The Two Potters
by Norbert Kovacs
The man and the woman made pottery in the large studio attached to their home. The man owned the studio and the home and decided the pottery they made. They painted this most times an off white with very simple designs, a favorite being small flowers. They gave their flowers small dot centers and narrow, thin petals crowded close together. The two made their clay cups and plates as if it were a duty. After breakfast each morning, the man went ready for the potter’s wheel in the studio. He made the pottery for its own sake and no other reason. He lumped the wet, soft clay onto his wheel to start and spun it. He shaped with his hands, hollowing out the hole for a vessel, flattening and pressing flat for a plate. He fixed his eyes on the clay as it spun and spun. As he worked, he talked to the woman who made items at her own wheel across the room. The two talked about their pottery, about whether they would make more or less than the previous day, whether one found it difficult to shape that day’s clay, who should fire in the kiln next, and so on. When he had shaped and fired his pottery, the man painted it the standard white that he liked above every other color. He took his old, well-used brush and painted the rims of his work gray in thin, double-banded lines. He loved painting these neatly and in parallel. The two showed and sometimes gave their finished items to friends and family who were interested. The couple spent most of their day in the studio, but even outside it, the man thought about making the pottery.
The woman told the man as they were working in the studio one day that she felt tired and would stop early. She removed her black, soiled potter’s apron and hung it on a hook by the kiln. She was a quiet, reserved woman. She had a plain, lean body and bound her thick, blonde hair in a ponytail at her neck. Her dark eyes, dense and small, moved tensely behind her black-rimmed glasses; she had a face smooth and colored like a peach.
“After I take a nap, I’ll wipe in the clay bin,” she said. She meant the large wooden box where they stored wet clay. They cleaned it occasionally when it ran empty to keep the wood from rotting. The woman went into the house to lie down as the man continued at his labor.
An hour later, the woman returned, her hair slightly astrew from her nap. The man heard her moving and wiping at the clay box across the room as he shaped at his wheel.
“You won’t need any extra clay?” she called to him after she had cleaned. “I found some stuck in the bin bottom.”
“No, I have enough to last today.” The man replied without lifting his head from the spinning wheel before him. After he was done forming and shaping a few last cups, the man had done. He set his newest pieces aside to continue the next morning and went to stow his apron. He discovered the woman standing over and admiring a clay hoop at her worktable.
“What is that supposed to be?” the man asked coming to her side. He was a large, tall man with strong arms and hands. Thick bands of brown hair hung over his forehead. He was much bigger than the woman.
“A wrist hoop. See.” She took the hoop from the table, slid it over her right hand, and let it dangle from her wrist.
“Sort of strange, how rough on the edges it is.” The man’s dark, narrow eyes moved over the hoop’s outline.
“I just started it. I have more to do to get it nice.”
“Certainly. Well, a diversion once in a while never hurt anyone.” The man slid the hoop off the woman’s arm and set it on a shelf beside where her apron hung. He hung his own apron on a hook beside hers and moved toward the hall for the house. When he did not hear her follow after him, the man turned and discovered she had taken the clay hoop from the shelf and was turning it over in her hand.
The next day, the man kept busy at his wheel into the afternoon. When he finally slowed at the work, he looked across the studio toward the woman; he had not taken note of her since early that morning. He discovered she had left her wheel and was molding a large cup on her work table. The cup was the size and dimensions of their usual except for the bottom and brim; she made these bulge outward in thick, heavy bands, each like the hoop she had made the previous day. The woman pressed her thumb into the band that formed the top brim to widen it, at each push forcing the clay out, round and thick. She added more clay to the brim as she worked.
“Why are you giving the cup those heavy bands on the top and bottom?” he asked. “We never do.”
The woman took her hands from the cup. “I thought someone might like drinking from a bigger cup than the ones we make. Besides, I think this type of brim and bottom look nice.”
The man made a face. “It would be awkward for us to do any new kind of pottery. We should do our usual stuff instead. We are used to it. We do it well.”
“But what if this new cup is good?”
“The cup isn’t. I mean, look at it. People checking out our stuff will say it’s strange that it has this wide brim. Our cups don’t. Rather than have everyone feel bad over it, I’d do the pottery you have been.”
The woman set aside the new cup as the man urged, fetched some fresh clay, and started on a cup he could recognize. However, she did it all holding back a frown, and her dark eyes lowered.
The man entered the studio a few days later and discovered the wet clay bin was empty. The woman and he had gotten new clay for the bin only the past week and the man knew they could not have used it all since. “Would you know what might have happened with the clay in the bin?” he asked the woman.
