Making with mud and my mother
It is Mothers’ day, 2015. My daughters bring me blueberry pancakes and a nice cup of tea in bed. It is a perfect treat, but brief. They have other things to do, so I’m left to myself. I head out to the shed. My slip cast bottles need fettling and sanding in preparation for bisque firing. It is meditative work, incidental daydreaming, remembering and imagining time, while hands move and objects are finessed. There’s a lot of hand-ling, allowing mind-ing to wander from this moment and this shed to other moments, and another shed further back…
I had a childhood of making. My mother loved all kinds of craft; starting with knitting and sewing as a child, she then made clothes for all of us kids and even for our toys (my Barbie had some very groovy ‘60s gear and Ken had a smart suit and tiny black vinyl shoes). She later took up spinning, weaving, leatherwork, batik, and stained glass. When I, the youngest of five, started kindergarten my mother found clay, and it changed her life.
I grew up with clay and all the activities that led from a damp lump of earth to a functional or fantastical form. Stages are marked by the excitement of firing and the nervous anticipation of its outcome. I remember a late-night salt firing like some might remember cracker night or a solstice bonfire. The scene is dark, and faces blurry, but the sensations are vivid. The whooshing noise and flames of the gas burners set into a tall brick kiln that Mum had built in the back yard …wrapping rock salt in newspaper and setting the little packets on a steel rod with a cradle on the end. The rods were inserted through a hole in the kiln, where they vaporised in a glow of orange. It was thrilling. Fellow potters from the art school were wrapped in warm winter layers against the Canberra chill, drinking mulled wine and chatting excitedly. This kind of event was foreign in our family – evenings were spent watching Bellbird and eating lamb chops and 3 veg, then more television until bedtime. But this was social, active and late. Something was being formed behind the brickwork, something magical, elemental, primal. The event glows in my memory like the vaporizing salt; bright against the dullness of ordinary life. Something significant was happening outside the kiln too, and I knew my mum was somehow central to it all, even though she was not loud or the life of the party. People like her friend Anita could be heard above the rest, laughing and chatting, but Mum was quietly there and I knew she was happy. The next morning we removed bricks to reveal the wonderful blushes of colour and orange-peel texture on her pots. Each one was a discovery.
…now I’m trimming the part line on a fine porcelain bottle. I scrape the fine knife through the hard clay, cradling the pot firmly but lightly, in case it crumbles in my hands…
Mum and her friend Ruth had built two kilns in our backyard, even though her wrists had already been damaged by kiln building at the art school. They were twin kilns, vertical brick vessels with a space for gas burners or wood fire below, a tall chimney at the back and an arched doorway in front, which was filled in once the kiln was stacked with pots. I remember the arches being built – the magical moment when the last brick was inserted and the plywood formwork removed and, in defiance of gravity, the arch remained, suspended in mid-air.
For a while, my job after school was to clean bricks with a cold chisel and hammer. I don’t remember where the bricks came from, but Mum was not one for buying anything new. So I would sit on the concrete and chip away at grubby chunks of mortar until they fell away from the brick to reveal a flat plane of dark red Canberra brick. These were stacked in a herringbone pattern behind the shed, awaiting kiln construction.
…I pour thick, creamy slip into plaster moulds to cast some new bottles so they can be taking shape while I work on the dry ones. Although there is no urgency of production, I take satisfaction in simultaneous progress…
I remember her in the shed in production potting mode, making bowl after bowl (clay weighed and measured for consistent size), cup after cup, making lids for casserole dishes that fit snugly in their seated rim. I can picture the glazes and finishes at different periods in her potting career: tea dust teapots, Shiga red jugs, her signature swirled slip dip, stenciled silhouettes and ‘70s browns, and the pots she made for the theatre shows I did - Under Milkwood mugs and Windows in Walls casseroles as gifts for the directors. Everything was a subject for making. Her work was mostly functional, meticulously finished and lovely to use. But she also made also odd, useless or decorative pieces, always experimenting with new techniques. I remember a giant purple hair curler - the old-fashioned type - with rows of tiny holes and spikes, and a ball seated in the end fastened with black elastic. Her miniature roll-top desk, complete with wood grain texture, drawers and tiny shelves, still sits in my parents’ dining room, atop the original desk it was based on, exaggerating its scale.
…the slip has set in the moulds so I carefully prise apart plaster to reveal the watery swirls of blue and white clay that have formed a new pot. I still get a little rush as each unique pattern is revealed. I trim the base lightly but it is still so soft – I will work on this one more tomorrow...
