The Japanese word Raku, pronounced "rah-koo", is a commonly-used word that means comfort, ease, or relief.
This summer I was searching for peace in the midst of the quiet of my studio. I imagine this seems cockeyed. As Covid shut down the studio for most business beginning in March. I looked at the advantages of having the space to myself and I got busy making pots for the wood kiln. Over the months, although it proved to be a rich, productive time for me making-wise, the noise of the world, the daily news of death, sickness, and poor leadership was wearing me out.
When the state of Vermont carefully opened and I could work with small groups, I invited three young friends to an experiment in quiet making. There were few guidelines but mostly the plan was to use no electricity and work outside. We would use raku clay to make small objects which we would finish forming in one sitting, for the most part (one student worked on a teapot shape for a couple sessions, which turned out lovely). The meetings had the feeling of a quilting bee or sewing circle. We quietly enjoyed each other's company, listened to music, and ate snacks. I think of these making days as meditation sessions.
After three making sessions and the bisque fire, which I carried out, we met for the firing of the pots.
Firing day is the opposite of making day; it's loud, exciting, and a bit dangerous. I think of it as the punk session. After around 45 minutes in the propane fueled garbage can kiln, we turn off the gas. The sudden silence gets our attention. After what sounds like the airplane engine in the middle of the night on an intercontinental flight, it's very quiet. When we fire at night it's a real shift from noise, flame, and loud chatter to nothing. Then the sounds of the forest around us begin to be noticeable again (during a recent firing we heard the call of a Great Horned Owl). The space around us opens.
Before we take the pots from the kiln, we designate jobs and don our fire safe gloves. One person is the lid person: they take the kiln lid on and off as I pull the pieces from the kiln and carefully drop them in the combustion bucket. There's the combustion bucket person: who operates the lid on the can filled with sawdust, leaves, newspaper, or horse hair. And the tong wielder. This person gently grabs each piece with a set of large tongs and puts them into the combustion bucket. Each piece reignites the material in the bucket, issuing a bright flame, lighting up the night. After a few minutes of burning and smoldering, we take the pieces out. We might plunge them in water. When they are cool enough to touch, we scrub the soot from the glaze and hold what is referred to by my friend, Liz, as our "little friend", Kawaī tomodachi, かわいい友達.
Learning about this process has been a resting place in a time of profound discomfort.
Raku, pronounced "rah-koo", is a commonly-used word that means comfort, ease, or relief. The constant question of "what can I do!?" sometimes becomes a cacophony of thoughts which makes me exhausted and foggy in my living. This summer I found that sitting outside behind my studio in a lawn chair, working with a small piece of clay while listening to the Canada geese on their journey is a way of making room. Lighting a fire, watching the pots become glossy and translucent, carrying them to a bed of sawdust and allowing for their transformation before carefully cleaning them and holding them is making room.
I am making room for the "little friend".
I believe it is essential to get out of our own work space and experience different people, places and approaches in order to grow as an artist. I am a potter who invests in travel for learning and enrichment. I understand the necessity for careful spending and investing in our work. You won't be surprised to hear that I'm on a serious budget; I must look for value where I can (I generally stay at airbnbs which cost under $80/night. I mostly buy groceries to prepare meals at the rental). So, when I built the studio and began planning workshops, I kept my own budget in mind.
Here I think it's important to state the mission of the studio. I've been teaching for over 15 years. I've taught all ages and abilities. I've seen the importance of varied approaches. My goal was to build a place for artists to come together and share ideas and inspiration, particularly as our country and the world is increasingly fractured in some ways (there's so much more to write about this). Over the years I have seen the effects of intimate creating and exploration in the studio setting. A few years ago I felt a strong urge to create a place to connect and build relationships and enrich practice through clay. I am perpetually abuzz with excitement and wonder at the power of this kind of working and sharing. I see it every day.
And there is a business side. I wish I didn't have to think about it, but there it is. Every day I figure expenses, calls artists, orders supplies while balancing my studio practice, my deep love for working with clay.
