I love things CLAY. Walking barefoot on a tamped-down earth path during and right after a warm summer rainfall is an experience that yields distinct pleasures. Simultaneously one smells that fresh, humid and slightly metallic scent (“Rumpole” defines it as ozone smell) that accompanies summer rain. Each step taken along the wet path is an adventure of trying to remain upright; the slippery clay squishes up between the toes – a sensation that can be enjoyable or uncomfortable. On some places along the path the combination of water and earth creates a clay that one easily slips along. One comes upon potholes where the clay is heavy: each step is hampered by the grip of the clay on the foot – one has to struggle to extricate oneself from being mired. Falling down means becoming covered by a layer of clay. This, at first, feels nice,smooth, however, water begins to evaporate from this covering skin of clay. The more water evaporates the tighter the clay skin becomes. It shrinks, cracks and becomes dry and brittle – as this happens one’s skin feels pinched, dusty, itchy. But, one can wash the clay off – just run enough water, sometimes more, sometimes less – depending at what stage, from slip to dry, the clay is.
These things I learned about clay while visiting with my paternal Grandmother who lived in a clay house in a village 3 miles from the Hungarian/Ukranian border. There I learned that clay also had utility – her house had clay floors. In the summer these clay floors were cool to walk on. During the winter the floor warmed up from the heat of the woodstove. Mixing bowls, pitchers, mugs and plates here were different from the ones we had at home – they were made by a potter who lived in a nearby village. These were decorated with strange and unfamiliar patterns, rather curious symbols of flowers, bands of dots, chevron stripes, straight and wavy lines and checkerboard. My Grandmother’s house was one which I recreated in my mind while reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In my imaginings the Witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel also had clay floors. The Witch walked on clay floors and drank her water from a mug decorated exactly like one my Grandmother used.
Later, pleasant associations with this material, Clay, were added to and reinforced. In high school came my first opportunity to make things with clay. Mr. Waldie was the teacher in this Ceramics class. He loved clay too – a lot! He showed us how to use a kick-wheel to throw cylynders. I soon learned that clay can be an accommodating, forgiving and co-operative material but also had characteristics that must be understood and respected. Awareness, patience and perseverence were virtues, if practiced, which helped one learn to make more successful results. Learning through trial and error, we learned to make clay cylinders on the wheel that with time were straighter, less off-center and had thinner walls. Mr Waldie taught us different ways to make handles for mugs, how to apply these firmly, how to dry the finished mug so the handle wouldn’t dry before the cylinder and thus crack and fall off; how to apply glaze; how to load a kiln. He shared our delight or disappointment when our mugs came out of the kiln after the firing.
My idea then of what a hand-made mug should be was much influenced by my memories of Grandmother’s ones. The first ceramic mug I made was a poor imitation, but I was encouraged by the fact that it could be comfortably held and that it held water. It was no beauty! Mother, however, liked it ( for reasons I could not then understand, but which I now do). She placed and kept it on her coffee table. There it lived! Going through and dividing among ourselves Mother’s collections after she died i found my first mug among her collection of teacups. I took it home with me, otherwise it would have been donated to the Salvation Army Store to be put among many other mug foundlings. No one would have wanted it to take home – it was too ugly!
This simple act of taking back my ugly mug caused me to think about beauty, utility, sentiment, encouragement, desirability, boredom, novelty and fashion, ego and feelings of self-worth.
I know, as a “maker of things”, of the feelings I experience whenever something I produce is greeted with various reactions. While I am browsing the mug section in the Salvation Army Store, and come upon a mug which has a pleasant form and weight, a smooth rim that feels silky to the touch, a handle which allows a firm and comfortable grip, a beautifully finished foot, which isn’t cracked and which has an interesting glaze without many flaws and which holds the right amount of liquid without leaking I wonder. Who made it, when it was made, who used it and why did it end up remaindered at this second-hand store? It is still useful and can serve well for its intended purposes. I like to think that the potter who made this mug would be quite pleased to think that this mug was making its way out in the world being valued for its usefulness and beauty.
There is an organization that I would like to initiate. There is a need for such an organization. It is one I would like to name SCAM ( Society for the Conservation of Abandoned Mugs) There are many people who are likely candidates to belong to this group, but they are not yet organized. Currently they operate informally, solo, if you will. This is very good and they do valuable work. Some of them are my friends and family. These people have undertaken to work as seekers to collect unwanted hand-made mugs. Our mission is to find the beauty in whatever hand-made pottery mug we find, to rescue it from an eventuality that it may not be wanted and be discarded. My clever sister has come up with a name for this group of rescuers – CRUD (ceramic rescue – undercover division). I like this name – it has a truthful quality!)
As members of CRUD, each of us is casually but persistently engaged in our mission to rescue unwanted mugs. We happily compare our finds and share our pleasure and satisfaction with our efforts to rehabilitate these to let them carry on their purpose.
Over the past two years my CRUD activities have resulted in collecting and using, so far, 10 mugs. They are my prized possessions and when friends come for tea, on every occasion they can select the cup they wish to use. We negotiate who gets to use which cup. This can be a enjoyable time spent with each other, before we settle down to drink tea and converse..
I have noticed a curious thing – many of these friends have broadened their recue efforts.
Their operations involve rescue of what they value, and what they value is varied. Being in such an organization brings many benefits to all of us.