I remember making things with my brother when I was about 6 and he 12. I was sitting on the same grey-brown stool that now lives in my shed. We sat at the cloth-covered bench next to her old enamel potbelly stove. We were sculpting little animals, making woolly sheep from clay pressed through a sieve, and snakes coiled for attack, baring their tiny sharp fangs. Mum admired his ability to bring character to each creature, giving them quirky expressions.
I remember her ‘pulling’ handles – a technique where you hold the clay in one hand and draw it out with the other, dipping your hand in water and then stretching again, gently and evenly until the handle is the right length and thickness for a mug or jug. My childhood was filled with these verbs of making: often pedestrian words given special meanings:
Even the nouns implied action, like the coiled energy held captive within an atom:
Some words came from the special language of potters, drawing from a global heritage of mud makers:
I remember. Making is remembering, re-knowing, being with my mother, through the mud, a swampy, viscous connection. I feel our symbiosis, even now in her absence.
Making is a kind of mothering, giving life to creatures that soon become independent in the world. Her winged pots were heavy, hand-built shapes with arms outstretched – these became one of her signature forms: majestic, earthy strong. My porcelain bottles are people too – some with broad shoulders, some squat, with a full belly, others a little kinked and crumpled. I like them to feel worn, softened by life but not weighed down or broken by it. Character-ful vessels.
Yet making is also in tension with motherhood: the conflicts of time and focus; the different ways of thinking and being. Even though my mother shaped her creative life around us, I suspect she sometimes forgot about me when she was potting, which was probably a relief after so many years of mothering, constantly thinking of others. I don’t like to leave my girls even when they are asleep, but going to the shed is not too far; I still feel close, tethered. I can squeeze some shed time in between: while the dinner is cooking; before I have to pick them up or drop them off; when they are studying. Making is both an act of self-realisation, and the most indulgent of activities. It requires certain preconditions: satisfaction of basic needs such as food and shelter and healthy children, feeling that I’m doing a good job as a mother. Charny (2011) describes making as a way of exercising free will. For a mother this freedom may come in small packages. It is sometimes only a virtual state of dreaming and scheming about making.
There is little time for reflection in a life focused on motherhood and earning a living. Emotional and mental energy is focused outward, bound up in children and their activities. Shed time daydreaming makes space in this production cycle, drawing my mind inwards whilst my hand reaches out and shapes a worldly form. Writing about dreaming demands even more space, to reflect and capture and interpret. I can’t make and dream and write it – writing is always before or after the fact. Making always feels more urgent.
…I sand the bases of my dry pots on a grinding stone to make sure they will sit upright on smooth bottoms and not slouch or wobble…
My family was built on incidental conversation, intimacy created by shared making, recycling, repurposing. At my Nan’s house we’d sit at the table for tea and cake and she’d hand me a pair of big heavy scissors and some holey old panty hose or a moth-eaten jumper. We’d chop and snip, reducing the garment to spongy, chunky filler for cushions that Nan would make and sell at her op shop. At 50c each they didn’t make the shop’s charity rich, but we were making something from nothing, forming objects from waste. The redundant became useful, purposeful, beautiful.
Mum worked with great economy of materials: reused, recycled clay, trimmed swarf reconstituted and wedged back to life. Mum loved that nothing was wasted in pottery – trimmed remnants could be thrown into a bucket of slops then spread on plaster batts to firm up for wedging and re-use. Wedging – hours of wrist-ruining wedging of the firm mud and wet slurry until the two combined into a smooth, even dough for throwing. She could have avoided the wrist damage by using a pug mill to prepare the clay, but Mum persisted with manual methods. Perhaps she felt guilty that this vocation of hers didn’t make much money or perhaps she felt undeserving of mechanical aid. But this frugality did not extend to economising on making. There was no thrift on quantity of product, but a plethora of outputs across crafts and forms to serve so many daily needs: warmth, comfort, eating and drinking. But no need was so great as my mother’s need to make.
My mother called herself ‘craft-y’, not in the secretive, conniving sense, but in the craft-ful, ingenious, make-something-from-nothing kind of way. She was too full of guile for the former; too naive and open-hearted.
