Clay Culture: POW!

The idea for POW! (Pots on Wheels) started when two potters were on a long road trip. With the inclusion of more artists, the focus on making clay visible in new places and sparking creativity became a reality.

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At a POW! workshop hosted by a local community college last fall, three POW! members brought in 100 bone-dry small cups and an equal number of fired cups that were squeezed out of our own kilns and cajoled out of colleagues. We invited students to decorate one of the unfired cups and then pick out a finished one to take home afterward. We would fire the students’ cups in various POW! members’ kilns to go into our cup bank for later events. Many students were surprised that they could have a cup for free, and awkwardly approached decorating a cup that would go out into the world. As they began to relax, we had a lively conversation about which cups they liked and why, and about how the process of making pots worked, from the clay and the forming, to the decorating and firing. At the end of the afternoon, with refreshments served in their newly acquired cups, we asked the students, “How many of you own a handmade object and know who made it?” Of the 70 students in the group, only one did. We added 69 more that day. The Cuplatch Project (referencing the Northwest Native Americans’ potlatch tradition) was POW!’s first event.

We hatched POW! to broaden the clay audience. Without a doubt, the faithful hold deep enthusiasm for studio pottery, but this small and fervent congregation rarely gets outside the church. We are simply not visible to many who haven’t encountered clay. Some of this lack of access has components of culture, class, and race. For a younger crowd, the thrall (and economic stress) of keeping current with tech devices and contemporary popular culture, perhaps leaves pottery in the margins. Others just haven’t had an opportunity to encounter handmade things and think about how using them could be enriching.

Workshopping an Idea

Boston-area potter Hannah Niswonger and Connecticut-based potter Hayne Bayless conceived of POW! on a 22-hour road trip to the 2012 Utilitarian Clay Symposium at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Kathy King, also based in the Boston area, joined soon after in a consultative role. At first the idea focused on a mobile gallery model inspired by the burgeoning food truck movement and Alleghany Meadows’ Artstream trailer. When the Western Massachusetts contingent (Sam Taylor, Adero Willard, and me) joined up, the group moved instead toward a non-commercial focus. We all agreed that we wanted to be part of something dynamic, interactive, and fun that would spark learning and make clay visible in new places.

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Our mission, action+education+exhibition+collaboration, developed over the summer and early fall of 2014. We decided that a large, used, diesel step van was the vehicle for us, with its self-contained mobility, square footage, headroom, width, access, flow, and economy. The decision to be a non-commercial educational entity, able to raise funds from donors, meant that POW! members would not benefit from the sale of their own work in the truck. Niswonger had been in conversation about fiscal sponsorship with the Boston-based Society of Arts and Crafts (SAC), the oldest crafts organization in the country. They were seeking greater community outreach, so partnering with POW! seemed ideal. We explored various formulas for sharing the truck and everything started to fall into place. We went ahead with a Kickstarter campaign, offering incentives of our pots and those we could pry out of our friends, POW! t-shirts, and whatnot, and we raised over $25,000. The campaign took off in the last ten days, when it was selected as a Kickstarter staff pick, and word of the project spread beyond our immediate network of supporters.

In January 2015 we located a 2002 bright yellow former Connecticut Light and Power step van on Craigslist, with just 35,000 miles on the odometer, an onboard diesel generator, and accordion barn doors for access. We spent $11,000 for the truck and another $3000 on repairs and maintenance, and we set about transforming it at a farm owned by Bart Niswonger (Hannah’s brother). Luckily for us, he is a generous and expert furniture maker with a full wood and metal shop. Despite the time pressure leading up to our first outing at the 2015 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Providence, Rhode Island, and the particularly cold New England winter’s outside working conditions, we managed to strip the van of its racking and install a reclaimed fir floor and LED track lighting. Bart designed and built modular display shelves that we ended up installing among the big rigs parked in the local Freightliner dealer’s lot as we also dealt with last-minute issues getting the van’s state inspection sticker.

Like any new volunteer organization, we are always learning about our individual strengths and limitations and how best to collaborate. As working potters, we have little time for anything beyond the commitments of life and work. As we meet occasionally, phone periodically, and email frequently, Niswonger has been POW!’s undisputed leader and inspiration, with the rest of us pitching in as our strengths and schedules permit. Taylor designed the Cuplatch Project, an extension of work he was doing with his firing collaborators. Willard, with help from Niswonger and Bayless—who is also our photographer and secretary—oversaw the Kickstarter campaign. Arthur Halvorsen, who was an early POW! contributor, promoted the project on social media. I scoured Craigslist and eBay to find the truck. Any member can initiate an event and participate. While we see that greater structure and outside expertise would benefit our project, we all enjoy one another and the creative anarchy of our haphazard process is fruitful.

Future Projects

We have several events under our belts and more on the docket. We hope to turn more people on to pottery with the Cuplatch Project and through more sustained programming. We want to use the truck to interact with all kinds of groups, the old and the young, as well as just getting out into the street (such as a series of demonstrations we organized at Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, Massachusetts, this past summer). The truck offers transportation for materials and equipment, (including a treadle wheel we’ve brought to recent events for people to try) and a gorgeous gallery space. Along with the Cuplatch Project and demos, we are moving toward projects in diverse communities, where the truck arrives with an exhibit of contemporary studio pottery from our members and colleagues, and returns to the same site later with a show of finished work made by participants who might never before have touched clay or owned a handmade object.

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the author Mark Shapiro is a potter, writer, POW! member, and member of the Ceramics Monthly advisory board. To learn more about POW! visit www.potsonwheels.com.

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