Issue 03

The Potter’s Assistant

Written by Emily LiedelPainting by Frank Omier

When I moved back to my hometown, Portland, Oregon, and got my own apartment in the city for the first time, my mom took me down to her basement and opened up one of the cupboards. It was my pot stash.

The stash, piled precariously on two shelves, represented two decades of intermittent work for the potter across the street.

Jeanne Henry moved into the house across the street around the same time my parents moved into their house. I was eight months old, and Jeanne’s oldest daughter, Kate, was born about six months later. Jeanne’s house is the oldest on the block, and its original owner was a doctor. The doctor had a small office built next to the house, and by the time I was old enough to remember, that old doctor’s office had become a pottery studio.

Kate and I became inseparable, rambunctious playmates. Our favorite game was called “bad news,” and involved breathlessly telling an adult how one of us had broken all the bones in our body. Kate was involved nearly every time I got in trouble as a child, whether it was for pulling up another neighbor’s flower garden or destructively “borrowing” Jeanne’s make-up.

Kate and I were also occasional coworkers. We took our job seriously. During her studio sales, Jeanne was too busy chatting with customers to handle the details required to take people’s money and prepare fragile pottery for transport. Kate and I were both good at math, and we were both careful about how we handled pottery. When Kate was about seven and I was about eight, we took over the checkout and the packing. We never broke anything or made major errors.

We worked as a team. One of us would don the purple fanny-pack that was filled with change, while the other manned the calculator. We removed the price tags from the individual pots and pasted them in a neat column on our register sheet. Then we added the totals up on an old calculator, collected the money and started wrapping. Each pot was wrapped in brown newsprint or bubble wrap before being carefully placed in a paper grocery bag that Jeanne stockpiled for these occasions. As we said goodbye, we reminded the customers – always grownups – to hold their bags from the bottom.

When the stream of customers slowed, we browsed the pots, inspecting the nearly-identical mugs to find the perfect shape and perfect size, testing them in our hands. We compared the different colors of vases and how they interacted with the flowers. We debated the merits of various vase shapes, and whether or not they would need a frog (a spiked disk for flower arranging) to support the flowers.

We were scouting our picks. At the end of the weekend, Jeanne gave Kate and me the option of being paid in cash or in pottery equivalent. If we took the pottery, we got 15 percent more. We usually took the pots.

My parents had their own collection of Jeanne’s pots, and they didn’t want to confuse my pots with theirs. Instead, my vases and mugs and bowls were carefully stored in a cupboard in the basement, like a dusty, eclectic hope chest.

Jeanne encouraged me to choose a color theme and stick to it, but since the sales were at least six months apart and I didn’t have a concept of what kind of pottery an adult home would need, I usually just picked the pieces that caught my eye. My earliest selections were the least practical – vases, oddly-shaped pitchers and several mugs that I now find frustratingly small.

The pots I discovered in my mother’s basement did not represented a unified collection. The two shelves were full of mugs, pitchers, bowls and vases of all shapes, sizes and colors. There was even a two-pieced dish in the shape of a flying saucer. When I showed Jeanne, she had no idea what the dish was for or why she had made it. I don’t know why my younger self decided it was a must-have piece.

A couple months after returning to Portland, I helped Jeanne again, with a two-weekend long pottery sale. I wore the same purple fanny-pack filled with cash, although it now also had a Square-enabled iPhone among the bills. I peeled off the price tags and arranged them in neat columns, wrapped up the purchases in bubble wrap and handed shoppers their paper grocery bags. I reminded customers to hold the bag from the bottom.

At the end of the two weekends, Jeanne paid me with pottery. This time, I was more intentional with my choices. I special ordered two large fermenting crocks, and got four more mugs, all of them large enough for an adult-sized cup of tea. The mugs were the same reddish brown color as the large set of mixing bowls I had acquired in high school – a color Jeanne hadn’t even used in the early years.

When I’m at home, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t touch Jeanne’s pottery. I drink tea from her mugs every morning and eat yogurt from her bowls. I make pies in her pie dish, make bread in her large mixing bowl and, on occasion, arrange flowers in one of several vases.

Now Kate’s son is the one building traps, playing with clay and generally making mischief, but Kate and I still reminisce about our own days of troublemaking over a hot drink in a hand-thrown mug.

Peggy

This is lovely – the life and stories that breathe on in (especially) handmade objects.

 

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jeanne Henry

Emily,
That was really GREAT! What a trip down memory lane for me too! (my dear 4 3/4(!) year old grandson just this last week talked about making traps!)
You remembered so many things in such detail. It is a kind of a Roshoman effect of what you remember as opposed to me, or probably Kate.
Really cool – thank you for sharing it, with me and the world!
Jeanne

 

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Tony Mindling

Beautiful painting, and a wonderful post. Thanks for adding more depth to the jeanne henry i know from facebook!

 

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