February 9, 2011

About Time

Don Pilcher lives in Champaign Illinois where he taught for many years at the University of Illinois. A gifted potter, thinker,and provocateur, Don shares his unique views on the field of contemporary ceramics. Visit Don's web site where you can read more of Don's stories. He can be also reached at don@sawdustanddirt.com

n page 86 of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway suggests that we all carry the seeds of our own demise – but that the best of us cover them with finer soil and higher yield manure.

Demise has been on my mind. I just got word that my classmate from art school, Elsa Rady, died last week. In that way she joins the list of vital southern California ceramic artists, recently departed – Paul Soldner, Otto Heino, Ralph Bacerra. I don’t know the details of their estates. But I do know that many potters my age and beyond have made some highly detailed provisions for their heirs. I also know that nobody offers workshops on how to orchestrate the very last phase of a studio life or how to ensure that one’s body of work finds a deserving and appreciative home beyond one’s lifetime. But if you keep working and don’t die, you must eventually confront these matters…or roll the dice with your heirs.

In my own case, I’m driven by this story from a few years ago. A story about a friend of mine. The potter died leaving thousands of finished pieces; he made in the thousands and sold in the hundreds. I can relate to that. None of his five children wanted any of his work. (That’s a story of its own.) His wife was able to gift about a dozen pieces to a local museum…who, in truth, cherry-picked the collection. Friends and distant relatives took another hundred. But she still had a very full basement and a guest bedroom absolutely bursting with pots of every description.

Now, in my imagination, the potter is given a four-hour pass from heaven. He’s back on earth, standing next to his wife at the door to the impassable guest bedroom and she says to him, “What do I do with all this pottery?” Long silence. And the pottery is not all. What about the poisons in the studio; the barium and lead? And the exotics; that five pound bag of rutile, smelted with spar and re-ground into colored grog; the only compound like it in the whole hemisphere? Who gets that? In this scenario, where is the fine soil and high-yield manure?

Before I answer that, I’m also considering an e-mail I haven’t yet deleted. I received it as a forwarded copy. It was written by one of America’s premier dealers and concerns the retail potential of a large body of work by a prominent potter who was most active in the 70’s and 80’s. He’s still living. The dealer was kind but very clear. He wrote that there is a ready market for the work of about eight ceramic artists and he named them. After that, there is virtually no reliable interest. (That’s probably a true statement when discussing established brick and glass galleries. But through the Internet places like Rago Arts and E-bay move plenty of work.)

Now, about the fine soil: the finest we can provide comes from extremely careful and realistic planning. Again, online, there is a planning document about end-of-life decisions entitled “Good to Go” – clear enough. It contains general medical directives, information on revocable trusts, various financial provisions and so forth. For my directives, especially related to my ceramic life, I’m expanding those items to include a detailed list of potters, schools, art centers and institutions who might want (and know how to handle) not just my work but raw materials and equipment. And I’m having short conversations with most of them to gauge their interest. It’s not that I know of any particular urgency, but these are the kinds of jobs that can remain undone until it’s too late.

It’s neither fair nor realistic to expect that my heirs will know how to manage toxic chemicals or delicate pyrometer couplings. To this end, I’m establishing a fund of several thousand dollars to hire a knowledgeable individual to distribute my studio assets and rehab the space for some other use. This step has the added advantage of bypassing that famous scene from “Zorba the Greek,” a re-distribution of assets that unfolded like vultures on a carcass.

As to my work, I’ve set aside a number of boxes bearing the recipient’s name, containing certain pots and a letter from me. Since my name is not on the list of eight, I’ve left the rest of the pieces to my executor to dispose of in any way and at any time he or she sees fit. One of the saddest conversations I’ve ever had was with a husband and a dealer concerning the recently deceased wife’s work. The three of us met at the dealer’s gallery. The husband was sure he had been left a fortune. Time has shown that the work was nothing special. The conversation began obliquely. I said, “I don’t know who might show this work.” It ended thirty minutes later with the dealer saying, “I doubt they’re worth anywhere near that.” Long silence.

Almost every year a few of my pieces go into museum collections. They are gifted by collectors of my early work who are getting to that age. They are NOT purchased by the museums. But the collectors or their heirs get a nice tax deduction. The curators contact me to authenticate the work and, in the process, I’m occasionally able to enhance the gift in some way; a tax deduction for me and some personal pleasure. This is one of those times where deep sentiment and self-interest meet social good. And it may be the only way some of us get into the Met.

Finally to the high-yield manure – best for last and an alternative ending to the stories above. In this narrative we skip two generations; we think conservation, not conversion. Arrange to keep the body of work intact. The custodial heirs or other interested parties can spend fifty years developing a compelling history of the artist. Include notebooks, photos, press clippings, articles, monographs, catalogues and an infamous appearance on YouTube. Once all the contemporaries are dead, the next generation ushers that work onto the collectibles market. Even splitting the assets, the great-grandchildren could do alright. Really good to go.