A Gold Mine in Gresham

I have one of the best gigs out there for a potter like me…edging my way into the professional sphere, having just found my true voice in pottery, and feeling confident (even on top of the world at times) about my future.  That gig is Ceramics Technician at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon.

On the surface, it’s a part-time job as assistant manager of a ceramics studio serving 100-125 students per quarter.  I keep the kilns running and clay recycling, remind students to clean up after themselves (i.e. clean up after students; I’m starting to dream of getting a Mother’s Day gift this year), repair anything that needs repairing and come up with clever solutions to those little problems like, “How can we better store our bisque kiln shelves?”  But, in my 6th month of employment as ceramics tech, I see this job as a gold mine in disguise…this is really a resident artist position.  In exchange for working 20 hours per week, I get the freedom and resources to immerse myself in exactly what moves me so that I can develop a truly unique, meaningful body of work and establish myself as a professional potter.

I have a private studio, 24/7 access to the entire department, and use of all the recycled clay, slips, glazes, etc that the department keeps in stock.  I can pretty much fire to my heart’s content, but student work comes first, of course.  And when I say “..to my heart’s content…” I really mean it.  I have access to 2 gas reduction kilns, a soda kiln, a small anagama-style wood-fired kiln, a smaller/fast-fire catenary arch wood-fired kiln and 4 electric kilns.  Oh, and a raku kiln, but I’m not into that much anymore (explored raku for a few years; built a top-hat style raku kiln with my dad some years ago, even tried bisque and cone 6 in it!).  Did I mention I get to fire all of these, as often as I can/want, FREE OF CHARGE??

Like I said, GOLD MINE.

My position also allows me the freedom to explore new techniques and materials.  For students, the MHCC studio is strictly high-fire/cone 10, and everything is fired in either wood or gas fueled kilns.  I’ve been firing my porcelain pieces with the black and red brushwork  in the school’s Alpine updraft kiln; however, getting true black and white is difficult in a reduction kiln.  “Clear” glaze is finicky at cone 10, and my underglazes can change color with too much reduction.  I realized last month that it’s time to convert to cone 6 and save myself some headaches (not to mention it’ll save time and energy firing mid-range).  A friend fired a few test pieces for me last weekend, and I’m just a step or two away from whipping out my first kiln load of cone 6 pots!  With 4 wood-fires on my schedule this season, I am SO ready for some black, white, and red!!

Aside from the perks of unlimited studio space and materials, I will surely reap even greater benefits from the education this job offers.  Since I have never owned my own reduction, wood-fired or soda kiln I am suddenly faced with the challenge of solving firing and kiln construction issues on a nearly weekly basis.  Although I’d been a student in this studio since 2005, I hadn’t been thoroughly trained on firing the two gas reduction kilns, in which we fire the majority of student work.  All of a sudden, though, lessons learned in 14 years of piecemeal education have coalesced to lead me with confidence through any firing.  Ok, maybe not 100% confidence, but the foundation is there.  I am now honing my skills and expanding my knowledge of not just firing theory but glaze formulation, clay bodies, forming techniques and aesthetics.

It’s only been a little over a year since I discovered what I can only call my true voice in clay.  The excitement of that discovery is still very fresh.  My heart really does race with anticipation when I look at a particular piece, this box, the “Red Kite,” which I know is leading me somewhere as yet undefined.   As a technician at MHCC I have the space and materials to develop this body of work, but recent experiences at the studio have led me to an unexpected discovery about myself: I want to be a teacher.  I had always thought that teaching would play a role in my life, since scraping together a living as a potter often involves a myriad of sources of income.  I would also like to pay it forward, in honor of all the formal and informal teachers I have had; this is how the art lives on.  However, last week I had the chance to formally critique the first two projects for some beginning and intermediate students at MHCC, and I felt a familiar rush.  Although I was a bit nervous at first (I do informal critiques with students every five minutes it seems, but this was a midterm evaluation for grades), I quickly discovered that I can do this!  I was connecting with students, and I could see the promise in each of them.  I was critical but encouraging and enthusiastic about their work.   I had a blast, and I feel invested in their success in a way I hadn’t previously.

I am especially grateful for that experience.  It is my hope that the connections I made with those students and the excitement I felt will translate into motivation and inspiration to get the tough, annoying, and dirty jobs done and done well.

At the end of the day, however, I am there for myself and my career.  Right now I am trying to sell my pots in galleries and shows.  I have also begun leading workshops.  My future is uncertain, after my tenure is up at MHCC.  I would love to get an MFA and teach in a setting like Mt Hood Community College, but getting a K12 teaching degree and teaching high school art is not out of the question.  My husband, presently in a master’s program,  may pursue a doctoral degree in transportation engineering (he has an incredibly bright future as an engineer and/or teacher).  Until the time when we have to make a big decision, I shall make the most of everyday I get in the ceramics studio at Mt. Hood Community College.

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