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Had a customer in the booth yesterday afternoon who really liked my work. Was going to send her husband over to buy a particular bowl for her, as it was her birthday. And she asked if I ever did commissions.

Yes, I said, I did the all the time.

Well, I'd like a bowl like that one, with no rim, just a straight side, she said, pointing to the batter bowls. That's easy enough, I replied. And I'd like it in a matte black glaze.

Aaaand that's where I had to say no.

I do take special orders all the time. Every firing has at least half a dozen of them, I've already got three or four in queue for my July kiln load. But they're generally a form I usually do, but with a particular pattern, or a new form but glazed and painted like my standard ware. I do not match colors, I do not test glazes.

Glaze is not like paint. You do not just buy a can at Home Depot and slap it on the pot. There are chemical interactions, with the clay body, the firing, the atmosphere in the kiln. Even the most reliable glaze in your firing situation will need extensive testing to adapt to mine. Best case, it will take at least two or three firings to get a reliable result, and since I fire the famous 50 cubic-foot car kiln only once every six weeks, we're talking a minimum three months, more likely six, before we get a finished pot. (A potter I work with at Club Mud has taken over a year on projects like this.)

Add in the fact that matte black glazes are notoriously tricky--they're just on the edge of devitrified (no longer glassy), and loaded with metal oxides--usually iron, cobalt and manganese--so I can't be sure the resulting glaze, no matter how lovely, is actually food safe.

So I explain the complications to her, and suggest that she find a potter with a black glaze she really likes, then ask them to make the bowl for her. It's far easier to throw a new form than it is to create a new glaze.

I didn't realize it was so complicated
, she said. (Few people do.)

And her husband never came by to get her birthday present.

Edmonds, day 1

Favorite things from the first day of the Edmonds Arts Festival:

1. The little girl, maybe three years old, who spun the wheel at the Edmonds Community College booth and won a prize, delightedly showing off her LED flashlight keychain to any and all passers-by.

2. Edmonds police patrol the festival, in pairs, in uniform, night stick, gun, the works. Then, in mid-afternoon, I see a solo officer, still in full fig, shopping with his wife while pushing the stroller containing their tiny, tiny baby.

3. The family of four--mom, dad, two boys about 8 and 6--who have a prolonged conversation, in Japanese, examining every pot in the booth featuring a crab or octopus, with both boys finding more options to point out. Younger son also has a teddy bear on his shirt, so Yuri (the bear in the icon, above) has an entertaining several minutes communicating in sign language (waving, dancing) before his parents settle on the octopus oval platter. Whereupon I hand him the bear to hold while I dig through boxes to find it and notice him puppeteering it back, waving at me.

There are no stupid questions

 Or maybe not.

A woman in the booth this afternoon, examining the pots, asks Do you get these colors from acrylic paints?

Wait, what?



Blustery, changeable day, but a fair number of customers, most in town for NCAA Track meet. I missed it, but Denise spotted a little girl whose t-shirt read Art is my favorite sport.

Mine too.

A room of one's own

Spent a bunch of time on chat-relay with Priceline Customer Service the last two days, trying to sort out my housing for the upcoming sale in Edmonds. Somehow, though I'd specified a non-smoking, accessible room at the hotel--the Days Inn by Wyndham in Aurora, a north Seattle neighborhood--the confirmation came back for a smoking room. Which my asthma will not tolerate.

Hence the long sessions with Priceline.

When we first started doing out-of-town shows, we were generally broke, and never sanguine about how our sales would be. So we couch-surfed a lot. Denise has a cousin in Seattle who let us sleep on her sofa-bed for years, and we had friends in Portland and Bend with spare rooms to share. Nearer sales, we'd commute, driving the hour to hour-and-a-half each way, each day to Roseburg, Corvallis, Salem, Silverton. Still do some of that; on long summer days, it's just easier to sleep at home in our own bed with our own cats.

I started using Priceline at the advice of fellow potter Ken Standhardt, the first year I got into Clayfolk, in Medford. I was hoping he could hook me up with a local potter with a spare bed, but found out he just went online and bid for a place to stay. I tried it, found an affordable, not terribly shabby place at a reasonable proximity to the show, and have been using their service ever since.

