Richard Bresnahan – Body of Clay Soul of Fire

Richard Bresnahan book

Richard Bresnahan.  O.k. wow.  I had never heard of him until I stumbled upon a book in the SF library about him and his life as a potter.  When I picked up the book I briefly scanned the photos of pots as I usually do to decide if it was something I wanted to bother with and saw tons of amazing pots that appeared to be wood fired.  I left immediately with an armload of books including this one called Body of Clay Soul of Fire by Matthew Welch.
In the 70’s, Richard Bresnahan apprenticed with Nakazato Takashi in Japan on the island of Kyushu.  There he learned to make pots on a Karatsu-style kick wheel, build kilns and fire them, and how to use local materials.  He now has a pottery at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota where he fires a huge wood kiln.  He uses local clay and local materials for his glazes and has found ways to take what others are throwing away and turn it into something beautiful.  This book touched a chord with me and my desire to study with a master potter, fire with wood, and use ash glazes is even stronger now.
Just looking at the photos of all these pots is inspiring.  Reading the book is even more so.  There is a video I found as well. The Richard Bresnahan story is full of lessons for life.  He boldly went after what he wanted and the community of friends, teachers, neighbors, and family all supported him.  His passion is undeniable and people come from all over the place when it’s time to fire that big kiln.
Read this book and be inspired.  I’m reading it now for the 3rd time.

Michael Cardew and Douglas Fitch – inspiration

I’m very inspired by Douglas Fitch at the moment and what appears to be a country potter lifestyle.  All I am going by are his videos.  After reading Pioneer Pottery and Pioneer Potter by Michael Cardew a couple years ago I knew it was the life I wanted.  I had to begin from there.  I learned how to throw and glaze and reclaim clay and a whole lot more.  Here I am now and have just watched all the videos Douglas Fitch made of his work and life there in Devon.  There are sheep running around and ducks at his feet and birds chirping, pots being thrown and covered with slip, and other glimpses of life.  It all looks like a great way to live a life.   Ajira was living in Sidmouth when we met, but we did not venture out too much in Devon when I went to visit.  Pottery was not up on my radar at that time.  I was too busy being in love.  We spent a little time at the Royal York Hotel in Sidmouth, went to Wales, London, etc. then we were on a plane to Cape Town, SA so I could meet her family before we got married in 2004.

I would love to go back to Devon or Wales now to apprentice or study making pottery with some of my favorite potters.  I love the connection to earth and place Douglas talks about in Hollyford Harvest – a film by Alex McErlain, 2009.  Digging your own clay, using slip, firing with wood, and practicing pottery tradition are all things I am interested in doing.  Hopefully my pots will have good form with life in them and vitality.

I tell myself it does not matter where I live, but maybe it does.  Everything I surround myself has an influence on my feelings and thoughts and therefore filters into my centering and energy level.  I often use the process of kneading my clay as a transitional cleanse away from the rest of my day and into the clay and this moment of making pots.  The spiral action is meditative, physical, quiet, and warms up my arms and shoulders.  I often do this with my eyes closed to increase my awareness and my sense of touch, and to discover what is happening with the clay. The weighing up of lumps is the start of what I am about to make.  All this touching informs me of the moisture content and plasticity and awakens my sensitivity and I am ready to throw.  So being somewhere else won’t change that, it will simply be a different moment of getting ready to throw.  But maybe the rest of my life will be more nourishing for my pottery making, family, and soul.

I find it almost unbearable sometimes to be stuck here in this place wanting something else as time flies by.  I convince myself to appreciate what I have and go from that place of gratitude, but I want what I want.  City life is no life for a country boy.  I tried to be big city living in San Francisco.  I tried to be tech and fast paced and hip with music production.  I tried to be on the cutting edge but I found the constant attempt to keep up exhausting and not very authentic.  So it was not for me.  I want a peaceful quiet country side with a community of potters and teachers and friends and group firings and flowers, trees, hills, and green.  I want to walk in the woods and play in the mud with my boy.  I want to have animals as friends who visit and are not threatened by me as a human.  I want to go surfing in the sunshine with no wetsuit.  And I want to make thousands of pots and find my voice as a country potter.  I want to get on with it and yet I know that learning from a master potter will in the long run get me there on more solid ground.  For now I am practicing and learning as much as I can.

