“I don’t do very much sketching, and especially not anymore,” said Penland, North Carolina Potter Nick Joerling. “But I’ve always tried to keep a sketchbook open in the studio. In a funny way, something happens in there, really infrequently, but there is something about me wanting to keep that sketchbook open in the studio. I feel like that open sketchbook is an invitation for something unexpected to blow into the studio, which is sort of a romantic notion of sketchbooks and studios.”
Gracious and comfortable with describing himself as an “introvert with fairly good social skills,” Nick included me in his busy schedule to talk about his work and philosophies. He began working with clay in approximately 1972, and moved to Penland on New Years Day in 1980. From 1980 – 1983, he worked at Jon Ellenbogen and Becky Plummer’s Barking Spider studio. From 1980 – 1983, he attended Louisiana State University from where he received his M.F.A. in ceramics, and then returned to the Penland area late in 1986 as a full-time potter with his own studio.
The catalyst for Nick telling me that he is an introvert with fairly good social skills, was my explaining to him (early in our discussion) that I am a poet-introvert who suddenly found a new way of communicating.
Malinda: I find myself in a whole new world, and now, all of a sudden, I’m out there speaking to people; having to articulate eye-to-eye and phone-to-phone, and it’s pretty scary for me. It’s brand new.
Nick: You mean in terms of your website work?
Malinda: Yes, because I’m usually a very behind-the-scenes person, and now I’m not. I’m shaking in my boots (good) half the time.
Nick: Actually what makes me smile as I’m listening to you talk, is not too long ago, I was in a conversation. We were talking about introvert and extrovert, and I comfortably identify myself as an introvert, but with fairly good social skills. So it’s one of those funny things that even if you come with the social skills or ability to be verbal and interact with folks, it doesn’t really mean that you’re either an extravert or introvert. It’s where you go to recharge; with people or without people. I’m happy and have been very stubborn about being in the studio by myself; all my life. So, I think that’s a real introverted approach to life.
Having realized that I am not only drawn to Nick Joerling’s vibrant and energetic pottery, I also recognized the bonus of speaking with a kindred spirit from life’s pool of introverts.
Nick’s approach to life and solitude in the studio has paid off nicely through the manifestation of a well balanced and kinetic pottery.
I initially thought that Nick had once danced professionally, but when I asked about this past experience, he set the record straight by explaining how dance influences his life; how bodily movement is infused into his pots.
Nick: I think when I’m talking about the kind of pots that I’m making and referring to a dance influence, really the influence that I’m talking about is simply me liking to go to dance performances, and knowing a long time ago that somehow — because I found going to dance performances inspirational, I knew that there was some connection between the way I was feeling and responding during a dance performance… that feeling and response somehow show up in the studio.
Nick: When I say that going to dance performances is inspiring, what I mean by the word inspiration is…well, like when you see or hear something, if it’s inspirational, the way it shows up for me is, whatever it is — whether it’s dance performance, music or other pots. By inspiration, I mean that I see something like a dance performance and it makes me want to go to the studio.
Malinda: I understand that feeling. I’m not a potter, but I understand it as a poet.
Nick: We could probably talk a lot about poetry and pottery. I teach workshops around the country and there’s a really nice group of essays by a poet named Mary Oliver, and sometimes, I’ve taken essays from her and handed them out at the workshops. She’s simply talking about writing poetry, but I’ve asked people to substitute the words, “potter,” for “poet,” and “pottery,” for “poem,” and then read the essay. I feel like you find lots of commonalities between the two.
Malinda: Absolutely. That’s fascinating.
Nick: If you want, I’ll track down at least one of the essays that I’m talking about and send it off to you.
Malinda: I’d love it. (As promised, Nick did indeed send me a copy of one of Mary Oliver’s essays and I did read it, as he suggests, for his workshops.)
Your work is so energetic. That’s one of the things that I am incredibly attracted to. It’s just snappy.
