By Barbara Tam
As I was helping load the woodkiln last week, the talk turned to people and places, potters and their studios. As our hands passed each glazed piece into the hands of the person inside the kiln stacking the work, I found myself thinking about old friends, the people of clay whom I had known and had the privilege of working with and learning from. An artist may leave behind an object of his or her making, but sometimes that person informs and instructs our very lives. So it was for me the day I met Paulus.
Paulus Berensohn was a dancer, potter, philosopher, educator. He once said that his body was as clay’s body. That in his clay dance, he felt grounded in the earth. Our materials are of the earth: clay, stone, fiber, paper, foodstuffs, metals, wood. But it is their transformation at our hands that calls us back to remember what was before, and what is now, and what might yet be becoming. “Think of your work as a flowering of the earth.” wrote Paulus. “Think of yourself as a gardener.”
Catherine carries out a ware-board of bowls and plates. How many ladlefuls of soup, servings of salad, are these to hold, I wonder? Once when Paulus was asked to be an artist-in residence at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, he declined and asked if there might be a job for him in the kitchen. Paulus recalled that his daily duty of handing out bowls of soup from the counter brought him closer to people than he had expected and that he learned something about service and about slowness and about time. At first his goal was expediency, but then he took to ladling one bowl for one person, setting the ladle down and offering the bowl with both his hands. Each day a different soup yet the same hands reaching towards the bowls. Time slowed, he slowed in the serving, the line waiting slowed, and there were smiles, words of gratitude, pauses in the rush of talk. In his journal, Paulus wrote“It looks like I am an artist-in-residence here this summer after all. My art? Serving soup!”
We completed the kiln loading late that afternoon, mudded-up the doors, raised our sake cups to the kiln, and lit the single burner to warm the kiln overnight before we would begin stoking wood early in the morning. Paulus was an asker of questions, of himself and of others. “What is clay? Why do we create? Why now when the seductions and shadows of technology are overwhelming our resources? What is clays’ function in the ecology of the earth? How to cultivate a craft of the soul?”
I pause to consider......maybe making bowls for serving soup?
Quotations are excerpts from:
"Whatever We Touch Is Touching Us". Craft Art and a Deeper Sense of Ecology by Paulus Berensohn. Haystack Mountain School of Crafts 2001
Barbara Tam has taught visual arts to students from kindergarten through high school in both private and public schools for more than 35 years. She loves being with young artists dreaming big about their creative ideas and working to make those ideas real.
The natural world and its mysteries and intrigues is the focus of Barbara’s own explorative work, primarily in clay, paper, and fiber. She is the co-founder and board chair of Craigardan.