It is early April, I believe, and for sure 1984. I am in Boston for the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) and have just given a lecture on polychrome terra sigilattas. From a mass of people a curly-headed woman with an accent introduces herself. She is intense and straightforward and wants to talk. Says her name is Janet Mansfield, smiles a great smile, says she runs a magazine called ##Pottery in Australia##. We decide on dinner, eat seafood at a spectacular restaurant called Local Ocean, drink a modest amount of wine, meet Poul Jensen from Norway and Paul Soldner, and in the process of leaving the hotel we are all confronted by an escalator going the wrong way.
We proceed up the down escalator. It takes a little time but we make it. I’m pretty impressed. I do stupid things like this but Janet is a serious person and she is well dressed and she is smart and has a robust sense of humour and intent. She has just climbed a down escalator. It is a terrific moment for me and little did I know then that this was just the start to a quite extraordinary energy-filled friendship. I don’t know why we went up that down escalator but I do know that I think about it quite often. It was a long escalator and we just didn’t breeze up. We had to work at it and I’m not sure that she didn’t pull me off at the top or I pulled her off.
I look at that act as a metaphor for the way Janet lives and approaches the vast array of things she does all together all the time. Any of those things is enough to keep a single person fully occupied. I have come to understand in the ensuing 32 years that her energy is a dendritic miracle and that the ceramic community of the world would not be what it is today, or ever again, without that energy. Then add in the good will.
One of the reasons I had gone to Boston was because I wanted to build an anagama with Tom Coleman and Nils Lou and I wanted to visit Katsayuki Sakuzume who had just finished the anagama at Peters Valley, New Jersey, and persuade him to come to Oregon and design and build one for us. Janet was interested in this and we spoke about her work with firing her cross-draft salt kilns with wood. We didn’t know much about firing ceramics with wood at that time nor did we know that the process of wood firing would become a dominant factor in our professional lives and supply part of the cement for our friendship. I invited Janet to Oregon after the conference to stay at our house and I invited Poul Jensen who later pioneered wood-firing cast porcelains with Torbjørn Kvasbø in Norway and they changed their tickets and came for a week.
We looked at our anagama kiln site and got to know each other. We ate plenty of fish and Poul was almost pulled into the ocean by a sea lion after he tied himself to a crab trap and went to sleep. Janet and I pursued a running conversation on woodfiring and anagamas and she persuaded Jane and me to come to Australia in 1987-88, so she set up three or four months of workshops and lectures and off we went. Janet sent me books, novels and short stories about Australia and prepared us in all ways possible. She made fun of me by only using stamps on her letters featuring a kind of parrot called a Galah. I thought it was because I liked birds but when we got to Australia, the only Galahs we saw were hanging upside down from telephone wires and they were the butt of Australian jokes.
Janet arranged everything—great porcelains, her good friends, writers and editors of magazines, botanic gardens, good food, and my first and last run in with vegemite (a hideous event). She took us to the magic property she called Morning View and we worked on her first anagama which we would fire for the first time three months later. At ##Morning View## she showed me my first live kangaroo. We saw a dead one on the way there that she was kind enough to stop at so I could examine it. We also stopped for a dead goanna lizard about five feet long (1.5m). I think possibly that is when I learned about the Galahs. Possibly also because I was driving on the wrong side of the road and had put a large sign in the back window of the car that said, 'Beware. Dyslexic foreign driver’. People avoided me. It was during this journey to Morning View that I began to become aware of how huge Janet’s knowledge and love of her country and specific environment was. Also, how that knowledge affected her perceptions of the culture and politics and workings of the Australian mind and its humours. I was taken by this because I pride myself on my knowledge of my environment and indeed much of my work is based directly upon the interpretation of that environment. I believe this brought our friendship closer.
It became increasingly evident that Janet’s perceptions were informed by a richly developed humour which had much to do with how one made a fool of oneself and instances where people were caught in a crossfire not of their making. She used that to comment on the Australian plight. Always subtle and never harmful, and never crass, she was sometimes self-deprecating but always gentle.
