I met Michael Miller through John Toki. He called me one day around noon and said, "Richard, there’s a guy giving a presentation to my class who I think you’d like. I know this is late notice. He’ll be here in an hour. Any chance you can make it?" I did make it.
Here’s a brief note Toki wrote about this potter from Louisiana: Michael Miller’s first slide at his lecture on the wood kiln firing process at the California College of the Arts Ceramics Department was of a tent. I thought it was a unique first image for a slide lecture. More than a tent, this was Michael’s home, proudly shown, while he built his ceramic studio—a man truly living off the land, building his studio with secondhand materials with the help of his friends. He even collected water from the sky in a catch basin. Michael Miller reminded me of Ishi the Indian hunter and gatherer, loin cloth and all, who wandered into the modern world by chance. During his lecture, Miller made us question who we are, what we have, and what we need to survive on this earth. His lecture was about more than the fire from the wood kiln chimney, but about the fire in his heart and the life style he leads. I reminded my students that the lesson here is, "be resourceful and live your dream."
After the slide lecture, Miller agreed to an interview. We made arrangements to meet at the home of Sandy Simon and Robert Brady where Miller was staying during his visit to the Bay Area. I found him as open and natural in person as he had been while speaking to Toki’s class.
How did you first end up getting your hands into clay?
Well, I got a degree in anthropology at LSU. In anthropology you study a lot of pottery because that’s what’s left from a lot of ancient civilizations and cultures. At the same time, they were starting a ceramics department at LSU. This was in 1971- ’72. I saw people selling their pots down at the university. I hadn’t ever thought about people making pottery today. That intrigued me, and I thought that I could do that. Of course, then I graduated. I didn’t get a chance to take a ceramics class at that time, but I got a job where I worked nights. It allowed me to take a class in ceramics at LSU with a man named Howard Shapiro. I fell in love with it instantly, really. It wasn’t long before Howard was saying, "Why don’t you quit your job and hang down here at the pot shop and make pots all the time?" So I did! [laughs]
RW: That’s a pretty radical decision.
MM: It was, but I was very unhappy with my job. I was working with computers, actually. In those days you had to be in a very controlled environment. They had these huge machines. It was really quite boring.
RW: Did you start on a wheel?
MM: Well, that’s right. Howard showed us how to throw on a wheel. We could go down there any time, 24 hours a day, and I was often down there late at night. He was there late at night, too. So I got a lot of special instruction. Right now, it seems ridiculous, but I’d throw two or three hundred pounds of clay every day down there. All of what I made would be thrown away. I remember that it wasn’t as difficult for me as it was for others. I kind of advanced quickly. I didn’t really have much of an art background. I was very Western oriented in how I thought about art and aesthetics, but Howard took us to NCECA (National Conference on Education in Ceramic Arts), and that opened my eyes in terms of aesthetics.
RW: …Excuse me. When you say, "Western oriented," what do you mean?
MM: I mean more like beauty has to do with being straight and square. Whereas Eastern is more—everything has movement and is irregular. It was very difficult for me to make that transition. My background was science oriented. As a child, we were encouraged to go to museums and things, but art really wasn’t a part of my life until I got into clay.
RW: So tell me about your trip to NCECA.
MM: On the way, we stopped at this man Jerry Chappell’s farm where Sandy Simon was living. They had people living in chicken coops and making pots. They had people blowing glass. There was a lot of hippie stuff going on. Anyway, that was a very big eye-opener.
Then we went to Washington DC, to the Freer Gallery, which has a huge Asian collection of ceramics. My teacher Howard was very knowledgeable and it was like an on-going lecture for a whole week. We went to New York and to all those museums. I was young and impressionable. It kind of set the idea in my mind of how I wanted my life to be.
RW: So seeing that whole art scene on that farm was a major event for you.
MM: Absolutely, but before I got into clay I did have this idea already of being self-sufficient, being able, basically, to drop out of American culture and grow all of my own food, make my own energy. Originally clay was just a medium to make some money. All I ever really wanted when I first took that class was just to be able to make some coffee cups and stuff I could sell around local fairs, you know? But after that trip, my idea of clay had changed. It had much more of an artistic bent to it after that.
RW: Tell me a little more about your ideas of being self-sufficient.
