Workshop group making casseroles

My name is Kelly, and I am a recovering workshopaholic.

When my house was full of little kids and I was stealing naptimes to throw pots in a tarp-lined linen closet, my annual workshop was like a pilgrimage to Mecca: a weekend at Functional Ceramics in Wooster, at Charlie Cummings’ studio in Fort Wayne,  or even (dare to dream) a whole week in the steamy green forest of Tennessee, at Appalachian Center for Craft was a milestone in my year.  It meant I had to sell enough pots to pay the tuition, get Jeff to take time of work, and sometimes I had to pump breastmilk for weeks to fill the freezer for my absence.

But once I stepped out of the tug-of-war betweeen potter and mommy, studio and kitchen, I could make more progress in a single weekend than I had in a year of stolen moments to work by myself at the wheel.  To be surrounded by potters, guided by an expert, and freed of the time restraints that come with schedules and meals, calendars and ringing phones — was an spiritual experience that recharged my creative batteries for the year to come.  It was like climbing out of the rushing river of daily routine, standing on the bank, and taking stock of where I was… the lay of the land, where I had come from and where I was headed.

Over time, as my kids grew independent and clay became less of a hobby and more of a livelihood, I became kind of a workshop snob. Not only did a workshop mean I had to come up with the fees and travel expenses, but it also meant losing a weekend or more of income: my  teaching, making, firing and selling ground to a halt so I could go watch someone else make pots.

Much of the time, it was worth it. I took pots with me and begged critiques, looked for new techniques to incorporate into my work, and relished a chance to socialize with other potters.  We often learn as much from our fellow workshop participants as we do from presenters.

I came to favor hands-on workshops over the sit-and-watch kind.  The more exciting the demo, the more I wanted to try it, NOW.   By the time I got home to a backlog of chores and demands, the notes in my sketchbook rarely held the excitement and specific detail that was fresh in my mind at that moment.

And as a notorious penny pincher, I found myself looking for those workshop moments that made me think, “Ahhhh… now there I got my money’s worth.”  Shortcuts, studio management tips, a way to use a tool for a specific effect, a solution to a problem that has plagued me… all those things changed how efficiently I worked once I got home, and justified, in my mind, the sheer indulgence of restaurants and lodging, potter peers to laugh with and vacation from daily duties.

I am told there is a website called where students post candid and unmoderated reviews of their teachers, to help other students make informed choices about where to spend their tuition dollars. It strikes me as a ripe territory for revenge-of-the-flunked-malcontent, and it’s kind of annoying that there is a “hotness scale” ranking the prof’s attractiveness, but the concept is an appealing one. I have posted, in the past, to lists like Clayart to mention a workshop I was considering, and had off list warnings: “Yeah, he’s good when he’s sober, which is before lunch”… or,” he’s a notorious skirt chaser and will ignore all but the young, well build women”… or, “she makes beautiful work but has the stage presence of a footstool”…

Like with profs, I have found that there are brilliant artists who can’t really explain the process.   Maybe they are shy, or not especially verbal, or just not extroverts.  There are important kinds of information that are painstakingly slow processes and not very demo-friendly.  Then there are a few presenters who are all hat and no cattle — big personalities, great jokes, but not much to demonstrate beyond the very basic. There are the workshop equivalents of the Sham Wow guy, holding two day infomercials for their own line of gadgetry, and others who are used to a room full of college students and “talk down” to the group as if they have never made a pot before, giving them a hairy eyeball if they talk out of turn.

So when it was my turn to give a weekend workshop, I had to somehow live up to my own impossible workshop-snob standard.  I had a small group of ten people for a two-day, hands-on experience at Khnemu Farm’s studio, and was determined to give them their money’s worth.

