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‘A Long Season’

Inspired by poet Mike Mauri, potter Molly Cantor got to work

A few years back, South Deerfield forester Mike Mauri walked into Molly Cantor’s pottery studio in Shelburne Falls and instantly liked her work. A tall man, accustomed to being in the woods, Mauri had always been wary of pottery.

“It’s so fragile. I’m always afraid I’ll knock it over,” he said.

But Mauri was drawn to Cantor’s incised drawings, which reminded him of linoleum prints, a medium he had tried himself and used to create illustrations for a little one-poem, front-shirt-pocket-sized book called “A Family of Skunks.”

Cantor’s pottery, carved with images from the natural world — not just the more expected trees, flowers and birds but also skunks — made Mauri think, “Hmm, maybe I do need a butter dish.”

Years later, their shared affection for skunks, which Mauri says are not often the subject of either poetry or decorative arts, “especially in an appreciative mode,” has led to an interesting body of work that Cantor is unveiling at an opening at her studio at 20 Bridge St. in Shelburne Falls on Saturday, Nov. 2, from 4 to 8:30 p.m.

Titled “A Very Long Season,” a phrase taken from one of Mauri’s poems, Cantor’s new series of pottery vessels is inspired by Mauri’s work. In her recognizable white-and-black style, Cantor has created cups, jugs, buckets and other vessels that feature imagery and lines from Mauri’s poems.

The subjects of Mauri’s work, as Cantor aptly writes in the invitation to her opening, “include regional history, the natural world and wry cultural observations.”

Since many of Mauri’s poems incorporate historical events from pre-Revolutionary New England, Cantor tried to honor this by recreating everyday objects of that time.

The series includes vessels that read as moonshine or syrup jugs, depending on the words and images Cantor has embellished them with; the “Water Bucket for Mary Webster,” pictured here, that, in panels, tells the story of a woman hanged as a witch in the late 1600s; a vessel designed after canvas feed bags that features raccoons drinking from an outdoor water faucet; and a series of four cups decorated with woodland flora that all carry lines from Mauri’s “Child-hood,” a poem about wandering through the woods near his then-home in Springfield. And this is just a smattering of the many pieces viewers will see at the show.

The idea for Cantor’s series came up during the summer, at a party where Mauri performed with Rob Skelton and the band Pitchfork, a musical collaboration that has been going on for years and that resulted, in the winter of 2012, in a CD produced by Lil Shack Records of Northampton, entitled “Yeoman.”

As is his habit, at one of the breaks, Mauri handed Cantor a copy of “A Family of Skunks,” which Cantor remembers liking immediately.

“I’m always looking for new inspiration for my imagery,” recalled Cantor, and so she later asked Mauri if she could read more of his work and create pottery that used imagery drawn from it.

Mauri was intrigued by the idea but as he put it, “stayed out of the project,” not wanting to influence Cantor’s creative process. Mauri saw the pottery for the first time just a few days ago, less than a week before this Saturday’s opening.

“I loved it. I was so impressed,” Mauri said. Of the lines Cantor chose to incorporate into her designs, Mauri said, “She chose well. I love the little fragments that she’s using.”

In addition to giving her copies of all of the back pocket and, now, front-shirt pocket-sized books he publishes through his own Recession Editions Press, Mauri sent Cantor three unpublished poems: “January Hills Road,” “Mary Webster, Witch of Hadley” and “Oh, the experience I have had,” a poem based on the diaries of Mary Rowlandson, who was captured by Indians during King Philip’s War in 1675. These poems were all featured on the “Yeoman” CD but the excerpts on Cantor’s pots mark the first time any lines from the poems have appeared “in print.”

It’s not the first time Cantor has worked text into her pottery. Her “Intimates” series, made up of underwear plaques, have long incorporated text.

“They usually have narrative content in the imagery and I’ll supplement that with bits of poems or quotes or dictionary entries,” Cantor said, of the “Intimates” series. And from time to time, she’ll work a line or two of text into her everyday ware.

Though Cantor’s drawings may impart a sense of simplicity, restrained in detail by what is possible to carve away from damp clay, they don’t spring unbidden from Cantor’s imagination. Cantor researched images from Mauri’s poems carefully before recreating them.

“It’s taken me a long time because everything I do I have to ask, ‘What does a coyote look like? What does a 17th-century house look like? What did Emily Dickinson really look like?’”

“One of these cups has Vermont Yankee on it,” she added. “I didn’t know what Vermont Yankee looked like. Or pink lady slippers.”

