This is going to be hard to start. It is hard to know when the beginning really is.
I walked into high school in 11th grade. A scoial studies teacher, Chuck Domstein handed me my schedulre. I said, I have to change my math class. He said, “we can’t change your math class. I said, “No! I have to change it.” He said, “We can’t change it.” … I can’t take math with this teacher. He said, “Look, I told you we can’t change it just cause you don’t like the teacher.” I said, “She’s my mother”. He said, come lets see if we can change it. ”
It was complicated, I wanted to take Electronics, I needed to take choir, there was not much flex. So I tried to get into Drafting. It was full. Metals shop, full. Welding, full. Every foreign language either did not fit the schedule or it was full. Finally I ended up signing up for something. I really think that I was not sure what it was, it was called “Ceramics”.
Once a week I was taking piano lessons. I did not like the music. The teacher was trying to turn me into a concert pianist. It was not happening. I was practicing Ragtime, or at least playing it daily. The lessons did not go well, but they were kitty corner from the Detroit Public Library and I started checking out books on ceramics. I started with 2 or three a week and finally started checking out the limit of 5 on one subject. By the time I was done with 12th grade I knew a lot about clay. Over the summer I worked at a Jewish summer camp with an endowed ceramics shop. We had a salt kiln. I became involved with atmospheric surfaces. I built a wood burning raku kiln in my back yard and a wheel in the basement.
I started college with the intention of going into architecture. I was going to The University of Michigan School of Engineering. I felt like I kept getting kicked for trying to hard to learn and not taking the easy way out of assignments. After a little over a month it was clear that I was not going to hold out for four years. I was confused. A very smart friend gave me a matrix to use to straighten out priorities in complex and difficult decisions. Since this decision was driven by future employment/vocation this was the first column. I suggest that you do this.
In the first column write down all the jobs you ever wanted; every one. This might include garbage truck driver, sledge hammer operator, ceramic artist, computer programmer, hair dresser. Anything and everything. It has to really include everything you ever wanted to “be”.
The second column a list of positive attributes like: makes a lot of money, gets to pull those cool garbage truck levers, my parents would like it, get summers off, work outside, varied work, not challenging, very challenging.
The third column are the negative attributes. Note that some positive attributes might also be negative, not challenging, too challenging, parents will hate it/love it. Makes little money, no advancement, smells bad.
Then you have to rank the positives and negatives. This is the hard part. You have to use your motivation, your ranking. If you think lots of money is important to your parents but not you, then rank it low unless how your parents feel is very important to you and add it as another positive, “parents will like the high rate of pay”.
Then do the negatives. Then associate the numbers with the jobs. Please don’t try to add up numbers or anything like that. Things are way too complex and nuanced for this to work. It will however clarify motivations. It helped me clarify motivations surrounding earnings and risks. I probably would have come up with other choices by age 30, but that was 12 years later, I could not have found those motivations at age 18.
At the University of Michigan in the Art Department I took a variety of courses. They all seem tied to my future now although outside of ceramics I wondered about why I was taking them. There already seemed to be a hierarchy,, but I was immersed in clay. Kurt Weiser was my first college ceramics teacher. I was a work study under Chip Clawson.
Kurt suggested that I check out the Kansas City Art Institute. Finishing my first Art History final exam, I had my backpack with me. The Art History Course was An Overview of Asian Art History taught by Professor Walter Spinks. For almost the entire course he used slides that he shot himself. The last test included in the final was on a traveling exhbition called “Recent Archialogical Finds of China”. I left the final and hitchhiked to Kansas City to see the Art Institute . They were still in session.
About this class, the first test could have been a killer. It was designed to get you thinking. You had to identify half a bizzilion ( I remember 12 carousels I think holding 1000 slides total) images of the head of the Buddha by style. It was impossible to do without actually finding stylistic similarities. By the end you recognized the style by the eyes, the ears, the hair, the shoulders, the chin, the libs, by every detail. This had a big impact on me, but the most important part of the course were the descriptions of the cultures that produced the art. The course was my first exposure in any significant way to Ch’an, Zen, Taoism, Hinduism(s) Jainism, and Islam. I was taken by the political impetus for the stylistic changes in Chinese painting between Northern and Southern Sung dynasties. I became a fan of Mu Chi, and Li Cheng, but there were so many others.
