A Much Belated Letter
In the small ceramic bowl on my dresser, I store: a clay ball made by my son, a broken watch that I have been meaning to have repaired for two years, earrings given to me by a dear friend, and a favorite ring. The contents of the vessel, the ceramic bowl made by my son, seem to all take on equal importance by being placed in an object that is dear to me, though there appears to be no obvious relationship between these items. A vessel becomes a place for storing things that we need or could not bear to lose, small things that could scatter and spill.
Like the broken watch that I have been meaning to repair for some time, this letter has been waiting to be written for all of my 38 years. My thoughts scatter and spill, my mind is not always a faithful vessel to contain them. Yet now I feel ready to tell you about my thoughts of trying to find you through the land that is a vessel containing us both, and the pottery that you left behind.
The trees that dominate the horizon line of the hills remember me, and I remember them as the close companions of earliest memory. Giant firs’ trunks stretch from the earth with an ambitious elegance: they have welcomed my every return home throughout the years. Until recently I had been away from Oregon. Like true friends who go for long periods without speaking, only to resume conversation as though there was no interruption, I find my exchange with the land to be easy and comfortable.
Often the hillsides adorned with trees have layers of fog painted across favored patches of topography. The darkness of the sky makes the trees appear almost like silhouettes of sharp spears against the expansive grey sky above their heads. The trees are emerald, but in the distance, they appear almost black. Fog interrupts the shadowy figures, adding whiteness, and obscuring them. The cloak of fog that hangs in spaces among the trees is like a ghost—a ghost of the rain’s making.
I too have made a ghost, a fog that sometimes hugs my thoughts. Among the comings and goings of my days is the desire to know you. I was born in the Willamette Valley in the same year that you were laid to rest in it; you recall my birth as you were in the room for the long labor. I of course do not recall this event and am left to rely on the memories of others. Over the years I have found that the memories of others, that were lovingly bequeathed to me, are insufficient in allowing me to connect to you. And so, this ghost of desire to know you has compelled me to track you down myself.
On my dresser as a child, there was a small ceramic jar that you had made. Its unglazed edges were rough; when I closed the lid of the jar it made an uncomfortable sound. I didn’t open it often as it contained things that I felt were precious (and perhaps too precious to be used often): a necklace on a plaid string, a pin that had a monkey on it, after my ears were pierced a pair of earrings from aunt Charlotte, and as a teenager the blue necklace given to me by my first boyfriend. The objects were elevated to a special place of significance because of the vessel that they were placed in was made by you.
After playing pretend that other places in the world could be my home, I returned to the Willamette Valley a year and a half ago. The rain never makes me sad. These spheres of water are like the strings plucked on a guitar, that hold a melody together. Landing down slowly with spaces in between each drop, these music notes string together a slow song. I trust it as I do the lyrics of a folk song, that are simple and honest. Through much of the year as the rain falls steadily, I fall in step with its pace and give in to a rhythm of working that is quiet and constant, like the rain that taps calmly on my studio roof. I have reason to believe that in your own practice you too worked in this persistent way. Perhaps it is because my homeland is the same land you used to dig in—finding the clay that would sustain your practice and livelihood—that I find that the Willamette Valley is where I too need to be to unearth my creativity.
Drops of water transform from clouds to fog and back again, making itself into the ghost that embraces the forest. Barely visible in its movements, it places jeweled drops on branches, sparkling in the soft light. Rain nourishes the lovely delicate ferns who situate themselves within the crevasses of trees like lace fans in the hands of elegant ladies. Drops of water loosen the soil into something soft and fertile. The muddy ground feeds its beautiful children: the trees, ferns, rivers, and mosses. Not just a caretaker, the rain collaborates with the rivers, raising the water levels of the streams, which become the strong hands that push at the sides of the earth. Two hands making the paths of the shore move and shift-- like the hands of a potter centering clay on a potter’s wheel.
Your pottery made out of my homeland—was once just slippery river clay, dug up from places near our home. Along its edges I can see the indentations where your hand centered the piece while the clay was still moist. Placing my hands along the fired creases of pottery as a child, I knew that I was tracing my hands where your hands had been. The object became a bridge between us, as though for a moment our two hands touch. After it’s been fired, pottery still holds the memory of what it once was, a slippery piece of land that yielded to someone else’s touch. The rain-soaked ground feeds its children in the forest; you fashioned rain-soaked ground into plates; I spent my childhood eating off of the misfit pieces of pottery that you did not sell.
As a child, each piece of pottery made by you seemed perfect. The earth-toned round objects were a reminder that my father was indeed a real person, who albeit briefly, was a part of my life. As an adult, relatives have given me pieces of pottery that they bought from you at Saturday Market or that you had given them as gifts during your lifetime. These pieces are more refined. You gave away and sold all of your best pottery, because young fathers don’t worry about what pieces of art they will leave for their children, there will be time to figure that out later. At the time you needed to pay the rent.
