptive to whatever came.

New England - especially coastal New England - is a study in contrasts. You can find everything from rustic nothingness to sprawling cities along the water. Once in the rural areas, though, you find small villages interspersed with dense tree growth and fields that go on for what seem forever.

Oh, and blueberry fields. Don't forget those.

But the one reliable symbol of a town along the Maine coast always seems to be the white church steeple. In most cases, it's the first indication you have that you are even close to a town. That was and remains the case with Blue Hill. The Blue Hill Congregational Church steeple is one of the first things you will see as you enter the town. SO when I saw that steeple, I knew something big was going to happen.

I knocked on the front door of Sheila's home and waited. Before long, I found myself face to face (in a manner of speaking) with one of the strangest dogs I have ever seen. He appeared to be a dachshund, but he was huge for that breed. He was also entirely black. He barked me a greeting in that dachshund sort of way that says, "I'm happy to meet you," and, "Don't even think of messing with me or mine," all at the same time. While I was still taking this in, Sheila appeared at the door and introduced us. The dog's name was Smokey. "He's not exactly a pure bred dachle, is he?" I said. She allowed that I was correct and that his parentage included a black lab. To this day I have puzzled that one out and never quite managed to wrap my head around it, but Smokey would not be the last of that mix I would meet. Sheila called him a dhachador.

I was given a choice of things to do once I was settled in, and I chose to go straight to the pottery. I could decide for myself what I wanted to throw and spend all the time I wanted doing so. Sheila would then look my work over and comment. Just what I was hoping for.

But there was more.

Sheila told me that her two current potters were leaving and she would be in need of a replacement. If I liked it there and could throw well, she would hire me.

Call it serendipity, call it synchronicity, call it anything you want. hours would go by before my feet would touch the ground again.

I spent most of my time in the pottery during the day and into the evening. With the exception of a trip to Connecticut to visit with family over the holiday itself, I remained in Blue Hill until the end of the Christmas holiday when I had to return to my kitchen job. Ont he day I arrived back at Kents Hill School, I was going to give my two weeks notice. Sheila had hired me.

Synchronicity has a darker side. I reported for work in the kitchen only to be told that I had been let go and no longer had a job there. Huh. I won't go into that long story here, but it ended well for me. I turned my attention to my future as a potter.

Sheila made a prediction the day I started work that she would put about three years into me before I would be an accomplished production potter. I was horrified at that prospect, but she was right. There is a big difference between knowing how to throw and being proficient at it. Just because you can make a plate does not mean your product will keep the peas from rolling into the gravy. Hey, I like it that way, but a lot of people don't.

I never envied Sheila the role she had to play - introducing a 21 year old to life and reality in the real world - but she did it with aplomb and no small amount of patience.

I worked at Rowantrees for just over eight years, leaving in 1990 when economic forces made it too difficult to keep me on over the winter. I went to work for Peninsula Ambulance where I remain a full-time manager to this day. I can't say it's a bad gig; in fact, I find it a rewarding profession. But I was always happiest at Rowantrees and always hoped I could find a way back there.

Then came the phone call in 2007.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Following the Brick Path

I'll get back to my story in the next post. For now, I have some fantastic news!

Rowantrees Pottery and Quail Creek Editions are pleased to announce the publication of Following the Brick Path, the Story of Rowantrees Pottery. Written by Andrew Phelan, this lavishly illustrated 228 page book tells the endearing and fascinating story of the 75 year history of a pottery whose wares are collected, used and cherished by thousands of people worldwide.

The book will be formally released in a book signing ceremony at the Blue Hill Public Library. Sheila Varnum, the last owner of Rowantrees Pottery and the author will both be present to sign copies, and the signing will take place at the Library on Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 1 PM.

Following the Brick Path tells the story of Rowantrees from its beginning in 1934 when Adelaide Pearson had a kiln constructed at her Blue Hill home to fire the wares of students enrolled in her summer art classes. From those humble beginnings the kiln evolved and grew as its wares achieved attention and renown both nationally and eventually internationally. Its wares are widely used and beloved by many, and are prized collectors items. Included in this book are many fascinating details about the people and events that shaped the pottery over the years. Pearson, the founder was a Boston-born world traveler and social reformer who made Blue Hill her home in the mid 1920's. She was an accomplished photographer and filmmaker as well as an author and collector. Included in the book are details of the pivotal trip Pearson and her partner Laura Paddock made in 1938-39 when they went around the world from England to India, then French Indochina, Japan, and China, researching pottery making. It was on this trip that they met with Gandhi who encouraged the development of the pottery as a full-fledged business.

Also included in the book are fascinating details and samples of correspondence with America House, a pioneering crafts marketing initiative of Eileen O. Webb who also went on to establish The School for American Craftsmen, the magazine, Craft Horizons (now American Crafts) and American Craft museum. The story of the near demise of Rowantrees in the mid-1970's following Paddock's growing infirmities, and its heartwarming rescue by Sheila Varnum are also told in the book.

