Three Trees Pottery
Sacred Ceramics for Everyday Use
I first came across Lauryn Axelrod’s work doing research on the Anagama firing process. A pot caught my eye and I had to follow down the rabbit hole to her Etsy account.
It was titled Begging Bowl and had the following description:
Altar bowl fashioned after the bowls Buddhist monks carry for receiving offerings. Anagama woodfired stoneware, unglazed exterior, celadon interior. Great flashing in tones of orange, blue, and gray with ash. Perfect altar bowl to remind you to be generous, humble, and compassionate as you both give and receive.
I purchased it on the spot.
And in living with the bowl for a while I decided that whoever made this was an interesting individual and I wanted to get to know them better as a potter and as a person. A few emails later and we were corresponding and having a fantastic conversation. I wanted to share that conversation with you.
First lets start with the name: Three Trees Pottery. How did that come about? I found, for myself, its almost like naming a child. It just has to be right and it just has to come to you. For mine: FireCrown Pottery, it came in a dream that was so intense and emotional that I was compelled to get up and make a crown of fire out of colored construction paper. LoL! This was long before I got into ceramics of course but after the bug bit it was a perfect fit.
Three Trees Pottery came from working with the idea of “Pottery of Place,” which is more and more my focus. Native clay, firing locally with local wood, and using the ceramics to express something of the place where they are made. I live in the Redwoods, and on my property, I have a small grove of old growth Redwood trees. Rare on private land. Trees are very central to my own inner landscape: I’m not a desert girl. I find them both inspiring and comforting, and am most happy hiking in a forest. When I was looking for property out west (I am from Vermont), I specifically looked for tall trees. When I found it, I felt blessed. I call my studio, “The Treehouse” as it is surrounded by the tall redwoods.
The Japanese kanji for tree is a symbol I have always used. Interestingly, when the kanji is repeated three times, it forms the word for “Forest.” Hence, Three Trees. It became my “chop” and it just felt right.
Tell me: What brought you to ceramics?
I was heavily involved in martial arts and earned a black belt in the Martial Art of Hapkido. It was one of the best things I have ever done for myself. This fulfilled my need for a physical and mental outlet that complimented my IT job which is mostly just mental exercise. But I still felt like I wanted to get into something that allowed me to use my mind and my hands in a different kind of way and where I could work on it solo, whenever I wanted. I’m really drawn towards holistic and meditative practices.
Everything connects to everything else in some way. When there is a balance between all, it just feels “right” to be involved in something like that, no matter what it is. So I felt that clay is basically just dirt and it would be a nice cheap side project to satisfy something that I felt like I needed in my life. (Oh how naive I was!)
So as with any other undertaking it never hurts to start with familiarizing yourself with the “masters”. I started looking through books and online articles and finding people like Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Ken Matsuzaki, Phil Rogers, etc… and I found an amazing and beautiful object that has such deep meaning and symbolism that it blew my mind: the Chawan. Something clicked and it was all over, I was hooked.
So now I’m a few years into learning the process and trying to be patient because pottery is a slow rhythmic process that becomes part of your life and your life becomes part of it.
So how about you Lauryn? What made you want to get your hands dirty?
Thanks for sharing that journey! Seems like we’ve had some similar experiences. I originally trained as a ballet dancer, then morphed onto sculpture, theatre, writing, making documentary films, teaching, and a whole host of other things, including working as an holistic nutrition and health counselor. 7 years ago, I began studying Japanese tea ceremony and discovered that tea brought together so much of what was meaningful to me – the appreciation of the natural world, beauty, ritual (theatre and choreography and design), and a contemplative practice (I’ve been a mostly Buddhist practitioner for almost 20 years). The Japanese aesthetic also exemplified what I have always sensed was beautiful. I was never drawn to the Western ideals of beauty, finding them too “perfect” and sterile.
Practicing tea, I was exposed to many different types and styles of chawan. One day, I asked my teacher why tea masters didn’t make their own chawan, given that they usually had some very strong opinions of what was good. He looked at me as if I were crazy, and stated quite definitively, “Because tea masters are tea masters, and potters are potters.” That was enough for me to think, “Well, screw that! I want to make my own chawan!” Other tea people told me I was crazy – a woman AND a gaijin making tea bowls???!??!?!!!
Undaunted, I began. Like you, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But, once my hands were in clay, it was as if I had found a new lover – the kind that make you wish you had met him 20 years earlier. I dove in completely. For the first 6 months, I did very little other than make chawan and fire them, striving to make a bowl that met the technical and spiritual requirements (until I figured out that “striving” is the opposite of what is needed!:-)). I honestly didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept reading, studying the “masters,” looking at pictures, taking workshops, throwing and firing in gas reduction kiln or in a raku kiln (trying to achieve an aesthetic I had in my mind).
