Note: Because of the length of this interview, it has been broken into parts.
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.
MR. SHAPIRO: I remember you at one point mentioning that she did this trigger handle that you thought was just fabulous.
MR. SIMON: [Laughs.]
MR. SHAPIRO: Making handles also must have been part of this whole discovering how to make these-it seems like the handles that you and she were making were much more inflected than what was coming out of Minnesota at that time.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, maybe so. I don’t know. We worked on handles a lot, I remember. It was exciting. In the studio it was really good. It was 10 years from the start-the work changed a lot, really developed, I think. It probably took six or seven years to feel like I was making pots that were, kind of, made. I remember always having the question, well, is this a good pot?
And I was always trying to find the answer-someone who could write about it or someone who could tell me, what is this pot-what is it that makes it good? I was attracted to things, but I couldn’t explain to myself why I was attracted to them. And I was always looking for clues. But there was some time in there-some time after six or seven years-that I started feeling like I could make those decisions. I could say for myself what I needed to do, or what I liked about a pot, or something like that. I started to develop a pottery value system that I could work from, and that was important.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that was not the result of seeing any particular object or this book that comes later, this book that opened up these Persian jars for you?
MR. SIMON: No, no, no. No, it was what was happening in the studio and inside myself, personally. Well, all of the time, the enthusiasm didn’t wane. I would find things out, and it would just lead to a better understanding. It would make it more fun to see pots and look at new pots. The development just continued to happen, even though there were many things that were difficult, and the business was always difficult. There would be bright spots, but we really lived on very little money.
MR. SHAPIRO: And no workshop teaching at that time.
MR. SIMON: Well, the first thing that happened, actually-we did our first workshop in 1975, and I-when I think about it now, I can’t imagine what we had, because I didn’t even throw very well in 1975. But apparently-I mean, who knows what was going on for real? My perception isn’t always very clear. Cynthia Bringle was very nice to us. She was really encouraging every time we would see her.
It turned out that in 1975 at Penland [School of Crafts, Penland, NC], Bill Sax was scheduled to teach the last session in the summer, and he had been given a new job. A new program was opened in Boston College. And so he was forced to cancel his teaching at Penland, and so they called us because of Cynthia [Bringle]. Or maybe Cynthia, even, was the one that called us on the phone and asked us if we would teach. And, you know, it’s flabbergasting to be asked to teach at Penland, because Penland was a mecca at the time. Well, it was very good. It was flattering and exciting as can be. We loved the idea of it.
So we got to teach, and we got to teach right after Warren. Warren was teaching the session before us. So we went up a few days early, I remember, to see him. And he had had a great session, where people were just like-[laughs]-it was really moving and people were baring their souls. [Laughs.] It was really good. And we were sitting alone with Warren in his cabin, and I told him that I was pretty nervous; I had no idea what was going to happen Monday and that was a matter of class. He said, well, it’s just an exchange of ideas. [Laughs.] You know, that was really helpful.
So we taught our first class there at Penland, and it was a great deal of fun. It was totally, I think, unsuccessful, but, man, we just had so much fun, and it was so exciting. And it was really difficult to come home, I remember, for the two us to be home.
MR. SHAPIRO: What was exciting about it?
MR. SIMON: Well, we were able to tell people what we thought from kind of an authority position-[laughs]-which we had never had before. And it turned out we knew quite a bit. Actually, we had learned quite a lot in those five years that we didn’t know, because we didn’t have so many people to talk to. The people that we lived around weren’t as deeply into the kind of pots that we wanted to make as we were. There wasn’t that much understanding. So it was nice to go up there and talk. And it was-we met [other potters] also.
Well, of course, Cynthia was there. Jon Ellenbogen and Becky [Rebecca] Plummer were there. They were assistants in the class, actually, I think. Jon Ellenbogen was cooking for the school at the time. They were terrific people. And Craig Bryson was there. He was the monitor for the class. I don’t know; it was really an exciting culture. We had all of the different kilns to fire and, I don’t know, 16 hours of pottery-making-[laughs]-with a huge group of people. It was a riot. It was really good.
So, and then-but that didn’t happen very often. But we did go to art fairs; in order to sell our work, Sandra and I went to art fairs. We went to a lot of good and bad-
MR. SHAPIRO: Local, or did you go-
MR. SIMON: Local, and we started to do a little wider range. We went to Florida and we went to the Midwest, and we went to Atlanta, when there was one there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ann Arbor?
