Photo from Vermont Life. Left to right: Tom Fetter, Peter Laffin, Lyman Shove, Peter Wendland and Justus Taylor. Wendland was the director of the Vermont Arts and Craft’s Service and a potter who I worked with during high school.

Photo from Vermont Life. Left to right: Tom Fetter, Peter Laffin, Lyman Shove, Peter Wendland and Justus Taylor. Wendland was the director of the Vermont Arts and Craft’s Service and a potter who I worked with during high school.

In 1967, when I was fourteen, I read an article in the Winter Edition of Vermont Life magazine about four Vermonters involved in the burgeoning craft movement. One worked with leather (Justus Taylor), another worked with wood (Lyman Shove), another with metal (Peter Laffin) and one worked with clay (Tom Fetter).

I read the article several times and studied the photos even more hoping to gain additional insight into these craftsmen that the article didn’t provide . The article described their motivation for pursuing crafts, their aspirations for living with more independence, to be self reliant and a desire to be closer to the materials they worked with and to the land. They shared their hopes to live a life sustained and nurtured by their craft. The article, the ideas presented and the accompanying photos caught my attention in a way that nothing had in my life to that point. It changed my thinking about me and what could be a path to take in life.

Was this kind of life possible, practical and achievable? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to pursue it as much as a fourteen year old can pursue anything. And why not? I was not engaged in school, labeled the class clown by students and teachers and my parents were starting to be concerned that my interest and skills in baseball were not going to be enough to ensure some level of success in life. With their unconditional support, I made a plan to see where getting involved with crafts might take me.

For whatever reason, it was the potter who most intrigued me and with little reason other than my own gut, I decided that I wanted to become a potter, but first, I needed to learn how to make pottery. This was, looking back, very astute for a fourteen year old boy. With no art department at my school, I turned to my community and to a local potter, Peter Wendland. To be honest, it was my father who made the initial call to Peter to ask if he would meet with me after school some day.

In addition to serving as the director of the Vermont Arts and Crafts Service, he lived in my town and was a potter. After our meeting that went very well, I started working with him after school and on the weekends to learn how to mix clay, throw pots, glaze and fire. Peter was an inspiring guy to work with. He could build anything, knew how to use every tool imaginable, was very creative and ingenious. He always had a variety of projects going at the same time and somehow managed to find success with all of them. It was at his house that I ate my first piece of homemade, whole grain bread, tried a variety of very different cheeses, sampled fresh vegetables from his garden and learned about drinking tea from a bowl. His pottery was used at every meal.

He introduced me to other people involved in crafts and especially pottery. Most importantly, I learned about being resourceful, which led to me making my first potter’s wheel from the front axle and rim of a car.

My first wheel was made from the front axle of a car and powered by an old washing machine motor. The brake drum and rim served as flywheel and wheel head and although somewhat primitive, I could throw pots on it.

My first wheel was made from the front axle of a car and powered by an old washing machine motor. The brake drum and rim served as flywheel and wheel head and although somewhat primitive, I could throw pots on it.

Although looking like a pile of rubble, this was my first kiln and fired with burners made from parts I salvaged at the town dump.

Although looking like a pile of rubble, this was my first kiln and fired with burners made from parts I salvaged at the town dump.

I built a kiln and fashioned burners from parts from a gas range I salvaged at the town dump. My propane supplier helped me weld the parts together and I fired the kiln, not well, but I fired it.

I was now a junior in high school and beginning to think about college. I decided to apply to art schools that were known for their strong ceramics departments. Of the three schools that I applied to, Alfred University, Syracuse University and Rochester Institute of Technology, I was turned down at two and put on the wait list of the third. Right before graduation, I moved from wait list to enrolled status and got ready to head to Rochester, New York and School for American Craftsmen (now, The School for American Crafts) at R.I.T.

The freshman class in the ceramics department consisted of eight of us. There were about the same number in each of the other classes as well as graduate students. We each had an area in the studio to work that was ours and ours alone and we set it up any way that we wanted. Electric wheels were assigned to the graduate students while the rest of us used kick wheels.

In addition to the studio space, we had a fully stocked glaze pantry, a damproom for pots that were being worked on, many racks of shelving and a kiln room with both electric and gas fired kilns. Outside, behind the studio was a salt and wood kiln. The facilities were amazing. The entire campus had moved three years earlier from the city of Rochester to West Henrietta and everything was brand new.

