Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Memories of Westville - Pt.3

After several na├»ve experiences of renting a house, not having enough money for all the deposits, meeting the crafts director of Westville who knew nothing of me coming, I finally made it to my first day of work. Westville was much different during daylight hours when it was actually open to the public. A large part of my job was to demonstrate pottery making, 1850 style, to a steady stream of visitors. We dressed in period costume, but fortunately did not have to role play the part as well. I was petrified with the thought of having to try to throw on those awkward wheels, balanced on one foot and trying to act calm and in control while groups of people stood around watching and asking questions! I went down to the village after hours to practice before that first day! The magic was wearing off, and it didn't really help when I later found out that D.X. hadn't seen anything especially “promising in me” - he just needed a willing body. Not that he didn't care that I had an interest in pottery, he just said he could teach me whatever I didn't yet know. Kinda burst that bubble...

Eventually I became more comfortable working in front of people and actually started to enjoy it, except maybe for the constant stream of predictable questions. “Where do you get your clay?” “Do you know how the Indians used to do that?” “Does your leg get tired?” and my favorite “Why do you have to make the wheel go round?” Hmmm....

The magic did return, as the sights, sounds and smells of 1850 filled our days. Of course it was still special after hours when everything was still and quiet. Jane got a job there, too, which doubled our income! She was down at the village every day anyway! She became hostess of the McDonald house, the village “mansion.” Besides giving tours of the house, her duties included spinning on a “walking wheel,” weaving, and cooking over an open hearth as well as the small wood burning cook stove, the latest convenience in 1850!

Life in 1850 was great for this newly wed couple. We made some good friends, learned a lot, and generally enjoyed life in southwest Georgia. I picked DX's brain about pottery making, kiln and wheel building, and a multitude of other subjects. He was a wealth of knowledge and skill, but you had to coax it out of him. We spent hours talking while working in that candle-lit cabin, especially during the winter months when visitors were fewer. I slowly absorbed an appreciation for early American stoneware and the potter's life. DX worked with his father during the great depression when itinerant potters would travel from pottery to pottery and often had specialties, like jugs, or churns. He told me that during a time when common laborers made $1 a day, a good potter could make $3 and go fishing in the afternoon!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Memories of Westville - Pt. 2

Since we were simply “helping/observing,” we took our turns trying out the strange foot powered potter's wheels, which were unfamiliar and awkward to my inexperienced hands and feet. It was a step back in time, with no electricity, hand-hewn walls, and dirt floors. Nothing from the 1970s in sight, except for us, young time travelers in a potter's dream.

Sometime during the long night vigil, D.X. said his apprentice recently left and asked if I was interested in coming to work with him. What? Was he serious? Why? Had he seen something promising in me? He didn't even know me! Questions still spinning in my mind, I don't even remember what I said in reply. But I instinctively knew this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. To work with such a knowledgeable and skilled potter with a lifetime of experience to share was almost too good to be true. And all in the simple, earthy, laid back atmosphere of this village from the past. Before leaving that next morning, we set a time for me to come back and talk to the director, as I would actually be an employee of the museum assigned to work in the pottery.

I was currently volunteering at a Christian community called Koinonia Farms near Americus, GA where my friend Harold was the resident potter. I finished my summer there and returned to Kansas to tell my soon to be bride about this great place called Westville near the sleepy little town of Lumpkin, GA. She must have been convinced, because we made our plans for a simple wedding at her parents farm, gave up on my first attempt at a pottery shop in Hutchinson, KS, and packed our old purple Dodge van for our honeymoon trip to Georgia. Dr. Mahan, the director of Westville, had assured me he would hold the potter's apprentice position for me when I could return. It was minimum wage ($3 an hour, if I remember correctly) but that was fine with me. They were actually going to pay me! In other circumstances, I might have done it for free!

to be continued...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Down the Primrose Path - Memories of Westville - Pt.1

We were sitting in the warm Georgia night watching the fire breathe. Whip-o-wills called in the woods. The sweet smell of honeysuckle was delicious. The only light was from the tongues of fire as they licked in and out of the fire boxes of the wood burning kiln. It was late and would go all night as we watched and fed the insatiable inferno.

My friend Harold and I had gone to visit a potter in an 1850 living history village and help him with a wood firing. An adventure, I guess. An experience, I assumed. Little did I know it would become part of my journey to where I was headed.

Doris Xerxes (DX) Gordy was from a well known family of potters in Georgia and had been hired by Westville Historic Handicrafts to set up a traditional potter's shop in the village, with foot-treadled wheels, a mule powered pug mill and brick mill, and a wood burning groundhog kiln. The kiln was so named because it was built into the side of a hill, open on the front with the chimney coming out of the top of the hill at the other end. It resembled a root cellar when empty – about 6 feet tall inside and 14 feet deep from the firebox to the chimney. It took about 24 hours and a small mountain of wood to reach temperature, which D.X. determined with an experienced gaze through the stoke holes into the flames within. Salt was shoveled into the fire near peak temperature to vaporize and coat all exposed clay surfaces with the characteristic orange-peel texture of traditional salt glazed stoneware. The interior brick surfaces of the kiln were also heavily coated with a thick buildup of dark green glass from numerous firings. This green goo would slowly drip in the heat of the fire like cold molasses, occasionally adorning a unsuspecting jug or jar below with a emerald drop.

Watching the fire build was magical. The color gradually changed inside the dank cavern as the temperature climbed. First came a dull red glow which intensified to a bright cherry red. Red gave way to orange, then yellow making you want to squint to peer inside. But as it increased to near white heat, there was the sense of power you didn't want to toy with, and the radiation penetrating through clothes and skin said “keep your distance!” There was a silent roar as the fire demanded more oxygen, more fuel, more oxygen, more fuel, in the rhythmic, almost hypnotic respiration of a fire breathing dragon. All the while, the skillful eye of the master potter told us when to offer more wood, when to wait, when to salt.

to be continued...