Oral history interview with Michael Simon, 2005 Sept. 27-28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Simon, Michael, b. 1947
Simon discusses studying at University of Minnesota with Warren MacKenzie; the counterculture and chaotic atmosphere at the university in the late 1960s; moving to Athens, Ga., after college to open a studio on Jerry Chappelle’s farm; his first pottery sales; obtaining conscientious objector status and working at a hospital in Athens; the influence of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada on his work; developing shapes and expanding his repertoire; being inspired by Korean folk potters and by other Asian pottery; teaching at the Penland School of Arts and Crafts and being influenced by fellow potters there; art fairs in Atlanta, Florida, and elsewhere; using various materials for his pots, including Georgia kaolin and grolleg; applying for a fellowship at the University of Georgia, where he completed his Masters of Fine Arts; seeing Mark Phariss pots in the summer of 1980, which compelled him to build his own salt kiln, which changed subsequent work dramatically;
his marriage to Susan Roberts in 1992; experimenting with images on his pots, including fish and bamboo; getting a large commission for dinner plates from the Nakato Restaurant in Atlanta, Ga., one of the citys oldest sushi restaurants; visiting the Freer Sackler Galleries and being inspired by Chinese Yangshao pottery from the Neolithic period; the influence of Persian jars on his work; the success of his pottery sales with Ron Myers; going to Cortona, Italy, to teach pottery for the University of Georgia;
teaching at a school in Santiago, Chile, exploring the countryside, and learning Chilean pottery techniques; the writing of Michael Cardew and its influence on his work and career; what constitutes a typical work day and what motivates him; and the community of American potters and the support he has received over the years. Simon also recalls Angel Lillo, Laurie Samuelson, Gib Krohn, Mark Pharis, Wayne Branum, Sandra Simon (née Lindstrom), Earl McCutcheon, Shoji Hamada, Cynthia Bringle, Ron Myers, Andy Nasisse, Robert Briscoe, Michael Cardew, and others.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.
MARK SHAPIRO: This is Mark Shapiro interviewing Michael Simon at the artist’s home and studio on September 27, 2005, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
So Michael, where were you born, and when was that?
MICHAEL SIMON: I was born in Minnesota, born and raised in Minnesota. I was born in 1947 out on the plains, western Minnesota, a little town called Springfield.
MR. SHAPIRO: And where is Springfield, exactly?
MR. SIMON: Springfield is really across the state, near South Dakota. I don’t think that I went to Minneapolis until I was a senior in high school. Or maybe-no, in high school. It was a farming community where I lived. No big metropolitan areas. There weren’t any metropolitan [laughs]-it worked out. My father was a farmer, and I grew up on a farm. So I spent a lot of solitary time as a child, out on the plains.
MR. SHAPIRO: Were you expected to help on the farm?
MR. SIMON: Well, as a child, I wasn’t really expected to help. I did little things, like feeding the chickens. But I was really was not old enough to drive a tractor or operate any equipment. I fed the animals. We kept pigs and cows and chickens, and I helped a little bit with the milking. But actually, we’d moved from the farm by the time I was old enough to do real work.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was there art in school-was there any sense of art as a thing you might do?
MR. SIMON: I can’t remember that there was any art in school until much later. As a high school student, I took art the last two years. We actually had a great art teacher, named Angel Lillo, who came from Spain. I was lucky enough to have him the first year he was in Minnesota. He’d just come over from Spain. He’s a sculptor. A real artist. And he came to teach us in Faribault, Minnesota. It was such a good break for us. You know, children who didn’t really know anything about art, to have a passionate sculptor come teach us what art was. It was a singular situation. Very lucky.
MR. SHAPIRO: You worked with all kinds of three-dimensional materials with him?
MR. SIMON: Well, [we worked with] what was available in the high school, which included plaster and clay. And we did make sculpture. And even though he didn’t know how to work on a potter’s wheel-in fact, they had a treadle wheel; I cannot explain why the treadle wheel was there, but they had a treadle wheel.