I was interested in the “essence” of a chawan – what the bowl suggested, symbolized, held – but I didn’t really know how to get to that essence. Was it form? Surface? Both? (of course). I had an image in my head – something deep, harmonious, layered, unpredictible. A pot that evoked the natural world, not the human-constructed world. It wasn’t European at all in it’s aesthetic – it wasn’t “decorated” in the Western sense. It was rougher, more organic, painterly in an abstract way, but it had warmth, life. Simple, but unimaginably complex. It felt ELEMENTAL. But I didn’t know how to achieve that aesthetic. I didn’t know about woodfiring (I honestly didn’t know anything about making pottery, I just knew I had to do it). I kept trying to achieve something that approached that feeling in a gas reduction kiln. I threw ash over Shino pots and reduced them like crazy. I was (naively) excited by the results – I was getting closer – but to what?
So, now, I fire in any kiln I can get myself into. Fortunately, where I live is a little woodfire mecca – there are about 20 kilns within a 3 hour radius, and two colleges with very active ceramics programs. Sometimes, I am firing two kilns at the same time!!! I am just trying to learn as much as I can, considering that the process of making and firing pots takes a long time and is so deeply layered. I am in the process of designing my own kiln, which will be called the “Mamagama,” and I will begin building this winter. One of the things I discovered is that women woodfirers are a distinct minority. It’s a very “macho” world around the kiln and most of the time, I am the only woman stoking (other than a few young students or someone’s girlfriend). So, I want to encourage other women to woodfire, and of course, I want to be able to fire in a way that gives me a little more control over the process and the results I am looking for (firing in other people’s kilns is a crap shoot: you don’t get a whole lot of say in the placement of your work or the way the kiln is fired.).
Making chawan has led to making other things, and I discovered that I really had no interest in being a production potter. I am not interested in making more “stuff.” But making things out of clay and the firing process is capable of saying something about where we are right now. I am currently exploring two different directions within what I call “Pottery of Place,” both inspired by living in California at the moment (I am from the East Coast). One series explores “Drought and Fire,” and uses traditional water-carrying vessels made with cracked, torn and dried local clay. The other is called the “Sierra Series,” and uses local clay from the Sierra foothills and feldspar and granite that I collect in the High Sierra. Both of these projects combine woodfired functional forms with sculpture, and a reaction to my environment. Other than making chawan, these give me the most pleasure and discovery in the studio right now. Local clay, local wood, local fire, and a relationship to place, time, and what is going on.
What directions are you going with your work?
My direction is the same as it has been since I got into it. Learn the rules so that I can then forget them and “play.” The ones who do it well always have a sense of play and nonchalant-ness (while still grounded in the ethic of hard work and dignity). Ever since I can remember I’ve always wanted to be really really good at something. I think it must be built into the continuation of the things we humans do and strive for. The ones that exemplify these traits make what they do look so easy! “If it’s easy I can do it too!” Some folks stick through the misinterpretation and some don’t but the cycle continues.
As far as technical and aesthetic direction, I really just make things for myself. I experiment and try to make things that please my hands, my eyes, and most importantly my soul. It’s almost like a melody that you hear that goes on for a while and then you have to create the last few notes so that the whole thing resolves, and you can move to the next melody or motif.
I hope to build a manabigama kiln (small anigama type kiln with an emphasis on ease of firing and education) in the future. I have not yet had the opportunity to be involved in a wood firing other than a few pieces being put through by a friend at a firing in South Georgia run by some folk potters. The feel of the raw clay where your finger rests at the bottom of my cup was enough to confirm that my direction towards and into wood firing was 100% correct. My gut rarely leads me astray.
Being involved in things that are traditionally thought of as male dominated, I have found that females often excel. In shooting, archery, martial arts, ceramics, etc… Do you think this is because women can more easily step out of their own way? This is something that I find myself up against fairly often. You mentioned “striving;” striving does not often equate good work. It’s an enigmatic concept that on certain days sends your mind reeling, and on others, there is no other way it could possibly be!
I find myself aligned with the Buddhist and Taoist philosophy as well. I have never overcome a problem in my life by hanging on to something, only by letting go of something. If that makes any sense.
Can you talk more about your philosophy and why you chose “pottery of place” as a path to explore? There is obviously something there that makes the topic worth exploring. Are you just an explorer by nature? Or was there something specific that drew you to it?
Aren’t we lucky to have the temperament that combines a belief in hard work (showing up in the studio everyday) with an unflagging sense of curiosity?