Here are some of the aspects that factor into pricing each workshop:
PAYING THE ARTIST: Our culture grossly under-values artists and their work. Without question the artists I invite are worth every penny and more. I pay whatever an artist requests if it fits my mission and I believe their example and process will benefit participants, and I can maintain my studio costs. This is why I must have a minimum for participation at workshops.
Additional artist expenses:
often include :
Transportation, (often) flights, transportation to and from the airport, tolls, miscellaneous.
clay, glazes, and tools I might not already have on hand which are specific to the artist's process.
Room and board.
If it's a wood fire workshop (a world of expense depending on source, delivery, prep). When we're firing with locals folks who can be here to prep beforehand, I work their time into cost. It is a tremendous amount of work to maintain a wood kiln - a world different from electric or even gas firing. When workshop participants are arriving to a wood kiln ready for firing, someone has done all the prep work and they must be paid for their time.
More about this: As wood fire workshops might cost more to run, should my presenter make less so I can pay the studio and myself? No. Should the studio make less? No. The expense has to be added somewhere, though. I try very hard to keep it affordable for participants, but this a realty of a specialized workshop.
Not only do we have housing on the premises, it's lovely. I believe on site housing makes my studio a unique offering in the workshop world. We’ve put a tremendous amount of resources into making it a comfortable place for artists to rest between studio time. 2 or three of the rooms are shared spaces, making them a bit more affordable. I generally block one or two of the rooms as a singles. They are a premium, but I've found that accommodating those who cannot share a room is important. They often book first although they can be 50% higher in cost. And, there are always a few more local options, airbnb, hotels, etc. , but ask anyone who's been here about the convenience and comfort of staying in the same building as your work space and they'll tell you they wouldn't do it any other way. AND, you're really not going to save money unless you're staying with a friend for free.
Participants bring their own food necessities. However, the shared kitchen is stocked with staples: coffee, tea, milk, butter, oatmeal, cereal; and during warmer months, fresh vegetables from my garden. I provide a nice group meal on the last night.
Small group learning:
I built the guesthouse to comfortably host 10.
I generally cap participant numbers at eight-ten (this number varies, depending on the workshop); this allows for personalized attention, creating space for deep, intimate conversations about the process.
So, each participant generally pays around $200/day for small group instruction, workspace in a light-filled studio, lodging, (in some cases) a wood firing, and learning in a small group. This is less than some people pay for a nice hotel room.
All of these things considered, I believe it’s an incredible value. But are we looking for a deal when we invest in our craft? I learned years ago that you have to invest in your life's passion in order to grow in it. This means time and sometimes money. It's a challenging prospect. I believe it has more to with self worth than workshop costs. I find that when I get to know students they share that they're not sure if they and their work are worth the commitment (thus the possible $220/night hotel, but sqeamishishenss around workshop fees). I can't answer these concerns for them, but I can provide a place for them to explore the questions.
If you have questions or comments about the ins and outs of running a small artist retreat/workshop, get in touch. Better yet, come join one! I'll fluff your pillows:)
This is a bowl I made and salt fired at @watershedceramics in 2014. It is part of a series inspired by Shaker visions. I spent most of 2014 and some of 2015 researching and making pots about the ecstatic spiritual visions of the Shakers. Most of these visions were experienced by girls or young women. They were recorded in words and drawings. They were for believers’ eyes only. They were discovered and became known to outsiders sometime in the 1970s. As I got deeper into looking at this phenomenon, I could see why believers would want to keep them within the community. It would have been easy to misunderstand this kind of experience if you were not already immersed in the lifestyle and practice of this intense religious community. Inside the bowl reads “A crown of Bright Glory” on the inside. I agonized over materials during the process of making this series. I was hesitant to use 24 karat gold luster because of it’s a bling factor. After trying a number of oxides, I was awakened during the night and didn’t actually hear an audible voice, but was very sure that I should use the gold as it would convey the otherworldliness I was trying to portray. I’m not sorry I did. I’m hoping to make another series of these over the next few years. I think the combination of clay, salt and gold are just about right, but I will likely do the initial firing with wood. #shakers #shakervisions #handmadepottery #saltfired #goldluster #making #handmade #process #wip
The studio is everything we hoped it would be and more. Our goal was to create a place for people to gather and share ideas in a safe, restful space. I couldn’t imagine the souls who would pass through on their journeys. It’s a beautiful building, but it’s dead without people in it. It’s not only the artists who visit; they are everything to me, and our programming is just getting started. But the travelers who pass through and stay for a night or two are also magic. In the last year and a half we’ve met really beautiful people from all over the world. When I despair in our government and the misguided people in power making decisions that serve only few, I walk into this building and say hello to people I’ve never met and, in most cases, will never see again, and I am renewed. People are curious, loving, and kind. It is that simple. We talk for a few minutes while they're settling in or having their breakfast before getting on the road, and my hope is restored. Every time.
