Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Sandy Simon

by , Aug 9, 2021



I met Sandy Simon and Robert Brady when they still lived in a warehouse in West Berkeley at the edge of railroad tracks. Only yards away, Amtrak and freight trains rumbled by steadily day and night. I’d found the two artists while walking around off the beaten path. I’d spotted artwork through an open door and remember a stylized airplane had caught my eye. I had to take a closer look. It turned out to be one of Robert Brady’s pieces. Both Robert and Sandy were friendly and we’d chatted. I noticed several of their friend, Roy De Forest’s, pieces there, too. It was the beginning of a connection that’s grown over many years.
     I interviewed Robert in 2006. Learning about Sandy and her own pottery in porcelain took longer. It got a significant boost when I met and interviewed Louisiana potter Michael Miller, an old friend of Sandy’s. It was long overdue, but we finally sat down for a recorded conversation at her little studio in the back of Trax Gallery—her passionate project dedicated to the work of potters still making the utilitarian ware they’ve made from time immemorial.—Richard Whittaker  

Sandy Simon:  I learned to throw pots on a Leach treadle wheel. When I was a student at the University of Minnesota in 1967, that’s all we had; no one had an electric wheel. You sit down and kick with your left foot constantly. Our teacher, Warren Mackenzie, had worked in Bernard Leach’s Pottery.

works:  I think it’s the kind Marguerite Wildenhein used. Did you ever meet her?

Sandy:  Never met her, but she used a kick wheel with a wooden fly wheel wearing only ballet slippers, according to my husband.  A good friend of mine in Georgia, Ron Meyers, who’s a potter – his teacher was Frans Wildenhein, her ex-husband, in Upstate New York. Pond Farm out here is hers, right?  [yes] I think that happened after she and Frans split up.

works:   I know she was in the first Bauhaus class for pottery in Weimer, Germany.  She writes about all that in The Invisible Core. So when were you a student at the University of Minnesota?

Sandy:   I was a student in the Fall of ’67 and then ’68, ’69. In 1970, I married classmate, Michael Simon, and we moved to Georgia with a small group of friends from the studio at U.M. who also were infatuated with making pottery. I was twenty.  
     Jerry Chappelle, a grad student, got a teaching position at the University of Georgia in Athens.  He invited all of us to come live and work at the farm he’d purchased. Mark Pharis was a student at the same time, as was Randy Johnston, Wayne Branum, George Beers and Gib Krohn – all friends, and all people still working in clay.

works:   When you were at the University of Minnesota, what made you get into ceramics?

Sandy:   I’d always been interested in Art. Michael Simon was in my drawing class and he was also taking ceramics. I’d go to the ceramics studio to meet him.  Everyone was throwing pots and having so much fun. It was just a wonderful place to be. So I decided to take a ceramics class.  There were no school rules back then, so we drank beer and fired kilns and stayed up all night.  That was the beginning.

works:  What were those first experiences with clay like for you?

Sandy:  The first two weeks just trying to center a piece of clay was a huge struggle. Even after two weeks I couldn’t master it.

works:  Well, who can master centering quickly?

Sandy:  Big, strong guys or women. They can just do it, and having an electric wheel helps a lot. Anyway, I was intrigued because I couldn’t do it. Then you know, once you conquer something, you get enthralled with it. So that’s what happened. Eventually I made a lot of big, porcelain plates and had a propensity to draw Florida beach scenes on them. Growing up in the cold winters of Minnesota, beach scenes were my fantasy.

works:  So, say more about your involvement there.

Sandy:  School involved me for three years. I took every ceramic course offered. Then I learned that they didn’t offer a major in ceramics. So I went to talk to Warren MacKenzie, the department head. I asked, “Why can’t I graduate with a ceramics major? This is where all my classes are!” He told me they didn’t have the faculty to support it. I was so disappointed I actually got really mad. I would have had to start over in painting or drawing or photography—a whole other field—to graduate. So in my final year, I quit.

works:  You seriously quit? You just walked away?

