Miriam (Meme) Overholt is a former City Arts potter and teacher. She is on the board of Legacy Ministries and acts as an advisor for PotteryWorks. She throws amazing pots that we sell in our etsy shop. These days Meme really enjoys spending time with her first grandchild, Zoe. Last week I sat down with Meme at her home in Wichita, KS and we had a delightful time talking about her life as a potter.
-Rachel Zahniser, production director of Legacy PotteryWorks
Rachel: So, you’re a potter. I guess I’d like to start by asking what your early art influences were. And when did you start doing pottery?
Meme: Well that’s kind of a funny question because I always thought of myself as a musician and not an artist. But when I was in high school I ended up not being able to do the music one year the way that I thought that I should and so I decided to take pottery instead. It was sort of a rebellion on my part; it was like “music didn’t work out, so I’m going to do something totally different.” Then I really liked pottery and I had a wonderful teacher. I was so shocked that it was so fun. Still, I didn’t transfer any sense of identity like, “oh, I’m really good at this.” It wasn’t like that. Once I left high school I didn’t have access to it and I couldn’t do it. I took a 30 year break from pottery! I didn’t start again until 2004; I was almost 50 years old by then. In 2004 I started taking classes at City Arts, here in Wichita, and I had a good teacher who was very hard on me. I immediately realized that I was really, really able to do it, to make pottery. I don’t for sure know why, except that I have big hands and I can just see what should happen with the clay. My teacher was very encouraging to me. But again, I don’t think I thought of myself as an artist, even though I started making things that people wanted to buy right away. I just thought they were being nice (and I think they were in those early stages).
R: I don’t know about that!
M: But then when I started teaching at Legacy Camps, I was able to get some “throw away” wheels from City Arts so we could start a pottery class at Camp. Maybe that was in 2007. When I realized that I could teach, that I was good at teaching, that started to affect my sense of self as an artist. That was really recent- maybe eight or nine years ago. It’s been a surprise in the life of a musician.
R: Legacy Camp staff tell the campers “you are creative, you are an artist or a musician.” So I can see how being in that environment could help you feel like you are an artist.
M: Yeah! And I’ve always known I could write music. I mean, I’ve had ups and downs with confidence, but I have written music since I was little and started writing music professionally along time ago, too. But that was somehow different. It was over there and pottery was over here. That is, until the last few years. Isn’t that funny?
R: Something I really want to know about your experience, Meme, are some of the highlights or best experiences you’ve had while making pottery and maybe some of the low experiences.
M: I can give you both! Sometime while I was still a student at City Arts, but I was already teaching at Legacy, I started to make a very tall pitcher. I had learned how to make it in pieces and it was beautiful. I put a bamboo appliqué on it. It’s the one on the mantle in my living room. People kind of went gaga over it; they got excited about it. I could tell that it was better than anything I’d ever made before. And then someone asked if I would make one for their office and they paid for it! That was kind of a switch for me. I was like, “Really? I can make another one of these?” And the second one was made in one piece; I didn’t do it in stages. I had gotten good enough that I could just do it. So by that time I was like, “I can really do this, I can really throw!”
Around that time I started to get kind of cocky. I started thinking, “I can throw anything! I can just throw anything!” So I was invited to do a demo for a women’s club event at my sister’s home. There were a lot of women, like more than twenty. I was using a wheel that was missing the rubber tips off the bottom of the legs and it was on tile, so it just slid. When I would push into the clay, the wheel would just push away from me. I think I was trying to show off because I had a very large lump of clay; it was probably 12 pounds. I was going to do a great big bowl. And I had been doing big bowls for demos for the Legacy Benefit and other things, but I couldn’t get this lump of clay centered. I never did get it centered. I was also doing a spiritual anecdotal devotional while I was doing the throwing demonstration. I had done that for my class at Friend’s University and it was really significant for people, so I was trying to do that for the women’s club too. But I could never get it centered- I mean, literally never. I don’t know what had possessed me then because if I had just taken my wire tool and cut off the top two thirds I could have centered a smaller piece of clay. My brain kind of froze and my cheeks turned real red, but finally I said to them (and this helped me), “this is a spiritual thing- sometimes we can’t get centered and I can’t get this clay to center. I’m going to go ahead and do the bowl, but it isn’t going to look any good, but I just want you to see the rest of the process.” And when the bowl was done I threw it away in front of them. I crushed it because it was awful. I said, “sometimes we have to learn more from our defeats than our successes.” But, it was a pretty tough thing for me because my mom and sister were there. They were trying to show me off and then I couldn’t do it.