Love is winning.
One of the marvelous things about the studio expansion is that we can accommodate larger numbers of people for classes and events. This make crazy ideas like throwing a pottery party possible. This winter we hosted a group of great potters to make 125 bowls for the upcoming Berkshire Food Project Empty Bowl Dinner 2018 which will be held on May 4th, with multiple seatings at 5:30pm and 7:00pm at at the First Congregational Church In WIlliamstwon, Ma. Although Mother Nature gave us a run for our money, we scheduled and rescheduled Mason Hill Clay Studio Pot-a-Thon and were able to make our goal.
To host an event like this, we had to plan ahead a bit. There are number of steps involved in making a bowl. Have you ever wondered how a bowl is made on the potter's wheel?
First we weigh the desired amount of clay, usually between 1-2 lbs for an average soup bowl. The next step is called wedging; the goal is to make sure there is no air in the form of bubbles in the clay body before you begin to form the bowl. It looks a lot like kneading bread dough but we're trying for the opposite effect. Our clay comes from 25 lb bags which were purchased from our local distributor, Sheffield Pottery. Can you imagine 125 lumps of malleable, soft clay as finished, colorful bowls that will serve soup? Pretty cool, right?
Next we sit down at the potter's wheel and begin to form our bowls. This step is called throwing. One might wonder from where the term "throwing" comes. The easiest answer is from the Old English word thrawan from which to throw comes, means to twist or turn. This activity is the first in many steps that requires some practice; from here, the clay is stretched and coaxed upward, a continuing, gentle spiral which becomes a vessel. It's difficult to explain in words the feeling of well-being that comes with this activity. This looks easier than it is and it's one of my favorite things to teach. It requires a kind of quiet concentration that we don't get to practice very often in our daily life. It causes the participant to slow down, to focus. When you're learning to center clay you can't really be thinking about anything else. It can be challenging but once it's learned can be blissful.
Once the clay is centered, the next step is to make an opening from the top to almost the bottom on the inside of your clay. From here, the clay is stretched and coaxed upward, a continuing, gentle spiral which becomes a vessel. It's difficult to explain in words the feeling of well-being that comes with this activity.
Once the basic form is thrown, the piece must be allowed to become firm - a stage called "leather hard". This usually takes a day or so. When the bowl is firm enough, it is put back on the wheel head upside down and trimmed using (often) tools made especially for removing clay in "leathery" strips. This is an important step in that it removes unwanted clay from the bottom of the pot and gives the bowl its final form and particular profile.
Now it's time to allow the bowl to completely dry. This phase is the "greenware" phase. The piece must be completely dry before it is fired in what is the first of two firings. This firing is called the bisque firing. The purpose of the bisque firing is to prepare the clay body for glaze immersion and eventually the second and final firing called, you guessed it, the glaze firing. It's kind of a half way firing; it solidifies the bowl but allows the clay to stay responsive to the glaze that will be applied.
The next step is what we hope will be a final firing in the kiln; the glaze firing. This firing is hotter than the bisque fire. It melts the glaze and adheres it to the clay body. There's a lot of chemistry involved in glazes vitrifying, or melting, and clay bodies maturing just the right amount, together, to make a successful surface/body interaction.