Sandy:  I walked away.

works:  Now Warren MacKenzie was teaching there?
Sandy:  Yes. He was there for many years. My other teacher, Curtis Hoard, was young, not much older than we were. He was just hired the semester I started. He was very serious about making clay sculpture, and he influenced us in ways Mackenzie did not.  

works:  So you have a relationship with Mackenzie that goes back a long way?
Sandy:  A very long way, yes. He never gave me an “A” and I never forgave him for it. I was there all the time and was not a bad potter. I was creative is what I was. Maybe it was because he was entrenched in the rigors of the Leach philosophy - being able to duplicate forms to create a catalog that fit the Leach Pottery. I never really asked him. Mackenzie did not have a degree, either.
     But this group of us were there all the time and of course at the end of the day, we all went to the bar and had a good old time. Our friendships survive even to this day! Mark Pharis didn’t graduate either, for much the same reasons as me. He later became chair of the Art Department at the University of Minnesota and was solely responsible for earning the support of the state legislature to get funding for a new art department. He sent busloads of students to the capital and made a visual “pro art” impact. As I said, that nucleus of students then moved to Georgia following Jerry Chappelle and his wife, Kathy, and their three children. Jerry’s farm outside of town had a 300-foot long abandoned chicken coop. Mark Pharis and Wayne Branum went down there to Georgia first. I don’t remember how long they stayed, but they decided to come back to Minnesota. Then Randy Johnston went down and built a fireplace for Jerry and Kathy, but decided not to stay.  
     Michael and I had an old Ford van and we drove it to Georgia not knowing everyone else had left. We were hippies and were terrified at what we might encounter driving through the South. We saw pickup trucks with rifles in the back window; we were eyed suspiciously when we’d go into a gas station or store.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there, but once we set up our potter’s wheels, which had just come from England, things fell into place. We set ourselves up in one end of this 300-foot long chicken coop. We had to clear out a dead horse, about a foot of sawdust and chicken litter that was infested with wireworms. Pretty gross.

works:  So wait a minute. There was a dead horse the chicken coop?

Sandy:  Yeah. But we didn’t move right into the chicken coop. First we lived with the Chappelles.

works:  And eventually you actually moved into the chicken coop?

Sandy:  Yeah. Georgia gets a little cold in the winter. It can be ten degrees. So we put bubble wrap along our segment, which was about 30 x 30 feet. The walls were all chicken wire with bubble wrap, and plastic went on the outside of it. The floor was hard clay pack. Georgia is full of red clay. You could sweep it clean. We cooked over a campfire outside and used an old coke machine that was left there, as a refrigerator. We didn’t have money, nor did we want money. Mackenzie instilled in us to just make our work. We didn’t have to have a degree.
     In time the Chappelles charged us $30/month and in exchange we babysat their three kids. Before long, more students moved into the chicken coop from the university. This all went on for about two years—and this was during the Vietnam War. Michael got his draft notice and pleaded conscientious objector; he ended up working as an orderly at the local hospital in Athens.
     So we began making pots. Our markets were street fairs in Florida, mostly. If we made $500 for the weekend we felt rich. We’d sleep in our van and spend the next week at the beach. We felt that the facilities at University of Georgia were there for us, so we’d go into the University at night, mix clay and fire their kilns. Jerry didn’t tell us to do this and he nearly lost his job because of it. But we were young and naive and really didn’t think it was wrong.
     So since we couldn’t to that anymore, we started mixing clay with our feet in like a cement mixer kind of trough. Then a salesman from the Georgia Kaolin Company—whom I met through Tom Turner, another potter—helped me create a really nice clay body. Up to that point, we’d always bought kaolin from England, which was expensive. I got quite an education from the salesman over the phone, talking about clays. He was telling me we didn’t have to use English kaolin. He explained how mix dry bentonite with hot water and let it sit for a week. It would get so stiff you could barely get your thumb in it. So we’d take that and mix it with the rest of our clay body. That’s how I ended up using Georgia kaolin in my porcelain body.  We sold our clay to a few potters around there. The formula became quite popular.

works:  So you’ve been doing high-fire work from the beginning.

Sandy:  Yeah, from the get-go.

works:  And porcelain is a little bit harder to throw. It can be sort of rubbery.

Sandy:  Well, people say that. But I think it’s really a question of what you’re used to. It’s different because it’s so dense. But porcelain that’s rubbery is a bad clay body. I did a workshop in Seattle many years ago. They gave me their porcelain and I couldn’t throw it. I said, “Where’d you get this?” The response was, “Oh, yeah. Nobody likes it.”

works:  Well, being in Georgia, I know you met Michael Miller.