MM: When I was twenty years old, which was 1970, I lived in North Carolina, and I had some friends there. Some land was made available to us, about a hundred acres, up around Statesville. We went out to live on that land, and we were just idiots. We didn’t have any tools and we didn’t have any knowledge, and we failed miserably! At that point, I decided I had to learn some things. That’s what led me to anthropology. I thought that by studying ancient cultures, which were basically self-sufficient, I thought I could learn some of these skills.
So I came back to Louisiana and got with a group of people who had similar ideas. There were five of us. We rented a small farm and started raising animals. We learned a lot of things about raising animals and raising food, and how to use tools. This was about the time I started doing clay.
RW: How long were you on this rented farm?
MM: Maybe five years. We were all very close friends. We ate all of our meals together. We grew the garden together, etc. Then we had an opportunity to buy a piece of land for ourselves. We bought eighty acres.
RW: That’s the land north of Baton Rouge?
MM: That’s correct. And that’s where I still am. A lot of our goals were never reached in terms of being self-sufficient, in terms of energy, etc., but for many years we more or less raised all of our own food. We kept a lot of animals. It was very hard work.
RW: Your ideal of self-sufficiency, can you say where that came from?
MM: Well, it wasn’t a unique idea at the time. There were a lot of what I’d guess you’d call hippies doing this stuff. What’s kind of unique about our situation is that we’re still doing it, to some degree.
RW: That is interesting that it’s lasted.
MM: The real difference is that we never viewed it as a commune. When we bought that land we hired an accountant, we hired a lawyer. We asked professional people how to set it up in terms of protecting ourselves. What happens if somebody dies or gets divorced? We had all that written down legally, and the accountant showed us how to set it up as a Subchapter S Corporation. Because of that, when problems arose the solutions were already written down. That avoided a lot of conflict.
RW: That’s amazingly prescient. What do you attribute that kind of foresight to?
MM: Well, we’re a fairly diverse group of people. All of us have different skills. One of my dearest friends, Kenneth Kearney, who’s out there with us, he’s a very smart guy. Basically, he’s our thinker. [laughs] His intelligence led us into this. To this day, he’s still kind of our leader and our thinker.
RW: How many of the original five are still with you?
MM: The first year we lost one individual. There are still four of us who own the property, but only three of us live there. Two of my buddies who live there are carpenters. They work together and do a lot of remodeling in the area. Really and truly, my friends are what has allowed me to have so much freedom and make pottery without a lot of worry about somebody taking care of me if something happens. It’s really a huge asset in life to have friends like that.
RW: That really sounds quite rare, that friendship and cooperation. So you buy the property and you want to throw pots. So how? You talked about being very creative in using whatever lay at hand, right?
MM: Yes. More out of necessity than anything else. To live in America without money is a difficult proposition and, for many years, I just didn’t have any money. It wasn’t that I didn’t like money. I just got in a situation where it was very difficult to make money. Setting up a ceramic studio takes a lot of equipment and a lot of space. I just had to make do with what was there.
RW: And what was there was nothing!
MM: Well, yes. Absolutely nothing, except there was a mobile home on it. But I never lived in the mobile home.
RW: I remember the photograph of the pup tent you lived in. How long did you live in it?
MM: I lived in the tent about six months. Then I had the roof on the air house, and a loft, but no walls.
RW: Where did the materials come from?
MM: I tore down old houses, and I’d get stuff from dumps. People would have stuff laying around and would say, "You haul it off and you can have it." My father gave me a gasoline credit card, which allowed me some mobility to get around. Americans waste a lot of stuff, you know. It’s the disposable society. So it was a lot easier thirty years ago than it is today. Again, I was fortunate in having a lot of friends I could Tom Sawyer into helping me do a lot of this stuff, particularly hauling bricks. In some ways, it was kind of like a game to do all this without spending any money, using found objects. It was huge fun when I was young. Currently, I live in a more modern type house with modern facilities. I miss that old lifestyle a lot.
RW: Let’s go back to that old lifestyle. You’re gathering materials and starting to build a shelter for yourself. The walls are all open, right?
MM: All open. It was just a roof and a loft at that point. It got me off the ground in a more airy space. We didn’t have any source of water on this land. So I scored a big old cistern and caught rainwater. It was very subsistence living for the first ten years there.
