North Bear

I have written about my life and experiences as a potter in the book, “Marguerite Wildenhain and the Bauhaus” edited by Dean and Geraldine Schwarz. Although I have taken many workshops and learned much from others, my main teachers and mentors were Al Johnsen, ceramic teacher at Cowell College, University of California Santa Cruz, Marguerite Wildenhain, pottery school at Pond Farm,California, and Dean Schwarz,  pottery school at South Bear, Decorah, Iowa.  Serendipitously these were all from the same pottery tradition.

Following are some excerpts from “Marguerite Wildenhain and the Bauhaus” Section 12, North Bear: the Alaska Connection

weedenprofilemedIt would be years until l became aware that Al Johnsen was part of the circle of fire that was kindled by Marguerite Wildenhain.  In 1972 I stepped out of a carreer in scientific research and teaching at the University of Alaska into a classroom of clay at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

I will be forever thankful to Al (Pond Farm 1965) . His kind teaching soon expressed itself as an exacting taskmaster at throwing pottery.  The daily demonstration with straight-edged wooden rib (which had to be stored in the slip-bucket at all times) followed by the hard metal inside and flexible outside ribs for shaping became basic to every form that we threw.  We went through the gamut of doggie dishes, cylinders, pitchers, mugs with handles, bowls, casseroles, goblets and bottles for the whole academic year.  As far as l could tell there was only one way to throw a pot. I was hooked on clay.

During the second semester of his classes there were plans afoot for a field trip to visit an old lady potter who lived somewhere up in the hills. If a name was mentioned, I either didn’t hear it or it meant nothing to me anyway.  Unfortunately l was not able to go.

On our travel home to Alaska after my sabbatical year, our family stopped to camp for the night at Armstrong Redwoods State Park. In the evening we took a stroll on a road that left the redwoods and climbed steeply up and up and up. Eventually we came to a large imposing gate that bore a name and some instructions on how to get inside.  Again the name meant nothing to me.  Just another potter flogging pots! Beyond the gate there was deep quiet, not a sign of activity. So we made our retreat.  We had almost bumbled  onto Marguerite’s turf.

Later at home in Fairbanks there were stirrings  among the small group of working potters  to further our own development by bringing in renowned potters to give workshops.  Funding was available through the Division of  Continuing Education at the University by a grant from the Alaska Association for the Arts.

We stumbled upon the name Marguerite Wildenhain from her books Pottery: Form and  Expression and The Invisible Core: A Potter’s Life and Thoughts. There were not many books about pottery in those days, other than a few “how- to” books. For people wanting to make pottery their life, Marguerite’s books were rain on thirsty ground. The Marguerite Mystique was born in our souls from reading these books.

Would she consider having a workshop in Fairbanks? An enquiry was made and Marguerite accepted readily. Alaska was one state in the union that she had not yet visited.  In 1975 she was nearly 80 and had a pacemaker. Although it was April and there was plenty of daylight, it was  an unusually late and cold spring that year with temperatures dipping down to 30 degrees below zero F.  Her California coat and boots were hardly adequate.  Nonetheless she loved the adventure and participated wholeheartedly in what Alaska and Alaskans had to offer.  Her indomitable risk-taking spirit found resonance among us.

The five-day hands-on workshop that  Marguerite presented was about form and its decoration .

Marguerite talked about the need to create ourselves in the first place, the distillation of  our life from what we know, think, feel, believe   and love. Then to extract from our subconscious the essence of form and apply that to our chosen  artistic endeavor . She told of the need to accept  with humility and thankfulness when a good pot stands.  Perhaps this was still beyond our grasp at that point.

Then we made pots; first some coil pots using the coils as decoration as well as the structure, later pinch pots in pairs that complemented one another, and there was a tile project. My faux pas in the tile project was to take artistic license with the veins of a leaf which Marguerite’s discerning eye saw as scientifically incorrect  “These biologists think they know everything, but they  don’t even have eyes to see.”