And he liked me. We got along very well, and he told me one day that if I wanted to work on the potter’s wheel, that he would help me, and he gave me some books that would tell me what to do. He said he didn’t know how to do it himself. But he let me work on it. And I did that. I did it-I’m surprised now that I did it. But I did it. I just kind of taught myself how to throw, from reading.
MR. SHAPIRO: You were able figure it out?
MR. SIMON: I learned how to center, apparently, because I actually made some pots. My mother still has one of them. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s very thick. But it’s centered. I’m always amazed when I see it, because I made it with so little knowledge.
MR. SHAPIRO: What books did he give you, do you know?
MR. SIMON: I do not remember. There wasn’t much available. But they probably were some basic beginning throwing books. But I can’t remember what they were.
MR. SHAPIRO: Glenn Nelson [Ceramics: A Potter’s Handbook. New York: Rinehart & Wilson, 1966]?
MR. SIMON: Glenn Nelson doesn’t talk about how to throw, does he? I tell you, I can’t remember. But that’s one thing that happened.
And the other thing that was important, I thought, was that he took us to the museums, which was the first time that I had ever been, first time I thought I wanted to go, because my family-well, there was just no connection to, I don’t know what you’d want to call it, a sophisticated art world, or a-especially to a contemporary, cultured art world; there was really no connection.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did they have objects in the house that they considered aesthetic?
MR. SIMON: Yes.
MR. SHAPIRO: That you also would call-
MR. SIMON: I would just call them decorative. [Laughs.] It was just very, you know, modest. Let me see. What would have been important? There were some pretty nice pieces of furniture that I think had been passed down within the families. But no paintings. Photographs, mostly, and mostly photographs of family members, were what decorated the house. Some small religious symbols, Catholic. That was the extent of the art.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did he encourage you to go further? Or did you go to the university to study art?
MR. SIMON: So why would I go to the university to study art? Who knows at the time? I was really interested in it, though. I liked making things. There was just the mystery of getting feeling out of an object. Somehow, I had been moved by it. And it made it interesting. So I paid attention to art. When I went to school at the University of Minnesota [Minneapolis], the whole art scene in Minneapolis was available, including the Walker Art Center-and the Art Institute had a great collection of all kinds of things.
MR. SHAPIRO: You entered as general liberal arts?
MR. SIMON: I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had some little thoughts of doing architecture. I had actually been taking some architectural drafting when I was in high school. It was a kind of dream, I guess. Not a very specific dream. But then, as time went by, the first year I wasn’t very good student. Actually, I wouldn’t say I was a great student anyway, all through undergraduate school, but I started to take art classes about the second year that I was there, and then it may have been late in the second year before I took a ceramics class again. Again, I just say as a continuation of high school. And it was very good to go into the ceramics studio. There were a lot of good students who spent a lot of time there-the studio was open 24 hours a day. It was casual, but there was a lot of enthusiasm, and it was immediately attractive to me.
Within a short time, it just felt kind of serious. I felt like I could make things look kind of like I wanted them to look. I could affect the way they looked, and I seemed to have more of an understanding for it than I had for painting or drawing or printmaking, which was the way I had mainly been working.
MR. SHAPIRO: This is September 28, 2005. I am Mark Shapiro, here with Michael Simon in rural Athens [Georgia]-is that what we said it was?-in his studio.
So, Michael, you were talking about what it was like to be at the university at that time.
MR. SIMON: Yes, the University of Minnesota. When I think back about the way things developed in my life, it was so important. I can’t say enough about how my life changed in those years I was in school there.
The situation in the ceramics studio at the University of Minnesota was very open. I think that it was coincidental. I just think this all kind of happened-just coincidentally happened at one time. There were a lot of students who were, somehow or another, really engaged by ceramics and pottery-making. And it was an exciting place to be. The studio was open all the time and-well, let me tell a little bit about the teachers that were there.