She said, “I threw it into the woods behind the house. It was full of grit and sand and wasn’t any good to use. I was going to tell you.”
The man stared at her. “You might have let me check it first. I hadn’t seen anything to make me think it so bad. Now we’ll have to get new clay for today’s stuff.”
The two drove to the old man down the hill who provided them clay to get a new supply. They filled the bin from the back of their van and returned with it to the studio. When the two had set the bin again in its corner and made to get their aprons, the man noticed a black cloth hanging in the corner beyond the woman’s pottery wheel. He had not remembered the shelf there being covered. He crossed the room and pulled off the cover to check beneath it. He found the shelf full of newly made clay hoops and rings. He realized the items were all like the wrist hoop the woman had made earlier.
“So this is what became of the clay you said you threw out,” he said to the woman. “You’ve been making these when I’ve gone back into the house, haven’t you?”
She lowered her head. “I have.”
“You understand that there is no excuse for this stuff. I pay for all this clay; I expected you to make it into the pottery we always do.”
The man seized several rings from the shelf and dashed them on the floor. The rings burst and sent debris around his feet. The man reached for more rings from the shelf when the woman cried, “Please don’t. I won’t have those rings broken after the work I did making them.”
“For those rings. Please, I like the rings and hoops and to have them. Let me.”
“Are you being serious?” The man did not imagine it possible.
“You would choose to go on making them?”
The man scowled but sensed she was telling the truth. He did not feel he could dissuade her either, at least not easily. “Alright. Since you really want to, I’ll let you,” he said. “But it will be only after you’ve done the pieces I have expected made here each day. I own the studio and have decided what we make. I will make pottery our usual way even if you will not. But now you can get your own clay from the man down the hill to make the things you will. I fetch clay for the pottery I want done here. And if you’re to fire your things in my kiln, you must help me at my tasks too, like glazing the cups.”
The woman agreed. The man and the woman made pottery in the studio again at their two wheels. The man continued to shape his items per his custom. The woman made items for him as they agreed; many days, she finished these early and started on her own. However, the man resented the small freedom he had let the woman to create though it did not distract him. He made to discourage her for it. He moved around the studio, after tools and supplies that he did not need, just to get in her way. She withdrew from the spaces that the man invaded and did not complain about his taking them. She made her rings and hoops in the corner of her worktable, her back to him. She made them without slowing. She glazed the items and they shone in the cool electric light of the studio.
The man had let the woman use glaze as a one allowance but he thought poorly of her enthusiasm for it.
“You are adding too much glaze to those hoops,” he cautioned. “I had got it for the cups, you know.”
The woman used less and glazed fewer rings and hoops after the warning. However, the man saw she glazed these fewer pieces more. She glazed some rings in thin layers two or three times and admired them, once fired, under the light by her worktable.
Soon, the man discovered the woman cut corners in making their regular cups and plates. She left cups outside at night and did not fire them in the kiln as he said she should. She did not glaze all the plates as he had asked. At the same time, she made more of her rings and hoops once she had made their standard. The shelves behind her table filled with the things and it seemed she produced a greater number in each batch. The man realized the woman hoped to do more of her own pieces and less of his.
The woman wore some of the new rings she made as earrings. She said they were beautiful and that she felt beautiful wearing them. The man said the rings were not any good as earrings, for they were clay, not a shined or precious metal as he had seen women wear. “Clay is to make plates and cups,” he said. The woman wore the earrings in the studio and in their home anyway. She touched the hard, small rings with her fingers and studied them hanging at her ears in the mirror. She wore clay hoop bracelets on her arms when she had on the earrings too, saying they complemented one another. She wore the earrings and the hoops even when she was together with the man in bed and he asked she remove them.
“How can I enjoy it when you have those on?” he asked.
“The earrings make me beautiful,” she said and reclined before him.
The man grumbled. He did not argue the point however as he drew near her.
Soon, the man did not object to the woman wearing her ornaments in the studio or the house. The woman was beautiful after all just for herself, he thought.
The woman refined the new items she made, giving them special marks and features. She created rings of compact, neat O’s that she notched with squares and circles. She painted her creations and tried, as the man thought, to have them seem more beautiful than any cup or plate in the studio. She thought well enough of her skill that she wore her glazed and painted earrings in town. She told the man that people had noticed and talked with her over the pieces.
“I made friends with a few of the folks,” she said. “Three of them are coming to observe me in the studio.”
The man was in disbelief. “I wish you hadn’t let them. Do I need to hear you and them chatter over your pottery while you make it?”
