The first time I went backpacking I was 18. I had been dreaming about backpacking since I was in middle school, but my family didn't backpack and I didn't know anyone who did. But, I had my first chance my freshman year of college.
Backpacking? I hear you ask. What does backpacking have to do with pottery? Well, I'm getting there...
This first backpacking trip was three weeks in the Uinta Mountains of Utah. I grew up in the midwest, where the landscape had been flattened millennia before by glaciers. The steepest, tallest things I was used to climbing were the stairs to the third floor of my house. Thus, on that fateful first hiking day, when we loaded our backpacks with nine days worth of food, clothes tarps and cooking gear, I felt overwhelmed by the weight; I was carrying fifty pounds on my back, and would be hiking miles and miles up and over mountains 10,000 or more feet in elevation. Although this was a dream come true, on that first day, I wasn't sure I could make it through that trip. But I did! By the third day, I was feeling strong and accustomed to carrying the weight, and when we restocked our food midway, that fifty pound pack felt like a necessary part of me.
Later that year I returned to ceramics (I hadn't taken a ceramics classes since middle school) and set a new challenging goal for myself: big pot making. I was inspired by this amazing upperclasswoman, Julia, who was building large vessels for her senior show. Watching her learn to build these pots throughout that year was incredibly inspiring, and I started dreaming of also building pots big enough that I could fit inside them.
Like my goal to go backpacking, it took me many years (ten in fact!) to finally fulfill my goal to start making big pots. Last fall, I moved to Seagrove, NC to be an artist in residence at STARworks. I also had the opportunity to work with Daniel Johnston and his apprentices, Charlie, Natalie and Jake. There I started practicing the coiling method Daniel learned while working with a potter in Thailand, and built a few mid-sized columns (like the 42-inch column shown on right).
I started thinking bigger in my own pottery practice. Over the last few months I have been sketching, rolling coils, and building big pots. Each time I learn something new and feel more confident. The most recent big pot, though (shown at the top of this post) has challenged and pushed me in a way I haven't been challenged in a while.
The form is based on one of my favorite small vase shapes, which I usually throw to seven or eight inches tall. But why not build one four feet tall?
At 30 inches tall, as I was starting to build the neck, I had some doubts. Was the bottom half of the pot strong enough to support the weight of nearly two more feet of clay? Were the shoulders too steep? Would it all collapse halfway to completion? I could change the plan, and forget the more complex form. Just add a rim and make a pot similar to those I had made before. But what was the challenge in that, and what would I learn? I knew that even if the pot collapsed, I would have succeeded in learning what one of my boundaries was.
But, as you've seen, the pot did not collapse. Instead, I succeeded in building a pot that is taller and more complex than any of the others. When I look at that pot in my studio now, I am filled with the same feeling I experienced on my first backpacking trip. That I have pushed myself beyond what I thought was possible, and the mountain ranges are open to me; I am capable. Now a new world of pot making is open to me as well. I see large pots, some tall, some wide, all complex and varied, and I can't wait to start sketching and building.