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 knwo 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. Everytime 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.
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 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 omlettes, I made her kasha.
I ended up with alot of experience 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 emmigrate and many came to Detroit. Lots of children ended up at camp. I had one as a camper. He was a year older than the other campers. He was smart. He had good schooling in the sciences. His English language skills were poor. He was just learning. The other campers treated him poorly at least in part because they could not communicate well with him. I asked the camp social worker what I should do and he said, “put him in charge of something every day”. This did not work well so I put him in charge of teaching me Russian,,, just a little. We worked on it most days during the afternoon swim. I learned how to say, “How is your belly button, Your mother wears army boots. It is only 5 Kilometers to Kiev” and to count, not much else.
Learning some Russian normallized my helping him with English. Having the lessons go bidirectionally made it more like help from a peer and less stressful. I learned Thai, just a little as I helped him. It also gave me another experience communicating with someone whose English was not so good.
When we got to graduate school we met Poonarat Pichaiyapaiboon. He is Thai. Poonarat, was short, friendly, had an interesting sense of humor, and clearly was from another culture. He was fascinating and we became friends. His English was not hard to understand if you could make out what words he was saying. Like most Thais of his generation who learned to speak English he failed to pronounce final consonants and most consonant clusters. FInal ‘l’s often were pronounced “n”. “Liked” became “lie”. Hotel was pronounced hoe-ten . Lips was pronounce lip but with a very short, dropped “p”. Once you got a handle on that he was easy to understand.
However, this was Middle America. Most people had little experience with listening to such bad pronunciation. He said that had I not be friendly with him, shown him some respect that he would have left the program and returned home.
One day he decided to cook for us. This was well in advance of the great profusion of Thai restaurants. He made us a dish based on Beef liver. You have to understand that liver in Thailand is a special food as it is in many places and times when animal protein is scarce. It is high in vitamins B6 and B12. It has a lot of cholesterol. When I was a child, liver was the one food I despised. I could eat anything else I was given, even if I did not like it. Liver I had to force down. It was vile. The last time my parents made me eat liver I asked to be excused from the table. I was told that I could not eat anything else until I ate my liver. I was determined to starve to death. I woke up in the morning put on my clothes and walked to school without breakfast. When I came home for lunch there was lunch at the table for me. I guess liver was not so good for you that starving to death was a reasonable punishment for not eating it.
Anyhow, the first step was to put some oil in a pan and fry a ton of peppers. The air because so hot that we sat on the floor by the door while Nui cooked. It was rather intense. I was able to eat a little.
Soetsu Yanagi, Shoji Hamada, and Bernard Leach went on a tour of the United States, giving lectures, and demonstrations in December of 1952. I went to graduate school and found a copy of Yanagi’s lecture in a trash can. Yanagi coined the word “Folk-Craft”. Like William Morris, only later and half way around the planet, Yanagi saw the demise of hand skills, and the plain work and products produced by local craftsman as detrimental to society and aimed to help preserve them. He talked of plain Korean wooden bowls, Ongi, and other “rustic” ware designed for use.
Rather than join academia, Leach set up a pottery and taught apprentices. The apprentices became famous potters, really most of them. One was Michael Cardew. Cardew also had apprentices, but first he went to Ghana on a British Government grat to set up a stoneware pottery. There he had contact with the robust earthenware pots used in the villages, further strengthening the Yanagi/Leach tie to folk pottery. Cardew had Mark Hewitt as an apprentice. We will circle back around to Mark later.
Cardew’s pots and his pottery aesthetic was something I put in a pigeon hole that I call Majesty of form. His pots often have the fullness and grace of Sung Dynasty Chinese pots. The tend to be large, robustly functional, and show strength and vitality. Of the Leach School potters he is my favorite. I got to meet him in Wichita at a conference of educators. He said that you cannot learn to make good pots in a university.
At school in Kansas City, we were given the opportunity to buy books about Japanese pottery published by Kodansha. We ordered the books and they were picked up and shipped by Akio Takamori who was in Tokyo at the time. Akio has influenced us all. He was a great man, and a great friend to so many. But it may be these book orders where he had his biggest influence. We were wildly infatuated with Japanese pots, but could get only limited information. These books could not be read by us. But they contained large pictures, high quality. When they came we devoured them. I have had them 40 years now and they still are the books with the pictures I want to look at. I think that these books changed a generation of potters, at least the ones from the Kansas City Art Institute. I think I bought 5 books, I was broke. Gail, now my wife bought another 5. I wish that I could have bought the two sets. I think that there were 70 books. So it goes.
Gail and I got married and moved to Rhode Island to set up a pottery. We did not have the skills, and my brain would not let me do this. I could, and really cannot stay focused like that. It has never worked. I was fooling myself. I ended up deciding to go to graduate school. We went on a tour of schools and applied together to five. I am not sure what they all were but they included Alfred, Illinois State, and Montana State. We both got into Illinois State and Montana State. Alfred turned us down. I go to their receptions at the annual conference to rub in the mistake. They serve good food.
My life at Illinois State in Normal, was not good. Lots of things were wrong. I was one of them. When things got tough I did not make them better. However the real blame seems to lie on my instructors, both of whom are now dead. I am mostly over it, but they were not nice to me. I started hanging out with the Glass students. They were nice. The glass instructor, Joel Meyers, was great to me. It was an escape for me. I started making some good work there. Poonarat took a glass class with me. We had a lot of fun. Thinking about it I can hear his laugh, see his smile and his voice. He says that I was important to his staying in Normal, thinking about this makes me realize that he may have been just as important to me, only I ended up leaving.
