The Potters of Muddled Through

By the time you read this, I should be on the Isle of Skye. That is, if I was able to produce a negative covid test while we were in Dublin so we could get on the cruise ship. When Bill and I toured Cuba in 2013, our tour guides had a saying whenever someone asked if it was possible to see or do some particular thing. “Everything is possible. Nothing is certain.” Bill and I find this saying applies well to these covid times, too. So, I’ll probably be reading your comments, but not attempting to respond to them. Unless I’m quarantining in some dreary booked-at-the-last-minute hotel in Dublin, in which case I’ll be responding to every single one of your comments, immediately.

I knew for awhile before I wrote Muddled Through that I wanted to write a book about a pottery business in Maine. We have so many splendid potters and artist-entrepreneurs in this state. Scattered through some of the previous books in the Maine Clambake Mystery series, you’ll find the information that my main character, Julia Snowden’s sister, Livvie works as a potter in the off-season. Until I wrote Muddled Through, I had only the vaguest notion of where she worked, who she worked for and what she did.

I’m not a potter. My manual dexterity is–not one of my strengths. And if my eighth grade experience of trying to control a sewing machine with a foot pedal is any indication, I’m extremely ill-suited to the potter’s wheel. So I wasn’t going to try throwing pots myself. Julia, my point of view character, isn’t a potter, either, so I figured I could get away with it.

If you’re a regular reader of the acknowledgments in my books, you’ll know that when I don’t know something, I very often turn to books. For example, I had two fabulous books about the female photographers of National Geographic that I used extensively in my research for Muddled Through. But I didn’t find any books about pottery that were really helpful.

I watched The Great Pottery Throw Down on HBO Max. It’s very much in the style of the Great British Bake-Off and it was interesting and fun.

But I got most of my information from three potters, who were extremely helpful and generous with their time.

Malley Weber

Photo credit: Malley Weber

I sought out Malley Weber because I had a notion I wanted to include information about using local clay in pottery. Malley has a pottery practice that includes digging for and using wild clay. She was able to answer questions like: How do you know where to look? When do you dig? How to you get permission to dig? How do you process the wild clay once you have it? How much wild clay yields how much usable clay?

Malley also talked to me about her business and her art. She teaches, and does special projects as well as selling her work. Every potter I talked to had some variation on this sentiment, but Malley was the one who said, “Pottery is therapy but in the end you get art.”

You can see Malley in videos here talking about digging and processing local clay. You can buy her beautiful artwork here.

Alison Evans

Photo credit: AE Ceramics

Alison Evans is the creative and business force behind AE Ceramics. I wanted to talk to her because she runs a business of the size and scale I imagined for my fictional character, Zoey Butterfield and her Lupine Design. Alison was so helpful with questions like: How many people work there? What do they do? How did you find your retailers? Where do you buy your clay? What’s it like to ship these fragile pieces all over the country? Alison very generously sent me photos of her studio. I may also have borrowed tiny aspects of her shop and her color palette for my fictional business. However, she does not share her space with a cantankerous old Mainer and no one has ever discovered a body in her basement. (I hasten to add.)

You can browse and buy AE Ceramics beautiful pieces here.

Behind the scenes at AE Ceramics

Jan Thomas Conover

Photo credit: JTC Pottery

Jan Thomas Conover of JTC Pottery is married to my mother’s first cousin, which makes her my ? Like me, Jan is in her second act, though hers is pottery. I’ve had the privilege of watching Jan’s art blossom via her social media posts over the years. She is truly amazing. Jan walked me through the full process of making the pottery stage by stage, and the many decisions and experiments that happen along the way.

You can see Jan’s beautiful pottery on her business Instagram page here and her business Facebook page here.

Each of these woman creates in unique ways, and each has a different business model and approach to the commerce side. Yet they all spontaneously expressed the same joy about working with clay and mastering the many techniques and stages that creating pottery demands.