Sandy:  Yeah. Good old Michael. He died a few years ago. But Miller—we always called him “Miller”—wasn’t from Georgia. He grew up in Boston. We met him in Louisiana when he was a student in clay at LSU. He assimilated the backcountry lifestyle pretty quickly.

works:  The way I met him is through John Toki. He invited me down to CCA to listen to Michael Miller give a talk and I ended up interviewing him – a lovely man. He had some great stories and you showed up several times. So how did it work for you and Michael Miller to have been in the same story?

Sandy:  I just reread a letter he wrote me in 1970-something. I met Michael when the NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts] conference was held in Louisiana. Joe Bova and Howard Shapiro were both teaching at LSU and Howard had organized a pre-conference. Miller was a student there, as was Charlie Nalle, and they were good friends. Miller and three of his buddies had bought a piece of raw land up by the prison outside of Baton Rouge and they divided it up. They had a construction company and each built a house. Only Miller never had enough money to finish his. We called it the “air house” because it didn’t have walls.
     Michael Simon and I went to that NCECA conference with a van-load of people. It was just a blast. We went to the pre-conference, too, and camped out. So I met Miller through Howard Shapiro, who was his teacher.

works:  And this was at the time you were living in the chicken coop with some other people.

Sandy:  Yeah, the chicken coop filled up with some people from the University of Georgia who had studied ceramics with Jerry Chappelle. Jerry used to have these Scorpio Rising parties at his farm. There was always a pig roast and lots and lots of students came from colleges up and down the East Coast. They had a bronze pouring, too, and did raku firings. That’s where I first met Michael Miller, I think. And that’s where I met Clayton Bailey, too.

works:  This was before Clayton came to California?

Sandy:  Yeah. He’s from Wisconsin. And David Middlebrook was there. He was teaching at Kentucky then. He’s a crazy guy. Later on, I taught at San Jose State for five years in the early ‘90s and David would come into my class. We’d just talk and talk. A cool guy.

works:  So that’s another thing that went back to the chicken coop days.

Sandy:  Yeah. The Scorpio Rising parties were in the early seventies. We lived in that coop two or three years until we found a farmhouse nearby for the same rent.

works:  So there was community of potters and other artists, I suppose, connected with the chicken coop.

Sandy:  Well, Gary Noffke was there, too. He taught metal-smithing at the University of Georgia. He’s an amazing artist and we’re still really tight, good friends. He’s long ago retired now. Once my dad came to visit me in the chicken coop. He was a banker. I can’t believe he did that. He always blamed Michael Simon for not providing for his daughter.

works:  How did that go?

Sandy:  Not well.

works:  That’s funny.

Sandy:  Yeah. Well, honestly, the reason that you, Richard, ended up knowing Michael Miller was through me. He visited me often. I had him come to San Jose State and do a workshop when I was teaching there. The students couldn’t believe this guy - a backwoods potter from Louisiana. His stories had them mesmerized. I helped him get an NEA grant when [Robert] Brady was on the panel. I did a lot for Miller. It’s interesting. Miller’s dad was a huge success. His field was biology, I think, and he had a few books to his credit.
     Michael was probably overprotected growing up because of his hemophilia. He’s one of 11 people in the United States who survived to the age he survived, which was 62. Most hemophiliacs died early from AIDS gotten from blood transfusions. Michael never took a transfusion; he packed clay on his wounds. He had fallen off a horse when he was 25 and afterward he couldn’t work like a normal person. One of his legs was frozen; it wouldn’t bend.
     Miller had a lot of friends and I think it was because he exuded joy. He was always calling himself a lucky man “because the sky was blue or the birds were singing.” Who wouldn’t want to love and support a guy like that? Only his dad hated that his science-minded son quit work with the first big computers and became a potter.

works:  I really liked him.

Sandy:  Bob and I gave him a truck. Our daughter, Morgan, then about 16, drove with him and his friend Willie, back to Louisiana from their visit to us in California. This was later when we lived in the warehouse in Berkeley. Morgan was in high school at that time and she really liked Michael. So Morgan—looking for adventure—helped Michael and Willie drive. Michael loves music and was friends with some musicians who lived in Colorado and had a band the “Subdudes.” So they all stopped and stayed with “the dudes.” When they arrived in Louisiana, hurricane Katrina had hit so Morgan ended up spending two weeks with Michael and getting a real taste of the South.

works:  One of the things Michael told me was  “Sandy knows everybody in the ceramics world.” I take that to mean the studio pottery world. So tell me a little bit about that.