The main teacher-and the person who set up the ceramics program there at the University of Minnesota-was Warren MacKenzie. And he had been teaching at that time. I came-I think I took the first classes in about 1967 or ’68. So he had been teaching there for 17 or 18 years at the time. And he really didn’t have to spend a lot of time with the students anymore. I mean, he had spoken enough; he was always anxious to get out to his own studio to work.
That was something that was always remarkable about him. And he became my-he was a father figure and my mentor, and continues to be. I still hear him in my brain, and I still think about him whenever I have to make decisions. He is one of my-he is my touchstone; he is the place where-he just is the figure that I think through. He was very important to me. I didn’t know at the time, really, I wasn’t conscious at the time of Warren’s value. We weren’t really physically close when I was there at school, but the contact was crucial.
And Warren opened the door; he led all of us there, I think-believe that pottery could be really an expressive form, a place to work where you could have the reward of being able to put forth your feeling. And so it let us take it really seriously. I mean, that was really the beauty of Warren’s teaching, I think, was that, if for nothing else, then the feeling of his dedication and how much he saw in the pots. He had ultimate confidence that the pots could carry his total self, and that was what we saw.
So that was a great thing to have contact with. It was an unbelievable thing for a Minnesota farm boy to have this kind of contact. It was revealing, and it opened up a huge world that I don’t know how I would ever have come in contact with without having been there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was it completely a different feeling than at any other studio in that department?
MR. SIMON: Well, yeah, for me it was. I suppose some of that was just the response to being able to do the work in the clay. Somehow the clay was right and making the shapes was right. It went deeper than something that I wanted to-that I should say that I merely wanted to do, because I just felt involved with it. It moved me. Yeah, that was why it was different.
Well, Warren was different because he was so driven. He was a good teacher, and he took responsibility to expose us to the process of making things. But he also was deeply involved in his own work, and he really-he didn’t hang around school. He had his class time, he would do his work, and he would go home and work in a studio. He was dying to work in the studio.
Now, most of the people at school, that taught school, hung out at school. They did a little work, but they didn’t seem to have the same motivation.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was his own studio life accessible to you as a student?
MR. SIMON: Not immediately, but I think I said that he had been teaching for 18 years. Later I remember him saying that he had never had a class, he had never had anybody before go out and try to make pottery, in 18 years of teaching. And for some reason in the group-the few years that I was there-I think there were eight or nine people who went out and have continued to make pottery their whole life.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that is Wayne-
MR. SIMON: Well, Wayne [Branum], Mark [Pharis], Randy [Johnston], Sandy [Lindstrom, now Simon, Michael Simon’s former wife], me. There is a woman named Laurie Westby Schmidt; I don’t know what has happened to her, but I’m pretty sure she still makes pottery. There were a couple of other people-and a woman named Laurie Samuelson.
There was a man named George Beers, who was probably the best potter of all-he was definitely the best pottery student of all of us. He was a really talented shape-maker. And he got a Ph.D. in art education and then ended up not making pottery. Well, I’m not sure that he doesn’t make some pottery. He hasn’t made much-as much.
And part of what was so good about being there also, I think, was having all of these students-oh, there is a man named Gib Krohn, who was there who still makes things. It was a very active studio.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was there a division between undergraduate and graduate students there?
MR. SIMON: Not much. But the graduate students were-well, let’s see; well, Karl Borgeson was there, actually. There wasn’t much of a division. There became one later. In the middle of being there, the university got control of another industrial building, and they moved glassblowing and graduate ceramics into that building. And so the graduate students were no longer in the studio.
It was a pretty compressed situation. They have moved it into an industrial building-one big, open room that had all of the working-I remember the clay mixing was in the same room. They would be mixing clay in the middle of the day, with the classes going on. There was just a-you know, it was very odd, and Warren had set up a big wet box, a big walk-in wet box for everybody to keep their working-state ware in, a big heavy door with steam in the room-my God, it was ridiculous-then a big doorway into the kiln area, and the kiln is on, and they have a salt kiln right inside the studio. I mean, you know, this was the late ’60s. There just were not very many rules.