After I left home I didn’t keep up with pottery but I was still a maker, in amongst all the other –ers that I’ve been: teacher, mother, writer, designer, partner (for a time). I steered clear of pottery because, even though it was the love of my mother’s life, it also spoke to me of being captive, chained to the daily demands of pots that needed attention, like small, hungry children: making sure they don’t dry too fast; trimming and turning the bases; fettling and grinding. My memories of the many stages and hours of work that went into each pot and the numerous points at which disaster could strike; all these seemed too weighty, too emotionally demanding to be my creative escape from domestic life. So I taught myself to work in resin: that light-filled, glowing, clear mud, plastic fluid that sets instantly. I made resin windows, pictures, tables, platters, jewellery. I embedded stones and jelly babies, fabric, pot scourers and buttons. I made floors, donning protective gas mask, goggles and overalls, mixing huge buckets of toxic and costly liquid to pour and splash around the bathroom floor like some kind of Pro Hart madwoman. I loved it. It was my thing for a while. The knowledge I gained was my distinction from being swallowed up by motherhood and paid work. I had a dreaming thing, one that I could pick up and put down at will. Not much planning was needed, no daily tending. Pour, set, forget, then release, sand/polish, drill. No hurry. Its toxicity meant I couldn’t share the resin work with my kids in the same way that Mum had with clay, but we did some projects together; they weren’t excluded from the creative process but mud was not the medium of my parenting.
For one who spent so much time cleaning up after others, my mother seemed to revel in the messiness of pottery. She felt most comfortable in her clay splattered ‘studio clothes’. ‘You don’t make anything if you don’t make a mess’; mud and muck were welcomed. Her motto is particularly pertinent now as my backyard is covered in splashed plaster from recent mould making, the dog still traipsing white footprints through the house a week later.
As someone who had not studied for over 20 years, Mum must have loved the learning at art school. She must have been so bored as a parent, often home alone doing repetitive tasks without much stimulation. Little jars that once held domestic condiments like jam and peanut butter had a new life in her shed filled with mysterious minerals with coded labels: CuO, Mn, Fe, Mg… She embraced the science of glazes and constantly experimented with new recipes.
Our family was a small world when I was growing up. I now know that it hadn’t always been that way; my older siblings remember holidaying with cousins and our parents hosting dinner parties. But that was a different decade; it had all dried up by the time I came along, evident only in the tiny holes in our patchwork linoleum kitchen floor that Mum said were made by stiletto heels. I struggled to imagine our kitchen filled with frocked women holding fancy glasses and suited men, chatting about … what?? She told me that she stopped having parties because Dad would absent himself from the fashionable fifties frivolity and go to bed without apologies. Mum was humiliated by his absence and lacked the confidence to carry on as a solo hostess. The only social events I remember my parents having were occasional (and very sedate) dinners with relatives or one other family.
Married at 19, my mother was trusting and naive. Her father had been adoring and generous. My father was a tall, handsome and very successful tennis player; graceful on the court. But life is more than tennis. She had her first child at 22, then 3 more, evenly spaced 2 years apart. Then, 6 years later, in 1964, I came along. One of my sisters was born with severe brain damage and was eventually sent away to a home. She’s 60 now, and still shows no recognition of any of us. For my devoted mother that would have been heartbreaking. Her sadness became a heavy fog of need that I recoiled from. I think she depended on my Nan a lot for support. When Nan died, my mother’s sleeplessness, loneliness and drinking took hold.
‘You will never be lonely if you are a maker’, she said. That’s not entirely true. Perhaps the making was borne from her loneliness, but the busy-ness of making also may have prevented her from seeking the company and support of others. That’s a familiar tension; one that I have not yet resolved.
For my mother, there was never a question of ‘why make?’ It was considered a primal drive, a given. But I do question this desire to produce. There can be no rational justification for creating more ‘stuff’ in this overcrowded, over-saturated world of products. Do I seek to improve on existing products? Do I aim to provide a unique experience for the end user? Often, I make things to free myself from the persistent visions, the insistence of ideas and designs that prey upon my daydreams, filling them with plans and possibilities. But this making is not without meaning. It doesn’t sit completely apart from a designer’s problem solving or desire to effect social change. The problems and challenges are small and multiple. The product of making is not a single, perfect item but a body of work, an array of attempts and iterations of objects that simultaneously perform and communicate. A teapot that is well balanced in the hand, that pours well (no mean feat) and strains without clogging. A teapot that sits well with its family of mugs – larger and shaped according to its function, but clearly the head of the family, not a ring-in from elsewhere. A teapot that refers to its heritage in culture and form, but is evidence of a unique application of hand and mind; one that generates a new presence. Making is the constant effort to reach from the given to the possible (Tin 2013). ‘Making … pursues a goal that is sufficiently clear to be perceived, but sufficiently unclear still to deserve to be pursued in and through the making’ (3).
