Daily Archives: April 13, 2012

Smithsonian Oral History Interview: Michael Simon, Part 5

Note: Because of the length of this interview, it has been broken into parts. Today’s post is the last portion of the Michael Simon interview. On Monday, JSCW will resume Ceramics Newsbriefs International.

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.

Interview (cont.)

MR. SHAPIRO: But you must have had whatever required grades-
MR. SIMON: Well, I had math and science. I had good math and science. In fact, I thought I was quite a good mathematics student. And I thought-that was really part of why I thought I could do architecture. I thought about going to the Institute of Technology [at the University of Minnesota]. But the first math I took in college was the end of that thought [laughs]. I might have-who knows, if I say that I could have, might have gotten it, but I was not a good enough student. There were a lot of distractions right then.
MR. SHAPIRO: What about politically? Were your feelings about the war-was that different from your family?
MR. SIMON: Yeah, I remember I was listening to Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane in 1966, in the summer, so I know that I was aware of the stuff going on by then. By the time I was in Minneapolis-there was a year between when I finished high school because I went to a junior-I didn’t go to a school for a quarter, because I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t have a plan. High school ended and there I was. No one had taught me, get ready. [Laughs.] I hadn’t gotten ready.
Yeah, I hadn’t gotten ready, so I didn’t go to school for a quarter, and then I went to-
MR. SHAPIRO: Hang on for a second, Michael.
MR. SIMON: So I was thinking about how my day was kind of driven and how I decided what to make every day and those kinds of issues. And this-kind of a continuation of how I decided to make 12 of something-so I was getting in the studio to make those 12, and what indeed were those 12 going to be? So, of course, you can’t make 12 pieces of art in one day; you can’t do that, but I would make-I would just decide on formats, and I would say, well, I’m going to make a half-dozen cups, and then I would make-maybe I would make Persian jars.
I would make Persian jars, and I would make two of them. I would usually do two, and then I would maybe make another jar, some kind with a lid or some other kind of shape and maybe a simpler one. The Persian jars take a lot of time. And I would try to arrange things so that I was throwing them one day and then be able to finish most of them the next day, so that then I could go back and throw the next day and then go back and finish on the next day. That would be kind of what I wanted to do.
So in order to do that, I would make some simple things and some things that were more complex. If I would make-so I would have those three jars, then I would maybe make some vase forms, some vertical forms, and probably vases, maybe two vase shapes-different kinds. And then I would make another simple pot, like a pitcher. A pitcher was a good one-step pot. And my pitchers, as my own rules, never had-were not footed; they simply had a handle attachment. So if I made a good spout when I threw it, the pitcher was essentially done at that point-just a matter of finishing the bottom and attaching a handle.
The teapots were a little bit more time-consuming, because you’re throwing a pot-throwing the lid, throwing the spout, and sometimes throwing the handle. And then in the next day they were going to take a lot more time to put together. And then I would make some bowls and some plates, which are simpler and could-and were oftentimes made and had the foot cut, and that would be it.
So I would just do combinations like that that would allow me to throw them one day and then finish them. I mean, finishing is cutting feet, adding handles, getting them into their final shape and thickness, and stuff like that.
MR. SHAPIRO: Would you decorate the ones from the day before, or that same day?
MR. SIMON: My latest phase is that I painted all of the surfaces at the end of the making. In other words, after about-however many days it took me to make the kilnload of pots, after they were all done and glazed, I would start painting them all. And the reason for that was that I found, when I first started the salt glaze, that it would be more immediate, that I would glaze and then decorate and then get all of the stuff. So I would essentially be throwing the pot, finishing it, putting the glaze on, and decorating it all in a sequence of just one or two days-no, two or three days.
But in reality, what happened was that having to remix the pigments every time I went back to use them wasn’t very practical, and they would often end up getting thicker and thinner, and I found myself using the pigments of the wrong thickness, whereas when I got the whole kiln of pots in a dry state and then went to paint them, I could get the pigment into the proper thickness and keep it there for a week.
MR. SHAPIRO: So they would be slipped at that point, if they were going to be slipped?
MR. SIMON: They would already be glazed-glazed and slipped-yeah. My rules were to slip first, then glaze, then paint. So the slip and glaze had to happen leather hard. Some people say that they can green glaze bone dry, but I have always found that my clays wouldn’t tolerate bone-dry glazing; they had to be glazed leather hard before the watercolor left the rim at the top. That was my guide-and really the softer the better. My glazes-well, let’s see-yeah, that would be how I did it.