“I think the right word is discuss, not chatter.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’ve invited the people and they are coming the day after tomorrow.”
When her friends made their visit, the woman showed them her creations on the shelves. She took out the rings and spread many of them in her palm. The man heard the friends ask for and be given several of the creations to keep. Then the friends went to her work corner and watched as she made some rings and hoops. After she had designed a few, one friend, a young man, said, “I love these rings you make. I am going to make my own.”
A young woman in the group raised her head. “I plan to do the same in the studio I will open. We can make them there together if you like.”
The man listening across the studio thought the two young people were ridiculous to talk about fashioning clay into rings. I will laugh at them as I do with the woman, he imagined. He worked at his wheel and felt that his pottery had the right pattern and form as ever. In the meanwhile, the friends encouraged the woman as she talked of making her work. The man saw the woman shape a new mound of clay and form it unlike he ever had known. The form had a large, very rounded hoop, just bigger than an armband. She propped this on a short stem atop a square base. Her friends fell silent before it.
“This is different than the hoops and the rings you have been making,” the young man beside the woman announced. “It’s more beautiful. It’s a piece of fine art.” The other friends agreed.
“I’ve never had this appreciation,” the woman said, breaking into a smile.
“I will create art in my new studio as you have done here,” her friend, the young woman, told her.
The man across the studio heard it all. The hoop on the stem did not seem art to him. The piece appeared too simple. It was not the great, highly shaped sculptures that he had encountered in art books. However, the woman’s friends treated it as something worth reflection.
After the friends left, the man complained to the woman about the hoop art. “I won’t let you make any more of it. I bent enough allowing you to do those rings. But these mounted hoops are too much.”
The woman turned from him. “I’ll work at my friend’s new studio then. She was alright with having that young man join her and she’ll be alright with me.” She added, “I could produce my pottery there and not bother with making anything more for this studio if you are that upset with me.”
The woman spoke seriously and the man realized she might go and do as she said if he pushed her. The woman long had been his partner and he did not wish to lose her. He decided to recant. “Don’t go,” he said. “I’ll let you create your artwork in our studio. Use the kiln to fire it—you’ve fired that many of my things that you should. I’ll make my things as I have in my half of the room and let you to yours. All I ask is if you would help me make a few of the studio-style items sometimes. Consider that I let you make your rings and hoops once you told me how important you felt about them. I didn’t stop you.”
“You’re right, you didn’t,” the woman said quietly. “You might be more considerate than I believed. I’ll stay.”
The woman made many artworks with the new freedom the man allowed. She created pots, vases, and boxes studded with small rings and large hoops. She made figurines and bas reliefs. She took liberties in creating each of her new pieces. Then the woman re-created the man’s usual pottery items, the cups and plates, in her new style. She made cups of hoops stacked upward and plates of hoops set one within another. The man, surprised by the designs, studied the woman producing this new pottery. He watched carefully as she formed a large, decorative plate.
“How can you round your hand on the clay’s edge like that?” he asked while she worked the item. “What happened to the ways I’d shown you to mold clay?”
The woman saddened, fingering the side of the plate. “I know those ways well. I’ve only adapted them.”
“But you do it so strangely.”
“I have my own style now. Even when it comes to cups and plates.”
The man felt upset to hear it. From the shelf near her, he picked up a plate that she had glazed and fired. The plate was a concentric nest of rings, some fat, some thin, arranged closely and fused into a whole. The plate had a smooth face despite its many-parted design and he imagined it could have been set on the wall for decoration. However, the form and the style were not his. He set the plate aside and returned to his potter’s wheel to create as he was used to doing.
The woman labored carefully over her work, the man discovered. He watched once as she made a new pot. She bowed her head over a mound of clay that was to become the object and shaped it with her hands. Her hands lifted and goaded the clay into the form. She tucked and rounded where the pot was to bulge and flattened and pressed where it was to be straight. She smoothed and stroked the pot once shaped, and it seemed she touched a fine, fragile thing. Her hands made the clay clean and bright under the studio light. She had cared in making the old cups and plates well, the man remembered, but he realized she did much more in making her new pottery. The woman colored her works with glazes she got from her town friends rather than use the man’s any longer. She used ocean blue, sun yellow, and fire red pigments, bolder colors than the studio hues. The man never did figure how to color pieces as attractively.
One day, the woman took liberties firing in the studio kiln. She did not ask the man if she might use it per their habit. Sometimes she did it when the man had planned to fire and it irked him.
“I was about to fire a plate,” he told her. “I think you might have asked whether you could. It holds up my work.”
