“Conversation” is a word potter Walter Slowinski uses a lot – especially in conversation about pottery.
I recently made two visits to Orchard Street Pottery: first to witness the firing of the wood kiln and again to see the pots after they’d been fired. During the firing, there wasn’t a lot of time for talk. I arrived just as
the internal temperature of the kiln reached 2300 degrees Fahrenheit – the temperature at which Walter adds salt mixed with damp sawdust to the kiln through one of the brick-sized openings in the masonry oven. Those of us present only had time to follow instructions as we participated in this annual event.
Ultimately, the temperature inside the kiln reached 2450 degrees, turning the glazed surface of the pots to glass and mottling the unglazed stoneware. Walter describes the firing process as “compressed geologic time,” a process that does to the clay objects inside the kiln what the processes of erosion, pressure, weather, and time do to objects in the natural world.
I returned the following week to see what the fire had wrought – and to converse. Walter spoke about the solitary nature of throwing, decorating, glazing and filling the kiln, work which he describes as being in conversation with the ancient history of making pottery. He talks about the Asian traditions that have influenced his work: Japanese wood firing and Chinese brush painting in particular. It’s these influences that he describes as part of an on-going conversation between these traditions and the functional pots he makes to be used in the current world: teapots, bowls, pitchers and mugs.
Walter describes the bird images on his porcelain mugs and cups as both his conversation with Chinese brush painting and conversations between the different groups of birds he paints on the same vessel. Like many, I’m charmed by these bird mugs, and when I picked one up, I felt the conversation extended from the ancient tradition, through the potter’s hands and the kiln’s fire, to me. To hold these pots is to be connected to history and to the earth where mud and fire co-exist.
During my visit, Walter also spoke a lot about Brattleboro-West Arts, a group of creatives who live in the watershed of the Whetstone Brook. The group meets monthly, both to socialize and strategize ways to foster the artistic life in southern Vermont. Walter references these gatherings as places to converse with other artists working in different media. The conversations, he says, enrich his own work and make for a collaborative and supportive community.
Collaboration is key, and Brattleboro-West Arts has joined the Vermont Craft Council’s statewide craft tours, held each year on Memorial Day weekend and the first weekend in October. Orchard Street Pottery is on the tour. It’s a chance to see meet the potter, see where he works, and what has just emerged from the fire.
Full disclosure: Walter and I met at the Oberlin College Pottery Coop in 1975. Twenty years after graduating, we renewed our friendship when Walter, Susan and their two boys moved to Brattleboro.
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