Musings on Mud, Mentors and Moving On

PrintLast Monday evening, I had the honor to be a part of Bill van Gilder’s last class at Frederick Pottery School. I had met Bill almost four years prior at one of his functional pottery workshops he was conducting here in Pennsylvania. Although my experience at the time was very limited, I had an instant connection to his teaching methods and I immediately knew… this was the potter I needed to learn more from. And although everyone said, “you can’t drive to Frederick, Maryland every week’’…. long story short…  I did. Sometimes once, sometimes twice a week. So almost four years and some 33,000 miles later, I find myself sitting in the last class, watching the last demo, a large bowl, which symbolically was much like the very first demo I watched. And so things end much like they begin – or maybe, I like to think, they just keep beginning.

People will often ask me why I still keep taking classes….“but you already know how to throw”, they say. My answer would be I suppose, that it’s not how good you are, but how good you want to be. How boring would the world be if we all decided we knew
everything and it was time to stop learning? I worried about this  – a lot. I knew for a while the class was coming to an end and it occurred to me that I would have no one to spin ideas off of – no one to interact with and say, … “hey, that’s cool… what would happen if you did this??’’ I wonder if the pots in my own studio will grow stale without the objective critiques I’ve come to rely on. These gifts, I’ll miss.

I forged some beautiful friendships over the years with this class and I’m truly grateful to have had this extraordinary mentor and these classmates in my life; they have all enriched it for the better. Real friends can grow individually, I think, without growing apart and I know although we may not see each other quite as frequently, we’ll all move on and grow in our own ways. This gift stays with me.

Last week, I came upon a casserole dish in the kitchen cabinet and I smiled as I took it down off the shelf. It is not a good pot; it works and that’s about all that can be said about it. But I remember how encouraging Bill was to me about it, making sure he had demo1something good to say and making me feel excited about the pot I had just made. I’ll be moving some wheels and equipment from the school to my own studio and will begin teaching, myself, in the Summer. I hope I can instill in my future students, in even the smallest measures, the great amount of love and appreciation for the craft and excitement in making new things, that my mentor has instilled in me. I so do not want to fall short in this. When I see a student finishing a pot, on the same wheel I used, it is my hope that, like that funky fluted casserole dish that I made in class years ago, I can find something amazing to say about his or her pot and encourage that student to keep going, keep seeing, keep learning, keep loving. This is the gift I’ll pass on.

Thank you, Billy.

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  1. Shanna

    What a beautiful tribute to your mentor.

  2. “I hope I can instill…in even the smallest measures, the great amount of love and appreciation for the craft and excitement in making new things, that my mentor has instilled in me.”

    Don’t look now, but you just did. Thank you.

    • Tom

      How very kind of you Melissa, but remember our journey isn’t over !!

  3. What a beautiful tribute to your mentor. It almost makes up for the sadness I feel that his school is closing, even though I have no idea why. I hope that it is for better things. I have no doubt that you will have students that will have the same feelings for you as yours for Bill. I can see it in your pots, in your posts here, and in other venues, and in how you attend workshops to add breadth to your skills. You go teacher.

  4. What a wonderful way to end an experience….and more wonderful that you will be continuing a tradition of giving back what you have learned. From what I read Bill’s crits were (are) filled with encouragement and honesty. You are most fortunate to have had such a teacher and mentor.

  5. Bruce Bucklin

    Boy, did this posting make me wistful. Never be another teacher like Bill. I’ve had some super teachers, with wonderfully different styles, but none like Bill when he tried something new and shared his thoughts and gave us a glimpse of his creative process. I miss that class.

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