A country pottery is challenging in the burbs.  Where do I build my wood kiln?  Fire code?  Too close to the house?  I even have free bricks enough to do it but not the space.  So what?  I will find a way.  There is no stopping me now.  Too many things have come together on my path for me to turn away.

I am certainly not complaining.  I am totally grateful for all the gifts and support.  It supports the theory that if you boldly go for it, the universe steps in and provides.  I have clay, glazes, bricks, wheels, tools, bins and buckets, burners, curiosity, a desire to learn more and more, a blog, a facebook page for Cameron Sharp Pottery, a library card, and the internet.  I’m healthy and strong.  I have support of friends and family, the praise of people who have seen my pots, a friend who is tight with a gallery, the ability to make pots, and the patience to go through the experience of learning by doing, the awareness to know when to let one go and make another.  I have so much going for me already.  I simply have to continue to be inspired and make more pots.  I will trust the process of going through and not worry about what is on the other side.

free kiln bricks

Caruso gave me all the bricks from the Evelyn Kramer kiln in SF

I got about a thousand bricks from a man named Caruso.  He said I could have them if I took apart the kiln, swept up, and hauled them away.  He said the kiln I dismantled was used by his friend Evelyn Kramer.  It was a natural gas kiln made of hard and soft fire bricks with some ceramic fiber here and there.  It sat on top of a layer of concrete blocks which he also gave me.  It took me 3 trips to load and transport them in my van from San Francisco to San Pablo, CA.  He also gave me some pyrometric cones, an 80 mesh sieve and three giant wisks for mixing up glazes.  On the walls of the garage we went through to get to the backyard and kiln, were old photographs and faded pages torn out of of books and tacked up.  Images of pots by Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, and others covered all the walls.  There were posters and flyers of The Potter’s Studio in Berkeley, CA as well as a card from the Richmond Art Center.  These were all from the seventies.  I feel honored to be taking these bricks on to the future and saving them from the dump.  Caruso said that if I had come one day later they would have been gone, hauled away by the city. So thank you Caruso for the bricks and all the extras, and for being so patient and willing to make arrangements for several trips out there to get them.

Life is a mystery.  Just when you think it’s going one way, things happen and suddenly the path opens up and the weather clears and the sunshine beams down and warms the possibilities.  The past with it’s anchors and baggage and house full of grief needs to be lit on fire and burned down to the ground to make way for all the new life that is just there on the path waiting to be lived.  Taking a few steps on this good path feels so right, so correct, so in-line with my soul and my true self.  A happy potter.

The simple pleasure of the sun warming my face is as good as it gets.

Everything can have that quality of life if I let it.

So a big thanks to Douglas Fitch for all the inspiration and the videos you post.  When I get to Devon I’ll look you up.


The Potter’s Challenge by Bernard Leach

The Potter's Challenge by Bernard Leach Title Page

The Potter’s Challenge by Bernard Leach Title Page

Just started an awesome book called, The Potter’s Challenge by Bernard Leach published back in 1975.  Only up to page 30 and already completely inspired and fully believe I am on the right path.  What he is saying rings so true for me.  This is the tradition I am drawn to and moved by when it comes to making pots and why and how to make them.

Last night at the SF main library I wanted to bring home a stack of 20 pottery books but had to reduce the pile.  In so doing I would grab a book and flip the pages rapidly while scanning for something magical, a photo of a great pot.  No names could be seen so my mind was free to judge the pot for itself without any association to a maker or the maker’s reputation.  I had no criteria I was looking for, no color in mind or particular shape or type.

What kept happening was amazing and affirming to me.  I flipped through one book that had hundreds of pages of pots that did nothing for me until wow… what was that?  I looked at the pot’s form and surface and color and it touched me deeply as good, true, honest, real, full of life, well made, timeless all in that split second glance.  I found and read the small caption and it said Bernard Leach, Globular Pot, 1927.

With the next book the same thing happened, quickly flipping until something grabbed my attention, but this time it was a plate, Michael Cardew, Bird Dish, 1932.  He was a student of Bernard Leach.  I loved his book The Pioneer Potter.  More on that some other time but I also like pots made by his students like Svend Bayer  and  Mark Hewitt.

