To The Brim

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Story by Marykate Smith Despres | Photos by Brianna C Stachowski

Bowls, cups, pitchers, pots: These are vessels that carry the weight of more than their contents. There is a proximity, a lingering close to the body, a holding and passing of intention. All of the things that are said or not over coffee can be heard through the way a person cradles the cup. A mug sits squarely on the table and anchors the two hands wrapped around it as news is bared. A teacup rests in the palms during thought and between sips, as close to the face as breath. A bowl becomes common ground for giving and receiving as it is passed around and across the table. A ritual is marked by a bowl of warm rolls or cold berries placed in the center of the table, a signal of the beginning or end of the baking, the gathering, the day.

The life of a good bowl begins long before it is filled.

_MG_2150Sam Scherer pushes a piece of wood onto the lathe. This piece, like most of his wood, comes from Jim Conkey at C & M Rough Cut in Attleboro. (“You have to put in Jim,” Scherer insists. “He’s very important. He’s a very important guy.”) Even when he uses trees from his own property or wood he’s traded for, he brings it to Jim to cut into planks.

Scherer’s workshop sits at the mouth of 90 acres of trees and trails in Orange and smells, of course, like wood, but also of raw honeycomb and the blocks of beeswax Scherer uses to finish his bowls. This winter wiped out his wife Kathy’s whole hive and bee boxes are stacked in corners and on the stairs, adding something thick and liquid to the smell of cut wood planks beneath the worktable, burning wood logs in the stove, drying wood bowls on the shelves, and heaps and buckets of wood chips and wood shavings bowls shed while on the lathe._MG_2224

Finding a bowl inside a tree is loud work, but quick. It’s the drying that takes time. A bowl can take shape in only 20 to 45 minutes on the lathe, but may need three months to a year to dry. The “dance,” as Scherer calls it, begins once the lathe is switched on. The disc of wood spins as he plucks a tool from the table beside it and leans in. Circles within circles form as he works his way in from the leftmost edge and out from the base he carves in the center. He moves his body from parallel with the wood to square himself in front of it and, over the course of the turning, completes several semicircles like a human protractor around the bowl. Scherer makes about 250 bowls a year, but his eyes still light up as the wood transforms and he says, more to himself than to me, “So amazing, what happens on the lathe.”

The slope of this bowl is determined by the parts of the wood he can’t use. The rest of it takes shape out of the rhythm of the dance. Scherer’s intention is to form a bowl, but he doesn’t yet know which bowl. Wood chips fly out and stick to his hair and T-shirt and long curls of wooden noodles fall onto his arm and the floor. He shoves them off only when they have piled high enough to get in the way.

“See that there?” he says, tracing the wide, flat rim of the bowl in the air above it. “I didn’t know that was going to happen. But now I like it.”

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Tiffany Hilton carefully returns the stoneware berry bowl to the drying rack next to the other gray bowls and cups, off the wheel but not yet glazed. We walk back through her large, bright studio in the Florence Arts and Industry building to sit across from each other, the “before” and “after” stages of the drying colander we just left, spread out between us. Hilton flips through photos on her phone that document the intricacies of plotting, setting, and carving the hole pattern into the berry bowl. This is a new design in which the holes become lines and the lines give shape to tiny triangles reaching up the bowl’s bottom curve._MG_2453

Her voice is soft but clear as she explains the steps and her hands, as if lifting a hologram of the bowl out of the screen, move above it, deftly holding, turning, and piercing the clay. Invisible tools are made visible as her fingers find the familiar grasp of each one in the air. With a pencil, she draws the pattern. With an X-acto knife, she cuts it. With a fingertip, she smoothes out the ridges of clay pushed out when the holes are cut.

The finished berry bowl on the table is pale blue but the red brown of the fired clay rings each hole and blushes through the ridges on the bowl’s lip and handles. “It’s called breaking through the glaze,” Hilton says. Though it is a definite choice on her part, she describes it, and it appears, more as a collaboration. Between drying and glazing, she wets and smoothes the edges of the holes and the pot again, not to make the clay resist the glaze, but “to encourage it.”

