In Pursuit of Perfection

by Dr. Paul A. Craig, March 3, 2009

 

Local artist Lewis Snyder molds clay and people.

 

 

When Lewis Snyder sits down at a potter’s wheel and puts his hands on a lump of clay a mutual respect develops. In Snyder’s imagination, he sees what the clay will become. He’s an interpreter of the clay. He claims clay will tell you what shape, form and design it is destined to become if you know how to listen.

 

Snyder owns Studio S in Murfreesboro, where I have been a student for more than four years. So far, the clay has never spoken to me like it does to Snyder, but every week I go and listen. Under his hands, the clay seems to move on its own while spinning on the wheel. His hands remain steady as he applies just the right amount of pressure in just the right spot so that the clay has no choice but to form itself into a work of art.

 

He and the clay have a perfect communication and the result is that it looks so easy – until you try it yourself.

 

Snyder has been communicating with clay for almost 40 years at Studio S, which  is in a converted dairy barn. A native of West Virginia, Snyder taught at Ohio University before coming to Tennessee in 1963. He taught at Middle Tennessee State University in the Art Department from 1963 until 1973 when he departed to go it on his own. A sign, with letters formed by cross-stitch, hangs in his gallery that declares, “Many people who teach go on to lead normal lives.”

 

For myself, and the rest of the students who watch and learn at Studio S, pottery is just a diversion – a break from what we really do in life. But to Snyder, and to his son Eric, it is their life. An obvious question, then is how is it possible for a man to turn what is a hobby to everyone else into a life’s work? Can a potter pay the bills?

 

The answer lies in how you go about it. Snyder, now in his 70s, leaves his wife and walks the 20 yards from his home to his gallery and studio every day to work with clay and to apply several bedrock principles, the first of which is that he never compromises. He’ll work all day on a single piece if necessary, if that is what it takes to make it perfect. Every piece is a solitary work of art.

 

He disdains what he calls “production pottery.” In fact, the worst thing he can say when critiquing a student’s piece is that it is not interesting as if made on an assembly line. Production potters, you see, are on a deadline and don’t have time to listen to the clay.

 

Snyder’s unwillingness to compromise means he is steadfast - some would say stubborn, others would say ornery. But this has led to his longevity.

 

Production potters are going for the quick fix and the fast buck at the outlet mall. They may be commercially efficient, but they are not artists. They may have short-term success, but their work cannot pass the test of time. They are eventually found out and they fall by the wayside.

 

The secret of Snyder’s success is that he does not produce pottery. Instead he takes the time to create art in the form of pottery.

 

Eventually the world caught up with Snyder and began to understand that quality still matters. Snyder doesn’t make his living selling pottery, he lives his life pursuing perfection – some get it, others don’t. He doesn’t seem to worry much about those who don’t get it.

 

Those who do get it honor and order his work. This includes several U.S. presidents. Snyder was first commissioned by President Jimmy Carter to create stoneware for state dinners at the White House, and he’s done the same for three more presidents since, each with a unique Snyder design.

 

When asked what the Obama design will be, he simply remarks, “The White House has my number so I’ll wait for the call.”

 

Another secret that’s integral to Snyder’s success is that he understands the power of patience. If you go to Studio S and pick up the smallest, seemingly most insignificant piece in the gallery, you will be holding a creation brought forth by weeks and months of preparation.

 

Snyder doesn’t just whip up a set of plates in the morning and sell them that afternoon. He takes his creations through a series of steps that are painstaking, slow and thoughtful.

 

It starts with the fact that he blends his own clay. Like a chemist, he combines a concoction of compounds that have been brought from the earth to make a unique “Snyder clay.” The proportion and composition of each clay type are combined with a strategy that will yield characteristics he will want later when the clay reaches the throwing wheel, the kiln, and the showroom.

 

The clay formulas are held only in Snyder’s mind, but his measurements are exact and the mixing takes hours to complete. He requires that each piece and each piece made by his students, be “trimmed.”

 

I didn’t know that potters also had to be sculptors before I became a master potter’s protégé’. But now every time I pick up a piece of pottery in a store, I immediately turn it over on the back to see if it has been properly trimmed.

 

Often, the piece will have no “foot” at all, which is the first tell tale sign of production pottery. The piece was unceremoniously cut off the wheel and sent down the assembly line. Trimming a piece takes at least an additional week. After being thrown on the wheel, the clay is allowed to partially dry over several days until it reaches the consistency of leather. Then the piece is placed back on the wheel upside down, and the bottom is carved like wood on a lathe (Snyder also makes his own carving tools).

 

The way the bottom is carved varies depending on the piece, but Snyder’s pieces always have a “glaze band” which is as recognizable as his signature. The bottom carving, properly done, adds balance, structure, support and style to the piece.

 

For students at Studio S it is not clay, but patience that must be learned. We live in a full-speed blur between appointments, commitments, meetings, obligations, pressures – but the first thing you learn at Studio S is that quality cannot be rushed and that nothing is more important than quality.