Sandy:  Well, when I was in my thirties, I was invited to a lot of places to give workshops. Women at that time were not often recognized in the culture of pottery, art—or anything.
     I remember giving my first workshop with Michael Simon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Every time you give a workshop, people want to know what you’re doing, how you do it and so on. This was before cell phones or the Internet. So you’d share your formula, recipes, tools, and word gets out. I mean, I’ve given probably close to 200 workshops in different places, including China, Japan, England, Italy and most recently Chile.

works:  What are some of the most interesting memories from all that?  

Sandy:  China. Oh, my God! I was one of ten Americans invited to go to China through the American Craft Council, and I decided to go. I’d also had an invitation before that to go to Korea, but having two young children kept me from doing a lot of things I might otherwise have done—including jobs. But I went to China in 2014 or 2015.

works:   Not so long ago, actually.

Sandy:  No. So we arrived in Shanghai and Robert and our teenage son, Will, came along for the beginning. But then we flew to Fuping for our pottery workshop, which was in a big factory brickyard. The man who owned the brickyard had gone to the Archie Bray Center in Montana, and wanted to create a similar situation in China where he could have artist residencies in ceramics. He and his friend, who owned the brick factory, built seven museums around that concept and structured it by continents—so seven continents. Ten or twelve people were invited from each continent to work for a month, or two, or three. Then your work stayed there and became part of their museum. It was a huge property. Each museum on the property was built brick-by-brick using bamboo for scaffolding. They gave us a hotel room on the site, but there were no stoppers in the drains, so whatever happened in the toilet came up through the bathtub drain. We ended up stuffing it with a towel. It all looked really clean, but I got bedbugs after a week.

works:  Oh, my God.

Sandy:  I know. It was challenging. Meals were provided in a huge cafeteria. They had the most amazing food. We ate with the same people every day. Marie Woo, John Stevenson and his wife, Suzanne, Anna Cullori-Holcomb and Linda Leighton are some of the people I hung with. It was amazing and there were so many experiences I’ll never forget.
     So, we’re there working in the studio and throwing pots and busloads of Chinese tourists would come in. They’d just get in your face until you couldn’t even throw your pot. We complained, so they put up a rope and the tourists had to stay back ten feet. That was helpful. At the end of three weeks, the admin had a big show of our work. We were invited to a fancy café on site to have dinner with the owner of the whole enterprise, his wife, and the top guys that worked there. It was an amazing meal and the big shots spoke English well enough so some of us were able to converse.  
     The factory also had a hair salon and a massage parlor, both of which Linda and I took advantage of daily. The main part of the cafeteria was open to the public for lunch and dinner with a massive buffet. Typically diners threw everything on the floor when they were done eating—bones, soup, you name it—and when leaving our part of the cafe we had to step over all of it. But for the next meal all would be spic and span.

works:  Wow. That’s a different approach. Now switching gears, I’m intrigued by some of the things you’ve said about art school and about how you think about art. Now, you didn’t get your BFA, so you never got an MFA, either, I suppose.

Sandy:  No, I never did, and I regret that.
works:  Have you ever read the The Unknown Craftsman?

Sandy:  Yes, it’s my Bible, along with Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Handbook.  

works:  What resonates most for you in The Unknown Craftsman?

Sandy:  It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but it has to do with the heartlessness of machine-made goods. There are no opportunities for mistakes, and mistakes are what make you grow; they add to learning much faster. When everything is working well, people still want something more. They don’t really know what’s missing, but the handmade goods are what really tap into their heart and mind.

works:  You’re saying that handmade goods have the capacity to touch us in a deep way?

Sandy:  Yes, absolutely. I thoroughly believe they can change your day-to-day existence.

works:  What is it about them that have this power?

Sandy:  I think it’s what is going into them—the maker’s intellect, decisions and heart and soul. That’s transferred to the user, especially if that user is conscious. A lot of people aren’t conscious and don’t really pay attention to their daily life or what they’re using or doing. I’m guilty of this, too—some days, for sure.

works:  But there’s a quality that can be embedded in the handmade object somehow, you’re saying.

Sandy:  There is, depending on who’s making it. There are a lot of handmade objects where the maker is just trying to fulfill somebody else’s need or, even worse, just making something to sell. There’s a lot of that going on.

works:  Can you say more about pots that have that more conscious element?

Sandy:  Well, one thing I’ve noticed having the gallery is that when someone comes in and goes to a pot and responds to it, likes it - they might pick it up, hold it, turn it around, and then decide not to buy it - the next person who comes into the Gallery goes right to that same pot. I’ve seen it happen over and over and over. That means that that pot has the ability to touch the spirit of whomever.       
works:  You know, Marguerite Wildenhain tried to teach people how to make a pot with the whole of themselves, and that’s a high bar.