Nick: Yes, and again, when I think back or try to figure out why that is, when I speculate about it myself, I think a couple things happen. One is the sort of thing about dance, but really, in some ways I guess, that’s certainly in there in terms of gesture and movement. In some ways, I feel what it has to do with is may even be underlying to the dance. I feel like my cues come from people’s bodies. I think that the most likely place for sources or inspiration to happen for a potter is from pots: circle pots, contemporary pots, magazines or whatnot.
If anything makes my pots a little bit different from other people’s, I think it’s just because my cues are coming from a different place. One of the things I mean by that is that if I’m in the studio working and making things, and especially if I’m trying out some new work, I make something, and I like it. Then, when I take the time to wonder what it is about it I like, and after I trace it back, it seems as if most often it’s because in some way; either tangentially or more explicitly, it has something to do with a human body.
Malinda: That’s pretty evident too, because a lot of it you can really see. I see a bent knee or a positioning of a foot or arm. The teapots, they just absolutely dance.
Nick: Because of all those parts, that teapot form is really one of the most obvious forms to animate, whether you do it like I do– which is to make the references more direct. It’s almost hard not to see every other teapot, and I think there’s some kind of cartoon or animation in there.
Nick: As soon as you take a part, and if you decide to exaggerate that part, that brings in other references. Like I said, it sort of makes the pot animated. The other thing, too, when we’re talking about what you said about how the pots I make are inclined to have movement in them, pots sort of come that way. There is a long history of referring to pots as shoulders, lips, feet and all those body references. They’ve been in there since we [humans] first started talking about pots.
Malinda: In what way?
Nick: Just in terms of language. We would be looking at a pot and we would refer to the bottom of the pot as the foot. We refer to some midsection as the belly and a higher section as shoulders. All that language in terms of how we talk about pots has human references in the language.
Malinda: That’s true.
Nick: It’s almost like pots come with the reference to humans, even from when people first, long ago, started talking about pots.
Malinda: It’s almost like they’re saying, “Make me live.”
Nick: That’s right.
Malinda: I’ve always been mesmerized when watching someone make pottery… at the wheel or any of the other steps. It seems, to me, that it would be your soul right there in front of you. How do you feel? What goes through your mind, or does it just go through your heart?
Nick: You mean simply being in the studio?
Malinda: Simply being in the studio and especially during those times in which everything is coming together and it’s just the way it ought to be.
Nick: We could probably get sort of flowery with adjectives, I guess.
Malinda: Go ahead. I love them!
Nick: I think at the bottom of it is a question of whether what you’re doing, in terms of your work life, is a good fit for you. The thing I think about; in terms of being in the studio, is that I’m there for the pleasure of the activity, and maybe the reference would be, it’s one of those things that you’re doing that is self-rewarding.
Every Saturday for six weeks…Jane Peiser hosted a dinner and then passed out a questionnaire. Maybe we got those ahead of time, anyway, her project was to do a paper on craftspeople and retirement. It was a different group of ten people, every Saturday, for six weeks. She passed out a questionnaire, and then after dinner, she put a mic out in the middle of the table, and whoever was there for dinner; we just talked amongst ourselves. One of the things I remember that was great, and I think this was true for all of the dinners, was that all ten of us…we didn’t have anything we wanted to retire from.
Malinda: Wow. How nice.
Nick: It was a good thing to share with one another. As a matter of fact, I remember the conversation mostly had to do with concern that we stay healthy so we could get to do it as long as possible. The other thing, and this sort of comes back to the other part of it, depending on which day you asked, even though I didn’t have anything that I wanted to retire from, there was something in my older age about trying to put in place things that took the pressure off of making a living.
Nick: So it is that thing about the nuisance of making a living.
Malinda: Doesn’t that just get pesky?
Nick: It does. It can be such an annoyance. So it is that part, too. I’m referring back to this, and this might have happened 20 years ago, and I’m very grateful that that dinner happened because it sort of made me think, “I need to think about taking the pressure off of making a living, if I can swing that.”
Malinda: Shouldn’t we all? And what might be some of the practical aspects of taking the pressure off of making a living?
