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Studio Visit: Theo Helmstadter, Green River Pottery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Just the Facts

Clay
local stoneware, commercially-mined ingredients

Primary forming method
wheel thrown, slab formed

Primary firing temperature
cone 10 gas reduction

Favorite surface treatment
combed texture with worn hacksaw blade

Favorite tools
lengths of steel banding strap–flat for ribs, bent at angles for trimming

Studio Playlist
Marylou Williams, Mal Waldron, Cecil Taylor, John Adams

Studio

My studio is a square adobe room with a cement floor that was poured after the fact (once the walls were already built). It is old. Originally it was a mechanic’s garage and you can see where there once was a roll-top door, big enough to drive a car in. I like that the room is made of earth and that the hand-formed adobe bricks, under their whitewash, have a human, slightly irregular touch. I also like that the room has its own history; just like the pots I’m making, its form is provisional, and the room is in an ongoing state of creation. Next year, I may decide to add a skylight, cut another opening, and change the doors.

I have always lived as physically close to my studio as possible. I know that for health reasons you’re not supposed to live inside it—but for creative purposes, the closer the better, and if you eat, sleep, relax, and think alongside your pots, they get better. I also have always had a gallery space in the same location where I live and work. I have been lucky in this, I realize—I can work throughout the day, stopping when visitors come to shop. During Santa Fe’s busy summer season, I sometimes work more in the evenings when I can hang the closed sign on the door.

Having a studio space with direct access to the outdoors is another plus. Since I dig clay and haul it back to the studio to unload, screen, blunge, and pug, having a covered outdoor area for these dusty and splattery tasks is key. Partly because I spend so much time day and night within the whitewashed adobe square, I keep the space as clean as possible. Mopping is a ritual activity that starts each studio session, and I put a lot of miles on my sponges too, cleaning tables, cleaning bats, cleaning buckets. The sponge marks the wind-down time after a day of work.

I think of my cement floor as a giant plaster bat. When I’m midway through a dinnerware order, there might be 10 or 20 plates arrayed on it, covered by sheets of plastic I have to step around. Rims dry slowly this way, and the centers of the plates transfer a dark circle of damp onto the cement. When making handles, altering forms, or stretching out slabs, I often shake a handful of grog and sand onto the floor and kneel there to work. It is good to step away from the worktable and the wheel (I throw standing up) and to get pieces away from eye level; it helps me to see them differently. After kneeling for 40 minutes I laboriously get to my feet, reminding myself to keep doing yoga, then the next morning, I mop the floor.

Everybody in Santa Fe is water conscious, and since I have no plumbing in my studio, I am especially so. A bucket of water starts out fresh from the hose and may be settled and recaptured several times before getting transferred to the mop bucket, and then finally discarded out back. Glaze sludge is consolidated, dried, and bisque-fired before getting tossed in the trash.

A big development for my studio this year has been leasing additional space across the street. This is allowing me to move classes and student work into another studio dedicated to teaching. Classes can enlarge, students can drop by to work independently, and I can recover a bit of the hermetic privacy that inspires my own work. I’ve never understood how potters share the same room when working—you don’t see writers or sculptors doing this. For me, privacy and creativity go together.

Mind

I dry my hands and go sit at the piano for a few moments, mid-morning or mid-afternoon. I play a few chords, or work on a piece I’m trying to learn. It seems to me that most artists have a second discipline, something to turn to for renewal and rest. There is also a vibrant art scene here in Santa Fe so I go listen to live music when I can, and see the latest work by other artists at Friday gallery openings. Not just the ceramics—a lot of times it’s work in other media that inspires me the most; photography, for example, which in some ways is an opposite of clay—visual, two-dimensional, almost immaterial.

Pairs and opposites are something I think about. I had a maxim I used to repeat to myself back when I was first building my studio: two of everything. I built two kilns. I wasn’t particularly good as masonry or plumbing or carpentry but good enough. Looking around at the array of tools spread on the floor, I saw that I really did have two of everything: two chisels, two hammers, two tape measures.

Doubling up allows you to work faster and spend less time hunting, for example, for the chuck key that goes to the power drill. Such a small and critical tool! Always keep a second one where you can find it.

I was thrilled and daunted by the construction tasks—building worktables, running gas plumbing, tearing out old fluorescent light tubes, and installing dropped incandescent lights that were warmer and closer. I find that when working, I need light that is crossing my field of view from a definite source, going in a definite direction. Diffuse, ambient light flattens what you’re doing and makes it hard to see.

