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About Mary Barringer

It was just luck, I guess, that the sculpture teacher said that everything worthwhile that could be done with the figure had already been done. That conversation, in my first semester at Bennington College, derailed my plan to study sculpture and sent me to the ceramics studio, where I can still remember the tactile epiphany that sealed the deal. The material entranced me, and pots offered democratic accessibility and a different history than the so-called “fine” arts. During my tumultuous college years (1968-72) all the established authorities – patriarchy, US foreign policy, and Greenberg’s modernist hierarchies – were up for smashing, and ceramics offered a vehicle for different values. Stanley Rosen, my teacher at Bennington, conveyed a mysterious passion for the medium. He taught me to look at pots, and was my only formal teacher aside from Michael Frimkess, who during my few months as his studio assistant gave me an alternative perspective, in almost every sense.

After college, changing the world through handmade pots, and getting right to it, seemed the right next step. I moved to Hartford CT with two friends, having hatched a plan to set up a storefront studio and be local potters. And this is where my true education began: learning to make pots all day, to run a business (we were operating a business?!), and most importantly, to work out where my pots belonged in the world. This involved not artist’s statements, but long silent hours developing my ideas in clay, punctuated by encounters with ordinary customers, during which I had to articulate in simple terms where these handmade objects fit into their homes and lives. Over the next twenty years my answers to that question changed as my work changed. My pots grew sculptural, then became sculpture, then circled back to being pots. For most of this time I was firmly based in the community I had landed in as a young maker. I considered myself a local artist, bringing my local audience along with me as my work evolved, and expanding it by exhibiting outside the region. My studio practice grew to include part-time teaching at a community college, another form of engagement with my local community, and one that I found deeply satisfying.

If my first twenty years in the studio constituted a prolonged apprenticeship in the ways of making, selling, describing, and living with pottery, the next ten were full of movement and flux. I spent six months teaching at Ohio State – as different as a university could be from Bennington – and explored other academic settings as a visiting artist and sabbatical replacement. During this time I discovered a passion for ceramic history – not as scholarship, but as a vehicle for conveying the astounding diversity and humanity of our medium. I also observed that the potter’s life looks somewhat different in the context of the university, and was glad I had spent my early years working out my ideas in relative isolation. But the stimulations and aspirations of the academy were alluring and challenging, and they pried my mind open.

By the 1990s my life looked more like that of my MFA-holding contemporaries, with the studio’s intimate rhythms anchoring a practice that also looked outward toward the field of contemporary ceramics. During this time I began to teach more widely, to write, and to feel myself part of overlapping clay communities. A slow conversation began with Gerry Williams, editor of The Studio Potter, about the possibility of my taking over the journal. I was honored and intrigued – SP had been the desert-island publication of my life as a potter- but also wary of giving up my studio practice, and of the pitfalls of trying to fill the founder’s shoes. In the end, though, I was hungry to learn new skills and to exercise my curiosity about the larger issues and questions in ceramics. Taking over the journal would let me honor the past (both the historical past and Gerry’s indelible legacy) and glimpse the future of my field. For twelve years, I was privileged to follow Gerry’s example as a gatherer and shaper of voices, and to update the journal for a new generation. I listened to what was on the minds of makers, and was surprised to discover the satisfying, intensive, one-to-one craft of editing – of helping each writer work toward the truest version of her or his written voice.

Over the years that I served as editor I went from being squarely in the middle generation of my field to being at the young edge of the older generation. Ten years in, I began to feel it was time to let someone younger be Studio Potter’s editorial voice and handle the challenge of keeping a nonprofit print journal afloat in the digital age. And it was time to return to the studio – which I had never left, but which had taken a back seat to editing. After so many years structured by inexorable publishing deadlines and the demands (and rewards) of a public persona, my reentry into the relative privacy of studio life has been both freeing and challenging: no one tells you what to do, and no one cares what you do. Where this freedom might lead me is still unfolding. I put aside many forms and investigations when my studio time became so limited, and I look forward to revisiting those ideas. But I’m not likely to leave behind my interest in artists’ words and in the process of writing, although it will take a different form now. I seem to be a straddler: someone who is curious about, and comfortable in, the places where different worlds, skills, and conversations overlap. In clay I feel lucky to have found the ideal material: generous yet demanding, inviting and recording the mark of every hand, idea, and technology that humans have impressed upon it.

 

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