Nick: Yes. When I was referring to that, I think I was talking about Jane Peiser and her doing a thing about crafts people’s retirement. Really, that part was beneficial for me to start thinking about at a later age taking the pressure off of making a living … that at a younger age, I might have otherwise started trying to save money and make investments, and make that a priority. I had to sacrifice some other things in the present so that at a later time in my life I would have either raw land that I could sell, or a rental house that I could rent. That was what I meant in terms of taking the pressure off of making a living.
In some ways, I feel like maybe we could keep the conversation going in terms of changing it just slightly because one of the things I think that is sort of along the same lines is if we change it from taking the pressure off of making a living to taking the pressure off of the income coming from the studio … that changes it a little bit. It still means that you have to make a living. It just means that your living might not just come from the studio.
Then we were sort of back to things, like I said, I have a rental house. It’s nice that once that place got paid off, the income didn’t depend on my hands in terms of being in the studio and having a living come solely from my hands. Also, I always had great respect and thought it was a perfectly sensible approach to be in the studio part time and doing something else that also brings in an income, and [for others] that could be anything from waitressing to graphic design, or all the other things one might do for income.
I always feel like that’s smart. In the same way, I never think that being in the studio full-time, making a living, is the loftiest aspiration. It never felt like there was any hierarchy involved to me, meaning that if you want to do clay 10%, 40% or 100%, it’s not a hierarchy, it’s just however you want to play it out.
Malinda: I like that philosophical approach. Practical as well as philosophical.
Nick: I just never felt, in terms of an abstract goal, being in the studio full- time was the loftiest aspiration. For a lot of people, they don’t want to be doing it that much of the time.
Malinda: Yes. I find myself in a position right now in which I would like to leave the job I’m in. I don’t hate it. I just do it, and I’m thinking, I’m 52 years old and I had it in my head that it’s too late to start over. Now I find myself starting over and so obviously it’s not too late. I keep asking myself questions about how to fully encompass a new direction, which in this case, focuses on studio pottery and my release to an attachment to an obsolete comfort-zone.
Nick: Those aren’t easy things to find out. As a little aside, that’s one of the reasons I think craft schools are valuable, and not just if you go for two weeks and learn new techniques. One of the great things is at a craft school; you get thrown in with a lot of people who are doing, in our case, clay in a lot of different fashions.
Some of those people are doing it, maybe, full-time, and some of them are trying to figure out, as you indicate you might be, how to do it full-time. As I said, you get to have those really valuable conversations and find out, first of all, how other people are doing it, but second of all, that you’re not alone in trying to make it happen.
Malinda: That’s a big one sometimes. We’re not alone in this.
Nick: Also, I do think it’s one of those cases where I think it shows how susceptible we all are to wanting either what we don’t have, or wanting something other than what we do have. I think again, there are a lot of folks that I’ve come across over the years who thought that they wanted to be in the studio full-time, but once they were there, the sacrifices were more than they wanted. And maybe what they also found out is that to be in the studio full-time was more time in the studio than they wanted. Sometimes you just don’t know.
Malinda: You do have to find your balance in there…it’s about looking at work through a different lens.
Nick: As I mentioned, I do workshops, but there have been a couple times where I like to say I masqueraded as a college teacher. Both of those times were at Penn State[fall semester, 1997 and 2004] and it was a really great experience, but I could tell from those experiences and from doing workshops; in those relentlessly peopled environments, that I get worn out. I could just be in the studio all day long by myself and not think to myself, “Where is everybody?” In some ways, it’s planning it out so that it’s almost like a personality trait rather than a talent or skill.
Malinda: That’s a good perspective.
Nick: I think it’s funny. One of the things I think is valuable about doing workshops is the questions that come up. It sort of makes you think about what we’re all up to.
Malinda: Nick, A few minutes ago, you had mentioned the unexpected happening in the studio. Have you ever had one of those times where at first the unexpected seemed like a big mistake, but it turned out to be the best mistake you’ve ever made?
