Monday, August 4, 2014

Fearless in Handling Ceramics

As a person who handles a lot of ceramics- in collecting, producing, and restoring them- I get asked how I got so comfortable with them. 

"Where did you get nerves of steel? And, can we borrow some?"

Practice, and developing a light yet secure grip, is key to reaching a certain comfort level. The other thing is, I know no experience I will face with ceramics, not even shipping them blind across the country or the oceans, will ever be as harrowing as the one that shaped me.

It was the summer of 1996, and I was about to experience my very first trip to BreyerFest in Lexington, KY. I had only been to one model horse event outside my home state of California, prior to this mega-convention. I had never flown with models before, and on top of that, I am not a big fan of air travel. Let's just say, it was a big commitment of finances, courage, and a general gamble. I was living at Pour Horse Pottery, at the time. Joan Berkwitz and I were convinced that we needed to vend at this ultimate model horse convention to properly promote the then-fledgling pottery.

While Joan produced a bunch of Bressay ceramic ponies to sell at the 'Fest to cover her expenses, I made some claybody customs to sell to cover my share of the hotel and my flight. When I did OFs and customs, I paid Joan to do the moldmaking, pouring, and airbrushing, and I did the rest. 

This was the 1990's. The only other claybody customs (ceramics resculpted in greenware) known at that time were the cold-painted (unglazed) works of Janice Brent Starr. There was no Custom Glaze division in shows. Glazed claybodies were so rare and new, people often asked, "What am I looking at? Will it last?" because the idea of changing a ceramic was not yet commonplace. Longevity was a question because customized Breyers, with their cracking putty and fillers, were the only analogs. With big dreams of funding my entire trip and keeping my dog in prescription food, I claybodied a Voltage into a trot, and an Owynn into a cantering pose. 

A claybody custom from a Voltage, named "Lyre".
Resculpt by author, airbrushed by Joan, detailed/glazed by author.
Photo by Joan Berkwitz.

What a normal OF Voltage looks like.
Photo by Joan.

A claybody custom from a Pour Horse Pottery Owynn, titled, "Coch Pistol".
Photo by Joan.

An OF gray Pour Horse Owynn.
Photo by author.

I was also filling Voltage orders at the time, as the 90-day ordering period had closed, and the claybodies were worked on in stolen moments. They were risky poses, had delicate facial details, and were generally the ultimate I had done in art, up to that time. They were each going to be sold for nearly 8 times what a Voltage earned me, after the dealers' cut. Hopes. Dreams. Ambitions. Eggs. One basket. 

Literally, one basket. I didn't own luggage (I had a backpack), but Joan loaned me the use of her small vintage ladies' cosmetic hard-side case. It was the right size to fit under a plane seat, and I fully intended to carry-on these horses. Frankly, if I could have had them installed surgically for the flight, I might have considered it. That is the only way I can summarize how seriously I needed these horses to survive their voyage to BreyerFest.

Note: this is long before 9/11. There was no aggressive TSA. In fact, flying was super mellow and easy, compared to today's security routine. You could go to the gates with your family to see them off or meet them. You could buy a ticket with cash at the counter. These were carefree times.

So, here we are, arriving at San Diego airport to fly to Lexington. It's July, and we even went out and got new summer clothes for the trip because we heard that Kentucky was really hot and muggy (men's shorts, no super-short shorts that are routinely marketed to young ladies). We resembled laid-back skaters or surfers with our loose T-shirts and long shorts, long hair, and very light luggage. I was one step up from carrying my clothes in a paper grocery sack. We weren't high-maintenance. I didn't even own any makeup.

Looking back on it, through the eyes of the airport staff, we didn't look like typical lady travelers heading anywhere overnight, let alone ladies heading across the country for nearly a week. We probably looked very, very odd. 

We dutifully placed our carry-on luggage on the X-ray conveyor belt, and quickly went to the other end to collect them. I was more than a little wide-eyed, no doubt, since so much money was riding on that bumpy conveyor and about to bang at the end of the metal slide. The X-ray tech stopped the conveyor, and I can't even remember how many airport staff entered the scene at this point. It may have just been the one tech, it may have been five people surrounding us. All I remember is the next few minutes were the most horrifying ceramics-related moments of my life.

We were told to immediately open the hard-side carry-on. I told them it had fragile ceramic horses, is there some place I can lay them down while I unwrap them? They were mummified with toilet paper, as there was no room for our stiff 1996 custom foam inserts in luggage. 

No, do it right here, completely unwrap the items. 

And, did you say, "ceramic horses"? 

We'll need to break them open.

