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Penny's Story

Do you believe in fate? Or that everything happens for a reason? Let me tell you about Penny’s story. It’s a long read, but I promise you it’s worth it.

Since almost a 10 year hiatus with my relationship with clay; I decided to finally get back into what brings passion and joy into my life. Ceramics! Working with clay has always brought me so much peace. It’s allowed me to shut off my mind and flow in an endless stream of creativity while connecting deeply to the earth. It induces almost a meditative state, and the unpredictable nature of glazes allows for chance and experimentation. Being able to explore my creative side, quiet my mind and allowing chance to take the wheels is what has made ceramics one of my main passions.

Raku, an alternate firing method that produces unpredictable results as pieces are removed from the kiln while glowing red, placed in a chamber with combustible material, and smothered so the smoke creates beautiful affects. I haven’t fired Raku since my college days, and my soul has been screaming at me to get back into it. I’ve been telling my husband, I NEED to get back into Raku firing. My pyromaniac soul needs to experience the surge of energy that Rakuing pottery has always brought me.

One day, he found an old electric kiln for free on Facebook. Free kiln?! It’s not as exciting as you think. Kilns are expensive; and the cost of general parts and upkeep would shock you! I knew this free kiln was not in working condition and would cost several thousand to repair. It didn’t matter; my vision for this free kiln was to turn it into a Raku kiln. I would need to strip the electrical elements, drill a few holes and integrate a propane burner setup.

Driving to pick up this kiln, my heart was beating with excitement for the endeavors in my future. As we pulled into the driveway of the address given to us, I was immediately overcome with a calm, peaceful feeling as I admired the 1800s farmhouse, lush greenery, babbling brook moving through the property. There were several outbuildings and barns, and all I could think is WOW this is a Potter’s paradise. In my mind, I pictured a woman, spending time in her garden, making pottery in her studio, and enjoying the timeless nature of the farmhouse in this serene, private setting nestled in the woods.

We got out of the truck and introduced ourselves to the husband and wife; new owners of the property. After shaking hands and proceeding Into a small cottage, they began to tell us about Penny. Penny was a well-known potter, showcasing her work at local galleries, colleges and guilds. She passed away, leaving behind her studio and all of its components. As new owners of the property, they sought to empty the studio to turn it into a photography studio; as the husband is a professional photographer, and his largest client is the Metropolitan Museum of Art!! (Side note- the art history nerd in me was fueled with excitement at this conversation.)

Knowing I was here for the just the kiln, my eyes couldn’t help but notice the stack of large glaze tubs sitting outside the studio. As we walked inside I saw boxes of glaze test tiles and plaster molds sitting in the corner, as we turned the corner to the kiln room I saw it sitting there, cold, neglected, in an empty room with empty shelves. I felt a pull at one of my heart strings but smiled as I pictured Penny loading and unloading her work.

As our husbands worked on moving the kiln out of this tiny space, the wife and I walked around a bit outside the studio. She told me of all the things they found here on the property throughout their time there. The art, the books, the material. They had no use for it and desperately sought to get rid of it. They reached out to local pottery studios, kiln repair companies and Facebook to find anyone for removal (to a good home!) I explained to her my plan to convert the kiln into a Raku kiln, an experimental firing process that I haven’t explored since college. She was beyond excited to hear the kiln was indeed going to someone that was going to adore it.