The fog that hugs the patches of forest feels like for as much as it obscures it must retain secrets. Like a ghost that can walk through a wall, the rain moves in and out among the trees, being privy to all that happens from the skyline, to the canopy, to the floor. I want it to tell me about you, but it seems to just acknowledge that it knows that you and I are kin.
Gathering together the pottery of yours that I have, I look at each piece individually as well as in a group. The clay cups that you made, the same form repeated over and over, tell me what it is I need to know about you. It seems like a simple act of making the same vessel again and again, but it shows patience, skill, and perfectionism. Clay wants to make itself into a different form each time, but with water and the steady push of your hand you made it yield to your vision. The earth tones of the glaze make your work feel quiet, the shape of the vessel is the reminder that just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean that they do not have their own distinct vision.
Drops of water can seem gentle, maybe even shy. One by one, they weather stone. Each individual drop appears to be doing very little. Falling, they barely make a sound. The day-in day-out actions of our routines feel as though they are only the small drops of water, changing nothing. I feel that way in my studio at times, working persistently, yet nothing about it feels heroic. Maybe it is the same feeling trying to throw the same cup over and over on the wheel. What others see are the cups that you chose to keep; we didn’t see the moments when the clay refused to yield, and I have been told that you would throw away work that didn’t measure up to your standard, even destroy it by smashing it. Every day we are a small drop of water hitting a stone, over time the intentions of our practice begin to change the surface of the stone which we collide into.
Weather moves and changes, and the rain is a dear friend, constantly doting on the forest. Plants and animals live and die in the forest, the rain recalls their birth, life, and death. Beginning as the wet nurse to the all the living things in the forest, the rain is also a caretaker upon their death, and ultimately it washes the decaying remains into the muddy soil, or to the rivers so that it may become a part of something new.
My studio is an ecosystem much like the forest. You could not bear the imperfect forms that somehow snuck their way into your kiln, these flawed creatures you destroyed upon discovery – I paint over the marks that do not enliven a painting, I cut up paintings that have failed and I make them into something else. Paintings that do not cooperate with me are banished to lean facing against the wall until I know how I will make them into something new and strong. We both know to be careful with what we allow to go out into the world from our studios. It is an act of mercy to the artwork to capture the pieces that are not made as well as the rest and either destroy the ill pieces or transform them into something new.
I know in your life you found peace in the forest, and I too am the same way. I find an irony to this as forests are not peaceful places. On the forest floor plants compete for patches of light, trees above them compete with each other for light as well. The death of one animal is the necessary nourishment for another living thing. All that the rain is working to nourish is not in harmony, yet there is a feeling of peace in the woods. There is no permanence other than that it is all a constant process, which is similar to art making. I don’t know if the work is ever complete, there just comes a time when we choose to stop working on it.
I often think of your studio, near the small farmhouse where I spent my first months of life. I wonder what that hippie childhood would have been like amongst the garden where you and mom grew much of your food, or watching you work at your wheel. The false memory must not be entertained as it only skims the surface of a life that I did not have and fails to connect me to who you were. I want to know you in all of your humanness.
My studio is at home, in my garage, in a suburban neighborhood with cul-de-sacs and minivans. From my studio window I can see trees that are similar to the ones near your home. I can’t help but wonder what you would think of me, both as an artist and as your daughter. You lived hand to mouth, free and wild-- I picked out my home based off of test scores and crime maps. Your pottery is composed of elegant strong forms glazed in earth tones, while my work is in neon colors and filled with graffiti-like marks. I feel the generation gap between us, and it feels like the friction in a disagreement, which excites me because (while I dislike conflict) a disagreement is still at least an interaction.
Seasons become like vessels too, and I store up feelings, memories, and sentiments that I revisit during those times of the year. In the fall it always surprises me just how many trees do lose their leaves here because it is the tall fir trees touching the sky that are most striking during the rest of the year. Sometimes in the fall, when the wind catches the yellow leaves in the air, they seem as though they are almost dancing in similar and complementary patterns as they fall. A couple of leaves will move faster than the rest, making me even more convinced that there is indeed some marvelously complicated pattern that the rest of the falling leaves are adhering to. For a moment I am mesmerized and I wonder if I am still alive, because I fail to understand how something can be so beautiful.
In my practice I strive to make objects that in appearance or action connect with something beautiful and optimistic. Color becomes a way of communicating this value system. My optimism is not one where everything will work out, but an optimism that I know through so many losses, that I can still persist and build something good in my life. I want this optimism to infect people, to work its way under their skin and into their belief systems through my work. You too wanted your work to be intimately entangled in the lives of others. The pottery that you made was functional, made to be used, strong enough for the dishwasher and microwave. It became part of people’s everyday lives. They drank their morning coffee from the mugs that they bought from you. These ceramic objects became privy to private family discussions and the victories and defeats of ordinary everyday life.
