Pottery conversations part one: The value of a negative teacher


By Madeline Walker with Kathryn Walker and Michael Carpenter


“Through the sense of touch, I could access my creative energy because it undercut the critical, judgemental part of me.”

We sat in the cool dim dining room around the teak table, my sister, my husband, and I.  The conversation was about their pottery connection. In his early twenties, my partner Michael was a potter. Many of his creations sit on the shelves beside us, blue-green raku pots, a roughly built bowl, an elegant grey vase.  My sister was a potter in her early twenties. I have only a few of her things—a blue-glazed jug that would be at home on a French peasant’s table.  A candle holder, a built pencil holder with diagonal lines scored on the side. Most of the other things she had given me were broken over the years.

Thick foliage from the backyard threw green coolness into the room. We felt rather than saw the July light flickering on the deck.

“I’m kind of amused. I’ve never really thought of Michael as a potter” my sister Kathryn said, “I knew he made pots, but we’ve never really talked about it.” Michael and I have only been together six years, so it wasn’t surprising.

“No,” said Michael, “we’ve never had a conversation about glaze, about what makes things crackle, about what cone we fired our kilns to.”

“Yeah, or about bisques,” Kathryn murmured. “About whether this is a good mug or not.”  She lifted her coffee cup from the table, a slim green-glazed mug we’d bought from a couple of production potters at an Artisan’s Fair three years ago.

It’s so strange, really, that these two—born only a few years apart—had each chosen that same path at around the same time, in the 1970s, one in Manitoba, and one in Ontario.

A twist in Kathryn’s case is that the occupational surname, “Potter,” is our paternal grandmother’s maiden name—she was Marguerite Potter. And my youngest son now bears Potter as a middle name.  So I wondered about those ancestors of ours, the Potters, making vessels in England before they came across the ocean to finally settle in Oklahoma.

Kathryn’s story

“Why did you want to be a potter?” I asked my sister.

“When I was about seven, I wrote in a book that I wanted to be a famous artist.  I didn’t work in clay, but I drew a lot, and I had some talent. I took an art class at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Do you remember that? We sketched statues.”

“I do remember that. The classes were in the basement of the old Art Gallery of Ontario.”

“So Mom recognized that I had some talent, but her message was that you can’t be a week-end artist, you have to do it all the time or you won’t be successful. So I stopped doing art, but I was still drawn to it. Later, I took a sculpture course at Central Tech, but I was bored silly trying to reproduce an exact copy of someone else’s figure in clay.

So I went to pottery class instead. All he did was – he gives me this ball of clay. ‘here, make something.’ So I started playing with it, and I had an epiphany. The sense of touch is one of your most primal senses. I just totally got into the zone.  Which was great when you’re that age because I was so self-conscious. I totally forgot where I was.  I made a squat little curvaceous pot, just a pinch pot. And I thought ‘Wow, I love this, I can do this.’ An awesome feeling. Through the sense of touch, I could access my creative energy because it undercut the critical, judgemental part of me. The wire of the judgemental part didn’t go down there. I reconnected with my creativity. In that class I made a piece called ‘The Scream,’ which was very powerful. It’s a person’s head, cast in plaster, screaming.”

Our mother has “The Scream” in her living room. Whenever I visit her in Toronto, I look at the wide, silent mouth, the suffering eyes, a sculptural version of Munch’s painting.  And I think, ah, to have created this, my sister knew suffering.

Kathryn continued: “I decided I wanted to learn pottery, so a friend knew someone named Yanya, South African. This tiny lady, a crazy chain smoker. She lived in High Park and was a potter. She sold her stuff all over the place. Her stuff was all functional, really it wasn’t very good, I realized the longer I was there. But the thing about her was she had a will of steel. And we were raised with nobody saying no to us. I don’t know why she appealed to me. The first class I went to, it turns out I was the only student. She was such a bitch, she couldn’t attract students. She said ‘I guess you thought you were going to make a pot tonight. Well you’re not. You’re going to learn how to do this, spiral wedge.’”

