A Decades-Long Apprenticeship in Pottery, Art, Philosophy and Painting
Written by the artist Mattie Leeds:-
I guess I was not that busy during my school days. I would ride my bike around; I had a tropical aquarium filled with fish. I was not pressured into conforming. But since my family has come from generations of working class people (get up at 3:00 in the morning and go to work), I felt the pressure to find something. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen I was wandering around and I found some potters. This was during the 1960’s the and there was a lot of wandering going on.
As I look back I realize that I was so lucky to find a couple of people realized that I was searching desperately. They just opened up with whatever they had. They brought me in. They just brought me in. I give so much credit to a few people. As I go through my life there have been just a handful of people who have had a profound influence on me. For example I have a music teacher with whom I have been studying for fourteen years. This person is very valuable to me. I have a Chinese painting teacher with whom I have studied for ten years. There have been my pottery teachers.
My schooling did not get in the way. A lot of people go to school and after three or five years are expected to come out as a professional, and able to make a living. But the way I did it has been much slower. I was apprenticing; I was studying a craft for a long time.
My older brother was perhaps the biggest influence on my life. I have some pictures of us. He was giving me a drawing lesson when I was three years old. Michael and I build a shoe museum down at the Sock Shop. Down at the museum there is a picture of him and me standing in a blackboard drawing a picture of a shoe! He was five years old and I was three years old. My parents had us dressed up in little suits; you know the typical picture from the 1950’s.
You know, I think I was intimidated by my brother’s talent until I met some other people what is this guy named Gonzalo. He is still painting and he is very talented. Seeing someone like Gonzalo who was a real person affected me so much when I was seventeen years old. Then I met a potter named Michael Frimkess, who was a master. A few years later I met my first painting teacher named Michiko, who had just moved from Japan. She started teaching me a very traditional way of painting that people here just don’t understand. In traditional Japanese painting you learn to hold the brush when you are a child; you learn calligraphy. Everything comes out of that relationship which is based on control of the brush and ink and paper. I studied with her for the year and then I studied with a master for ten years. He was a Chinese man named Y.C. Chang.
I had never gone to art school so I was really hungry for some instruction. I looked around and it was so confusing… who do I trust? I started looking at oriental art and I just felt that it was so deep. I became very concentrated to study that, which I did for ten years.
I never actually made it through high school. It was the sixties and this was the school of hard knocks. I had a few jobs. I worked in a shipyard in San Francisco when they were still making aircraft carriers for the Vietnam War. I got involved with a group called Synanon. Buck minster Fuller was a part of that. It was basically a drug rehab program, but they were doing a lot of experimental psychology. I got into Scientology a little bit. I wanted to understand the mechanics of experience and how to process things.
At one point I was working for a drug company delivering drugs throughout Los Angeles. I had bought a Volkswagen bus and was going to travel across the country. But the bus broke down twice; the first time a program in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. I fixed it in Sausalito with a new engine that I bought from a guy. But when I drove back the engine blew up again.
I remember going to Los Angeles and thinking: “man, I gotta do something with my life.”
I went to a phone booth and opened the yellow pages and looked at everything. I ask myself: “oh, do I want to do this? Do I want to make pizzas?”
Then I found the jewelry section and I said to myself: “yeah! I’ll be a jeweler!”
So I drove over to a place but all they had was clay. But there were people there like Gonzalo and Begigno. It was them! It was these people! Here were happy, creative people! They welcomed me. So the decision was not even a really my own. I just needed to find some people.
Almost immediately I fell in love with making pots. I was staying up all night long tried to make these huge pots. They were perhaps 18in. tall and made out of 200 lbs. of clay, and they would collapse after days of trimming and carving.
Then a fellow named Michael Frimkess showed up one day. He was very famous. He was part of a big movement of abstract expressionism in Los Angeles. He had developed skills based on an Italian pot-thrower that he knew whose work was based on Greek pottery, sacred geometry, and others stuff that people around me were not studying. Most of the potters working at that time based their work on Japanese ceramics. Alan Watts, the sixties, and the whole Zen thing.
Michael Frimkis started teaching me all whole way of throwing that was very disciplined, very European. He showed me how to make very tall, thin cylinders and create these shapes that required a lot of choreography in how they unfolded.
I was just a kid but I was fortunate enough to recognize that Michael was passionate about pottery. I wanted to be like that. So for ten years I studied Chinese art, made pots, and would sell a few. It’s supported me.
During the nineteen seventies I moved 30 times. When I was a hippie I must have moved 30 times. Up to San Francisco, back to L.A.; back and forth, back and forth. It seemed like California was my home. My brother had moved here so I got to know Santa Cruz a little bit. For ten years I lived in a Buddhist monastery. The art I was studying came out of Buddhist monasteries from the sixth century. It was a style of brush painting. When I lived at the monastery I did not learn only painting techniques, but also the philosophy. Very few people can read Chinese so I became interested in finding translations.
