Frail, Resilient, Beautiful Bones

Tucked underneath an eastbound highway on-ramp in Mānoa is a scrappy little ceramics studio where shelf space is at a premium. 

Standing inside the Potters’ Guild—warm and pulsing with life—is a bit like standing in the bowels of Monstro, the whale who swallowed Pinocchio.  Steampunk growth rings document the organic expansion of the studio over its fifty-three years of existence, scraps of metal and wood and fencing melded together in a not-quite plumb manner.  Countless things that have reached the end of their original and natural lives have been converted and re-enlisted for service, given a fresh, albeit still rusty lease on life.  Uneven cabinets burst with inanimate life-forms, from alien corals to earthly dogs.  Innumerable two-and-a-half-ton vehicles whizz by overhead, crushing weight held at bay by mere feet of concrete and rebar.  Yet you would not be faulted for thinking this little studio was situated along a peacefully flowing stream in the country side.

To the un-initiated, the Guild might feel a bit cramped in its dimensions and byzantine in its governance.  Again, shelf-space is literally the most valuable thing in the studio. (To be fair, the same is true of the Art Academy’s ceramics studio.)  Registration for classes is surprisingly analog, reminiscent of signing up for popular high-school extracurriculars.  To register, you must show up in person and write your name on a piece of paper, cut a paper check and place it into a small collection tin, then stand on your tippy-toes a week later to peer at another sheet of paper posted on a bulletin board to see if you got in.  Then there are countless rules about where to place your unfired piece for firing (depends on its height), what color clay can be used on what tables (no red clay where porcelain goes), how to clean the bathroom when it’s your week to clean the bathroom (don’t lock yourself in the bathroom, the lock is spotty), and so on.  Such things are necessary, I suppose, when running an operation that involves multiple furnaces firing at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit at all hours of the day and night. 

If this hive had a queen it would be the artist Esther Nowell, who, last Sunday, turned 100 years old.  (Recall, that’s a full century.)  Where onsite parking is almost as limited as shelf space, Esther’s front row parking stall tells you just how revered she is by the Potters’ Guild community.  News of her drive-by birthday celebration reached me by email, announcing the hours Esther’s holding court at home, during which her loyal friends would pay homage via vehicular procession, a new form of distanced revelry developed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

You can read a wonderful piece on the long-lived artist here, and find her short-lived blog here, where you’ll find the trappings of a curious and creative mind, and some neat old photos, too.  Her sketchbook entries are particularly mesmerizing, offering a glimpse of a life through an artist’s eye.  They feature brief notes that capture the mundane details of life, like meals and lodging, overlaid with splashes of bright watercolors and vivid pen renderings that detail the exoticness of the World Abroad.

Ms. Nowell has been endlessly quoted for her sage advice on living long and healthily: “yoga, yogurt, and bare feet.”  At some point, when you’ve lived long enough, you too must develop a short-hand response to the inevitable question of, “what’s the secret to long-life?”  I’ve yet to hear any advice on this subject as poetic, and insightful, as Esther’s.

Several years ago I was standing on the front lawn of a beautiful ocean-front Diamondhead estate with three men, aged 65, 82, and 88.  The subject of our discussion was lot boundaries, and the conversation drifted to that of a land surveyor who was closing in on retirement due to his no longer being able to meet the physical demands of the profession.  One of the eighty-year olds in our group, a long-time waterman, recalled the years of his youth when he could perform such acts of athleticism as climbing and jumping down from short half-walls without blowing-out a knee.  “Growing old is not for the faint of heart,” he remarked.  The rest of us solemnly and sorrowfully nodded.

The appeal of working with clay, at least for me, is the power to conjure up any soul imaginable and mold it into a real thing, as permanent as Diamondhead, more or less.  No need nails or screws or glue.  Just hands and water and dirt.  There’s a primal satisfaction in holding something you made with mud and hardened with fire.  “Me made this for you,” I grunt to my mom and gesturing at a wall. “You put on shelf for looking.”  Pottery and gift-giving—what’s more ancient than that?

Perhaps working in ceramics provides a connection to our very distant ancestors, of whom we know little except that which the remnants of their pottery speak.  Occasionally I’ll throw one of my own pieces into the backyard to be buried by time, in distant hopes that I too might make myself known in some way to some person, digging in the dirt, hundreds of years from now. (For our sake, though, let’s hope the archaeologists find Esther’s work, too, lest they think us all unimaginative, unskilled beasts.)  This is not unique to me.  There’s a boneyard out back behind the Potters’ Guild and most any other respectable ceramics studio.  “I was here”, spelled out in fragments of bisque-ware. 

When we are gone we leave only bare bones.  Pots we made, pictures we posted, articles we wrote.  Remnants stripped of the context of flesh.  These bones are inert, yes, but they tell our Story.

The news is full of stories about Death and Other Bad Things.  This might help explain the editorial need for the “feel good” stories.  We’ve got stories about neighbors helping neighbors, lost pets come home, and, of course, folks turning 100.  Maybe the latter stories help the rest of us feel younger; a sometimes false reminder of our long lives yet to unfold.  Maybe these centennial birthdays stand as a testament to the virtues of living a good, clean life: moderation, curiosity, and exercise.  Or maybe, like the brittle fragments of centuries’ old ceramic-ware, they are still-beating archeological treasures, speaking to the frailty and the resilience of human life, and the resulting beauty.