Sandy:  It is.

works:  So if a pot is made with the whole of one’s self, is that something that can be felt?

Sandy:  Absolutely. That’s why I move the ones with the red dots to the rear of the Gallery. But still, when people come in, they’re drawn right to them without really seeing the red dot. It’s fascinating.
works:  You have been running this gallery for how long now?

Sandy:  Twenty-six years.

works:  And you only carry handmade objects, mostly from clay. Right?

Sandy:  All of them clay, and all functional. The only exception is my husband Bob’s work [Robert Brady]. Occasionally, I’ll have some sculpture in the Gallery.
works:  I’m intrigued by the idea there’s an invisible content in craft objects, potentially. You know, Yanagi was really moved by certain little Korean bowls 200 or 300 years old. He was responding to something that you might say is sort of mysterious.

Sandy:   Yeah. Except it might also be the same thing we’re talking about. And it’s the whole point of the The Unknown Craftsman, too. It’s about people making things without a conscious effort to please, to sell, or to become greater than. This is something that was very instilled in me by Warren MacKenzie. He never sold his work for much money. He wanted people to use it. For many years, he didn’t stamp it or sign it. But he finally fell to the pressure of having to do that. So, he stamped his work.
     Now, when I was selling his work, that was a key thing. People didn’t want to buy it if it wasn’t stamped to prove he made it.

works:  Yes, it’s hard to imagine this culture ever getting to that level, but that’s a separate topic. Who were Warren MacKenzie’s teachers?

Sandy:  Bernard Leach. Warren was married to Alix MacKenzie and they went to the Chicago Art Institute as painters. They couldn’t get the classes they wanted, so they took ceramics and they became hooked. They later went back to Minneapolis and started a pottery there. Michael Simon and I were really influenced by him - like any other student he had - mostly because of his lifestyle. He’d have us to his house, and we’d have critiques there. I just remember being overwhelmed with a feeling of love when I was in their kitchen. On the open shelves there were cups, plates, bowls and tea bowls he’d purchased or acquired. It was so different from my kitchen at home where I grew up. Art was never a part of my life.

works:  You described the feeling of love being in that kitchen.

Sandy:  That’s the way I felt - just warmth and joy. That was when I was a student, too. On that first pottery sale of his I went to, I bought a pot—$12. He always put his pots in the yard on the ground. People would line up for the nine o’clock start time, which was a stretch for me back then. Michael bought an off-center bowl that he’d squared with his fingers. I thought, “Why would somebody distort a perfectly round bowl?” I was 18. I didn’t get it. I do now. And in The Unknown Craftsman this is part of why manufactured goods are hard to live with. They don’t suggest infinity; they don’t suggest change or beyond what is.  

works:  That’s beautiful - "they don’t suggest infinity." I can’t resist bringing up the old art vs. craft question. Marguerite Wildenhein taught the guild system that she learned at the Bauhaus. You come in and apprentice to a master. You get good enough and become a journeyman. If you even get better, you become a master craftsman. But when you can make a pot with your whole self, she said, “That’s art.”

Sandy:   And who calls it art? This is a real worn down topic, art vs. craft. I had a huge problem with this when I was trying to sell my work in galleries. Nobody showed functional work except one gallery in St. Louis, and it was just very unusual. I’d been creative with my pieces. I’d use color, and maybe change the lip so it wasn’t uniform. I used to cut pieces out and put striped segments in there, because it reminded me of Peter Voulkos’ shirt that he always wore.
     I met my current husband at the Appalachian Center for Crafts, where we were both hired. He came with his palette of color, which we never had in Minnesota. It was always high-fire reduction, brown pots. He had this range of work - sculpture with stains and pinks and greens. I went to the store to buy ice cream one day, and they had spumoni. I just looked at the chips of green and pink and thought, “I‘m going to use that in my pots!” So I made pink and green chips and embedded them in the clay. It never occurred to me that my cups might leak. But I didn’t care. I’d made some for people at the Craft Center and I gave them each one for Christmas.
     David Hutchhausen taught glass there and was always shaking his finger at me or somebody about what he knew and we didn’t. Anyway, I gave him a cup, and he poured coffee into it at lunch in the cafeteria. The coffee came out like a little kid peeing and hit him in the face. It was really funny and he told everyone I made pots that leaked. In spite of it, I did like the guy.  Anyway that’s been a big issue, this craft vs. art thing.

works:  And it goes directly to what you’ve done here with Trax Gallery. Would you talk a little more about that?

