The Expression of the Clay of Bandana, North Carolina
Many years ago I was at a lecture about the artistic approach of Leonardo DaVinci and the speaker said that one of the things that Leonardo was passionate about was doing portraits when the sky was overcast and bordering on mist if at all possible. The speaker said that Leonardo wrote that it was at this time that human skin was most luminous and light at its most illuminating as it caused no strain to the eye and that something within the skin itself could be revealed at this moment that wasn’t possible at other times.
I haven’t read enough of Leonardo’s works to have confirmed the words or the sense of the observation, I take (and took) the expert at his word and have always remembered this when the weather is like that. The greened beauty of the sky and the skin. And while I wouldn’t claim to have an eye cultivated anything like that Renaissance master I do think I have seen what he claimed was the case.
The sense of heartbreak and longing can often be mistaken for pain. For those untutored in such things, they might say that such heartbreaks and longings are a sorrow. But they only resemble sorrow as much as the mist Leonardo spoke of resembles rain.
Surely some of the ingredients seem similar or almost in concert, but they aren’t. It is finer than that. And different. Leonardo didn’t yearn to paint in torrential downpours. He saw this particularly fine state of overcastness and mist as a remarkable revealing moment. And weather like that is protean, it can change quickly. The rain might not come at all on that day.
Which is all to say that not too long ago I saw an image of a woman holding a giant clay pot. And I don’t know that the photograph was taken during an overcast sky bordering on mist but something about seeing that photo was quite fine. In the ceramics trade clay is called a ‘clay body’ and maybe the light on that day was just right that something fundamental was revealed about that well bodied pot in the same way that the overcast sky was a revelator for the human form in a portrait to Leonardo da Vinci. There was a kind of fine heartbreak and longing that arose in me just seeing this wood fired beauty. But it wasn’t painful it was just an opening ache in me from the beauty of it caught just so with the right light, I guess.
And it came to pass that the woman with the pot was coming near New York and I expressed my desire to see the pot in person and meet the maker.
On that day I was lucky enough to meet Naomi Dalglish and Michael Hunt of Bandana Pottery in Bandana, North Carolina and talk for a bit. One of the things they said in our spirited exchange was that industrially produced clay can be formed to make almost anything pretty well. But wild clay, once you know the clay body, can’t be fashioned into just anything. There are certain shapes and forms that exhibit the clay’s strength and plasticity and beauty. And the clay might even long to be in those shapes.
Naomi writes in her piece ‘On Pots, Purpose, and Place’:
What moves artists, and more specifically, potters, to make what we do, and what brings life to that work? My husband, Michael Hunt, and I began using wild, local materials as a means of finding the kind of coarse beauty we love in old Korean pots. We were drawn to making functional pots because it is satisfying to make something beautiful that can be used. We chose to live in the mountains of western North Carolina because of the community we found in the Penland School area, and because of the abundance of interesting local materials: clays for making our pots, and scrap wood from local sawmills for fueling our kiln. We didn’t anticipate the ways that these materials, approaches to making, and our place have shaped us in return (and possibly we don’t fully understand them even yet). In our search for meaning and beauty in our work, it is the mysterious, ever-shifting interface between our selves and these elements that leads us into a constantly new and expanding creative territory. The main clay body we use is a mixture of coarse red clay from down the road in the little town of Bandana and a more plastic secondary clay from farther down the mountain. Both come from the fields of farmers who have their own relationship with this dirt. Once, our neighbor, who was preparing his farm field and from whom we’d previously gotten clay, spontaneously brought us a tractor-size scoop of a red clay. When we started asking questions to make sure we were getting the same kind of clay as we had dug before, he said in mock indignation, “I’m a farmer—you think I don’t know my own dirt?!” Whereas he is intimately aware of the organic composition and how water drains (or doesn’t!) in this kind of dirt, we have come to know its landscape of particles, color, and working properties. Although our and these farmers’ backgrounds differ, we all have a deep respect for and relationship with this wild dirt, and recognize that in each other. …
If you want to see some extraordinary, well labored over ceramics made from wild clay by people determined to reveal, like the overcast sky and the mist did for da Vinci, something quite real and properly heartbreaking beautiful – spend some time reveling in the thumbprints of their care left on all their pottery. Bandana Pottery. Visit. Purchase. Speak with them. Study with them. Get on their mailing list or follow them on social media. There is good in the world, still.
Here at Primal Derma we adore these kinds of devotional paths and crafts that reveal a relationship to place. What Naomi and Michael said about industrial clay could be easily said about industrially produced tallow – there is such a thing. But the industrially produced tallow has almost none of the enlivening and nourishing qualities of the kind of tallow that I want to offer to you and your skin. What stands behind it and how it got to you, I think, matters a lot.
Thanks so much for your support and if we can need some tallow for your skin – press ‘Shop Now’ below. We’d love to send you some.
Until soon enough,