In my family, making is considered meaningful, productive work in a way that nothing else can ever be. This makes it hard for me to spend time reading. It is seemingly non-productive time. Being productive implies producing something that stands alone beyond the time of making; something that lasts.
Making is also a way of interacting with the world: pots are our representatives in social relations, extending beyond the small scope of our immediate social world. As makers we are not seeking immortality, but perhaps desire concrete evidence of our existence, and a proxy body in social connections. Making gives me a role; it makes me bigger. My objects are my distributed self, creating a network of relationships in the world while I stay in the shed. In this sense, pots are eloquent objects (Haraway 2004), characters that speak of the maker but also have their own voice. A work contains traces of its material origins, its physical transformations and the multiple relationships with its maker’s body, skill and judgement, and communicates these both to its audience and back to its maker (Piper 2013: 5). The object represents both visible material form and invisible, immaterial forces (Ambrose 2009: 112).
Materials speak to makers of their potentiality. Although our grammatical categories oblige us to think actively or passively, the making process is both active and passive (Carter 2004: 14). Tin gives agency to the material as well as the hand: ‘the bronze waits, inert … it becomes a fastidious yet capricious friend’ (Tin 2013: 2). This appreciation of the latent possibility of materials and the conversations they promise can lead a multi-disciplinary maker like my mother to collecting and hoarding, as nothing is rubbish until it has served all its possible purposes, lived as many lives as can be conjured for it or that it can insinuate. My mother’s house was testament to her appreciation of the potential agency of materials.
Materials have character, both in the modes they afford a maker to interact with them and in their capacity for transformation. My mother was a voracious explorer of materials, investigating their qualities and potential, but clay was the most plastic of all, the one that yielded unlimited opportunities. Clay, slip and glazes are materials rich with potential for transmutation, a wonderland of experimentation and discovery. In my making I seek to retain traces of these material transformations: swirled clay is evidence of its liquid origins; the surface of a glaze also retains a sense of its fluid form.
Making with mud connects us with the base elements of our physical environment, as Piper describes in reference to glass (Piper 2013), and demands of the maker an openness to the effects of elemental forces. Each stage of making provides opportunities for unintended events and equally, for happy accidents and serendipitous effects, especially when the maker is open to the combination of science, chance and discovery. This requires a character that doesn’t need to dominate or control everything, one that can enjoy the element of chance, one that can learn from failure and accept unintended outcomes. The Greek word kairos refers to the right moment or the opportune, and to serendipity. Kairo implies that there can never be more than a contingent and provisional management of the present opportunity’ (White, cited in Carter 2004: 14). My mother would have liked kairo. The jugs, vases and canisters that fused together when a shelf broke in the bottom of the kiln now form a centerpiece at my brother’s outdoor table. It is an accidental sculpture of carefully crafted functional objects, disfigured by compression, fused and unified by the vaporized salt turning to a solid, lustrous glaze. There were no tantrums of disappointment, no fury that the maker’s will was challenged. It is a sculpture that speaks of its maker’s relationship with the elements.
The maker moves between mind-ful, directed making and a more distributed, bodily intelligence like that of an octopus. Sometimes the work is conceived in the mind and formed by the hand; at other times the hands work with their own intelligence and draw the mind with them; electrical charges shoot back and forth between hand and mind, intellect, emotion and senses, body, place perception and proposition. Similarly, in writing, sometimes a sentence is conceived in the mind and dictated by the hand; at other times, the words are transformed as the hand offers new intelligence and persuasive offerings. Sometimes the hand takes charge and exerts its own direction. Vaughan proposes that ‘the localized acts of making and creating are the realizing acts of invention, the materializing of thought…’ (Vaughan 2007). But making is more than the materialization of thought. It is the creation of thought, the activation and generation of knowledge through a physical, material process, a dialogue between hand, mind and material, and also with place, time and, sometimes, with other makers.
The maker can become so absorbed in this material dialogue that it’s like a focused hypnosis. Csikszentmihalyi proposes that intense enjoyment arises from a challenging activity that requires skill, the merging of action and awareness, clear goals and feedback, concentration on the task at hand, a sense of exercising control, the loss of self-consciousness and the transformation of time (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). Under certain conditions, such elements can combine to create a sense of ‘flow’ in an individual. My mother found flow in mud.
Material thinking. Makerly thinking. Mud thinking. Mud making. Mud flow. Mud in the blood.