The bowl is surprisingly light, but not delicate. It is the perfect opposite of wedding china that comes out only at holiday dinners to be used with the too-heavy silverware._MG_2838

“A well-made pot should feel like a balanced object,” Hilton says. It should be beautiful and usable both. And so, she puts tiny handles on her berry bowls for a better grip with hands wet after rinsing the fruit, she outfits her casseroles with big, sturdy handles to be felt through oven mitts, and she shapes the lids of honey jars and sugar bowls to withstand the daily use of tired hands clumsily sweetening coffee or little fingers sneaking sugar onto cereal.

For many years, Hilton balanced throwing pots with lending books. She worked part-time as a librarian and part-time as a potter, finding homes for her pots at the Greenfield Farmers’ Market.

“That same feeling of wanting to know not only where your strawberries are grown or where your butternut squash came from and who grew it, the same people who want to have that relationship with their food and their farmer want that relationship with what’s framing their food. ... It’s a connection to a human. It’s a connection to someone who put love and care into this thing.”

Scherer sells his bowls at the Greenfield Farmers’ Market, too. The retired teacher always encourages those_MG_2206 looking to instead close their eyes while he places bowl after bowl in their open hands. In his shop and in his house, when he shows me the bowls he is selling and those he uses every day, he plunks them down like kicking off a pair of shoes. One is an enormous salad bowl, the household favorite, snatched off the kitchen counter, dressing smeared on the bottom.

“It’s got schmutz in it,” he says as he begins to wipe it out with a towel, “like a cast-iron skillet.” If someone fills the bowl with fruit, Scherer tells me, and the peach goes rotten in the bowl and leaves a stain, “that’s applause.”

Hilton and Scherer both know that the work of the potter or the woodturner is not unlike that of the baker or even the farmer. One must know her materials, her ingredients, her land, and know enough to engage with them rather than to force herself upon them. To offer and listen and wait. Scherer says making a bowl is “about the ear, not the eye.” He knows when to stop, sometimes only an eighth of an inch away from cutting straight through the bottom of the bowl, by listening to the tone of the wood change.

_MG_2477When Hilton wakes up in the morning, she knows whether or not her pots will be ready to trim. “Clay drying is like yeast rising,” she says. “You have to stay connected to it.” Her process and product are influenced just as much by the weather and the science of mixing a glaze or firing a pot as it is by her mood. Often, it is all these things together. As the fields flood and greens bow down under the weight of too much rain, the frustration of the farmer is felt too by the baker whose bread won’t rise, by the potter waiting for her bowls to dry.

All of this, the rain and soil and trees and clay, the cutting and listening and shaping and waiting, makes a meal. All of the hands and the breath and the days that coax trees into becoming bowls, bowls to hold the buns baked by and passed between us, at our tables, in our homes, all of this makes a meal. It creates the mug that we reach for when we are alone. It makes the mug inseparable from morning, the coffee all the more clear.

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Tiffany Hilton | www.tiffanyhilton.com
Tiffany’s work can also be found at: Pinch Gallery in Northampton, MA, www.etsy.com/shop/TiffanyHiltonPottery
Studio open by chance or appointment 413-824-6506
Sam Scherer | samswoodenbowls.wordpress.com
Sam’s work can also be found at Greenfield Farmers’ Market, Hardwick Farmers’ Market, and numerous other festivals and fairs including the Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange, and at Big Brothers Big Sisters Crafts on the Common in Amherst (July 11).
Marykate Smith Despres writes about food, art, and knitting for various blogs and publications. She has worked as a baker, but learned how to cook from her mom, who taught her that everything good starts as a little butter and onions in a pan. Marykate is the program manager at Whole Children in Hadley, a recreation program for people of all abilities. She lives in Turners Falls, where she bakes lots of cookies and grows a small, edible garden with her family.
Brianna C. Shuipis, who goes by her maiden name Stachowski professionally, writes about and photographs farming, food, adventure photography, and travel for both online and print publications in New York and Massachusetts. Originally from Minnesota, Brianna followed her love and passion for photography and her husband to the Northeast. She currently resides in Colrain, where she spends her downtime helping out on the family farm, learning about flowers and rocks, and hiking the local landscape.