|Alfred University - I recall John suggesting that I apply to the graduate program of some New England University that I had never heard of. I was not at all sure what graduate students did and I had never traveled very far from my native Texas but if John thought it was a good idea I decided that I had better take a look. I shortly found myself visiting and then to my astonishment accepted to the graduate design program at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University - the oldest ceramic education institution in the country.
Dan Rhodes – in the summer of 1969 - warmly welcomed me to the Ceramic College. When I enquired about a place to stay he offered his old residence – a run down house along the Crosby Creek road as a place to live and work only a short drive from the Alfred village campus.
That summer I found dozens of trash cans filled with unfired scrap clay destined for the local dump. I had never seen so much clay in my life and certainly never in trash cans. No one objected when I hauled it down to Gliddens' and ran the whole lot through the seldom used filter press. I felt like a potter king hauling 1000’s of pounds of fresh clay out to Crosby Creek and the small shop adjacent to Dan Rhodes’ old home.
Through that first summer session – I built and fired a very successful but peculiar counter weighted kiln at my new residence – built from readily scrounged materials which seemed to be everywhere.
I remember making pots in the structured classes that did not meet Rhodes’ approval. Following his suggestion – I worked through summer’s end at the Crosby Creek shop and found that body of work did pass his critical inspection.
I was fortunate to be given the graduate assistant post managing the kiln room in Bins Merrill Hall and was delighted to have this access and experience.
Luke Washburn - actually managed the kiln rooms for the College and build excellent electric kilns in his own business. He was an always kind and generous mentor to me and helped to fuel a life long interest in kiln design and kiln firing.
Wally Higgins – managed the plaster mold shop at Alfred and was one of the most pleasant and encouraging teacher I have ever encountered. I never took a formal class with Wally and he could easily have bared me from his mold shops but he was generous & welcoming and always had time to respond to my uninformed questions and undisciplined enthusiasm.
One late evening – I spilled a 100 pound batch of wet plaster over virtually every corner of his meticulously clean shop. Terrified of his finding out and banning me forever – I spend all night cleaning up the mess. Had he known - he would probably have smiled and helped me clean it all up.
John Wood – was a quiet and sensitive photographer and graphics teacher who has had a lasting influence on me. Like many of my teachers – his qualities are difficult to describe and I never took a formal class from him.
I spend a great deal of time through all of my years pursuing photography and John Wood was a mentor who encouraged my photography in a way that was never obvious or pushed. Like so many others in my life – he was simply bearing witness – quietly encouraging my growth and exploration.
Val Cushing – gracefully and skillfully managed my class of first year graduate students in 1969. Val’s relaxed manner and encyclopedic knowledge of clay and glaze chemistry seemed to effortlessly and individual support each of our needs.
We were each introduced to glaze calculation, body formulation, ceramic science and history in a logical and helpful sequence. Simultaneously – each of us was fully engaged in our individual shop projects – which were all quite diverse and different.
After completing my degree and moving to Maine in 1971 – Val Cushing has been invaluable resource for technical information and problem solving. I have never understood how he could retain so much useful information.
Without my computer resources– I would be completely lost in a ceramic material maze. Val happily taught all of us to do glaze calculation not only prior to computer use but prior to electronic calculators. Though I know that it is not - using computer glaze calculation programs today seems almost to be cheating.
Bob Turner – very skillfully rounded and focused my second graduate year in way that John McElroy would have recognized. Here was yet another master of understatement and yet another powerful teacher by example. I was delighted but never quite sure how or why he ended up my mentor and teacher. His style was quite unusual as it appeared to be one of quietly paying attention with very little more in obviously evidence.
Though Bob Turner’s signals were often subtle he made himself quite clear in a way that I will never forget. In 1971 as I made plans to move to Maine and attempt to make a living from clay he cautiously asked if I had the financial means to begin this endeavor. I confidently replied that I would approach a local Maine bank and borrow what I though might be needed. He did not respond in any particular respect but did say that I should contact him after I had talked with the bank. As he correctly guessed – the bank was polite but probably thought I was nuts. Responding to my rejected bank loan he personally loaned me the money to start Maine Kiln Works.
There is not a single thing that he could have done that would have expressed greater confidence in my choice of profession. Without Bob Turner’s financial help – I would never have gotten off the ground and I would not now be earning my living through clay.
Second year graduate students – had the then distinct advantage of working in a wonderful rambling structure of the defunct Gliddens' Pottery - a short distance from the main campus buildings. Gliddens' was a world apart - where each of us had virtually unlimited work shop space and access to whatever kiln we thought most appropriate to our needs. Nothing whatever was formally required – we simply had space to work, mullers and filter presses to mix and kilns to cook as we saw fit.
The Big Motha - did have a prominent position and was a great favorite if you could manage to make enough pieces to fill the beast. I remember Val would move in over a weekend to glaze and fire a load which he somehow managed to unload in the dead of night and remove without my ever seeing the results.
Through the summer session of my second graduate year – I built and fired a very successful wood kiln wholly out of my mind’s eye and entirely out of scrounged bricks and materials. We would stay up all night stoking this fire belching beast with great mare’s tails of flame tracing from fire box to the cinder sprinkled sky above the glowing chimney. Jack Neff – my very close friend – stoked and dreamed and smoked his pipe the whole night long.
Kiln Design - In the final months of my experience at Alfred - the University was building an extensive new Ceramic Design facility. Foundations were being excavated, concrete poured, walls and spaces defined for a building that I would never had the opportunity to use. As a result of my mechanical drafting background and my keen interest in kiln design I was asked to layout designs for all of the new kilns to be constructed in the large new kiln room.
I was delighted to be asked to help and I thoroughly enjoyed consulting with Bob Turner and Val Cushing regarding the details of the proposed kiln styles and sizes. Ultimately – I drew up over a dozen new kilns – all based on well proven designs in current everyday use at the College. To be asked to help was an extraordinary compliment and one which actually paid wages that were critical to establishing my new business in Maine. My payment for this work went directly to purchase bricks and materials for my own Big Motha – which I still use for all of my clay production.
John McElroy – would almost certainly find himself chagrinned and embarrassed to see his name at the terminal end of my long list of valued teachers. Many of these teachers highly esteemed by John himself and placed by John in a category separate from himself. Nevertheless – having enjoyed the extraordinary benefit of each of these teachers – I know from direct experience that John McElroy takes a second seat to none of them.
After finishing my graduate degree at Alfred - John paid me the ultimate compliment of asking that I come and help him teach at his new post as Department head at Southern Methodist University. My choice not to do as he asked was very painful. My gratitude and appreciation to him ran very deep.
Somehow I understood that I was - at least initially - supposed to do what he had encouraged in me and that I was not (at that time) to teach it. I regretfully declined his generous offer of a University teaching post - telling myself that I could always go back to teaching in later years. This notion was mistaken. I have long since learned that despite appearances - nothing ever moves in reverse.
Seeking An Apprentice - is something that I have held closely in the back of mind my for many years. Through thirty five years of solitary skill development – I have always known that it is profoundly wrong to accept teaching and encouragement and not to return it in kind. After all this time and energy spent – I do regret not having the opportunity to share the knowledge and skill that was so generously shared with me via all of my teachers.
Before it is too late to do so – I am now making plans to begin an Apprentice program at Maine Kiln Works & Water Stone. If you personally have a connection and/or interest or if you know someone who does – please contact me to explore the possibilities.