There also wasn’t-I think there wasn’t a demand. I think that right around that time the amount of enrollment they had in ceramics and sculpture-both were adjoining in the same building-jumped up tremendously in the late ’60s and ’70s. So they ended up moving-
MR. SHAPIRO: After you left.
MR. SIMON: After I left.
MR. SHAPIRO: And there is also the background of the war.
MR. SIMON: Oh, it was such an exciting time. I was in Minneapolis. You know, it was very active there, the counterculture-the war gave the whole counterculture a lot of strength. I mean, everything became questionable, and there was somebody to answer every question. Every side of the story was being told, and it was just a-well, it was better than chaos; it was like you were getting a chance to see all different sides of things.
You couldn’t help but look. You know, if you were alive, you were just looking around and you could-everything was being exposed. It was really exciting. I just felt as though the culture was going to change radically. And I was so excited about making stuff with clay, making pottery, and I thought, good grief, everyone is going to start to do it [laughs]. I was just sure that if I didn’t get started, it was going to be, like-it was going to be too late. [Laughs.]
MR. SHAPIRO: I remember you saying at one point that you refer to that time as the time you thought that a pot could change the world.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, that is really true.
MR. SHAPIRO: Do you think Warren thought that?
MR. SIMON: Well, he thought that pots were important. He knew that pots could change people. He knew that pots had changed him. It’s the power of art-of the arts; you could just say of the arts in general. I mean, good music, good books. Anything that can bring you to that kind of poignancy, that kind of deep meaning, is valuable, and you have to do it.
We have to have it. It is crucial. Since I have been sick now, I think it’s made pottery seem much more important. I like my pots a lot more since I have been sick. I mean, I like pots in general. I should not only say I like my pots, but I am feeling a lot of power from pots that I didn’t really have access to.
I mean, it hasn’t been that long since I have not worked, but when I was working, there was kind of a restraint that was built in, because of the physical effort of making pottery, and the demands were always somewhat-it wasn’t really compromising, but they would make me feel a little bit halted in my enthusiasm. Or I would say, I have to get this done, or I would like to make this look better. You were kind of working on them, so I couldn’t sit back and look at them very much.
But I have had that chance now to see how-and I feel like I see them more clearly. And they are really important. I want to say that I think-all potters-it is a crucial thing; it’s crucial. Their pots are important, and they move people. And so we have to go on. [Laughs.]
Let’s go back to school again. There were some other things-the people that were there: Mark Pharis, Wayne Branum-it was just-it was too good. They were my peers, but they seemed brilliant. I thought they were making beautiful things right from the start. And it was so moving and kind of felt compelling to feel the development. And then while I was there, I married Sandra, Sandra Lindstrom.
And there was a loose plan formed. Jerry Chappelle was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. And he was finishing graduate school. Jerry had a family. He was a little bit older than I was, and he came-there was a job opening at the University of Georgia in Athens, 1970, 1969, maybe, the fall. And Jerry came down to Athens, was interviewed-in one weekend, Jerry came to Athens, was interviewed, was given the job. He bought a farm outside of Athens, and when he came back to Minneapolis the next Monday and came to school, he invited us to come down and make pottery at his farm. [Laughs.] It was just like that.
And so everyone was leaving school. It was-it must have been the spring of 1970, because I remember the Vietnam War was being highly protested at the University of Minnesota, and they actually ended up just calling off classes. They gave everyone, if they were passing at the time, a passing grade; they gave them credit for the course they were taking and closed the school. It was only mid-quarter, something like that.
So we had ordered our wheels from England. We had ordered Leach treadle wheels, which were the only wheels that were in the studio at the University of Minnesota, because Warren MacKenzie had set up the studio there. So ordered them from this place that-the only place in the world that made them that we knew of. They were beautiful wheels and they were very inexpensive. I remember that they cost $147 at the time, 1969, somewhere in there. Anyway, seven of us ordered them. Seven of us were finishing school and were going to go out and make pottery.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was there a sense of a losing that community, or everybody was ready for that?
