Issue Twelve - March 2008

Living in Her Hands

By Iris Graville

First she was Steamboat Pottery. Then Redwing Pottery. Now it’s just Nancy Bingham and a business card with a graphic of a pair of hands. A potter for forty of her fifty-eight years, Nancy says, “My hands are my best sense organ. I feel an amazing amount of stuff. I live in my hands.”

Thoughts about work flow as easily as the shape the rust-colored clay takes on her wheel. Her body curls forward slightly as the clump she sliced from a twenty-five pound “pug” spins, glistening and swirling upward like the mixture from a soft ice cream machine. Instead of a curl at the tip, though, Nancy opens the top of the moist clay and spreads her fingers outward to form a symmetrical pot.

“I went to a ceramics conference in 1980,” she says, using the strength of her forearms and fingers to shape the clay cylinder and keep it centered on the revolving wheel. “An old potter held up his hands, and his fingers curved up and out. All of us young potters looked at our hands, and mine didn’t curve up, not then.” Nancy straightens her back and removes her red, clay-tinged hands from the pot still rotating on the wheel. Her fingers spread apart and arch out like palm leaves. “When you do something physical all your life, your body changes. I’m curving in, and my fingers are fanning out – it’s sort of a nice combination,” she says.

“I’m an artist,” Nancy says. “I can say it without any question. It’s my nature.” Born in a small Michigan town, Nancy played in a sandbox in the back yard. “Like most kids, I loved to dig down into the sand. But then I dug below the sand to the good stuff – the clay. It was a vein of pure clay I was lucky enough to have running right under my sandbox!”

Nancy’s mother was an art teacher. “She allowed my artisticness,” says Nancy, dressed in a T-shirt and baggy cotton pants, a faded red bandana around her short gray hair, and garden clogs of two different colors on her feet. “But from the age of four, I felt I didn’t fit in, like I was different from everyone else around me.”

Nancy didn’t have to travel far from her home to find where she did fit in. She enrolled at the University of Michigan to study art, and vividly remembers one night when she was nineteen. “I was outside, and I felt I was completely who I was; I came into focus.” One semester she took English literature and anthropology because, “I was afraid studying art wasn’t academic enough.” She made the honor roll and then returned to the art school. “I was in heaven; I was surrounded by all these other creative people.

“In a funny way, I think all those rules I grew up with allowed me to be totally far out in my ideas,” Nancy says. “I can be a kind of comfortable regular person but have this boundlessness. I’m a really accepting person with little judgmentalness.” That quality served her well in social work. “When I got out of college,” Nancy says, “I was clueless about how to make a living as an artist. I had just gotten married and moved to New York City. That’s when I became a caseworker – all you needed was a bachelor’s degree.” She enjoyed that profession, but “I didn’t last long,” she says, working in the field for five years in three different cities. She kept doing pottery and finally realized she had to make her living that way.

Twenty-three years ago, after the end of her fifteen-year marriage, Nancy moved to a rural Washington state community with her two school-age daughters and her new partner. “Maybe the biggest challenge I had in my whole life was to make a living as an artist and be a good mother,” she says. One way she found to pursue her art and provide for her children was to teach. “I worked as an art teacher for ten years and resurrected the art program at the school. But as soon as my kids graduated, I was out of there.” She longed to devote more energy to her own art.

Now that her children are grown, Nancy’s life has a seasonal rhythm. From late spring until early December, she works every day in the fourteen by twenty-four foot studio behind her house making white stoneware bowls, platters, vases, and mugs, glazed in her signature blue and green. Each one tells a story with images of ravens, herons, owls, mountains, suns, and moons. She makes these functional pieces for specific events in her community such as the Labor Day weekend Artists’ Studio Tour and the annual Holiday Bazaar.

