Free Your Mind

You don’t stop playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing.

That’s one of my favorite sayings. And it is true for learning as well, especially when it comes to improving or growing forward with your craft.

You don’t stop reading/studying/learning because you’ve read a book/took a class/etc. Your technique, abilities and creative work can stagnate if you don’t keep pushing yourself to expand your horizons.

Recently, while attending a pottery workshop, I was taken aback by another attendee who kept preempting the teacher with comments that bordered on rudeness: ‘You’re going to do x next, aren’t you?’, ‘I’ve done z and that always works better than that’, ‘I took a class with big shot so and so, and he does xyz which is what I do’. All which make me want to ask, why are you here if you think you already know it all? 

I didn’t ask her, of course.  I believe there are those people out there that are afraid of change, who come to workshops to impress others with what they believe to be the one and only way to do things, and perhaps make themselves feel a bit more important.

Fortunately, in this instance, the instructor had the good grace to let a lot of this roll off her back, and it was an informative and enjoyable workshop in spite of the know-it-all student.

I happen to know that the know it all potter has worked with clay for over 35 years, while I have a measly 23 years under my belt. The instructor was a youthful 30 year old, and the information she shared was new and benefited all of us there.

You can learn from young or old,  experienced or not, because everyone has a different perspective on technique. There isn’t always one way to do things right. 

Personally, I enjoy attending workshops. Primarily pottery, but I also dabble in painting and craftwork. It amazes me how trying new things can always stimulate creativity in all venues of one’s life.

Learning new techniques always has a recharging effect. Sometimes it can be a refresher that comes at a time you are ready to absorb and incorporate into your own process. It can become the thing you need to bring your craft to the next plateau.

But your attitude has to be receptive to accept and implement. Having an open mind plays an important role

A sculptor in Tucson,  Arizona, Mary Susan Cate of Reality Check Studio, refers to this as having a ‘teachable spirit’. I define this as being open to accept new experiences, ideas, feedback, and being willing to accept change. 

You must have humility, welcome feedback and criticism, practice new techniques, and keep learning. Honing your craft abilities is a lifelong process.

“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.” ―John Updike


Score No More

Most potters use slurry, a thin mixture of clay and water, when attaching handles, joining edges, or adding a sprig to greenware. Until I was introduced to the “Score No More” (SNM) slip recipe several years ago by Jan Richardson of Windy Meadows Pottery, I used a mix of slurry and white vinegar. Vinegar retards the drying process. Until recently, I used a 50/50 distilled water and white vinegar mix in my work table spritz bottle to keep work from drying out while working larger forms.

While both, slip and slurry are defined as liquefied suspensions of clay particles in water, slurry is generally thinner, while slip has more clay content.

For almost a decade, I have been using the SNM recipe with great success for joining clay surfaces. This mixture allows varied stages of soft to leather clay surfaces to be joined with an almost diminished possibility of cracking or separation at the joint or point of attachment. It is strong enough to be used like a mortar, when you want to keep from blending or altering.

And, while the name tells you that there is no need to score,  I still do, believing it should always precede the addition of slip to create a stronger joint. Besides, good work habits are hard to break!

Can it be used on bisqueware? I have not tried it, but have been told it can. However: you would have to do testing and adjustment to the recipe to fix the issue of shrinkage. Personally, it’s my practice to dump any cracked or broken bisque, having learned the lesson that it takes less time to re-make than to repair.

If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it, it is worth dragging out the Goodwill blender and mixing a batch.

*SCORE NO MORE* slip and repair paste 

– 1000 grams of your clay body in dry form 

– 20 grams Custer Feldspar 

– 20 grams Bentonite 

– 20 grams Gum Arabic 

– 1 teaspoon liquid Darvan  (a liquid deflocculant that is often preferred for use with plaster molds because, unlike some other deflocculants, Darvan does not degrade the plaster.)

It is IMPORTANT to disperse the Gum Arabic. Pour boiling water over. Add distilled water to a slip consistency.

When above is well blended, add liquid Darvan

Can add a tiny bit of bleach to keep odors down. 

As my work has shifted from primarily wheel thrown back to hand built over the past six years, I have also switched from SNM to a version of Magic Mud that is also excellent for handbuilding.

Check back soon, I’’ll tell you about Magic Water and Magic Mud, both of which I have been using for a couple of years with even better results!

“Loving Vincent” and getting to love my job all over again.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the screening of “Loving Vincent” at the Avalon Theater in Washington D.C. with a group of fellow artists and friends.

Being credited as the first entirely oil-painted animation feature film in history, “Loving Vincent” ( is a feast for the eyes that brings poignant beauty to the story it tells. Each of the nearly 65,000 frames was individually hand painted with oil paints, mimicking van Gogh’s strokes, morphing actors and backgrounds with his paintings to create a living canvas.

Set 12 months after his death, the visual narrative weaves together different characters from his paintings in the telling of a story that delves into the inconsistencies of the generally accepted theory of his suicide.