The next was a tall bottle with gorgeous colors.  Turns out it was made by Shoji Hamada, bottle, 1929.  Again I saw the pot first and the name later.  A few pages over and I saw another amazing pot, a bowl, 1923, same maker.

Then this beautiful green flash went by as the speeding pages closed too fast.  Wait! back up, what was that?  It’s faceted, it’s stoneware, looks like Celedon. It’s a bowl by Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, 1936.  Also a student of Bernard Leach.

In another book full of not much I flipped until one pot grabbed me. I let out a gasp as if I had found treasure.  I knew right away who made this.  It had to be Warren MacKenzie.  I had seen a YouTube video of Warren MacKenzie throwing a bowl like it but could not have imagined how gorgeous and quiet it could have become after firing. It was a wide footed drop lip bowl with Shino glaze with iron brush work.  He was a student of Bernard Leach.

After flipping through 15 books about pottery without exception, all of the pots I was drawn to were made by potters cut from the same cloth so to speak.  All in the same overall tradition, all different and yet all good form, great surfaces and colors and all with something that touched me in some way.  All pointing back directly to Bernard Leach and his students, as well as Shoji Hamada, and maybe even the meeting of east and west.  These are the kind of teachers I want to learn from and these are the kinds of pots I want to make.

I am very much drawn to wood fired pots as well.  Salt, soda, ash, shino, shells, and the stories told on the pots by the effects of flame are areas I want to explore under the guidance of a master potter.  I love that wood fired pots look different from every angle and each side has it’s own personality and reveal themselves slowly.

To study or apprentice with a master potter who makes pots from their heart in this way, would be a dream come true and a once in a lifetime opportunity.  For now I will learn by practice and repetition.  I trust that my experience flipping through the pages of these books skipping the pots that left me cold and landing on the ones that moved me,  confirmed that I know what I like and what moves me and what does not.  The instinct for what makes a pot good is in me already.  I know it by feel and intuition not by study or by book.  I know it in my heart.  So now from my heart to my hands and into the clay I aim to make quiet powerful pots full of life.

ok. now back to my book to see what else Mr. Bernard Leach has to say.

Please comment if you have something to add to the conversation.

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you like it – like it.


Carbon Nation and my kiln

Just watched an eye opening documentary film called Carbon Nation on Netflix and it got me thinking about firing the kiln for my pottery.  What is the cost in money as well as impact on our atmosphere?  What are the best choices for reducing CO2 emissions?  Is it using an electric kiln?  Sure if the source is wind generated electricity or from solar but not if that electricity was created by burning coal in a huge power plant?  Coal is by far the dirtiest burning fossil fuel.  So what is the sustainable thing to do when designing a kiln and deciding what the heat source will be?

What about natural gas?  It comes to the house already.  It’s convenient and relatively inexpensive. I can have it run out to the kiln pretty easily and it is cleaner burning but there are issues with how it is collected and the damage that process does to our environment.  I would also have the cost of special burners which are a sizable chunk of change.

What about propane?  It is widely used around the globe for heating and cooking.  Simon Leach and others use it for their kilns successfully.  I could use inexpensive weed burners which are only $20 each from Harbor Freight.

What about an oil drip system using reclaimed vegetable oil from restaurants?  Biofuels are all the rage now.  Would that work?

What about an oil drip system using waste oil from garages?  Too toxic to deal with and still uses petroleum oil which keeps it in the system and burning it is a dirty burn.  Giving the waste oil an easy place to go seems like it would encourage more use of it.  What we really need to do is have electric cars that plug in and get our electricity by wind and solar.

What about wood?  Burning wood releases CO2 but how much?  If I am using wood that is thrown away by someone else it’s being reclaimed and that’s a good thing keeping it from the landfills.  And maybe they would give it to me free for taking it off their hands.  Win win.  Nothing beats the look and feel of wood fired pots.

What if I used natural gas and wood?  The gas could be the main heat source and wood for the effects.  Less wood means less ash?  Does it mean less CO2?  And will the pots be as beautiful as they would be from an all wood firing?

Is methane an option?  People have been collecting their own on small scale farms.  Manure from just a few animals creates enough methane for heating and cooking for a family of 5.  That is if you can get past the idea of using crap gas.  How much is needed for a cone 10 firing?  What kind of burners work with methane?  How large must the kiln be to support this family and a pottery?  How often must it be fired to have enough pots to sell?

