Sunday, July 21, 2013

Week 29: Making Pottery in Pittsburgh

   Sometimes there is poetry in a space... as Gaston Bachelard said, “The poetic image […] is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of any image, the distant past resounds with echoes.” And the book-of-the-week for this week, Making Pottery in Pittsburgh, reinforces that idea.. a connect of objects crafted and something as big as the poetics of a time and place.
Handprinted spine piece and pastepaper cover...
The book is an assembly of photographs of handmade pottery, paste paper, collograph prints, marbled paper, handmade paper, and a story of a period in time...

The title page and a map of the Shadyside neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA
Under the title strip A marks the spot....5815 Holden Street, Pittsburgh, PA
                                Making Pottery in Pittsburgh

   I was at Penland in the summer of 2001, working on the Annual Benefit Auction, when I heard Bea had been accepted into the high school program at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. It was one of the top ballet companies in the country and she had worked so hard for many years to get this opportunity. There was no doubt that we would embrace this adventure. I had one week to go online and scope out apartments and neighborhoods in Pittsburgh... because in four weeks she and I would both be moving to Pittsburgh for two years. So I packed my favorite things, my Grandmother’s bedroom suite, some favorite books, my potter’s wheel, my kiln,and my darling daughter to start our sabbatical in Pittsburgh.

Page 1: "I packed my favorite things..."
   That fall was golden. Our turn-of-the century neighborhood of rambling Victorians was so quaint and beautiful. The craftsmanship of the stained-glass windows, wrought-iron railings, carved stone and woodwork embellishments,and slate roof tiles with copper flashing began to fill my imagination. I was transported to the past and dreamed of Pittsburgh in it’s heyday when it was one of the wealthiest cities in the world, 150-year old gnarled oaks, maples, and ginko’s...with leaves of chartreuse, yellow, red, and orange lined the cobbled sidewalks where I tripped and stumbled - eyes on the stately homes rather than watching where I was going. I began to paint it all on my pots... railings and dragonflies,lattice-work and rivets.

Dragonflies, lattice-work and rivets...
   We settled into our little carriage house-behind-a-house on Holden Street in Shadyside. Bea started 11th grade at Schenley High School and I set up my pottery studio in the tiny one-window basement and begun throwing pots. We both worked hard,,, to get ahead in our art, to make friends, and to discover the city of Pittsburgh. Bea bonded with her ballet friends, a small band of boys and girls from all over the country who came to study ballet while attending high school. They had their own sort of clubhouse within the inner-city the book-lined homey office of Mr.“G”, the school's English and Drama teacher... and their own father figure. Lunches, breaks, and study-halls were spent sprawled across the leather couches or hunched around his broad antique oak table, as she settled in to the routine of dance, school, and Pittsburgh.
    Three weeks after we moved in I dropped Bea off at the ballet school for early practice, then ate my breakfast while watching VCR tapes of her old recitals. When the tape ended and the TV switched to the local station, instead of Good Morning America I saw half an airplane lodged in the side of a building. A tall building in New York City. Smoke was pouring out of the ripped skyscraper. Was this a mistake? Then I watched a second plane slam into another skyscraper. I didn’t know what to think... I hoped it was a mistake. I didn’t think it was a mistake. And for the first time in my life I understood what it feels like to be terrified of war at your doorstep.I felt sick to my stomach. I was numb. My ears were ringing and I didn’t see any good coming of this for a long, long time.

Twin Towers...
   I kept throwing pots... after the Twin Towers fell, and the Pentagon was hit, and the plane crashed near Pittsburgh. I kept throwing those red earthenware vessels. Useful things like mugs, pitchers, bowls, and jars.. I assigned meanings for their being...their symbolic manifest. Pitchers meant generosity; bowls meant harvest, bounty, and creation; mugs stood for comfort and intimacy; jars were for containment and secrets; and platters were about ritual and celebration. 
   After the Twin Towers fell, I couldn’t write on the bottom of the pots any more. No more “Blueberries are Heaven Sent” bowls. No more “Ladybugs for Luck” mugs. No more “Be Cherry-full!” plates. I was afraid of the negativity of my words... and afraid that if I wrote those negative words, and fired them on my pottery they might come true. But I could paint the blueberries. The blueberries were a comfort.. so I made 50 blueberry mugs, and 50 blueberry bowls, and 50 tiny blueberry tumblers. I just kept painting those sweet little blue berries and their innocent green leaves..
   One day I was reading a first edition of The Little Prince at the Carnegie Public Library and I was touched by the powerful and compassionate words of this children's story written by a French pilot shortly before WW 2. I decided I would write a story with simple lines like that... and use those lines on the bottom of my pots... Then I would never have to worry about running out of things to say, or my negative thoughts coming true. It would be called The Tale of the Blueberries...

