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Mentoring and An Artist’s Life

Bill van Gilder’s career trajectory as a ceramicist took off with mentoring

By Diane HelentjarisPublished 3 years ago 5 min read
Photo by author.

Dusk had fallen in Leesburg. Virginia. Night air, neither too hot nor too cold, wafted through the propped door of the Clay and Metal Loft. Bill van Gilder was kicking off his weekend pottery workshop with a warm-up Power Point. Lifetime learners sipped wine and nibbled cheese, listening raptly. Now, van Gilder can Power Point and social media as well as any Millennial, even though he started making pots long before the internet.

Pottery by Bill van Gilder. Photo by author.

After starring in thirty shows on the DIY network, selling over 20,000 copies of his books, writing countless trade articles, designing and selling clay-making tools, teaching innumerable students and throwing thousands of pots, he is superbly qualified to teach this workshop. A prodigious producer, he can turn out a tablescape of pottery in about the time it takes for a professional baseball team to win or lose. And his pieces are lovely. But, clicking through the slides of slipware and glazes, that night in Leesburg Bill was doing more than teaching. He was also fulfilling a promise, writing “partially paid” to a bill — the never-ending debt he owes his mentor.

Bill’s debt began in his teen years. He lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, an area with a longstanding and robust artist community.

“I’ve been very lucky in my life, finding the right people at the right time,” explains Bill. Byron Temple, an internationally-lauded potter, was turning out so-called “production pottery” across the Delaware River in Lambertville, New Jersey. Production pottery, in which large volumes of functional ceramics are created by hand, requires a combination of skill, artistic vision, diligence, and practicality. A pottery plate must not only be attractive, but also match its mates. At fifteen, Bill van Gilder began learning how to make production pottery from Byron and found his “joy, what I really loved to do.” He was doubly thrilled to learn from Byron that a ceramicist could sell their pottery. “How cool — to do something I like and do it all the time.” Byron hired Bill.

Pottery and photo by Bill van Gilder.

Growing up on an Indiana farm, Byron Temple had used functional pottery in his day-to-day life. Entranced by ceramics, Temple studied at Ball State, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Brooklyn Museum Art School. In 1960, he went old-school, moving to England to serve a two-year apprenticeship under the prominent potter Bernard Leach. There, he honed his artistic vision to one of creating beautifully crafted production pottery. His work was “rather austere, not very fancy.” Van Gilder recalls Temple as “always looking for the nonintentional imperfection” and treasuring these as marks of authenticity. Temple’s work continues to be celebrated and collected for its spare, simple beauty.

In their book The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice,editors Belle Rose Ragina and Kathy E. Kram find mentoring to be “high level guidance for long term development, not the finite tasks of coaching” and believe it originates “out of the goodness of their (the mentor’s) heart.” They also discuss it as a relationship with a unique focus on career development and growth. A Canadian study found a mentor to be “someone who helps another person to become what that person aspires to be.” The benefits of a mentoring relationship have been recognized for thousands of years — the term dating back to a tale by Homer. Mentoring has long been a prominent part of guilds and trade relationships as newbies advance beyond their technical competence to “learn the ropes” and “get a leg up” from their mentors.

Photo by Joshua Nesh on Unsplash.

Bill and Byron each recognized the mentoring aspects of their relationship.

Before his 2002 death, Temple advised van Gilder, “so now it’s time for you to go out and teach what I taught you.”

Bill had already been doing so. Following Byron Temple’s trail marks, he, too, went to the British Isles to learn clay work as an apprentice.

First stop was Ireland’s oldest pottery, the Terrybaun. There, on the west coast of Ireland, surrounded by mountains and lakes, Bill spent a year perfecting his slipware skills. The lifestyle was rustic and the pay quite low. From there he went on to England, apprenticing at two rural potteries, the Coxwold and the Quay. He studied woodfired slipware and “learned teamwork.” As the final stop in his educational odyssey, Bill spent two years at the Harrow School of Art in London. He followed Harrow with a three-month hitchhike in 1972. Traveling through Europe, he reached Greece before heading back to London.

Pottery and tools by Bill van Gilder. Photo by author.

There, the World Bank made him an unexpected offer –a three-year contract to manage a pottery in Africa. Bill accepted and headed off to the small country of Lesotho. The pottery served as a do-able, practical way for the local Basotho people to develop economic resilience. Bill “never imagined he’d become a teacher” but he realizes he has the ability to explain clearly “what I’m doing with my hands.” By carefully choosing a restricted palette of glazes and materials, the Kolonyama pottery successfully turned out attractive, profitable tableware for export to Britain. The team of nineteen potters was deemed a success. Bill’s work did not go unnoticed. After his time in Lesotho, he accepted another contract and established the successful Mantenga Pottery in Swaziland.

After three years in Swaziland, life in the United States beckoned. Bill had a family now and his children would soon be school age. The van Gilders eventually settled in Maryland. Bill, ever practical, had calculated the financial needs of the family and concluded making pottery alone would not suffice. He diversified. Television, writing, creating tools, teaching, and craft fairs have all been part of his career. Each November he opens up his studio for the local Craft Tour.

The weekend workshop in Leesburg served as a way to answer Byron Temple’s directive. Amy Manson, co-owner of the Clay and Metal Loft, is a former student. Like all successful mentoring relationships, they admire each other’s work. Bill says, “As a student, we hit it off. Amy has great ideas, out-of-the box ones. Huge kudos to Amy — what a go-getter. She’s taken the best of what I’ve taught her…very, very impressed.” He points out “to throw a pot on a wheel takes a lot of practice” and can be intimidating. Amy’s approach has been to concentrate on hand building ceramics, to teach all about clay without the wheel. “…no other studio does what she does…it’s simplified” which makes it “easy to approach…with no fear.” Amy, he remarks has an “energy level which is just so high.”

Bill van Gilder and Amy Manson outside the Clay and Metal Loft. Photo by author.

Bill also pursues mentoring opportunities beyond the world of the professional ceramicist. His place in the Catoctin Mountains is near a large campground and the Appalachian Trail.

“I give away a lot of clay” to campers and hikers passing his home and studio. “The kids get a handful of clay and instructions on how to fire it in their campfire…If you ever get a chance to introduce clay to a young person, do it. They’ll always remember it. Clay is an amazing material, one of the oldest. By passing on any information, you become a mentor in a way, one person after another.”

As the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli said, “The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” Few embody this as well as Bill van Gilder.


About the Creator

Diane Helentjaris

Diane Helentjaris uncovers the overlooked. Her latest book Diaspora is a poetry chapbook of the aftermath of immigration.

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    Diane HelentjarisWritten by Diane Helentjaris

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