I think we all make things that interest us, challenge us, move us, or that we find beautiful. I discovered that making a coffee mug didn’t do any of that for me (other than providing a technical challenge – ah, handles!). But, when I get fascinated by a form or an idea that doesn’t yet have a form, my desire to get into the studio is almost obsessive. I keep playing with the form until I find something that rings true to me. Then I refine and refine and fire and fire. Each piece seems to be a prototype for the next one. It’s a wonderful way to live in the truth of nothing being perfect or fixed or finished. It’s one of the things I love about clay.
I don’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote that says a lot about the process of “playing:” “An Artist is someone who plays with the things he loves.”
It’s that spirit of play, the “what if?” and the letting go of any preconceived result that seems to bring about the best, most authentic work. As potters, we definitely have that spirit of play built into the medium: What if I use this glaze? What if I use this clay body? What happens if I pull the clay this way, or cut it that way? What if I fire it this way?” In fact, the whole process is one giant playful experiment! (As long as we remember the joy of play, and don’t get caught up in expectations or the need to meet market demands, etc.). I think all the arts are this way: the creative process is always a function of “What if?”
Making chawan is serious business, however. I once read an article that said that chawan are the hardest thing to make. Deceptively simple, they are. Leave it to me to choose the hardest path. So, it remains the constant challenge, and I am always playing (within the “rules” of that specific “chawan” game.). Still, there is always a “What If?”
But the “Spirit of Place” has always called to me. I don’t know how or when or why, but I have always been drawn to the specifics of place. I am an avid traveler, and one of the things that I discover when I travel is “travel mind.” It’s another form of “Beginner’s Mind,” but it’s when you experience everything around you as new and interesting. Your senses are heightened; your perceptions sharpened. Having been a documentary filmmaker and photojournalist, I suppose this just came with the territory. And as a theatre person, I used to work with groups of people IN A SPECIFIC place, to tell their own stories on put them on stage. With all those experiences, I learned that everyone is profoundly and inextricably shaped and informed by the place in which they find themselves. I have a friend who is an “ecopsychologist,” and he maintains that our very psychology is defined and described by our experience of place.
When I returned to the West from the lush green East Coast at the end of the summer, I was profoundly saddened by the drought and fires in California. The ground was parched and brown, cracked and dusty. The air was filled with smoke. The land itself told a story of thirst, brokenness, death, disintegration, despair, demise. And my heart was breaking. So, I started playing with that idea in pottery. How could I tell a story about what was happening to this land through pottery? How could I explore how that story affected me? Working with native California clays, I stretched, dried, cracked and patched them into traditional water vessel forms that wouldn’t hold water (even if they were supposed to). Then I fired them in kilns fueled by local wood, near where the most severe fires happened. Some are combined with wood from the fires (a bucket handle made from burnt pine), or dried, cracked rope (a strap that holds a water jar); others are fired so deep in the firebox that they are scorched and charred. I’m still working on this, and I continue to explore forms and firings (I will pit fire some pieces here) that, when combined as a series, tell that story. They aren’t “pretty” pots, but they “say” something. And that’s more interesting to me.
The other exploration of “Pottery of Place” comes from love. One of my first trips in California was to the High Sierra Nevada mountains. I was utterly awed by the granite, the light, the shapes of rocks, trees, and ruggedness of the landscape. I spend several weeks a year in the Sierras now, and I gather granitic rock on my journeys to wedge it into clay. Again, I wondered how I could tell the story of the Sierras in pottery. The forms I developed (and am still developing) are as rugged as the mountains. All are handbuilt, carved and shaped and fired to evoke the rocks, mountains, lakes, rivers and trees of the Sierra. They use natural ash glazes made from trees that grow in the foothills, and tell the story of the rock and fire that formed them. These are functional forms (for now), though I expect them to morph into more sculptural ones. I just keep playing.
I have other techniques specific to where I live: I often use Redwood ash in my glazes (or just alone), since it’s the most plentiful wood around here. But it is also interesting: Redwood trees don’t really burn. They don’t really rot. They are the oldest trees in the world and they are virtually indestructible. They are about as permanent as flora gets. I also found a source of local clay that can reach high temperatures (most local clays are Cone 6ish), and have been experimenting with it as both clay body and as a slip. But, the next IDEAS I want to play with have to do with the instability of the land. I live in a DOUBLE subduction zone. Think MAJOR earthquake! I am curious about – and terrified by – tectonics. I also live on the coast: the ocean is 5 minutes from my house. There are tides, waves, birds and shells, the endless shifting of sand dunes and fog and clouds. All these landscapes affect me, and those are the stories I want to explore. In clay.