Awed by the beauty of the film and intrigued with the tale it weaves, it was the inn-keeper’s daughter’s description of Vincent’s daily life while in Auvers, France, that resonated with me long after leaving the theater. “You could set a clock by him. (Vincent) went out every day (to paint), like a job.” Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. But his ‘job’ was not to sell paintings, it was to paint them.

The film’s creator used extensive research of letters and interviews to bring a deeper understanding of the man whose maverick intellect was generally not accepted in his time. Born in 1853, van Gogh had already experienced two failed romances, was unsuccessful as a bookstore clerk, an art salesman, and as a preacher (he was dismissed for being overzealous), before he found his calling as an artist. Vincent started painting in 1880 when he was 27. Despite a life filled with torment, he persisted with an almost manic drive to produce over 2,100 works, consisting of 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings and sketches, all in less than 9 years before his death in 1890 at age 37.

The reality of making a living from our art looms over most artists. Some create with an eye toward sales. Others balance marketability with creativity. The intrepid create with abandon, as van Gogh did. While he wanted to sell his work, he also wanted others to see the world as he did, and he succeeded. Not financially, though he may have been able to reap monetary reward had he not tragically died in his prime, but by painting emotion and movement on his canvases in a way that had never been seen before. He did not compromise to suit current trend. His success was in finding his creative voice and persistently working at making it heard.

For decades I have struggled to find the right balance between making money and creating artwork, more often than not conceding to the financially logical production while reigning in my more imaginative inclinations. The result has been financially rewarding, but cost me some of the drive I once had. My job has become more about making money and little about expressing my artistic voice above a whisper.

This mindset, the ‘job’ of creating what you love, is my take away from “Loving Vincent”. Not that everything must have a message, but it’s one of my beliefs that things resonate or come to you when you are meant to receive that gift.

Nearing my sixth 10th birthday, I find my paradigm is shifting. Better late than never, I am giving myself permission to break away and create without the stifling restrain of commerce. The mere thought fills me with enthusiasm to get to work. I hope the results will find a market, but I am already feeling the joy that had been missing at just the thought of returning to my job in the studio to create with this new mindset and rekindled passion. Maintaining and adhering to a set work schedule is suddenly something to look forward to doing.

If you have the opportunity, I recommend seeing “Loving Vincent”. It is a moving masterpiece. If you want a little more detail into his life, I also recommend the book, Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story by Bernadette Murphy.

Right venue, wrong weekend, or right weekend, wrong venue?

On my way to the second day of a local show this morning, I’m flagged down and stopped by a policeman holding a speed radar gun. I’ve been zapped at 36 in a 25mph zone. Oops. I’m usually much more attentive to speed limits but allowed myself to become distracted by a little slip of paper held down by the passenger side windshield wiper. I could just make out a bit of handwriting and my thoughts went immediately to someone letting me know they hit my car. Why hadn’t I noticed it on my way home yesterday, I can only blame on being tired from the 12 hour day at the show venue.

Gratefully, the police lets me off with a warning, and I drive -slowly- to the university parking lot I used yesterday. I even park in the same spot. With a slow breath I walk around and carefully check over the back and side of the car before reaching for the little note. No damage. Not even the protective dust layer is disturbed. The note reads:

Do what makes you happy. On th reverse side, Pass this along to someone.

As I walk through campus to the show and my waiting tables full of pottery, also pretty much undisturbed since set up yesterday morning, I slip the note with its karmic reminder under the wiper of a parked Kia. 

The kicker here is that I’d left the house with my normally high level of enthusiasm wavering. After a long day with little foot traffic and only $21 in sales the day before, I’d spent the previous evening in a funk. This was about to become my worst show ever. Especially since I had already spent almost half that day’s income in the bakery next door. 

In the time it took to shower and dress this morning I ran the gamut of questions in my head, including:

  • Are my $4 to $45 price points too low? Too high? 
  • Too little inventory/variety? Or too much?
  • Is my work too colorful? Should I tone it down?

The general comments are nothing but positive. Everyone ‘loves’ my work. So why do I not have more success? Truthfully, I have little business savy, but I would like to think I have learned enough over the past decade or two to come closer to achieving a level of business success that does more than just pay for my expenses.

Perhaps this isn’t the right venue for my work. It is the 4th of July weekend in a busy little university town. There were less than 100 people that came through yesterday. Today is Sunday, and though the farmers market outside is buzzing, less than two dozen shoppers have cruised past my space. According to my artisan neighbor vendor (stained glass), Sundays are traditionally busier. I hope so.  There are four hours left before we are to pack up, and I am at a negative $28 if I deduct my space fee and yesterday’s lunch from my sales.

For the time being I am trying to keep from nodding off. Little chance for a nap though, it seems my bra has sprung a leak and the escaping underwire stabs at my sternum if I slump in the chair.

Fine, I think to myself, open up the sketchbook and get some designs on paper for this week’s studio work. Out of the sketchbook falls a note I wrote to myself months ago: 

Don’t ever stop creating. Make something. Every. Single. Day.

Despite the poor sales and thoughts of having to get a new bra, I’m smiling, remembering when and why I wrote that. Making pottery makes me happy. Seeing people smile when they hold my work makes me happy. 

