The plain, weather-aged sign above the arbor read, “Pottery Shop”. Tucked back on a dirt road, surrounded by wildflowers and overgrown bougainvillea, the shop was easily passed by.
I was suffering from exhaustion, mental and physical, and my aunts outside Atlanta suggested a respite with them. It was about a ninety minute drive to their country home. Rolling down the windows, I let the wind roar in my ears and blow the dust from my mind. Yes, I need rest. This will be a great weekend, I thought as I rolled my neck from side to side.
Spotting a road advertisement a few miles back, I decided to check out the pottery shop. A nice present for Aunt Marie and Aunt Nell to show my appreciation: that was just the way to begin my decompression.
Slamming the car door, I turned down the pathway to the wood framed shop. I wasn’t sure what I might find; what kind of potter would be found out in the middle of nowhere in a ramshackle hut? A bell tinkled as I pushed open the door, and a cheery middle-aged woman greeted me. Her Southern smile was as genuine as her drawl, “Welcome, Honey. Can I help you?”
“Just looking,” I replied and wandered down an aisle of blue and purple glazed vases. Large, elegantly fluted pots were filled with display flowers. Small pots were overflowing the shelves. Like shells on the beach, each pot I picked up was more beautiful than the one before. Practical earthenware plates and bowls were decorated with orange blossoms; just right for Aunt Marie, I decided.
Aunt Nell, always stylish in her flowing silks and scarves, would want the fluted vase with dark blue grooves. They created a cascading design that landed in a cool, refreshing pool of blue. Carefully picking up the ceramic, I turned toward the check-out counter.
“Find everything?” the cashier asked.
“Yes. I must admit I am surprised to find such fine craftsmanship out here in the boonies.”
“Mr. John has customers all over the globe. Some of his work has even been in the Metropolitan,” she gushed. “He’s working in his studio now. Would you like to meet him?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to disturb him,” I stammered.
“Nonsense,” she drawled, “Mr. John loves customers to watch him at work. Come on back.” And with that she walked over to the back door and beckoned me into a courtyard garden.
The air here was steamy, and the high-pitched whir of a kiln motor reminded me of cicadas on a sticky, hot Georgia night. Suddenly I heard an onerous thud, as if someone had been flung against a barroom wall. The cheery cashier opened the door to a small studio and told me to go on in.
Unsure if I should enter quietly or announce myself, I muffled a cough and waited on the potter to notice me. “Come,” Mr. John said, and I hesitantly walked over to the wheel where the older gentleman was working.
The fresh dampness of earth and its underground mysteries livened my senses, and I breathed deeply of refreshment and peace. The clay had just been thrown on the wheel and the potter was centering it. Concentrating deeply, Mr. John seemed unaware, or unconcerned, of my presence. His hands firmly slid around the moist lump of clay, forcing the gob to cling to the wheel in just the right way.
Slowly the sides of the clay grew as the potter placed his thumb into the lifeless clay and began to throw it. A vase appeared before me as the artisan shaped the clay into a vessel of beauty. I stood watching, lost between reality and an ethereal veil of timelessness. Wetting the clay with a discolored sponge, the twisting wheel turning beneath his arms, Mr. John wiped sweat from his upper lip with the shoulder of his shirt.
“Amazing,” I murmured as he grabbed a wooden tool and began slicing grooves into the vase. It was the same design as the vase I chose for Aunt Nell.
“This one will be shades of red instead of the blue you chose,” Mr. John surprised me. “I saw your purchase as I was heading to the studio,” he explained.
Slowing the wheel until it stopped, Mr. John pulled a long wire from under his bench and cut the clay free. Gingerly placing the new vase on a fabric covered shelf, Mr. John invited me to look around.
The studio was filled with ceramics in different stages of preparation. He showed me some leather-hard pieces that he would work on in a bit. They were serving dishes that needed feet and pedestals attached. Several shelves near the popping kiln held freshly bisque-fired cups and plates waiting to be glazed.
