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Finding your own thing

Rita the Princess of San Pedro

A reflection by: Myles Yamada

What is it that makes pottery so appealing to me? Maybe it’s the ability to create? Or possibly my childhood fascination with fire expressed in a mature and productive way? Could it be the inner chemist in me that is striving to mature through glaze formulations? I tend to be a science novice and advocate in a world where science is no longer popular and even thought of as witchcraft. Oh and Save the bees!

When I was a child I started playing the ‘Cello or Violoncello in 3rd or 4th grade. This is where I learned the concept of practice. Scales, etudes, ensembles, sight reading, rehearsals, and full blown concerts helped me to develop an artistic process. Primarily being self taught until later in life, I would read books and look at pictures to understand the posture and technique as I saw it. This later proved to be a huge barrier in my progress since cello playing is all about conservation of movement. I was a very impulsive player in my youth. I remember taking my cello to places where no one was and playing to the universe and the animals around. These were amazing times. Once I drove up to San Francisco and did a silent retreat where I stayed at a youth hostel with my cello and then hiked and traveled around the bay area playing my instrument and not talking to anyone for 10 days. I felt elated at the end of that trip. Completely different than going on a vacation to “enjoy myself”. I felt energized when I came back.

In 2017 I decided to put music on the back burner and see if I was good at anything else. After playing in dozens of orchestras, a hundred or so studio gigs and countless solo performances I began to believe that this may not be what I thought it would be. While I still play today, 45 years later, the frequency is considerably less after non-payment after executing a performance during a rather lavish wedding. While music allows for direct in-the-moment interaction with an audience, I longed for the inner balance that solitary practice or unheard performances brought to me.

I tried other methods to find this balance, more meditation, countless walks with my dog (I worked remotely from home), drawing and painting , all of which produced marginal to minimal results. My dog loved the walks though. I even tried to revitalize my ability to do wood working skills with projects such as, building a triple insulated dog house with a sliding door, surrounding our side and back yard with a custom fence, or cobbling together a built in buffet in the backyard. At this point I thought that I was just lucky enough to have one outlet music. Maybe I would end up just playing alone in my living room until I was an older man accepting that this would just have to be enough. Besides there was no room for a piano.

Along comes pottery. Luckily a membership pottery studio had just opened in San Pedro, California where we are located. I saw a flyer on the window about a wheel throwing class. I thought, “This is perfect!”, since David Harrington already had a background in pottery from earlier times in San Francisco. He recounted to me how much he enjoyed that and he wanted to do it again some day. I told him about the studio nearby and suggested we sign up for the Saturday Morning class. I loved it. We also got 4 hours of studio time a week per class as a lab of sorts. I started sponge up the information being scattered here and there. There were good people (members) who had a diverse number of talents and skills. In the beginning I thought pottery was just throwing clay on the wheel. Today I know differently and am working on different techniques experimentally. To this day the wheel is my primary way that I make forms.

One thing I like about pottery is, sometimes I sit down to make one thing, and something completely different comes out. I call this process free-throwing, similar to musical improvisation, this is where imagination and skill meet up. There are great victories and great disappointments when free-throwing. This process reminds me of playing music on the Venice promenade before they issued permits. I would go and sit to play without a bucket and kids would come and dance. Now the clay is the music, my spirit is the instrument and my fingers are the kids.

Production pottery is something that I’m not really interested in, although I do have a systematic way of working when I decide to throw a set of something. This probably comes from being a prepared musician. I have all the tools of the trade at every gig. In the studio, I setup all the tools and drying surfaces, carts, clay and the wheel so I have a minimal amount of moving during the process.

I soon found that I wasn’t able to get to the studio during regular business hours. I wasn’t a member yet. So I was wasting my 4 hours of studio time. I started staying after the class to use the time. I found that access to a teacher was a key thing to first form my concepts into real objects. For me centering was a big problem. It took me one full class 5 weeks to learn how to do it. Funny thing is I actually learned to center from a potter who has a YouTube channel. Donte the potter is his name you can see him here. He is all over the place with social media outlets. Within a couple of minutes I was able to center using his videos. I decided to use him as a mentor and even supported him financially since I was paying for the other classes.