For someone who had never taken a ceramics class in high school, the program offered so much. Classes in glaze chemistry, wheel and handbuilding techniques, firing as well as classes outside the program in art history, drawing and…physical education. I took fly fishing. It was an amazing college and program. Despite that, after four semesters, I felt something was missing.

Just finishing a piece in my first year at the School for American Craftsmen at RIT.

Just finishing a piece in my first year at the School for American Craftsmen at RIT.

Throwing off the hump during my second year.

Throwing off the hump during my second year.

One day I discovered what it was while talking to a classmate about setting up our own studios someday. I mentioned that I looked forward to learning about kiln building, welding, construction and all the other skills I would need to set up my own studio. She looked at me like I was crazy. Why would you need to learn all that, she asked, when you can pay someone to do it for you? After talking with others, I quickly realized that my goal of becoming self sufficient and able to do and provide for myself was not the goal others had nor was it something the department was interested in including in the program’s curriculum. The program’s primary focus is ceramics, someone told me.

I decided to take a break from R.I.T. and reassess my goals. I wanted to learn as much as possible about ceramics, but I also wanted to learn all of the skills that I would need to build and set up a studio, maintain equipment and live a life with self sufficiency as a foundational tenet.

I left Rochester and headed home to Vermont. I moved to Burlington, enrolled in some classes at the University of Vermont and worked at a small sandwich shop, which provided me time to think about my next steps.

My time in Burlington was transformative on many levels. I learned a lot about myself during the year. Taking classes and working gave me a taste of freedom and the challenges of greater responsibility, time management and handling finances. It also taught me a lot about people. In my spare time I did a lot of thinking about what was next and instead of considering whether the ceramics program at RIT or anyplace could meet my needs, I focused on what I needed.

I wanted to major in self sufficiency, a fairly new concept at the time, but had no luck finding a college that offered this focus. Then I discovered that the University of Vermont, home of the father of progressive education, John Dewey, offered a program that allowed students to design their own major. With my drawing in hand and a clear set of goals in my head, I decided not to return to RIT and instead pursue a self designed major in self sufficiency at UVM.

This is where my story gets more complicated and my path forward less clear, at least then. I made two critical decisions in 1974. The first was to take a break from college altogether. The second was to get married.

This drawing, that I found in an old journal from 1973, provided a clear vision of what I was thinking about.

This drawing, that I found in an old journal from 1973, provided a clear vision of what I was thinking about.

With my friend, Debbie Maloney.

With my friend, Debbie Maloney.

Debbie Maloney, my best friend all through high school, and I were married on June 1, 1974 and surrounded by family and friends at her grandparent’s farm in Central Vermont.

After the wedding, we moved into a hunting camp owned by Debbie’s father, borrowed a car from my parents and spent the summer making pots and selling them at craft fairs. For some extra cash, we painted my parent’s house. When school started in the fall, we moved to Burlington and I worked again at the sandwich shop, now managing it, while Debbie completed her senior year at UVM. There wasn’t a lot of time to make pots.

After Debbie’s graduation, I returned to planning my next steps. After sharing my plan for a self sufficiency major, my adviser wondered if I had looked at the program offerings in the College of Agriculture’s VOTEC (vocational and technology education) Department. The program served two tracks of students. First, it provided agriculture majors a solid background in everything from building to welding to small engine repair. Second, it prepared industrial arts students with a solid set of skills to teach. It included all of the pieces that I had laid out in my plan.

I started the program the next fall with a full load of classes in woodworking, forestry, physics and welding. These classes were followed by more second semester in power mechanics, graphics, alternative energy and more welding. I also spent time in the university’s ceramics department and made pots. It was going well, no, it was going very well. To say I enjoyed the experience would be a huge understatement. One more year and I would graduate, set up a studio and begin my life as a potter.

As with all things in life, there are choices to ponder, paths to consider and decisions to make.

Photo taken during one of the early years teaching industrial arts.

Photo taken during one of the early years teaching industrial arts.

The family.

The family.

The path I chose included a career in education and a family of three kids, their spouses and six kids. My best friend, Debbie Maloney, and I will be married for forty five years this June. We live in a house that we built, grow a lot of our own food, manage our land, cut our own wood for heating our house, generate electricity from panels on our roof and while not fully living a life of self sufficiency, we come very close. Pottery has been a part of my life over the years, but not integrally and if I take it out of the equation, everything else that I wanted to achieve as a twenty year old has been achieved.

So, now is my time to become a potter. I have a studio complete with a wedging table, a couple of wheels and a kiln. All the pieces necessary are in place and I’m ready.