And then I wanted to make all of the things that I considered to be the potter’s traditional format for food preparation and service, which were cups, bowls, plates, teapots, pitchers, covered jars. And I tried to make a variety of them so that they were not the same jar, and a variety of sizes with them. And that was the way I would work. I found that I was sharper on the pots-my perception of it was.
It was contrary to what I understood about Leachian thought. Leach often talked about making the same shape-you know, a grouping of them-however many that would be, 10 to 20. And some of them would be better and some of them would be worse, but that would be the way it was, and you would become accustomed to making them, and I don’t know-I can’t remember anymore what the positive attributes of that were going to be. I guess speed was one. Was it?
MR. SHAPIRO: Yeah. And I think there was this idea that you would see one or two, and that that would help you move forward to the next group you would make, and see one or two that might be better, and then you would take that as the-
MR. SIMON: I see, I see. Yes, yes. But, I mean, if you’re going to-well, I guess I was hoping, was I would have one model, and then I would use that and I would change that, you know. I could sit with six cups that I could feed on. That seemed pretty nice, because I could change them a little bit. That was kind of within reach, but I didn’t want it to become tedious.
I realize now that in workshops I would often speak about keeping your morale up, and it was kind of true. Especially when I was working by myself, I thought, you know, you’re your own stimulus really. I mean, one of our jobs as potters, as artists all together, really as human beings, I guess, is to keep yourself stimulated. It is not always going to just come to you. You’re not going to necessarily wake up feeling terrific every day or something like that, or sometimes you might have setbacks, but you have to keep yourself stimulated; it’s really crucial. So that was an interesting thing to find out. How did I start that story?
MR. SHAPIRO: You were talking about how many pots you would make in a given day or decorated or-
MR. SIMON: Yeah. So that was it, just keep yourself excited in there. You have got this new thing, or how is this going to turn out? Or if it became too-if it was too placid or too staid, you didn’t have that motivation. I didn’t feel that motivation, and I wanted it. I always wanted to feel like there was evolution in the shapes, even in the simple-like, even in a dinner plate, which just doesn’t seem to have much adjustment for any of the-that you would say, well, I have got to change the shape of my dinner plates.
I had a lot of dogma about my dinner plates. I was trying to make-for about 15-how many years-20 years probably-I tried to make a dinner plate, a rimless dinner plate-a simple curve, no rim. In fact, I mean a rim that would kind of disappear. And within that, within that format, it could change every-I always had a plan of attack to change my dinner plates, and they never went outside of that format.
Now, isn’t that just flabbergasting to think of now? Now when I am not making pottery every day, when I think of that kind of a situation, it’s almost hard to relate to, but that was where I was-that was really where I was. That was really serious-it was very serious where my dinner plates were.
And it was just like we were talking about those cup handles; I could go for long stretches and not be able to get the handle, after all of the time.
That was another reason for the lecture about the pitchers, too, over the long period of time, was that it wasn’t-the development is not linear, because you can’t just think your way into it; you can’t say, I’m going to make a better pot today, because you have got to make the better pot; that is what makes it art-[laughs]-or that is what makes it bigger. That is what gives you the possibility, because it can go-you might not get as far as you want to go, but it might go way past where you thought you were going to get. Both of those things could happen.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you have always had this preference for very small studio spaces?
MR. SIMON: [Laughs.]
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that conscious, or how did that-
MR. SIMON: I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out. It is true, though. I guess I have ended up-I minimized this one, didn’t I? Now when I came back in here, I thought, well, now, if I unloaded that ware cart, I would open this thing up; I really want to now. I feel differently.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ron commented that when you came to work at his studio, you-
MR. SIMON: I moved back in the little corner.
MR. SHAPIRO: He gave you a big space, and you ended up using about six square feet.
MR. SIMON: [Laughs] I moved back in that little corner, and I did not leave. [Laughs.] Well, I did the same thing in my first cow barn. I made a little room-after Sandra left anyway-I made a little room and closed it up and put a heater in there. The practical part of it was that it was supposed to be easier to heat and cool, but I don’t know why I did it. And then the next studio that I built, I actually built the room-a whole new building, and I built the room that I worked in, 10 by 16, or something like that. But the space that I work in, it can be small, and I knew at the time that I wasn’t going to work with anybody.
Now since I have been ill and I have not worked and I think of all that time that I spent in the studio by myself, I often think that, wish, I had been with someone. And I often think I would really be in a group with people-not really someone in particular, but just activity going on. I don’t know why that is. It’s hard; I can’t explain that. I am quite sure there are benefits to both, though.