Before long, I had two potter’s wheels. Two of everything—I repeat this to my students now—always work on two pieces at once. Switching back and forth, you rest and dry the clay. You return to a piece that’s been sitting for 20 minutes, and see it again for the first time. I actually think the same principle applies to my aesthetic, and when I look at a vase I’ve made I see pairs of attributes: a rugged unglazed region alongside the smooth, settled field of glaze. I want both the rustic and the elegant, the earthy and the astral. I want opposites to interact. My best work is traditional and reaches into the shared pottery past—but it is personal too, and even private, in the sense that I use local clay I blend myself, glazes I’ve invented, and a personal dialect of form. I look for this juxtaposition of the communal and personal within a single piece. This year, I am finding that teaching classes in my new studio depends on this same doubling and pairing of opposing effort—long days and evenings with students are counterweighted by long days when I need to be alone in my other studio. Then after a long session with the clay . . . I dry my hands and sit at the piano again, switching to my other art.

My kiln (a Geil fiber downdraft) is just outside the studio door under the covered portal where I mix clay. For now, student work is bisque-fired and glazed in the new teaching space across the street, then transported to the Geil kiln for cone ten firings. In the future, I may introduce mid-range glazes and electric firing in the teaching studio. While at work in my personal studio, I can peek out at the progress of the kiln. I admire wood-fired work and dream of having a soda kiln, but I love my current arrangement because even while I do a long, finicky, reduction firing, I can manage it myself on a day when I have other tasks to get done, too. Unlike those who fire an anagama, I can get a glaze firing done, teach a class, and throw new work all on the same day.

The adobe square of the studio measures 22 × 22 feet, and the ceiling is a luxurious 9 feet high. The vigas supporting the roof are about three feet apart, so that between them there is plenty of room to suspend a small collection of river kayaks: longer, rounder boats for big water and canyon trips, and shorter, sharper-edged ones for playboating (surfing and spinning on waves). In early spring when the snow begins melting, the Rio Grande rises and we have a short, furious, river season. Later in the summer, New Mexico kayakers go to Colorado. Pottery and paddling are closely-aligned disciplines for me, and so it really isn’t just by chance that I keep boats in the studio. I need to look at them while I work. Just like a good river trip, a good day in the studio is a combination of planning, and then being ready for the unexpected. You never know when your next good idea might arrive, or where it comes from, just as you never know what’s around the next bend in the river. You have to be ready. I make a point of keeping well stocked with dry materials, which are stored in rows of plastic bins out by the kiln, so that I can jump on a new project I suddenly think of—you don’t want to get halfway through mixing up an experimental new glaze and then realize you’re out of Cornwall stone.

Other potters often roll their eyes or shake their heads when they hear that I still dig my own clay to formulate my clay body. And they’re right, this is not an efficient use of my time or a good way to save money. I think I do it so I can reconnect with the fact that clay is an essentially limitless material, a product of the formation and deformation of the earth itself. I like to marvel at the great and natural powers that produce it, and then back in the studio, I hope to invoke a little of this in the pots I make. Paddling is the same way—nothing like the roar of a rapid and the fear of getting munched in the waves to remind you of forces far greater than your own. Throwing pots is humbling, in a good way. You have to remember how much power there is in that clay under your hands.

Marketing

Early on, I learned to trust my customers, to get to know them, and try to talk to them about what I’m doing with clay. I don’t always make what people want, but I am very interested in the fact that most people have spontaneous and personal reactions to the pottery they encounter. As I engage with this fact, my work evolves. I sell most of what I make myself, and find that my best clients really value working directly with me. This is an old-fashioned business model, but it works, and the maker/collector relationship is archetypal. We need each other and learn from each other. In the big picture, maker and collector are collaborators—working together, in different ways, both in pursuit of beauty.

Most Important Lesson

The most important lesson I have learned so far in the studio—and it’s one that I keep relearning—is not to take too seriously the right ways to do things. It is very empowering to figure things out on your own. I don’t attend many workshops that emphasize method or technique because I’d rather make it up myself. Technical information about clay processes and chemistry is easy to come by. But it’s always the unknown, rather than the known, that evokes beauty in my work. It’s the unanticipated, the unstated, the immaterial presence surrounding the material object itself.

Website: www.greenriverpottery.com

Instagram: @greenriverpottery

Twitter: @SantaFePotter

Comments
  • Christin S.

    Wonderful article highlighting a wonderful person and potter! I was fortunate enough to cross paths with him, and I still recall often little bits of wisdom he imparted.

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