I realized later that it really is true- that everything we do is dependent on God’s grace and we need to accept the loses as well as the successes as coming with help from God to get through. *Laughs* But it was pretty humiliating! Pretty funny!
Another low point was when I made a great big platter. I had to use one of those huge bats; I was doing a demo for my class at City Arts. I turned it over to trim it and I said, “this is so heavy it will just stay put without keys to hold it down.” Then I hit the speed control on the wheel the wrong way and I turned it on to super high speed, instead of a slow speed. And the platter just went WHOOSH! It slid out and hit the wall! It just dissolved. *Laughs more* It was so funny. It was a flyer saucer we said, but, you know, they were all just shocked that it happened. And I got over it. Anyway, those were some highs and lows.
R: Wow! Those are some great stories. So, what helps you ease into the right mind frame before working?
M: Making sure everything is clean before I start. Pottery is such a dirty sport and if I don’t clean before I start I end up feeling pressured the whole time, like somethings not right. It seems counter-intuitive that you would clean before you get messy, but I’ll tell ya if I don’t it’s not good. So like before I did these two plates for a custom order I forced myself to do it, even though my wheel was messy and I was real dirty. But i just did it. But then, on another day, before I did the rest of the plates for that order, I had to get clean.
R: Like cleaning off the wheel?
M: Yep, and tools and getting everything ordered and layed out. It gives me a sense of space, like, “oh, there’s plenty of time. It’s just gonna be fine.” Sometimes I remember (I wish I always remembered) that I think God likes to throw with me. So if I remember that and ask God to throw with me, then when I’m decided what to do I can kind of lean back into that a little bit. Like “Hmm…what should I do here?” What I feel like is God gives me good intuition. Not like I hear any voices at all, but sometimes I feel like I can do more than I knew I could do because of that.
R: That’s awesome.
M: Yeah! I don’t always remember.
R: I’m similar to you in that I need to clean the space and prepare all of the clay and then have it ready. Otherwise I also feel rushed and anxious.
M: I’m glad you said that about preparing the clay. If I’m doing a big order, like 10 hand thrown plates, I want to have all the balls of clay already weighed and just sitting there, so I don’t have to stop and cut and weigh. I can just move through them. That prep step is important. It’s so nice of you to ask me these questions!
R: It’s fun! What do you enjoy about your art and your process or the end result? What do enjoy most, I guess is my question?
M: The actual throwing. There’s this calm thing in the middle, like I can get tense in the middle of doing it too, but then sometimes that calm God comes to me saying , “It’s okay, it’s going to fine, you know what to do.” And leaning back into that in the midst of it helps me to try things I wouldn’t otherwise try. I get reminders. “Oh remember if you do that, this will happen!” I not only get mental reminders, but tactile reminders like my fingers feel a certain thing and I know what’s going to happen next. You know, so If I push here, that will be the result. And so that hand knowledge, mind-hand knowledge, is a gift I really revel in; it makes me happy. That my hands know what to do apart from my brain; my brain is not actively telling my hands how to do it.
R: Yeah, like muscle memory
R: That’s pretty awesome.
M: Yeah. That didn’t come to me until I started teaching. It was when I started telling other people how to do it that I had to remember and learn how I was doing it. And try to actually be clear about how I was doing it. And so I developed so many different techniques that have been helpful through teaching. It made me a better pottery, for sure, to teach.