And like the mingei-Susan and I have turned to a macrobiotic diet because of our trying to make sure that cancer doesn’t come back, and we-and for one thing, the diet is demanding in terms of cooking preparation and needing fresh food for every meal, so it is quite time-consuming, and you almost need a community to get things, to be able to not cook three meals a day. I could easily spend now four hours a day cooking our meals, and that doesn’t leave very much time-[laughs]-for developing other things.
So it would be nice to have a community. And somehow that has made me think in terms of making pottery alone, and it’s become-even before we became macrobiotic, I thought how difficult it was to make a kilnload of pottery. Since I have not been working, pottery has become much harder work than it was when I was a potter. I can’t imagine anymore how people make a kiln of pottery, when you consider how all of that shape and all of the considerations and everything that has to line up and make sense and have-not just thought about, but actually accomplished-glazes mixed and, oh, everything right. It’s flabbergasting the amount of work to do.
But I know at the same time I felt so lucky often to come out-to just be able to walk outside of the house and go in the studio. And the best part, really, was to just get into almost a daydream in the middle of working, having the work done-having the work in concept, ready for you, so you weren’t planning but were just free to feel the clay and see how the shapes would grow and really essentially daydream in the work. It was a terrific experience. And I suppose that is hard to do, actually, with a community of people. Maybe it’s not, but-
MR. SHAPIRO: Would you listen to music?
MR. SIMON: Always had NPR [National Public Radio] on, so I was listening to the radio, which was usually classical music. It’s been a long time since I have controlled my music, since I had my own tapes or something in the studio. I just gave up. [Laughs.] I just gave up. But I guess now I have-like, if I had maybe a CD player with a random play so I didn’t have to think about it, that might be workable.
But I always did have some sound on, yeah. But I wasn’t hearing it; I oftentimes wasn’t hearing it. It was a daydream. It was free out here; it was a nice place to come. I liked it. And it was better when I was like that. My pots-you know how it is? Hamada tells a story about how he would, if he had to make some important pots, he would invite the neighbors over so he wouldn’t have to think about what he was doing when he was throwing; there is a lot of truth in that.
If you can get into that state-it’s hard to make it. If you try to make it, you can also just make distractions that are not the same, but if you are just in there working and you are using some kind of deep judgment about what it needs to look like, you know, you’re basically making your clay-well, you can almost get to a place that is like a folk potter-as close as we get anyway, as close we are able to.
I haven’t addressed the issues, the tough issue, of course, of making things and-the unresolved issue of making pottery-really making real pottery and really wanting-there is just something about me that knows that the ultimate pleasure is in having the pots in the kitchen and using them, having them do things, drinking from a cup, for instance.
I mean, right from the very beginning of being a pottery student until now-just right now this morning, just very enjoyable to have a cup that is meaningful and you are just drinking your beverage from it. It’s a very rounded out experience. It’s a terrific part of making pottery.
And in a lot of ways, it’s not so direct anymore. I mean, the function of a pot, I guess it’s just a balance of things. It’s not only that I have to make a teapot, I mean, make a teapot to make the tea; the teapot is made, is really-it’s got to be a moving teapot. Somehow it’s going to carry my feeling.
So then automatically you are trying to get two things out of the teapot now. One is that it should make tea, and the other one is that it should carry your feeling. Oftentimes those things are just perfectly coordinatable [sic], but sometimes it gets to be contradictory.
MR. SHAPIRO: Because of the nature of the way the object is used?
MR. SIMON: Yeah, either the way it’s used or the way that it’s made, one. I mean, sometimes it’s too hard to use. Sometimes it might end up being too hard to use. Or the other thing is that it might be too precious to use or too precious to use in any given situation. So you have to be-so then it becomes-well, I don’t want to address that part. I don’t know how to address it. I was going to say-
MR. SHAPIRO: Ceremonial.
MR. SIMON: It could become more ceremonial, although I don’t really have anything-I don’t have any ceremonies of my pots, really, that aren’t just regular daytime everyday use. Well, that is not all together true. I do have pots that are put away that I don’t use for everyday use.
MR. SHAPIRO: Are those pots that you made or that other people have made?
MR. SIMON: Some of both. But a lot of them are mine; a lot of them are pots that I thought were good.
MR. SHAPIRO: When did they come out?
MR. SIMON: Well, we ate off the plates last night. It comes out whenever Susan and I decide to go get them. [They laugh.]
MR. SHAPIRO: There you go.
MR. SIMON: There is not any-there is not any real reason. And we do have a humbler state of ware-[they laugh]-in the kitchen.
