On the advice of my prof, Diana Pancioli, I bought Jeff a wonderful book for his birthday. I know it is wonderful because as soon as he is out of bed in the morning, or when he falls asleep before I do, I sneak a read. I’m halfway through.
The book is “HEAT” by Bill Buford. The subtitle is, “An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany”. Basically, it’s a writer working in chef Mario Batali’s kitchen.
The parallel to what goes on in the grad ceramics studio is, as Diana told me, remarkable.
I guess I can identify with the author, in this case; I suspect the ability to write landed the author in that kitchen, rather than his genius as a cook… just as I suspect my on line blather caught my prof’s attention, rather than the glory of my pots.
Diana would have to be the chef in our particular kitchen, which raises another issue. I can’t help but wonder how Chef Mario feels about some of the stark honesty in this book, and whether he’s reading more personal details than he bargained for. I have been blogging about my experience in the studio at EMU, these past months, but admit that when I get frustrated with my teachers or peers, I vent over beer at the Side Track. Not here. It’s a tricky thing, when you put your life in a blog “window”, not to over-share about others without their consent.
Like some of the chefs described in the book, Diana is driven, colorful, mercurial, no-bullshit, and focused on good pots almost to the point of obsession. She gives us credit for being able to take it straight. We take a lot for granted — like the knowledge that she cares very much about us and our pots — and the rest is just pushing, hard, to work our way toward mastery. Outside the studio, she is a rare and generous soul. Two of her MFAs have keys to her house. Patrick lives there, I stay there weekly, and we help ourselves to her books, her wine and coffee, the leftovers in her fridge and her knowledge and advice. She is someone we can confide in. But in the studio, it’s about good work, not about hand-holding or pumping up our self esteem. And like in the chef’s kitchen, everything that comes out of there is a reflection on the chef, so the pressure is on.
The book title itself is a connection. The place where all the action happens in the kitchen, the place where what is created is transformed and ready to offer the world — is the grill, the stoves, the steam, the ovens. In our studio it’s the row of bisque kilns, the big gas kiln, the wood and soda. When the author talks about singeing the hair off his forearms I know just what that smells like. The heat, the little territorial struggles for space, the several-projects-going-at-once effect happens in the studio, too, just on a larger scale and in slower motion.
Then there’s the learning curve. Chefs know when something is done by the sound and smell, not by the timer. Diana fires a kiln that way. A new cook is told that you can tell whether meat is medium-rare just by touching it and feeling whether it is “just right” in firmness… the way veteran potters can tell how thin is too thin to keep trimming, how hard is too hard to attach a handle, how thick is just the right thickness of this glaze or that. The sound of a thump, the way it coats the finger.
The only way for students and apprentices to learn is by what the author of HEAT calls, ” the miraculous pedagogy of relentless repetition”. He figured out how to bone a duck after doing it for three days. Mel Jacobson , my potter friend who learned under a hard task master in Japan, learned to throw forms by the hundreds. “Make a series”, Diana tells me. The first time she told me what was wrong with my pot, I dumped it in the slop and abandoned the idea. She was annoyed. I came to see that she was telling me what to do with the NEXT version, and the next.
The ability to see keeps surfacing in the book, the struggle to develop your senses — whether it’s the ability to tell that this lard was from a pig fed on walnuts and cream, or the ability to see how a pot wraps itself around volume, or stands in relation to the table.
In three months time I have become accustomed to certain routines and rituals, the feel of a clay batch, the quirks of this glaze, that brush, that spot in the kiln. I know I have just begun and that there won’t be time, in two years, for me to reach anything like mastery. But I have to agree with Patrick. He mused that, despite what eyerolling he might have done in the past, he now has a certain level of respect for anyone who has earned an MFA. Now that he has seen the kind of commitment required of us, he’s not easily able to dismiss the work of anyone who survived this process.
I am headed for the bath with Jeff’s book, right this minute. It’s fascinating to consider how much time, effort and money go into fine cuisine, and how many people have made it a calling to sharpen their skills of creativity and conniseurship, when after all, “it’s only food”. And there are days when I drive a hundred miles, struggle over designing and making the right forms, and lie awake at night reworkign problems and formulating solutions, when “it’s only a pot”. 99 cent boxed mac and cheese keeps us alive just as well as quail with truffles, and a 99 cent coffee mug from Walmart would hold my coffee just as well as Richard Aerni’s ash-patterned mug. But it matters. Sometimes I think it’s the finest aspect of our human spirit, the one that drives us to use our gifts, and develop an appreciation for the variety, the beauty and the artistry of life.
Two days of mom’s turkey and stuffing, midnight snacks of unaccustomed and decadent carbs, pumpkin pie for breakfast and lying in bed all morning reading HEAT while Molly snuggles beside me reading Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Somewhere in there my stomach un-knotted, my jaw unclenched and my momentum ground to a halt. I’ll probably pay for that tomorrow, when I hit the highway again and head to school to glaze and load, the first solo firing of the gas kiln for the three MFAsketeers. Reem’s big sculptures, Patrick’s shino-glazed pots and my big Anatolian jugs are already on the shelves.
Somewhere in there I need to dust off my own kilns, and make some Christmas presents. Weeks fly by since school started, and I am already fantasizing about what it will be like to have the whole summer (relatively) off.