The Makings of a Mentor

Ignition:  A Tribute to an Early Mentor
by gwendolyn yoppolo

Kiln loading site

Kiln loading site

There was a point in my life when I was falling asleep each night on top of the book World Ceramics, open to a spread of Tamba storage jars or German salt-fired steins.  I had no concept that a life making pots was an option, but still I dreamed myself inside of those pots every night.  A year into taking throwing classes, my hands still struggled to steady the clay around its spinning axis, but I was so hooked.  One day I stumbled upon Supermud, a tiny community pottery just a few blocks from my apartment in Manhattan.  Inside, amidst pottery cascading from shelves on all sides, was Louise Harter, throwing calmly on her kick wheel.  I quickly signed up for apprenticing and taking classes there, and one night I dreamed myself so far inside of a firing wood kiln that my waking self was afire for days afterwards.  Soon afterwards, Louise announced that she would be leading a group of apprentices in the building of a wood kiln in upstate New York.

So on the weekends, we drove four hours to an empty plot of land, camping out as we built and then fired the kiln.  The shared goal represented by that kiln marked the first truly collaborative endeavor I had ever been part of.  During this time my world broke open with the epiphany that we can make what we need, including the kiln to fire our pots.  Plus, when working with others we can manifest what we need to happen, in this case the firing of our wares using wood.  The fire becomes a symbol of the elemental transfer of energy from the potter’s body, through the metabolism of wood, into the clay body transforming in the kiln.

It is hard not to see the correlation between feeding the personal body and feeding the kiln, especially because of the centrality of food events to our work as potters.  Louise’s teachings turned the kitchen into a place of passionate preparation and the dining table into a landscape where the aesthetics of generosity and nourishment grew wild.  Something rooted deep inside of me through the time spent with Louise.  I knew that I had to do this work for a living:  empowering people as makers, laying the table with good food, and tending fires of transformation.  Louise brought me to the realization that a life as a maker was not only possible for me, but also that I had no other choice.

Louise at the kiln

Louise at the kiln

When we were asked to choose a mentor to invite to Utilitarian Clay VI, I had a hard time, as so many people have been generous and supportive to me over the years.  A mentor is more than a teacher of skills – she offers wisdom, advice, and perspective as well.  It’s not as if a mentor has all of the answers for us, or can show us exactly how to pursue a life working in clay.  It’s more that she helps us clarify our own questions.  I chose Louise as a tribute to her role in cracking open the shell of my known world.  In essence, she brought me to my own starting place.  Through my time with her, my mind found a new understanding of my place in history, my hands awakened to their power, my heart rose to the call of collaborative learning, and my spirit shifted to embrace a radically new set of life choices.  My life as a maker ignited. 

Janet Mansfield, The Generosity of Time
by Emily Schroeder Willis

On February 4th, 2013 I opened my email to find a simple headline that stopped me short.  It read: “JANET MANSFIELD (1934-2013)”.  It was from the NCECA office and they just heard Janet had passed.  It wasn’t until sitting down to write this that I could get myself to open the email. Our paths crossed briefly, only meeting perhaps three times, but I owe a lot to Janet Mansfield. 

Janet Mansfield, 2012. Photography Greg Piper.

Janet Mansfield, 2012. Photography Greg Piper.

As a young artist, my heart was set on going to Germany to study ceramics.  In the process of writing a grant proposal to travel there for several months I began having difficultly finding contacts there for my proposal.  However, I had read many fantastic articles in Ceramics: Art & Perception and thought perhaps I could shift gears and write a proposal to go to Australia instead.  I didn’t know a lot about Australian ceramics, but I knew they put out a pretty darn good magazine. 

On a whim, I emailed the editor, Janet Mansfield, and asked her if she could tell me a bit about Australian ceramics, which schools were good and where she would recommend going.  I also need to preface that this was in the year 2000; the early years of the internet when getting information about American schools was difficult, much less for schools across the ocean.  Goodness knows how I even found an email address for Janet, but nonetheless, I emailed her.  And more importantly, she responded.

Janet Mansfield responded within a few days and with ample information.  She wrote about which schools might be a good fit for me, who was teaching at which places, and which cities were actively involved in the crafts.  We exchanged emails a few more times and that was that.  I wrote my Jerome Grant proposal to study ceramics at the Australia National University with Janet DeBoos and got it.  It was a perfect fit and a fabulous 5 months.  I owe a lot to Janet DeBoos, my teacher at ANU, but I owe even more to Janet Mansfield. 

Bottle by Janet Mansfield

Bottle by Janet Mansfield

Working full time as the editor of Ceramics: Art & Perception, running her ceramics gallery in Sydney, and continuing to be a prolific artist kept her pretty occupied to say the least.  The last thing someone like Janet needed to do was write out a lengthy report on the state of Australian ceramics to some young ignorant American ceramics student who didn’t know what she was doing or where she was going.  And I have always appreciated her for doing just that.

When I think about Janet Mansfield, I think of a person who was very generous.  She owed me nothing, she knew nothing about me, and she would gain nothing by helping me out, but she helped me anyway.  I admire and respect her for taking time in her busy life, to spend 30 minutes writing to a young American artist. This wonderful woman demonstrated such a great lesson: to take time for a young artist because you never know how a small thing can greatly impact the lives of others. 

As it turns out, because of those 30 minutes I have quite a bit to thank Janet Mansfield for.  It makes me wonder how many other people asked her questions and how many of those people she responded with such thorough and generous answers.  That generosity continues to challenge me in spite of my busy schedule to be as helpful and giving as her.