MR. SIMON: We never did do Ann Arbor. Sandra started to develop some great work in porcelain, I thought, in about 1977, ’78, ’79; got far along, making a lot of work, and we were getting it out of the kilns. Sometimes amazing things would happen. Like, she would just put a little copper slip on a small fish on a big base, and it would turn bright red-would make a base that just seemed incredibly powerful and valuable. She was making great porcelain work.
This was at a time when we were working with-I remember she had been working on grolleg [English china clay] for a few years from Warren’s grolleg body. Warren’s porcelain had always been a grolleg body. And someone from Georgia Kaolin had come in contact-oh, it was through Tom Turner, who was at the time working over at Clemson. And he was working with a Georgia kaolin body-a porcelain body made out of Georgia kaolin.
So we got in touch with Georgia Kaolin, and they started to work with Sandra. And we developed a porcelain body that was pretty nice-looking-translucent but fairly workable. Actually, we sold it for a while. I remember we bought a Walker pug mill and mixed clay to help our cash flow problems, and it helped us for a couple of years, although we had to mix the clay, so it was just more labor, but Georgia Kaolin was giving us the material. So we did actually make a little bit of money-bought a Walker pug mill.
MR. SHAPIRO: The same one you still-
MR. SIMON: We still have it, yeah. It still works.
But then things were-Sandra and I were having trouble with our personal relationship, and so we ended up splitting up. This was the late ’70s. And I found myself for the first time-maybe 1980, I can’t remember; it was right around in there-found myself for the first time alone in the studio and not particularly liking my pots and not particularly liking my business. And it wasn’t a great time. I thought that I needed to make a change.
I expressed my dis-ease [sic] with Ron, my friend Ron Myers, who is now teaching at the University of Georgia, and Andy Nasisse also. Ron had come to the University of Georgia in 1973, and gradually we had become good friends, and Andy had come in 1976, I believe. So they were now teaching at the University of Georgia, and it was really a completely different department than it had been before-much more with the times; I thought it was a real solid department.
So they had four foundation fellowships there, and Andy and Ron both recommended-they said, well, why don’t you just come into graduate school-make some big change? And so I did. I had the idea that I would do it, and it would give me an option of teaching if I wanted to. And I applied for these four fellowships and I was given one, so it made it quite easy to go to school. And so that is what I did.
And it was encouraging to go in there, in a way. I realized that I really knew quite a bit. I had learned quite a lot in the 10 years that I had been working.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you stayed on the farm that you were renting?
MR. SIMON: Stayed at the same farm. It was really simple to go to graduate school-stayed at the same farm, drove into school-it’s 15 miles. And I was a better-actually, I was quite a good student. I took a lot of art history, and it was very interesting to me, and the graduate seminars were exciting, and I was-it was really nice to talk to people. I felt kind of renewed, and it was exciting to make pottery in an academic situation and get away from doing business with the work. I liked that a lot.
I just felt kind of empowered, I guess. I could see that I knew how to do things and had a real value system that I could use, and it felt quite good. And I taught a class in there-started to develop some work. I remember one summer I went back to Minnesota to visit my family, and I made a point of going back and visiting some of the people that I had gone to school-Mark Pharis especially-Wayne Branum, Randy Johnston-had all set up in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
MR. SHAPIRO: You never mentioned Jeff Oestreich in those.
MR. SIMON: I didn’t have much [interaction with] Jeff, although I did go there that summer also. Jeff was later.
MR. SHAPIRO: He was in a different time?
MR. SIMON: Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: And Linda Christianson?
MR. SIMON: Linda also. I didn’t know them before I left Minnesota, and I didn’t meet them when they were young either, because when I would go up there, I had my whole family to visit, and then I would always see Warren, and there wasn’t a great deal of time. I didn’t have a great deal of time, and I wouldn’t see everyone.
I always was jealous of the pottery culture in Minnesota. It was hard for Sandra and I to move to Georgia, because we would always assume that those people would see each other, and they would be talking about their pots, and it would be like it had been when we were in school. It turns out that, in fact, they didn’t really see each other very much, and it really wasn’t the case. The whole pottery culture there did certainly develop, though, into a really strong culture, I mean, so potters and a lot of pottery support.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was [Robert] Briscoe-
MR. SIMON: Briscoe wasn’t there, and I don’t know when Briscoe came. What a great bunch of work that is. Will Swanson is there. I don’t know who he is, and then Matthew Metz-when Linda [Sikora] moved in there, you know.
