How Fred and Joan Became Artists
Mis-adventures in Our Early Years as Potters
This is the second article in a series of articles entitled "Life on the Art Show Road." Click here to read the first article.
We have a very daring, four year old grandson named Stevie who came up with some advice for his indecisive Grandma while they were playing firemen the other day, "Just shut eyes, jump." After Joan and I decided to drop out of graduate school, to become potters and to earn our living on the art show circuit forty years ago, our rule of thumb for living the good life was pretty similar to our grandson's.
One of our first decisions, following our sixties, nonconformist, hippy tendencies, was to live closer to the earth, closer to nature. (See what trouble four years of reading books like Walden Pond can get you into.) So, we saved up and borrowed a few thousand dollars and bought two acres of land along the Rio Grande River in Corrales, NM in an area of small farms, fruit orchards, adobe homes, dirt roads, huge cottonwood trees and irrigation ditches. In the field next to our acreage was a large, productive apple orchard that seemed unbelievably wonderful to us (at least until we learned that real apple orchards needed to be spayed with toxic chemicals many times every summer.) At the time, Corrales, which is a suburb of Albuquerque, seemed like the perfect place to us; it seemed to be the place where the coolest, the most artsy, the most nonconformist people in the world lived.
So, for the next year Joan made pots in a little shop we rented on Corrales Road and made our living, more or less, (mostly less) while I built an abobe house on our newly acquired land. Of course neither of us had ever built a house before or knew anything about building houses but that didn't seem like a problem. Just shut eyes and jump, you know. And also I was into that good old graduate school tradition of buying a book and cramming when you didn't really know what you were doing. So I read the book and we got started. One of the first things I decided was that the only angles in this house were going to be ninety degree angles, none of that 32 degree, compound angle stuff--I was sure I would never be able to figure any of that out. One of the results of this is that the roof of the house was dead flat. "Well," I rationalized, "The roofs on all traditional Spanish style houses are flat and ours can be too." I didn't realize that they only looked flat, that actually all of them had a slight pitch so the water didn't pool on them. But you can't build pitched roofs without all kinds of angles creeping in, so we definitely didn't have any pitch on our roof. As a result, I spent a lot of time for the next twenty years sweeping water off that roof.
Below is a picture of us and friends building our Corrales adobe home. That's me in the foreground.
Another of our building principles was that traditional adobe homes should be quaint and quaint really meant crooked, so we were never too big into things like squares and plumb bobs. We built our window frames out of rough-cut lumber full of artsy knots and gnarls and were never too concerned about whether the adobe walls were exactly plumb or not. One of our favorite sayings, "Close enough for adobe work," was plenty of justification for some of our slightly wandering walls and less than precise beam work. I remember one day we had a crew of neighbors and friends helping us lay the interior adobe wall of a long hall that ran through the middle of the house. I was in the front room plastering and wasn't helping on the wall but I kept hearing lots of "Close enough for adobe work, right?" so I finally decided I had better go out and see what was happening. The crew was in the process of building a section of the wall that wandered like a drunken cow staggering down a winding mountain road. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," I remember saying, "What are you guys doing back here". "Building charm," they said. So the wall stayed and we all actually learned to love it.
When we put the tar and gravel roof on the house it was a blistering hot New Mexico summer day and the same crew of enthusiastic if not overly skilled friends and neighbors was on hand to get the job done. Since it was so hot, numerous cold beers were needed, and while the beer drinkers were sipping their brew it seemed perfectly logical to take off their burning hot shoes and put them in the nearby food freezer while they took a quick break. Of course everyone's shoes were covered with goopy asphalt which was encrusted with gravel but no matter, cold shoes felt great once we were back on the roof. The roof did get done but the freezer was never quite the same again--we still have it and it's still covered with tar and gravel on the inside.
The house finally did get finished and we loved it, and we raised our three boys in it and we lived in it for the next twenty-five years.
One of the next projects in our plan for living closer to the land was to grow a lot of our own food in a huge one acre garden. Again, this was a neighborhood project. Our neighborhood at the time was a great place to live as there were three other families who lived close by in adobe homes they had built themselves and who all had two or three little boys the same ages as our boys. Summertime in our neighborhood was marked by a steady stream of naked and semi-naked little boys running from house to house and back and forth to the Rio Grande on frog and crawdad hunting trips. There was a real feeling of community in that neighborhood that I have never experienced again and that I miss very much now.