MR. SHAPIRO: The chipped ware?
MR. SIMON: Yeah, it might be chipped, but it is the stuff that could be chipped and it wouldn’t kill us somehow or another. We have things that are more important. I remember Warren telling a story about Leach having-Leach had this Ming dynasty set of four little serving plates, and Warren said-did you hear the story? Well, he and Alex went there to stay with Leach after Leach had-I’m going to say divorced the second time, but I’m not positive that is correct; but he was alone-anyway, newly alone. And they came to stay.
And so they helped cook. He invited them to stay in the house-they just went over there and they were staying with Leach in his house. And then he had all of these pots from-he had pots from Japan and China, and he had these little four dessert plates, like, Warren called them. And he said that he and Alex loved them and they would get them out every day. And finally Leach said, well, these plates are Ming dynasty-there was something about them-they were just extremely rare and valuable plates. Warren said they never picked them up again.
But some things are more-you just feel like they are more important than other things. It’s hard to tell if there was anything real in those decisions. There is a lot of endearment, things that you love because you love the people or because of the time that you went with them, or that you just had for so long-you have been around them so long-cups that have lasted-cups that have bounced off the floor miraculously; they step up a notch in value.
MR. SHAPIRO: So, Michael, when you were working in exhibiting and teaching, was there anything that you had hoped would happen that didn’t happen in terms of your career, in terms of what you-the place where pottery could go?
MR. SIMON: Well, there were a lot of issues with the pots that I thought I would get to that I didn’t ever get to resolve. I mean, they were small. Some of them are small things, like finding that solution. But some of that had bigger implications, like the difference between the animal or maybe the tree of fruit-the difference between those pots in the intersection and also just the unpatterned surface. I feel like there was some kind of issue there.
I want to be somewhere in between there, not have to make-I don’t know. I was going to say the declaration of the pattern, but something that was not the pattern, that didn’t let us both off the hook as easily, as somehow the pot and the pattern got closer together, some deeper kind of harmony in them-but also that wasn’t more complicated, that was simple. I don’t know what that would be.
I felt pretty positive about the development of the pots, but I thought that maybe it could go on-[laughs]. I mean, it’s hopeful. We know it’s not linear but-
MR. SHAPIRO: In terms of where the pots were seen also.
MR. SIMON: Well, you would like to have a-I would like to be in the Met, frankly. [Laughs.] I wish some potter was in the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York] or some place. I wish some potter was seen and it could be talked about. It seems to me that we don’t have that yet, that we are-I mean, there are some pretty good shows, but we don’t really have big venues.
I remember that Toshiko had a big show at the American Craft Museum at some point, but what else happens? I can’t think of anything big where one person-well, Voulkos has had some pretty big honors, but that is so far from-I don’t mean to say that Peter’s was far out, but I just mean it’s so far from the center of things-you know, there just aren’t very many Voulkoses.
I don’t really think that Peter had that much more to say than everybody else, but there just hasn’t been enough attention paid to our pot issues-[laughs]-and to what pots can give, I think. It’s too bad, because we’re kind of ready-[laughs]-I think we’re kind of ready. I think we have got people who are ready to make their opus. I mean, we’re working on it anyway. You know, that the culture won’t pick it up and say, let’s look at this-it’s a pity; it’s a pity. You have got your long development, and you’re not going to see that you have it. It’s a pity.
But that is kind of for potters in general. I can’t really say. I didn’t expect a lot in the beginning. I mean, as things go by and you get credit for one thing and it’s so nice-you always kind of hope, I guess-I always kind of hope that something will happen. Just yesterday I got invited to be in a great show next year at the NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts], and I am going to be in it; I’m going to just do it with some pots that I have somehow, because there is a lot of potters that I like a lot, including a lot of people I went to school with.
I don’t know. I’m happy to be here now. And so many things did happen. It was a rich-there were so many rich things. I certainly don’t have any regret. I would like to-you know, I am working on some things. I have got a rim. I have got a rim I have got to work on some more. It’s just too good. [Laughs.] I have to use a little bit; I hate not to.
I would like to transfer things. I would like to transfer things out of salt glaze into glazeware a little bit; I’m thinking a lot more about glazeware. I don’t know if I can do it or not, but I would like to try. I often want to make a Tang dynasty horse. [Laughs.] But see, we have dreams; the dreams aren’t stopping. [Laughs.]
MR. SHAPIRO: That is good. That might be a good place to leave it.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, yeah.

This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Michael Simon, 2005 Sept. 27-28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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