Sandy:  I started Trax because there weren’t any galleries that respected potters. It was always a battle. When I wanted to start Trax, Ruth Braunstein said, “You can’t do that!” She thought I’d compete with her as Brady’s dealer. I said, “Ruth. I‘m not selling Bob’s sculptures, I’m selling pots. My gallery will be for potters!”
     I think potters need to be recognized because what they put into their pots is the same thing an artist puts into a painting. It’s heart and soul. When we had the warehouse, I had Warren MacKenzie come. He drew over 100 people. I had to order bleachers. I had no idea of his fame. People from other countries called, wanting to buy a piece. Shocking.
     And I had Byron Temple, who was Mary Law’s teacher. That was a big success, too. After owning the Gallery, I finally got it why galleries get 40% or 50%. It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of time and money, too.

works:   Can you say more about your motivation behind starting Trax.

Sandy:   I wanted to have a showroom for people whose work I loved, for people who made pottery their life’s work, and who were trying to make a living doing it, which was always a struggle.

works:  This whole thing you’re doing is close to 100% overlooked in the culture—that is, honoring utilitarian objects made with great care and skill.   
Sandy:   That’s right.

works:   So what’s needed here?

Sandy:  What’s missing is media recognition. Museums aren’t collecting pots much. I had a long conversation with Lyndel King, director of the Weissman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota campus. Warren MacKenzie donated a lot of pots and money for the construction of that museum. Early on, I visited and asked, “Where are all the pots?”
     “They’re in the basement. We can’t show them because we don’t have the space.”  
     I took issue with that. I said, “This is the heartland of potters and the man who helped create this museum is teaching here. He helped create these potters who are trying to make their livelihoods now. So some of these pots should always be on view. People from all over the country would come see to see them.”
     “Well, you can go down to the basement and handle them if you want,” she said.
     The Weissman had a humongous Mimbres [a pre-historic North American people] collection that somebody had donated, and now they have to give it all back.

works:   They’re being repatriated?

Sandy:   Right. Anyway, museums need to start showing appreciation for pottery and modern day makers. Many museum boards are occupied by collectors who buy art to validate their own collections by steering their museum to purchase what they like and own.  I have a friend who witnessed this first hand. After Warren Mackenzie’s death his former students and appreciators created a legacy to honor him and generate a scholarship for ceramic artists. I contributed, too. TRAX sold Warren’s pots at prices the secondary art market had for them, which was a lot more than he ever wanted. He’d never take his share and told me to keep it to help the next young potter. He was generous and never wanting more money. He wore the same glasses for years and his shoes were so worn out they tipped him to one side. He wouldn’t have any of it.

works:  You know, fashion is such a force in the art world, like everywhere else. But deep substance is often quiet and not immediately obvious.

Sandy:  It’s very quiet. I make quiet pots. I feel I have been quiet. I might change that.
works:  You know, Bob [Brady] told me about going to a big museum exhibit. He’d looked at everything on the first floor, and then the second floor. He was on his way out when he noticed a quiet pot in a glass case. He stopped to look and it just pierced him. He said it was so much more powerful than anything he’d seen in the entire exhibit. So what is that?

Sandy:  I don’t know if I could put my finger on it. I remember Pete Voulkos telling a similar story and it had to do with a pot he saw. He felt he’d made it in a previous life.

works:  Could we say this quality belongs to everyone, that at a deep enough level, it’s a universal thing? And maybe that’s why it can touch us. Does that make sense?

Sandy:  I think so. Sure, it does. But a lot of people go to great effort to cover that up, especially men, because it’s a sentimentality, in a way. And really sensitive people also cover it up; they tell lies.

works:   Well, going back to The Unknown Craftsman, I think one of the things that was so powerful for Yanagi was the absence of ego.

Sandy:   Right. That’s it! That resonated with me.  

works:  If one has this relationship with the object and it contains something from the depths, it can be soul food, you know. Anyway, that’s why I‘m doing the magazine.

Sandy:  Well, that is why it’s so good. I mean, you really have the essence.

works:  It’s because I’m not working from some idea, but from my own experience.

