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Mentors & Teachers

 
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The most surprising aspect of my life - has been my extraordinary good fortune to have always found my needs and circumstance precisely and skillfully supported by an continuous lineage of mentors & teachers. As if each were linked and carefully ordered to guide my efforts in a perfectly logical progression.

My father keeping a close eye on me - late 1960's

My Father - OM Weaver - began as and has always remained my primary teacher. He worked all of his life as a mechanical engineer helping to direct the design and production of gasoline pumps at the South West Pump Company in Bonham, Texas. He very early instilled in me the practical understanding that things can be made - and he used his after-hours key to a vast machine shop to demonstrate the power and capacity of all manner of tools and materials to facilitate the process. By his very example - he taught me to approach all activity with logic and care giving equal attention to each and every detail. He was careful - he was kind - he was a master at teaching by example.

When content and happy - he had a habit of whistling a certain single repeated tune - a tune which then seemed as familiar as breathing. My Dad is now many years gone and for the life of me - I can not remember or recreate that tune.

Jim Danner - was employed by the South West Pump Company in a very singular role. He was trained as a pattern maker - highly skilled with all tools and materials. In a small manufacturing plant with many skilled workers - he was respected as someone who could do whatever needed to be done. He was the traditional artisan-craftsman-mechanic who could blend traditional handcraft with the demands of factory production.

Here is yet another powerful - teacher by example - who spent off hours carving sugar pine pattern stock into forms that appeared limitless to my young mind. He had a pocket knife collection that took hours to view and he grew worms that he harvested with a hand cranked telephone generator. He could start a camp fire under a poncho in a driving rain with the smoke curling smartly out the hole where your face should be. He was my friend - he was my mentor - he respected and encouraged me in ways that were as powerful as they were intangible.

Alan Stacell - had just begun a teaching career at the School of Architecture at Texas A & M when I enrolled as an eager student. I will never forget my first encounter with the eyes in this massive head that looked at you with an intensity and focus that was unnerving.

I have never ever met anyone with his presence - which was at once overpowering and disarmingly encouraging. He had a paradoxical quality of simultaneously challenging and nurturing confidence - a peculiar capacity to reflect and motivate individual creative potential. I have never spent so little time - a few hours a week in a single semester class - and been so profoundly influenced by anyone before or since.

John McElroy - for all practical purposes introduced me to clay. Though my first introduction was like many things - somewhat surprising.

I first sat at a potter's wheel in a rehabilitation center at Dallas mental institution called Timber Lawn. My mind required a bit of restructuring and something about this tool triggered deep memories.

John McElroy - After a brief but convoluted journey I managed to convince myself that Architecture was not the perfect match and I somehow found myself enrolled in the Fine Arts Program at the University of Dallas. I can still remember a close friend, fellow architectural student and Dallas native - Mark Schumann - recommending this small Catholic campus in the Irving suburb as a alternative to the sprawling mass of Texas A & M. Taking a closer look - I decided Mark was right and I found myself working in a very pleasant series of studio shops with a handful of students who became life long friends - Mary Lou Burt (soon my wife for twenty years), Charlie & Carolyn Debus, Juergen & Heidi Strunck, Jim Roach and Yoshi Schranil whose beautiful hands have gracefully served as my Business Logo for the last thirty five years.

Looking back - this chance encounter was very close to perfect. Mac pointed out the tools and working space and suggested I could do this or that or whatever else appealed to me. In the next room John had converted his office into boat shop where he was building a kayak for his son Fred. Quite suddenly - the boat unfinished - Mac stuffed his office into a broom closet (this is not an exaggeration) and announced the former office was now my pot shop. Pause and think about this for a moment.

From this beginning - my under graduate tenure moved in a predictable pattern. John McElroy would sit in the cafeteria drinking coffee & hatching ways to get us what we needed. If we needed tools or materials - they would suddenly appear. How about a new kiln at a school that had never built a kiln. In quick succession we had bricks and clay and pipe and were shortly stoking a new gas kiln where formerly there was none.

John McElroy's sole purpose was to provide the means for his students to develop their creative potential. He did this day after day with no apparent fuss and appeared to enjoy it as much as we did.

I remember that he did occasionally give something that looked a lot like a lecture or a demonstration but for the most part he stayed out of our way and gave us the space to learn to do what we wanted to do. I am profoundly indebted to this man for his encouragement and support and most particularly for his life long friendship and respect. I frequently find myself wondering what I could possibly do to properly thank John McElroy.

The photo of John McElroy below - taken in the late 1960's rounds out my memories of that time. On a bright early spring afternoon - fly rods appeared - my VW bug (less passenger seat) was stuffed with John & Pedro & whoever else I can't remember. We shortly found ourselves knee deep in an unnamed creek west northwest of someone's cotton field - contentedly snagging bluegills and sunfish who were no doubt surprised by our sudden invasion. For nostalgic & illogical reasons this photo sums up my rich experience at The University of Dallas and with John McElroy in particular.

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.
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