Nick: Yes. Does that show up in poetry, too?
Malinda: Oh, all over the place. I have taken roads and gone so far off the track on things that I’ve thought, “Wow! I’m happy for that train wreck.”
Nick: I remember an essay that I read. I don’t think it was specific about writing poetry. I think it was just about writing. So this was somebody writing about writing. I think the point of that essay was to, as a young writer, not confuse what triggers the poem with what the poem might be about as you’re writing it. In other words, what triggers the poem might be one thing, but what the poem turns into, might be something very different.
Malinda: I know exactly how that goes. I’ve experienced it many times.
Nick: It’s one of the nice things. In that case, it’s one of the analogies that is not specific to writing. It’s just specific to the creative process, whether your hands are in clay or you’re holding a pen.
Malinda: What would you say might have been one of your most successful experiences with that? Can you pinpoint anything?
Nick: That’s a good question. I feel like I could name a lot of examples, and some of it has to do with different processes. There have been maybe three or four times where all of a sudden, I found myself working in a slightly different way with a technique. For example, one technique is to trap air inside of whatever clay thing you make on the wheel or table, and then shape it. Because you trap air inside, the air helps the item hold its shape. I remember doing that once and being completely surprised by what happened.
Malinda: Do you ever feel that the result of a pot is dictated by itself, like it’s a pot just waiting to happen and you’re a conduit?
Nick: I don’t know whether I say that so strictly, but certainly, I’m very open to the understanding that we act and make things happen, or initiate the conversation and the clay comes back and has something to say. Certainly along the lines of the things that we’re talking about, being surprised by things along the way, that’s an occurrence that I certainly recognize.
I do have sort of a half feeling that I was both an initiator and a receiver. One of the things that I like – years ago – was reading somebody’s definition of a handshake. The definition was a nice definition in which they talked about giving and receiving at the same time. I liked that. It’s a nice way to think about a handshake, but it also made me think it’s a great way to think about working in clay, too. You are coming at the clay and the clay also has something to say.
Malinda: I understand what you mean. In fact, in certain situations in my own life, I’ve used the same analogy of giving and receiving at the same time, sort of like in every relationship had, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. Either way, you’re both teacher and student.
Nick: Yes, that’s a great thing if we can only keep that in mind.
Malinda: It’s not always easy, is it? Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I am teaching. It’s not difficult if there’s not a conflict, but if there’s a conflict, I sometimes have to remind myself that I have a role and a responsibility to create something more than I tear down.
Nick: Yes, absolutely. Also, in regards to the studio and this general topic, I remember I used to work at Haystack, and I remember watching a fellow, working in iron, demonstrate. I have to go back and remember what that fellow’s name was, but one of the nice things about being at Haystack was you got to see so many good teachers. I had a chance to watch them and I tried to take advantage of that.
The thing that just popped in my head was … I remember … the class got into a conversation about copying and stealing ideas, doing things like that. This fellow sort of paused and said he felt it was a much more interesting conversation about how you steal ideas from yourself, which is again one of the nice little phrases in which he was talking about a kind of peripheral vision where something kind of catches you out of the corner of your eye. You take that which didn’t directly happen from focusing on work. It happened from sort of the outskirts.
Malinda: Possibly a sense of letting go? Just letting it happen?
Nick: Yes, that’s always a nice one.
Malinda: Nick, I’ve had so many things that are of interest to discuss with you and I made some general notes. I started out thinking, “Let me make this tight,” and then I realized that that may not work. As it is, I’m just enjoying our conversations and the natural progression they’re taking, so before it slips my mind, I want to address a specific aspect of the decoration on your pottery. I’ve noticed that in your work a red dot appears and is very nicely placed. Is there significance to that? It looks good. Is the significance strictly visual or beyond that?
Nick: Yes. I’m smiling as you mentioned that because one of the things I’ve said before is that I love it when someone comes up to me at a workshop and says the reason they’re taking the workshop is they want to find out about that little red dot.
Malinda: Are you serious?
