The Tiny Monolith: A Tribute to a Michael Simon Pot

At four a.m., the dawn was just starting to crest over the Penland hills. It was dark, and cold for late spring, and I was up doing the sunrise wood kiln shift (my favorite). Alone, I watched the burners slowly heat up the big, ocher “woody” that I had helped build over in a course led by Will Ruggles and Douglass Rankin. As I waited, I read a book of Rilke poems a friend and fellow core student had given me the night before, as we played music around a bonfire.

It was early May of 1987. I was 27 years old and about to cross paths with the pot that has since quietly been a great influence in my life. Will and Douglass had invited their friend “Mike” up for a week or so to make pots with those of us taking their two-month wood fire course. He was a quiet man who did not speak much. He wasn’t shy but contemplative, seemingly weighted by his own sincerity.

After Michael arrived, we dusted off and wiped down the old Leach treadle wheel that had been in the corner of the room. He got on it and started throwing pots with relaxed purpose, as if he were going on a brisk walk through the autumn woods. Later on, as I took a turn on the wheel, with Will and Douglass smiling at me from across the room, I slowly became captivated by what I later called riding the gray horse. A new commitment to clay was forming inside me, one not explained in many words; it was organic and righteous, connecting me to a history I had only just begun to interpret.

After sharing meals each evening with Michael, at the Penland dining hall or at Douglass and Will’s home up on the mountain (served in some of the sweetest pots on the planet), we went into the studio with him, watching him work on that treadle wheel in ways that I had never seen before and would never see again. I summoned the courage to ask him to trade a pot of mine for his (not because I thought my pots were comparable but because I was totally broke and would be in the foreseeable future, and I wanted one!). Without blinking he said yes, and not a “Yeah, I will do you a favor, kid” kind of yes, but a solid yes, with no smile.

That Persian-inspired, black, covered box, sitting on my bedroom dresser, remains one of my most treasured objects to this day. It was with me through all my moves back and forth across the United States and abroad, through different creative periods, through relationships and residencies, through teaching jobs, and through times when I was flush with cash and others when I was doing the starving-artist thing. It has stayed with me when others have fallen away.

This pot has taught me in different ways. Its dignity and my history with it have comforted and strengthened me. Over the years I have pushed my ceramics well beyond the boundaries of functional pottery, and still I come back to this clay object, finding bits of truth in it and physical evidence that this truth is real.

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