MR. SIMON: No, not really. And so Jerry Chappelle had invited everyone. He didn’t make any bounds-I mean, it wasn’t personal, particularly. He just wanted to carry some of the energy with him. And so we kind of made a loose plan that we would go, but we didn’t see him during the-they moved to Athens early in the summer. We were still in Minneapolis, and our wheels didn’t end up coming until, I think, October or November. And a couple-and about five other people were kind of loosely involved in the plan to come to Jerry’s and set up a pottery.
Various situations happened, and Sandra and I ended up being the only ones that actually went. And we actually moved into one of Jerry’s outbuildings, with some help from friends that we met here, and with some encouragement-there was a man named Jerry Horning also, who taught here at the University of Georgia.
MR. SHAPIRO: I have met him.
MR. SIMON: And Jerry Horning, it turned out, had been-coincidentally had been a student of Warren’s from back in Minneapolis, and Jerry was very supportive of our pottery-making and our connection with Warren. And so he helped us do things-I think we snuck into the school and fired on a couple of weekends-and helped us kind of get started. He let us use his kiln once or twice, and eventually we got a kiln built out at Jerry’s farm. I mean, all of this happened, and we were only there for a couple of years. So I can’t really tell you how-I can’t remember the developments, but I remember, we kind of scrambled material. We had just very little money. But we were very romantic about it and we were dedicated.
MR. SHAPIRO: How were you selling your products there, in the beginning?
MR. SIMON: I remember. The first thing we had was-Kathy Chappelle had met the Episcopal minister at the college. And we had a sale on the front lawn of the Episcopal Center about two months after we were in Georgia; I mean, it was amazing. I can’t remember the sequence of how we got the pots together. But I think we sold about three or four pots. [Laughs.] Oh, gosh, it was a long shot. I will tell you, it was really a long shot.
But somehow after about a year of that, we had a stoneware kiln and shelves operating out of Jerry Chappelle’s farm. And I had gotten a CO [conscientious objector status] from the draft board during the-it was actually during the college thing. It was when the lottery came out, I think. My number was low and I had-I just applied to my draft board for a CO and I was given the classification, but you had to do two years-you were supposed to be doing two years of alternative service. Well, I was given a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shortly after we moved to Georgia, I got a letter from the draft board.
And I went into Athens and I got a job at the hospital, working at the hospital, and had that job approved by the draft board so we could stay in Athens. And so Sandra actually started-pretty much started working by herself except for when I-at night I would work and then weekends. I don’t know when I had time to work.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you were working 40 hours.
MR. SIMON: I worked 40 hours at the hospital for about a year and a half. And-
MR. SHAPIRO: What was that experience like?
MR. SIMON: Oh, it was depressing. I was very excited to get started working and I just-my first meeting up with the southern culture-you know, that was good, although it was an education that I wasn’t looking to get, but I did get it, and that was very good. Actually, it happened inadvertently, but that was very good. It was important; it was crucial because working at a hospital, I was just put right in the middle of the culture. It was different than it would have been coming to Georgia as a hippie potter, which was essentially what my role was outside of working at the hospital. We were pretty unusual to move into an outbuilding on a farm out on the countryside-you know, the neighbors and some parts of the town-I mean, it was a college town, it was a more liberal place, and a lot of Georgia wasn’t at the time.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ron [Myers] wasn’t at the university.
MR. SIMON: Not yet, no-not yet at the university here, at Georgia [University of Georgia, Athens]. At the time it was Jerry Chappelle and Jerry Horning, and then also the longtime teacher, Earl McCutcheon, who had been here since the early ’40s. He was a great man and was really interested by slump glass. He was a kind of innovator in slump glass. He had graduated from Ohio State [University, Columbus] way back in the late ’30s.
So there was a little bit of community. And after a couple of years at Chappelle’s-Jerry and Kathy’s farm-Sandra and I rented a farm nearby, and there was a farm pottery studio-old barn for a studio and old farmhouse, and we rented it for $30 a month. I mean, it was rudimentary, but we built a kiln. And we built a kiln at the time-a hard-brick-just because we could scrounge these materials, a hard-brick kiln, and we would fire it with diesel fuel, because the year that we set up-1973-there was the first energy crisis, and the propane companies weren’t putting out any tanks, any new tanks. They were afraid they weren’t going to be able to supply their customers.