Warren continues to work and Warren continues to work, and my goodness gracious, what a body of work that is now. Just flabbergasting. And he continues to be really good. He laments being down to six hours a day or something like that. I don’t know; I was there last summer and he had made-I think he had three boards of teapots. I think I counted 19 teapots that he was working on all at one time. He had thrown them, and then he put them together, two different sessions. And I’ve made teapots all my life; I made teapots two at a time, and it was a big deal to make two. He had 19. He is 80-something, you know, and he had 19 and was regretting the slowness of his output.
MR. SHAPIRO: Michael, when I was up at Warren’s, he mentioned a time when you and Ron and maybe a few other people were up there. Was that about that time, or was that after graduate school?
MR. SIMON: In 1986. I remember it. Yeah, it was well after. Well, okay, so I’ll just step back and go in the sequence. The thing that happened there that summer-my trip up to Minnesota was-being really moved by Mark Pharis’s pots. He was working on a little farm, a farm that he owned, at Houston; they call it Houston, I think, in Minnesota.
MR. SHAPIRO: Where Matt [Metz] and Linda [Sikora]-
MR. SIMON: Yeah, exactly, that same farm. And he had set up a kiln that was a wood-burning, oil-fired, salt kiln and was making-using a really sandy body and using an odd Missouri fire-like a Wellsville, I think. And it had kind of like an orangey, sandy clay body, you know, really beautiful, and he had just a big bunch of the best-looking pottery that I had ever seen there. And it was really straightforward-probably different from the pots he’s making now.
MR. SHAPIRO: So he wasn’t squaring things off or-
MR. SIMON: No, and they were thrown, all thrown. He had actually made quite a few press molds and press-molded parts-places where you could press small parts of pots like spouts and-oh, I’m not sure about lids. He was starting to think in a sheet-metal mode that led him into the work he’s doing today, I think.
I never have understood it. It just developed. I have never talked to him or heard him speak of the development of his processes. I’ve always admired Mark, though, even from undergraduate school. He was really inventive, and just right from the beginning. And he was brave and played with pots. I was much more reverent. And he played with them. He played with ideas, and he was facile in his mind. I say brilliant, but he had a nice sense of humor, and I still think he is one of my favorite potters. I always have to see his work. I really feel close to it.
But it was the surface on his pots that I saw in 1980-the summer, let’s call it-which made me think I just had to have a salt kiln. And I came back to Georgia and then built a salt kiln pretty much immediately, as I remember it. There was also a salt kiln at school, and I fired it in graduate school, and I did have a couple of firings that were remarkably good. And that probably also would have encouraged me.
But the thing about it was the salt kiln was getting away from-I had ended up with about 22 buckets of different glazes, and it was just becoming nearly impossible to do a glaze day at my studio. I had so much glaze preparation to do that I would never get around to glazing. And there were too many decisions to make, and they would never look good together in the same kilnload. I’d fire the kiln with the idea of one thing, and it would contradict all the other ones, or some of the other ones. And so it just wasn’t quite working out. And I wanted to simplify things.
I was in the studio for first time alone. And doing the bisque kilns, there were just too many steps involved, and there were too many steps that weren’t the part that make your pots better. I wasn’t getting any more experience in throwing and making shapes and developing pot ideas. I was spending too much time maintaining the process. And I could kind of see if I did salt and did greenware, green firing, and just simplified-work with one or two slips and let the salt-the beauty of the salt, of course, is that it made a constantly varying surface, and I would just try to find a clay body that looked good. I was attracted to the kind of orangey light browns, and so that is what I tried to do.
That was the next step, and then I finished graduate school, and I had my salt kiln built at home, and I just went back in there with some new vigor and enthusiasm.
MR. SHAPIRO: Michael, before you go forward, Ron described your graduate thesis show as the smokers that were all hand-built; they were totally not thrown.
MR. SIMON: That’s right; they were. They were all hand-done.
MR. SHAPIRO: That must have been quite a departure for you.
MR. SIMON: How did I even make them? Oh, I made them on a slab. I made them a slab. Well, this was a very eccentric process.
MR. SHAPIRO: And very architectural, you said.