After the kiln was loaded and we briefly spoke of the property, of art, of pottery… they asked me my opinion of how to dispose of old glazes. “Dispose of!?!” I thought to myself. As a potter, I do know the nature of the glaze chemicals, and by sitting too long creates separation, chunking, hardening and other issues that don’t allow for easy glaze application or even good results. These glazes have been sitting (for as long as we know) 10-15 years without being opened. All I pictured was buckets, upon buckets upon buckets of hand-mixed, personal recipes being dumped and wasted. I was honest and said that I do not know the correct way of disposing glazes, other than letting them dry out and dispose of the dry material. They indicated that they just wanted to throw the buckets out before their dumpster rental was over. I decided then that no matter what condition these glazes were in, no matter how long I need to spend mixing them JUST TO SEE what they looked like, and I wanted them. I told them that it could be a process, but I would attempt to salvage any of them. Wide-eyed and in shock… the husband began to load the glaze containers on our truck as fast as he could. Wide-eyed and in shock, I watched as my husbands truck bed was filled with twenty 3.5 gallon buckets of glaze. I was over-the-moon excited but also nervous. Is this literally a jackpot of glaze? Or is this wasted and ruined material that I am inheriting and will have to dispose of myself. It didn’t matter, it was worth the gamble. As the glaze buckets were being loaded, the wife came outside with a tote filled with books, journals and binders. A tote FILLED with Penny’s personal inspirational books, notes and GLAZE recipes. You heard me, her detailed recipes for all of the glazes that were just loaded and weighing down my husbands truck. As the husband thanked us for removing a huge chunk of material they thought they were burdened with, I graciously thanked them for allowing me the opportunity to see what these glazes are all about, if they could even still work. Before I got in the truck, the wife came back out of a shed with a piece of ceramic in her hand. One of Penny’s pieces. I almost cried as my hands touched this tiny green three-footed vase. This woman who passed away, leaving behind her legacy, her studio, her kiln, her glazes, her books, her journals, her recipes, her art. This was all now mine and I couldn’t believe it.

We drove away and my mind was still buzzing from all that I just experienced. I couldn’t wait to get home to open the lids and see what kind of disaster I could potentially be bringing into my space of storage. Worse case scenario, I have twenty something large tubs and recipe books that I could one day play around with. No harm there!

Once unloading these buckets and ripping the lids off like a kid on Christmas morning… I was shocked as I dunked my whisk into the first bucket. It mixed just as easily as if the glaze was mixed earlier that morning! What do you mean it could have been sitting for 10-15 years? I moved onto the next bucket, and the next. I couldn’t believe it. What I thought would take the strength of Hercules to mix these glazes, was done with grace and ease. Out of all of the buckets, only one or two had separation and chunking. I made test tiles for each glaze, and a few experiments with glaze overlapping; the part of working with ceramics that I has always loved so dearly! The unpredictability and endless stream of ‘chance’.

Later that night, I tore open the tote of books and journals. I still was in shock of all that I Inherited. Tears in my eyes and a shutter in my heart space began as I started to read. RVCC, the community college I attended and first sparked my passion for ceramics. It was at RVCC that I learned how to throw on the wheel, experiment with glazes, fire Raku, everything! It was where I spent two years of my life picturing my future. An old farmhouse, my studio on the property, a pond, a pool, and a forest I can roam (just as my younger self enjoyed.) My own personal Potter’s paradise, just as Penny had! Little did I know all of those years ago, I would one day be living almost every detail of the reality I pictured.

I continued to read through the stack of binders and discovered pages upon pages of glaze recipes and notes on how they look, how they interact with one another, what combinations to try. It started to feel like reading guidebooks that were written from another realm. These were Penny’s words, in her own handwriting, giving me personal pointers and recommendations.

I read through class notes, in my head I heard my professor’s voice speaking the words, while picturing Penny writing swiftly as she spoke. Memories of my time at RVCC began rushing through my head. The studio space, the smell, the endless hours of time spent there. It was all coming back to me. By reading through the notes, it was evident that Penny spent a great deal of time studying at RVCC, repeating classes to further her understanding of glaze chemistry, (a class I never got to take before graduating.) I now have all of the information that Penny learned over the years, sitting in my studio, just waiting for me to learn what it all means.

I haven’t mixed glaze in well over a decade, when I last studied at RVCC. I have bought premixed glazes, with the intention of one day buying powders and mixing my own glazes. I know that mixing your own glazes is an investment up front. From the powdered chemicals to the equipment needed, there is much to learn about the process.

