The Starting of a Journey
It was the summer of 1985 when I moved to the University of California at Berkeley. I started working as a part-time programmer at the campus. At lunch, I would walk about the university grounds and spend a lot of time looking at pottery made at the Art Studio. I would admire the forms, glazes, and the students sitting at the potter’s wheel. Unable to hold myself any longer, I registered for pottery classes. We started with wedging clay and hand-building. I had been to just two classes when the studio was gutted by a fire. My attempt to learn pottery was cut short, but deep in my heart there was the desire to pick it up at the next available opportunity.
We returned home to India and then life took over….it was only in 2014, when I left my full time corporate job, that I enrolled for a pottery course at The Delhi Blue Pottery Studio in Anandagram Sanskriti, New Delhi. The first three months were full of angst. Centering the clay on the wheel was the toughest – it was common for the clay to fly off the wheel or for the pot to get off center and slump off if anyone even so much as tried to speak with me.
Lesson #1: Focus! Unwavering attention was the key.
Learning from the great masters
I spent six months learning the basics of wheel throwing at the Delhi Blue Studio in Anandagram. Unable to go to the studio any longer, as I had started my IT consulting engagements, I bought a potter's wheel and practiced making pots at home. When I'd made enough, I would pack them and take them to Anandagram for firing. The first firing (bisqueting) was to 1000°C and then once the pots were strong, we would apply glaze and fire again. I learnt how to make glazes and firing from Gary Hambleton and Japneet Keith. They fabricated and installed my kiln in Nov 2016.
Reduction Firing in a gas kiln is a nerve wracking process. I fire to 1280°C and the kiln has to be monitored every half hour and manual adjustments made. The Great Masters who I learnt glazing from are Gary Hambleton and Sandeep Manchekar, whose workshops I attended, and Gurcharan Singh ji, John Britt, Greg Daly, and Robin Hopper, whose books and articles I read again and again.
I didn't realize the number of variables that determine the final outcome in glazed ceramics – the glaze composition, quality of ingredients, the thickness of application, the placement in the kiln, the temperature and time to which it is fired and most important the atmosphere and the saturation of oxygen in the kiln. There is so much science to the art we produce! One can only try to do one's best but cannot control the outcome. The fire and the kiln gods have the final say!
Lesson #2 – Make peace with what you cannot control.
With the kiln installed in our front garden, I had the luxury to fire my pots and experiment with glazes. From November 2016, I practiced operating my kiln and tested 10-15 new glazes each month.
Soon, my graphs and notes filled many folders, glaze raw materials and containers filled our garage, and test tiles filled up many cartons. I was firing twice each month. The firing cycle takes almost 12 hours each for bisque and glaze. You can imagine my plight through sweltering summer and freezing winter – on particularly bad days the firing would go on until 2 AM and I would be lugging pails of hot water to keep the gas cylinder warm and the fire going.
The Potter's Market held at the Sanskriti Museum in Delhi is an annual affair and potters from all over the country are invited to participate. Since only potters who have been practicing for 3+ years are eligible to apply, I was hoping to get a slot in 2017. Well, I missed the mail and all slots were taken.
Unexpected opportunities came my way – Rekha, a renowned ceramic artist and curator, was looking for some ceramic pieces for a Diwali pop up at a local store in Gurgaon. I took a few of my pieces to show her and she graciously accepted all.
Then my aunt offered to have a Pottery Open house at her place in DLF Gurgaon. She is a follower of Mother Teresa and we decided that the proceeds of the sale would go to the Missionaries of Charity. Many of our friends came and helped us in our cause. Both were huge morale boosters and gave me the enthusiasm to do more.
Lesson #3 – When one door closes, others will open… seize the opportunities that come your way
the wind beneath my wings
Ceramics takes a lot of effort to master and is a lifelong learning journey. There are many surprises and each step in the making of a ceramic piece is fraught with risk. The risk of cracking, breaking, warping, and then the final product, when it finally emerges after going through many firing cycles, may be nothing like what one had envisioned.
In early 2018, after a particularly rough firing as I sat next to a mound of test tiles, a dear friend and neighbor, stopped by. Lalit-ji set up the Design School at IIT, Delhi, and after retirement started sculpting and learning pottery. Always encouraging and motivating, he spurred me to try new techniques. After a month or so, I was successful in my firing and had a particularly nice set of pottery. The next time when he came and appraised critically, he surprised me by asking if I would like to join him in a group show at the Visual Arts Gallery in the Habitat. The exhibitors included the teachers at Delhi Blue as well as other tenured potters. I accepted with a great deal of trepidation and thereon started sleepless nights as the show was seven months away. My husband, son, mother, brother, sister, and many friends supported me in my moments of fear, dread, nervousness, and stress. They were truly the wind beneath my wings.
My set of firsts for the group show were endless – preparing the write-ups, pricing the pieces, packing, transporting, unpacking, arranging the exhibits, explaining individual items to the visitors, …it was like nothing I had done before.
Lesson #4: Never Give Up. Persevere, try something new, and keep the goal in mind.
The show went well and India International Center invited me in December 2018 to present a solo in January 2019. The cycle started again – this time I had 6 weeks and I was alone!
My first solo ceramics show was titled 'Whimsical Glazes'. I focused on Oriental Glazes and Luster – Copper reds, Tenmoku, Oribes, Rutile Blues, Titanium Whites, and others. Works on Luster included small figurines, Shibori inspired slip trail on tiles, and motifs inspired from nature. More than 60 works were on display.
The exhibition ran for 7 days and there was almost a continuous stream of visitors including visitors from overseas. I remember explaining the chemical reactions that take place in the kiln during reduction to a very polite group from the U.S. Only later did I realize that the group comprised a Professor of Chemistry from Stanford University!
It was an excellent opportunity to meet artists, curators, collectors, designers, visitors, and students. I had a huge fan moment when Ira Choudhary, the first-lady of Indian Ceramics, visited the show. Ceramics, like life, is an arduous, but interesting, journey. Full of twists and turns, surprises and learnings.
Lesson #5: Sharpen yourself. Learn something new every day.