So we got a fuel-oil tank-a 300-gallon-set up on a platform. And we found some fuel-oil burners that had been in a brick factory south of here. And we tried to fire with diesel fuel. I mean, we did fire with diesel fuel; we fired for about-well, gosh, we fired for, like, seven years, I think-the rest of the time that we were together-with diesel fuel and a hard-brick kiln. Man, these burners would just get-they just had so much power. I have never since made a firebox that looked like that. [Laughs.] They were just really powerful.
We made pottery there. So Sandra and I made pottery there till about 1979 or ’80-’79, I would say.
MR. SHAPIRO: And she was working in porcelain and you in stoneware?
MR. SIMON: It developed that way. First we were both working in stoneware, and then she started gradually working in some porcelain and working only in porcelain, probably for the last five years-by about 1975, I guess, she was working primarily in porcelain.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were your pots undecorated glazed pots at that time?
MR. SIMON: Well, not strictly, but they were definitely glazeware with celadon, temoku, ash glaze-a lot of ash glaze, with a white slip behind it, with-
MR. SHAPIRO: Hakeme?
MR. SIMON: Hakeme, textured brush. And you use the white slip to contrast the stoneware clay, and did that with all glaze, celadon glaze and ash glaze. And then I don’t think we even had shino. Shino didn’t really become-we just started looking at shino.
MR. SHAPIRO: So we were talking about the early days and Sandy.
MR. SIMON: Oh, yeah, the glazes in the studio. Yeah, we were firing in stoneware reduction, and so we were actually sharing the glazes. Sandra was putting celadon and ash glaze, and we had a couple of clears. As time went on, we ended up with buckets and buckets of different glazes-I think 22 buckets once-at one point we counted the glazes that we were trying to keep active. It was absurd. But sometimes they would look really good, but there was a lot of-Byron Temple’s white glaze we used a lot.
And some of the pots were painted. The first problem is that we didn’t have any repertoire. Well, at first, we just didn’t know very much. Good grief, we were trying to make pottery-I was lucky when I sat down to throw if I could make a shape. I wasn’t really conscious of having the pot in mind that I was going to make. So I would just, kind of, be throwing and see what would come out. Essentially, that was the beginning of my pottery work.
And as things developed, I became a little bit more specific about what I wanted from the pots, and I started to see the surface of the pot I was making. I started to see the shapes and have some idea of the scale, that you are going to end up with a particular ball of clay-all of those kind of basic things that you learn-I mean, that’s the first thing that a potter has to learn. How long did it take? I don’t know.
MR. SHAPIRO: Were you becoming more-you know, I always thought there was a big contrast between the way Warren approached things, where he just kind of-the pots just flow forward-and the way you make things, which is so trying to get it a certain way and get it right.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, I think that-
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that starting to happen then?
MR. SIMON: I think in the first few years, there wasn’t much consciousness-Warren was a pretty mysterious figure. I didn’t know why he had the power that he had. I began to understand it, but it just took a little while. But then when I did-Warren’s aesthetic was based on the, kind of, mingei value of making things straightforward, that the economy of touch was important, and you demonstrated your trust in the material with this economy of touch.
Warren would say, you know, “overworked.” That was the biggest thing I remember, really, from undergrad school. I remember “overworked.” He really wanted to encourage you to let the clay stand for itself, let it look the way that it looked, not try to cover it up or to make it pretty, to really try to use its character-to find its character and use it. And, you know, these things were just too abstract-I didn’t know what it was; I didn’t know what it meant. So it took some time to understand, I think, what Warren was doing.