My skills started to be built and my imagination started taking off. I started reading about pottery, glazing, firing. I watched countless videos on technique and historical pottery reconstruction. I kept my head down and practiced that “Throw 10 items of the same dimensional measurement” for a couple of months. I still do this regularly because it keeps my perspective sharpened. I can judge cubic inches on the wheel visually, when I practice this.

This is when I realized, I need a wheel and I need to invest in my future. This was the point of no return. So for one Xmas I purchased a wheel for myself/us and placed it in the garage/wood shop. We would make stuff and bring it to the membership studio using the same clay that they used. Pretty soon there was a rule made, “no outside clay bodies”. Sensible but, I could only do pottery one day a week and I wasn’t going to get any better at that rate.

I also began vising Aardvark Clay & Supplies with regularity. Looking at all the tools and clay bodies really put this into perspective for me. I also was grateful that an amazing resource was only about 20 miles from me. The journey really began there. All the things I was learning online using tools or media could be found at Aardvark. At first I was only getting clay, then I was introduced to mold making for slump/hump hand building. I really like how knowledgeable the people are at Aardvark. Had I not seen their enthusiasm I would probably not have chosen this as a path later down the road.

After a year at the pottery studio, I was making more wares than they were willing to fire. 6,000 cu inches per month was our allotment. This included the bisque and glaze firings. It’s a pretty sensible amount unless you’re me. For perspective that’s (30 in X 40 in X 5 in) or (2.5 Feet x 3.33333 feet x .41666 feet ). Since this is for bisque and high fire it is essentially half of that. Basically that’s about (1 ft * 1ft * 2 ft) for each of two firings per month. I also became a premium member at the studio which allowed me to work there at any time of the day or night. I was there late nights 3-4 times a week. I enjoyed the alone times.

I realized that I was causing pressure at the studio by trying to fire so much ware. Something had to give so, I got a kiln. First I got a run down Paragon Dragon 24 front loading kiln from a chance meeting of the owners at Aardvark and thought hey let’s rebuild it. (This kiln is still in the rebuild stage 3 years later). All that’s left to do is purchase $3 k of AMP element wire. Then with in weeks of getting the Paragon Kiln, I got a great deal on line and purchased an Olympic Medallion 2323 HE, a high fire (Cone 10) electric kiln with a Bartlett Genesis touch screen controller. My goal is to put one of these controllers into the Paragon Dragon 24 Kiln too. We started firing shortly after that purchase and we have been at it ever since. One firing is just under 19,044 cubic inches. We can fire two full cycles on the weekends. Maintaining just the weekend schedule our firing amount is now 38,088 cu inches a weekend.

Here is a chart on the possible cubic inches of space that we could fire. 5 would be slightly excessive use of a single kiln. The firing usually takes a full 24 hours with cool down so 5 firings a week would be a little impractical.

Firings Per WeekWeeklyMonthlyYearly
119,04482,524990,288
238,088165,0481,980,576
3114,264495,1445,941,728
4457,0561,980,57623,766,912
52,285,2809,902,880118,834,560

Thus began the separation of using a membership studio. Doing pottery anytime at home became a reality. I’m a big fan of ease and comfort, so to eliminate the pain of schlepping the green-ware to the pottery studio for bisque firing, we just fire in our growing pottery studio which supplanted the wood working studio little by little.

So from there it’s been a series of experiments, and a new journey of self awareness with a practical result. I’m glad that you’re part of the solution and if you’re buying pottery just know that we put a lot into it. It’s hand built for humans. I’ll write about my journey with other techniques and some personal triumphs and defeats in this blog.

Until then…

Myles