RW: So when did you turn your attention to making pots, like, how am I going to fire them?
MM: I was always obsessed with that.
RW: Even when you were living in your tent.
MM: Right. Actually the air house was never meant to be a living space, it was always meant to be the studio. I lived in the studio for twenty some years.
I just thought that anywhere I lived in Louisiana, natural gas would be available. Then when we moved up there into the hills, there was no natural gas. I didn’t know anything about wood firing at all. Zero. But I saw that there were woods out there. So I decided I would build myself a wood kiln. I read all the books that were available. There was a place called Kaiser Alumina in Baton Rouge that takes bauxite and fires it to make alumina. Their kilns were huge, maybe thirty feet in diameter and thirty feet tall. Whenever they became questionable, they would just bulldoze them down and build new ones. This was before OSHA, so I could get in the dump and haul all those bricks out. That’s what we did. We figured out how big a kiln we could build with the bricks we had, and we ended up with a brick and a half left over!
RW: That’s amazing!
MM: During that time I got the opportunity to go to the Chicago Art Institute as a visiting artist and I met this lady, Leah Balsam, who had been to Japan a lot. She gave me advice on how to build and how to fire a wood kiln that no one else had given me. So I went home and adjusted everything. The first wood firing was just one huge disaster, [laughs] and I was relying on that kiln load to make some money. But I learned some things and I tried again, and I failed again.
RW: So it didn’t get up to temperature?
MM: That’s exactly right. It didn’t get hot enough. Every firing I’d learn a little more.
RW: How did you get up to the Chicago Art Institute as a visiting artist? You must have been establishing yourself somehow.
MM: Well, it’s all about who you know. My friend Howard, who was my teacher at LSU, had taken a position there and at the same time Sandy Simon was teaching there as a visiting artist. They also had a bunch of guys from Lafayette, Louisiana that were graduate students there. So a whole nucleus of my friends was there. It wasn’t so difficult to get me a little job there.
RW: Now you mentioned Sandy Simon. You met on that farm in Georgia. Now how did that connection happen?
MM: She lived with Michael Simon at the time. They were both great potters. They lived a very nice, simple life and I really admired them for what they were able to do. Then in 1976, which is the same year we bought those eighty acres, they had NCECA in Baton Rouge. We had something they called a pre-conference, too, a hands-on thing with maybe twenty top ceramic artists in different fields. This went on for a week. So I met everybody there because I was a tech. Most of my friends in ceramics, I met at that conference. Sandy and Michael Simon were there and, you know, some people you meet, you’re just friends with. That’s how it’s been with me and Sandy.
RW: So your wood kiln is built and you’re having trouble getting it to fire right. So that was a whole saga in itself.
MM: It was. It was an obsession in a lot of ways. It’s way too much work, but to me, well, it was fun. [laughs] I did have a lot of failures, but that would just give me more incentive to do it again. I was really just being self-taught and finally some students from LSU who had a lot of experience with wood firing came out. They showed me what I was doing wrong. I was over-stoking. You think more wood equals more heat. Well, it’s not really like that. It’s all about the fuel and the air, and getting the correct combustion.
The real trick they showed me was you pull a plug at the top of the arch and watch the fire come out of that hole. When the fire recedes, you add a little bit of wood, not a ton of it, just a few sticks. That will burn really fast and then when that fire goes back into the kiln again, you throw in a few more pieces.
That was in 1987, after I’d spent ten years working at getting it right. That next kiln load I said, "If we’re not successful, I’m not doing this anymore. This is it." Every bit of knowledge I had was going into that one. Well, that was just a phenomenally great firing! I got a National Endowment Grant for those pots. That gave me an incentive to do more, and during that same time period I sort of renewed my friendships over at LSU and they started supplying me with students to help. So the next ten years of wood firing after that were pretty much successful.
RW: It’s amazing that you held out for ten years.
MM: I don’t really know if I’ve made this clear, but all of it was really just a lifestyle thing, the wood firing and how I was living. All of that went together. It was the only means I really had to fire.
RW: And there would have to be some fun there, as you mentioned.
MM: It was all fun. The thing about wood firing is—it’s like playing football. It’s a team effort. Everybody has to work together to make it work right. Then there’s also that factor where you get really, really tired, where you’d just like to quit. It’s like the fourth quarter, you have to find a little extra then. That’s just really challenging, and it’s fun, putting it all on the line.