Tiny blueberry tumblers...
   After the Twin Towers fell I kept walking everyday.. sometimes to the Carnegie Art Museum and the Carnegie Public Library that was connected to it.To get to the library you could walk around the side of the art museum to the library’s huge brass front doors, or you could take a shortcut through the Hall of Architecture of the art museum... Carnegie Art Museum's  Hall of Architecture contains the largest collection of plaster casts of architectural masterpieces in America. It is five stories high... and the back way into the library. At least once a week I walked to the Carnegie Public Library from our little Shadyside house... passing the stately Victorian mansions of exquisite craftsmanship, then passing.. awestruck and humbled... through the Hall of Architecture... like Alice after she sipped from the“Drink Me” bottle and was shrunk to a miniature version of herself. I walked through those life-sized casts of the Pantheon, Michelangelo's David, and doorways to a pyramid, then I’d slip through the backdoor and walk down the marble-floored hallway, past the little Post Office window and around the corner to the three-story rotunda entering the library.
    That’s when I realized that books were so powerful..beyond anything that exists.. I realized the written word is as lasting as any relic... as beautiful as any masterpiece... as powerful as any monument five stories high, and as magical as any miracle come from heaven. I realized that books hold the manna which feeds civilization... just as a bowl holds the food that sustains humanity. My world shifted. And the pots were no longer books, but the books had become my pots.

the pots were no longer books  ... the books had become my pots
Hall of Architecture, Carnegie Museum of Art
   I wasn’t a book artist yet. I was still a potter who was in love with books. Each time I visited the Carnegie Public Library I filled my backpack with as many books as it would hold. I’d  trudge the mile-and-a-half home with about 25 pounds of books on my back.. always forgetting about carrying them home as I happily checked out five books at a time...cookbooks, art books, biographies and novels...poetry and philosophy.. I went through the Carnegie Public Library like a glutton goes through a box of chocolates... My life was green and golden ... and with this awareness I kept painting pots that depicted the bright sky and golden days of that unseasonably warm Pittsburgh winter...our little carriage house...our friends...Bea's dancing...and this amazing adventure...

golden days...
   It was like Shangri-la... El Dorado... and Xanadu... In a cavern of mountains... split by three rivers... and entered through the Fort Pitt Tunnel... Getting into Pittsburgh from North Carolina via West Virginia was a straight shot... straight down the hill and into the Fort Pitt Tunnel... like a gaping maw the mountain ate you up.. and from the west side the other side was a mystery...Was there another side? Driving through the tunnel...lit by florescent lights along the tile walls.. the end was nowhere in sight.. a muffled silence enveloped everything. Then PoP! out of the tunnel and into the light. Like being born. Looking around, you saw you were driving over the river..really two rivers combining at this point. Really! And the bridge was a two-story bridge.. So everything was suddenly doubled. The lower tier of the bridge? who knows where it was too confusing.. The roads looked like a pile of spaghetti strewn all about.. or a Christmas tree, strung with too many lights, garlands, tinsel and ornaments. So I just followed the signs.. "Downtown",.." Monroeville",.."To 376 East"...I gripped the steering wheel, followed the signs, and hoped to God I didn’t end up halfway to Buffalo!

a clockwork of city streets in Shangri-la
   It was two years we were there. By the time those years were over we were two entirely different people. What we had accomplished, seen, and learned was innumerable and what was ahead of us was inconceivable. I headed back to North Carolina and within a few months Bea followed...and the pots I made in Pittsburgh are the pages of our story during that time.

                                     The End

The road to Shangri la...

(If you are in the Raleigh area, a listing of the upcoming Fall classes will be out this coming week.)