“You do not create as much as you had,” the woman said, “I’ve been doing a lot lately so I thought it okay to use the kiln when I needed. I didn’t think of being in your way.”
“And then,” she continued, “I’m trying all these new things with the pottery. You aren’t. Couldn’t my stuff be given some priority because of it?”
The man never had heard the woman argue for preference. But he quickly admitted to himself the woman was producing more than he. He had scaled down his production while hers had expanded. “However you like–” he said before walking to his wheel.
The woman placed her artwork on the same window shelf where the man had his finished work. Her tall, slender vases stood beside his fat cups, her hoop-eared pots beside his flat plates. She put cubes studded with rings next to his mundane, glazed dishes. The man realized the woman’s work was much different than his. She was developing forms and a style that he never would have.
As she continued her new endeavors, the woman brought her young friend, who owned a studio, to help in making an art piece. The man watched the two huddle in the woman’s half of the studio crowding close around her table. He called to them from his wheel, “Don’t you feel the two of you will get in each other’s way, bottled in that corner?”
“My friend and I have made things in smaller spaces,” his partner answered.
“Well, won’t you be questioning each other how to make whatever it is you’re making?” The man started all his items alone and imagined having a collaborator from the get-go would prove distracting. He had produced his best when he had forgotten the woman , the studio, and the world.
“We will I’m sure, but I don’t believe it will be a bad thing. Wait and see what we make before you decide.”
The man turned to his clay and spun it. “Alright, I’ll wait,” he said shortly.
The two women pieced the material before them. The man made a plate at his wheel, inspected, and liked it. He set the piece aside. He observed the women forming clay into rings. To do each, they rolled a bit of clay into a line and curled the ends. They then fused the ends of each ring within the circle of the prior, extending a chain across the work table. They fired the clay form and fetched it from the kiln when done. The man faced his wheel and worked. He shaped clay into a few plates. He inspected the unfired plates and thought them clean and neat. However, he found it dull to study them long. He brought them across the room to fire. As he loaded the plates into the kiln, the man watched the women glaze their chain in blue and apple green. Their wide-headed brushes passed along and between the chain’s links and the glaze shone as the sun does on water. The man went to his seat and started a new cup. When the man’s plates had done firing, he fetched them and the women put their chain again in the kiln. The man returned to his work. He smoothed the side of the cup and held his hand there as the wheel ran. He turned it many times before he realized the cup’s side was not becoming any smoother or finer. He stopped turning and looked toward the women. They were retrieving the chain from the belly of the kiln. The two set the fired item on a tray and brought it to their table. The hard-glazed chain shone brightly. Its blue and green had become pure with firing. They lifted the chain and let an end dangle over their palms. The links slid and clacked against one another, their color shifting between deep blue and a fine, bright green. The man never imagined the women could have produced the thing. The chain was more brilliant and intricate than any item he ever had made. It was all hard clay but shifted like water in a stream. His partner played the chain in her hand and he quietly studied its changes of color and light.
When her friend left, the woman set the chain on a tray and went into the house for she was done creating that day. The man stayed in the studio, however. He made several clay rings at his table. He was going to link them into a chain that he hoped would be like the women’s. He made the rings for the links, long and stretched with heavy, bulked ends. The rings resembled two handles from his cups welded together. He fired the chain and retrieved it from the kiln. He glazed the work heavily in an brilliant white for he meant the piece to shine when done. He fired the piece a second time and brought the chain to his work table. He jostled the chain but found the thick-ended links failed to move freely. They clacked very hard in short motions. He realized his product was an ungainly creation next to the women’s.
The man was depressed when he resumed work in the studio. The woman now visited her friends at the alternate studio more often than she produced at home. He did not encounter her some days. He feared she might move in with her young artist friends and abandon his studio altogether. Lately he had become used to her producing art and liked to think of her work as a foil to his. He admired how when he held the line, she crossed it; where she endeavored freely, he maintained a cool control and order. He had come to know who he was as a potter by contrasting with her. He felt learning that difference had made them more of a pair. They could accept they were not a perfect union and, knowing it, still work side by side. If she left, he worried he would not be with the woman again. He tried new work in the studio instead of his old style in hopes of convincing the woman to stay. While he created with perhaps too strong a line and restraint, the man thought the woman might view him as an artist like those she had befriended in town. He hoped deep inside that this would keep them a close and loving couple.
Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared in Westview, Gravel, STORGY, Corvus Review, and The Write Launch. Norbert’s website is www.norbertkovacs.net.