In the late 1970s, I was hired to be a potter-in- residence at Berea College in Kentucky. Part of the agreement was that I would teach one class each semester and help run the ceramics department’s apprenticeship program, which was part of the college’s “Craft Industries.” The sale of student-made crafts funded a work-study program to pay for the students’ education. By the 1970s, the apprenticeship program at Berea College had existed for many years. I worked there approximately four years and came to value the concept of apprenticeship.
After leaving Berea, my husband and I established working studios in Floyd County, Virginia, a rural community in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a progressive and an old-time place at the same time, with beautiful scenery and a community that is very supportive of the arts and music. It’s a good place to be self-employed, but it takes some time to find one’s niche. I have been here for the past twenty-six years.
Dandee Pattee (l) and Silvie Granatelli at the Woodpile. Photograph by Brad Warstler.
After my marriage ended in the mid-1990s, I found myself with what I considered to be a huge studio. The idea of taking on an apprentice came back to me as an option. However, after so many years of working independently in the studio, of making pots that were not production oriented, I wasn’t sure how to develop an apprenticeship relationship with young potters. My problem was really not that I needed help making my “line” of pots, but that I had more space than one potter needs to work in. It took several years and a few false starts before I realized what I could offer besides space.
As well as doing something interesting, I wanted to give something back. I remembered what could have been helpful to me as a young potter, and tried to find ways to provide that help for theirs. When I was beginning, it was hard to invest heavily in equipment, studio space, and materials, to learn how to market what I made, and to present in the best possible way what I wanted to make. Most of all, never having worked in a studio alone, I had no idea how much work it would take to make a living.
Those of us in it for the long haul make our way through these unknowns with varying degrees of success. So I had my expertise to offer, along with space and equipment. I decided to call my appointment an assistantship. Embedded in that concept was also the notion of mentorship. My situation did not fit into the traditional apprenticeship model. It would not be a paid position, and the potters who came to work with me would not make my pots. The exchange would be twelve hours of work each week in return for studio space, the use of studio equipment, and my expertise. I decided to set a specific time commitment of two years, which would give an incoming potter adequate time to develop a body of work, begin to market that work, and make a life in the community.
In the past ten years, I have had five assistants – men and women – each working for about two years. All of them came with undergraduate degrees. I require that they have a good working knowledge of the studio, including the ability to fire a gas kiln and make glazes, as well as some understanding of ceramic materials and processes. Moreover, at this stage they must be interested in becoming professional potters. Whether they end up teaching, being potters, or something else is not important; I only require a commitment to the investigation of being a potter when they begin. It is my hope that they will develop cyclical rhythms of work, learn what it takes to make the amount of pottery that will sustain them in earning a living, and begin to develop ways to present this work to the public. I often say that they have to make the studio the center of their life during this time. Other work, social life, and whatever else they are interested in should fit around this core.
It is important to me to have a professional relationship with my studio assistants. They do not live with me; I only take care of their studio concerns. Many of my assistants have expressed feeling lonely during their first year. Until they develop a relationship to the studio that has deep meaning, this presents a problem. By the second year, everyone has experienced a shift in this regard, enjoying the focus and the time alone to work and think. I believe this is the most frustrating aspect of my relationship with my assistants – to find ways to help them get to this place of rhythm and focus while being alone. I think I do it mostly by example. In each case, I have come to value the friendship that develops. It has been a welcomed bonus, not a prerequisite.
Earthenware platter by Dandee Pattee, 16″ dia.
In the beginning, the studio assistant works at his or her own pace. I encourage them to ask for whatever they need from me; I give critiques, advice, and discourse on request, but I do not direct what they make or how they make it. If after six months they are not developing what I consider to be a committed life in the studio, we have a little chat and agree on an adjustment period to get on track. It is not my intention to make their life easy.
In my opinion, being a potter can be a very humbling experience, especially during the early years when rejection can happen often and money is scarce. I believe it is in our best interest to develop a thick skin. In the end, most potters work alone, from our heads and hearts. We have to develop our own pots – pots that, even though influenced by our teachers and mentors, do not look like someone else’s work. I encourage my assistants to have their own glazes, forms, and ideas, and I try to help them develop this work.
Earthenware pitcher by Dandee Pattee, 8″.
At the beginning of our relationship, the assistants are often reluctant to sell their work. They feel they are not ready, thinking they are not making the kinds of pots they will make later on in their development. I believe it is important to always put our best current work out there and let the people we are trying to communicate with make their own decisions. This will tell us a lot about what we make. At whatever stage of development, there is an audience at about that same level of sophistication. As we grow into our work, our patrons grow with us and we grow, in part, because of them.
The essence of a pot is to give and receive simultaneously, and a potter gives and receives in much the same way. I have worked with Jerilyn Virden, Ian Anderson, Anna Metcalfe, Brian Jones, and Elisa Di Feo; Dandee Pattee is my current studio assistant. My past assistants have all gone on to graduate programs and received degrees. I have felt proud and privileged to work with each of them. They have made my world larger by their unique selves and I hope I have done the same for them.