Teaching always has been part of the equation, and Nancy has a following of adults who take her drawing and clay classes. “I don’t teach technique a lot,” she says. “Everybody has this creative thing in them – that’s where my nonjudgmentalism comes in. I believe everyone should be able to do this.” So, in the spring and fall, she opens her studio for “Art for the Artistically Afraid.” Originally she offered these classes in her home, intentionally, to ease students’ anxiety about making art. “What could be safer than the kitchen table?” Nancy asks, a broad smile spreading across her face. “It’s a total good thing,” Nancy says, “not just for the people I teach, but for me. When I’m teaching, that’s often when I come up with something I hadn’t expected.”

Most Saturdays during the summer, Nancy transports a couple of scarred, clay- and paint-stained folding tables, colorful fabric to cover them, and a selection of her pottery to the Farmers’ Market. “It’s a great place for me because I sell the things people like, and about half-way through the summer, I’ve accumulated requests so my order board is usually filled to the brim. I really, really love doing what I do. I make things that I love to hold in my hand and that you’d want to hold in your hand,” she says cradling an unglazed red clay pot.

“I’m proud of the times I’ve put my best creative stuff out – I glow then,” Nancy says. She shows that radiance in her living room as she touches the smoothly burnished coil pot she made ten years ago while living with Hopis on a reservation near Keams Canyon in Northern Arizona. “I’d longed for tradition in my life, so I went to be where people make pottery right from the earth – they didn’t have Seattle Pottery Supply,” she laughs. Things just worked right that summer for her to go away – her youngest daughter wanted to live with her dad, the owners of the house Nancy was renting wanted to return for the summer, and she had a list of contacts in the southwest, one of whom offered her a place to stay.

“My whole mission was to make pottery,” Nancy says. “I met some people who are Hopi legends, and I did everything in the traditional way – I found my own clay and chewed yucca to make my own brush.” She also slept outside. “It was the first time I experienced my mind being quiet – it was a way to be a part of nature.” It also was the first time she had ever really been alone, and she liked the solitude. “I got a little scared that I wouldn’t know how to leave.” Nancy cherishes that experience and still carries the name the Hopis gave her – Naposaya; it means “Clay Grandmother.”

Back in her studio, Nancy pauses a long time when asked what disappointments she’s had. She shakes her head. “I don’t feel any.” Another pause, then, “Oh, occasionally things blow up! Once I had the pot of my dreams. I flipped the kiln on and thought it was on low, but it was on high. It blew up in about two minutes.” She pauses again, smiles, and shrugs her shoulders. “But that happens. It’s like life. With clay, you have to be into the process.”

Nancy ignores the ringing telephone. “I remember the first time I held a 3000-year- old pot in an art museum. I felt my connection throughout all of humanity. It’s as core as you get. This is the one thing that has always been constant – it’s my first relationship. I’d rather do this than anything else.”

Wooden shelves fill the spaces between the windows on every wall of her studio. They’re filled with glazed and unglazed pots; books; photos of people, hands, and landscapes; and yogurt containers holding brushes. The white board behind her wheel is wiped clean with just shadows of the orders she received during the summer at the Farmers’ Market – those pieces are all finished now. She’s nearing the time she’ll go to Guatemala for three months to live with her partner, a photographer and graphic artist, in a small Mayan community on Lake Atitlán. There, she works with clay in ways reminiscent of the time she spent with the Hopis.

“In Guatemala, I’m back at scratch,” Nancy says. There, she digs local clays instead of using commercial varieties, and she fires her pottery in a gas kiln she built herself over two years. It’s not at all predictable like the electric kiln she uses at home. “I love that,” she says, “because there’s magic in the fire.” She teaches pottery and art classes in Guatemala, too, and looks forward to her return there each year. When she leaves there, she’s adopted the Guatemalan tradition of saying good-bye – “I’ll see you next year… hopefully.”

Nancy leans back in her folding chair, props her feet up on another one, and ponders what she wants to do in the future. She talks of doing more sculpture. And she hopes to paint some more and to do something with her writings. “I feel very humble, but at the same time, I know I have a lot of stories and a lot of wisdom. I wish there were some venue for telling some of those stories. I’m in the wait and see part of life right now. Hopefully…”

©2008 Iris Graville