The class was taught in a huge room with hundreds of seats. Along with a group of others I sat in the front row.
On the way into Kansas City I told my ride where I was going and he decided to drop me off. As I had never been there before this was great. He dropped me off next door at The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Over the limestone front entrance was a banner, “Recent Archaeological Finds of China”. I ended up giving a young woman my age a guided tour. The Art Institute Ceramics shop that year had 50 ceramics majors. Most were transfer students. Each brought with them experience, skills and knowledge. It was vibrant, exciting, energetic and expensive. I did not think that my parents would monetarily support my going there. I finished by trip and worked another summer teaching kids ceramics at camp.
The next year was my second at The University of Michigan. I was not an easy or model student although I worked very hard. I rarely worked on assigned projects. I was unable to work on things in ceramics where my intrinsic motivation was not really high. What I needed was a really good psychological examination. It would have turned up ADHD although I think it had a different acronym back then, and Dysgraphia (essay later) It would probably have turned up the frequent bouts of depression. They were still mostly seasonal back then starting in mid February but by then cropped up in small bits all the time. At the end of the year I decided that if I stayed at the University of Michigan I would not gain the skills I wanted or needed in order to succeed in the field. I do not know if this was true although it seemed to be and still does. The program was fine for others.
I told my parents that I want to go to Kansas City. They said I could if I earned the difference in tuition over the summer. I found a job that would come within $30 of earning the difference this if I spent nothing over thesummer. I went to work. The first day I came home asthmatic. My memory of this was that I was almost unable to walk home. I probably should have been hospitalized. I told my parents I was quitting. My father went ballistic. I started looking for other work. Nothing stood a chance of making the difference. A friend road her bicycle over to tell me that I was going to be offered an “Assistant Manager” position at Burger King. In one of those flash decisions that happen when you are really tuned in, I decided and told her that I was leaving town in the morning. I hitchhiked to a friends house in Cincinati.
I did eventually get to school in Kansas City under the arrangement that my parents paid tuition and I covered everything else. I learned to cook good food inexpensively using “The No Fad, Good Food, 5$ a Week, Cookbook” . I bought very little food that was not unprepared. Exceptions were non-instant dry powdered milk, margarine, and very occasionally cottage cheese. One schoolyear I kept track of food costs. Not counting some beer it cost $3.27 per week. Beyond the art history from the U of Michigan, thinking back a short lesson in 5th Grade with Ms. Cohen(?) seems important. We learned about the word ethnocentrism. It took root. The idea that how we see the world is controlled by how we are brought up, that from inside a culture cultural practices seem to make sense, that from outside the culture they often seem wacky. Its been important. This idea, ethnocentrism, really naturally occuring disease, was studied at the college level in the courses “World Ethnography” and “Language and Culture” taught by Professonr Anderson at the KAnsas City Art Institute. I am lucky to have had the ability to take these courses. One of the interesting things about pottery, especially as taught in the 1980’s and perhaps before is that most of the models, stories, and information that we learned was about Asia. We learned about Japanese, Korean, and Chinese Ceramics. Its not that there were not a few strong European models, we and our teachers were mostly not interested. Consequently information was scarce and hard to find. The big exceptions were information about The Leach School, The Bauhaus, and some Mediteranian ceramics and Majolica. I became enamoured with wood fired raw unglazed surfaces. I did not know the Japanese word Wabi Sabi, but others would categorize my interest as paralleling this concept. We fired a low fire wood kiln using a very coarse brick clay. We decorated mostly with slips, and the glazes were volitle and sensitive to temperature and atmosphere. After a year of this you either were in love with these surfaces or hate them. One January before the start of the semester I went to Kay’s Rockhill Bar. It was a small neighborhood bar. There were always a few locals. There was a pool table, and Kay, a friendly owner/bartender. The ceramics department had 60 students and many of us hung out at Kay’s. There was a girl with long hair, beautiful eyes, and stripe on her pants, cook’s pants. Shy, mostly, especially with girls, I did something unusual for me. I walked up to her, stuck out my hand and said, ” Hi, I’d like you to meet Louis”. She looked around thinking that there was someone else. Her name was Gail Busch. She had a nice smile. A few days later I was out in front of his office and Ferguson, the KCAI Department Chair, a large gruff man with a huge reputation, walked up and said, “Louie, come here, sit down.” So I sat in his office across his desk from him. ”Louie, you gay?” Louis: No Ken. ”You want a girlfriend? ”Sure”. I was thinking , ‘what, you got one in the closet, whats this about/’ Ken: Clean up your act, you know the drill, comb your hair, clean clothes, you know. People sometimes think that I don;’t know how to take advice, but this is often not true. I thought, ‘nothing else is working’, so I gave it a try. I bought new jeans at the Levi seconds store downtown. I started combing my hair. I wanted a good scientific test. So I carried a comb with me. Every time I moved from one place to another I took my comb out. I brought a toothbrush to school. I decided to iron my clothes. Pants, shirt, underwear. My socks had creases. I polished my shoes, and my belt.