On the last workshop day we were allowed to bring our own work for critiquing. After reading in her books her very strong criticisms of art schools and their teachers we felt wary and vulnerable about our own work and the visible artsy attempts found in the various corners of the Art Department where the workshop was being held. And yes, we did get a healthy dose of  criticism.

Marguerite’s critiques and criticism could be  quite brutal, especially for the women in the class,  less so for the men . We sensed a reverse sexism that left many women feeling belittled or angry.    Coming from a career that was mostly inhabited by men, l never allowed myself to be victimized .  Those  criticisms that were justified l could readily
accept, and l could shrug off those that were Marguerite’s problem and not my own.

Nonetheless, during the workshop every  participant must have asked if she/he could come to Pond Farm to study under Marguerite . After all, there was an institution that did serious teaching toward the goal of becoming real potters . Her answer to all was that she was no longer taking new students.  But she recommended that we go to South Bear  Pottery School in Decorah, lowa, to study with Dean Schwarz, who taught pottery in much the same way as she did herself  The following summer (1976) there was a mass exodus of  potters from Alaska to Decorah, a veritable Hun invasion from the north.  l felt very left out . My three children were still too young to fend for themselves for a summer absence on my part .  Perhaps it is this regret that has urged me to continue to connect and reconnect with Pond Farmers and South Bears. I am looking for the bonds that connect  those who have made potting their life’s passion.

North Bear
Those Alaskans who received the magic of the Marguerite Wildenhain touch from Dean Schwarz at South Bear knew when they had a good thing in hand and did not want to let it go. So a group  of potters, headed by Sue Dean, agitated to bring Dean to the University of Alaska to teach a  6-week summer course in ceramics. Sue became the primary go-between corresponding with  Dean and the U. of A. art department. Being an academic institution, it required such mundane  things as a course outline. It was not Dean’s style to mess with uncreative wastes of time, nor would it have been Marguerite’s either. In frustration, Sue made up the course outline herself.

North Bear (as we dubbed it) became a reality  in the summers of  1980 and 1982. In 1980 Dean and his wife Gerry arrived with their six children. Fortunately the University was able to provide faculty housing . But still, it must have been a  strain on the pocketbook to drive a family of eight to Fairbanks and provide food at Alaskan prices.   For me to come before the Great Teacher was an awe-inspiring moment. Even the beginning exercise of throwing a doggie dish was a moment  of great import.  After all, it was going to be critiqued . Other exercises followed; the cylinder and decorating it to make it look taller, shorter, more dynamic, or for a blind person; then came  pitchers, mugs, handles, bowls, bottles, each exercise followed by individual critiques. Each
day was interrupted by a break where Dean read to us from Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga Stories, Robert Frost (“The Silken Tent,” I remember above all else), and other eclectic materials.  There were  also discussions about life in general and art in particular. A great gift to us was some decorating exercises that had their origins among Central American lndian and universal prehistoric cultures. These exercises have stood me in good stead. Ever since that initial workshop with Dean  I have decorated literally hundreds of shallow “stick” bowls with variations of the tumbleweed pattern.

The total experience of Dean’s workshops went far beyond learning how to throw well. One student commented on her time at the workshop as “the most memorable and important experiences in my creative life . To me it validated the community of creative people.  The workshop  offered much to individuals in the way of personal growth, expansion of thinking and   looking. And  it gave my clay interests a great big boost in terms of developing good  basic skills and appreciation of  quality in design.”

Some  of the people in Dean’s second workshop had now been working with Dean for up to four summers. It was the second summer for me and I felt honored and flattered to be allowed to work on my own project . l chose to work on burial urns, perhaps symbolic of my own total immersion in the potting life .

