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.