MR. SIMON: I was trying to make-although we haven’t spoken much about function, but function was involved in all of this pottery thinking. And part of the idea was to bring function into the work in grad school, but change the scale. I thought, if I’m going to be a teacher and teach at a school, I need to have some experience in earthenware and other firing processes, because I’d always only fired stoneware reduction, even in undergraduate school. The only clay that we used-no, that’s not true. But everybody was using stoneware clay. We all used stoneware clay in undergraduate school. And I continued to do so all through the ’70s. I just thought consciously I was going to make some changes, try to change things and get experience when I was at school so I would know-just so I would have a little bit wider repertoire. And so I made up an earthenware body.
There were some precedents for stoves that I ran across in literature. I can’t remember where-stove and smokers. And it turned out they were mostly smokers; smoking for food is what I mean. And actually, I was smoking a lot of food at home at the time in various kinds of contraptions. Smoking venison-I knew deer hunters from living out in the countryside-and smoking fish. And then smoking all kinds of things, and it became-I could smoke things. I knew how to do it.
And then, so I started making these big pot shapes, basically, that were smokers. They had some kind of little device about them for burning coal, and then they had a rack at the top and a lid for putting in food, where you would put the food in.
MR. SHAPIRO: What scale were these?
MR. SIMON: Well, let me see, the tallest one was, maybe, my shoulder height and 18 inches, maybe, in diameter. And so very round ones, and then there were some that were marked, actually slab-built things. And they were made out of a real soft-in order to do the fire, I reasoned that I just needed to make a real porous body. And I didn’t want to do some kind of a nonshrinking-I didn’t want to get into the technology. It was real low-tech. I just made it with a lot of vermiculite. I put a lot of vermiculite in the body and made slabs. I actually had a great big mold. I remember having a stacking unit that was somewhat on the order of Randy Johnston’s stacking boxes, but I made a plaster press mold so that I could make three or four sections high, however I wanted to.
And the function was how much heat you had in the firebox. You want to smoke the food and not bake it, so you had to have a size of a firebox that would let you put enough fuel in it to smoke the food but not get so much heat that you were baking it or roasting it.
So they really did work, and I developed surfaces-terra sig [terra sigilatta, type of slip made of extremely fine clay particles] a lot, as I did work on some other earthenware bodies, a white one and a red one, to make some earthenware pottery shapes-develop some earthenware glazes. I was a pretty good student really; I worked as a student, and it was a good time in every way for me there.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was there a lot of back forth with Ron and Andy?
MR. SIMON: Ron and Andy-had a good talk with them, although I can’t say that my relationship with them changed, because I had already had a good relationship with the both of them. They were both always encouraging. I don’t think they felt like they could act as my teacher.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ron said that, with you, he felt he just had to get out of the way.
MR. SIMON: [Laughs] Well, yeah. But Ron was always helpful. He’ll never admit that he is, but he helps everyone. He is a big teacher. He has a huge group of people that he has taught. He taught there for, since-well, he had students before that, but he taught there since ’73, to ’93, I think, so a lot of students, and a lot of students trying to, carrying on his work, too. He has a big influence.
But anyway, they were very good to me. They supported everything I did and helped me do the hoops that I had to do to do it. It was really no problem.
I remember I did apply for a job right after that. There was a job that came up at the University of Florida, and I thought, well, this is kind of what you said you would do, you know, and I applied for it only half-heartedly. Well, I did have good letters. I made a pretty good application, really, but I didn’t get the job.
But then I worked in the studio; for some reason it felt different-the salt kiln was really encouraging. From the first firing it was exciting again to unload the kiln. I got to the point where the kiln of those reductions glazeware was-taking down the door of the kiln was becoming one of the most dreadful things. I thought, this was not the right situation. There were so many things that were giving me a clue.
Now, I felt foolish; I was making pottery-what I had dreamed I wanted to do-and I had everything set up, and I wasn’t really feeling very good about it when I was doing the glazeware because, you know, one glaze would look right and then other glazes wouldn’t look right. And I just felt like I had an amazing amount of self-criticism; I just hardly liked any of my pots. It was frustrating.
And somehow the salt glaze-the surface was so interesting to me. It’s so integrated with the pots. It wasn’t any kind of questioning. I felt more like I was kind of a conduit and that the clay was-the clay had all of this character, and if I could just kind of leave it alone and let the kiln work on it; it was-
I have a pottery career. [Laughs.] Really, that was what-I remember thinking that it took about 12 years to become a potter, because in the ’80s I felt a lot more like a potter, with my salt kiln behind me, and I started to like my pots more; they started to develop; I don’t know. And a lot of it is just, I think, a matter of time and experience doing the work. And I was pretty stable. I had a studio. Even though the business was not easy, it became a little bit more consistent, to where I was actually-had the necessity to go into the studio and work consistently. I think that helped the pots.