Nick: It’s happened twice. In both cases, I’ve told them how it was done. I loved watching the conflict in their expression, which was very pleased at how easy it is but irritated about how much money they had spent to find out how easy it is. There is a sort of nice back and forth that happens in that moment. Of course all I’m doing with the dot is; I’ve got wax resist on the brush. I hold the brush where I want the drip to happen and I just drop a single drop of wax onto the pot.
A lot of folks were assuming that because it has a real definite circle in most cases, they’re thinking I’m doing it with a little cut out sponge or something like that, which I’m not. Of course, it has something to do with the drip happening over a chino glaze that is very thin. Because of the nature of the chino glaze, that drip holds itself real definitely, and because of the glaze that then goes around that wax resist dot, because that glaze doesn’t melt into the chino glaze, it remains distinct.
That’s the how of it and the why of it form, and really only has to do with trying to get some color happening on the pot; that dot just gives some color combination without having to introduce a lot of volume of color. So there’s that. It’s just trying to get more than just a monochromatic color. Also, the dot has something to do with a kind of lively mark on a lively pot. If the pot already is animated, that dot sort of bumps up the animation a little bit.
Nick: I feel like some of the things I’m trying to do with brush decoration is…indicate motion or movement, they [illustrators] put those movement lines outside of a character who is running … they just do those quick lines to indicate movement, you know, cartoons in the funny papers? I’m trying to do something like that in [throwing] some of the pots, except that I don’t get to do it outside the pot. In some ways, the notion is the same. I’m trying to put some marks on the surface that zip up an already animated form. Like I said, I don’t have the ability like one would on a drawing; to put it outside of what I’m trying to bump up.
Malinda: It works.
Nick: Well, it works pretty well.
Malinda: It really does. When you started it, how did you come to do it…do you remember? Was it an accident that it became, or did you just sense it?
Nick: It was me trying to figure it out. It wasn’t one of those happy accidents. Plus, I’m someone who just enjoys using a brush. So when you have the pleasure of using a brush and you’re surface decorating, you’re trying to get those brush strokes to interact with form, it leads you to sometimes feeling like an actual brushstroke is the best thing there.
Then there are other times when what I want is to not have the brushstroke compete with the form, but still want something to happen on the form. In those cases, the dot seems to be a good halfway point or solution to that. Isn’t it amazing how we could have an hour-long conversation about a dot?
Malinda: It is!
Nick: Actually, it just made me think. One of my favorite artists is the painter, Paul Klee. He has a quote that I always loved in which he said, “A line is a dot that went for a walk.” It’s a nice playful way to think about brush decorating, drawing or any of those things.
Malinda: That’s a great quote.
Nick: There’s something playful and meaningful in it, too.
As our conversation transitioned into viewing the work of other established potters, Nick expressed how happy he is that the field of pottery continues to be passed into the hands of talented young potters. He also mentioned having been in a recent discussion on a similar topic with other potters; that the field of pottery remains viable, yet there is also a sense of “gulp” when considering the vastness of excellence in the field. As a fan of Nick’s work, I was curious to understand why “gulp” would even cross his mind.
Malinda: Why was that? [Why “gulp”]
Nick: It was an interesting thing that we hadn’t figured out. Some other people said the same thing. I don’t know whether it had to do with that feeling had when you have to deal with an abundance of work out there and it makes you feel a little bit less like working, or whether there was a kind of ego discouragement. I’m not sure what it is. I didn’t stop to really figure it out thoroughly. I just could tell what my reaction was.
It’s the same thing I said today to someone who popped into the studio. One of the things that is also true for us, I think, is if you have a lot of your own work in your studio, in other words, your shelves and display area are full, I think there is a phenomenon of being less inclined to be working. If you’ve got a lot of empty shelves, it makes you want to make pots, and it doesn’t have to do with making a living. It just has to do with if there are a lot of numbers around; the impulse to add to it is less.
Malinda: Maybe it’s a sense of feeling like your work is done?
Nick: There’s something about an abundance that makes you less inclined to add to it.