The last few years, though, the deals have been getting... less deal-y? Hotel prices are going up, and fewer of them are willing to discount by more than five or ten bucks. What with the 24-hour delay built into the bidding process, it started to be easier, certainly faster, to just pick a not-too-awful place and price and book direct. Particularly as we got more successful with our sales over the years. 

But in my head, I'm still poor, still looking for a bargain. Lately, I've been experimenting with AirBnB, with mixed results. Tried it first during Anacortes, last year, and would up in a nice, quiet neighborhood in nearby Mt. Vernon. The only problem...

Well, look. When we go to an art fair, it's a business trip. We're in the booth long days, constantly on, interacting with customers. And neither of us is normally an extrovert. By the time we close the tent at 7 or 8 pm, we're wiped, no social graces left. We want to catch a supper, stumble home, and crash. We don't want to socialize. This is actually one of the reasons we stopped staying with people we knew. We felt like bad guests, bad friends. Going into a hotel room and hanging the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door was so much easier.

So our BnB host in Mt. Vernon was recently divorced, and it felt like he was trying to rebuild his social life through his guests, and his self-image by being the perfect host. He wanted to cook fancy, custom breakfasts, give tourist tips and advice, have long conversations after dinner. We just wanted dry cereal for breakfast, and room in the fridge for lunch meat and a carton of milk. He had a second guest to distract him for the first couple of days, but after she checked out, it was just us. I think we were a terrible disappointment to him. 

We tried again this spring in Portland, during Ceramic Showcase; I scored a basement room for four days for barely over $100. What a deal, right?

It would have been perfect, had I been there solo. The place was a work-in-progress; they were funding renovations with their AirBnB proceeds. (The toilet broke down one evening, got pretty gross not being able to flush, but they had a replacement in the next day, had it installed shortly after we got back from the show.) Everybody in the house worked, so we hardly saw them. The basement was super-quiet, and nicely cool, though we had to turn off the plug-in air freshener. I'd rather do musty basement smell than heavy perfume. The big problem was the steps. Rough concrete, not very even or level, and no hand-rail.

I'm not terribly athletic, but I'm tall and reasonably fit, so managed all right. Denise is shorter, five years older, and has a family history of rheumatoid and osteo- arthritis. Those stairs were murder for her. She could just about manage them twice a day, coming up in the morning, going down again at night, if I carried her book bag. Needing the bathroom in the wee hours was almost more than she could handle.

So she decided that she was willing to pay extra, my next show, to stay in a hotel again. When I booked my room for Edmonds, they promised me a non-smoking, accessible room.

They lied.

It took a couple of tries for the Priceline Customer Service folks to get the truth out of them: that all their accessible rooms were already booked, and they didn't have any non-smoking rooms available for more than a day or two of our four-day stay. Priceline canceled the reservation for me, refunded the charge, and I went back online to look for another place, with six days to go.

Found one, too. My choices were all either in Renton, in deep southeast Seattle, or Everett, about 20 miles north, so I chose Everett. (Never choose to drive south Seattle if you don't have to.) Paid a little extra, about 9 bucks a night, for a non-smoking room.

And still saved nearly a hundred dollars over Lying Suites by Liars.

Shipping day

Having just unloaded a kiln, it's time to distribute all the special orders. The dessert plate, tool crock, cookie jar, stew mug and colander are all for locals, and will be picked up at Saturday Market. The dinner salad bowls customer is going out of town, so she agrees to come by today and pick them up.

That just leaves a set of plates, a soup bowl, several platters, a bunch of toddler bowls, a spoon rest (I know, I said I'd never make spoon rests. What can I say. Helen has been ordering from me for years...) Time to load up the shipping-mobile.

This is actually a light load; I've tied on as many as five or six boxes into that basket before. It's a short jaunt to the post office, the weather is gorgeous, and my doctor is always after me to get more exercise. So away I go, whittling away at my carbon footprint.

In the spotlight

A few weeks ago, Saturday Market management asked if I'd be willing to talk to reporter from the Eugene Register-Guard. They'd done an article for opening weekend featuring new vendors; now they wanted to interview established folk. Old timers.