Some people say that when you see something over and over again you stop really seeing it and begin to take it for granted; however, I believe that some things are so commanding in their form that they refuse to allow us to stop exploring them with our eyes. Hills covered in fir trees have always had this effect on me. The form is similar, the trees almost begin to create a pattern on the hills, yet each tree is a little different. I find myself wanting to make work that encourages this sort of looking; if I am persistent like the rain, perhaps cultivating this object is possible. The persistence in my practice is no different from you at your wheel pushing the clay into the same cup or bowl repeatedly.
Clear drops of water touch down, refracting the light, and though raindrops are transparent, they are visible in what they transform. In the summer the rain stops and exhales a sigh of relief during its momentary pause. The sun shines with its seductive brilliance and the land changes. Grasses turn golden amber. Plants with shallow roots dry out. The rivers are determined in their course, like an old man who is an inch shorter than he once was, who tries to stand tall. Yet the trees are steadfast in keeping the hills green. All the warmth and deliciousness of the sun can only be good for so long. Summer leads to the eventual decline of the living things and into fall.
I have been told that your kiln was built in the 1970’s out of scavenged bricks from old beehive burners that belonged to lumber mills no longer in use. Mom said you were so excited when you found these bricks. She could hear you howling out the window in delight as you drove down the dirt road leading home with your truck loaded down with the bricks. It must have been summer because she described the dirt being kicked up behind the wheels of the truck into a big cloud. I can’t remember if she said the bricks were free or of little charge. I do remember being told that you were six months behind on rent when you died. At the time I was four months old and it was summer. The rain’s melody was absent during our first months of grief. Sometimes a wise friend knows to say nothing, to wait until the right time to speak.
Initially, I had much apprehension about being an artist. I have been told about how you would work so hard to make the pottery only to spend your weekends selling it at markets. Shortly after my birth I would be in attendance at these events, situated in a basket, or so photographs tell me. I also knew that if I allowed myself to pursue art, it would pull me in like a riptide. Were the vessels that you made time and again, where you mastered the same form over and over, was this the riptide that you felt? I imagine the forms of wet clay that didn’t work out, the creatures that live momentarily in a studio that few people know about. In my studio those creatures are paintings with their faces turned to the wall, as though they are ashamed, when it is I who is ashamed of them. I resisted being an artist because creativity is so much like water: it is powerful, but it spills everywhere making a mess of things. What it doesn’t make a mess of is sold. Artists and their families rarely keep their best pieces, but instead have the odd assortment of creatures who were not sold, along with the memory of a family member who was often working alone.
Even though fall is a time of approaching death, there is a quality of golden light that comes now and then and comforts my every misgiving. Afternoon sunbeams slip through the patches of space between the branches of the trees; the sun not at its full intensity, but the color of chardonnay. Just as the leaves in the fall mesmerize me in their acrobatic display that takes them to the ground, the interplay between color and form in painting convince me to give in to my artistic desires. The leaves that die and then fall to the ground do so with such panache that I wonder if it’s not about what we leave behind but the way in which we move through this vessel of life that really matters. Accepting my own temporal nature means that I cannot be afraid of being swept up into my own artistic practice: how I live and all the victories and loses that come with it are the acrobatic display of a leaf in its falling to the ground.
Those who survive you wonder, should we use your pottery or keep it tucked away for safe keeping? I believe that you want us to use it, that if there was ever a life that you would want it to be intertwined with, it would be that of your own child and your three grandchildren. We have lifted the cups that you have made to toast happy times, and the last mug I own of yours broke about a year ago. I saved the pieces of the mug that broke in a clay pot that you had made. Sometimes I wonder if I will learn the art of kintsugi, where I would repair the piece with a lacquer dusted in gold or silver, the break and repair becoming part of the piece. For now, the broken pieces of the mug you made sit in a vessel also made by you—just as the watch of mine that needs to be repaired sits on my dresser in a vessel made by my son. I’m not sure how much time I have for repairing things that were broken in the past.
In this earthen bowl —the Willamette Valley— you and I are together. The land is the vessel that contains us; I move freely to come and go for now, while you are fixed in one place. Although we are both items in this vessel, sometimes it feels as though we only relate to one other because of the containers that hold us —be it the land— or being from the same family. Looking carefully over your work, considering who you were not only as my father but as an artist, I see that we do have something more in common—we are similar in what we are trying to give through our practices. The generosity of your practice was skillfully making pottery that would be intimately intertwined in other people’s lives, making their daily routines more meaningful. What I offer in my painting practice is giving others what is contained inside the vessel that is my heart: the belief that in spite of all hardship, there is reason to persist, and that optimism is something that we can grow and cultivate ourselves. The purpose in our practice is to bring something good and honest to other people, so that in the triumphs and struggles of everyday life, they are given something beautiful.