Down Wind

In t988-1989 I spent 10 months in Thailand with a Fulbright Senior Research Grant documenting Traditiona Thai Pottery from the point of view of an artist.
Twenty four years downwind of this event I can see some of the positive effects of this fruitful grant.

1. Potters in the western world know that Thai pottery exists. People run tours of Thai potteries. People visit and work at potteries in Thailand. Most notable of the people who have worked in Thailand at least in my eyes is Daniel Johnston. I can’t take much credit for it in any direct way but I was at least partly involved. Daniel was an apprentice of Mark Hewitt. Mark was aware of Thai pottery before I went to Thailand but I believe my video, articles and slide shows helped him to suggest to Daniel that he go to Thailand to learn to coil throw.
He suggested that Daniel contact Louise Cort, now curator of Asian Ceramics at the Freer gallery of the Smithsonian. Louise, a real expert on Thai pottery would probably have found the pottery at Phon Bok without me. But she contacted me a few weeks before I left and arrive a few weeks after asking for some leads to potteries. Phon Bok was on my list of pottery making villages, and that is where Daniel went at Louise’s suggestion. My list of suggestion to Louise turned into my 38 page booklet on Thai potteries that many people have used to find pots on their travels.

Kurt Weiser’s trip to Thailand during our stay was instrumental in his imagery. In some ways pottery was just part of the lure, but I also think the near magical or “Disneyland”® (trademark of Walt Disney) aspect of  Dankwean Village and the “Oz” quality of Muang Kung along with the temples and lush tropical scenary played a part in the development of his work. He mentions this trip frequently in talks on his work.

Also on the list is the work of Rosie Wynkoop. She also visited us in Thailand and her work makes me wonder if she is not influenced by Thai temples and perhaps Bencharong ceramics.

The effect that I am most proud of is the survival of mortar making in Ubon Ratchatani. Stoneware mortars are critical in Thai cooking. You need them for grinding spices, but they are perhaps most important in bruising papaya for som tam, green papaya salad most common in the Northeast. Visiting Ubon in 1989 I was asked what they could do to lower the temperature needed to produce vitreous pottery. Ubon did not seem to have a close supply of feldspar, glass frit in clay is hard to manage, I already had a bad experience using waste oil. It was a difficult problem.
What they really wanted was a hard surface. I suggested that they salt the kiln, throw 20 pounds of salt into the firebox near the top end of the firing, and it would volatilize and create a glaze on the pottery.
They thought I was crazy. “Salt does not burn” they told me and proceeded to ignore my idea. Perhaps it is a fault, but I usually do not argue with people unwilling to take my advice or suggestions, so I let it go. A few weeks later an engineer and I were talking back in Dankwean Village and he asked if I had any ideas about what they could do in Ubon. I told him, and he told them.
Sometime after returning to the US I began seeing mortars, clearly made with Ubon Clay and with Ubons smooth rim on the inside of the form, that had obvious salt glaze on them. Ubon has since nearly monopolized on clay mortar production. I feel like I had a positive impact on many peoples livelyhood and lives.