Maybe landfill gas could work.  It sounds complicated in terms of delivery and burner type etc. but may be worth checking out since landfills are everywhere there are humans.

What about a solar kiln?  Remember the magnifying glass from childhood held over the leaves until they ignited?  On a larger scale would this work for a kiln somehow?  I suppose you could have solar panels collect energy and run an electric kiln for bisque firing.  Some potters single fire their pots thereby reducing the need for a bisque firing.  It seems like that would mean less CO2 but wood firings are usually a lot longer so there may be no significant savings.

And what about all that heat that comes out of the chimney?  There must be a way of harnessing it to create electricity for the pottery or storing it, or even selling it back to the electric company.  In colder climates duct work could be set up to collect heat from around the chimney.  In simple terms, the heat could boil water and the steam could rise up to turn something and that could produce electricity.  If the kiln was fired once per month could it produce enough energy for the month?  Or could it produce enough to pay for the firing, creating a break even and thereby increasing the profits for the pottery?

Currently the cost of firing is my largest expense.  My clay was given to me by John from The Clay Studio in San Francisco, CA when they went out of business as well as twenty 5-gallon buckets of glaze that work with their clay.  That’s about 3,000 pounds of clay and 100 gallons of glaze!  Thanks John!  My main kick wheel was $40 off craigslist, the other kick wheel was free.  The broken electric kiln I fixed up and intend to convert to propane gas was free from Clay People in Richmond, CA. I make some of my own tools and the rest were given to me.  Essentially the largest cost for me has been time.  It has taken a lot of time to gather all these things together so I could make pots. In fact their was six months without making pots at all, working and gathering and searching and it felt like I was sick.  I was aching to get back to clay.  If I had the money I probably would have gone to The Potters Studio in Berkeley, CA and become a member.  The community is supportive and I learned from being around other potters.  It would have been too easy to just throw and trim and stick it on the shelf for someone else to bisque, then use the studio glazes (some of which I love) and put it on a shelf again for the big gas kiln which someone else would fire.  In the long run it is better for my development to do it all on my own and learn each aspect as I do it.  Even though I watched a lot of videos and took a couple classes, the real learning was when I got my hands on clay during my practice time outside of class and after that on my own just doing it.

So check out Carbon Nation and the other links in this post and let me know what you think.  Maybe there is a new kind of kiln yet to be invented.

Much gratitude for all the free stuff and thanks for reading.


Anne Mette Hjortshøj – Paying Honest Attention

Another great short film from Goldmark Gallery! Well Done. Anne Mette Hjortshøj – Paying Honest Attention is so inspiring.  These films all have such a great vibe about them.  I watch them over and over and then go make pots.  They calm me down and lift me up all at the same time.  They give me something to aim for and affirm that I am on the right path.  I feel an earthy connection to the potters featured in these intimate glimpses.  I want to be this kind of potter making pots fired in a wood kiln, living this kind of life in the country, growing organic food, working outside in open space collecting materials locally to use in or on my pots, living a life inspired.

I love the look of Anne Mette’s pots. The fluid nature of the clay in the lugs for the handles of her teapots, for example, look as if the clay is still soft and the handle has lifted it up in the center. The colors and patterns are fantastic.  I like how she makes and uses stamps for adding patterns of texture for the glaze to run over or collect in or break over and edge.  After seeing her beautiful pots and then watching the video it came as no surprise to me that she fires with wood.  Most of my favorite potters fire with wood.  There is nothing better in my opinion than a wood fired pot.  There is so much going on with color and surface from the flames and ash and salt.  You can look at a wood fired pot a hundred times and see something new each time.

I love the way Anne Mette talks about making pots and the process of learning with Phil Rogers. It’s very clear she holds him in the highest regard.  He is one of my favorite potters and an opportunity to learn and work with him would be a dream come true.  I really enjoyed reading his book called Throwing Pots back when I started my clay journey.

So check out the film and the links and let me know what you feel.

I’ve added Goodreads on the bottom right so I can share what books I have read or want to read.  If you have read some great pottery books please recommend them to me.

Thanks for visiting my blog.