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THE WHEEL KEEPS TURNING

By on March 23, 2020 in Arts with 0 Comments
Mike Caemmerer handles some of his new creations in the pottery studio at the Grunewald Guild in Plain.

Tossing in his day job promoting the arts and returning to actually making art

By Jamie Howell

“Idiocy. Great word,” says Mike Caemmerer. “I’m good at it.”

Hands covered in drying clay, Mike sits with a potter’s wheel spinning quietly between his legs reflecting on a big decision he made a few months back — to walk away from a full-time job with benefits that he’d held for more than half a decade to do … what? Throw pots and write screenplays?

Actually, it sounds brilliant to me — to most people, I’d wager. 

Quit your job, leave behind that flickering computer screen to pursue the heart’s most creative desires? It’s the stuff of movies. 

I’ve come up to the Grunewald Guild’s Pottery Studio in Plain to learn a bit more about how this recent leap into unemployment is sitting with him. Plus, he’s promised to show me how to throw my first pot.

Mike throws a pot for one of the Tall Tree Ceramics collections.

Getting into the buff 

Mike lofts a blob of clay called Vashon Buff into the air and catches it, sensing its weight, pressing it into and out of new shapes, working it. 

Mike’s a big guy at six-foot-six, so when he throws the clay down onto the pottery wheel it flattens with real force. 

He dips each hand into a bowl of water, presses a foot pedal to set the wheel in motion and then cups the mound as if he’s protecting it from the wind. I see the clay begin to alternately flatten and grow tall according to the pressures he applies. 

Mike has been working in ceramics since 1988, but he’s been around the arts his entire life. 

A completed set of mugs plus some nesting bowls thrown by Mike.

His parents, Liz and Richard Caemmerer, founded the Grunewald Guild, a nonprofit arts education and retreat center, in 1980. Mike and the Guild matured at the same time — the Guild from a single deserted Grange Hall into a bustling 14-acre campus with 10 buildings, and Mike from a lanky, Cascade High School student, into a full-grown theater director and artist who also happens to be the current president of the Guild board.

Unfired pots known as “greenware” await glazing in the pottery studio at the Grunewald Guild in Plain.

He hands me the doomed blob of clay. Three pounds of sand and mud, the same stuff that humans have been seeking out since prehistoric times from which to create everything from pee pots to staggering works of art, that I am about to demolish through a series of novice errors and generalized impatience. 

I borrow an apron to catch the errant splatter, wet my own hands and feel the mound as it spins in place, coating my hands in a slippery gray. 

I try not to think of Demi Moore and the late Patrick Swayze making sensual pottery studio love in the 1990 blockbuster Ghost — but it’s too late.

Unlike what I’m about to do, Mike likes to make things that are “right,” and he has strong opinions about what exactly that means. He pulls a reddish, unfired bowl down off a wire shelf and rolls it around in his hands, testing its heft. “I don’t like this one,” he concludes and passes it over to me. “It just doesn’t feel right, you know?”

Handling it myself, it’s clear that I don’t know. It feels fine to me, strikes me as an impressive piece of pottery. 

Mike has moved on to another, a tall, inward-sloping vase that he has hand-textured down the sides. “Now this, this just feels right, you know?”

Again, I don’t. But that’s a central piece of what makes an artist an artist — the ability to hold a singular vision, something the rest of the world may not see, and bring it into reality. 

Mike knows what he wants out of his pots and he feels his way toward it, patiently pressing and caressing, until what’s in his mind materializes on his wheel. 

And it was, in no small part, the desire for that experience that led him to quit his job.

Creative drift

“Now, I don’t make much money,” he says. Mike is as pragmatic about his choice as he is philosophical. 

For close to six years, he worked as the Director of Program Development at Icicle Creek Center for the Arts in Leavenworth, booking performances, taking professional touring artists into local schools. 

“But the job was too consuming to be serious about anything else,” he says. He could throw a pot every once in a while, or possibly muster the energy to write a snippet of theater but, “I could really feel my creative side drifting off.”

In the summer of 2019, he made the risky and, to many a casual observer, ostensibly irrational move away from financial security to step into the creative unknown. 

Mike wasn’t entirely without a safety net thanks to his wife, Adele, a talented painter herself who is currently working as an art teacher for the Wenatchee School District. He refers to her as his patron for the moment, but it’s clear to anyone who spends any time with them, they are really just long-time sweethearts willing to help one another in any way possible.

And then things started to flow. Two stage plays, one screenplay, a short story and shelf upon shelf of artfully glazed ceramics have issued forth in the nine months since he left, a clear indication to Mike that there was something very right about his move. He had gone from working for the arts back to working in the arts.

Not only that, there are some new rivulets of money beginning to form. He has created an online catalog called Tall Tree Ceramics where he makes his “wheel-thrown stoneware” available (http://bit.ly/tall-tree-ceramics). He’s taking on students in the studio. There’s a trip to L.A. planned to do some read-throughs of his work with his daughter and another well-known actor. There’s a sense of something building.

The wisdom of getting it wrong

My three pounds of clay have virtually disappeared, sloughed off into the surrounding bowl by my fumbling fingers. I don’t care. I’m having fun and Mike is being kind by not actually trying to fix all the things I’m doing wrong. It’s counter-intuitive — having fun getting it wrong. 

But isn’t that exactly what we so often dream of doing? Bailing out of financial management to start a new life as a chef; joining a band; running away with a circus; going a little Johnny Take This Job and Shove It Paycheck on your boss and walking out the door; taking a real risk and feeling alive again in the bargain.

Mike doesn’t know how long he can make this last. It’s certainly not without hard work and self-discipline. But, he says, “I’m having a lot of fun, so at this point there is no reason to stop.”

When he digs deeper, his decision doesn’t feel like idiocy at all. “If you think about it, the real lunacy lies in being a creative and not creating. Right now I’m really happy piecing this creative life together.”

And with that he cups his clay-covered hands and leans back into the wheel that just keeps on turning.

THROW YOUR OWN POTS

Care to discover your own creativity at the pottery wheel? In addition to individualized classes by Mike Caemmerer through the spring, the Grunewald Guild in Plain offers an extensive selection of week-long arts workshops every summer and a regular open pottery studio (twice a month on Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m.).

You can find out more at: 

The Grunewald Guild – grunewaldguild.com

Open Pottery Studio – https://grunewaldguild.com/open-studios/

Tall Tree Ceramics – http://bit.ly/tall-tree-ceramics

Classes from Mike Caemmerer, inquire at mpcaem@gmail.com

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