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Creations from the Earth
by Dale Cochoy
Three years ago I began to make my own bonsai pots as an extension of my interest in the art of bonsai. As I look back into how this all came about it all seems to fit together very well and now seems like a natural course of events for me.
My first introduction to the art of ceramics came in 1976 while attending Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. I was taking Industrial Arts Education courses as the minor to my Trade Industry Vocational Education major at this university. I was going to college on the G.I. Bill after a tour with the US Navy in which I was a Communications Electronics Technician. My enlistment in the service came after the completion of an Electronics Technician course at a local trade school that I attended after high school.. My goal was to teach Vocational Communication Electronics in a public school system, which I did, but I got side-tracked a few times over the years. It was a very round-about way that lead me to this period of my life that , after all these years, finds me the owner of a business dealing in bonsai and a potter.
The Industrial Arts Education curriculum consisted of courses designed to instruct you in the correct way to teach these courses in public school settings. Some of the subjects taught were Power Technology, Drafting, Metallurgy, Metal Machining, Woodworking, Graphic Arts and of course Ceramics. This was the first time in my recollection that I had ever touched clay, a potter's wheel , glazes or a kiln. I became very interested in this subject and was intrigued with the beautiful transformations of the raw materials. There is a sense of mystery and anticipation every time you open the kiln after firing. Although I found throwing pots on a potter's wheel interesting, there was something about the tedious assembly of slab-built vessels and items that I really enjoyed. Little did I know that someday this early training would become very important and useful to me.
I first became interested in bonsai in 1978 and began to study the art alone for a short time. In 1979, after teaching in public schools for two years, I began working at General Electric Medical Systems repairing medical x-ray equipment. When I started to work at GE I found that I shared several hobbies with one of my fellow workers, Bob Stevens, and that one of them was bonsai. Bob later became my business partner and we started Wild Things Bonsai Nursery in 1989. Now you have to understand that this was very serendipitous in that 22 years ago you did not readily meet people interested in the art of bonsai. This was, after all, before "Karate Kid"! During this time there were also very few suppliers of stock, books, tools and pots. At least in Ohio there wasn't! So, in 1983 Bob and I began to slip-cast some of our own bonsai pots from molds that we had made from a few of our bonsai pots. Slip casting is the most common method used to make the majority of imported bonsai pots that we commonly use and are familiar with. I began to put to use some of the gleanings from a few years earlier in ceramics classes at Kent State. We made molds from plaster of paris and molded pots using stoneware slip and glazed them with stoneware glazes. We paid a local ceramics shop owner to fire our pots. This was a fun ,educational and interesting past time until it ended sort of abruptly one night when a mold fell apart in Bob's kitchen and left watery plaster of paris mix all over the kitchen counters and floor. Well, it was fun while it lasted!
In the late 80's I became more intrigued with pottery. I was working a lot of time with local bonsai master Keith Scott who made pots during the Winter months and I knew a few local bonsai enthusiasts who were potters. I was also seeing a lot of nice hand-made pots by American artists at conventions that I was attending. But, a busy family and work schedule kept me from further pursuing the art.
In 1995 I started my own bonsai related business full time and the "bug" caught me again. After a few years, and a few lessons by a local potter, I began to make my own "Wild Things" bonsai pots. I wanted to do something new and different. I had always been intrigued by fancy, high-quality mame pots so I decided to start by making tiny, one-of-a-kind, hand-made mame pots. I still had the interest in making slab-built pots so this is where I started. This was fun, interesting and they actually sold! I quickly found however that it took about the same time to make a tiny mame pot as it did to make a larger pot and most people in the art would never spend the same amount on a tiny pot as they would on a little bit larger pot. So, I began to make larger pots. I now make hand-built pots up to around 17 inches. Some pots consist of as many as 15 individual pieces assembled together from leather-hard clay and may take 3 1/2 hours to build. Preparation of the clay also requires additional time, as well as cleaning the dried pot, bisque firing, glazing and high firing. I still make quite a few mame pots however. Some mame pots are carved from a solid block of clay.
When I started making and firing my own pots I was never without new ideas. I still have more ideas than time. I want my pots to be very contemporary and unlike anything else available out there but still useful with most of the accepted styles of bonsai. It can sometimes be a problem trying to get traditional bonsai artists to accept something new and contemporary and I was finding that their acceptance of extremely contemporary pottery styles was no different. Some of the first pots I made were slab-built, 5-sided ,asymmetrical shapes. In the beginning bonsai people told me these would never sell. They were just too strange! Well, they did sell and they became my trademark shape. They also needed to be of high-fired stoneware clays that would not be affected by freezing temperatures during Winter storage. All of the stoneware clays and glazes I use are fired to cone 6 ( around 2,200 degrees F). These temperatures succeed in vitrifying the clay to a point where the porosity is so low that moisture cannot be held by the clay . This becomes very important in bonsai pots that are over-wintered in areas that may sometimes allow the soil to freeze in the pots. This freezing could cause lower fired pots to crack or pop off chips of glaze.
It's been three years now and I enjoy this facet of the art of bonsai more and more. The ideas still come faster than time allows for them to become reality. I continually try new styles, shapes and finishes. Lately I have been making a vast variety of free-form shapes and land-and-water pots. Most are far from the traditional styles we have all become accustom to. As this becomes an ever-increasing part of my business I'm feeling the need to produce wheel-thrown bonsai pots in more traditional shapes to attract the more traditional artists to my pottery, but, in the back of my mind I'm already thinking of unique new styles of the old familiar round pot!
Who would have thought that a semester of ceramics in college 25 years ago would have lead me to this place in my life, and that brief initiation would someday combine with another art that I had not yet discovered at the time. The things that started out as only hobbies have overtaken my life and become the source of enjoyment and income. The original goals that first lead me to this aspect of the art of bonsai no longer play a part in my life. If 26 years ago someone would have told me that someday I would have a business selling bonsai and that I would be making bonsai pottery I would have told them that they were crazy!