A Residency at Pope Valley Pottery by Ryan VanHoy

“You see, being here is not about this!”  Richard lifts a beautiful thrown ceramic pitcher and thumps the fifteen-foot dining room table with it emphatically staring me down with a cold and resolute expression of absolute authority.  “Being here is about the person.  How one walks, talks, eats, and breathes is directly reflected in the work they make.  Develop the person and the pots will follow.  Like Ferguson always said, you’ve got to dig a deep well!”

Conversations, dialogue, polemical debate, frustrated raging lunacy, story telling, food and wine, fine art and pottery have been the substance of my Pope Valley Pottery residency. For Richard Carter, this 80-acre parcel of land provides a home, a studio and a way of life.  Residing full time on this converted 130 year old farmstead and ranch just outside of the Napa Valley, Carter maintains two wood-burning kilns, a studio, a garden, a gutted and renovated farmhouse, an orchard, tent cabins, and a gallery showcasing resident work.  Richard seems to possess an acquired sense of immaculate order tempered by an intuitive understanding and acceptance of a higher natural order.  This is apparent in every aspect of his life as far as I can tell.  On the ranch, old farm buildings are falling apart yet are reverently kept in check as virtuous mediators to a bygone era.  Little white and yellow flowers have been planted and have taken seed along the foundation of the farmhouse’s wrap around porch.  They are sprouting serendipitously from one of three terra cotta planters both defining and obscuring the line between the perimeter of the house and the adjoining courtyard of raked pea gravel.  Once, Richard was given green plastic lawn chairs for the kiln area.  They eventually were passed on because they just didn’t fit with the aesthetic.  This place is Carter’s canvas; every detail considered and attended to as part of his daily routine.

When I came to Pope Valley, California nearly two years ago, my twenty-three years of life had thus far been spent in the Midwest.  I graduated with a BFA from Indiana University and I was looking for a place where I could continue to make pottery and gain new experience and perspective.  In my formal education in studio art I had been introduced to much but coming here and entering into this next stage of my life would serve as a time to reassess ideas, foundations and preconceptions.  The West Coast had always held an allure for me because of the Mountains and the Ocean and I was excited to grow and expand my boundaries.  This would be the first time for me to live on my own and support myself. 

So, in June of 2001, a friend and I headed out from Indianapolis venturing westward with plans of camping and climbing in the Tetons of Wyoming after which my traveling companion would be dropped off for his summer field studies class in Montana.  From there, I would continue on alone to Pope Valley where I would meet with the sculptor Richard Carter who I had been told had a studio and residency program near Napa, California.  I was to meet up with a friend and former teacher named Mark McCay from Indiana who was also visiting Richard at his ranch in Pope Valley on a visit back to his home state of California. After some travail I arrived descending Carter’s Calvin and Hobbes style gravel road lined by Oak, Madrone, Pine, Fir and Redwood trees. I was greeted by smiling faces and a glass of wine.  Just as I had settled down and found my bearings, Richard, Mark and a resident potter named Eric came bouncing down the drivereturning from the grocery store in Eric’s gray/green Fiat convertible with food for dinner. Shrimp were unloaded with great drama into a large shino glazed bowl and I found myself swept up into agrand theatre event known as barbecue in Pope Valley.  I remember one of my first impressions was of how well they ate here!  As it happened, I later found out that Richard had earned his living for seven years after finishing school in Kansas City by working as a sous chef in a Napa Valley restaurant.  Dinner was followed by a tour of the kilns and pottery collection which included pots by makers from around the world.  I was also given free perusal of Richard’s extensive library of ceramics and art books.  He immediately directed me to a book entitiled: The Invisible Core, A Potter’s Life and Thoughts by Marguerite Wildenhain.  Richard studied at one time with Dorothy Herger who was a close friend and student of the Bauhaus trained Wildenhain.  I was told “this is a great book; she’s really opinionated and not afraid to say what she thinks.”  I would later learn that this is a trait which Richard shares as well.   

Richard helped me find a part time job in nearby St Helena bussing tables so that I could pay for my rent and materials.  He knew just the restaurant to hold out for.  “You’ve got to work at Terra”, he stated with certainty. Richard reasoned that the restaurant job was good for learning to multi-task as well as for exposure to food presentation and how dishes relate to their contents.  Having started my residency at Richard’s studio it was as though I had been taken in as his student. However, in this student/teacher situation, I have rented living space as well as studio space from the teacher and the world has been our classroom.  Richard makes it a practice to share his perceptions of beauty, structure, and design without reservation.  I remember one late night stop at the In and Out burger which instigated a critique of false rock columns and how if those were real rock and really supported the structure of the building they would never be stacked that way. Richard believes that one’s aesthetic should not stop when they walk out the studio door.  As a full time resident, all of my habits, idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses have been fully apparent. There has really been no place to hide.  In this way, my being here has not been about pots so much as it has been about me and my awareness of form, style, intent and beauty in my surroundings. At the ranch, there is a large summer garden.  I never liked tomatoes or salad before I moved to California.  Soon, I would be making and eating bread and tomato salad with olive oil and a shiffinade of fresh sweet.   I had never had artichokes or really had a big country garden from which to eat.  I grew up in the suburbs of Indianapolis.

My residency has given me the opportunity to reconsider my own beliefs and opinions while benefiting from the insight and inquiry of a number of incredible and influential individuals.  When Richard’s former teacher Ken Ferguson came to visit he asked me something to the effect of: “So you’re Chinese; do you like Chinese pots?” .  This seems like a simple question but coming from someone who has spent nearly a lifetime studying historical pots, my opinions seemed uninformed and weak.  It’s really a great question too because it made me feel that to give an informed answer would require not only an understanding of Chinese pottery making in general but also a comprehension of how that pottery relates to works from other traditions and cultures.  I had to admit to myself that knew little of Chinese pottery outside of pictures in books or in the form of projected slides.  I’ve also come to see that just because I like something doesn’t mean it should be incorporated into my work.  On another occasion Garth Clark came to visit to meet with Richard about having a show at his new gallery in Long Island City.  When Garth came to visit he challenged Eric and Myself as functional potters to reconsider our place in contemporary society.   In one email,Garth explained exactly how he felt: 

“Imagine if painting had this large group of Western painters who for nearly a century now were painting works that closely resembled Chinese scroll paintings.  Do you think that they would be respected, do you think that their work would be necessary particularly when the real thing is so superior?”  

I think it was just two weeks later that we hosted Koichi Hara.  Mr. Hara owns and operates a gallery in San Francisco called Japonesque and he also held strong convictions about what a good piece of pottery or piece of art should contain.  Furthermore, these convictions didn’t line up exactly with Mr. Clarks equally convincing ideas.  Mr. Hara’s favorite pots in our house included an anonymous brown antique jar that holds our spoons and an antique French wood-fired pitcher.  These objects were beautiful because they were useful and unassuming and had good form and integrity.  So, as a young functional potter I am left to decide for myself what I believe.  While I have a lifetime to come to terms with my own truth, I would not have the opportunity hadsuch questions not been posed.

A residency at Pope Valley Pottery is contingent on the needs of the particular resident.  “Residency” can mean many things and is really quite a vague and yet loaded term.  My account therefore is just that; an account and a perception of a place, time and experience.  At Pope Valley Pottery I have been exposed to aspects of cooking, food and marketing as well as form, function, design and wood splitting.  When I think about it, making good pots involves so much more than forming, glazing and firing.  Here in Pope Valley, California, Richard Carter has created a deep well.  Moreover, he has followed in the footsteps of his teacher Ken Ferguson by giving of himself as a teacher, mentor and friend.