ON CREATIVITY: LIFE IN THE STUDIO (& GARDEN) with FRANCES PALMER
This week we kick off October with a dive into creativity – the way gardeners harness it, riff off it, and share its results forward with the larger world – and I am so pleased that our first creative in this exploration is the potter Frances Palmer, a previous guest on the program, one of the 75 women featured in my book The Earth in Her Hands, and she is a fantastic inspiration for any gardener maker out there.
In a world that needs a great deal from us right now, we can almost never go wrong by igniting our creativity.
Frances Palmer is a mother, a gardener, a business woman and an admired potter whose inventive, handmade ceramics are durable and beautiful – functional art as she says. Which is so often exactly what our gardens are as well. Hers certainly is…
Frances’ first book: Frances Palmer: Life in the Studio, Inspiration and Lessons on Creativity (Artisan, Oct 2020) chronicles in words and rich photographs her life as a human, a potter, a gardener, a cook – sharing her stories of love, loss, learning and ultimately the making of a very good life.
She lives and works in Weston, Connecticut where her garden is full of flowers and fruits, especially her beloved dahlia collection as well as her growing heirloom Chrysanthemum collection.
She joined me in conversation from her studio in Connecticut.
"I am honored and happy to think that people across the world are using my work when they gather in friendship to share a meal and good times."
Frances Palmer, Potter
In our conversation, Frances shares that it was out of new-mother post-partum isolation in a new home environment that she came to pottery in the first place – born of both struggling to find her feet as a new mother, and her abiding interest in the handmade art and everyday life objects of the Omega Workshop and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant at Britain’s Charleston House in the early 1900s. It was the struggle of the first 6 to 9 months of first time motherhood that propelled her ultimately to find her own balance.
Over her 30 year career, she has grown herself into a potter of all manner of thing from garden pots to flower vases to cake plates, place settings, and coffee mugs. And in large part this is due to her perennial choice of remaining a student of ALL things - the garden, the kitchen, and many many ceramic traditions throughout time and space. Her own curiosity has led to inspiration from ancient and modern influences and she is always working toward balance in her creative life.
Her work is full of personality, beauty and humor - all marked firmly with a very human touch.
On November 19, 2PM: Meet the Artist Frances Palmer in conversation with Jennifer McGregor. Streamed live on Facebook and wavehill.org. To register: https://www.wavehill.org/calendar/meet-the-artist-frances-palmer-in-conversation-with-jennifer-mcgregor
Join us again next week for a very special episode of Cultivating Place for a field-visit to the creative thinking and actions of the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz California where for 30 years a team of dedicated citizens and professionals have been bringing the lessons and heart of gardening to work in ameliorating the many challenges of homelessness in our world.
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THINKING OUT LOUD this week..
Hey, it’s Jennifer -
This week, and in kicking off this mini-series on different ways people put their garden-variety creativity to work in the world, I am riffing off two quotes frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, the first is: “the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.” And this paraphrase of a point of his: "The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking."
And – along a similar line – that old adage on insanity: “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Which is where creativity comes in! All of our creativity. The many problems we face in our lives, in our larger world, even in our gardens – are pleading with us – it seems to me – to open my gaze and look at the “problem” differently. From a different angle – to apply my greatest creativity to my thinking about it – not once, but again and again. And in doing it to look and listen and feel for insights about ourselves, the situation, the way forward.
In her work, in her book and in our conversation today, Frances is sharing her stories of love, loss, learning and ultimately the making of a very good life. So many things look so differently from outside say from an Instagram feed -– they look easy and lovely and carefree. But as Frances is firm in claiming - her creativity certainly has been forged in loss and grief as much as crafting and love. When she was a young woman, her older brother died of an overdose after being prescribed opiods for an injury years before this was a common cultural awareness; her own postpartum experience of struggle, the loss and breakage of prized pots, among others.
I love and have written down on a note for myself Frances’s saying to us: “By making things, I know them.” And I think about this in my garden nature. Because in part, if I am of the garden’s nature as much as it is of mine, then in “making” with the garden, I don’t just know her better – I know me better. And that’s where I can break out of old thinking and grow new creative thinking.
This was like a bright light and a psychological lightening for me. This makes sense to me…
Am I making sense to you over there in your garden?
The interweaving of who Frances Palmer is, and how pottery, gardening, cooking and family are all interdependent for her – and in writing Frances Palmer: Life in the Studio, Inspiration and Lessons on Creativity , she is not just sharing lessons on making pots, or pastry dough, or flower arrangements but on life – which is exactly what this master teacher craftswoman intended.
The main sections of the book are entitled: Begin as you Begin as you Mean to go On, Routine is Everything, and Looking Forward, some of the subsection titles are: Practice Makes Purpose, Finding My Calling, On Perseverance, Being Centered, Promotion and Patience, The Value of My Work, The Meditation of Repetition, On Laughter, On Being Kind To Yourself, The Inner Voice, and On Looking Straight Ahead.
I want to share with you what Frances writes in Looking Straight Ahead – I needed to read these words right now – so maybe you do too:
"Many years ago, I participated in the well-known and -attended annual gift show at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. I was completely daunted and overwhelmed. All the other booths looked bigger, better organized, and definitely more pulled together than mine. What was I thinking, with my tiny company, trying to compete with much more established vendors? When my friend David Hopkins, then the merchandise and store director for the Metropolitan Museum shops, came into my booth, I started to cry. He said, “Don’t look right, don’t look left; look straight ahead.” With those simple words, he reminded me that I can only put my own best efforts forward, and that nothing good comes from comparing yourself with others.
I think of this line every time I’m challenged to maintain focus. It works for me on so many levels. One simply has to stick to one’s vision and not get distracted by myriad things that exist in the world. Whenever my eye starts to go astray and the voice of self-doubt creeps in, I take a deep breath, recall David’s advice, and get back on track.
This mantra also resonates with me as I seek to stretch my work in unchartered directions. In pottery (as in everything, frankly), trends come and go. It’s easy to get bogged down, but I work hard not to pay attention to trends but rather stay true to myself in whatever I make."
Stay true, garden friends. Look straight ahead and hold the hand of yourself and all the lives of the garden you live with firmly and lovingly. And keep growing.
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