by John Nance. Review by Steven Goldate.
John Nance’s diary-style book ‘The Mud-Pie Dilemma’ is a journalist’s account of the life and struggles of American studio-potter Tom Coleman.
Nance picks up the story of Tom Coleman, the potter, in Oregon in 1977, when Tom is 32 years old. He had already been making a living as a potter for eleven years. Tom has just eight weeks to get together enough work for a major show in Seattle – about 100 pieces – a major task.
Nance follows Tom’s preparations for the show from august to October 1977 – his work, his life, hopes, disappointments and achievements.
How to start making work for a show that’s supposed to be happening in only eight weeks? It goes something like this: “Quickly making a tall cylinder, he began shaping it into a bowl. The grey-white porcelain was wet and soft and sticky smooth in the sweltering heat. It gleamed as it spun, like a tiny planet.” But behind the beauty and poetry of the craft also lies a stark reality. The Colemans (Tom and his wife Elaine, an accomplished potter in her own right) had been grossing around $30,000 a year. After expenses and taxes, the rest was quickly consumed by living expenses. Unfortunately, struggling to make ends meet is a common story amongst potters. Pottery is not necessarily a craft people pursue because they think it will make them rich, but it’s a satisfying way of life and an opportunity to to get your fingers into the ‘mud-pie’.
Tom manages to make 160 pieces in the time he allowed himself. From these he chooses 100 for the show, pricing them a bit below their possible worth, i.e. ‘to sell’. The exhibition at Northwest Crafts Center, seems to be only mildly successful – not quite what Tom was hoping for. Sales were not plenty and the bottom line is that after deducting all expenses, Tom has earned only a couple of hundred dollars. This was not very encouraging!
It is at this point that author John Nance has some interesting conversations with other potter’s in Coleman’s ‘circle’ – his teacher Bill Creitz, potter friend Pat Horsley and an early teacher, Leta Kennedy. Nance ‘interviews’ them about their relationship with Tom and their views on pottery. But the most interesting comment comes from visiting Scottish potter Brian Johnstone, who says “My God, mon, yuv gaw ta loosen oop. Yuhrr pawts are just too tight!”
The second edition of Nance’s book has been extended to include a substantial section “Twenty-five Years Later”. Tom has moved to Nevada and has persisted in making pottery. His persistence has been rewarded and he has established quite a reputation for himself in the USA and abroad.
When Tom moved to Nevada in 1987, not only did his surroundings change, so did his work, which now also incorporates wood-fired pieces with ash glazes or multiple-sprayed glazes, resulting in subtle, harmonious effects. Tom has also branched out, making sculptural work as well as sculptural vessels.
Elaine Coleman has also matured and gained recognition for her work, which consists of skilled carvings of stylized plant and animal life under subtle celadon glazes. Her email address ‘CeladonQueen@hotmail.com’ reflects this achievement.
The Colemans’ story reflects the struggle of many, many potters around the world. However, while there is struggle, there is also another important message embedded in their story – persistence can bring rewards, and it’s not only reaching your goals that’s rewarding, but also the journey itself.