RW: How many people would be involved when you’d fire?
MM: In the early years, I was just really naive. I thought just three of us could do it. Those firings weren’t very successful, but towards the end there it would take twenty to thirty people. But we’re not all working at the same time, maybe six people in a shift.
RW: Is this something that just came natural to you to be able to work with a group of people?
MM: I don’t know. I kind of have a knack of having really good friends who will do anything for me, really. [laughs] The wood firings became somewhat legendary, and the word kept spreading about all this stuff that went on. That made people interested, you know. And once you showed up, I was pretty much a tyrant. [laughs] When the wood kiln’s going on, if they ain’t doing it right, they got to go! I can’t say, "Would you please quit?" It’s "Get the hell out of the way!"
What really makes success in working with people is you have to have enough information to know how to use the right people in the right job. As time went on, it became obvious what needed to be done and who needed to be where. A lot of the same people help me over the years and everybody kind of has a job they’re familiar with and they like, and they’re very possessive of their jobs. I certainly couldn’t have done anything I’ve done in the last thirty years without my friends’ help.
RW: So does some of the reward that keeps you going come from the camaraderie of being with friends?
MM: Oh, absolutely.
RW: What are the rewards, the different levels of it?
MM: That’s a really good question, and the rewards are many. Ultimately just the actual doing of it was just a thrill and a half. Then, of course, if you get nice pots out, that’s a huge reward. Basically, when you get down toward the end of your life, it’s all about memories and things you’ve done and the people you’ve met. Over the years, there have been probably two hundred people who have helped me do things, a wide, diverse group of people from all over the world. I’ve had people from Japan and France and Spain, and all over this country. That’s been a reward in itself, to meet all these people and work toward a common goal together. Well, I feel extremely blessed to have been able to live how I’ve lived. A lot of people ask me why would you live like that? And my answer is, because I can.
I haven’t fired the wood kiln in some time now and I miss it, but on the other hand, I’m not as physically capable as I used to be. It started being enormously hard work.
RW: You said earlier, "it’s hard to live in this culture without money." You said you lived that way "because you could." That means it’s actually desirable…
MM: Well, it is. Nature is my thrill in life, I guess. I never liked living in the city; I never liked living closed in. To be able to live outdoors you have to deal with all the bugs and the animals, but to me, that was just thrilling because I’d grown up in such a different way. Basically I’d always just gone to school and read books. I’d never even touched a tool until I got into ceramics—I mean, not even a hammer! All of this was brand new, hands-on stuff, very physical, and just thrilling!
RW: Really? How did you grow up?
MM: My father was basically in academia all of my life. We were very much encouraged to do well in school, and then I have—I don’t talk about this much—I have a very serious blood disease, which makes all I’ve done even a little stranger. I have hemophilia, where my blood doesn’t clot. I have numerous messed up joints because of that. It is a concern, so my parents discouraged me from doing things with tools and activities where I could get hurt. So basically, it was always intellectual pursuits. I liked to play sports, but they encouraged me to play tennis and swim and stuff like that.
I just love tools, and learning how to build things was just a gas. Building the air-house was the first thing I’d ever built. We did a lot of really stupid stuff, but it’s still standing after thirty years.
RW: There’s a kind of physical joy?
MM: Yes. Absolutely. Then, you know, after a day’s work you’ve got something. You can say, "Yeah, I did that!" That was just huge. It was fun, and you’re outdoors all of the time.
I think we’re getting more and more away from nature, and it’s disappearing more and more. To do what I did thirty years ago would be virtually impossible now. You couldn’t go and buy eighty acres of land now if you’re a poor little hippie boy. So I’ve been fortunate through it all. I’ve used clay medicinally, too.
RW: How’s that?
MM: Well, you get a bleed in a joint, or something, and what they do is put ice on it and immobilize it. What I do is just pack it all in cold clay and wrap it all up. As you know, when clay dries, it shrinks, so it applies pressure. It was a very good way to treat things when I didn’t have medical help available.
RW: You know, I think most people just take their relationship to their bodies for granted, but I’m guessing that your relationship with your body is much more conscious than that. Would you say so?
MM: Yes. My body reminds me daily.
