Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Little Kickwheel That Could -- Making Pots From Herrontown Clay

There's a book from childhood that resonates more and more with what I've seen of the world since then. The Little Engine That Could is a story about how things get done. Like the train cars full of toys that lack a steam engine to pull them over the mountain, so many projects languish in our personal and larger worlds, not for lack of someone capable of doing the work, but for someone who is simply willing. Find someone willing, maybe even find someone passionate about the task, and the job will finally get done. The train will make it over the mountain. 

That's what has happened time and again at Herrontown Woods, be it a lovely platform for seating we call Scott's Landing, named for Scott Sillars who decided to finish it, or the boardwalk that Victorino and Wilbur took on and finished up, or May's Garden that sat mostly empty until Mathilde Burlion and Andrew Thornton teamed up to grow food and teach classes there. In fact, the Friends of Herrontown Woods only came into being through the willingness of Kurt and Sally Tazelaar to take the lead in clearing the long-neglected trails.

The same story can be told of the kickwheel we salvaged several years ago from a house that was going to be demolished. A kickwheel is a potter's wheel that is turned not with a motor but with the kick of your foot on the hefty stone flywheel. It can make pots anywhere, anytime, without electricity, that is, if you have clay, and a potter to mold it into shape. For lack of clay and a willing potter, the kickwheel sat for years under a tarp, drawing attention only from a family of mice. A woman attending one of our May's Cafes last year took a look, and said she would be glad to teach a class on kickwheel pottery, but then didn't respond when I followed up. She was like one of those very capable steam engines in the story that chooses to pass the train cars by. 

But finally, as in the children's story, the right person came along. Rebecca Graham proved to be the skilled potter, but the story begins with Ryan Lilienthal, an artist with no formal training in ceramics but with a newfound passion for clay. He came in February and dug some samples of clay at Herrontown Woods not far from the parking lot. 

Months later, he showed me some bricks he had made of the clay. 

That was cool, and cooler still was the day more recently that he and other clay enthusiasts showed up at the Barden. Their goal, unbeknownst to us, was to make some pots on the kickwheel from clay dug right there in Herrontown Woods. It was the morning of May's Cafe, with people sitting at various tables, enjoying coffee and conversation surrounded by native plants. Little did we know we'd be treated to a workshop on potmaking. 

Rebecca Graham, who teaches pottery at the Arts Council of Princeton, showed us how to get the clay just the right consistency for turning. If it's too wet, you spread it out on a flat stone to dry a bit.

We had dug some clay from a promising spot along the red trail, but the potters said it wasn't "plastic" enough. I heard that word and remembered another spot where I had encountered some particularly slick clay while planting some sedges. I went and dug up some of that clay, and they said, yes, this should work.

Rebecca turned Herrontown Woods' first pot on the kickwheel. Surprisingly, the kickwheel doesn't require much kicking once you've formed the clay into the general shape of a pot. The heavy kickwheel gains considerable momentum once up to speed.

FOHW board member Inge Regan also gave it a go, drawing on memories of a highschool art class.

Ryan and a friend shaped some pots by hand. 

The pots were left to dry for a week. Ryan has a small kiln of his own to fire the pots, but he also has been getting to know the folks at the studio of famed ceramicist, Toshiko Takaezu, who, at one point in her life, reportedly dug clay from, of all places, Herrontown Woods.

And that is the story of The Little Kickwheel That Could, 

and did.

Note: For anyone curious about the lettering on the bricks, Ryan explained in an email:
"The word on the brick is "emet" (אֱמֶ֑ת), which means "truth" in Hebrew. According to one version of Jewish legend, it is possible to create a golem--a human figure--who can be brought to life by writing the word, אֱמֶ֑ת, on the figure's forehead. Accordingly, a golem is possessed with the superpower of discovering and revealing truth. To put a golem to sleep, the first letter of the word, אֱמֶ֑ת, is erased and becomes, מֶ֑ת, or "met," which means death."

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Plant Sales Begin at the Barden

Many of the plants that pop up in the pathways of the Botanical Art Garden (Barden) are native. We call these plants "volunteers", and have begun potting them up for sale. Everything about our little plant nursery has to do with reuse: the plants, the pots, the pallets we use to display the plants, and the collected rainwater we use to water them.

Come to May's Cafe this Sunday, June 9, 9-11am, and check out our selection. 

Currently in stock:

Sundrops (see photo below)

Shrubby St. Johnswort



Wild Senna

Sensitive Fern (see photo below)

Mountain Mint


Evening Primrose

Enter the Barden next to the kiosk and follow the path straight up. The plant nursery is next to one of the sheds, to the right of the gazebo. Many of these native plants are local genotypes. 

Sundrops is a lower growing perennial that spreads slowly and provides bright yellow flowers in June.  
Though Sensitive fern is sensitive to frost and drought, it is a robust native that spreads slowly to create a lush groundcover.