And I was getting-the salt kiln was making surfaces that I really liked. I didn’t feel like they were mine, and they didn’t feel like they were a mistake; they were-I liked them. I could just appreciate them without-they seemed like they were part of the big world. It changed my attitude about the pots somehow. I don’t know what it was.
And then I started to get more encouragement. It’s hard to tell what happened first, in the order that it happened, but then I had done a few workshops, then people started to ask me to come work a lot, and then stuff got published.
I remember Andy Nasisse wrote an article that was published in Ceramics Monthly in 1983 [reprinted in Art Papers as "Imperfection as Beauty: One Small Bowl." March-April, 1983, p. 10], and they asked me to write a little article about myself. The magazine wanted something to accompany the article about the cup. Andy’s article wasn’t really about me, but he used a cup of mine as, well, I don’t know, not exactly as a metaphor, but he used the cup to explain a lot of feelings about art, and it was quite a good article, actually, I thought.
I remember it was a painful article I wrote, and I had somebody help me edit it, and they published it. And they published a nice portfolio of my pots from that time-1983-I remember five or six photos. It was quite extensive. And I was-it was a surprise. I didn’t know when it was coming out, and somebody drove up in the yard and they said, did you see this? So that was pretty exciting.
There was kind of a consistent development all the way through that-working with one kiln. No; I had the second salt kiln also during the ’80s. The first one only lasted a couple of years actually. Ate itself up, but the second one was a kiln that was a, kind of, pretty dynamic kiln-a real tall catenary, tall and deep and slim, which I fired with diesel fuel-and it made a real dramatic hot side and cool side, and also I could really oxidize.
I realized later, after I had tried to oxidize with gas, I could really oxidize my diesel fuel, surprisingly enough, in this kiln, and I made some real light-bodied salted ware, and that was attractive to me at the time. This kiln I worked with for about six years, I think, before I left that particular studio. And I tore it down. It still had some life in it, but it was a great kiln. It would hold about three weeks of work.
I would fire green, and that was-what else happened in the ’80s? Well, I don’t know; it’s just continuing development of the pot shapes. I started to make a Persian jar. I had been making a square jar ever since about 1975 or so. Warren had made a square jar, and I had gotten one of them from one of his daughters. Tam had a beautiful celadon jar that was squared, and it was squared by cutting with a knife. It was square by squeezing and then cutting with a knife. And I mean, it was basically-it was a thrown pot, I should say, a thrown pot that was thrown thickly, squeezed into a square cross section, and then cut with a knife so that it had corners.
And I liked those pots. When I started to paint on pots, I found that it was really difficult to paint on the round pot. I always tried to make faces; even with round pots I would make faces-you know, one side, and then I would paint one side, and then I would paint the opposing side. I never could deal with painting around the pot, except for just in the most rudimentary ways, like making stripes or something like that.
So I really wanted, when I became more involved in painting on the surfaces, to stop that circle from happening. And you do it, and pottery throughout time is done in a lot of different ways, by putting handles on the side, so you break off and make two faces between the handles or some such thing. But one of my tactics was to start to square and rectanglize pot shapes so that I could have that-basically made a flat plane that would hold a pattern of some kind or another and could stop at the edge of that plane. The pattern could stop at the edge of the plane.
And that became-I was kind of motivated to develop a square jar shape. I was really interested in making lids that fit, and somehow making the lid-throwing the jar and squaring it and then throwing a lid and squaring it and making it fit together was fun-just a fun trick to do. And there was some kind of dynamic to the way that it looked that I appreciated, and then it gave me those panels that I could pattern, and it made it easier to pattern the pots for me.
And then another thing that happened, I can’t really say it was a goal, but the pots became-they started to suggest architecture much more strongly than the thrown round pots had. So I guess I started to use all of those things. I remember developing a triangular vase early in the ’80s, and I was trying to square everything. I tried to square bowls and tried to square cups. And sometimes I would just squeeze them into a soft square, and sometimes I would paddle them into really hard corners. I learned how to paddle things.