Anyway, back to the garden. After we had the local farmer plow and till the ground and set the rows, we realized we needed a lot more water than we were going to get out of hoses from the house. So we decided to drill a well for the garden; we'd do it ourselves of course, we didn't need any well drilling professionals, we could do anything. We decided the first thing needed was a derrick, we'd seen the movie Giant and we'd grown up in Wyoming, we knew you needed a derrick to drill wells. Most derricks have three legs but we had only two twenty-foot 6x8 beams left over from the house so we decided to build a two legged derrick and use a rope stretched from the top of the two legs to a stake in the ground for the third leg; we would just tip the derrick away from the stake until the rope got tight and it would stand up fine. The well pipe that we would drive into the ground was a section of four inch steel pipe screwed to a homemade drill tip. The idea was to drive this section of pipe and drill tip into the ground with a heavy hammer that we would lift with the derrick and then drop onto the well pipe. The hammer was another heavy piece of pipe that was filled with concrete and which ran up and down inside a slightly larger piece of pipe. We used our old Volkswagen as power to raise this heavy hammer; the lifting rope went from the hammer up to a pulley at the top of the derrick and then back to a rear wheel of the VW bug. We jacked up the rear wheel and replaced the wheel and tire with just a bare rim. With the rim spinning and the rope wrapped around it a few times, a slight pull on the rope would tighten the rope around the rim and raise the hammer to the top of the tripod with zero effort. We were quite proud of ourselves as the heavy hammer rose and fell effortlessly. With each smash of the hammer, the well shaft would sink another eight or ten inches into the sandy soil. We didn't have far to go as the water table was only fifteen feet down because we lived only a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande River.
All went well. We got into the rhythm of lifting and dropping, drilling and attaching more pipe as we went. And then we got a little too relaxed and forgot to keep our makeshift rig leaning the right way. I remember looking up and the whole one ton rig and hammer was teetering and then falling right toward a group of onlookers. I screamed "Run, run", and the onlookers jumped out of the way and the whole rig went smashing into the ground with a tremendous crash and cloud of dust. After that we appointed a designated derrick watcher whose job was to never take his eyes off the derrick and to scream every time it was about to come crashing into the ground. And, predictably, it did crash down three or four more times before we were done, but the designated watcher did his job well and no one was hurt.
After the pipe was down into the water table, we decided to blow the well to clean out all the loose sand and mud in the drill pipe so the water would flow rapidly and clean. We had all watched the professional well drillers who had drilled the wells for our houses and knew that they dropped an air hose connected to a large air compressor sitting on its own trailer down into the well, turned on the air and blew all the dirty water and loose sand and dirt out of the well. After an hour of so of blowing, the water would always run clean and plentifully. So we decided to do likewise. We rented a huge compressor, hooked up a bunch of hose and shoved it down into the four inch steel pipe that was our well. I stepped over the the compressor and flipped the valve wide open. The result was spectacular, a hundred feet of hose, heavy brass couplings and all, shot a hundred feet straight up into the air complete with an old faithful sized geyser of water. And then, of course, as soon as I shut off all the air in panic, the whole thing came crashing down on our heads. I seemed to have forgotten that the pros had opened the valve very slowly and not very far. Again, luckily, no one got hurt and we finally got the well blown, very slowly and carefully and cautiously.
The well actually worked when we hooked it up to an electric pump. We had all the water we wanted for the garden and we supplied corn and tomatoes and squash and cucumbers to the whole neighborhood for the rest of the summer. And we finally got the well drilling technique down so well that we drilled three more wells, one for each of the homes in our neighborhood. We had a few more exciting smash-downs of the well rig but the only close call we had was with a old, slow horse in a corral we drilled one of the wells in that didn't seem to understand what "Run" screamed at top volume meant. However, the next year we decided that maybe farming wasn't really all that much fun (especially the weed pulling part) and maybe it really wasn't all that necessary to be quite so close to the earth and so we bought tomatoes and corn and watermelons from the farmer at the end of the road for a lot less money than it had cost us to garden the year before.
And then there were all the other back to nature projects that included raising rabbits, chickens, goats, pigs, cows, horses, ponies and dogs. I won't even get into all this. Sometime though I will have to write an artcle about butchering cows and how I was once trapped for a half hour under a whole dead cow that slipped off the meat hook. Anyway, after a few years it began to seem that maybe there was a point to grocery stores after all.
After the house was done we moved the pottery from the Corrales Road location into the laundry room of the new house. We wedged clay (the process used to get the clay ready to throw on a wheel) on the washing machine and put our two pottery wheels on either side of the clothes dryer. We built a gas-fired brick kiln the size of a small bathroom behind the house and turned the hall with the wandering adobe walls into a very long, narrow art gallery. We were still selling pottery to the three galleries we sold our first pots to and the well dressed gallery owners and buyers would squeeze into the eighteen inch wide hallway of the gallery to buy pots after carefully stepping over the cat box and assorted kid toys and coats on the floor. Finally we decided this really wasn't the best place to make pottery or impress new buyers so we built a large studio-gallery in the backyard. This was another epic of do-it-your-self-ism complete with wood burning stove and concrete floors barely above the surrounding garden. Irrigating the garden often meant also irrigating the shop when the water found it's way through the enclosing dikes (which it always did), so we tried not to irrigate on days we knew we might have a lot of buyers.