RW: Yes. Well, isn’t there something else, too? I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but isn’t a connection with nature also this more living connection with my physical body?
MM: Oh, absolutely. It is. Well, nature is what I call the real world. I’m not really alarmed, but our culture has changed radically in the last ten or fifteen years with all these electronics. I’m very curious to see what this next generation is going to be like, because they’re very detached from nature, extremely so.
I told a story the other day about someone coming to my house and wanting to stay for dinner. I went out to the chicken coop and cut off the head of a chicken and started plucking it, you know. Suddenly they’re in their car going down the road. I don’t know where they think chicken comes from.
Well, the earth is an amazing place. Nature is just what I crave and need. I don’t have any desire to be part of this electronic age. I’m kind of being forced into getting a computer. But you know, I’ve seen those computers steal people’s souls, really. I’m pretty scared of all that stuff. It seems we’re more dependent on computers now than less dependent, so if someone pulls the plug, I don’t know what people are going to do.
RW: I share your concerns. To change pace a little bit here, I’m interested in expectations. You might have a vision of how the pots are going to turn out and then they don’t. I imagine you’ve reflected on this issue?
MM: Expectations have brought me a lot of misery. The wood kiln is very much a thing where what you put into it is what you get out. It’s very dependent on the type of wood you use; it’s dependent on the people who are actually firing the kiln. It’s all a product of the process.
Well, somehow I got the idea that I could control that process and determine how they’re going to look. That’s where I got into problems, because every firing is different, and it’s a random thing that makes things so beautiful, really. Some firings I really thought I knew what I was doing. I had an expectation of what they’d look like. Well, they always come out different, and you have to learn to accept them for what they are. It’s much like how people have children and want them to become doctors or lawyers. Then they turn out to be something else.
RW: Then sometimes that feeling can change, right?
MM: Exactly. After you get over that expectation and that idea that you failed in terms of controlling things, and you start accepting them for what they really are, oftentimes those pots I was very disappointed in turn out to be the most beautiful. It takes a while.
I’ve fired that kiln thirty times now. Only twice have I ever been happy when I opened it up!
RW: That’s amazing.
MM: It always took me a while to get used to what came out of there. But the thing is, it’s just this huge amount of work. You get five cords of wood in there. You get all these people to come help you. I got my buddy cooking food and it’s this huge thing. I don’t know if you can understand this, but right before the firing, the studio is just full! Just jammed full! And there’s all this energy in there. It just surrounds you! You go out into the kiln shed and there’s all this wood piled all the way to the roof! There’s all that energy too. Then all these people show up from all over, and they’re all pumped up and high energy. Then we stay up for days, and fire is really a primitive thing that basically really gets you high, you know? You get into this primal thing, and this goes on for four days. Then everybody goes home.
You go into the studio, and it’s just totally empty. You go out to the wood shed, and it’s totally empty. All that vibrant energy that surrounded you, it’s just gone. Everything is in that kiln. So when you open it up, that’s a lot to live up to…
RW: That’s beautifully put.
MM: I pretty much go into a depression when it’s over. Prior to the firing, night and day, I’m getting it ready. It’s just this momentum thing building. You’ve got a deadline and you’re loading that day, no matter what. Everything has to be ready. I’m staying up all night for two weeks before the firing, and I’m wore out before it even starts. It takes seventeen or eighteen hours to load. We start early in the day, and we go late into the night. Anyway, the last ten years all the firings have been pretty successful, except for one.
One time we got the kiln all loaded up and there was something that wasn’t quite right. By this time we were all tired and I made the decision, all right, let’s go with it. We fired the kiln and everything was going great. We get really hot, around cone eleven, and things start moving around a little bit. So I make a decision, okay, let’s stop, we’ve got it hot enough.
Well, maybe a day later we go out there and pull a plug and look in there with a flashlight. There’s nothing in there! Nothing but air! Everything has fallen down in there. Everything! [laughs] It was like somebody had come in the middle of the night and stolen it all! But fortunately they had fallen when they were still pliable; they were so hot that the clay was actually pliable. So instead of breaking, basically everything just got stuck together; nothing really shattered or broke. Unloading that kiln was kind of like playing that game "Twister." But that’s the worst thing that’s happened to me in the last ten years or so. Actually the pots came out pretty good.