The kiln needs a cooling period after the firing, usually a day or so for electric kiln firing. This requires patience on the part of the artist... it's difficult to wait. Every kiln opening is like Christmas and your birthday all rolled into one. All the work, all the anticipation is in this 17cu ft. space. What will my bowls look like?
Come on May 4th when you'll be able to see and take home the work of many potters who put their love and time into making bowls to share with the public to raise awareness and funds for the Berkshire Food Project.
Many thanks to following potters for their contributions through the studio:
I love the imagination of light: how gradually light will build a mood for the eye to discover something new in a familiar mountain. This glimpse serves to deepen the presence of the mountain and remind the eye that surface can be subtle and surprising. Gathered high in silence and stillness, the mountain is loaded with memory that no mind or word can reach. Light never shows the same mountain twice. Only the blindness of habit convinces us that we continue to live in the same place, that we see the same landscape. In truth, no place ever remains the same because light has no mind for repetition; it adores difference. Through its illuminations, it's strives to suggest the silent depths that hide in the dark.
Light is always more fragile at a threshold. An island is an edged place, a tense threshold between ocean and sky, between land and light. The west of Ireland enjoys magnificent light. The collusion of cloud, rain, light and landscape is always surprising, Within the space of one morning, a whole sequence of different landscapes can appear outside the window. Now and again, the place becomes dense with darkening, then a cloud might open and a single ray of light will drench a gathering of stones to turn them into oracular presence. Or might tease the serious face of a mountain with a crazy geometry of shadow. Some mornings it seems the dawn cannot wait to break for the light to come out and play with the stillness of this landscape. Such light offers a continual feast for the eyes. Artists have always been drawn here in search of its secrets. The landscape curves and undulates. Each place is literally distinctive, etched against light and sea with vigorous and enduring individuality. Even the most untouched, raw places hold presence. No human has ever lingered here long enough to claim or domesticate them. They rest in the sureness of their own elemental narrative. Such places are wild sanctuaries because they dwell completely within themselves and can quietly draw us into their knowing and stillness. Almost without sensing it, our mind is gradually relieved of its inner pressing. The senses become soothed and the clay part of the heart is stirred by ancient beauty.
Perhaps because they are so much themselves, wild landscapes remind us of the unsearched territories of the mind. The light over landscape is never a simple brightness; it is mixed and muted. Clouds love to play with light. A cloud can certainly introduce shadow and reduce a glistening field to an eerie grey space. Or alternatively, the cloud–shadow can modulate the depth of color a hillside receives. This alternating choreography can turn hillsides purple, green or even cream, depending on how the angle of light and the cloud’s shadow conspire with each other. The visual effect is often breathtaking. Light is the great priestess of landscape. Deftly it searches out a unnoticed places, corners of fields, the shadow–veils of certain bushes, the angled certainty of stones; it can swing low behind a stonewall turning the spaces between the stones into windows of gold. On a winter’s evening it can set a black tree into poignant relief. Unable to penetrate the earth, light knows how to tease suggestions of depth from surface. Where radiance falls, depths gather to the surface as to a window. The persuasions of light bring us frequent mirrors that afford us a glimpse into the mystery that dwells in us. Sometimes in the radiance, forgotten treasure glimmers through 'earthen vessels'.
The earth is our origin and destination. The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows. When we emerge from our offices, rooms and houses, we enter our natural element. We are children of the earth: people to whom the outdoors is home. Nothing can separate us from the vigor and vibrancy of this inheritance. In contrast to our frenetic, saturated lives, the earth offers a calming stillness. Movement and growth in nature takes it's time. The patience of nature enjoys the ease of trust and hope. There's something in our clay nature that needs to continually experience this ancient, outer ease of the world. It helps us remember who we are and why we are here.
-from the essay In Wild Places Light Illuminates Beauty, from the book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donohue.
