Deng Mng-Dao, The living

I also learned that creativity required thorough preparation; any skipped step could lead to the ruin of the piece later. For example, my mother showed me how the first step of throwing pottery, wedging the clay, could mean the success or failure of the piece days later in the kiln: carelessly trapped air bubbles might cause the pot to shatter.

Even with the right preparation, there could be disappointment. A pot would explode in the firing. A copper bowl would fly off the lathe. Any piece left in the kiln too long would warp, or its glaze might burn off. Failure, though, led to recycling. Copper and scrap metal were sold back to a dealer. A clay bowl that was not right when it was thrown was put into a barrel of water to dissolve into new clay. Destruction was part of creation.

I learned to throw pottery, stack a kiln, and glaze the pottery. I learned to spin metal, and for years I took over the task of spinning the bowls my mother enameled. . It was a common thing to be told upon coming home from school to make ten bowls, or fifty trays, or a hundred dishes. After the bowls and dishes were enameled, I learned to clean them in sulfuric acid

and polish them on a buffer. I polished my mother’s enamels until her last ones—a span of about forty years.

My mother once said to me that she counted some thirteen possible points in the creation of a piece of pottery where something could go wrong. From the first shaping of the wet clay to the final removal from the kiln, there were many moments when disaster could occur. She also said, “Handwork always takes more time.” Being an artist meant constant work, acceptance of disaster, joy in a good result, and acceptance that the process was not completely predictable.

My Childhood Neighborhood

The neighborhood around my parents’ studio was once the notorious Barbary Coast area of San Francisco, famous as a red-light district and home to flophouses for drunken seafarers. The ships that hundreds took to the 1849 gold rush docked in that area. Men abandoned the ships, the ships became silted in, and finally a fire destroyed them all. Buildings were raised over the buried ruins. Eventually, the area evolved into Jackson Square. Read more