Unlike Marguerite, Dean was not prejudiced against women students, and we were imbued with a sense of confidence and worth in what we  were doing . Dean is a great teacher and mentor   at many levels.  And still one could tweak the authority a little bit and get away with it.  Some of the edicts (from above?), such as always leaving the throwing rib in the water bowl, were initially heeded with reverence, but later surreptitiously ignored.  Another such edict was that one should never violate the rim of a pot  That could not go unchallenged in the land of the free. For my last critique of the season I presented Dean with a series of pots that all had violated rims and rims without pots.

Workshops in Fairbanks usually were accompanied by a variety of social activities. Everyone vied for a chance to show the Schwarzes the real Alaska, i.e., the wilderness, which was the common thread for all of us.  So on weekends there were canoe trips, camping trips, fishing trips, and potlucks . Workshop presenters were often feted with a hot-air balloon ride. Stan Zielinski, the ceramics professor at the University of Alaska, was an ardent hot-air balloonist.   Students took up collections to pay for the propane fuel required.  For Dean the traditional balloon ride was planned for an evening of  potluck food and good friendship. Toga parties were in vogue at the time.  Everyone showed up in a bed sheet.  July was a perfect time for ballooning as air currents were predictable and daylight hung around for most of the night. It was a beautiful ride-low over the trees, above mosquitoes, lighted by a magic evening sun, out to the muskegs beyond town . Landing was a bit more problematic.  The object is to land on or near the road system for easy pick-up by the ground crew.  Balloons being what they are, this one wanted to sit down on the muskeg a long way from any road . So here were a bunch of potters in bed sheets out in the middle of nowhere within  full sight of God and the whole universe.  We had landed in sandhill crane habitat, and remarkably the cranes never missed a step in their ritual mating dance.  The cranes have kept dancing on my pots for many years .

North Bear had run its course after two  successful summers. They were followed by several more trips by the Schwarz family that were, in part, pottery related.  An incredible amount of energy was released and many excellent pots came out of the kilns.  Many of Dean’s students from the two summer workshops have left a broad mark on the potting scene in Fairbanks and beyond.

At about this time a group of six women decided we wanted to have a wood-burning kiln, much before the time when wood-burning kilns became vogue. To achieve this goal we invited Fred Oleson, the kiln guru, to give us a hands-on workshop in building our small fast-fire wood kiln and teaching us how to fire it. Fred was  somewhat taken aback to discover that six middle-aged women wanted this kiln built.  However he soon saw that we were a strong, determined group who could easily pick up a 50 pound bag of             cement and still have energy left for partying. It was a two-day workshop, one day to  build the kiln and the second to fire it. In this 20-cubic foot downdraft kiln, there are two fireboxes on opposite sides, each manned by a stoker, and a roaring dragon between. In order to get a steady rise in temperature the two fireboxes are stoked alternatively for 5-10 minutes intervals. While a fresh stoking explodes in a rush of flame through the kiln, the other quietly releases its BTU’s from a bed of coals. The rushing flame creates reducing conditions, alternating with quiet oxidation during the burning-down phase. It becomes a pas de deux, in fire beautiful  to behold. The two stokers, at one with the fire, cannot see what the other is doing and the noise from the exploding wood makes verbal communication impossible. A third person, the kiln master/mistress, conducts this symphony from a central position calling out “Hit it!” when  a stoking is required.  Six strong women deciding when to stoke, when to open/close the damper,   when and what cones were up or down added a    strident note of cacophony.  And so we learned  that each firing required but one kiln mistress to  reach temperature.  Any one of the co-owners could call for a firing. The other co-owners were allotted any extra space first. Others could be invited to use space (at a cost), if available. The problem was always to have dry wood. Even dry wood tended  to pick up moisture during damp weather.  All wood needed to be kindling size (about 1  inch diameter). If split days ahead of time, it  invariably became damp. Thus firings were always  accompanied by splitting parties and good food.  Firings lasted 6-8 hours. I usually had some pieces in these firings. But I never got truly hooked on the possibilities that this kiln presented. Transporting glazed pots down my bumpy driveway and across town was a disheartening  experience . Also I had just acquired my own propane kiln and expended my energy and   enthusiasm in that direction.  Eventually it became  a problem to find enough friends to help split wood .