Filled with historic photographs and reproductions of correspondence as well as sale brochures and extensive folios of its wares, the book will delight those interested in the history of Blue Hill, the history of cultural institutions of the Maine Coast as well as those interested in the history of ceramics.

Dr. Phelan, a retired professor of art who held various positions at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, Oklahoma and at the Pratt institute in Brooklyn, NY has a personal connection to the pottery. His father, Linn L. Phelan was the first potter hired by Pearson and Paddock in 1937, as they began the process of expanding and developing the pottery beyond its modest beginnings.

Further information about the book signing can be obtained by contacting Brook at the Blue Hill Public Library, (207) 374-5515.

Additional information about Following the Brick Path is available from the publisher, Quail Creek Editions, 1811 Quail Creek Drive, Norman, OK 73026. The book is priced at $45, with a pre-publication price of $35 (plus shipping) if ordered before July 15, 2010.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Finding My Way - Part 2

It turned out that the question of making a living as a potter had been asked a long time ago. Adelaide Pearson was wondering the same thing back in the 1930s when she hired a gentleman by the name of Linn Phelan to come to Blue Hill and work on an extraordinary project for her. The terms were simple. She would provide room, board and a small stipend while he manufactured pottery and art ware. At the end of a defined period of time, he would be expected to pay her back from the proceeds of the pottery.

I'm going to avoid tipping the entire story because it will be detailed in a book entitled Following the Brick Path; The Story of Rowantrees Pottery currently being written by Linn Phelan's son Andrew Phelan. The book is due to be released in late July and I will be posting more details about it in this blog as the time approaches.

By the time I graduated college, I knew I wanted to be a potter. It may have been just another in a long string of dreams and fantasies I had while growing up, but I had taken the time to acquire some skill at it and to learn a lot in technical terms as well. But unlike so many other passions, this one was not fading. There was a desire to press on and figure out how to make it work.

One afternoon while sitting in the reference section of the Bangor Public Library, I happened over a directory of businesses in Maine. Flipping through the pages, I found Rowantrees Pottery listed. The manager's name was Sheila Varnum and the phone number was provided. I wrote all the information down and tucked it into my pocket.

I am not the sort of person who is comfortable making cold calls. I don't know why that is, but I think it has something to do with a general aversion to telephones. Whatever the case, I managed to work up the courage to dial the number. Sheila answered the phone in her usual fashion by just saying, "Rowantrees." I introduced myself and told her of my interest in pottery and making a living at it.

I didn't ask about a job, but did ask if I might come and talk to her about the pottery business. I wanted to see how a full-time pottery operated. I was formal in my request, having grown up with the New England idea that good manners never went out of style.

"Love to have you!" came her reply. Immediately, I was put at complete ease. We set a date and time and I went for a visit. I brought what I thought to be a decent portfolio of the work I had done, plus a couple of pots that I thought to be among my best efforts. I still have some of those pots. I keep them hidden on a top shelf in my kitchen and take them out on occasion when I feel I need to be humbled.

But I was young and new at this trade. I had not yet learned to judge quality. Looking back on that visit, I still wonder at how Sheila measured her words when looking my "masterpieces" over. But she was very encouraging. I still did not ask about a job. As interested as I was, that visit made it pretty clear how much I had to learn.

With a degree in performing arts and a desire to be a potter, I would start my life in the real world washing dishes. But when you're in your early 20s, nothing at all is impossible. Honestly, how I made it through those years I can't imagine.

But I do understand the anxiety my parents nursed on my behalf.

A few months went by during which I did, in fact, work in food service. I had a job at Kents Hill School in Kents Hill, Maine. The school had a pottery program and I was permitted to work on projects before I had to be at work. I spent many hours each week in the school studio working on small projects and talking to the teacher and students. Nothing survives from those sessions outside of the memories, though.

Like other schools, Kents Hill broke over the Christmas holidays for a couple of weeks. Needing something to do, I got an inspiration and wrote to Sheila asking about a one-week apprenticeship at Rowantrees. Once again, I didn't ask about employment. I was interested in a full immersion experience during which I would actually have to produce pottery in quantity. I don't know what I was thinking, really, but it was worth a try. I'll never forget the first line in Sheila's reply. "I guess you could say that persistence pays off." The letter was an invitation to come stay at her home and work in the pottery for one week.

That letter changed my life.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Finding My Way

Not to be narcissistic, but perhaps I should tell you just a little about myself and how I got involved at Rowantrees.

I am 51 years old. Some would say that is old enough to know better but too old to care. I disagree. I have a lot to learn and have never stopped caring about most things. That is why Rowantrees was such a perfect fit for me when I was first starting out.

Let me explain.

