Maker’s masters

Whilst I am a potter, I have a number of interests beyond the art of ceramics. In that realm – the realm of clay, that is – I enjoy sculpting, for example, though I’m not ashamed to say, I am a horrible sculptor. I love the human form, but I’ve never really studied it – human anatomy, musculature, bone structure, body proportions, etc. Had I taken the time, I’m certain that I’d pick it up quickly. I realize and accept, however, that I may never truly master pottery or sculpting. As long as I enjoy the journey, I’ll immerse myself with reckless abandon in these pleasures – it’s time well-spent.

Honestly, when you get right to the heart of the matter, “making” things – keeping my hands and my mind busy – well, it’s so fulfilling. I also enjoy knitting, which I learned when I was nine – 51 years ago! My family lived in Sagamihara, Japan, at the time. I was in fourth grade, and a classmate taught me how to crochet a chain. That’s it. I would do the chain stitch until I ran out of yarn, unravel the chain and start over. I had no idea what to do with the chain or what its functionality was, let alone how crocheting might be useful. I had no concept of stitches or patterns. I’d just learned how to make a slipknot and a chain.

On weekends, Mommy took my siblings and me by train from Sagamihara to Tokyo, where we’d visit her sister, Auntie Wako. During one of our many treks to Auntie’s home, she watched as I made a chain and unraveled it repeatedly. She asked if I wanted to learn how to knit.

“Sure,” I answered.

Auntie gave me a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn, and she taught me – very patiently – the basics of knitting: how to cast on, how to knit, how to purl and how to bind off.

It consumed my time and attention. My work was horrible. My rows were askew. What was supposed to have been a square was a misshapen mess. I was so proud of my work.

“Keep practicing,” she said. “Don’t give up. It’s hard at first, but you’ll get better.” So I knit on. Eventually, my misshapen mess became a neat little square or rectangle. My stitches became more even and my rows, straighter. She’d fix my dropped stitches, and I’d carry on. I knit headbands, mostly, and dish towels.

I kept those needles (I still have them), and I kept knitting headbands and dish towels. I went from elementary school in Japan, to middle school and high school on Okinawa. Along the way I learned to sew, thanks to Mommy, who is still a phenomenal tailor. Sewing has and always will be her thing; the thing that brings her joy and helps her find peace. She taught me how to purchase fabric, the importance of neatly pressing my work; how to cut my fabric, how to mark it, how to sew and how to finish. I sewed an wore clothes she made me, and then I sewed and wore clothes I made.

I graduated from high school on Okinawa and went to college in Denver. I got married, moved to Italy and got pregnant with my son. I sewed my maternity clothes and his baby clothes. After he was born, I picked up my needles again when he napped. I borrowed a knitting book from the library. It had patterns for children’s clothing in it, so I knit a sweater for my son. Then I taught my neighbor, Maria Trexler, how to knit the same sweater for her two daughters. I borrowed another book from the library with patterns written by Kaffe Fassett, ordered one of his sweater kits and started knitting a pullover. Unfortunately, in the move back to the United States, my sweater kit went missing. For the next 20-some years, as I raised four children, balanced a full-time job and went to college to finish my bachelor’s degree and pursue a master’s degree, I worked off nervous energy by making towels again. I sewed a bag for a yoga mat and a multifaceted yoga pullover for my daughter; I sewed a knitting-needle holder for myself, for my two daughters who took up knitting, and for a niece who also loved the craft. As my sewing skills evolved, I got a little more adventurous with yarn and needles, and made hats, scarves, wraps, sweaters, tunics and ponchos for family, friends and for me.

A pair of sleeves, knitted two up to make sure they’re a precise match – components of a cropped, boxy cardigan with a refined collar – one of several works in progress. A ceramic knitting bowl I made holds a couple of yarn balls.

Auntie and Mommy are now in their 80s. After knitting so many gorgeous sweaters for so many decades, Auntie’s hands ache with arthritis. She stopped knitting. Ma still sews, cooks and bakes. She is the oldest member at her gym, and loves Zumba, high-intensity interval training, Pilates and body sculpting with weights. She’s given up gardening and pottery. Like her sister, her hands are arthritic. Her knuckles are knobby now, and her fingers are “ma-ga-teru” or bent in places.

One day, I know arthritis will cripple me as well. My vision will start to go, and I’ll tire easy. For that reason, I feel an incredible sense of urgency to cram as much as I can into my life and to do all that I want while my hands can still make. I want to sit with my husband, my mother, daughters and son, and hold their hands while mine can still show them I love them … to grow flowers and vegetables and trees before age and time makes me too frail.

One of the women at the Greater Lansing Potters Guild who assisted my instructors in the past popped by our raku firing yesterday afternoon. She and her husband are getting ready to travel to Florida for the winter.

“My hands ache so much when I throw clay, so I’m just not throwing any more,” she said.

I’m committed to making with intention. The dinnerware set I’ve been wanting to make for my family, well, I’m making them. I like seeing Mommy’s blue chawans in my cupboard, next to the brown plates I made. Whether in my clay studio or my various projects bags, I have several works in progress – a one-armed wrap for my oldest and youngest daughters; a shrug, a longer sweater; fabric for a wool skirt; dog-eared recipes in books and magazines; bulbs and seeds – all organized and ready for my hands to make them into something.

What I love most about making is showing my Mom what I was able to do because she took the time to show me how. I see the sheer joy on her face, and I hear it in her voice when my daughter asks, “Can you show me how to make this, Grandma?”

Her legacy lives on in each of us. What were labors of love for her, she has passed on to us and, in doing so, has made our lives richer and so much more fulfilling.

“We cut over the fields at the back with him between us – straight as the crow flies – through hedge and ditch.” – Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist


Published by Lolo Robison

Crackin’ Crow Pottery is a Greater Lansing clay studio owned and operated by ceramic artist Lolo Robison. What’s a crackin’ crow? Simply put, it is an alliterative translation of “good crow.”

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