November 30, 2010
After making pots for 20 years and teaching college ceramics for 10 years, I decided at some point that a change was needed. Maybe it was the three-hour faculty committee meetings after teaching all day, or my colleagues at lunch asking me why I wanted to play with clay.
Many months were spent developing a plan that hopefully would get me out of the deeply worn pattern that had crept up on me over the years since graduate school. With some careful thought and a considerable amount of money, I moved from the city to the country. My new house had a walk-out sunny basement, which made a perfect place for my pottery studio. The space had good light and large windows opening onto a grassy lawn edged by white birch trees. I equipped the studio with a wheel, wedging table, worktables, shelves, an electric kiln, and a glazing area stocked with raw materials. You would think this purchase was the one that changed my life, but it didn’t bring about the biggest transformation.
The New York City apartment house where I grew up and spent my first 17 years didn’t allow dogs. Cats yes, probably because a dog has to be walked and the law of averages predicts sometimes accidents can occur with the dog on the way to the street. During college, a dog was not possible as it was difficult enough just to take care of myself. After graduate school, my energies were spent with learning to teach ceramics and accommodating my girlfriend, but that’s a whole other story that fortunately will remain only in my memory. So it was bad timing that left me dog-less. In retrospect, my dog-less years were soon to be balanced out by having too much dog-which proves that, if you can wait long enough, things even out.
I had just finished making a set of nesting bowls in my studio and decided to take a break. While walking around the circle in front of my house, a very large black dog came running up to me. This turned out to be my future companion’s brother or littermate. My neighbor had purchased a black Labrador retriever puppy just six months old. The dog looked almost full-grown with a large head and exceedingly large feet. I couldn’t believe how big the dog was while not even being full-grown. After a few questions, I realized had to get just such a dog. One of the questions not asked was, “How much does this thing eat?” I have since learned never to buy something large that has to be fed.
The trip to the dog breeder on that Saturday morning in October found me in a rural driveway. I was looking at two or three dozen black labs, with a few chocolates scattered in the group. Most of the dogs were the short-legged, common-looking Labrador hunting dogs often seen on outdoor clothing companies calendars. However, a few dogs looked like they were on steroids or strayed too near a nuclear power station. These creatures were taller, larger, and much bigger in every feature than their average-sized companions. It was this group that my neighbor’s dog had come from and, as I walked across the lawn, it became evident my future dog was just waiting to be taken home. The only real question was which giant would choose me to become its caretaker, and friend.
As I found myself the center of attention in this group of dogs, one puppy came jumping up and knocked me over into a thankfully clean patch of lawn. It was just luck, because when I looked around there were clearly many large mounds of… well, you know. The strange thing about these lawn droppings was their size; they certainly could have been mistaken as exiting from a cow. As my new friend licked my face with a meaty smell on his breath, I just knew we would be going home together. My companion was more than ready to go as I wrote a rather large check and was given his papers. He had championship parents who I met briefly while making the last arrangements for this adoption. The breeders, a nice couple, gave me a small bag of dog food, which lasted until we got to the car.
On the way home from the breeding kennel, the story of Robinson Crusoe came into my mind. Shipwrecked on a desert island, Crusoe finds a man washed up on the beach. He then gives his new-found companion the name Friday. This was a perfect name for my new friend. I had visions of Friday, watching me make pots and staying by my side as I worked in the studio. Well, visions was the right word for it because that’s what they were-nice thoughts but not reality based. Friday was always on the move, exploring, eating, excreting, and generally not at all like the quiet friend I had imagined for myself. He stayed in the ceramics studio with me until I caught him drinking out of the glaze buckets and it was time to “dog proof” the studio and get a personal trainer to work on his behavior.
He knew all the standard dog tricks: lie down, play dead, roll over, give me your paw (right and left paws). It was just real life that gave him-or should I say me-problems. His real life was fine; mine revolved around and cleaning up after him, and us going on long exercise walks. Somehow in my rush to get a dog, I neglected to research the Labrador retriever breed. They need lots of exercise and early training. However, they are gentle with children and have a good disposition. Maintaining his daily routine left little time for making pots. However, by the sixth year of his life, Friday had slowed down to almost normal speed. He would sit by my feet in the morning while I had my coffee, which was an improvement over his past routine of pacing up and down the kitchen looking over his shoulder for the next drop of food.
