Todd Walton: Cliff’s Bowl


From TODD WALTON
Under The Table Books
Mendocino

Cliff Glover recently gave us one of his bowls. Cliff is an excellent potter and a superb cook. Tall, and possessed of a magnificent froth of silver gray hair, Cliff and his partner Marion Miller share a house and ceramic studio a couple miles inland from the hamlet of Albion. Marcia and I met Cliff and Marion for the first time at one of Juliette White’s spontaneous dinners, Juliette being Cliff and Marion’s neighbor for many years. The mugs we drank from that night were Cliff’s mugs; and for my birthday two years ago, Juliette gave me a Cliff Glover teapot, an exquisite two-cupper. Juliette was a big fan of Cliff’s pottery.

The bowl Cliff gave us on Marcia’s birthday in February is now my favorite bowl, and possibly my favorite thing, after my piano and not counting myriad mammals—Marcia, friends, cats; although the trouble with cats…but that’s another story. Cliff made it clear when he gave us the bowl that even though he was giving it to us on Marcia’s birthday, the bowl was for both of us. I asked him to repeat that when I was sure Marcia was listening so there wouldn’t be any confusion…that the bowl was for both of us, or in legal terms: the bowl is our joint property.

My previous favorite bowl, which I still love, (though not as much as I loved her before I met Cliff’s bowl) was given to me by my dear friend Katje Weingarten, an extraordinary poet who lives in Vermont, which is crazy. Katje should live around here. Both she and our community would be much happier if she lived in, oh, Caspar or Philo, but she’s married to Roger, and you know how that goes. Anyway, I showed Cliff the bowl Katje gave me and he knew who made it. He knew the actual person who threw the bowl and glazed it. Cliff can do that. He can glance at a ceramic bowl or vase or plate made somewhere in California, and most of the time he can tell by the glaze or the shape, or both, the potter who made the thing.

Which reminds me of a tea story. When I lived in Berkeley, I was adjuvant to Helen Gustafson, famous for introducing fine tea to the menu at Chez Panisse and training the servers there to make and serve fine tea as it was meant to be made and served. When Helen died in 2003, her obituary in the New York Times called her one of the pioneers of the fine tea renaissance in America. Helen often took me to lunch and supper at Alice’s restaurant (Chez Panisse) where she, Helen, had carte blanche in exchange for her tea duties. I was frequently under-funded in those days and always esurient, so…just imagine. Helen liked to introduce me to her cohorts and admirers as her editor—an understatement and a compliment.

One evening Helen threw a dinner and tea tasting at Chez Panisse for the famous tea writer James Norwood Pratt, Norwood’s marvelous mate Valerie Turner, moi, and Roy and Grace Fong, preeminent tea importers, Roy a bona fide tea master. We tasted several black teas that were essentially priceless. By that I mean, they were teas of such rarity and in such short supply, they could not be purchased at any price. The denouement of the evening was that Norwood had brought along a mystery tea with which he hoped to stump Roy Fong as to the origin of the goodly leaf.

Norwood directed one of Helen’s well-trained servers in the making of a pot of the mystery tea, and after the leaves had steeped for the appropriate number of minutes, the pot was placed before Roy. Without lifting the lid or bending close to the pot, Roy concluded, “Thailand.”

“I’ll be damned,” said Norwood, his accent richly North Carolinian. “How…”

Roy lifted the lid of the steel pot, glanced at the leaves, inhaled again, and correctly named the region, the plantation, and the location in the plantation where this particular tea had been grown. He then filled our cups and prophesied, “It will be some time before tea from these plants will be of any note. If ever.”

Cliff’s bowl, on the other hand, is of great note now at our house. Why do I love this bowl? Let me count the ways.

First, it is a perfect size: four inches tall and seven inches wide at the top.

Second, it has a beautiful shape: assuming nearly its full width close to the base.

Third, it is surprisingly light, and a delight to hold in one’s hand or hands.

Fourth, it is the color of an East African topi (antelope), of carob powder, of the skin of certain Moroccan nomads, and graced with that random mottling all living flesh is prey to.