At 68, without warning, my mum went into a coma. She remained unconscious for 4 days. When she woke up she had to retrain her body in some basic functions – speaking was slow, swallowing demanded conscious will. Eating was laborious and toileting was excruciating. Her liver was barely functioning and her belly became swollen, covered in an itchy rash. It was painful for her and painful to watch. Over the weeks that followed she began to recover. There was no talk of death or giving up. As she improved, she became aware of how slowly she was regaining her abilities and it dawned on her that making pots would be hard. This was said so simply but I knew the weight behind the words: ‘I might never pot again’. The drive, the joy that would be excluded from her life as she matched masterful skill with challenges that drew her into a regular state of ‘flow’, a meditative yet driven state of mind that surpassed even the tipsy feeling she loved so much from the afternoon glass of wine or the late night spirits that helped her through sleepless nights and numbed her physical pain and deep sadness. I never knew which was the leading culprit from which she sought relief in the vaporous liquid.
‘I might never pot again’ – another noun as verb. She never mentioned dying, but this was an admission of decay, a resignation to a life less living.
After 3 months she returned to the sleep of the half-dead, the comatose limbo, perhaps the gentlest way to leave us without having to say goodbye. That would have broken her heart. She loved us so hard and so deeply but suffered in the vulnerability that such love brings.
We are left with so many physical reminders of her: pots, blankets, jumpers, cups, bowls, plates, teapots, sculptures, planter pots, tiles and stained glass windows and stools and clothes and … so many objects to remember her by, more laden now with significance, knowing that the seemingly endless tide of production is now ceased, de-ceased. I was with her when she died, as she exhaled her last, rattling breath. I saw her coffin descend into the cremation furnace. This prolific producer has been transformed by fire to ash and bone, just like the ash she used to put in the saggar firing to create beautiful blushes of soft pinks, greys and browns. That is what we should have done with her ashes! She would have loved (and I see her smile as I imagine too late) this functional use of her material form even in death. What delicate mushroom pinks she would have made. Instead, we spread her ashes in the creek at the beach, so they went to sand and salt, which form glazes, so whichever way you look at it she has merged with the elements of her making.
Sixteen years later, I have come back to the mud. After being seduced by other luminous fluids, I now feel able to get my hands into the mud again. I am back to the earth(l)y sludge of evolution. Through my making I express my difference and pay homage to my maternal legacy of making. My pots are not like my mother’s. But, working with clay and slip is very much about my life with her, and I feel her presence keenly. I miss her in my making, but also revel in sharing the contentment of handling the cool, pliable earth; of moulding and making with mud.
And then there are the tools of a life of making that she left behind.
I inherited some potting equipment including her gas kiln, which, after so many years, is now functioning again. It goes like a rocket! I attend to late night firings, donning gloves and goggles, checking the temperature and listening out for exploding pots or falling shelves. So far, so good.
I grew up unaware that I need intellectual stimulation to be happy, and have often wondered why I felt restless and numb. I eventually cottoned on and now have enough mental stimulation to keep such discomforts at bay. I understand that I need ideas and challenges and so did my clever mother. Mud and making and art school helped her to survive the chops and the cleaning and washing nappies. It has taken time, but I have now made a life that combines making and ideas, and with mothering at the centre of everything. Underpinning all my work is a passion for materiality, for its capacity to shape experience through sensations of texture, weight, motion and space, for its articulation of connections between the body and the earth, between solid and liquid states, between personal experience and more enduring elements. Threads connect my creative and academic investigations back to memories of making with mud and my mother, then forwards, setting trajectories for future exploration. Like telegraph signals, humming back and forth along the wires, from me to her and back again, to my children and forwards to as yet unknown receivers of these messages – future generations, genetic or otherwise, who might inherit this potent drive for mud making.
Now that the daily demands of parenting have eased enough for me to reflect, I am bursting with empathy for my mother – for her material dreaming and the tension that she lived between mothering and making, trying to excel at both, attempting an inner life amidst the demands of 5 children; for juggling loss and sadness with deep love for her children and a passion for her little pots that went out into the world on her behalf.
But I will never know her story as she lived it. It is too late for these conversations and connections.
I am left with the making, the mud …
and my daughters.
Dr Toni Roberts is a creative practitioner who works in a range of media including text, ceramics, polymers and spatial environments. Toni has a fascination with materials, water and the relationship between somatic sensation, materiality and imagination. Her work explores communication across non-fiction and fictive speculations in contexts that range from the museum to the ocean. Toni is a lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT and Director of Hatchling Studio.
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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence