An old-fashioned ‘pen-friendship’ takes Anuradha Roy deep into West Virginia, where she learns—and unlearns—much about pottery, simplicity, humility and beauty
Late in 2018, I had a message from a stranger in the United States. He was delighted, he said, to see Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book included in my list of six favourites in a magazine he had been reading. He was a potter, his name was Jeff Diehl, and he thought the Leach classic was an unusual title to feature on a novelist’s list. I wrote back explaining that though my work was writing and designing book jackets, I made pots too (after a fashion).
Over the next months this kind stranger replied in careful detail to every question I asked him about kilns, glazes, pots, wheels. He sent me formulae for glazes he thought might work for me; he worked out programmes suited to my new kiln, sent video links, articles. The generosity was staggering. There also came fragments about Lockbridge Pottery, and his family and other animals: his potter-wife Donna, their two sons, their dog and cat. Our messages travelled on the internet, but they felt like letters.
After about a year of this archaic pen-friendship, a writing-related trip to America came up for me, and Jeff invited me to come and spend a week with them, learning. Lockbridge Pottery was in a remote part of West Virginia. I looked it up: a dot on the map, lost in vast washes of green and blue: lakes, mountains, gorges, and white water rivers. It was miles from an airport or train station; there were no taxis or hotels.
I never lock myself into situations where there is no escape route, even booking myself aisle seats on long flights so I don’t feel trapped. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was battered by waves of panic. What did I know of this potter-couple beyond scraps from the internet and their emails? And though they were inviting me into their home, what did they know of me? This was not just high risk, it was lunacy.
I climbed into a train on a chilly September dawn at New York’s Penn Station, and started the long journey south. A mountainous, wheezing man in the next row of seats vacuumed up packet after packet of crunchies and watched reruns of Friends on his notebook. We went past Washington DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and soon my world of known place-names was gone. As morning turned to afternoon, we passed Alexandria, Culpeper and Clifton Forge. I had never heard of them. In the dining car, two men in Amtrak uniforms sat inhaling the scent of microwaved hot dogs, exchanging slow, rambling stories broken by guffaws. The hills and trees outside made you want to walk into the Blue Ridge Mountains, wander the trails, sit below an autumnal beech tree. There were tiny streets with level crossings, and at one of them, an elderly, bare-bodied man stood below a flag, waving at us, beaming like a child.
After ten and a half hours, I got off with my suitcase at White Sulphur Springs and looked around for the people I only knew from emails. Some reckless mutual leap of faith had led to this moment: two American potters waiting at a tiny station in the Appalachians for a stranger from a small town in the Indian Himalaya.
It was a picture-perfect autumn evening. The sunset coated everything with honey.
Early in our correspondence, Jeff had sent me a film about a friend of his, a master potter from Korea, Kang Hyo Lee. In the film, Kang Hyo spoke of his crisis of faith, a time when he had felt utterly adrift, and left home for several months to meditate and reason it out. After a period of hard thinking came a sense of the elusive truth: “In the past, I thought the important things were far away from me. So I worked hard and thought hard every day in order to get to those important things. But I realised these things were actually close by.”
When you look at the first half of Jeff’s career and compare it to his present, you wonder if such a moment of epiphany came to him too. He has had shows in Korea, at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington DC, and taught students in Germany, China, Korea, and closer home. He has won a shelf-full of awards. Yet now, though he still loves to learn and teach, he neither does shows away from home nor conducts regular workshops. He has only ever taken on three or four apprentices over the decades; he says he prefers working alone.
Alone at Lockbridge, for certain kinds of people, means really alone. The state votes overwhelmingly Republican and, in a dramatic landscape of forests turning red and yellow, gorges, rivers, ancient cliffs and glassy lakes, there seem to be almost more churches than homes—sometimes two little churches face each other across a narrow road. In the undulating forested land, where herds of cows graze the slopes, far-flung houses with pillars and porches recall an older era of leisure but are often dilapidated or abandoned. The state has the highest rate in the US of drug overdose deaths involving opioids. The only African-American I met during my week there, a woman, confided to the Diehls about the discrimination she and her mixed-race son battled regularly. From whatever you read of West Virginia it appears that money is short, and prejudices abound.
How, in this situation, do you survive as an artist open to other cultures and races, a potter who refuses the conventional route of galleries and art shows?
The Diehls have surrounded themselves with a like-minded community of artistic people—I met an artisanal baker, a painter, a carpenter who builds boats by fashioning wood exquisitely by hand. They are willing to drive long distances to each other’s art events, sales, book readings. People turn up at Lockbridge from other towns to attend and help out at quarterly shows. There was a laidback warmth and a lot of joking around among those I met, and at homes I visited, they showed off their collections of Diehl pots. Selling pots within this small radius means constant reinvention. Yet the sense of excitement has never left Jeff. “Clay is a fantastic material,” he says. “With every touch, the clay responds. I want my pots to be vigorous and spontaneous, to be functional, reliable, and beautiful. I hope to make work of lasting value. I don’t want my name on anything flawed.”