We tended to go to the bar on Thursday and Friday nights after school. Thursday was difficult as school started at 9 am on Friday Mornings. My pool game got really good. I was especially good at leaving the cue ball in difficult positions for the other player. I started beat Mac most days. Mac was the resident shark. But on some days, I played my old rotten game, like my cue stick had a curve in it.
One day I came in and cleared the table on my second time up. He had not gotten a single ball sunk. He looked at me, looked at Gail and then said, ” I know what it is, you can only play well when she is here”. He was right.
So Gail and I was working out well. We went out, drank coffee ate pecan pie late at night, and made pots all the time. I was not really allowed in her dorm room and the doors going in were locked so she would throw the key on a cord out the window. One time the cord it was on got stuck in a tree. I had to borrow a ladder from the janitor. He was highly amused. Gail made me ommlettes, I made her kasha. I kept ironing my underwear.
That semester Gail’s mother wrote her. “Gail, have you met anyone?”
“Well there is this guy, but I am not sure he is my type, He is so clean cut!
“ When we got to graduate school we met Poonarat Pichaiyapaiboon. He is Thai. His English was fine but I helped him when it seemed appropriate. It turns out that I had alot of experience by then talking with people from other cultures. It probably started with my grandmother whose English was iffy. My best friends mother spoke with a strong Cuban accent. Growing up in a 90% Jewish neighborhood there were loads of people from Eastern Europe. In high school I worked in a Chinese Restaurant. The cooks and the owners English was fragmentary and the pronounciation was poor. In KAnsas City I took classes from MAdame Chu. Students would ask me for explanations after class. I could understand every word. Summers I worked at a Jewish camp for children. One summer after thousand of refusniks had been allowed to Poonarat, was short, friendly, had an interesting sense of humor, and clearly was from another culture. He was fascinating and we became friends. Over summers I often worked at a summer camp.
Hangouts evolved in my class of ceramics students at The Kansas City Art Institute. The first year I was there I could not drink unless I snuck into a bar. I got good at this, but.
The next year I ended up going to Betty’s Hall. “Have a ball at Betty’s Hall”. We listened to the Kings of Jazz and danced country swing. I danced with a friend fairly often, it was a kind of contest between us, fast, hard and if you let go, you would fly into the wall. I had already learned not to drink much. Betty’s closed over the summer and the next fall we started going to Kay’s Rockhill Bar. It has a pool table. I was not very good.
There was a new student sitting on a stool at Kay’s. She had some blue pants on with a white stripe up the side. I walked up, stuck my hand out and said, ” Hi, I ‘d like you to meet Louis”. She looked around for Louis and then figured it out.
I graduated and decided to stay in school a semester. I signed up for an additional 3 credits for the next fall so that I could stay in school with Gail. We decided to go get summer jobs in San Francisco. We stayed with David. I got a job as a bicycle messenger. Gail was working nights as a cook on Fisherman’s Wharf. I was not doing good in the job. I was never good at hills on a bike. We never saw each other. After a month, it was clear that something had to change. So I called up the summer camp I used to work at, Tamarack, in Ortinville Michigan, and asked if they had jobs for us.
They did. We had to arrive a bit late for the start. We left San Francisco a day later. Camp had a policy, “Staff caught in compromising positions should expect to be terminated. Everyone always wanted to know which positions were compromising, but I proposed to Gail that we get married in Reno Nevada on the way. Gail thought Reno was tacky. We got married in Lovelock Nevada by the Justice of the Peace. Gail worked in the kitchen at camp and I worked in the ceramics shop.
The Camp director, a great jokester, gave us a mobile home to live in. It was on a small island in the main road. It had big bay windows. He removed all the curtains from it.