Sandy:  Where did you study ceramics?

works:  I took a course at Chaffey Junior College in Southern California. I was sort of a misfit. It started from having a girlfriend at Scripps who was taking a ceramics class.

Sandy:  Similar to my experience.

works:  One evening Nancy took me to the ceramics studio and Paul Soldner was there. She wanted me to try making a pot. Soldner came over and gave me a little help. It all left an impression. It’s a long story. But when did you get out here to the Bay Area?

Sandy:  We came out here from Indiana. First we lived in Crockett, then we rented a house in Benicia. Robert and Pete Voulkos were friends and shared a hotel room one night in Philadelphia where Pete was having an exhibition. Pete needed money for a lawsuit he was involved in so he told Robert he’d sell him the warehouse in Berkeley. We bought it from him before moving to teach at Indiana University for a year.

works:  And your first teaching job was at…

Sandy:  The School of the Chicago Art Institute. All the jobs I‘ve had were adjunct. Back then, everybody was on point to hire women, because there weren’t any in any art department. So I got hired and it changed my life dramatically. I just loved being in Chicago with so many unexpected things happening every day. Then I went from Chicago and taught at Purdue for a semester. From there, I went to the Appalachian Center for Crafts in Tennessee. Susan Peterson, who was a big deal in the craft world back then, hired all the faculty. There were five of us. Even though I was told I had a job, they had one more person to interview and that was Bob [Brady]. He stole her heart, but she told me, “I still want you to come. Will you be the studio manager?” I agreed because I didn’t like living in West Lafayette, Indiana, where Purdue is.
     Bob was my nemesis. We hit it off right away; then we didn’t; then we did. And, finally, we got together. Then after two years, we moved from Tennessee to Crockett. He went back to his job in Sacramento, and I became pregnant with our first child.

works:  And you already knew Clayton Bailey who must have been in Crockett also by then.

Sandy:  Yeah, but I hadn’t known Roy de Forest and Gloria. I didn’t know anybody around Crockett, and I was so lonely. I rode my bike with a loaf of fresh baked bread to Roy and Gloria’s because we’d been introduced. They lived nearby, and that broke the ice and I became friends with Gloria. Our friendship made a big difference in my life. Anyway, Bob was back teaching at Sacramento State and was gone two full days a week, sometimes more. Then we bought a house in Benicia. That’s when we were asked to come teach at the University of Indiana. I wanted to do this badly, Bob didn’t. But he went along with it. We went for a year in 1986. They wanted us to stay. But Alfred University wanted us to teach out there. We were a power couple. I was so smitten with Bob because of his work. It was just the best art I’d seen in a long time, and still is—plus he’s funny.

works:  He’s a wonderful artist.

Sandy:  And, as it turns out, he makes nice pots! He would never do pottery in the early years because he wanted to be known as a sculptor. Anyway, from Indiana there were a lot of back and forth trips to Chicago, museums and galleries, and then we bought the warehouse from Pete [Voulkos]. The only thing Pete left in the warehouse was an ashtray with a real, tiny, stuffed alligator on it, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels and a broom.
     So many people had been there and you’d hear all these stories. Owning that warehouse was just a treat. The railroad people knew Pete because they used to stop there to fill up their water car. The people at the racetrack knew Pete because one of their bulls got loose and Pete helped them catch it by chasing it back to the racetrack with his forklift. [laughter] I‘m serious. That neighborhood was really awful before we were there. Right across the railroad track was a tannery. Then there were all the buildings along our side of the track. Stan Welsh lived in one. Different artists lived in them during the 70s before the Pacific Steel Company bought them.
     Bob said he never saw me cry before, as I did when we first got there. I sat down on the floor looking around and it was over whelming. The walls were just wood frame covered with sheet metal. There were big holes, no insulation and no interior walls. Pete had cardboard over the windows, because he slept during the day. The only place to live was where the office used to be on the second floor. It was about 20 feet from the RR tracks. My first night there I dreamed I was tied to the tracks. The horn was blaring and the building shook. Something like seventy trains a day went by. And Pete’s wife, Ann Adair, had an alligator. It slept under the hot water heater in that front space.  

works:  A living alligator?

Sandy:  Yeah. It was about four feet long. She used to feed it fish from Spenger’s. On the ground level there was a hole in the concrete floor we used to squeegee all the water out when the building flooded during a winter storm. Pete didn’t tell us about that when he sold it to us. Oh, my God! We had water three and a half feet deep rushing through there a few times. It ruined my wheel and washing machines, lots of stuff. We were there 18 years, and I still have a lot of sentimentality about it. Now a lot of artists live there.

works:  Okay. So how do you see the essential thing about making work? What is the artist’s real work? I know you sent some notes about that to a friend who is taking pottery lessons from you.  