One of the most fantastic features of the eastern Australian skyscape is the monstrously giant thunderheads, clouds much larger and taller than Everest; and three months later, one of these drifted over ##Morning View## as we initiated Janet’s first anagama. The kiln was full of our valuable precious pots and we were in control, except for the mud. It was about ankle deep. Another exception was the wind. I’d forgotten about the wind and the rivers of water that ran along the sides of the new kiln, but we said that was good for reduction and so they were rationalised into being a gift of the heavens. Perhaps a little like the escalator, a river of water going down but the flames still going up. In the beginning there wasn’t any thunder and lightning, then a few hours later Janet was struck by lightning, a blue whisper that leapt from a pole supporting the porch roof of the
house. It knocked her down and I thought at first she was dead, but she survived and after several hours she needed water. However the weather had been dry and the tanks had been emptied and now were filling with water that had washed through all the hideous crud, possibly Galah droppings, from the roof and it was dirty and smelled horrible and we didn’t have much in any bottles except beer and some soft drinks, and even though it was a bad luck scenario for Janet, the humour was not lost on her. It was the fourth time she had been struck. The other three times there had not been such difficulties. She made light of it and laughed.
It is rare to envision a person whose optimism is truly global and whose ego is not a consideration and even rarer to meet one and become friends with such a person. When I met Janet all I knew was that she was a potter like me and she ran a magazine called ##Pottery in Australia## and believed that the ceramic field could be enhanced by strong ideas and the written word.
It was 1984. There had been a tsunami-like awakening in the ceramic scene in America during the ‘50s and ‘60s and the waves from that were reverberating across the globe. The clay scene in America was huge and vibrant. England and Europe were at cone 9. Japan was seeing an innovative movement of young clay sculptors defying a firmly held pottery tradition. Australia and New Zealand were in competition. For the first time in memory vast numbers of people were working with clay all over the world. Many of them were making a decent living and many of them making things with clay that had no relationship to pots. It was a remarkable time. So much so that major universities the world over were building complex craft programs, arts schools were beginning to consider majors by people working only with clay. A craft movement was happening that attracted bright young people. It began to become all right to be a potter instead of a doctor or lawyer.
The economy responded to the influx of works from this burgeoning movement. Fancy high-end galleries were showing clay in Sydney, New York, London, and Tokyo. Craft museums were producing astounding exhibitions, the public became increasingly interested, and there was a rise of major collectors, and high prices. Accompanying this, of course, were the trade publications. Most of them were how-to magazines. Some were set up to promote wealthy high-end galleries, and a few were beginning to explore issues of historic reference, intellectual thinking (of what entailed a clay movement), and issues inherent in the borderlands of perceptions made possible by the use of clay and glazes. Inherent in all were the arguments directed at the confluence of art and craft. Such argument was inevitable and it raged dumbly, on and still does.
The stage was set for a global ceramic awareness to take place. There were many players of all styles. First there were the artists working hard and beginning to see the challenge of travel and collaboration with foreign cohorts. There were the institutions and educators who began to enter the international fray. There were the galleries vying for power and wealthy collectors. There were conferences and societies and ego-laden power brokers attempting to write ceramic history to help line their own pockets. There were however only a small handful of people who had the interest and knowledge to try to produce something that gave the movement a global overview and do it because they loved it without selfish motive.
There is no doubt that of those people Janet Mansfield was the most successful and there is no doubt that her contribution of the publications ##Ceramics: Art & Perception## and ##Ceramics TECHNICAL## were absolutely seminal to the clay movement. The publications laid bare the best of what was being done without borders. The entire world was the trough from which these publications fed. The result was to set up ways that the global community of those who became dirty with clay each day could perceive themselves differently and discover how their work and thought could be a powerful source for individual pride and good across the cultures of the world.
What Janet espoused happened at a high and professional level and all those who came into contact with those attitudes had no questions about the intent. That intent was to instil knowledge and pride and intellectual honesty and a tight warp and weft of global communication in the ceramic world. It is a fantastic gift. Janet did much of the hard work herself. She travelled extensively, seeking out events in which there was potential for a serious happening to occur and the word would go out that she was coming and people were really excited. Janet would arrive, often jet-lagged and weary, and within an hour sit down and make a pile of large pots because she wanted to participate but had only a few days and after she had done her work, the banter and the stories, and the inquisitions would be the order and the gathered information would be grist for the ##Ceramics: Art & Perception## mill. People happily allowed themselves to be roped into writing for her. Such appearances were like concealed magic acts and acts in which things were conjured in a more or less seamless way, events of interest always manifesting themselves wherever she went.
All this was not easy or cheap. The escalator was always moving down with Janet always climbing it. Unlike Sisyphus, Janet was not being punished. She pushed herself and her significant contribution up and up because, as she said recently, 'Well, you do it because you love it. Don’t you reckon?’