RW: Well, you fire only twice a year, right? So it’s a big thing.
MM: That’s right. It’s an event. It became too much of an event, really. People were planning their vacations around this event. And part of it is my friend Kenneth, our thinker; he’s a Cajun fellow and a phenomenal cook! Maybe fifteen years ago he decided that would be his job; he would do the cooking. Well, it’s like going to a fine restaurant every day! [laughs] People like to come just to eat his food! So a lot of people come. God, my family started coming! My dad would come from Boston. Well, I fire it when it’s beautiful, too. I always do it in the Spring and Fall. People camp out. It’s just a huge fun thing.
RW: So that’s been a wonderful journey. Now you mentioned that you were running a gallery for a while.
MM: Yes, but it wasn’t like I just quit making woodfired pots. I needed new kiln shelves. The grate in the firebox needed rebuilding. The door mill that supplied the little wood shut down. LSU ceramics changed their focus and who the students were they recruited. They became much more art-oriented than pottery-oriented. It seemed like the time to quit. Twenty years is a very long time to spend on one process. So I decided I should do some other things. I also decided I needed to worry about getting better living accommodations for my old age.
So I opened this small gallery in St. Francisville, Louisiana, which is a small tourist town. I was making a conscious effort to make money. The first couple of years, I was very successful there. I started giving lessons, also. Then the 9/11 thing came along. Tourism got cut drastically. Some other things happened in that small town politically that hurt tourism. Then I started not making much money, just breaking even. It was a lot of work. So I shut that down last year, but it was a very good experience. One of the real benefits is that even though I’d lived in that area for almost thirty years, I didn’t really know a lot of the local people. Then I became an integral part of the town and very much a citizen there. I got to meet all these older people who were really from another era. And people became much more aware of who I am and the pots I make, so I expanded my clientele.
Now the problem is that I need to readjust. I was living in isolation prior to opening the gallery and I was accustomed to that. But now, after being around people constantly and interacting with them daily, going back to the woods is a little more difficult. I could go a week without seeing a soul. So I’m in an adjustment period.
RW: You talked about how you’d fired a load, not in the wood kiln, but your smaller one—you’d fired a load and you didn’t even unload it for two weeks.
MM: Yes, and that was part of having the gallery. The wood kiln was a wonderful thing and I view those pots as more like art that I can apply to shows and be in galleries with. But I always produced a line of functional ware also, porcelain ware, just enough to make a living. Having the gallery, you had to keep it full all of the time, and I had a lot more bills to pay.
So I was making a lot more pottery and it was just starting to be product. The thrill was gone. That’s another reason I stopped having the gallery. That incident you’re talking about, well, when you unload a kiln it should be like Christmas. It should be a thrill. I knew exactly what that stuff was going to look like and there wasn’t any thrill at all. It was just work. So I kind of lost the joy of making things for a while.
You have to reassess what you’re doing when that happens. It’s just now that I’m really liking to go in the studio and make pots again.
RW: I get the impression about people who work with clay that they’re more friendly and down to earth, let’s say, than painters, sculptors, not to criticize them at all. Does this make any sense?
MM: Yes. I understand what you’re saying. Well, no matter how great you are with clay, you’re on the bottom end of the art thing. But the three signs of the Mesolithic are the domestication of the dog, the invention of the bow and arrow and the making of pottery. That’s how long pottery has been around. Clay is about earth. There’s just something very special about a pot. You use it to eat with, for decoration. Pottery used to be a necessity of life for so long. Before refrigeration, before plastics, everybody had to have crockery. That’s how you stored your milk, your food, everything would be put in crockery. I think that’s what makes potters basically simple, earthy people.
You need to have that appreciation of that utilitarian object that’s unique, that’s you. That’s one of the things that just grabbed me about clay. There’s something really special about having the coffee cup or that bowl you use every day that was made by someone. So yes, potters are a different breed. You can just about spot them. I’ve never met a potter who wasn’t a nice person.
RW: Well, I appreciate your being willing to spend all this time with me.
MM: This is great, but it’s hard for you to comprehend what it’s like to live in the Deep South like I do. A lot of what I said earlier about being self-sufficient and living off the land, well, a lot of my neighbors have been living like this forever, and their parents were living like that. It’s odd for a little well-educated white boy to live like that.
