Press – Finding the Stuff of Art in a Muddy Creek

Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) – Monday, August 5, 2002

Author: Sandy Bauers INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

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It was dark, slimy, foot-grabbing muck.

In other words: Perfect.

Knee-deep in the ooze, hands cupped, Kate White and Sage Kelsey dug up big gobs of it, dumping it into buckets.

John Blanchet was more or less crawling on his hands and knees, working his way over to a different section of the goo.

And the ringleader? Bob Deane , a Mr. Mud if ever there was one, simply sat on the stream bottom, patting the stuff across his shoulders and smiling almost blissfully.

Every so often, Deane , a 37-year-old artist and potter, spreads the word to his cohorts: Time for another mud day.

So here they were, in Crum Creek, getting the raw materials for creations that would bring new meaning to the phrase local pottery.

“It’s very dirty and labor-intensive,” Deane said, nonchalantly dabbing another layer across his shoulder.

“For some, it’s a necessity,” he said, adding with a sly grin, “for others, that’s a plus.”

Deane , like most other potters, used to buy his clay from a pottery supplier.

But one day as he was poking around just for fun in a local creek, he noticed a vein of clay . It was a Eureka! moment.

Ever since, he has been scouting area streams and ponds for caches of clay – what some potters refer to as “wild clay .”

He has become a sort of connoisseur of creek bottoms, someone who’s savvy about the stickier, ickier side of nature.

Geologists say the area is rich in clay , which is pretty much merely mud, made finer. ( Clay refers more to size than substance. Sand is big; soil is smaller; clay is kind of a soggy dust.)

The region’s celebrity clay is the high-quality white kaolinite from the aptly-named White Clay Creek in Chester County.

The Leni-Lenape used it for pipes and pottery. Around the time of the Revolutionary War, workers showed up by the wagonload to dig the clay and cart it off to Lenox and other porcelain manufacturers, said Alfred C. Palmer of the Delaware County Institute of Science in Media.

The other notable local clay is the reddish montmorillonite from – easy guess – the Red Clay Creek, also in Chester County. It was grand face-paint.

Then there are our run-of-the-mill clays , relatively recent deposits that Palmer sniffed at as being merely “post-glacial.”

But Deane loves this stuff, which he calls “young clay.” He loves the idea that he’s getting clay in one of its earliest forms, before it grows dense under the weight of additional sediment, or maybe just washes away in a big storm.

He gets it at what, for him, seems an exquisite confluence – a moment of geologic time and a place near his home in a storybook cottage at the Community Arts Center in Wallingford, where he creates pottery, teaches pottery, and works as a caretaker.

The clay “has the touch of where I live and play,” he said.

Deane has lugged buckets of clay from various ponds and streambeds all over the area.

The clay comes in all shades, from almost white to the dark gray of Friday’s mud from the Crum Creek – evidence of organic activity. Or, more precisely, dead and decomposing microscopic critters.

It even “smells a little more earthy,” he had said earlier in the week, scooping some out of a barrel in his studio, squishing it through his fingers, holding it to his nose, and giving it an appreciative sniff.

Out back near the kiln are pots of various clays waiting to be fired. On the shelves inside are hundreds of finished items – large and small, smooth and twisted, in muted earth tones and brighter colors.

He picked up one of the pieces and turned it in the sunlight to show off how it sparkled. “That’s the mica,” he said. “This area is rich in mica.”

The colors in the glazes, which he also makes from local clays , often are one of the few fortunate side-effects of stream contamination. Add a bit of titanium to a clay that’s already high in iron, for instance, and the result is a deep, rich blue.

Once, Deane even sloshed around in the Tinicum marsh area to get clay he hoped would contain heavy metals from nearby industrial sites.

“Magnesium, nickel, and all those things we don’t necessarily want in our drinking water tend to work pretty good in our glazes,” he said mischievously.

All this is much more than a matter of Deane wanting his materials for free.

He believes that people have become way too accustomed to “getting everything out of plastic bags or boxes. We have become disconnected from the process of living.”

Collecting his own local clay instead of using bagged stuff from several states over reconnects him.

And he loves the unpredictability of working with variable local mystery clays . He never knows for sure what the finished product will look like.

To him, it’s all part of the essence of pottery: He gets the clay – dissolved rocks, for the most part – from the earth, forms it, and then heats it to 2,300 degrees in a kiln, reproducing in miniature the formation of the rocks in the first place, the great geologic drama going on for millennia in the gut of the earth.

“If that’s not magic,” he said, “then I don’t know what is.”

Deane said he would turn Friday’s mud into sculptural forms.

White, a Moylan potter, considered a handful and talked about what nice pots it would make – “a rich brown. It’s beautiful when it’s fired.”

Kelsey, a Rose Valley potter, could already see the bowls it would become.

Blanchet, a Center City chef and jack-of-all-arts, was just along for the fun.

“We like to get in the dynamic as many ways as we can,” he quipped, as he and Deane lolled about in the muck for the few, final fine moments of mud day.

Contact Sandy Bauers at 610-701-7635 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 610-701-7635 FREE end_of_the_skype_highlighting or sbauers@phillynews.com.

Mud Matters

Bob Deane will give a short talk on the many uses of marsh mud at the Cusano Environmental Education Center of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at 1 p.m. Saturday The entrance is at 86th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard in Southwest Philadelphia. His work is sold at several area galleries and shops, including the Tyme Gallery in Havertown, the Studio Shop in Swarthmore, and Earthbound on South Street in Philadelphia.

Caption: PHOTO

HINDA SCHUMAN / Inquirer Suburban Staff Potter Bob Deane , 37, brings up a handful of clay from the depths of a Crum Creek bywater, while John Blanchet, 23, digs for more. Deane often gathers fellow artists to search local streams and ponds for native clay.

Memo: A Tale Of . . . Shades of Clay