One day last week, Cantor was working on a platter that had been coated in a clay coloring called “slip.” While she talked, she calmly carved away slivers of clay with small metal hoops in a process called “sgraffito,” a word derived from the Italian word graffiere, meaning, “to scratch.” The process is similar to that of creating the block for a block print, Cantor said. Negative spaces are cut away, leaving the raised lines that comprise the drawing. As the curls of clay collected on the platter, Cantor swept them to the side with a soft brush.

Her worktable was stacked with bird and other nature identification guides, as well as copies of Mauri’s pocket-sized books opened to various pages. Using the poems as a “jumping-off point” has opened up a new creative process for Cantor:

“There’s something about it, it almost allows you to use your creativity in a different way. … It’s a really rich experience to think of how you can create something of your own with this work that someone else already made.”

Cantor said that, unlike working on her production pottery, when she might make 10 mugs, each decorated with the same or similar bird, the pieces in this series are truly one-of-a-kind.

“I’m working in this very spontaneous way where I don’t even know what’s going to be on this side of the plate yet,” Cantor said, gesturing toward the platter’s solid blue half. “I’m working on it and I’m thinking, ‘What is going to happen here next?’ Or ‘What is this about?’

“I might stop and look through the poem and ask, ‘What else is pulling to me from the poem that I want to include with this image?’” Cantor continued.

“It’s interesting, some of the pieces I did already, I look back at them and I’m really seeing how they’re like Mike’s poems. A lot of them are about historical subjects but here we are writing and making things about these historical subjects from a contemporary framework. So, looking at these things I’ve been doing, it’s almost this post-modern mash-up of the contemporary and the historical.”

Which is a great way to describe Mauri’s work, as well.

It’s interesting that Cantor came into contact with Mauri’s work first through music — she heard him perform with Pitchfork several times before she ever read one of his poems — and is now translating it into yet another form. And from Mauri’s perspective, it’s seldom that a poet gets to even hear a reader’s response to his work, much less see it made physical.

“What I’m doing is so concrete,” Cantor says. “Yet a poem is made of words and images.”

Not every poem that moved Cantor seemed translatable into clay.

Of one of the unpublished poems, “January Hills Road,” Cantor said, “It’s such a beautiful poem. It gives you a feeling of an ungraspable longing and I just feel there’s no way I can make a picture that relates that. I can’t really work with the feeling that the words invoke, just the images.”

But just the images seems just fine with Mauri. And accomplishes more than Cantor is giving herself credit for.

One of Mauri’s poems, “And Liquors Strongly Brewed,” was written after Mauri attended an Emily Dickinson marathon reading at her home, now a museum, in Amherst. As he does in many of his poems, Mauri straddles the present and the past, giving the reader doses of Dickinson’s words, imagery and intimations of her cadences blended with the inescapable modern world from which he observes everything. The reader glimpses the marathon attendees gathered “’round collapsible/ event-grade buffet table/ decked-out in paper cloth, quick to tear/ laid-out with fragile clinging tine/ of plasticware,/ into styrofoam cup to pour/ Maxwell House coffee from a big pot/ and sprinkle powdered creamer on top …”

These lines inspired Cantor to create a series modeled after Styrofoam cups, with the same dimensions and recognizable quarter-inch rim, yet incised with her signature drawing style and lines from “And Liquors Strongly Brewed.” The Styrofoam cup series perfectly embodies Mauri’s poetry, becoming a physical manifestation of his mix of historical perspectives, plus the “wry commentary” that Cantor says she admires in his poems. Cantor isn’t just illustrating Mauri’s work; she really understands him.

Mauri said he loved the humor of the Styrofoam cup series. “Humor is so enjoyable.”

And it is essential to both his and Cantor’s work. This and other similarities precede Cantor’s current project.

“A common thread in both Mike’s poetry and the imagery in my pottery is a sense of place,” Molly said. “I take my inspiration from the plants, animals, seasons and daily life here in western Mass.  Often, I’ll go outside to see what’s blooming, or who’s scurrying around in the underbrush to look for new themes.  

“Several of Mike’s poems take place at least partly in winter, which, as we know, can take up more than its share of the year around here.  The final line in his poem ‘Any Timber’ is, ‘It’s truly been and will continue to be, a very long season.’” 

To Cantor, the last part of this phrase, which she chose as the title of her series, “encompasses a longing for change, acknowledgement of the way things are and celebration of the mystery, and our fortitude in making it through it all.”

***

Molly Cantor’s show, “A Very Long Season,” will be on display at her studio at 20 Bridge St. in Shelburne Falls from Nov. 2 through Nov. 18, after which customers will be able to pick up any purchased pieces. The opening reception on Saturday, Nov. 2, includes two half-hour sets by Mike Mauri with Rob Skelton and Pitchfork beginning at
7 p.m. and again at 8 p.m.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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