I have a favorite bowl. It’s the perfect size for cheap ramen. It’s red that breaks to clear showing the white clay in the heavy throw rings under the shiny glass. And I made it. Not that my having made it is anything special. I’ve been making pottery for over 25 years. I’ve assisted the potters that taught me and eventually taught classes on my own. I don’t know why this bowl is special to me, other than it looks nice, but I have a lot of pottery that looks nice, few really speak to me. I guess that’s a lot of the attraction in functional art pieces, and all art itself, once you boil it down.
One time in a studio gallery I picked up a humble little bowl. It spoke to me even as it was obviously the work of someone near the start of their ceramic creation journey. It had a beautiful curve and a glaze that looked immensely deep. I still regret not buying it, but I have so much pottery cluttering my house that I talked myself out of it. I should have given away something to make room for it, or just waited for a piece to break and put it into rotation. The problem is it’s the poor pieces that never get broken.
I had another bowl that was special to me. It had started as a simple demo from Diane Shaw, who was teaching the Advanced Wheelthrowing class that I was taking. Diane makes beautiful bowls. It was the decoration demo that I’d seen a few times before and she described a technique of artfully caressing a handful of thick slip onto the surface of a trimmed, but still damp piece. It was a technique I enjoyed doing. She mentioned it was something took a lot of practice. I said I liked the technique and she asked if I wanted to give it a shot for the demo so I did. I have mixed success with loosening up enough to make that kind of thing really work, but it turned out fairly well. A couple months later she gave me that small bowl filled with her homemade toffee for Christmas. That bowl got broken in the sink.
I used the demo bowl frequently. I liked holding it, and I liked having it sitting where I could see it. It was just one of those things that made me happy to have around. Occasionally I’d reach for it in the cupboard and think, “No, lets keep it safe there in the cupboard a little longer.”
We have cats.
But one of the days it did get used and dropped into the sink. It wasn’t the cats fault. I remember that bowl fondly, and I probably remember it fondly because it got used, and that reinforced the memory of it’s origins, and that’s what was most special to me. I found myself thinking the other day that I’d have some ramen in my favorite red bowl. Then I had the thought, “Today’s the day that it gets broken”, and so I left it in the cupboard. That evening Kayla was making dinner and I heard a big crash in the sink. I heard Kayla say, “I broke the red bowl.” I might have wailed a little. I said, “Earlier I had a thought that it would get broken today.”
It turned out that it was a different red bowl that got broken. It was nice, but I had no feelings for it. Very useful, though, and the glaze was nice. Then I looked across all the possibilities. Maybe if my ramen bowl had been in the sink they both would be broken. Maybe neither would. I kind of get that way sometimes with the ‘what if’s?’ But that’s why the ordinary functional work doesn’t cycle through the kitchen as rapidly. The plain (and I can admit it, sometimes homely) pieces just don’t inspire them to be used. And if it had been my little bowl it would have been fine, because it gets used, and I’ll always remember it. Just having something doesn’t seem to be as valuable as having loved something.
I remember the day John was talking to me on the stairs of the Stoker Studio where I was repeatedly taking the advanced wheel throwing pottery class at the Stoker School in Bountiful, a satellite campus for University of Utah. It was the day John made me an offer that would impact me more than I ever could have hoped.
I had been trying to take a pottery class for a couple years, but not able to get in to a class on campus. I had not realized that the on-campus pottery classes were for art majors only. I did not want to drive to Bountiful for a class, but that was where the non art majors took pottery. I caved in and signed up for the spring quarter in 1995, if my squishy memory can be trusted. I was one of the struggling students, but by the third assignment I kind of started to get it. We had an assignment to make 4 tea bowls as close to perfect hemispheres as we could. John had impressed that we ought to make extras because we could expect to lose a couple in trimming. I made twelve. Looking at them John said, “These 4 are dogs”. I really grew to value his bluntness in critiques. He followed up with, “These 4 are good for practicing trimming… and these must be the last ones you threw. You can see the improvement. Pretty good.”
I’d needed two art credits for the BS degree for which I was aiming, and I figured I could take the advanced class for the second one. Driving to Bountiful wasn’t all that bad. At the end of the Advanced class the following autumn quarter I was actually thinking I could actually make things. I made presents for some friends for Christmas. That was the thing to do for most students. I thought that I could probably do one more class. I didn’t know if I’d ever have the chance to make pottery again and I had a couple ideas of things I’d like to have that I made myself. Pottery can last a long time.
