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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?

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