Friday was solid black, almost having a blue black coat, which used to shed hairs into my newly thrown pots. After lying down on his side in the studio with that big pink tongue falling out of his open sleepy mouth, he would get up with clay dust on his side. I kept the studio very clean, but there was always a gray side to Friday. He was at his best in his resting or thinking position. His big brown eyes would follow the kickwheel around and around. Just looking at his eyes dart around got me dizzy. There must be something to be said for a single-digit IQ, as he never found this activity or lack of activity too dull or boring. He was just glad to be with me. Thinking back, he was smarter than I since he was the one being fed, cared for, and had the run of the house and studio. All this for performing a few tricks. He led a wonderful, uncomplicated life and was a constant friend in the studio. I talked with him at length about the problems of making pots, glazing pots and selling pots. Like a true friend, he listened intently but never said I should go into more lucrative line of work.
My vacation to Florida was starting in one day. After packing for the trip, I dropped Friday off at a boarding kennel that was owned by some friends. Friday had stayed there on each trip that I took in the past. As usual, he was jumping and licking my ear in the car on the way to the dog hotel. At the end of each stay at the kennel, he came back exhausted and sluggish but seemed to enjoy the new sights and smells of being away from home. In retrospect, I did not interpret or understand that his stay was stressful. I was later to pay for this error and in many ways I am still paying for my miscalculation.
Three days into my vacation on a warm sunny morning, the kennel owners called me in Florida. While I always called them to check on Friday, they had never called me, and so I was told Friday had died. They found him dead that morning. The veterinarian was called and it was determined Friday died of internal strangulation. This potential problem is common in some breeds of large dogs, cows and horses. Their stomach’s, when full with food, can flip over and close off their intestines. That morning, I learned more about the internal plumbing of my friend than I ever wanted to know. I cannot tell you the sorrow and ache in my heart. It’s true in times of great loss your heart does physically ache and hurt. I came home the next day.
My veterinarian suggested we could cremate Friday and I could keep his ashes. After 10 years of being together almost every day, I just wanted to keep him around; about two weeks later Friday did come home again. His ashes were in a small oblong tin box about the size of a grapefruit. At some point, making a ceramic jar to contain his ashes entered my thoughts but the box rested on a shelf in the basement studio. It did give me some comfort to know he was just in the basement. In fact when a friend called several weeks later and asked about him I said, “Friday’s in the basement.” After the phone call, I realized I had forgotten to mention that Friday was dead.
Several months went by and every day working in the pottery studio I would look up on the shelf and notice the tin box. While mixing glazes one afternoon, another thought came into my head. In graduate school after making pots all day, my fellow classmates and myself would go to the local bar for a few beers. After talking awhile, the subject of bone ash would come up and what other sources of this high-temperature flux would work besides cow bones. I began considering Friday in his present form (bone ash, calcium phosphate) to supply the bone ash requirement for my glaze. More specifically, I was thinking of glazing just one coffee cup for myself and using Friday’s bone ash as a glaze ingredient. The idea of having a part of Friday in my coffee cup would in some way keep him close to me as he was in the past.
Over the next several weeks, I mentioned this idea to some friends. After observing the look on their faces, the number of people I told decreased to a very few. There was an interesting division among the group. Potters registered recognition with the idea and interest. Many expressed their relief that they had these thoughts themselves. It seems that others had also traveled the same mental and emotional path and had considered using the bone ash of a loved friend and companion. Non-potters either said or probably thought this integration of Friday into a coffee cup was morbid, aberrant behavior on my part. They reacted with a blank look or shock when I revealed my plans. However, for the most part, they were polite and assumed that people dealing with grief are allowed a certain amount of understanding for their pain. My own feelings were at some level where you either intuitively make the jump or not. You either get it or you don’t.
One day in my studio, I took the tin down from the shelf and opened it to find a light gray powder. It was much the same as any other glaze raw material, and it was easily measured out into a c/6 electric, gloss black, glaze formula I had developed several years ago when Friday was in the studio drinking from my glaze buckets. After weighing out all the other dry materials, I added water and ran the wet glaze through an 80x mesh sieve three times. My bisqued coffee cup was on the worktable, and I first poured the liquid glaze into the cup, and then poured out the excess. After letting the cup dry for a while, I dipped it into the liquid glaze for the outside coating and that was that! Loading up the electric kiln the next day was interesting as I placed the cup on the kiln shelve and hoped for a good result. The kiln fired as expected, and the cup was the first piece I looked for when unloading.
There is some comfort in keeping loved ones close in whatever form. As I write this at my kitchen table, my coffee is in a gloss black, almost blue-black glazed cup.
Black Friday Glaze c/6/ox
Nepheline syenite 270x 20
Ferro frit#3124 20
Flint 325x 17
Bone ash (Friday) 10
Mason black stain #6600 12