What better way to spend a brisk early October afternoon than in the pursuit of beauty. You might choose football, or hunting, or biking, or be virtuous and clean up the yard and wash windows. Today, though, we chose to wend our way north hopscotching eastern Nebraska on the North Hills Pottery Tour.
This is the third year we've spent a Saturday afternoon in the esoteric and impractical pursuit of pottery. We join a procession of SUVs, foreign and domestic, and conspicuously green or artfully odd automobiles, creeping at the snail's pace of vehicles unfamiliar with the dust of gravel roads en route to the farthest North stop of the tour, Big Table pottery.
Big Table came as a shock our first visit. The mailbox is ensconced in a cocoon of fierce pointy horns. "Pods" and other vaguely organic shapes hang from the tree limbs and spring from the turf. The tin roofed shed covers the open brick kiln with a little white troll of some kind blessing the contents. Big Table has coffee and cider in the shed and napkins protecting the cookies from flies. Today, the potters are conspicuous....why? Some combination of hair, skin, body type, accessories, perhaps? Such ethereal waifs to bring forth these ponderous slabs of earth. Nothing ephemeral about these pieces; there are gray jointed pipes of clay holding sprays of lilies, odd footed decanters looking like they'd skitter back under the bed when one wasn't looking, slabs of red clay with luminous glass dots and puddles of color. There is a whole set of dishware, dinner plates, bowls, dessert plates of a hue and texture reminiscent of the concrete sidewalk we just poured at the greenhouse. This pottery is so lacking in glaze, pattern and color, I believe the artists took the words "earthy" and "elemental" to the logical extreme: these pieces could have been formed before single celled beings divided to form life. At Big Table, the most appealing creations are the motley but friendly pack of pooches greeting the visitors.
Down the road we go, none the poorer for our experience, into the little town of Fort Calhoun. In the past, the Too Far North Winery has been entertaining for its nice selection of Nebraska wines and its very pleasant front porch and decor. Today, the place is humming with activity and we can barely get in the door. Last year we labeled the pottery at Too Far North as "art", our code for "too expensive for purchase" and "where would we ever put this?" Today, there are two potters exhibiting at Too Far North. One young man displays monumental pieces that could conceivably be considered sculpture and little triangular puzzle pie slices of clay I think the three year olds could make with playdoh and plastic knives. Don't get me wrong; they are clever constructions and would really be fun to doodle with while at your desk on your phone. They just don't add up to more than a hundred of my dollars. But this young man could have come from central casting and makeup: his black mane was wavy and his features chiseled. I'm sure his teeth were straight too.
The other artist was young, too, but bald. He was a high school teacher in Sioux Falls. But he had something else going for him: he had a long line of buyers. While I assumed some of the footed jars and irregular vases were his work, there was a shelf of tall concave tumblers glazed with swirls that might be waves, or a mountain range, and vertical ribs of color that could have been trees or blowing grass. There were comfortable mugs, either tall for maximum heat retention or broad, so one could wrap both hands around them. I was captivated by one with a wide bowl swirled with glaze on the bottom, dotted on one side like a starry night and the other like chocolate chips. He had graceful bowls of modest proportions and reasonable prices. Was that the reason for the line of customers? I don't think it was money at all; I think his work was pretty. It utilized the raw materials of earth, but borrowed the motifs of the natural world as visualized in the mind's eye. We didn't have to use much imagination to bring back a pleasant memory when we picked up his pottery. And we'd use it often: these were pieces to get out of the cupboard, nothing so precious it need gather dust.
That's one of the reasons I enjoy the Pottery Tour. All the creators are artists in the sense they have a vision of what clay should be. Some make terrifying masks in stark black and white and gory red. Some pieces are luminous and so delicately glazed and decorated, they appear to have been transported from the farthest Oriental palace, not St. Joseph, Missouri.
I hope to try my hand at this craft some day. I know it takes skill and practice, not just a vision. In the mean time, its a pleasant way to meditate on the different interpretations of "Craft" and "Art".