I looked quizzically at my sister. What’s spiral wedge? “So you get the air out of the clay. You work the clay on the diagonal—more efficient. She taught that to me, and I am grateful.  Yanya thought she was Bernard Leach, a famous British studio potter, and I was her devotee. At the end of the class, in her low ceilinged basement, she said ‘well, I guess you won’t be coming back.’” Kathryn laughed.  “And you know what, if she had been nice to me, I wouldn’t have come back. But I was challenged. I thought ‘fuck you’ I am coming back. Yeah – that’s what you think.”

“I’m like that too,” I said. “In my first graduate class, in African American literature, the prof was complaining about how students never read everything on the syllabus, how lazy they are. And I thought – well I’ll show you: I’m going to read everything. And I did, and he eventually hired me as his research assistant.  So we’re kind of alike in that attitude; when we are challenged, we think ‘I’ll show you I can do it.’”

“Yeah, so I went back and she never had any other students. She lived in this big house. I rarely went upstairs, but the whole house stunk of cat pee, cat spray, and cigarettes. She had hairless cats, the most bizarre looking things—have you ever seen one?”

“I think so.”

“Yanya was so opinionated, you could not argue with her. She was very critical of what I did—‘you did it wrong, do it again.’ I hated her, but I realized I was learning. I learned how to mix glazes. And she was so rigid, it gave me boundaries. Instead of the guy saying ‘here, make something.’ It was a system, she taught me a system. I learned how to be a functional potter, and I learned I didn’t want to be a functional potter. I also learned I have a very good aesthetic for clay, but that I’m not fast. It was a lot of work, and I didn’t like it enough to do it.”

“Did you ever make any money at it?”

“No. But I was Yanya’s assistant, so I got to use the studio for free.”

“But I remember you selling some of your pieces.”

“Well, I stayed there for a few years then I decided to start my own studio. That was when I was living on Beverley Street. I bought a kiln and put it in the basement. And Yanya, she never wanted to see me again, she was so pissed off. She thought I would stay there forever, putting handles on mugs, trimming stuff, putting her stamp on everything.

I never did very creative stuff there because she thought it was weird. And her stuff was heavy. She created her own glazes; every potter has her own glazes. But she was a good teacher for me, a negative teacher, and she taught me how to wedge.

In my own business, I could never figure out how to how to charge for stuff. I’d charge too much or too little and it was anxiety producing. But I realized I liked making things that you could use, but you didn’t have to. I liked making sculptural things. I made some interesting stuff, but I would let people interrupt me. People were constantly coming down to the basement, to my studio.”

“I had a lot of your stuff you gave me, but I broke most of it.”

“That’s the thing about pottery.”

“I decided I needed to be in a social context. Working alone in the studio didn’t work for me. So I sold everything and I dropped it.  But, I still feel like that’s my medium, I could plug right back into it.”

“Right –feeling the flow the positive psychologists talk about. I feel that when I am writing.”

“I was hoping Michael might collaborate on something to do with pottery, but he says he’s done with it.  But for me, I don’t feel like I’m done with it. It’s something I can explore more. The fact that you do need all this equipment and it is so physical, that’s attractive to me. It’s a full time job. I don’t know that I would have the energy.”

“There’s pottery collectives.”

“Yes, just to be part of that. It would give me a social context.”

“What’s your favorite piece that you ever made?”

“There’s a pot in my friend Ken’s garden that I built up with slabs. It’s a sleeping face, carved. When the clay is leather hard, you carve it, dry it, bisque it, then paint it with manganese. Brownish black, with a bit of sheen. It’s big –so it could be used as a vessel.  I think it’s still there, in his yard.”

I turned to face my husband, who was sitting quietly, listening.  “And you,” I said, “how did you start making pots?”

Michael told me his story, but that’s for next week.









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