25 Years A Potter by Steve Abee

This Fall, 2017, marks 25 years for me as a potter. Being a potter for this long has taught me many things, patience, humility, and perseverance. You may have thought I would have said how to center clay, how to turn large jugs, or how to fire the ground-hog kiln. And while that is very true, the biggest lessons have been more personal and introspective.

From the very first time attending a Burlon Craig kiln open in 1989, my goal was to “Do what Burlon did”. And through the years I believe I have accomplished many of those goals, acquired a lot of the same skills, and created works of art from the ground up, literally. But just recently I have started to really understand what Burlon and people like him go through in their attempt to somehow mold their life and work into something that will last long after they are gone.

I began making pottery at age 22. I was so young and full of energy. I knew that this was something that I had to do and I would do whatever it took to get there, many times putting other things to the back-burner. I would spend weeks and months turning pots only to fire them and realize I had not gotten the kiln hot enough or my clay cracked, or some other horrible disaster. But as long as I knew what I did wrong, it was okay. Because I could learn from my mistakes and do it different the next time. I actually fired my kiln 6 times before I could get a decent load of pottery to come out and each load was several months of work. If that doesn’t teach you patience, I don’t know what will.

In 1994 I had my first kiln opening at my house. I was so nervous and thought no one would show up. Now you have to remember, there was no internet to speak of, no FaceBook, no email, there was only word of mouth. This was how Burlon had spread the word of his kiln openings from the beginning and it seemed to work very well. But for me as a new young potter, would it work for me? To my astonishment, it did! I had 30-40 people show up, and they bought! The next week I went into my full-time job as a furniture worker and put in my notice, I had done it! I had built a pottery business that I could now do full time. I set goals for myself to become the best I could be as a potter, working 8 hours a day and weekends to develop my skills. I did learn so much in that first year as a full time potter, but some of which I was not expecting.

So, the time had come for my second kiln opening. I had spent 4 months creating wares. I had them glazed and fired, priced and set in the yard, and had spread the word of the sale. To my dismay, I had only 3 people show up. This was so disheartening. What had happened? Why didn’t people show up? That was questions I had no answer to. Perhaps I wasn’t as good a potter as I thought? Perhaps this was all just a pipe dream? This was some of the questions I asked myself. I seriously thought of going back to the furniture factory and asking for my old job back, but I didn’t. I remembered what a good friend and potter told me as he was trying to make a go as a full-time potter years before, “It don’t mean nothing. Just keep turning and do what you do, it’s all good”. So that’s what I did. And slowly but surely my kiln openings did start to attract bigger crowds.

Humility can be the hardest lesson to learn. When you think you’ve made it,… watch out, it will be there to bring you down only to help build you up for the next fall.

Burlon Craig became a potter at a very young age, starting around 14 years old. He honed his skills for many years becoming one of the most well-known potters of his era. But it was not always so. He only became celebrated as a potter in his later years. There were about 25 years at the end of his life where he could actually make a living at pottery. Up to that point, he worked in a furniture factory while making pottery part-time. From the time he started making pottery at age 14, to his death in 2002, he had been making pottery for 74 years. That means that two thirds of his pottery career was unnoticed and not celebrated for the art he created, but yet he pressed on.

I too have seen times of economic downturns and disinterest in pottery that have made me question my career as a potter. Some times you just wonder if anyone is watching or cares. I’m sure Burlon asked himself these same questions years ago as he plugged away for those 50 odd years unnoticed by the larger art community. But I still hear those sage words in my ear, “It don’t mean nothing”. And if Burlon pushed through 50 years of making pottery in obscurity, well hell, I think I can do at least 25 more.

25 Years A Potter by Steve Abee.