It was fascinating to me how, unprompted, each spoke about the constant failures one experiences when working with pottery. Failures at every stage of the process and every stage of a career. They talked about how some people can’t handle the constant failure and abandon the art. But for those who stay with it, the ultimate lesson of pottery is about learning from failure and facing the future with resilience and optimism.

Reader question: Do you have things you’d like to learn about but never actually do? What are some of them?

12 Thoughts

  1. Barb, I hope you made it onto the cruise! I finished Muddled Through a few days ago and loved it so much.

    The thing I wanted to do but was slow getting going on was writing mysteries – and I did it! I would love to pick up the cello again, after a fifty-five year break, but I doubt I will.

  2. First, I hope you are headed to Skye!
    Enjoyed hearing about your research and these talented potters. Doc and I took pottery classes at our community college after he retired. We have some small bowls he threw that came out well. I was better at hand building than the wheel. Those st the college only went in one direction, and being a lefty, I wanted it to rotate in the opposite direction… I have tons of admiration for potters who produce lovely things~

  3. Barb, I hope you are on your cruise right now.

    I would love to learn to swim, but my deep fear of water keeps me on land.

  4. Fingers crossed that you’re enjoying Skye right now and that the weather is beautiful. Learning more about wine has been on my to-do list for years but never seems to make it to the top.

  5. Hope you are sailing away on a great adventure!

    For me, I think ii would have to be the craft of sewing. My introduction to it in junior high home economics was horrible. I broke my hand on my 13th birthday. Not only having my hand in a cast but a cast that had a metal extension for the middle finger made sewing very hard. Plus I had a teacher who had to have things done her way. Falling behind, I was the only one allowed to take my work home. My Mom was an excellent seamstress and made a lot of my clothes, but the teacher had a different method of getting to the same result. It meant that what I accomplished at home I spent the next day ripping out over and over again. It frustrated my Mom and gave me such a bad experience that I’ve never really tried it much again.

    Love to see the fabulous work others have crafted – especially quilts. Often wish I could make something so beautiful. I’ve checked into it, thought about it, but never taken the plunge to actually do it.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  6. Sure hoping you made the cruise, Barb! Tarot card reading has always fascinated me. Would love to know more about it, though I don’t see me giving anyone readings. Too much pressure to find something good.

  7. Barb, I hope you are on your cruise!

    I have my violin under my bed and I think about picking it up, but there’s little fun in playing alone. I’d start playing piano again, but the instrument needs some serious repair to get it back in tune.

  8. Fingers crossed that you are seeing this comment and not responding because you made the cruise!

    I am the proud owner of a wheel and kiln. I did take some pottery classes in Key West and in doing that, I discovered that I center left-handed and throw right handed – good thing that wheel has a reverse switch! We had no space for the wheel or kiln in Florida, and I’m trying to figure out where I can put it now in our Maine house. Hubs has taken up building for a hobby so maybe he’ll build me a studio! I’ll be starting from square one, but it is so therapeutic to be up to your elbows in clay. Or was I the only kid who played in mud?

    Safe travels.

  9. I’m sooooo looking forward to reading “Muddled Through.”
    I live in a town that was once known for its potters, and mom grew up with pottery for dishes, rather than the better known commercial brands. Over the years, as we moved from place to place, our love of potters and their skill never left us. When I had a particularly contentious college graduate experience, I signed up for a pottery class and smashed away my woes every Monday night until the situation resolved itself. Pottery – a whole other kind of therapy. LOL So many stories and not enough space here to tell them.

    Many thanks for introducing us to the pottery pros!

    As for wishing and never actually doing…quilting would be my target activity. I envy those that can do it, attend quilting shows, have quilts in the house, but have never had the time to attempt the craft.

  10. I would like to learn how to be a better quilter by hand. My parents always told me that when my grandmother cross stitched, you could not tell the front from the back. I am not sure that I could ever be that good, but I would like to spend more time working on both. Thank you for sharing. God bless you.

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