And it did take time. I didn’t know. When I moved to Georgia and started making pottery, I did not understand the [Bernard] Leach-[Shoji] Hamada tradition. I didn’t really know what Warren was after or what he was suggesting, what it had to do with the work that I was doing. I came to understand it. It took looking around at a lot of different things and seeing a lot of pottery. We looked at a lot of pottery those first few years, all of the books we could get our hands on, every time I could see a pot show-anytime I could look at anybody’s pots, we would look at them.
MR. SHAPIRO: You looked at a lot of pots with Warren, as an undergraduate.
MR. SIMON: Warren had a lot of pots. Warren had a collection of pots he would bring. As an undergraduate student, he has pots of Hamada’s in the showcase, right in the studio there at the University of Minnesota. I mean, I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know who Hamada was, and I didn’t know anything about these pots.
These pots were not easy to understand. They were not obvious, beautiful tent shape, or-they were great. I mean, I know the pots now. Warren still has them in his house and I see them and they are beautiful pots, but I didn’t have access to them. I didn’t know-I didn’t understand the language. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand them.
So as things developed-so the skill developed-just the technique of throwing developed, and then the repertoire spread out to where I had shapes to make. I started having a variety of shapes. At first, I remember the most frustrating thing was going to the studio-having a studio setup and having clay, and having the clay wedged, and then going to the wheel and not really being very sure of what I was going to make. That was the idea.
I remember those moments, and I was really uncomfortable. I thought this was silly. And then started to make myself prepare to go into work. I would start drawing just simple sketches of shapes I was going to make, so that when I got in the studio, I had enough-
MR. SIMON: Where did I get to?
MR. SHAPIRO: We are talking about-
MR. SIMON: -shapes, trying to develop shapes in the early days.
MR. SHAPIRO: You often used the word “menu.” I have heard you use the word to talk about the group of pots that you were making at any given time.
MR. SIMON: Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did that idea start to form at that time?
MR. SIMON: Well, I think we did start-Sandra and I worked on the kilnloads together, and that kiln was bigger than my kiln here. I can’t remember. Maybe it was 50 cubic feet-it was not a huge kiln, but it was enough probably for three weeks or so-maybe two weeks, both of us working hard. And so I suppose this was somewhat market-driven, but we would try to make all varieties. I say we were pretending to be real potters, and part of that was that we wanted to make plates and cups and bowls, the things that we thought of as traditional functional pottery formats: teapots, jars, pitchers.
So we would try to make a variety of those things and put them in every kiln. And I suppose some of that was kind of market-driven; I am not really sure. I mean, we were learning about all of these shapes, and there was no other way to do it but just in trying to make them.
There was a point where I started to understand what Warren was doing. And consequently that opened up somewhat of an understanding about Leach and Hamada and what they had handed over, and then also how it related back to the real old potters whose work they were looking at, when they made some of the decisions that they made back in about 1920. The real-
MR. SHAPIRO: The old Asian?
MR. SIMON: Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: Or medieval.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, the Korean folk potters that-I mean, it was Asian-Chinese, Korean-but they were also looking, I think, at Middle Ages Japan. They were looking at real indigenous work. I think that was what they found moving and valuable.
And I came to understand the economy of working and gave it more credit in my work, but I just wasn’t a very-I don’t know what to say. I didn’t have enough technique, I don’t think. I think when I look back, I didn’t have enough technique. It didn’t look good. If I tried to throw a bowl in the manner of Warren’s-the way that he would just open up a bowl, and they would seem to kind of unfold, and he would be at the proportion he wanted.
And he wouldn’t touch the clay much, because everything was set up. He had the wall-the clay wall would come out, and it would be the wall that he needed. And at this early stage of my working, I would not be there. The clay wall would be too thin at the low down; and it wouldn’t support the shape or it wouldn’t-the proportion would be too high for as wide as it was. Or I didn’t have the patience to-a lot of this would ordinarily be overcome-this is kind of like apprenticeship work, where you would learn just to do this.
You know, I had never really worked like that; I had never made multiples of the same pot and learned how to make the proportion of the pot and make the clay wall and how integrated they were. It is just something that you have to learn, and I think that I didn’t have it. I didn’t have access to it at the time.