One of the first things we did after the shop was done was decide that we needed to quit buying premixed clay and make our own. It would be far cheaper and we would be able to get back to the clay bodies I had invented in our first year of potting which had worked quite well. So I found a huge, old, discarded industrial mixer at the local junk yard. It didn't have a motor, so we recruited the faithful old VW bug again. I bolted a pulley to the jacked up rear wheel and ran three parallel v-belts to the much larger fly wheel on the mixer. With this primitive mixer we could mix a ton or two of soupy clay to perfection. (Of course we had to do without a car whenever we were mixing clay but in those days that was no big deal compared to having a full bin of clay.) To dry the clay to the proper throwing consistency, I would transport it by wheelbarrow to the brick patio we had built in front of the house which was made of left-over firebrick. Here I would dump the clay on the soft, porus bricks which would suck the excess water out of the clay. The first load didn't work too well as the clay pulled up little chunks of lime that were stuck in the bricks and when pots made of this clay were fired, the lime imbedded in the clay would explode and blow little chunks out of the sides of the pots. After we learned to spread out sheets on the bricks before dumping the clay on the bricks, the process worked well except for the fact that we had to sleep without sheets on clay mixing day. We made clay like this for three or four years before we bought our first real clay mixers that mixed clay to the proper consistency for throwing.
It wasn't long before our shop was full of hand-made, jerry-rigged machines that cost almost nothing to build but that enabled us to grow the business beyond the survival stage . We had two gigantic kilns made out of salvaged brick complete with kiln cars that rolled into the kilns on small train tracks. We could load the kilns inside the workshop and then roll them down the tracks and into the kiln--very nice on cold, windy New Mexico winter days. We had a wood stove built out of an old oil drum that we used for many years. The stove required annual wood cutting trecks into the wilds of New Mexico that the kids still remember as some of the best times of their lives. To haul the firewood home we used a huge homemade trailer that we built out of the old house trailer that was our first home in Corrales while we were building the house. It was a pretty exciting trailer since it often fell apart without much notice; in fact it broke completely in half three separate times in the middle of nowhere but we managed to cobble it together well enough to limp home, three ton loads of wood and all. Maybe there was something about those three ton loads of wood that caused the trailer to keep on breaking.
Another of our handmade pottery tools was a machine to extrude clay (like toothpaste is extruded from the tube) that we built out of a piece of four inch pipe and an old car jack. We used this macine to extrude handles for mugs and casseroles and teapots and whatever else needed a handle. That machine lasted twenty years with a few repairs. We also built a slab-roller that we used to made slabs of clay that could be crafted into slab-built baking dishes, hot plates, pot holders and all sorts of other pots. The slab roller was a ten foot long behemoth make out of an old lithography press and a moving base that ran under the drum of the press on of one of those litle ramps with wheels that grocery stores use to move heavy boxes of canned goods. It worked wonderfully until a friend who was using it ran his hand through the litho press along with the clay. Luckily his heavy wedding band and the clay in the machine cushioned his hand enough that he really wasn't hurt. After that we decided that maybe safety devices weren't so bad after all and we installed an emergency shut-off switch on the slab roller. The press is still being used by some potter friends almost forty years after we built it. Our only handmade invention that didn't work well was a potter's wheel that I made out of scrap steel and old axle bearings; unfortunately I never could get it to turn smoothly and precisely enough to make pots on, but we did use it for a planter that the customers thought was wonderful.
So the years went by and the pottery got bigger and bigger and the old homemade tools got replaced by more and more high-tech equipment. For years we had only one employee, a woman who worked for us doing glazing and kiln loading and shipping. Then we hired a couple more thowers. And then we needed more support people. And then we bought a thirty ton ram press that we used to hydraulically press out pots. Joan designed and threw the original pots on her wheel and then we made latex molds of the originals and then huge 500 pound steel encased plaster moulds out of the rubber molds that were used to ram-press clay into the final plates, casseroles, bowls, and vases. We ended up building a whole new building for the ram press and of course we then needed even more employees to run the press. We finally ended up with fifteen full-time employees, our own Albuquerque gallery, over 300 shops and galleries all over the US that we shipped pots to as well as dozens of art shows that we did every year. I got to do the art shows, thank God, and thus I was able to escape the now very busy and hectic shop as often as possible.
And finally, one day back in 1994 after twenty five years of running the pottery, we looked at each other in a spare moment when some employee or customer didn't need us urgently, and Joan said to me, "What in the world are we doing. This for sure isn't what we started out to do. This isn't the little art pottery we started so we could live the simple life close to nature and didn't have to become corporate drudges." Well, that isn't exactly what she said, as Joan is lot more plain spoken than I am, but it pretty much expresses how we both felt.
So we sold the whole thing--land, house, shop, business and all--and moved to the mountains of Colorado, built a new house, by ourselves of course, and started a new, much simpler life of shooting and selling landscape photography of the mountains and rivers and lakes and flowers of the Rocky Mountains that we both loved so well. Actually I had been getting more and more serious about photography for the last ten years we owned the pottery. Around 1984 I began spending more and more time turning my long time photography hobby into something much more professional. By the time we had our gallery in Albuquerque around 1990, I was shooting a large format 4x5 camera, printing my own pictures and selling them in the gallery. By 1994, when we sold the pottery, I had spent three years doing four or five photography shows a year in New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado in my spare time, and I pretty much knew what I was doing. So in 1994 when we sold the pottery, we were ready to jump into art shows selling photography full time.
This article is part of a series of articles entitled "Life on the Art Show Road." The next article is entitled, "The Hardest Part of Being an Artist is the Parking." It will be included in the next newsletter in about two weeks.