In a back corner of the room was an old trash can with a few discarded pieces of clay. “These pieces couldn’t form right for me, so I put them here to dry and recycle later,” the potter explained. “Most days I throw pottery all day without a hitch, but sometimes the clay won’t relax for me. It fights against me and refuses to center. I have to recycle that clay and try again later.”
Mr. John accompanied me back into the small, wooden shop. I was surprised at how much time had gone by and excused myself to hurry along to Aunt Marie and Aunt Nell. A young man with shoulder-length brown hair pulled into a low ponytail was walking through the back of the store near the door to the courtyard. He looked like the young, artsy, college kids I often see in the Atlanta shops.
Mr. John gave him a curt nod and then told me he hoped I enjoyed my tour of the studio. “I love sharing my work with an appreciative audience,” he said. Then he hurried back to the studio to continue working.
I paid for my ceramics and then thought I would like to have them signed for my aunts. I asked the cashier if that would be possible. “Sure, Sweetie! Just head on out back and Mr. John would be glad to scribble on them. Hurry though or he’ll be in the middle of throwing another pot.”
Walking back into the studio I inhaled again of the sweet, earthy aroma. I noticed the young man was also in the studio, back near the shelf of leather-hard pots. Mr. John had already flung a new lump of clay onto the wheel, and I went over to ask if I could get his signature on my ceramics when he finished.
“Yes, just wait,” he grunted as the force of centering a new pot took all of his energy and concentration.
I walked around the studio again admiring the earthenware in its many stages and styles. Then I noticed the bisque was strewn on the countertop, chipped and cracked. The young man had walked down this way, surely he wouldn’t have ruined Mr. John’s work?! Then I saw the leather-hard pieces also were defaced and marred, and the new grooved vessel that I had just watched Mr. John complete, was smashed into the fabric covered shelf.
I turned to see the young man standing next to Mr. John. He seemed as intent as Mr. John, watching the wheel turn the clay as it began to center on the wheel. Reaching slowly forward, the denigrator held out his finger and poked it into the forming clay. The clay lump flew from the wheel and crashed into poor Mr. John’s apron, knocking the wind from the old gentleman.
“What are you doing?” I screamed at the jerk. Running to Mr. John, I helped him up from the stool by the wheel.
“Get out of my studio,” Mr. John stated, barely controlling his anger.
The young man sauntered out of the room. “What was that all about?” I gasped.
“My competition. These young guys come in from the big city to destroy my work. They want to make mass produced goods, but they can’t compete with the beauty of my unique pieces. So they come out here every few days and destroy the pieces before they can be fired and finished.”
“Why don’t you do something about it?” I asked.
“I do,” he answered. “I keep making more one-of-a-kind pieces.”
“How does that help?” I questioned.
“I hope that someday they will see the perfection of my unique creations and come to learn from me, instead of trying to destroy me. Until then, they’ll keep making pieces that people re-gift or put in yard sales.”
I helped Mr. John clear the ruined pieces and place them in the recycle can to dry and be remade later into new, pliable clay. Then I walked out to my car, well-past the time I had told my aunts I would arrive.
Sitting at a late dinner with the two women, I recounted my afternoon’s events. Aunt Nell was infuriated and threatened to call the police, but Aunt Marie, the practical one, said Mr. John was right. The young men couldn’t appreciate the beauty of the artist’s work; their only concern was the reason to destroy it.
“Perhaps, someday, potters who destroy the new vessels will recognize the cracks in their own abilities, and they will come to Mr. John to learn how to create beauty instead of destroying it,” Aunt Marie sighed.
I slowly shook my head. Perhaps exhaustion was behind my negative thoughts, perhaps some rest would make me see it Aunt Marie’s way, but I didn’t think it would ever happen.
The weekend flew past too quickly, and Sunday evening I loaded my luggage into the car for the drive back to Atlanta. Slowing on the road near the “Pottery Shop” sign, I heard the faint sound of cicadas on a hot, Georgia night. Mr. John was still hard at work.