 

Susie Rand is not a novice potter, but she still spends at least one night a week at Studio S. When asked what the pottery class taught her other than pottery she was quick to share, “Endurance, and patience.” Then she added, “Lewis thinks that the world started out as a cylinder.”

 

One of the most common mistakes made by beginning potters is letting the clay go too quickly when it is turning on the wheel. Getting in a rush and letting it go too soon produces an uneven, uncentered, and wobbling clay that Snyder calls the “clay hula.” Beginners have problems preventing their clay from doing the hula on the wheel, but this is not a lack of clay skills, it is a lack of patience.

 

“You let go too soon,” Snyder scolds students who are still thinking about deadlines instead of listening. His lesson is to slow down and listen to the clay. He is teaching clay and life lessons at once. He is actually a potter of human clay.  

 

Snyder is also an architect. He knows that if the piece will be tall, or wide, or flared what exact amount of clay will be needed at the bottom to support the top. Students normally get to the top of a piece without the proper support from within – and bad things will result.

 

Snyder knows the physics of the clay. He understands the force vectors that his fingers and hands produce inside the clay that brings the clay to life. He knows the potential that lies hidden in the clay and can bring it out into art.

 

Snyder is a teacher of teachers. Jonathan Griffith is a student at Studio S, but also an art teacher at Oakland High School. He has learned many things from Lewis that he passes on to his own students. “Lewis has taught me some tricks I didn’t know before, like a different way to center the clay and to trim a foot,” he tells me.

 

Snyder is also a historian. “If you look at just about every design in pottery today the ancient Greeks thought of it first,” he explains, hoping his students will understand the tradition of the craft. Sometimes when I am working in the studio, I take a break and walk through the Studio S gallery. At night when the classes are taught, the gallery is dark, so I turn on the lights and wake up the masterpieces that are on display. I am looking for ideas, different color combinations, inspiration. Once while in the upper gallery I saw a large Snyder plate hanging on the wall. It had a price tag of $10,000 on it! Later I said, “Lewis do you realize that you have a $10,000 plate hanging by a single wire up there?”

 

He said the plate had won several national and international awards and he has had multiple offers to sell it but he keeps raising the price so he can keep it. Now the $10,000 plate hangs in the dark, proving that some things are worth more than money.

 

Thankfully, most of the Snyder collection is for sale and is much more reasonably priced.

 

Snyder teaches that once the clay has been blended, kneaded, thrown, dried, trimmed, and fired for the first time, the real art and science is only beginning – the glazing. He formulates his own pottery glazes. They have descriptive names born by the trial and error of their development: Ethel’s Red, Valadium Yellow, New Ash Blue. Again, the recipes for these glazes are not written down anywhere, but reside in Snyder’s memory. He refers to them as “my” glazes, or when Eric is in the room, as “our” glazes, because they are secret formulas. Some have names that reflect the equations and calculations that went into their creation: 48-C, M-5, A-11.

 

“I think glazing is the best part,” admits MTSU Professor Dorothy Craig. “I took pottery in high school and the glazes then just came from a store and out of a jar. Not here. Lewis is kind of a ‘mad scientist’ when it comes to his own glazes.”

 

Students will call out from across the room, “Lewis, how long should I dip for Red/Gold?” Before he answers he’ll want to see the piece, feel its texture, ask questions about what other colors the student envisions for the piece, then he will decree, “Two dips with a count of three each time, but stir the glaze three times first, then stir it again.”

 

Like a winemaker, Snyder is constantly altering the formula of a glaze, intending to change the resulting hue by only a fraction after final firing. But he also has some classic glazes that he’s used without alteration for 40 years and can recall the time he first discovered them. He knows the color and texture that will result when Routel Gold is air brushed over 9/10 – a color and texture that is completely different than when 9/10 is “scringed” over Routel Gold. It’s much more scientific than you would think. The master potter harnesses the elements of nature. He combines chemical compounds, water, and clay from the depths of the earth, with heat in the kiln as hot as the sun. The results are usually nothing less than astounding.

 

The reason Snyder has been able to spend his life working in clay, on his own schedule, and on his own terms is because he has found what we all want. He’s found a way to be the creator and teacher of things that matter.

 

Most of us live in a world of fast-food, one-hour photos, drive-thru ATMs, headline news, one-stop shopping, short cuts, flimsy workmanship, fast-acting remedies, and instant gratification. It’s nice to know there is still a place where perfection is pursued and patience pays off in quality and pride.

 

On some level the clay actually becomes incidental to the principles that are being applied. It’s the same for teachers seeing the light come on in their students, or a photographer’s perfectly captured image, or a journalist’s well-crafted words, or a pilot’s perfect landing. There are still true artisans and craftsmen among us.

Some survive and thrive at Studio S.

 

Lewis Snyder’s Studio S is located at 1426 Avon Road in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The gallery is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Studio S offers classes of 10 weeks and four weeks for adults and youth.

 

Classes are taught in pottery wheel throwing and hand building, as well as metal sculpture. Student S can be contacted at 615-896-0789, by email at studiospottery@comcast.net, or on the Web at http://www.studiospottery.com/index.html.