*** Reader, I will give you a moment.***

To my credit, I did not have a nervous breakdown right there in the airport X-ray line. I felt like every bit of me was shaking with a spicy blend of financial-ruin-horror and anger. I had never had a brush with the law. I was always a good kid, always followed rules, worked at a stable, Honors classes, and perpetual A+ in Citizenship. The worst thing I did in high school: I painted the musical Phantom of the Opera poster on a friend's mortarboard, and a zebra on my own, to innocently celebrate graduation. No one had ever said we couldn't decorate them, and since we paid for them, we mistakenly thought they were our own to do with as we pleased. My high school saw this as threatening self-expression and a gateway to gang insignia. Yeah. Andrew Lloyd Webber always be gangbangin'. I was threatened with my diploma being withheld because of Art. (This, sadly, is not a joke.) I was never an actual troublemaker.

So, this whole scene was completely foreign to me. I was being singled out by authority for my perfectly innocuous, hand-made horses, and being told I will not be able to pay for the very trip I'm embarking on because the X-ray tech wants to break open my claybody customs.

Joan and I were completely shocked and, of course, asking why, and who do they think they are?

Another security dude comes over. They just asked us: "Are they hollow?" 
Our answer of "yes" was apparently the wrong answer.

After the concerned security people had roughly turned my horses over and over in their hands, and mumbled among themselves, they finally gave us part of their reason.

Recently, passengers had come through this airport with ceramic horses in their luggage. These hollow ceramic horses had been stuffed with drugs. The X-ray techs now have to break open any and all horses that they see on the screen, and check them for drugs.

Joan pointed out the tiny 1/16" stilt holes in their bellies, asking incredulously, "How could anyone put drugs in those holes?"

How we must have looked to the security staff: shady, shorts-wearing skaters, with way too little luggage to look like legit out-of-state travelers. Backpack. No makeup. An adult woman and a 15-year-old, whose driver's license "says" she's twenty. And the kid looks like she's about to lose her mind, watching every movement of the horses with crazy eyes, and quivering. She's wearing a very weird hat, looks like a drug thing. And they both are questioning the routine destruction of some cheap, crappy knickknacks! Suspicious.

The weird hat. Photo by Joan, from the same time as this adventure.
The author packing the first batch of Voltages on Joan's front lawn.

I have since had three-hour layovers in other airports, layovers that become frantic gate changes across the entire airport complex. I've had indirect cross-country flight schedules where I was awake for 24 hours straight. None of those experiences took as long as those minutes at the luggage X-ray. 

At last, the security staff decided that, indeed, there was no place on the horses' bellies to fit a plug for drug installation. The stilt holes were truly too small to stuff baggies of anything, and they certainly weren't plugged, nor dusting out coke like over-sized salt shakers. When we explained again that they weren't cheap tourist ceramics, that we made them by hand, and then quoted their value, the staff looked at each other. They handed them back, not without suspicious glances, and we were stuck TP-mummifying irreplaceable ceramics in a busy airport, with no soft or uncrowded place to wrap them. Strangers. Elbows. Jostling.

Every collector knows how horrid it feels to rush to pack a china, let alone under emotional duress, and with a now-impending flight departure. That was bad.

Despite the mad re-packing, these custom ceramics survived the security inspection and the flight, and were sold at BreyerFest. They remain in collector hands, to this day. 

The art of claybody customizing has changed so vividly in the past 18 years, it may seem odd that so much stress and value was rolled up in these two early pieces. But, at the time, for the time, a claybody custom was cutting edge and almost impossible to attain. All the claybody customs Joan & I had made by that time could be counted on one hand. They showed in Artist Resins divisions, if you ever even saw one. I can't even think of a good analogy for something like that phenomenon, today. 

This ceramic airport experience is why I am so mellow about layering my ceramics in plastic bins to go to shows. It's why I seem pretty unconcerned about the whole process of exhibiting, selling, and shipping. Nothing can be worse than having persons in authority tell you they are going to bust open the bodies of your artwork right in front of you, because they suspect you of a federal crime. If the post office breaks your horse, at least you don't have to witness it and simultaneously be excruciatingly aware of some ludicrous excuse for the destruction. This will never happen at a model horse show. 

Too bad the molds weren't long-ears. Drug mules. 


  1. A few years ago, Karen Grimm received some Metlox drafters from an ebay sale, that came broken. The bodies were BROKEN. Not just the legs, not just the ears... right through the bodies, as if with a hammer. Which is exactly what I suspected. That Customs (they shipped from Australia IIRC) had broken them open to loo for drugs. Total loss.