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State of Craft Interview


Judith Bryant

Potter, Teacher, Resident Potter at Frog Hollow and Shelburne Craft School
Dates Active: 1970s on

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Judith Bryant, potter for over 35 years and former Resident Potter at Shelburne Craft School and Frog Hollow

Oral History conducted by the Vermont Folklife Center

Lincoln, Vermont

July 16, 2008

 

(Potters): Irascible and cranky individualists all.

No matter what you came into the studio with, you could just leave it at the door and sit down and make pots and feel better.

As soon as I moved to Vermont my boyfriend said, "You know, take pottery classes at Shelburne Craft School". And that was the era of the Scatchards. George and Terry lived across the road and Terry was in charge of the pottery studio. And George would come do workshops periodically for us and then when they moved away Ted Scatchard taught there for a while. So they became really good friends. And the Shelburne Craft School became my community, so I was really happy a few years later to go back and work with them.

(The Shelburne Craft School) had gone through one of its fallow periods, I think. [LAUGHING.] And Woody was holding it together. And Betty (Atwood), of course, with her weaving classes. And pottery people came and went. But, boy, when I came I didn't leave.

I fell into it. Oh, I was just barely one step ahead of the students, so I had to work hard, you know, to keep -- so that I wouldn't disgrace myself because lots of people who came had had classes somewhere.

They needed a resident potter at Frog Hollow in Middlebury, so I applied and got that job. (It) is a similar sort of close-knit community again and they had come out of some hard times there. And now I've seen that happen several times at Frog Hollow, too. Mercifully, I am not there to have to deal with it. [LAUGHS.] But, you know, times when people just seem at each other's throats and then there's times when everything is working and harmony and everybody really respects one another and goes out of their way to be helpful and kind and get along and share meals and so forth. But I felt very lucky to be part of both communities.

The absolute beginners need a lot of -- not hand-holding, exactly; although, I would put my hands on their hands sometimes: Press this hard. You don't have to push harder than this. Just brace your elbow. Find someplace where you can lean on the clay. And, no, you don't have to use every muscle in your arm and shoulders. So that they could feel it. But if you're doing that and you've got somebody who's an intermediate level who really wants to see, you know: I can make 6-inch pots. How do I make 12-inch pots? How do I make a pot with a narrow neck? What sort of decoration can I use? What slip design? You know, the beginners aren't really usually too interested in that. But I made those intermediate people work, too. Everybody had to mix clay; everybody had to take a turn at loading and being responsible for electric kiln firing. Everybody had to mix glaze. They kicked and screamed and I said, "Tough! You know, you're an intermediate, you don't want to do this? Go be a beginner."

I had some horrible disaster at Frog Hollow and I absolutely didn't know what to do, except call George (Scatchard). I think he heard in my voice that I was totally panic stricken. "Everything I ever knew is not correct because I have these pots that have just come out of the kiln and they are shivering and splintering and cracking apart before my very eyes." And he just talked to me about silica in clay and how, yes, the clay can change. Just 'cause you have your clay body that worked for a long time doesn't always mean that it will work. And, yes, that's probably the problem, but they may have cooled too rapidly, too. And so try this and try that. No, it'll be fine.

(At Frog Hollow) I called myself "First Stop on the Tourist Trail". You know, there was a sign on the door from the gallery: "Visitor's welcome to the pottery studio." Basically, you know, I was there from around 10:00 in the morning until whenever at night, whenever classes were over. My wheel was in the corner of the studio, by the falls, and people would come down and, you know, I was so used to talking and explaining what I was doing in classes that that was fine with me.

When Karen (Karnes} moved to Vermont, she was looking to do workshops in those days and she did 5-day throwing workshops, where people could bring their wheels and (Frog Hollow) would provide the clay and we just made things and made things. She would demonstrate and then she would have us work on things and then she would do critiques and those were wonderful workshops.

To be admitted to Craft Professionals of Vermont meant: Wow! Like, I've arrived! But within a year or so, at one of the annual meetings, I met another potter who had just juried in and she said, "You know, I just came into this organization, but I've wanted to join for a long time and I'm really excited to be part of it. And now here they're talking about problems and how: well, if we're gonna keep this organization together, etc., etc." And she said, "You know, I thought it was a going concern." Well, these things are never, can never be taken for granted. And that's what has happened repeatedly, I think, with organizations. We take them for granted.

There's a photograph up there of me at the Shelburne Craft School with my first wholesale order, all the way across the lawn. Forty planters. So I did 'em all and I'm sure I did them ridiculously cheaply. We were all in those days thinking in terms of: Well, what's the materials cost? What's our time worth? Virtually, nothing. If you got paid better than the minimum wage per hour that was just fine.

It is harder now. Nobody sells everything they make anymore. It's -- you know, there just isn't that we want handmade, made in America work. That feeling is -- well, it'll happen again. I have no doubt. I've just seen all these cycles happen too many times not to have faith that it will happen again.

I would make pots that were just one of a kind pots. If they sold, great, but lots of times I would trade for them. Well, of course, that's what we do. There are people all, craftspeople, all over the place who have amazing collections of my work because we've traded it, you know. [LAUGHING.] They're the ones who appreciate the one of a kind pieces.