Gaia's Glazes
The hidden wonders of deep sea mud
by Nancy Jack Todd

"WHAT, THEN, DOES the Earth do?" Theodore Roszak posed this question in his book Person/Planet. "She begins to speak to something in us," he continued, "and the cry of personal pain which that generation utters is the planet's own cry for rescue." That the Earth is speaking through the work of potter Joan Lederman is strikingly apparent. This is not merely because her medium is the literally earthy element of clay. Her pottery has a primal energy, an immediacy that is both compelling and unique--as though shaped through some instinctual alchemy of hands, matter, and innate contour. Equally striking, Joan Lederman is, in all probability, the first potter to use mud harvested from the depths of the oceans as glazes.
Joan's studio, The Soft Earth, is a stone's throw from the sea in Woods Hole on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The view from her front door encompasses vast reaches of sea and sky. Joan's use of sea muds came about by fortuitous accident. In the mid-nineties an acquaintance, just back from a tour of duty on one of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's ships, appeared with a bucket of sea mud. Curious about its potential, she fired the mud at 1,700 degrees. She achieved an object resembling a red brick. The next time she applied the sea mud, diluted with water, to the surface of some stoneware clay pieces and fired them. Out of the kiln emerged her first sea-glazed pots, glimmering with mineral-rich ocean mud glazes and, in her own words, "pure, worthy, whole".
Merely by adding water to sediments from the bottom of the sea Joan creates glazes with a soft luminosity that reflect their oceanic origin. It is not only the colours, the soft blues and greens, rusts and rich browns, which are unique. In the kiln the evenly applied mud organizes itself to form extraordinary patterns reconstituting the dendritic forms of branching in trees, arteries, the root systems of plants, or a river delta. According to Dr Alan Steinbach, a dendrite is the root of a nerve cell where information from a thousand other nerve cells is received; dendrites are the necessary and sufficient structures for human learning.
The dendritic patterns formed on Joan's pots are caused by foraminifera, ancient shells of marine organisms, some of which are thirty-five to forty million years old. Touching these primordial crustacea is unsettling ‹ a tactile nudge from planetary co-evolution. Martin Kemp of Oxford commented, "Lederman's glazes have a life of their own. To cradle one of her vessels in one's hands is an evocative, even eerie experience, akin to holding a fragment of meteorite or peering at a sample of moon rock." Through her glazes Joan has discovered a conduit across time and space: life speaking to life across a chasm of forty million years. One viewer noted: "A piece of the Big Bang!"
Another sensed "a genetic link to some other place". It is a form of communication with what Gregory Bateson caIled "larger mind" or "the pattern that connects".
Joan Lederman's work indicates a means of transcending the boundaries that divide science from art, humanity from the rest of life. The impact of Joan Lederman's pottery lies in the numinous presence of the non-human as no longer separate from ourselves. Although Joan somewhat self-deprecatingly describes herself as "a woman with a sense of mission who has a fetish for brushing bug shells and playing with fire", she further admits: "This is our Earth speaking ... in a new form."
Nancy Jack Todd is an environmental writer and editor. She publishes Annals of Earth for Ocean Arks International. Her latest book is titled "A Safe and Sustainable World" and is available through Island Press.
Resurgence Website:
Resurgence No. 209 November/December, 2001

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