Of course, the inner place is part of that exploration. For me, making art is an inner journey to an undiscovered place. And, since that place is where I REALLY live, it shapes the work most profoundly. Self-knowledge is the greatest journey of them all!
Oh, and as for being a woman in a man’s world, I guess I’ve always been one! I do think that women have to try a little harder to be included and respected, but also bring a different sensitivity to the work (whatever it is). Certainly, that’s true when it comes to woodfiring! Again, to paraphrase Jack Troy: A wood kiln is a feminine presence. You can’t just bully and fight with her, or shove wood into her. You have to listen, feel, and respond. It’s not a battle: it’s a love affair!. Maybe it takes a woman to know one
What is it about wood firing that draws you enough to build a kiln? Have you designed it? And, how does your “PLACE” affect you?
What draws me to woodfire is the same as you “Leave it to me to choose the hardest path“. I actually laughed out loud when I read that part about you because I’ve said that so many times throughout my life. I just find something magical in simplicity. Earth, Water, & Fire. Three elemental things that you can combine in innumerable ways to express so many different things. A bowl can be a simple thing to hold food or drink, but they can be made millions of times and none are the same. I like the idea of handing it off to the fire to have its own say. Its a collaboration after all.
I am working with two other potters, one who has a lot of experience building kilns and doing woodfiring and we designed a tube type kiln and are patiently waiting on some bricks for the right price. Because everything and everyone are over an hour away from me I eventually would like to have my own small kiln, probably a manabigama as mentioned earlier, that I can fire by myself or with my two sons for a few days at a time.
You said earlier, something about “making things out of clay and the firing process is capable of saying something about where we are right now”. My NOW, my PLACE, is learning to live in a world that is always changing. I once thought that I had a modicum of control but no, no, not at all LoL! When things are meant to happen they will happen. It takes hard work and time but eventually the universe says Yes, and off you go
What you say about “hardest path,” and “elemental” is right on. So, I will do my best to answer and expand.
After my first 8-day anagama firing with Nick Schwartz, I was hooked. I was like a little kid who got something so fantastic she couldn’t even imagine it for Christmas! Forget the pony; this was a whole herd! The pots that came out defied my imagination. They were rich, complicated, exciting. They were what I saw in my head, but even more so. Each one was completely unique. I had no language for them, no way to “read” them, but I knew they told a story – a profound story. I fell in love with each pot, the way you fall in love with a person or an animal. They had personality, weight, history, and…. dare I say it, SPIRIT. These were teabowls I could call honestly call, “chawan.”
After that experience, I jumped on every opportunity to woodfire. In that year, I fired 15 different kilns, trying to understand the seemingly infinite variables that created the pots I loved. I discovered that I was happy putting a lump of clay in the kiln, just to see what came out. It was like trying to figure out what makes each individual person unique. Yes, you can look at the genes – the raw materials – but there is something ineffable. Something you can’t control or pre-determine that “essence.” And that makes it challenging.
I understand (and am still learning) about clay bodies, wood, firing schedules, position in the kiln, etc. But that seems to be only part of the story. There is the “MAGIC,” and I’ll never understand that, but it’s what brings me back again and again. Of course, not every pot has that full magic, but when the form and the surface – the earth and fire – combine in a certain un-knowable way – that pot is special. Born of earth, air, water, fire. It has it’s own life. And then there’s the process: the coming together with others in a common activity for a common purpose. There’s a ritual feeling to it. Most woodfirers will tell you how those moments around the kiln with other potters and friends are special: the sharing of food, drink, stories, splitting, stoking. It’s the classic “campfire” experience. Except that there is something more to it: It’s about creating something together. And this is what I call the “God Impulse.” Forgive my theology here, but I strongly believe that the “god” force of the universe is a creative one. Whenever we humans engage in the creative process, we are continuing – and adding on to – the original creative impulse. Yes, we do so alone in our studios, but firing is a communal creative act. The process is magnified. And so, firing a wood kiln is like that for me. A deeply spiritual undertaking (as well as one that is hard work, and fun, and fraught with potentiality). I love doing it. Period.
After firing many different kilns, I decided that it was time to build my own. To the degree that one can have control (Ha!!) over the process, I wanted to do so. Plus, I wanted to develop a relationship with one kiln. It’s like entering a long-term relationship (not just dating!). Over time, I realized that no matter what you learn from each firing – and you learn so much – only a portion of that information is useful for the next firing in a different kiln. But the more you fire ONE kiln, the more you get to know it’s personality, quirks, hot spots, cold spots, etc. It still doesn’t guarantee anything, but at least you eliminate ONE of the many variables that can interfere with results.
