Fifteen years ago I sent a message out into the ether-I was still at university studying biology and I wanted to make pots. A cryptic response in a firm handwriting on a blue inland letterform had me take the earliest opportunity to travel to Pondicherry. I clearly recall cycling down a leafy lane along the Pondicherry-Villapuram railway line to reach the Golden Bridge Pottery in search of the man behind the handwriting--someone called Ray Meeker.
There I met a tall American who casually threw a cushion on the ground and asked me to sit down. He told me I would have to wait a year-and-a-half if I wanted to return to the Golden Bridge Pottery to learn to make pots because he was too busy to teach. He planned tofire houses the next year! I waited and returned, not realizing then that Ray Meeker, his wife Deborah Smith and the Golden Bridge Pottery would become a very important influence on my life and work.
Ray and Deborah started in the early 1970's, what was initially intended to be a small pottery studio for themselves in Pondicherry. The studio has since grown, spreading over the 3/4 acre plot by the railway line, in a series of low rise tiled roof sheds, into a thriving production pottery and ceramics teaching center. Today, the pottery employs local workers who have been trained by Ray and Deborah over the last twenty years to produce argueably the finest wheel thrown stoneware pottery in the country. Students from across the country brave the long wait for an opportunity to learn and work there.
I began teaching in 1975, at first through an apprenticeship program. Then, when the apprentices left to start workshops of their own, I started teaching local villagers who were looking for long-term employment and would be more likely to stay with us. Finally, in 1983, I opened the teaching program to greater India, taking four students a year for an intense seven-month course which begins with mixing clay and working on the wheel and ends with glazing and firing in a twenty cubic foot wood-fired kiln.
Looking at this now, I see that those three quite different teaching approaches have each had far-reaching and distinct consequences. The early apprentices are all still working in the Pondicherry area, training, employing and expanding the ceramic production base in workshops that they began twenty years ago. Pondicherry has become known as a center of pottery production. There has been a steady organic growth in the community of potteries as workers with entrepreneurial capacity split off from the parent workshops to establish their own small production potteries, often employing more workers and producing more than we ever have. And the students, drawn from the educated middle and upper middle classes, have generally set up small studios in their own hometowns across India to work for exhibition.
In our seven-month course I have always concentrated on clay-from slaking, mixing, and drying to wedging and throwing. An immersion. A kind of baptism in matter in a country where the well educated rarely work with their hands. Clay begs for intimacy. On the wheel one is virtually inside the material, simultaneously forming space, volume and mass. Students in India need to know that clay work can be more than a hobby. The course is aimed at those who at least think they want to be professional potters and/or artists. The emphasis is on technique-to develop confidence-so that students can build studios or train further abroad, often taking advantage of Charles Wallace grants to study in the UK or the Fulbright in India program for the US.
The Golden Bridge Pottery is a production pottery and I use the wheel and the pot as the focus for teaching. In 1997 we began a series of workshops with artists/educators to bring contemporary ceramic trends to Indian artists. Susan Peterson began the series with a three-week workshop on glaze formulation. With twenty-five participants from the four corners of the country it was a great success. Since then we have had a two-week workshop every January with artists including Jim Danisch, Mike Dodd, Jane Perryman, Sandy Brown and Betty Woodman.
Often the students that come to Pondicherry are experiencing independence from family life for the first time, and learning to cook and ride a bicycle can be concomitant to learning to throw a pot. There is very little support in India for the studio potter. The heavy clay industry is well developed. Sanitary ware and vitrified floor tile are big business. Everything is available, but getting material in lots of less than ten tons can be difficult. We find ourselves designing studios, making wheels, building and firing kilns, testing clays and in general lending support to a fairly large and growing extended family. Teaching has been central to our life in India. It has broadened and deepened our experience here and brought us much closer to this extraordinary country in a very special way.