There were a lot of poet-artist-scholars who lived up in the mountains who grew up in very privileged families. It was kind of the Siddhartha of the prince going into the real world and searching for answers. It was very deep. We would talk about nature and politics and their lives. This monastery was up in Mendocino; it was a Chinese Buddhist monastery. It was started by a group who practiced orthodox Buddhism. The people there were mostly Chinese or Sanskrit scholars who were translating sutras that had never before been translated into English. They were practicing as well, so I was not just around a bunch of intellectuals. I got to form friendships with some actual monks.
A couple of the monks decided it wants to go on a bowling trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. They came through Santa Cruz. This was in about 1974 or 1975.
I often think about living in California in the 1960’s and 1970’s, surrounded by all of that eastern thought. Hour neighbor is the Far East. They have had a huge influence in art and abstract expressionism. Even Walt Whitman was influenced by Indian operas. There has been a coming together of the east and west ever since Marco Polo. I had a discussion recently with my pottery teacher who is also a musician. He was telling me that Bach’s revolutionary music was actually based on a Chinese scholar. This Chinese fellow was a scholar who ran away and dedicated himself to music. He wrote the foundation for Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” That piece changed western music.
The Chinese invented bronze. They invented a high-fired ceramics. All these ages happened in China before they happened in Europe.
During the sixties in California, Alan Watts was a major player. He was making all of that philosophy available to everyone.
When I look back and see how little I owned and compare it with how much I know now, it makes me laugh. I really believe that I’m just passing through. I make these big giant pots in a space that I have because I need it. If I did not make the spots I wouldn’t want it. I would rather be a monk.
When you make things you get caught up in the idea of: “what will people think? What does this mean? Where can I sell this?”
Living in the world there is a duality of emptiness and physicality.
I think that the whole idea of making big pots started right at the beginning. It was difficult to make something big, so there was a huge challenge. It was kind of like an athletic event: the challenge of making this thing then being able to get it into that kiln. Once I became a painter I had these giant canvases to fill.
For my first ten years as a painter during the nineteen seventies I painted birds and flowers. I worked on brush control. In 1979 or 1980 when I was 30, I moved to Santa Cruz. I read a book by the filmmaker Renoir that was about his father. It was about the father’s life during the industrial revolution. It described the father’s passion about being an artist, and I was very moved. His philosophy was very deep and rich. Those impressionists were not just Sunday painters. They started the beginning of modern art. The camera had been invented and machinery was replacing traditional craftsmanship all over Europe. Society was changing; people were moving to the big city to work in factories.
For me, painting birds and flowers was a little unreal. It was like I was living in a fantasy. But the idea of painting people was very exciting. I decided I was going to paint people. I sat in the old Pergolesi café for about ten years, until it fell down. I just sat there and drew people.
The difference between me and most people is that I have visions of long periods of time. Now I have been doing that with music. Whether I am good or not is not the issue. What’s important is to be on the path. Once-in-a-while I do a good portrait.
I was just speaking with my brother about this yesterday. He was doing something with someone’s face on the computer. He said to me: “people’s faces! To have the time to look at someone’s face! To see the history and the life that is behind that face! How do you use that to say something?”
Look at van Gogh and Rembrandt. Rembrandt did portraits when he was young and he lived to be 75 or 80. Six of his seven children plus his wife were dead when you look at his last portraits. Look at his face. My god! What does someone go through?”
I call my work portraits. In my job I get to look at someone and create something out of their face, their body, and their clothes. I feel like I’m on a journey that is very complex; everything affects it. But when I think about it it’s confusing, it’s overwhelming.
Last year I worked on a show and I made 40 or 50 really big pots. This year I’m concentrating on small pots and I’ll probably make hundreds. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. Let’s say I average 200 pots a year. Sometimes when I am out and about a run into them. “Oh, I made that 35 years ago!”
When I see that pot I see a mirror of myself during the time I created it. At the Santa Cruz film festival they showed a movie of me making pots. There I was on screen, 60 ft. across. It was a shock, a total shock. You see yourself in a whole different way. If someone buys by pots and they are a really nice person I feel good. I feel like the pots are going to a good home. If I don’t like the people I feel a little used.
Since I’d never got a “real job” this is what I will be doing until I die.
For the past fourteen years a typical day begins with me practicing music. I wake up, I gather my wits, and I play my homework. I play the oboe. I have gotten into a rhythm where they don’t want to make pots for more than eight hours a day. If I practice music for two hours beginning at 8:30, I get out here and work until about 5:30 or 6. Then I do some yoga or make reeds.
Making the reeds for the mobile is something most people would understand. It’s been the most difficult thing I’have done in my life. It’s the most frustrating, challenging thing… making a double reed for my oboe that plays in tune and in time. I do that almost every day.
Once a week, on Wednesday, I go to my music lesson and then I go to town. I go to the farmer’s market. I also love going to museums and seeing other people’s art.
I am very drawn to the classical art forms such as classical music. With the painting I am able to experiment with more modern forms. But to have the classical forms of the pots is juxtaposition. Everything I do is with a Chinese brush. My affinity to the Chinese brush was like picking up big musical instrument. I spent all those years doing calligraphy that was so expressive.