Clay Culture: Lessons from Betty

Betty Woodman, surrounded by her pots, from Ceramics Monthly’s June 1973 issue. Photo: George Woodman and Steve Briggs.

 

One potter’s blemishes are another collector’s treasures. At least that’s what one young ceramic artist discovered while trying to purchase the perfect pot.

In the early 1970s I was searching internally for that evasive quality called “life” in my pots so I watched closely as Betty Woodman demonstrated in a program she founded: The Boulder City Pottery in Boulder, Colorado. Although she was fairly cavalier in her technique, she produced some of the most exciting forms in clay I could envision. I envied her apparent lack of attachment to “proper” craft even as I winced at her casual repairs to cracks in her work while still wet on the wheel.

Ordinarily, as a beginning potter, I would never have been able to afford workshops by such national figures, but as a job benefit—for mixing all the visiting artists’ clays and glazes at the pottery—I attended them religiously. Working at the City Pottery in its early years was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. So, when workshops were not happening and my full-time duties were completed, I would seize the chance to hike the mountains outside Boulder. Unfortunately on one spring weekend, the timing of my planned vacation coincided with one of Woodman’s twice-a-year sales at her home/studio.

She was so strongly admired and supported by community collectors that her shows usually sold out before the day’s end; there was little hope in arriving late in the day for a choice piece. She was just starting to make her signature pillow-pots at the time. My own workload at the City Pottery always precluded my volunteering to help her load or unload her home kiln for these events. I always regretted not being able to do so because her assistants of the day would each receive a pot as payment. I was torn as to what to do; get away hiking, or make it to her sale, in hopes of finally owning one of her pots.

Martin Kim’s mix-and-match cup-and-saucer set made by Betty Woodman, ca. early 1970s.

 

In spite of the scheduling conflict, I determined to rise well before dawn, pack my gear for my planned camping trip and swing by Woodman’s within minutes of her opening the sale. In this way I would assure myself first pick of some of the more affordable ware. If I worked fast, I could still get my hike started before the heat of the day arrived. True to plan, I was among a smaller handful of ardent admirers waiting at her gate as the sale began. Spread across many tables and other improvised surfaces were dozens of her signature porcelain forms, bright with her casual splashing of green and yellow glazes against a softer celadon surface. Woodman’s front yard vibrated with the vitality and confidence of her hand in clay. I checked out a pillow pitcher. Way too expensive for me! I looked at a planter or two. They were priced at close to my week’s pay! Finally, I zeroed in on two full tables of cups and saucers. At 25 dollars a set, they were costly for my meager salary, but I was determined to own one of her pieces before she became wholly unaffordable to me.

The foot on Betty Woodman’s thrown cup showing the celadon glaze-filled air bubble.

 

Though I loved her work, Woodman was notorious for her loose handling of clay and I wanted a cup that I could actually drink from and not just admire for its spontaneous form. One by one, I looked them over. Many bore carefree patches of clay pressed over cracked lips. She eyed me from a distance as I touched and lifted every pot on those two tables. I felt self-conscious in judging her work so meticulously. Yet, as a beginner potter myself, I couldn’t bear to buy a cup and saucer that bore a minor defect, even if it was lively in form. Finally, after much deliberation, I found a cup I liked. There were no apparent flaws and it was fluid in its balance. Its saucer was one of the cracked and patched ones though. I returned to my search, this time for a good saucer. I found one (with a patched cup) but I was embarrassed to be mixing and matching Woodman’s work. Nonetheless, after some surreptitious switching, I slid my favorite cup onto the saucer I liked, and proceeded to the checkout point. No harm done and my own eye was satisfied, I rationalized to myself.

Thanking Woodman in passing and with no time to make it home, I slipped the two pieces into my knapsack and departed to my camping destination. Several hours later, high into the mountains, I slumped down by a beautiful running stream and wedged a bottle of wine into its cold spring waters. Darkness fell well after sundown as I pulled out my prize from the morning and admired it against the campfire light. I smiled and silently congratulated myself for having been so clever in assembling the perfect, flawless, Betty Woodman cup and saucer. Then, retrieving my nicely chilled wine, I poured myself a cup and toasted the night sky for my good fortune. It was only after I was draining the second cupful that I saw against the firelight, the inside translucent bottom of the cup. There was an undeniable hole with light shining through! It was impossible! I felt underneath the cup to see if it was wet from the wine. It was dry but something felt odd. In total disbelief I turned it over, leaned into the fire and squinted into the foot of the piece. She had thrown it off the hump and her trimming wire had split open an air bubble within the foot. The pot was thrown so close to the bottom that it had cracked open to that bubble space when drying. Only the accidental filling of the hole with celadon glaze had saved it from becoming a second.

I burst into laughter with the realization that Woodman had won out. There would be no removing her spirit from her own pots! Now, forty-four years later, I still have that cup and saucer and cherish it for its living imperfection.

the author Martin Kim lives and maintains a studio practice in Cortaro, Arizona.


Click Here to read the archive article written about Betty Woodman by Steve Briggs from the June 1973 issue of Ceramics Monthly.

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