Sunday, December 23, 2012

Getting Personal

I worked for Michael Cohen during my final year at Hampshire College. Trying to describe working for Mike is like trying to describe a forest. From far away, it was like any other production potter's studio. Up close, it was work. Hard work. Day after day. But when taken as a vignette, the richness of the experience is more apparent.

I'd like to write about a few of my experiences working for Mike. First, I want to talk about this mug. This is my mug. There have been many mugs to come out of Michael Cohen Pottery, but this one was made for me. Mike decided that he hadn't made his apprentices mugs in a while, and since we were a "new" crew, we should have mugs for our mid-morning tea/coffee/bagel break. Each mug would hang from a hook over the sink, hanging from that small hole at the base of the handle. Mike's production mugs were octagonal extrusions, usually decorated with a stamped stain pattern over glaze. Our personal mugs were different. They were all thrown. Instead of his usual extruded handles (which I made many many of)... this mug has a pulled handle. Subtle differences, but it meant the world to me.

How did I come to work for Michael?

Michael looms large in the Pioneer Valley pottery community, having been a production potter in the Amherst, MA area for almost 50 years. He typically hired apprentices from UMASS/Amherst's ceramics program. After I had been at UMASS via Hampshire a little over a year, I finally worked up the gumption to call Michael to see if he would take me on as an apprentice. After a brief phone interview, he agreed to meet me. He suggested I come out to his studio the following week. The day arrived, full of excitement and anxiety... and snow. Lots of snow. So much so that I couldn't dig my car out. I decided that rather than be late, I would hop a bus into town (30 min), then hike up to Mike's house/studio in Pelham. Uphill is a nice way to describe it. No sidewalks. Drifts on the side of the road were over 3 feet, and the cars were sliding around everywhere.

I arrived, soaking wet, and caked with ice, snow and road grime, about ten minutes late. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am never late. I apologized frantically. Mike laughed and commented that he assumed I would not be coming out due to the snow, but since I was there we should talk. So he and I walked around the studio; giving me the grand tour. I oooh-ed and ahhh-ed over his huge kiln. I was amazed by the giant racks of pots waiting to be fired. I marveled at his storeroom. Almost lost it when I saw his glaze prep room and materials storage. I was a kid in a candy store. We talked for about an hour, then he offered to drive me back to Hampshire. I had a job!

A week later he called to tell me his brother had died, and that he was busy tying up his deceased brother's affairs and would be putting the studio on hold for a while. He suggested that I call back in a few months. I was crestfallen.

As the semesters rolled past, I became more involved in things in the studio at UMASS. My work progressed, but I was still intent on working for Mike. We bumped into each other one day in the grocery store. He was so embarrassed about how things turned out... I was too embarrassed to call him and ask what was happening. In the end, we laughed it off. I started the next week. He bumped my pay up by nearly a dollar an hour from what he had told me a year earlier. I could live with that.

My first week working in the studio, I asked questions constantly. I had so many ideas, so many questions about tool, processes, etc. On Tuesday of my second week, Michael pulled me aside before we began working and brought me up short. He said something to the effect of: Just do the job, don't ask why, don't offer suggestion, just do the thing I told you to do. I was mortified. No one but my dad had ever said anything like that to me before. Here I was thinking that I was doing the right thing... I was humiliated.

A few weeks later, I was told that it was my duty on Wednesdays to bring in the bagels for the mid-morning break. I never let on that I was living on $100 a month for food, gas and clothes. Most of that money was coming from his employment, so the last thing I wanted was to appear ungrateful. One morning I was late and skipped the bagel run. I tried to toss it off casually when it came time to take our break. I said something to the effect of: I was late, outta cash and figured it was more important to be on time than to have bagels. Mike's son, Josh, was working with us at that time. Mike looked over at Josh and said  "You... bring the bagels on Wednesday. Don't be late!"

Then he turned back to me and said "Can you stay for a short bit after we finish up today?" I replied that I could. Later that afternoon (Mike always had us stop at 1pm)... Mike pulled me aside after I had finished cleaning up and he asked me how things were going. I told him I felt like I was getting into a groove and that I was enjoying the work, learning new things, etc. He asked why I hadn't asked for a raise if I was so broke. I muttered something about not expecting a raise. In typical Mike fashion, he laughed, jotted a note down and handed me a piece of scrap paper with my new hourly wage... it had increased by half a dollar. And I didn't have to buy bagels anymore! He made some comment about appreciating my timely arrival every morning. I couldn't have been more proud.

A few months later, as Mike was making a huge push to get work ready for his holiday sale, he was throwing non-stop. Day in, day out, the bats never stopped flying off his wheel. He affectionately called me Board Boy.... which at the time often sounded like Bored Boy. Basically, the job entailed taking away the full board of pots, putting it on the shelf, returning with an empty board and doing this quickly enough that he didn't have to slow down his throwing speed.

As I was cleaning up that afternoon, I realized that Mike's bats were made of particle board. I had always been told you had to use marine-grade plywood, with multiple coats of polyurethane. When I asked Mike why he didn't plywood bats, he pulled me up close and said in a very gruff voice, "Don't teach Granda how to suck eggs." I started laughing. I had no clue what the hell he was talking about. I had never heard such a bizarre expression in my whole life. I had to ask what on earth it meant. Apparently he didn't take kindly to a young upstart telling him that what worked for him was suddenly not good enough. I tried standing my ground, fully prepared to defend my position... and he looked at me and asked if I liked working there. Well, that settled it. I would just shut the hell up and not offer my ideas. You'd think I would have learned that by then.

Towards the end of my time with Michael, he decided that the studio needed to be cleaned and painted. Apparently in the thirty years the studio had been in use, it had never been re-painted. He hired a crew of cleaners/painters, but it meant that work in the main workroom had to stop for a few days. As we prepared to take the room apart, we started pulling stuff off the walls. Tools, stereo parts, you name it. It all came down. As we started taking down one of Mikes favorite posters we saw the most bizzare stain behind it. There, in black sooty-ness and shadow was the spitting image of Jesus with a beard. We laughed like it was the funniest thing any of us had ever seen. Even got my photo taken with the sooty Jesus. Sure beats seeing Mary Magdelene on a grilled cheese.

On my last week with Mike and Josh, we took one last photo of the gang all together. Each of us had wax lips in our mouths and we all gave the camera the middle finger. Somehow that said it all. It has been nearly twenty years since I was last working in Mike's studio, but in some ways, it was just yesterday.


  1. Me and Mike and Hampshire knew you were too much of a scientist to throw pots and too much an artist to work in a lab. Now you're a photographer. Art meets science. The road goes on forever and the party never ends. Nice Essay.

  2. I still find it ironic that I originally went to Hampshire for Film and Photography, yet never made a single video or shot a whole roll of film while I was there. Those four years were the only time I didn't shoot any images. Seeing it all come 'round full circle is pretty wild.

  3. Wow! I had no idea. Interesting journey. I have questions for when we speak next.