Sandy:  Yes. I told her I never think about selling my work when I’m making things. I make them because they give me so much satisfaction, or not. But it’s the completion of the piece that makes me feel whole, grounded, satisfied. If someone wants to buy it, terrific. It means they’re experiencing some of what happened when I made it. And I do have people who really appreciate my work. It’s quiet. It’s not big. But that’s why you make things. It’s a meditation, it’s serenity, it’s the making that gives you the feeling you want.

works:  Can you say anything more about that?

Sandy:  I know that when I’m away from making things for long periods, I get angst. I feel this build up in me. Something needs to be expressed and, if I don’t have that outlet, I get really depressed. That’s when I need to go to the wheel. Making from the wheel is not a big deal. I mean, it’s like riding a bike. It’s what you do with it afterwards, the combination of things or the completion of an object. Then, in turn, to really be good at it, you have to be critical of your own work. You have to really separate yourself from the object and look at it as if you didn’t make it. There it is. What do I think?
     That’s the way I teach, too. When students first come in, I tell them to bring in a piece they like. They don’t even have to like it, but they have to talk about it. How does that handle feel? How does it fit with the form? How does it come off of the table? You need to really evaluate that and talk about it. They’ll tell me why they like it or why they don’t like it. I tell them, “This is what you need to do with your own work - ask what could I do to make it better?”
     You have to follow a certain format for this to work. To me, that’s harder than just doing whatever you want. This is what I see happening right now in ceramics, particularly in big gallery shows. When I was teaching at San Jose State, I went to a couple of faculty meetings and some of the faculty got on Stan’s [Welsh] case, because Stan hired me. They were saying, “What do we need her for? We don’t need a class where they’re just making dishes. That’s nothing.”
     In response I said, “You do need it, because when you’re working on a wheel, things are happening very fast and the person who’s controlling it has keep making decisions. Do I go in or out? Do I go up or down? That is a decision-making process, and it’s good to keep this in your life. No matter what you end up doing, you need to make choices and then, in the end, you need to evaluate them, see how it’s ultimately good or bad. It’s responsibility.
     Anyway, I think that’s a good way to teach, and the guys let up on me. The next thing I did was teach a sculpture class. I had the students make interactive things. I dictated a lot of it, which I probably shouldn’t have. We put a ball of clay in a tank of water, and watched how it disintegrated day after day, until it was barely there. A student hung wet clay in cheesecloth from the ceiling. We made a rug with little spikes, like it was a rubber mat. But it was clay. We laid it in front of the gallery door, so everyone who crossed would step in it. Anyway, I just felt I had to prove something to them: “See. It’s not like I can’t do these things.” I choose not to, because in the end, what do you have?

works:  It seems like there’s a kind of Eastern philosophy behind what you’re describing with the quietness and the limitations in the form. In the West, we think that when you’ve done it a few times you move on to something “new.” But in the East, there’s a very different understanding. It’s based on the possibility of development in one’s inner world through an outer practice. It takes discipline and persistence, and it takes a teacher. And with those things something inner can begin to open. But here it’s about a charged up surface or something provocative. But if it’s just a plate or a bowl, nothing’s happening there. It’s just a plate.

Sandy:  That’s so true.

works:   There’s a book about ten Japanese people working in traditional ways. [Andy Couturier, A Different Kind of Luxury]. One is a flute player, Kogan Murata. He’d done a lot of amazing things as a young man. Then he got intrigued by the shakuhachi flute. He found a master who put him through some challenges. But now, he plays every day for hours, but only three or four songs. He’s full of joy. It’s hard for us to imagine how that could be. I think you’re on that side of art making, more than on this Western side with its premium on novelty and spectacle and shock.
Sandy:  I know. The novelty thing really gets me. I mean, so what? I think part of the problem is when you’re in school you have to use words to describe your art. That’s a big problem because most art based on that can’t stand alone. What do you see in it if you can’t hear the words?

Visit Trax Gallery to see more.

About the Author

Sandy Simon is a long time teacher, potter and founder of Trax Gallery in Berkeley CA, perhaps the only gallery in the U. S. dedicated exclusively to the work of potters making utilitarian ware.  Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.    


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