No, it isn’t easy work. But like anything else in life, if it were easy, everyone would do it. Pottery is heavy to pack and transport to shows. Production  takes time, patience and skill. Glazes can create phenomenal results or yet another pot for the shard pile. Even as I write this, I find myself distracted by how the light stikes a beautiful  blue glaze on a bowl in front of me. A new glaze recipe that turned out better than I’d hoped for.

Then again, that same light bulb is highlighting a  beautifully carved dish, now a candidate for the shard pile because of an amber glaze that turned an unfortunate runny brown more associated with symptoms of a stomach virus. 

So it goes, the highs and lows that exist in being an artist and potter. Right venue, wrong weekend, or right weekend, wrong venue? I can only say that I am going to take that anonymous note to heart and do what makes me happy, as I will with my rediscovered reminder to continue to create. Every. Single. Day. 

P.S.  A flurry of shoppers paraded through shortly after I finished typing these words. I am happy to report I am well in the positive and have far fewer pieces to take home! Even the amber carved dish destined to meet my hammer has found its forever home.

About my work…

Welcome to my studio, a refurbished four stall barn in the backyard of my home. Every piece I make here reflects a successful combination of artistry, clay, chemistry, and heat. I love what I do, and because of that, each creation is a unique work of art which came to be from a ball of clay, crafted with my hands and heart, and backed with over twenty-five years of study and experience.

I most often work with a buff white stoneware clay but some pieces are made with a gray speckled stoneware clay, depending on the glazing effects I want to achieve. I also like to play with raku firing primarily for small sculptures and decorative items. Raku and garden pieces are made with a white earthenware clay. For larger sculptures, I use paper clay which also fires at the lower earthenware clay temperature.  Unless it is a raku or other low fired (1900 degrees) decorative piece, I fire my glazed stoneware work to 2250 degrees in its final/glaze firing. It will be food safe and with care it will also be dishwasher and microwave safe for everyday use.

You’ve heard the claim that ‘form follows function’, well, when it comes to pottery, ‘clay follows use’.  In general, the higher the temperature which the clay can be fired, the less porous the finished piece will be. Simply put, pottery items that need to hold water and/or be food safe are best fired to higher temperatures which makes a stoneware clay the choice. For items that do not need to hold water, earthenware or paper clay are suitable. There’s your very brief and generalized clay lesson for today.

While I would love to be able to say that I draw inspiration from some poetic locale, the truth is simply that I am blessed with an overactive imagination, a playful inner child, and a desire to make everyone smile when they see my work.

Whatever I make, it is my intention for each piece to be unique, so while you may see some similarities, all are different. I like to think that every pot is an individual that belongs to a large family. This uniqueness, I hope, reminds the user that it is handmade and not part of our mass produced world.

There is creativity and whimsy in everything I make. I strive for it. You will see bright colors and deep textures  drawn out over the clay, either in the way I shape soft slabs or newly thrown clay, or when I apply brush strokes of ceramic colorants to the surface of my bisqued clay ‘canvases’.

‘Whimsy’ is defined as “noun: a playful or amusing quality: a sense of humor or playfulness: not serious” in Webster’s. Well, I take my whimsy seriously. I pay equal attention to form, surface, and detail. Balance and function are emphasized with ergonomic handles on my mugs and platters as are the spouts on pitchers and teapots to make sure they all are comfortable to handle and pour well.

I hope that my pots bring joy to everyone that uses them.

Denise Kupiszewski, The Mud Peddler

A really smart guy once said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”.  To me, it means that just as any individual creative effort at artistic expression is unique, so is life. No one’s life is truly perfect, but each is beautiful in its own way.

You can ask ten potters to make you a mug, and you will have ten beautiful mugs, each with its own imperfections, and as different and individual as the potters who made them.

Most of us have this and didn’t even know there was a name for it.

Simply put, if you think you aren’t ‘good at art’, stop that. You may be looking for perfection when your focus should be on having fun with your creativity.

Embrace your humanness! All those odd bits and quirks that make you who you are. Art is a creative process. Allow your perceived flaws in each of your endeavors to become the individuality that makes your artwork your own. Let go of attempts at perfection and allow yourself to discover your style.

We are each born with some level of talent. But talent must be nurtured, fed, and given wings. You don’t have to go to a formal school setting, but you do have to read, watch, and learn. We are so fortunate to live in an age where the nearest laptop and WiFi connection can be your learning forum. Most of all, you have to practice.

Start with something as easy as doodling. Pen and paper. Pick a starting point and begin. There are no mistakes. If you zig and you meant to zag, that is fine, keep going. Fill the entire page with squiggles, loops, waves, angles, words, whatever. Add  color. Make yourself happy. Doodling actually helps our brains with focus and recall.

Do a search on Google for images of doodle art for inspiration. Remember as you look at the artworks, you are looking for ‘inspiration’ not comparison to what you create.

As a potter, you may wonder, why doodle? What can I do with doodles on clay? Carve patterns to add texture and dimension to your clay wares.

Want to check out a great blog with instructions on doodle art? Check out Heidi Denney’s work at her blog:

Oh, and in case you didn’t already know it, that really smart guy I quoted in this post’s title was none other than Albert Einstein.