My kiln, which is already named “The MAMAGAMA” will be a small anagama. 250 cubic feet. The plan is to fire it in 24 hours or 3 days, alone or with others. Like you, the design exists, and I am starting to accumulate bricks. In the meantime, I am building what I call the “Pajamagama.” It’s a very small (27 inch diameter), updraft, wood kiln that can fire with scrap wood in 7-10 hours (It’s so easy, you can fire it in your PJ’s!). I have all the parts, just waiting for it to stop raining here! Really, it’s more a glaze kiln than an anagama (i won’t get the surfaces i get in a long firing), but it will give me the chance to test forms, clay bodies and ash glazes in a woodfire. I can fire it every week, if I want. If it ever stops raining , it’s ready to go!
I have no doubt that wood-firing will remain my primary firing technique. Who knows? I might even get to the point, like the Raku potters, where I build a tiny wood kiln for firing one teabowl at a time. A TRULY one-of-a-kind pot!
As for PLACE: How can we NOT be interested in evoking PLACE with our pots? From the beginning of pottery, pots have been born of the earth, air, water and fire of a place. My interest is increasingly exploring that direction. Not just through using native clay, wood from nearby, or the rocks, sand, water, seaweed, and other “earths” of the area which I routinely incorporate into my work, but also in the form those elements take as pots. How can I make a functional object that tells the story of where it comes from? Where it lives? A pot that speaks of it’s place?
Living in California, surrounded by forests, mountains, and oceans, where the elements of the physical landscape are so strong, I am deeply influenced. It’s not just the beauty of the landscape, as FORM, that affects me so, but also by what it speaks of. Tectonics, erosion, flood, heat, evaporation, force, growth, evolution…these are the geologic PROCESSES of creation in a landscape. These ACTIONS create the FORM of our fragile planet. I am curious to explore how those same processes work out in a pot. For example, over vacation camping on a wild beach in Southern California, I came across these bluffs – the edge of the continent – carved so beautifully by the wind and waves. I want to play with that. I also saw parts of the earth where rock was forced upward through tectonic movement. I want to see what happens if I do something similar.
I am also more and more affected by the impact of climate change on MY place – drought, fire, earthquakes, tsunami, deforestation, desertification, the carelessness of human greed. I can’t help but respond to what I see and feel about the planet. I do believe that as artists, we MUST respond. And so I do: I mix the elements of my place – the earth, air, water, fire – with the forces of my place to say something about the place. My “Drought Series” pots, for example, use native clay, stone, sand, and wood ash in forms that evoke ancient water vessels, but are made from torn and cracked slabs, and are fired in wood kilns near some of the worst wildfires in the state. They speak of a dried, parched earth that cannot hold water. They evoke the remains of a civilization – the people who would use those pots – that disappeared due to drought and fire. Maybe us?This work is the most interesting to me. It goes beyond making tea bowls, but what if a teabowl could also speak of these things? Why can’t it? Why can’t a tea bowl be the object that spurs our meditation on our Place? Our Planet? Our Place on our Planet? A teabowl is a vessel – a metaphor for the human vessel. The very best teabowls speak to our humanity. Our humanity is inextricably tied to our place, our planet, and our responsibility for it. Now, THAT’S a direction to take my work!
In closing, lets suppose that tomorrow is your last day on earth. Bring us from morning to night and tell us your perfect day from start to finish.
Perfect day? OK, assuming I am physically and mentally able, I’d start with a long walk on the beach or in the forest or in the mountains. Then, I would come home, eat a delicious, fresh meal of homegrown foods with my family. Maybe have a glass or two of fine wine. Then I would sit down to make a bowl by hand. My last bowl. What do I want it to contain? Peace? Gratitude? Love? While it is drying in the sun, I would gather wood to build a fire. After dinner of freshly caught, grilled salmon, warm sourdough, homegrown salad, and more wine – I would build a big fire, and place the bowl – wrapped in seaweed and other things I have gathered – in the middle. For the rest of the evening, I would sit with my loved ones by the fire, tending it, being warmed by it, listening to it, and talking about the times we had together. And as the flames died down, I would allow myself to curl up in my lover’s arms, being held and caressed, and fall asleep by the embers, knowing that someone else would find the pot in the morning, and hopefully, it will have survived.
How’s that for a perfect day? Hmmm. Shouldn’t every day be like that (minus the not waking up part!)?
I agree completely! Every day is a precious thing. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your process, your philosophy, and your passion. I look forward to our next talk and keeping up with you and your work.