Listening to stories of David Peters I’ve often wondered where the boundary is between ardent investigator and dogmatic zealot. For those standing outside the circle of wood fire (of which I am one) it is easy to tick the box marked “zealot” when stories of week-long firings, laborious reclamation processes, hours on bended knees, and sleepless nights roll out with seemingly obligatory cups of whiskey.
Any earnest maker, taken as an individual, regardless of their chosen process has a unique and engaging tale to tell. Actually neither description fully encompasses his practice. Ardent investigator makes him sound too analytical. Organized pragmatism is certainly part of the picture, but it is far from the full alchemy that is Peters. And dogmatic zealot is just beyond the pale. The only dogma he comes close to invoking is an epithet from his father, a wood worker, and a matriarchal lineage of accomplished seamstresses. You see he is one of the fortunate who grew up surrounded by people making things, instilling in him a moral code about making, “If you’re not gonna do it right, don’t do it at all.” It is a code I feel safe assuming all professional craft artists have heard and can get behind.
His personal creed, the soundtrack in his head, seems to go something like this, “You make things because you love making things, but you also make it WELL because that’s just what you do. You are making objects and putting them into the world and they should be done right. People who do so have a deep love and passion for the object and for what the object brings into daily life.” When you hear words like this spoken with conviction, clarity rabbits in, spotlighting the error of the question posed. Neither option is accurate.
Peters has always had a desire to go deeper, and anyone who has looked at his practice or talked with him knows it is true when he says he is, “…passionately in love with learning and discovery.” He starts down a path of exploration, of poking around to see what potentials he can find. On that journey he gets inspired, learns something new, thus setting off another path of exploration. “Next thing you know, I’m driving all over Montana digging clay.” This kind of quality curiosity earned him one of the Emerging Artist accolades from NCECA.
Peters has never blindly repeated a hollow story of tradition. Rather he asked relevant questions only a maker entranced by tradition, while rooted in modernity could ask:
What impact has the democracy of industry had on contemporary ceramics, the genre of wood firing specifically?
How can local materials exploit the volatile interactions of wood and clay?
What technology is available today and how can it positively impact my process, from design through the firing?
Questions that led him to learning Rhino and using computer-aided drafting to design forms at various scale; forms giving him the most real estate on which to record the atmosphere of the kiln. A kiln designed and subsequently loaded with the use of CAD. Mapping his results in CAD allowed him to maximize atmospheric results and holding capacity. I would encourage anyone interested in wood firing who has not read Peters’ thesis to do so, and not because of the solutions he finds. Rather I would encourage you to read it, because of the questions he poses.
This characteristic–the ability to ask, his insatiable curiosity–led me to an entirely new interpretation of Peters as a maker. It struck me that he is as self-reflexive as Cervantes was in penning Don Quixote. Peters always seems to be aware of his windmills, but it doesn’t stop him from embracing them. At his core, Quixote was a reformer, and he was not limited by pre-existing paradigms. And so Peters acknowledges his process has been quixotic, which allows for extreme romanticism and visionary goals. Unlike Quixote, Peters recognizes his labor intensive process cannot carry on indefinitely.
“I just turned 34 in January. I have a bum knee and a shoulder with what I think is a torn rotator cuff. I think I’m feeling my [mortality] and I need to start paying attention to my health and to my sense of well-being, not just making things. And sacrificing all to do that. I think there was a time and a place for that and I think I learned a lot from it and am reaping the benefits of it, but I also think I can’t stay on that trajectory. The reason I feel torn about it is because I do realize people appreciate [the work]. People see the work getting a certain level of notoriety. They see the work in exhibitions. They see the work selling. But the actual financial and physical reality of the situation is often a mystery to other people.”
And there is so much more I want to tell you about how the quality level of inquiry from Peters is redefining his future. I want to tell you about the conversation he had with Kurt Weiser who told him, “We’ve all gotta work Dave,” as they discussed a more viable earning style.
But blog posts are not New Yorker articles.
Suffice it to say, Peters is asking himself how the wood fired aesthetic can be redefined through the design process and how investing in design as a “day job” can support his more romantic notions of local clays in a wood fired atmosphere. He and Mel Griffin are in the research and design phase of custom tiles with an eye toward industrial production. Pursuing opportunities beyond the handmade and beyond the ceramic community, he was just awarded Northern Clay Center’s Warren MacKenzie Advancement Award Grant to study ram press technology with Mark Pharis. After a week-and-a-half spent on mold making they cranked out 75 mortar and pestles in two hours.
Peters believes quality has many guises, “You can make a really bad teapot and it’s made by hand. And you can make a really good teapot and it’s mass produced. I think it’s more about the quality of the choices you make and the parameters you set up for yourself in terms of the design.” Check out a recent film short produced with Peters as the focus. It’s called Clay and it was created by MSU Bozeman Senior Zane Clampett. You won’t be sorry, it’s well worth the eight-minutes and then some.
I would like to bring this article and this year of blog posts full circle. Even within our tight knit world of ceramics there are factions. This is not news I’m sure. It has been my objective to not quantify the work of the 2014 Emerging Artists. I believe any maker working at their level is earnest about making good work. Rather I sought to present portraits of these individuals and pull away some assumptions. It has been more than a pleasure to get to know them. It has been a little like getting to talk to the subject of my favorite autobiography. All defied and expanded upon my expectations. So, I encourage you to have a conversation with someone outside of your genre this year in Providence. Maybe you’ll find another quixotic sucker, just like the one you see in the mirror each day.