I saw what he meant by this at the end of my week there. He had opened the just-fired kiln and found on close examination that some of his painstakingly made platters had developed bumps during the firing. Through the iridescent shimmer of the crystalline glaze, the bumps were barely noticeable to me. They had not been out of the kiln ten minutes when he took a hammer to them. Writers are often instructed to “kill their darlings”, but it doesn’t happen quite so physically, nor to a soundtrack of shattering porcelain.
In many ways, Jeff is an anachronism—an outlier recalling an earlier age of humility and anonymity. Where self-promoting, pretentious explanations are the norm among artists displaying their ceramics, he prefers describing himself as a potter who makes things he wants people to use and enjoy. As he explained the intricacies of form and function, I understood the fundamentals of what Soetsu Yanagi said about the beauty of ordinary, everyday objects. “Things that are used on a daily basis must stand the test of reality,” Yanagi wrote. “The sole purpose of these objects is to serve people’s needs … they are rooted in the earth, deeply tied to the earthly life of honest, hardworking people… [yet] the world of utility and beauty are not separate realms. Who is to say that spirit and matter are not one?”
The Diehls live in an old schoolhouse they converted into a home thirty-nine years ago. The schoolhouse stands in seventy acres of woodland, a part of which has been cleared to allow for a garden and a pond. Lucy the Dog likes wading in the pond, splashing about among the pink water lilies and exchanging notes with two decoy ducks that float on the water. The house still has an old blackboard, a few school cabinets. The supporting pillars of the porch are four big pencils fashioned from wood by their carpenter friend.
The studio is a light, airy space just off the kitchen, over which Sweetpea the Cat presided in lofty solitude. Lucy and her next-door buddy, a lumbering black dog called Sam, wandered in and out of the work room looking for muddy love, massive tails swaying dangerously close to the pots. Donna came in to advise, mix glazes, or urge Jeff to give me time off. Her own hand-built platters were what we ate our meals off. Her tiles, each with a half-spiral design, punctuated the bathroom floors.
Beyond the main workroom was a fireproofed hall with a gas kiln and two electric kilns in which Jeff fires most of his pots, including his ethereal acoustic pots with crystalline glazes. The patterns on these pots, Jeff is certain, are formed in part by sound waves created by the music he plays while firing them. There were two other room-sized structures in the garden: a wood kiln and a salt kiln. There was a tandoor there too—a baby kiln in a manner of speaking—and one evening, their friends gathered around it to eat naan and kababs and play badminton in the light of halogen lamps.
The day I arrived, I had walked into the sunlit garden to find trees heavy with apples and pears. Plump tomatoes grew in abundance on trellises among corn and squash. Inside, shelves from floor to ceiling were stacked with bowls, jugs, and pitchers. One of Kang Hyo’s Ongii jars stood in the living room, cavernous enough to peer into, as if it were a well. Platters studded the house like giant buttons. There was an etching by Bernard Leach, and also a treadle wheel christened by his son, David.
David Leach appears to have had a profound influence on Jeff. One reason could be that Jeff too comes from a family of potters. His grandfather was a potter in New Jersey, his great-grandfather a potter in Germany. Sometime in the 1970s, he went to apprentice there at a studio not far from where his great-grandfather had worked. It was a harsh, exacting apprenticeship. “The master came to my wheel where I had thrown about ten cups. They were of different heights and he asked sarcastically if I was making cups or organ pipes. He threw my board of pots to the floor. After that I was more consistent.”
Stories such as these, told with deadpan humour, were a constant as Jeff taught me specific techniques even as he spun out pot after pot at a speed that felt like sleight of hand. Renowned potters, dead and alive, were palpable presences in the studio: Val Cushing, Hamada Shoji, David Leach, Phil Rogers, Kang Hyo Lee. When demonstrating the finer points of throwing, trimming and glazing, Jeff would recall principles these potters had passed on to him and which he in turn was passing on to me.“There is an active exchange between potters sharing techniques and formulae, always trying to improve their pots,” he said. Just a few hours into working with him, I felt as if I was going through a process of immense un-learning that would fundamentally alter how I made everything in the future.
One day we went to visit a friend of the Diehls, the potter Marcia Springston-Dillon. Blind from birth, Marcia could unerringly tell which pot was flawed or badly glazed. Her fingers did the work. All the pots she sells from a little shop adjoining her house have prices marked in Braille. Her kiln speaks out its temperature when she presses a switch.
At dusk Marcia took us to her barn to meet her three dressage-trained horses, whom she rides at competitions. By touch alone, she unbuckled their blankets, fed them and let them loose for the night onto the slopes. A full moon rose over the surrounding trees as the horses snuffled and snorted, out of sight.
That night, before Marcia served food in platters she had made, Jeff examined them, flipping them over, running his fingers over surfaces, commenting on the glazes. It was after all the work of a fellow-potter, who like him, worked to turn clay into ordinary objects of extraordinary beauty.