Malinda: That’s something interesting to ponder. It really is.
Nick: I don’t have a word for it, and if you don’t mind, I’ll keep wandering around the topic because again…this came up recently. I was talking to Jean [McLaughlin], who is the director up at Penland. We were talking about grass schools. One of the things that came up was me referring to a conversation that comes up periodically in workshops. Someone will say something about: How do you deal with the facts that aren’t there enough pots in the world?
I think it comes from people who are sensitive to the environment. Why add more things out there? It’s a great question to carry around. In some ways, how you answer it is less important than just carrying the question. It was always one of those questions that I was never quite sure how to answer. Then once, when we were talking about that at the workshop, one of the things I found myself doing was instead of treating it as a quantity— aren’t there enough pots in the world? — I found myself speaking not to the quantities, but to the qualities.
So, instead of thinking “Aren’t there enough pots in the word,” I thought, “Do we think there is enough creativity in the world? Do we think there’s enough care in the world? Do we think there’s enough beauty in the world?” I started thinking about qualities and not simply about the numbers of pots. If the answer to the question is, “No, we need more beauty, imagination and things like that,” then there is room for more pots. The responsibility, in that case, is to make sure that those qualities get into the things that we make.
Malinda: That’s perfect. Those things will never exhaust themselves.
Nick: Right and like I said, getting those things into everything we make is not an easy task. It requires a lot of the person who’s doing the making, and I don’t think it has to do with great work. It has to do with thinking to yourself that, no matter how perfect the pot, that you’re attempting to put those things into work. Really, it comes down to you’re trying to be attentive, responsible and conscious.
Malinda: Depending on a person’s metaphysics, you’re infusing your heart, your soul into that, and that comes through. You see that. You can see this with any type of art: music, writing, visual art, something can be technically perfect and still be lacking. You think, “Okay, what’s the problem with this performance? There’s nothing technically wrong and still something is missing.” What you just mentioned, that’s what might be missing?
Nick: It sends me to a moment quite a few years ago, and takes us all the way back to the beginning of our conversation a couple days ago which had to do with dance. One of the things I remember a few years ago was going to see a dance troupe [called Pilobolus]. They’re really spectacular to watch, although in some ways it’s more about balance and a kind of gymnastics than a more formal dance.
They’re great, but I remember as I was watching the performance that they were so technically brilliant, that I actually found myself thinking that how good they were; it was getting in my way of enjoying the dance…marveling at how in the world they were doing that. It had much to do with the way they were dancing with one another, holding one another and balancing one another. The thought I had gotten etched into my head was that we were 45 minutes, or maybe an hour into the performance. It had all been great, yet there was one moment where a male dancer was lifting a female dancer above his head—I don’t remember if it was with one hand or two—but while he was holding her above his head, you could see his arm wavering from the exertion, and for the first time in that whole performance, it just broke my heart because it was so beautiful…for the first time in that performance you saw the struggle and the imperfection, and you weren’t wowed by the amazing skill — you saw a kind of lack of skill, and like I said, that’s the moment that I took away and found heartbreakingly beautiful.
Malinda: As I’m watching you’re description in my mind’s eye, I feel the need to go to a dance performance. It’s been awhile since I’ve attended one. I’m glad you told me that.
Nick: It’s all of the topic, I think.
Nick and I also discussed some of the thoughts and questions that occupied his mind when he first arrived in Penland as a young potter.
Nick: I’ve always been happy I landed in the Penland area as a young potter. When I got here and was wondering if I could sell a pot, or how to make it happen, everyone around me was giving me galleries to try and clay bodies to try, helping me in every way you could think. It was a great model to have at that point in time; it said, “We’re all in it together. We’re not in competition with each other.”
Malinda: And if you are in competition, you want the competition to succeed.
Thank you, Nick.
– “There are times when I’m leaving the studio, and turning out the lights, and glancing around, and I’m thinking, where did that stuff come from?”© All Rights Reserved. 2011 Studio Potter Archive Images © Nick Joerling, all rights reserved.