Acknowledging Mentors

When considering the subject of mentoring, I realize my working definition is centered more on intangible qualities associated with teaching, rather than a set of prescribed criteria. Avoiding the obvious impulse to go to the dictionary, I prefer to stay with an understanding rooted in personal experience and intuition. Similar to the enormity of the word “respect”, I regard “mentoring” to be one of those vague notions known long before being understood.There are a number of individuals in my past who have played an important role in my education as an artist and person. Invariably I recall certain teachers through pivotal remarks or expressions ensconced in memory. Often they resurface when encountering familiar problems, giving me a moment to reflect upon their particular insights and personality. Closely removed from a teacher, a mentor occupies a more potent part of memory, one traversing a deeper terrain than just cognition alone. There is an added dimension revealed by an extraordinary passion for knowing and becoming intimate with their world and, most importantly, a willingness to communicate and share this in very tangible ways. In looking back, I am fortunate to recognize three mentors who have influenced my thinking and actions to this extent. Jack Troy, Richard Roth, and Val Cushing distinguish themselves as not only teachers, but as inspiring role models as well. In discussing these individuals I hope to illuminate my perception of them as mentors, and not fall prey to romantic eulogy or worship. For from being distant figures of my past, I am equally grateful for the friendship I enjoy with them today and continue to feel their presence is relevant in these contexts.

I first met Jack Troy in 1979 as a ceramics monitor for a series of summer workshops at Miami University. Soon after receiving my undergraduate degree, I went to Juniata College to work as a special student under Jack. Not enrolled in a class, I worked independently and upon getting there asked Jack for an assignment to get me jump-started. He suggested I make a hundred of something. Having never devoted much time to bottles, I choose that form. After 150 or so, I had my first critique. Jack took great care in helping set up the bottles at eye height throughout the studio. I remember our discussion starting in daylight and ending after dark. I had never thought it imaginable to consider so much in one form. “The space around the bottle?” From that moment on, the door was open. Not only was it a lesson in critiquing and the needed attention to what I didn’t know, but it was a memorable experience in patient listening. Jack’s thoughtful ear conveyed a sense of mutual respect and instilled a belief in my young efforts to establish a visual identity for myself. Now as a teacher knowing the fragility of this identity, I strive to have such a devoted and sincere ear.

Spending more time with Jack outside the studio, in his home amongst beautiful pots and books, or one of the countless hikes around the area, I found an individual who loved to learn as much as he loved to teach. The intensity of his focus and interest extended into all corners of knowledge. The quiet notes of a wood thrush or the latest Updike piece would receive the same scrutiny as the lip on a 19th C. ovoid jug or the last pull of a pitchers handle. Seeing an individual intent on being so well conversant with the political, social, natural and creative world around him had a profound impression on me. Perhaps most salient of all, I began to be aware of the connective tissue between what I once considered to be relatively disparate bodies of knowledge. Seeing the fullness of a dedicated life, in and outside of the classroom, provided an important model of what it means to be an engaged citizen of this world.

Richard Roth sold his successful pottery in Sonoma, California to return to his family home on a sixty-acre diary farm in Winlock, Washington, to raise his family and start another pottery. Through a rather circuitous route, I found myself on the doorstep of Richard and Susan’s home in 1981, and was immediately welcomed into their family. As a young potter to be, I couldn’t of arrived at a better time. Having just completed their move, I was fortunate to be on the ground floor of establishing their business. There was an unbelievable completeness to the experience: from falling trees to put up the kiln building, developing glazes with the newest and most abundant glaze material on hand in Mt. St. Helens ash, to deciding on what fairs to enter and how to negotiate this new and competitive market. It was a rich time and it would be difficult to imagine a more gifted teacher than Richard in which to navigate all these new challenges for me.

Growing up on a farm, Richard was kneeled in hard work and common sense. Though for a time he was a teacher, and has been on and off as opportunity and desire permits, his teaching’ always came through by example. An extraordinary amount of care and love was a part of every encounter, regardless of how mundane or profound. From preparing a job, using a tool, making a pot, talking with customers, addressing a town meeting, or leading the scout troop to playing tuba in his kid’s high school band, I was struck by how seamless his efforts were. Richard, more than any other individual I’ve met, was and remains today, enviably 100% present in the moment. On the bleakest of days the Pacific Northwest has to offer, trudging out for a day of fence post digging, Richard would pause to comment on the pattern of rain falling against the saw mill shed. His ability to locate the beautiful and poetic in the ordinary and commonplace stays with me to this day, reminded me of the importance of looking at the often overlooked. Though I learned a great deal from Richard about making pots and a pottery, I learned more about the making of a person. Jokingly, a friend once referred to Richard as “pathologically positive.” Conducting his life with integrity, passion, and sensitivity, there is a strong element of truth to this. Opening his mind, heart, and soul to me and nearly everyone who treaded on their acres, Richard has not surprisingly been more of a spiritual mentor to me, In being so, I feel he is a tuning fork of sorts for things in and outside of the classroom.