Using wire cutters, a box of pencils and a paper of bobby pins, I made everybody a carving tool to make their own slab texture roller — Diana P’s extruded inch-wide coils are perfect for the job, extruded the night before and left to get leather hard.  I bought  a package of cheerful red and white fishing bobbers and cut a chamois into strips to make rim-finishing tools for all, and made clay handles for twisty-wire tools to make on the potter’s wheel, for cut off bottoms with a nice seashell texture.  I had maybe thirty seven cents each in my giveaway tools! (lol)  Such generosity…

Partly because of my attention span (look, a bunny!) and partly because it makes for a better classroom dynamic, we “switched it up” throughout the day on Saturday. Demos and then hands on, throwing and slide show, and then hands on some more.  The Steve Tobin studio slide in my powerpoint led to conversation, explanations, and then — even though it wasn’t on the agenda — I found some microdynamite in the bottom of my tool bag,  so we tried their new texture rollers on cubes of clay after lunch and then exploded them on the picnic table.  It turned out to be a great way to deal with that post-lunch energy slump!  There weren’t neighbors for acres in any direction, but if there were, they would have wondered about the bangs and pops, squeals and howls of laughter.  The end results were carried inside for firing — except for what ended up stuck to the side of the barn or on the roof of a nearby car.

A potter friend warned me how exhausting a weekend workshop could be, but honestly, I’m a lifelong show-off and get energized by the attention of a group. (Especially when they laugh at my stories.)  Besides, at 4:00 they all went home, and I was led to a lovely, breezy farmhouse veranda and handed an ice cold, homemade “whit” beer — (something about orange zest and chamomile and a certain kind of hops… all I know is that I have sighed over any lesser beer ever since.)  Dinner was a roast chicken raised on the farm, along with vegetables that had traveled maybe a hundred steps from the garden to the kitchen, artfully prepared and enjoyed on the porch, in a long, slow evening full of conversation and a stellar countryside view.  An Old English sheepdog slept at our feet, heirloom chickens poked around the flowerbeds, bats left the lofts and flitted around the pines and the full moon rose over the cows in the pasture.  I slept as soundly as I did as a kid in my grandma’s farmhouse bedroom, with breezes billowing the curtains and nighttime frogs and crickets giving way to morning roosters and bird song.

Sunday we got right to work. Chris Trabka, a tall, talented potter with hands the size of catchers mitts, appointed himself my “roadie” and wedged clay, found missing tools, and otherwise made things go smoothly. Chris was the guy who made the connection between me and Khnemu to begin with, and his pots (some as big as I am) grace the studio’s gallery space.  I pulled out my casserole-wall extruder die, with the rim, gallery and bottom-bead spaced to fit perfectly on a 2X4 marked to length, and the photocopies I made everyone of templates for the floor and lid sizes. Between my wheel demos of a two part pitcher and faceted teapot, they used their new rollers to texture their own casserole walls, and to make flasks. It was a marvelous group, mostly women, with a variety of skill levels but a shared sense of fun. When it was over, it was like the end of summer camp… I didn’t want to go home, and was sighing over the cars disappearing off into their own lives again. I hate endings, lol.

I can’t say enough about Khnemu, though. I will admit to a bit of envy.  My own yard seems so narrow, now, my flock so small, my house so cramped and my canned cheap beer so… canned.  Dawn Solzniak has built herself a dream, there, and it’s working (with a lot of work and energy on her part!)  A barn from the 1800s has been converted to a charming gallery, roomy classroom space,  and a sales floor loft above. She has just built a car kiln in a metal silo, and it has hilariously inconcruous glass paned french doors on the front. Like me, she has one hen who comes into the studio and lays her daily egg… hers in a bucket, mine in a towel hamper.  They are on a tourist-stream, in a cluster of wineries and artisan farms between the arty-gay-touristy Saugatuck, and the moneyed summer estates of Grand Haven.  There are slow food friendly gourmet stores, (there is even an “eaters guild”  in her area) — bakeries, locavores and pick-your-own farms and orchards, mixed with traditional Michigan farmers, religious communities and small town culture.

I brought home an armload of my brochures for my Toledo friends and guild students.   It’s a lovely three hour drive into a land of bed-and-breakfasts, and her workshops are affordable and small and friendly. Too many in my town’s economy can no longer afford Arrowmont and Haystack… maybe it’s time for “think local” to extend to workshops like Khnemu.

My family hopes to head north to canoe camp this summer, and we plan to pull into the Khnemu driveway with the pop-up and spend the night. I would love for Jeff to meet Rob Solzniak, as they are both patient men with a great sense of humor married to crazy potter ladies with big ideas. And my kids have to see the new calf, and the llama, and the peacocks, and the cat who sits his butt right on the wheelhead in the middle of a demo if he is getting insufficient attention.

I am grateful to have had a chance to do the weekend workshop. I made friends, got inspired, and got a little ego boost from participants who really seemed to think they got their money’s worth.