And I became more aware of how much water was in the clay wall, how the different degrees of leather hard, how the clay would bend when it was a certain wetness and not bend anymore when it wasn’t as wet, and how it would react to a paddle. And that gave me a wider repertoire of shape and helped create, I think, more from the outside. I got more and more encouragement. So that continued to develop.
In about 1992, I met Susan Roberts, and we were married, and we bought an old farmhouse near Athens, about 30 miles from where I had lived previously, and built a new kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: You built a new kiln.
MR. SIMON: Built a new kiln-just got reestablished. Well, Susan and I, getting together, we both had houses, but neither of us had a house that would accommodate both of us. So we found an old house, a beautiful old house, a house that it was obvious at the time it was going to take more attention that we really intended to give a house, but at the same time we were charmed by its architecture, by the scale of the rooms, and the proportion of the rooms, and the way it sat on the landscape. The house is a long, skinny, tall house from 1888. It was in not very good condition.
But it sat on the landscape high-it was built on kind of a ridge so that it looks out across a lot of big pastureland-the views are large and long, and we were just generally charmed by the possibilities. There was a beautiful studio building, two-story brick building for me to work in, and so we bought it and moved here-1995-built the kiln the first summer. It was a small salt kiln-or virtually the same kiln I had been working with-three weeks of work, I thought at the time. Actually, that three weeks was-as I started to paint more and more pots, I started to wax resist sometime in the ’90s.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that the Forbes wax that you-
MR. SIMON: I don’t remember what the Forbes wax is.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that a particular wax that you found that worked particularly well?
MR. SIMON: It’s a particular wax, but I only know it is really the wax from Highwater Clay [Highwater Clays, Asheville, NC], and I don’t know the name of it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Forbes, they call it.
MR. SIMON: It’s Forbes? That may be true. Anyway, I started to use a wax resist in my painting. It was obvious from the beginning I was attracted to pots that were painted on, that had painting on them. I would like to look at Hamada’s pots, where he had just made two or three movements with a brush and made a pattern of-you know, the bamboo pattern and the grass pattern. And I just loved it; I wanted to do that. I wanted to do it, really badly. I just thought it really took me to the pot. I thought it had a lot of power.
Even as far back as 1976, I remember a Sunday-one day a man drove up-he owned a sushi restaurant in Atlanta-the Nakato Restaurant-it’s a really nice sushi restaurant, one of the first ones in Atlanta. He was in a Ford station wagon with his mother, a middle-aged Japanese man. He ran up to our pottery barn, and he was holding this plate that he had found at a shop in Atlanta; it was a plate that I had painted with a grass pattern, kind of copying Hamada’s grass pattern.
And he said, you make? [Laughs.] He was very excited. And it was a dreary day and we’re in the studio and not much was going on, and it was really exciting to have this man come. And he wanted us to make pottery for the restaurant. So he said, come over and have dinner at the restaurant, and we can see what we can arrange. But anyway, I remember painting that grass pattern. We made about 50 plates, or something like that-worked out a deal. And it was fun to paint them.
I developed a small repertoire. I had a fish. I could do a fish a couple of different ways and painted them with-just painted them with iron slip under-on bisqueware? I can’t remember how at first. It must have been on bisqueware, maybe on greenware. I can’t remember exactly. I’m sure I did it both ways, tried it both ways, and I probably did over a glaze sometimes. But just tried to make the brush, tried to learn how to make the brush, make a shape, and then-or try to make a brush make a tense outline-one or the other-
MR. SHAPIRO: With the wax-
MR. SIMON: Grass patterns and fish and different kinds of tree patterns-things that I could make without much drawing skill. And I did it all the way through the late ’70s. I remember always trying some. It took longer and I ruined pots. Because it was so direct, I just ruined pots, and couldn’t waste that many pots. So I wouldn’t do very many, and I would just say, you get what you get.
But basically, you get better at how thick the pigment should be and how your brush worked and what you could expect. And could I make this-you know, you just make a direct circle-try to make a direct circle or try to make a direct-maybe a spiral, and when they were good, they could be really good; and when they weren’t, they would ruin the pot. [Laughs.] So I would always try to learn, and you could kind of get to where you could set yourself up so you wouldn’t lose anything-make a smaller mark or make it a pattern of marks, so that if you had made one bad mark, it could attach itself to all the other bad marks and you have a pattern. It would work out; the pot would still be whole -
(Part 3 will run April 6th.)