I'm always willing to open my mouth, so I said, "Sure!" Was a little intimidated when I heard the company I'd be keeping: the other three vendors had all been members of Market for at least 30 years, one of them over 40. At 25 years in the booth, I was the baby of the lot. (Also the only guy. Not sure what that signifies.)

Interview day was a cold, grey morning. Not a lot of customers, not the best day to show off a vibrant marketplace. Photographer Colin Anderson arrived first, shot a few pics of me in front of the booth. In deference to the gravity of the occasion, I did not have a teddy bear in my hands, though I was tempted. Reporter Christian Wihtol arrived a little later, asked a bunch of very good questions, called later in the week to follow up and check his notes. Came back again the following Saturday to talk to customers and fill any gaps in his information. Said the story would print sometime in early June.

Well, the story came out yesterday, in the Blue Chip, the RG's local business supplement. And it was actually stories; they wrote a feature about each of us. Colleen Bauman of Dana's Cheesecake got the cover story, but I got the center spread. And for the first time in my experiences with journalism, he got everything right. No misquotes, misunderstandings, no bending what I said to fit a preconceived agenda. I'm impressed.

The other stories seemed just as good, as far as I can tell. I've linked to all of them, below.

Dana's Cheesecake (Colleen Bauman)

Screenprinter Diane McWhorter

Designs by Dru (Dru Marchbanks)

And, of course, Off Center Ceramics (me)

Mr. Fix-it

Firing a gas kiln is an experience of prolonged, but intermittent attention. You need to be there at certain critical moments: starting it, of course, throwing it into body reduction and out again, spot checks of the cones, the pyrometer, the atmosphere every hour or so. There's a long gap in mid-afternoon between cone 4 and 8, after which it's time to pay attention again, particularly if the top and bottom temperatures are uneven. And then the (subjective) eternity between cone 9 and 10, when it's time to shut down the burners, close the damper and ports, and go home for a much needed rest.

Different potters deal with the intermittent part differently. Jon throws dozens of pots, moving them in and out of the kiln room to take advantage of the heat to speed drying. Sookjae and Michiyo share their firing, so they get to take turns leaving or staying, mostly reading while here. Tea is notorious for going to the movies during the long afternoon stretch.

Me, I fix things.

I fidget too much to throw, or even sculpt down here, I'm always getting up to check the cones. I also don't like to actually leave the studio for more than an hour or so at a time, so a double-feature is out. I can only read for so long, do so many sudoku or cryptoquotes, or blog posts before I get bored.

So I've rewired potter's wheels. Installed new shop lights. Fiddled with the pyrometer and thermocouple, got them working properly again.

Today, I fixed the ware cart.

It's a very basic design, probably goes back to the 60's, two 2-by-4 uprights supporting 2-by-2 shelf brackets. Easy to put work on and take it off by the shelf-load. Only problem?

The brackets wiggle. They move like a teeter-totter. Put a shelf of work down on one side and the shelf on the other side goes up. You needed to be very conscious of the relative weights when loading it up. So today, I brought in my drill and driver bits, a bunch of self-tap screws, some pre-cut 2-by-2 support blocks. A small level, a bar clamp.

In a little over half and hour, the job was done. Shelves are now all firm and level, no give, no bounce. A community of potters is gonna be so grateful.

Now what do I do with the rest of my afternoon?

Not dead yet

I have been remiss.

Well, actually, I've been horribly busy, but the upshot is, I haven't had time, energy, or brain cells left to post here at the end of the day for, like, ever. I've been making and glazing pots for the past few weeks, leading workshops, doing demos, updating my website (the Find Us link is now accurate all the way to September) and booking lodging for our summer shows. (Remind me to tell you about our Portland experience sometime...)

But the upshot is, I haven't had the spoons to do more than post a few pictures here. 

So here's a few more.

The good news is, the kiln is loaded and candling, and my next show isn't for a couple of weeks, so I hope to have some time to catch up here as well. (On the other hand, maybe I should be preparing cat pictures.)

Predator, prey

From the display table at this weekend's Saturday Market. I love choosing a theme and waiting to see if anyone else picks up on it.

Frankly, between that otter and the bear, the trout is not long for this world...