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!