by Dick Lehman
I have been a full-time studio potter for nearly 10 years, managing a production studio, a retail shop, and a gallery.all under the same roof. However, a large part of my undergraduate and graduate training focused on ministerial and helping professions. And here in the US many of the progressive parishes and mental health institutions provide regular 3-12 month paid sabbatical leaves to encourage professional development. One result from these formative years of my vocational planning was my belief that sabbaticals would be part of the rhythm of my work and growth.
When I became a full-time potter, I rather naively assumed that I would find some ways to offer myself regular "retreats" for growth and refreshment. And in spite of all the harsh realities of a potter's life (and largely to the credit of my own naivety), over the years I did manage to arrange for a variety of very short-term breaks; and in 1988 for a more lengthy two-month sabbatical to teach and work as visiting artist at Arizona State University. (For a more detailed description of my Arizona sabbatical, see "Planning a Potter's Sabbatical", reprinted from Ceramics Monthly, June/July/August 1989 issue.)
But finally, regardless of one's need for refreshment and growth, there are limits concerning how often a self-supporting potter can afford to leave the studio and still keep the business afloat. Within these constraints I began to explore the possibility of inviting other potters to join me in my congested but rather spacious studio for blocks of 2-10 weeks. I did so on the presumption that if I could not afford to go on sabbatical, perhaps I could allow the sabbatical learnings to come to me.
It was in this regard that I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Australian potter Audry Yoder Heatwole. Audry was anticipating a 10-week visit with a relative who lives in the town where my studio is located. She inquired about renting, or in some way compensating me for use of space. After some conversations we arrived at an understanding.
Instead of a rental arrangement (she did cover the direct costs of her materials and kiln use), we agreed on a studio exchange: her studio would be available to me in exchange for my studio being available to her.
Now you may be wondering, "What possibly could be the benefits of inviting another prolific professional potter into an already full studio?" Well, the benefits to me were many.
It was refreshing to have another professional potter around to offset the relative isolation that often accompanies studio work.
Audry's presence was helpful on very practical levels: many were the times I benefited from a second set of hands ("Can you help me here for just a moment?"); a second set of eyes to provide helpful critique; another sense of humor to appreciate a moment that may have passed me by unnoticed.
Not to mention the way Audry generously pitched in on so many of the nitty-gritty aspects of daily studio life: from answering the telephone, to helping with sales, to occasionally tending the till.
But on a more profound level, Audry brought, and was willing to offer, a whole host of other resources.
She shared from her graduate school experiences, her sabbatical at a Japanese pottery, and from the multitude of other relationships and workshops and techniques from which she has benefited over the years. In vicarious, second-hand fashion I was able to travel all around the world, to meet a great variety of other professionals, and to take in the rich gleanings of a dozen workshops, all without ever having left my studio.
And how do I place a high enough value on the chance to share my own work with another potter? Toward my own betterment, I learned much from the opportunity and necessity of rethinking and putting into words just what it is that I do and why I do it.
Finally, I must mention the joint and collaborative learnings which came when we worked together on some projects knowledge which neither of us would likely have gained had we been working in solitude.
The benefits resulting from Audry's visit have validated the worth of our studio exchange agreement. I am already a better potter for her having come to my studio, whether or not I ever get to make the trip to her Australian studio.
And while the cost of flying my family to Australia seems at time prohibitive, I am hopeful that I may indeed complete the second half of the exchange. And I also look forward to the time when I may be able to speak of my acquaintance with some of you, with the same rich memories and appreciation that I have for my association with Audry.
In my privileged existence as a potter who is married to a "Patron of the Arts", there are periodic times when my spouse is on sabbatical leave and I have a few months in which to do almost anything I would like to (or which I can afford). In the past year I participated in a Studio Exchange.
I contacted Dick Lehman of Goshen, Indiana, USA, with a view to finding a way that I would work in his studio for a few months. We explored several avenues including: 1) I would rent space, 2) I would work part-time for him in return for space, or 3) I would have free access to his studio and at some future point he would have the opportunity of coming to Australia and sharing my studio space. In any case I would supply my own materials and pay for firing costs. As it worked out we chose the latter option and I made my way to the USA from June to September, 1989.
I chose Goshen, Indiana, for several reasons. One was that I had met Dick in 1986 and liked him, his philosophical approach and the ambience of his studio setup. I felt an affinity with the aesthetics of the work he was doing and realized there was a genuine basis for sharing both our similarities and also our few differences. A second reason was nostalgic. I had attended university in that town, met my husband there and also had the privilege of living with a favorite aging aunt. So, other than purely personal gratification, what were the professional benefits?