I was pretty fortunate while growing up. While nobody makes it though childhood without a few scars, I think I reported for adulthood in pretty good shape. I was always a bit unusual in that I drifted from one interest to another, learning quite a lot about each and then moving on. While I never excelled academically, I was above average.

My interests while growing up tended to the artistic. I played piano and violin, was active in music and drama at Bangor High School, drew, painted, and studied dance among other things.I made pocket money as a magician doing birthday parties at $25 a pop. I did have an interest in science, but it was more tangential. Medicine was an interesting field though I chose not to pursue it as a profession.

I attended the University of Maine, studying music and theater, and graduated with a BA in performing arts. Oddly, I never thought to make a career in theater and was honest enough about my abilities not to try a career in music. It was a typical case of following my bliss without really knowing where it would lead me.

My parents, while supportive, were understandably concerned. I had a lot of interests, but no real focus.

At least, it appeared that way. When I was quite young, I saw for the first time a potter shaping a mug on a potter's wheel and was enthralled. I had to try that! An associate of my father's had a potter's wheel in his cellar, and one evening, I watched him throwing pots for a while. He offered to take a group of us to the University Craft Center so that we could all try it. I had a lot of fun, but no success. Seems ths process was harder than it looked.

I forgot about pottery for several years until my second year at the University of Maine. You see, my family summered in the little town of Wayne, Maine, and while attending the annual summer fair one year, I chanced to meet Molly Saunders of Wayne Village Pottery. Molly had discovered an enormous vein of native Maine clay running through her back yard. Maine clay is particularly fine, plastic and smooth, making it wonderful to work with. I stood and watched as she threw several pieces on a wheel she had brought to the fair for demonstration purposes.

I was hooked. Not only was it captivating to watch, but the whole idea of digging clay right out of the yard and turning it into objects of utility and beauty was intoxicating. When I returned to the university the next fall, I decided to try my hand again. The Craft Center was still there, and I set to work learning how to throw, trim, handle and glaze pottery. It wasn't straightforward, but I learned a lot very quickly. For starters, I found myself far more capable than I had been the first time I tried.

Maybe there was something in that!

Pottery consumed me almost as much as my other interests. In my final two years of college, I started showing my pottery in small galleries and at craft shows. I took an actual class in ceramics taught by the director of the Craft Center, who had studied at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

It was during that class that I first heard about Rowantrees Pottery. The teacher of the class had spent some time as an apprentice at Rowantrees and told us several stories of the time she spent there. Here was yet another pottery that followed the same idea as Wayne Village Pottery. The clay came directly out of the local ground and was shaped into wares for everyday use. Rowantrees had been around for a long time, having started in the 1930s, so they certainly had a handle on the process.

I was intrigued. Could it be possible to make a living as a potter? I certainly was in love with the idea. On a whim, I decided to look into it.

More in the next installment!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Story of Rowantrees

by Mary Ellen Chase
(Printed here with permission)

In 1934 the Rowantrees Kiln, named for the mountain ash trees above its green gate, was built by Adelaide Pearson of Blue Hill. She conceived it first as a village hobby, as a place where those interested in working with their hands might find avocation and pleasure. It has long since, however, taken unto itself a dignity and a worth perhaps not clearly apparent in its beginning. For its founder, encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi whom she visited in 1939, became aware that the making of pottery is too much bound up with the life of countless centuries in the most ancient lands, from the hill towns of Italy to the deserts of Palestine, ever to be merely a hobby; that it is instead an art, symbolic not only of the material needs of mankind, but of its spirit as well.

During the years since, the Rowantrees Kiln on one of Blue Hill's lovely old streets has become the magnet to thousands of visitors. They come from near and far to watch the dexterous and careful hands of the potters shape the clay on the wheel and the equally skillful hands of those who apply the unique Rowantrees glazes to the vases and mugs and plates, bowls,pitchers and cups, which have had their first baking in the hot fires of the kilns. They learn too of the riches waiting in Blue hill's abandoned copper mines, in her quarries and bogs, ponds and seashore-granite, manganese, diatoms, copper and iron. These minerals, searched for and gathered by Laura Paddock, the first manager of Rowantrees, and her willing helpers, and ground to a fine powder, lent to the local marine clay the rich shades and depths of color rarely found elsewhere.

The craftsmanship is a very real expression of the art of rural America. And more, it is, like all art, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which, through the hands and the understanding of men, redeems our troubled times and makes us suddenly conscious that symmetry and beauty still remain among us and suggest forevermore the values by which we live.

Sheila Varnum, one of Laura Paddocks helpers, and a potter at Rowantrees since 1940, now manages the continuation of the art, tradition, and high quality which have become synonymous with the pottery wares of Rowantrees.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Starting Out

This blog space has been created as a place holder for the moment. In time, there will be a lot to talk about, but for now I will just state for the record that exciting things are in the works here in the Blue Hill, Maine area. Check back often to see what developments have taken place. I promise to keep you updated.