I think I took the advanced class two times (again, squishy brain). My dad stopped me one morning and asked how long I was going to keep doing the pottery thing. I kind of boggled and answered that I thought I’d do it for the rest of my life. I did not realize he was asking how many more times he was going to have to pay for a class for which I wasn’t getting further credit until weeks later. This brings me back to the staircase that spring day. I’d realized that I probably couldn’t ask my dad to pay for further classes and John caught me on the stairs and asked if I would be back the next quarter. I told him I didn’t think I could afford it. He said something along the lines of, “If you want to get good, you’ll do it faster if you teach it.” He offered me free studio time in exchange with helping teach the beginning class. Most of the beginning pottery classes had one or two advanced students that had the same deal to help out with the new students. I said I doubted that I knew enough to really help, but John said I knew enough, and what makes you learn faster when teaching is you have to actually think of an answer to the questions of a beginner that you never really answer for yourself. And sometimes it helped to have multiple people with different viewpoints to get the idea across. I really wanted to continue on, so I agreed.
Somehow I managed to spend the best 20 years of my life in that studio. That isn’t an exaggeration. I was there helping with one or two classes a semester until they had to close the 100+ year old building in 2017 due to structural issues with earthquake safety. There were a couple years where I went and helped with classes and didn’t really make much of anything. They were pretty dark years. Honestly some of the only bright spots for those years were the times I was at the studio. I’m sure it kept me alive, and I was lucky enough to have told that to both John and his wife, Diane before John passed away near the start of December 2021.
I owe a lot to both of the Shaw’s. They became family. I haven’t had a death hit me like it did with John. I’d heard he was slowing down, but I always thought there would be another time when I could sit and talk with him. John would have a coffee break midway through the four hour classes at the studio and we’d go out to the kiln shed and he’d have a cup of hot water and smoke his pipe for awhile. We’d talk about whatever and it was just… calm. I don’t have a lot of calm in my life. There was one day near the end of a spring semester a year or two before the school closed where we’d loaded a kiln and just started it candling and were talking. A procession of students, beginner and advanced, came out to ask a question or two and went back to finish their last pieces for the semester. That day each student would ask the question and John would look at me and ask what I thought. I’d give an opinion, or tip, and John would nod and say, “That sounds about right”. He added his own comment some of the time and I really started to realize then now much I had learned in the most relaxed and informal environment that really suited the way I learned.
When I start thinking about John the first thing I think about are his jokes and his unique sense of humor. He had a little instamatic camera that was broken that hung on a coat hook in the kiln shed. Every time there was a raku firing he’d get all the students participating into a group so he could get a picture. He’d stand over a big tub of water and just as everyone was smiling to get a picture he’d drop the camera in the bucket and act all surprised. The first time I saw that I jumped forward to try to save the camera. After that I’d stand where I could take a picture of the students reactions. We went to the NCECA (The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) Conference in Las Vegas in 1997 as a group of advanced students with John and Diane. When returning through the McCarrin airport in Las Vegas John suddenly stopped at the foot of the escalator just after I got on just behind Diane. I looked back and John was frozen in place watching in amazement as the magic stairs carried us to the next floor. I laughed and Diane shook her head and said, “I don’t even ask anymore”. People queued up behind John didn’t know quite what to do with this man who had, evidently, never seen an escalator before. John kind of hopped on and grabbed the handrail tightly.
He told a lot of standard jokes in class. “If the throat of your bottle is to narrow for your finger, you can stick your pin tool down your throat and throw up.” When cleaning up your glazed pieces you need to wash the extra glaze off the base of your pot. “We will do a lot here for you, but we won’t wipe your bottoms.” You probably couldn’t tell that joke anymore. But the best ones were ones that didn’t have any real explanation, and I think he did just for his own enjoyment. He taught that when you dunk your piece in the glaze and you’re holding the pot so the glaze drips back in the bucket, it helps if you bounce at the knees while it’s dripping. I’ve taught people to bounce at the knees while glazing in every class I’ve taught since. I do give credit to John for the tip.
The wake for John was really something. There were so many people there that had years of shared memories of the Stoker Studio and John’s influence. People that learned along side me and were just part of this big art family that I find so invaluable. Some of us sat at the big table as the wake wound down, saying our goodbyes. I spent some time looking around at their home and remembering the end of semester parties they had for us, and seeing again, maybe for the last time, their home studio that always seemed to be the ideal, for me, of how a studio should feel. I recognized some of their pieces that I’d seen often there, and some of Diane’s current work that was on a rack just inside the entrance. As I was leaving I was hit with how sometimes the universe just aligns and you meet the people that will be with you for the rest of your life, even after they pass from this one.