RW: That never occurred to me, that this still exists in our country and has for a long time.
MM: It has. There are some people around me who are eighty, ninety years old who are still living like that. Once they’re gone, it’s going to be over. When I first moved up there thirty years ago, there was an old gentleman, he was one hundred and ten years old. He still rode around on his horse every day with a big old gunnysack and a shotgun. He’d ride over to my house and yell, "White folk! White folk!" [laughs] He taught me all kinds of stuff. I had a sick horse and the vet told me I was going to have to put him to sleep. Old Mr. Ben came over and said, "Naw, I can fix that horse." He poured a bottle of linseed oil down him and two days later, that horse was well.
He knew how to find wild ginseng and all kinds of stuff in the woods. An excellent hunter. That’s the kind of people who surrounded me when I moved there. He taught me a lot.
RW: What are your reflections on craft in this culture right now, today?
MM: When I first started doing clay, I wanted to be in what you call the craft area. Well, I took a class in aesthetics when I was in college, and the first day of class they said, write your definition of art. Not many days go by that I don’t think about what art is. What makes this art and that not art? Basically I think what it is, is the transference of your energy into an object. Whatever it is that makes you uniquely you, if you can transfer that into something whether it be music or pottery or whatever, it’s art. But then you think, well, handwriting is like that. Is that art? So there has to be a little more to it than that. Truth and beauty have to come into that definition somewhere.
So I try to make things that have me in them. When you see my pot, you know that I made it. But a lot of this craft, you see that object and it might be nice, but you have no idea of who made it. I think that’s the real difference.
RW: I imagine you’ve read The Unknown Craftsman
RW: It’s an interesting thing how Yanagi talks about the pots from the Sung era, where no one signed them, but some of those pots had this essential quality totally devoid of egoism. This was valued above all else in that book. How does that fit in with what we’re talking about here?
MM: Well, it’s very much a philosophy that I’ve adhered to. I’m not Japanese, and so it’s kind of my own modified version of it all. This whole thing of living like I do and making objects like I do is pretty much a part of that. You have to adapt things and make them yours. I took what I could and left the rest.
RW: In the art world, "the new" is usually seen as "novel." And there’s "originality," but what does original mean? It has to do with origin. It may not look novel though. See what I’m saying?
MM: Yes. But it is novel, because it’s uniquely yours and nobody else can do it.
RW: But it may not announce itself with a lot of drama as being "different."
MM: Well, I think that’s very much an American thing, this drama, and this instant fame kind of thing. That’s part of this computer generation thing, too. We’re losing ourselves a lot. It has to do with how people make art, too. It’s a lot less personal than it used to be. All these machines are involved in it.
In my work, every time I use a tool, or a machine, that takes away from what I, myself, am putting in there. I gave up on this idea of doing something grand and original and unique and something that will make you rich and famous. Each individual is unique and to make art is a very personal thing. As long as you can express what’s you through that medium, I think you’re successful. If you make something that is devoid of you, it’s just another product, basically.
RW: Do you ever have a chance to look at exhibits of ancient pots and, if so, how is that for you?
MM: I do go and see shows. I’ve gone to Houston, I go to Boston. But when I look at pots now, I don’t think about their age. I look at pots now almost like a living thing. I try to let that pot speak to me in whatever way, without any other information. When I look at ancient pots, somehow they’re so much more beautiful than a lot of stuff that’s currently produced. I don’t know if it’s just their age or that mentality of when it was made.
It goes back to that old tradition we were talking about of the Japanese unsigned, anonymous person. Some of those pots are just so beautiful, and even some of the Native American stuff, the way they approach clay where they go out and thank the earth for giving the clay before they take it. Then they just get a little bag of it and go home and hand mix it and make this pot. It’s just such a different concept than buying a ton of clay and whipping out fifty pots real fast.
When I look at ancient pots, they are more beautiful, and I wish I could make pots that beautiful. I’m a product of my own culture.
RW: When you look at an ancient pot and try to receive it as you can, is there a difference in the fact that you’ve had your hands in clay so much?
MM: I wouldn’t say that. To me all art is about how it affects me emotionally or physically. Whether it’s an ancient pot or a current pot, it doesn’t really matter as long as it gives you that emotion. There has to be an interaction that speaks to me in some way. That’s what separates the Tupperware from clay.