We all used local stoneware clay that we dug from a seam associated with an abandoned open-pit coal mine.  This deposit was 125 miles south of Fairbanks in Healy on the edge of Denali National  Park.  It was a majestically wild place with a 360  degree view of the mountain foothills, an ideal  place to spend a summer picnic day digging and hauling clay.  This clay was very pure and needed  minimal processing. It required no additions to  make it plastic for throwing and it fired to cone 15 without slumping. It was fine-textured and  hence ideal for slip carving.  The fineness did cause occasional S-cracking, but we all learned all the tricks in the book (and out of it) to compact it. The clay had slightly different color and throwing characteristics in different parts of the deposit. We all had our own special hole where we dug, insisting that the clay from our spot was better  than that from 10 feet away.

The refining procedure required making slurry, which was then blunged and sieved.  Usually only a small amount of coal fragment and organic matter were sieved out of the slurry.  We all had our own method of accomplishing the final drying to the plastic state.  Some used plaster, some just waited a long time.  I hung mine up in nylon bags.

Clay preparation was a good job for my teenage sons, Robert and Bristol, to keep them occupied during the summer.  For several years I paid them an hourly wage.  It was substantial enough to make it enticing.  But it took considerable prodding to keep them at it and often clay fights ensued.  Somehow preparing their mom’s clay had low priority.  One summer I changed the ground rules.  l offered them a piece work price/ton of prepared clay.  Interestingly they completed the job in about a week when the same work had taken all summer before. Eventually the boys found better things to do and it was the end of using the local clay for me. When we told Marguerite about our use of local clay, she said it would be better to use the time to make pots. What she didn’t know was the cost of  shipping prepared clay to Alaska from “Outside.”

In 1985 l developed “potters’ thumb” from using clay that was too hard and from hand wedging in the way that we had been taught byMarguerite. I had been pushing myself daily in preparation for an upcoming show.  After the show there was a complete melt down in my  hands and I couldn’t hold a toothbrush or a fork, let alone throw pots, for nine long months . In the end Dean and Gunnar (Dean’s son) came to my rescue by driving to Alaska in November to throw pots for me to decorate .

“Potters’ thumb” is aptly named, but often  misdiagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome. I was not willing to undergo the usual prescribed surgery. In the end the problem was resolved through acupuncture and the purchase of a pugmill. I have not wedged clay since. Marguerite’s solution  to the pain in her arm (neuritis) was to go on a hiking trip in the Trinity Alps. l often wonder how she managed to keep wedging her own clay until well into her eighties. Or did she?

Saltspring lsland
In 1990, at early retirement, our souls developed wanderlust and we made the decision to relocate to a warmer climate where Bob (my husband) could fulfill a life-long dream of growing apples. It was a wrenching decision to leave Alaska, the majestic and powerful land that held our hearts and was the crucible of our becoming.  On October 1, “termination dust” already coated the landscape with white and we drove in a river of   tears to our new home on Saltspring Island, B.C.  We return to Alaska often to drink its refreshing  waters and feed our hunger for the wild and the  free.  Sometimes one has to leave in order to know where home is, the soil of our roots .

Our property on Saltspring lsland is a 17- acre farm that has gone through a number of configurations in its 165-year history.  The only solid building on the property was a concrete block pig barn. This has become my studio and  its renovation was the first construction that we undertook.  Bob knew well enough that making pots was my imperative need and could not be  postponed.  Also we wanted to incorporate some of my pottery in the construction of our new home . The footprint of the pig barn was large. It did not make sense to convert only part of it.  The resulting big space, studio, kiln room, and gallery demanded an equally large commitment.   Al Johnsen always said, “You have to have enough clay on hand, or your pots will look skimpy.  You have to have enough space, otherwise your pots  will look cramped.” I believe that to be true.