Back to Raku firing. An entirely separate firing process that does not involve Penny’s glazes. I took a Raku class at RVCC, which really sparked the flame for my deep passion for clay. FIRE. As a bit of a pyromaniac, I was blown away by this process as it involves firing at a rapid speed to approximately 1750degrees. Once the ware reaches temperature (which is glowing red hot), the pieces are removed from the kiln and place into a metal bucket filled with combustible materials. These materials catch fire due to the hot surface of the clay. A lid is then placed on top, smothering the flame and integrating a smoking chamber that affects the surface of the clay and glazes applied. Raku is an experimental firing process that relies solely on chance, stemming from ancient Japanese traditions. It was during this summer course that I envision my future self: firing Raku at my own home. During this course, several older ladies were taking the course on repeat year after year. I was so amazed by their friendship and their dedication to ceramics at RVCC. After reading through Penny’s notes, it was obvious that she was one of them, once upon a time. I do not think Penny was in the Raku course the same time I was, as her obituary states that she died in 2012, the year I graduated from RVCC. I do not know what caused her death, but she did die at home; in the most beautiful, peaceful and serene setting straight from a fairytale book. My soul knows deep down that Penny was loved and well known in the ceramics department, and I vaguely remember hearing her name being spoken of all of those years ago.

With Penny’s old kiln, I’ll be able to someday soon return to the experimental firing process that first fueled my fire within. Producing one of a kind Raku-ware that is created in the same chamber that Penny fired all of her work.

With Penny’s old glazes (that I am shocked still work!) I’ll be able to return to my creative roots and explore many new possibilities with glaze combinations. One day these glazes mixed by Penny herself will run out and I will be left to learn how to mix them myself, now that I have her recipes sitting on a shelf in my studio. Handmade glazes (in my opinion) are so much more meaningful than store bought commercial glazes. These glazes were mixed from scratch by a woman whom I never met, but have such a strong connection to.

It’s amazing how we spend our lives oblivious to the magic around us. The places we go, the people we encounter. There’s connections that present themselves well over a decade later. Things begin to make sense, the dots begin to connect. Life tends to unfold in ways that make us think “wow, what a strange coincidence!”

But that’s the thing, I do not believe in coincidences. I believe in synchronicities. I believe that everything happens for a reason. No matter how big, no matter how small. Synchronicities are small reminders from the universe that we are on the right path. Written in Penny’s handwriting in her journal, “Synchronicity suggest that the outer world really does reflect the inner world!” What we believe is what we perceive.

There’s a reason my husband found a Facebook posting for a free kiln, there’s a reason we made it there before the glaze buckets reached the dumpster, there’s a reason I inherited a tub of ceramic books and binders from a woman who passed away 11 years ago. There’s a reason these glazes have been sitting in a small cottage in the woods for 11 years. Just waiting for… me! I know there is no coincidence that I was meant to inherit these tubs of glazes.

My one piece of Penny’s art is now my “lucky Penny.” I placed it on top of my kiln for the first firing, to watch over and protect the ware inside. Potters are known to call upon our “kiln gods” to ensure a successful firing, and now I get to speak to Penny upon my protection request. I cherish this tiny 3-legged vase, just as I hope those who inherit my art will forever cherish them.

I believe that our paths are laid out before us, predestined before birth. Events are aligned, paths are crossed. Conscious connections may not be understood or met until decades later. Although we may not see it or understand it; but there is a reason for everything that happens in our lives. There is another side, another place, another realm. We as humans seek to understand what it is. We are unconsciously guided in our daily lives by our ‘guides’, ‘angels’, ‘ancestors’, ‘spirit.’ (The title varies amongst religious and cultural backgrounds).

It is when we learn to open our mind to all that there is; we start to see ‘magical’ things start to happen. Things start to shift, we start to see how it’s all connected and we begin to realize that we can live the lives of our wildest dreams.

That is exactly what I plan to do. Live the life of my wildest dreams. If we’re not living the dream; we are merely only existing.

With my new line of “Penny’s Glazes,” I will be creating planters, platters, jars and other various items. I plan to spend time exploring surface texture and glaze combinations with this line; inspired by the notes Penny left me in her journals. I hope to carry her legacy through my work.

If you purchase one of my “Penny Glazed” pieces, I hope you cherish it just as I cherish hers. I do plan to hoard these pieces for a little while until I build a large body of work to showcase before listing for sale. Hopefully one day soon, I will be Raku firing again, setting my soul on fire. I will be posting updates throughout this process; follow along for this journey!

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