R: That’s great. What things or people inspire you? This could be a general question or it could pertain to what inspires you to make pottery.
M: Yeah. Well I still in a lot of ways don’t think of myself as an artist because I don’t look at art books. Sometimes when I do I get real inspired. If someone shoves me a book, I tend to think, “woah, let’s make some of those!” And that’s pretty fun and it gives me ideas I didn’t have before. But I tell ya, what inspires me the most, I think, is working with kids. Just recently, working with a young boy, was inspiring because he was so into it and so needy. He’s going to be so thrilled with the pieces he made.
R: They were beautiful!
M: Yeah! His mom told me recently that he is starting to get a picture of himself as a pottery. And I said, “just wait till he sees his stuff!” So that kind of thing, working with young people, is inspiring. When you’ve got a kid by themselves and they are letting you put your hands on their hands because there’s clay in between, you’ve got so much possibility for life change. In fact, another real important pottery event happened at a Legacy Camp. You know, there have been kids who have been prodigies who do great stuff; I love those stories. But the ones that are the best for me are the ones where the kid is crashing and somehow the pottery pulls them out. There was a kid who was a big 13 year old and he was so angry. But when I had my hands on his hands with clay he could calm, he really would calm down. He would get in fights at camp-terrible things- and then he would come to clay. A couple of times I thought I was really being stupid to let him use those sharp tools. One time he picked up a needle tool and was pointing in a threatening way; I thought he could kill somebody with that. So I said to him, “sit right here with me and put hands like that on the clay. Sometimes it’s a little scary. But then he made a beautiful thing and it really affected him. So there’s power there for good. That affects me.
R: That’s really excited to hear. Someday I would like to do what you do.
M: I think you could do it! I do, Rachel. All of this pottery stuff is not for nothing; it’s for you too Rachel.
R: I wrote in a blog post a while ago that it really is a gift to work with clay and improve my skills and learn from you!
M: It’s a gift for me too. Don’t forget that. It’s satisfying for me to see PotteryWorks (and those who work for it) flourishing and learning and growing. Willis and I looked at each other four or five years ago and said, “we’re both really gifted at what we do. Are we going to be able to pass it on?” Now Josh and Dan and you and others are learning from us.*
R: Mmm, yeah. I’m so glad. I’ll ask one or two more questions. What does it look like when inspiration hits? Does that happen for you?
M: That’s a good question.
R: I guess your inspiration is a little bit different than typical.
M: Yeah, I guess it happens when I have a shape and I know the shape is not quite right, but I just keep looking and looking and looking and making small adjustments until it starts to come right. Usually thats in the throwing, but sometimes in the trimming or the carving stage. But I do think there is a point where I am able to see it come right and that feels like inspiration.
R: That’s so cool. Lastly, do you share your art anywhere? It sounds like you’ve given away or sold a lot of your art over the years.
M: I’ve typically made a lot of art for Legacy, for benefits, for the Cystic Fybrosis fundraiser. For some reason they have my name, so I’ve given them big things and it’s always really funny when those sell for a lot of money. You know a lot of its donations, but it also makes you feel good. But I haven’t shown much; a couple of times I’ve been in art shows. When I was teaching at City Arts I always wanted to be in the art shows, but it took everything I had to make my classes really good there. And I loved teaching; I really, really loved it. It took so much work and I wasn’t willing to do it not well. I’ve been happy to not be teaching right now so I can invest more in PotteryWorks and in other things I’m doing. I do miss being forced into figuring things out and doing new things, like I did at City Arts. I would do projects like making fountains or lanterns- weird things that people wanted to do.
R: I really loved the gallery or show that you and your class put on for your last class at City Arts.
M: Oh, good. You know you and Josh were some of my only family that came. Most of them were out of town. I was so happy that you guys came! It really mattered to me!
R: I’m glad!
M: I was pretty sad and happy both about my ending my teaching career at City Arts. So it was nice to be able to share that with you guys.
R: Well, thanks for doing this interview. It’s been fun!
M: It has been for me too!