Sometime Poonarat brought a sheet of slides. If you are young these are transparent images of photographic film. They were a inexpensive way to get images that you could project on a wall. The images were of a village in Thailand, Dankwian. There was an image of a kiln, another of firewood, and images of dark clay pots, fired to vitrification with no glaze. These were Mingei, not fake folk-craft made by the college educated or designed by people with marketing degrees. There were pots of the people, made for storing water, basins for washing, mortars and wood pestles. The surfaces were amazing with spots of melted woodash from the fuel, scars from where they stuck together. I was amazed.
By Thanksgiving our first semester in graduate school it was obvious that the choice of schools was a mistake and we got on a bus and went to Montana. Greyhound was going on strike. The bus company told us, “no matter what we will get you to your destination”. In Chicago we saw our luggage on a cart as we were leaving the station. We got them to stop so that we could get it. In Minneapolis they said that they could no longer transport us but that they would get us to our destination. We got on the train and got to Havre, Montana. From Havre we took a small bus company to Billings. In Billings we were left stranded. Chandler Dayton drove her pickup truck 3 hours and picked us up. She took us to Bozeman straight into the Montains to camp, have steaks cooked on an open fire, drink beer, and whiskey, and smores. No one in Montana said “yes” to anything. It was always “You bet” or “You betcha”. It became our mantra.
Somehow we returned to Illinois. It might have been Greyhound, I do not remember it. But once we returned anytime one of the instructors asked us to do anything we answered, “you betcha”. We were leaving but decided to finish the year out. This was a terrible mistake in many ways but I did make some great work. I invented slipcast glass. I started my series of kilns. I coated welded wire fencing with slip. I made some pots that I prize.
When I finally left Illinois I was almost not sleeping. I would sleep maybe four hours and wake up and worry. Sometimes I would get back to sleep. I was a mess. While I did not cry much, I was a man and we are supposed to take it. I should have, I think tears carry some of some stress out of your body. Oh well. We left with friends who helped drive.
I do not know that I will ever feel the same joy ( its different when a child is born, not the same) that I felt when I crossed the border into Iowa. It was the lifting of weight, a thousand brick. We stopped and saw Clary Illian, a Leach apprentice, fantastic person, a maker of quiet beautiful pots and a great friend that I see only rarely. We spent the night in a campground and in the morning one of the tires on our 16 foot box truck was near flat. We did not have much money to spare. Truck tires can be wicked expensive. We also did not have appropriate tools for dealing with it. We borrowed a small bicycle pump and worked for an hour pumping it up and then quickly drove into the city to get it repaired. That done, we got back on the road.
The truck stopped running like it was out of gas and I pulled to the side of the road. John got out and said, “I think its the carbuerator. We were lucky to have him. As we were taking the top off the carbeurator I finally started to cry. These were big tears. My nose dripped, they just about squirted from my eyeballs and Jack Kirkpatrick try to console me. “Louis, it will be ok. No worries everything will be fine, we will get it running”. Well he was right, but we had no money to spare but I was not really upset. The tears were joyous. I was out of f-ing Illinois. I was elated! I could walk to Montana. The truck broke down again in Livingston Montana, just the other side of the pass into Bozeman. I thought, “no worries, I can push the truck into Bozeman with a pry bar.
We rolled into Bozeman with the engine running and air in our tires. I remember very little about the time until school started.
We lived in Married Student Housing. Rent was cheap, I think when we started it was 98$ per month. We had to pay our own utilities. The houses were WWII housing that had been moved to school. They had been given new windows and lots of insulation. They were about 1/2 mile from ceramics.
We met great people. Sheila and Halleck and Bobcat, our professors, Mike, Rick, and Jay, Allan, and Stephanie. I took a class on technical photography from Dick Molina who worked in the sciences. He introduced me to good chocolate. Of the grad students Chandler and Frank stood out. Josh DeWeese was an undergrad about to leave for Kansas City to go to the Art Institute. It seems like all of his teachers went there, or almost all.
I do not remember being signed up for classes in the first summer, but I probably was. Gail took a graduate English class. There were some hiccups in the fall. The graduate dean sent Gail a letter saying that her undergraduate English classes were not acreddited by an organization that the University could accept and that she would have to take leveling courses. It seemed like a joke. I could hardly write a paper. Gail went and pointed out that not only had she taken and passed a graduate English course at the Montana State, she had earned the highest grade and all the rest of the students were English Graduate students. Further we pointed out that most of his art faculty went to that Undergraduate School and he accepted their transcripts when they were hired.
Unfortunately graduate school in Normal Illinois traumatized me. I had a hard time getting along with my teachers in Bozeman. They did not really help things, but I should have been able to tolerate more. It was very hard for me the last few sememsters. Still, I made work I am still proud of. I picked up skills I did not have when I got there. I also made tons of work fired to cone 8 in residual salt that had surfaces that are much like Dankwian surfaces. I learned to throw fast. I started become irritated about “Art” History, and its narrow myopic view of what art is. I should probably thank it for its myopia because it really became the subject of my work for decades.
We had had our garage sale. Our things remaining were on 4 pallets. Both Datsuns were outside on pallets so that they could be picked up and moved around by the Archie Bray Foundation forklift. Our other belongings were in the old covered scove kiln storage building.
The video camera had come, we bought film and packed. It is hard to know if we brought too much stuff. Lots of things were hard or expensive to get. Pants that fit me were all imports or carried import prices. Shoes were unavailable in size 14. We brought some books. They ended up being helpful. We got so short on reading material that anything in English was a prized possession. I remember that we called our families. Things were rather frenetic. We were excited.