Dear friends of the pottery,
We can't believe it's early November! It's been over a year since our huge Kickstarter success and we've been working non-stop on building the new studio and guest spaces. It's taken 11 months and many hands to get to where we are today. We couldn't have done it without all your support during 2016. One thing we've learned in the last year is that support comes in many shapes and sizes, so if you contributed to the Kickstarter, thank you. If you made a purchase from the pottery this year, thank you. If you came to watch a throwing demo or to a craft festival, thank you. If you told someone about our new studio, classes at the pottery or about my work, thank you. And a huge thank you to Mollie O. Trova, who has been my right hand helper over the past few months and a wonderful artist in her own right. When she's around we get things done. If she's truthful, she'll tell you it isn't always glamorous, but we do have a seriously good time being productive and are excellent studio mates.
We are 85% finished with the studio and want to invite you to our holiday sales and open house dates. On November 26 from 12-5 and on December 3, 12-5. We'll be hosting the festivities in the new space, so come early and stay awhile. We can't wait to show you around and share some holiday cheer. If you're unable to make it to one of the sale dates, please call for an appointment to shop and visit and have a cup of tea. You can always visit my website to see what's happening in our neighborhood or to shop here.
We hope your fall has been as warm and lovely as it's been here on Mason Hill.
All our love,
Jackie, Tim, Leo, and all the creatures of mason hill
jackie sedlock pottery
1179 north mason hill road
Pownal, Vermont 05261
Holiday Studio Sale and Open House
Saturday, November 26
Saturday December 3
to see things in the seed, that is genius
Although the Farm to Table movement is nothing new, it seems to be gaining new ground, if you will, in parts of New England.
With our nation's growing awareness of the importance of fresh food in recent years, largely as a result of Mrs. Obama's initiatives, more people are becoming aware of the differences between processed foods and farm fresh food, and the importance of accessibility for everyone.
I was raised by gardeners. My grandmother, who was a Polish immigrant, kept both vegetable and perennial gardens at her home next-door to my family home. Likewise, my mother has always maintained extensive vegetable, perennial, and herb gardens. I learned to love plants and the magic they yield from these two strong, independent women. There was never a time when we weren't tending something green; During the New England winter we took care of a jungle of houseplants. In the spring our windowsills were crowded with tomato and pepper plant seedlings as they competed for the springtime sun.
It wasn't until I was in college that I realized not everyone had access to fresh food. I didn't know much about processed foods except the curiosity my brother and I enjoyed when our parents were out and we had to fend for ourselves: the exotic Swanson mini pot pie. It was a mystery and a treat for us, a little campy and unreal, a meal that came in a box that you could eat from of a mini tin pie plate. This, while watching an episode of the Love Boat, was close to heaven for us.
When I started my career as a potter over 20 years ago, I was drawn to working with clay because I wanted to work with my hands; I wanted to make art and feel connected to the earth at the same time. My daily practice includes time in the woods, really almost every day of the year, and some time in the studio either actually making pots or engaging in some other aspect of studio work.
Five or six years ago when I decided to focus almost exclusively on tableware, it became important for me to connect my hand work with my strong belief about the importance of and accessibility to fresh food for everyone. In my mind, the best way to share this connection was to create imagery for my pots that was very clear: the seed stamp was born. This has become my signature--or chop in potter's language. This stamp adorns every piece, gently reminding us every time we sit down for a meal, that it all begins with a small seed. It has also become, for me, a symbol of ideas, creativity, and contemplation inside and outside of the studio.
Once my pieces have undergone the last firing and I've unloaded the kiln, inspected them and lovingly packed them for their destination, my work is done. This is when I say to my plates, "OK, I've done everything I can, you are out of my hands. Go do what we intended--simply serve the food, and quietly remind the diner where it comes from and that it is all so beautiful, this world"
Using stamps for decorating has become a mainstay in my work. I love the meditative process of hand carving each one. This process demands an attention to detail and serves as a balance for the "broader strokes" approach I'm attempting in my throwing practice these days.
This hops design, from 2014 was inspired by all the beer talk around here and Peter Hopkins' hops farm in Pownal, Vermont.
There are many ways to throw a pot. Here's a video showing some basic throwing techniques for beginners. Once you have a basic understanding, you begin to find your own way with clay. It's a marvelous adventure.