In 1973, I bought my first potters wheel. Before that, I added a little greenhouse on the front of our house where I set up my potters’ wheel. It allowed me to make pots without the necessity of going to the pottery shop at the Art Institute, where I took classes. It also meant that I would have scrap clay accumulating in 5-gallon buckets.
Reclaiming scrape clay by hand requires wedging, which is labor-intensive, time-consuming. Did I say physically demanding? What happens is you dig slop clay out of the bucket and spread it out on a wedging table to let it dry some, and then wedge the clay into homogeneous balls that can be thrown on a potters wheel and made into pottery. Wedging is the process of taking ten pound or larger ball of clay and twisting the clay as you push it. The process creates a spiral shape like a counch or nautilus shell. Wedging will remove air bubbles and inconsistencies in the ball of clay making it possible to shape on the wheel. Wedging clay has never been one of my favorite activities. I avoided wedging clay for years, amassing several five-gallon buckets full of scrap clay. I needed a more efficient way to reclaim the clay, which meant using a machine designed for that specific purpose, a pugmill. In the spring of 1975 I had an idea.
I had an idea!
San Antonio College had a pugmill to reclaim scrap clay, and I decided that I would ask them if I could use their equipment to reclaim my scrap clay. Why I thought that they would let me haul my slop buckets into their ceramic studio, take up their limited space and use their equipment at this point seems very audacious on my part as well as a potential insurance nightmare. But, I did something that I seldom did I took off a day of work and headed to SAC. For the better part of the previous three years, I had been praying about a way to make a transition from working in construction to being a full-time potter. I didn’t realize it, but a door was about to open.
When I arrived at the SAC ceramic sculpture building, which was no longer in the old house on the edge of campus, where I took my first pottery class. It had been relocated to the carriage house on the Koehler Estate grounds, which had been recently acquired by SAC. The Koehler house and grounds were used for college functions and events. I do not think they realized that the sculpture and ceramic projects had a way of spreading out beyond the carriage house confines. The area outside the sculpture and ceramic building was already looking like a debris field of sculpture projects.
He had a better idea.
I promptly found the department head and tried to convince him to allow me to use the department’s equipment to reclaim my scrap clay. He quickly let me know that was not possible, but he had another idea. For another 30 minutes, he asked me questions about my pottery skills, and then he suggested that I come to work in the fall, teaching the pottery classes there. He was a sculptor and detested pottery. The deal as proposed was to exchange workspace and use of the kiln plus $200 a month which was enough to cover our expenses. Here was my pathway to being a full-time potter. They had all the equipment that I needed a kiln to fire my pottery, a pugmill to remix my scrap clay, and I would have a horse stall where I could do my work. It was an answer to prayer. I had been praying for a couple of years about a way to move from construction to making pottery full time. There was a catch. My pay would be much less than I was currently making, and I would need to augment my income by selling my pottery. I was already doing that to some extent. He told me they could only pay me $200 a month. $200 was less than half of what I was making as a carpenter, but it was enough to cover our mortgage, utilities, and some groceries. I know that might sound astonishing to many younger people when they look at the cost of things these days. I went home and talked to my wife, and she agreed that we should give it a try even though we had a nine-month-old baby at home. My wife’s parents thought we had lost our minds.
After I quit my job in late August, I found out that they would only pay me $100 a month instead of the promised $200. For some reason, we did not panic, and I started working in the Ceramics Sculpture Department at the beginning of the fall semester 1975.