Paulus Berensohn, the influential potter and thinker, died earlier the month. I had the amazing experience of co-teaching a workshop about writing and clay with him twenty-eight years ago at Penland. The experience was serendipitous. I fell into it–I was pinch hitting for another writer. And the original clay artist who was supposed to teach also cancelled–Paulus just stepped it. I was breast feeding my 7 month old daughter Isabel and it was all very complicated. Penland agreed to pay expenses for Isabel’s godmother Debora to come. Debora took the baby in the morning when I taught and she studied with Paulus in the afternoon as I was mommy tracked. En route, the airline lost our luggage. Penland, thinking we needed quiet, put us in a far-away cottage full of flying squirrels. When a flying squirrel burst through a poster of the Alps when the baby was in the bath tub, Debora and I became semi-hysterical. The next day we were moved to a more central trailer for housing.
Then I entered the classroom with Paulus and realized I was having one of those rare magical experiences. A former dance, he was charismatic, almost in a guru way. He taught us to keep diaries in clay—slapping clay on to tree bark, our own bodies. The class hung on his every word, and he lectured us on our posture, as he modeled the correct way to walk across the room.
But unlike most guru types, Paulus did not dominate. My teaching went well—the class and I were in synch. After a day or two I was less uptight about separating the teacher from the mom, and I brought the baby to class and let her sit and watch from a table top.
“Look at the baby” Paulus exhorted.”Her posture is PERFECT! Her stomach is relaxed, her back is gently curved. When you work with clay, SIT LIKE THIS BABY!”
Dale Chihuly was also there teaching, although at the time I had no idea who he was. He offered to hold the baby while I was on line for a meal. I hesitated—after all he was a one-eyed tough looking biker. But he had a good vibe and the baby liked him. After that, he often took her as I carried my tray. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized who he was.
No matter where you are as an artist or writer, I think we need reminders from time to time about our our purpose. Paulus was completely dedicated to art—and to simplicity. He is one of the very few people I’ve ever met who had the mix of compassion and focus one might associate with a bodhisattva or a saint. He was a bit acerbic, too, which made him more likable for being less perfect.
So I was fortunate to meet him. And I think the big take away of the experience was that being a mom was going to work just fine as part of my artistic adventures.
“In his later years he continued to advance the idea that money ought not be the goal of the creative process. He championed the creative potential of the average person. At a young age, he said, he developed a ‘desire to de-professionalize my interest in art.’
‘I am very interested in the behavior of art rather than the achievement of art,’ he told The Juilliard Journal in 2010. ‘I see all the arts as apprenticeships for the big art of our lives.’ ”