Dick Lehman's studio is part of an art/craft complex called the Old Bag Factory because in fact that is what the building was at the turn of the century. It is a large, three-story brick construction with marvelous timber beams and solid oak flooring and space enough to house Swartzendruber Hardwoods (a furniture fabricating business that employs 30 people), the Lehman Pottery with three people and, additionally, smaller one-person shops that include musical instrument making, decorated eggs, porcelain dolls, children's toys, infants' clothing, and handmade chocolates (the hang-out for those that weren't busy in their shops). In two equally historic adjacent buildings were housed a blacksmith shop/antique refurbishing establishment and a quilt shop. The quilts were in modern colors but primarily based on the traditional Pennsylvania German designs coming from the Amish and Mennonite communities. Goshen is the center of one such large community. In the Old Bag Factory the majority of the craftspersons were either still-practicing Mennonites or had been raised in Mennonite homes. The effect of this was to bring an attitude of integrity and dedication to the work, and although direct 'Pennsylvania German' motifs were absent, the ethic and honesty in striving to do the best one could was overwhelmingly evident. The studios were open to the general public, both as work spaces and as buying venues. (As a safety precaution the furniture shop could only be observed from a catwalk high above the shop floor.) As one craftsperson said, "With the public watching, there could never be any temptation to cut corners!"
And the public watching was a very important part of the day. Each one of us in Dick's shop could expect to talk to the public frequently, either in the sales room or the workshop. Particularly when throwing pots on the wheel, there would be an audience. If we were only glazing pots and preparing for firing, the public thought we 'weren't working'. If all four of us happened to be throwing at once, perhaps we wouldn't all be talking, but it wasn't uncommon for two small groups to be gathered around two different wheels. For me this was the main difference from my Armidale studio where I work alone and get few interruptions. I found dealing with the public stimulating. Particularly satisfying was seeing a youngster really excited by the prospects of what the creative medium could be, or watching an adult increase in awareness and understanding. We always asked where they had come from and it was USA-wide and several times from foreign countries.
In between times when it was only the potters, conversations flew fast and furiously on what was art, were we making art and why we were doing the things we were. Mostly these questions came from Barry a recent Bachelor in Fine Arts graduate. Tom was a third-year university student and I had already completed an MFA degree. Dick had come into ceramics from an interest in clay, a degree from Seminary he was to have been a preacher and had learned his ceramics in the hard school of having to make a living. His achievement in 16 years was astounding.
Another area of great value in a "Studio Exchange" was in the area of skills and knowledge. Dick was researching and testing a firing regimen and technique called saggar-firing. He graciously shared his expertise with me and I was able to participate in kiln loading so that I too could learn the method and experience the amazing results. In reverse, I had had opportunities in my academic courses to learn techniques of color inlay and was also researching color inlay in bisqued ware and jewelry making in my own studio. This information was also shared.
For me, the best aspect of the experience was a work time in which I could do precisely what I wished (and have the weekend off). I didn't have to fill orders or work to someone's requests. I continued throwing in a similar vein to what I had done for several years ovoid forms and flatter plate forms. However, there were nuances in form variation and in increasing emphasis on adding bases of greater visual significance. Having access to a Venco pugmill changes one's perspective radically. One never thinks about the time one has spent wedging, and the quick availability of larger quantities of clay changes the scale of the work. It's much easier to think "bigger". Also more time can be spent in glazing and experimenting with overlayering glaze colors with a spray gun to achieve visually rich surfaces. Firing schedules were frequent and experimental work was expedited. Fitting into the rhythm of a production shop that produces in the vicinity of 10,000 pots a year was a new experience for me. In Dick's shop the floors were mopped every evening and after each square meter was wet, it was immediately wiped with a dry towel result: no clay haze!
Dick has a small exhibition gallery attached to his showroom which he graciously made available to me in my last two weeks. Additionally I had access to his computerized "Invitation to Openings" mailing list and his extensive contacts with the press. The result was a successful selling exhibition and the pleasure of having not only several of my childhood and university classmates come in and say hello, but also useful feedback from the buying public.
Back in Australia, I have returned to the same constraints and limited experimentation time as previously. However, I am refreshed and have new things I want to do. I felt the "Studio Exchange" was a most invigorating and successful time, and look forward to the future when Dick and his family can come to Australia for an experience equally as wonderful.
This article has been reprinted from the 1990, Volume 29, Number 2 Issue of Pottery In Australia Magazine.
© Dick Lehman, 1990. All rights reserved.