Sandra was developing a clay wall, and she had made many more pots because of having worked more in the first couple of years that we were here. But she started making bowls and plates that had beautiful shape and had a really nice clay wall, nice proportions, and I was just slower. I just didn’t have access to it yet.
It was crucial that I like the pots that I was making, it seemed to me. And so I just had to step back and make them, even though they didn’t fit into the way that I thought I should work, which was with a potter’s economy.
MR. SHAPIRO: Like Warren?
MR. SIMON: Yeah, more like Warren and what I imagine was the way Korean folk potters had worked: straightforward, you throw the wall, and the pot is-the pot is a traditional pot form that you are making. Your experience and your confidence and your directness make the surface and the shape dynamic, and you have the pot right there. It’s kind of built in, joined together. It’s beautiful.
So I just said-I said, well, I have to like the pots; it was crucial. I was getting pots out of the kiln that were trying to be something that I didn’t have access to yet, and I just determined that I needed to like the pots, and I was going to make them look the way I wanted them to look before they went in the kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: Before they went in the kiln.
MR. SIMON: Well, you know, the firing was another thing. [Laughs.] I wasn’t going to fire things that I didn’t believe in. I just had to have a bottom line, someplace that I could work toward. I had to make that a real thing for myself. This is difficult to explain. Do you understand?
MR. SHAPIRO: Yes. Did that mean that you winnowed out certain shapes that weren’t working or that you-
MR. SIMON: Well, it just meant that I spent more time on the pots. The thing that I thought was dogma-not that I thought it was dogma-the thing that had become kind of dogma with me was to be direct, and to be direct with the clay was not giving me the pots that I wanted to get. So I just started to-you know, I just changed.
I just said, I have to make them the way that I can make them; I have to make them look the way I want them to look, so I have to make them the way that it will get there. It was pretty simple. It was pretty simple-it was a hard decision to make, because I was really deciding for myself how I was going to work. In a way it was a breakthrough. Now that I think about it, it was a breakthrough. [Laughs.]
MR. SHAPIRO: Did your pots become more complicated or just-
MR. SIMON: Well, yeah, I suppose they did-they became more complicated. I just let myself then kind of take control of all of the parts of the pot. I gave into time. I said, well, you know, I will work eight hours instead of working four, or I will do this-but I want to like the pots that end up with. I want to like the shapes, I want to like the surface, and I want to make them look the way I want them to look, and that got to be my bottom line. I can’t be guessing on the basis of someone else’s aesthetic and skill what I can do.
MR. SHAPIRO: When you said before that you were making this range of pots that was probably market-driven, did you mean people coming to buy your pots? What was that market?
MR. SIMON: What was that market, yeah. I just mean market-driven in that we imagined that somebody might want a teapot; somebody may want a pitcher. They are coming to me for a pot. I want to be ready with my pot shapes; I don’t want to say I don’t have any plates; I didn’t put any plates in my kiln. The other thing-I realize now when I said that, that other things were important, too.
We were trying to develop all of these shapes, and I remember thinking, you know, that I needed-I would try to keep all of these things going: make sure that I had some pitchers, and make sure I would work on jars, and make sure I would work on some wide-low shapes, and make sure I would-and try to make some tall cylinders that were pretty simple, and just try to expand the repertoire.
I was conscious of wanting to work for years. You know, at the time, I remember, being at 23 or 24, 25, that I thought, gosh, you know, if I keep doing this until I’m 40, I’m going to be able to do it. [Laughs.] And I thought 40 was tremendously-really old, but I thought that would be a lifetime of pottery-working, and there would be development. The development was constantly going on. Every kilnload would come out, and you would learn something, or have a good day’s throwing. There was always development. We started from such a basic level, and we had that first bit of time.
And Sandra and I developed a really good working relationship. It was hard. We had to develop ways of criticizing each other, or we felt like we did, and we got through it; we got to the point where we could talk to each other about the work. And every day-did so every day practically.
[Audio break, tape change.]
(Part 2 will run April 6th.)