Cliff declared the bowl to be a standard noodle bowl, nothing special, and so I dutifully ate noodles in it the first time I used it (brown rice spaghetti) but I have since used the bowl for goat milk yogurt topped with banana and apple and raisins with a dollop of huckleberry jam, for beating eggs for an omelet, for making pancake batter (and pouring the batter directly from the bowl into the frying pan), for watering house plants, for drinking water, and for eating rice with vegetables and spicy sausage. I have also gently tapped out several nifty rhythms on the bowl with chopsticks, and I sometimes place the bowl on the table in the living room as an object to contemplate and admire.

Do I believe Cliff’s bowl is alive? Yes. And I remind myself that not so very long ago our ancestors believed that all things, from the tiniest pebble to the mountains to the rivers and oceans and the gigantic earth in her entirety, were as animate as humans or whales or fleas. Fool’s Crow, a Lakota holy man I admire, used the ancient vernacular of his people when referring to rocks as stone people, trees as standing people, clouds as citizens of the cloud nation, and so forth.

I possess a stunning black and white photograph of Fool’s Crow taken by Michelle Vignes when Fool’s Crow was in his early nineties (he died at the age of 99); and when I look into his eyes, my entire being relaxes. Every time. While reading his book Wisdom & Power, I came upon his observation that some people need to carry stones in their pockets in order to feel grounded. I gasped in amazement and gratitude when I read this passage because I have carried stones in my pockets since I was a little kid, knowing intuitively I needed them, yet rarely revealing to anyone that I toted rocks in my pockets to stay sane in a world gone mad.

Cliff’s bowl, I think, is a divine manifestation of animate mud, composed of animate earth and animate water, shaped into exquisite form through the synergy of centrifugal force and gravity and the skillful ministrations of the strong hands and generous intentions of a practiced artisan: Cliff.

“I’ve made thousands of bowls,” Cliff declaimed, responding to my raving about the magnificence of this particular bowl. “And, yes, this is a good bowl. I was surprised when I found it because my good bowls sell pretty fast and I’m not sure why I still had this one…but I don’t think it’s all that special.”

I wanted to be a potter. I took Ceramics in high school as part of my rebellion against my parents wanting me to use only the left side of my brain; and three subsequent times in my life, I have endeavored to center balls of clay on potters’ wheels and make bowls. But I was not persistent, and so I failed. My only clay creation that I still have is an embarrassingly heavy little lumpish object I refer to as a bud vase because only a bud might fit therein. I love the little thing. The glaze, a murky greenish accident, is…subtle. And sometimes I tell myself I could make a good bowl if only I would commit myself to the task.

In the meantime, I (we) have Cliff’s bowl to inspire me (us) along with Cliff’s beguiling mugs and Marion Miller’s quietly erotic vases. Oh, and I must tell you about Cliff’s clay canisters, two of which I own. These elegant brown cylinders are ten-inches-tall and four-inches-wide. They are the only objects (other than the teak Buddha that Paula Mulligan brought us from Bali as a wedding gift and Marcia’s cello bows) I allow to reside on my piano. I am not a fan of pianos being used as display spaces, and until the advent of Marcia’s cello bows in my life, I never let anybody put anything on my piano. But the piano is teak, so the teak Buddha…and now Cliff’s lovely dark canisters, well…I’m not playing any less because of these inspiring passengers, and the piano sounds fine, so…

A few months before Juliette died, we were sitting around in her cottage having tea (or was it wine?) in Cliff’s mugs, and I fished in my pockets and brought forth two of my stones, each roughly the size of a walnut, one jade green, one bluish gray, both rounded and polished in a grand lapidary of surf meeting intractable stone. Juliette took the rocks from me, tumbled them around in her wise old hands, and then correctly identified their source as a tiny beach not far from the village of Mendocino—a brief spit of gravel that only comes into being at the lowest of tides.

Cliff Glover can be found at threeriversstudios.com

(This piece first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

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