Professionally the move to a slightly bigger pond was good for this frog.  Saltspring lsland  is a collecting place for artists and crafters of  all stripes, some established nationally and  internationally, others riding the tail of the tourist  trade with “wudget” art. Saltspring is an island and, although it is located near big cities with sophisticated tastes, Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle, it is still isolated. Access to city markets is not easy, and its resident market becomes saturated quickly. Marketing has become a much greater expenditure of time and energy than it was when I was making butter domes and honey
pots in Fairbanks. However, I have moved into a nation of tea drinkers. Lots of people use and  collect teapots, which I love to make and make with great frequency.

North Bear at Saltspring
ln 2003 the “old folks’ home”, site of South Bear School in Decorah was the venue of a reunion of South and North Bear students.  All the rooms were full and every  bathroom had its line-up.  There was much chatter about memorable  anecdotes, old friendships renewed.  For me it was meeting many new faces partially known to me through stories told, the glue that bound us so companionably together.

There were talks presented by a number of participants about their current work and experience, all enlightening . I gave a short overview of the North Bear experience and my potting life in Fairbanks and on Saltspring. The invitation to give a presentation was another gift to me from Dean, the gift of confidence that I could say something worthwhile.  Further, many in the audience afterwards wanted to come to Saltspring to experience this corner of potting. Even though l knew that all those folks weren’t likely to show up, I still began to wonder.

There was discussion among the reunion participants whether a nine-week workshop in the Dean/Marguerite tradition would be attended in today’s hurried society.  The general conclusion was that probably no one could afford or would  be willing to take a whole summer, much less several summers, to learn to master a craft.  But for me a new idea was born, a more modest-scale two-week throwing workshop. Years previously, when the pig-barn conversion was happening, there was a flickering thought that someday all that wonderful space needed to be shared. It was now or never.

In July 2004 a mammoth cleanup in my studio made space for eight borrowed wheels.  Students materialized. I was fortunate that all of the students had prior experience with clay, all knew how to center, some were art school attendees.  What all of them needed was to learn basic throwing techniques and develop competency in these . l believe that for a potter to become established in the craft it is necessary to throw skillfully and easily. In order to survive financially when starting in a potter’s life, it is necessary to make the simple articles for daily household use. There is still a market for mugs, soup bowls, and butter domes, even though it can be argued that  factories can make them cheaper and better . Throwing these simple items is a way to become   more skilled.

My personal touch was to add yoga sessions for some of the noon-hour breaks.  These sessions are taught on the lawn in front of the studio by Celeste Mallett, master of the art, from the  Ganges Yoga Centre . What all potters need to learn is to take care of their bodies. All the students felt tired backs spring back to useful energy.  In other noon-hour breaks there are directed discussions about various aspects of a   potter’s life, which are open to the local potters’  guild members if they wished to come. And there are readings and coffee breaks in a circle under a big fir in the yard. My readings tend  to go toward Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest  Williams, Loren Eiseley, and my own in-house author Bob Weeden.

And so the wheel has come full turn, or perhaps enough turns to make a pot or two . For me it is a little late to have much impact on the younger potters coming along in terms of  teaching.  Perhaps it is enough to pass on the fact  that there is a rich tradition that has enlivened  my work and given me a sense of belonging to something greater than the few pots that I have  been able to turn out. When Marguerite came to us in Alaska just as the oil pipeline was being built, she said that if all her pots were laid end to end  they would stretch the 800 miles from Prudhoe  Bay to Valdez. More important than a long line of pots is the line of students who followed in  her footsteps and learned that the passion that  inhabited those 800 miles of pots was what set them apart.

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Judy Weeden is a studio potter with 42 years’ experience with clay. Please explore my site for a small sample of my work and stay updated by subscribing to the RSS feed.