My Beloved Redware Whale Jug

We’ll be getting back from our Orlando journey on Friday. That means I’ll be in town for the summer open house at The Workshops of David T. Smith. I used to always go to the various craft festivals and Christmas events they held over the years but had lost touch with their calendar. Last year I started following them on Facebook so now I know every time an open house is coming up.

I love the grounds there, which are gorgeous in any season but especially in summer and fall. I’ve made it to three of the most recent open houses, but the last one, in early April, holds a special place in my heart.

At every open house master potter Chris Woods, of Turtlecreek Pottery, hosts a kiln opening during which a whole selection of newly fired pieces emerge for the first time. Mr. Woods holds each piece up, explains the glaze used for that piece and how it reacted to the firing, and gives its historical reference if applicable (Shenandoah Valley, Pennsylvania, and so on). When all the new pieces are on display, a name is then drawn for a “pick of the kiln” winner. That person gets to choose from any of the glorious items sitting on shelves and on the ground around the kiln, while all the watchers ooh and aah in envy.

My whale jug on the right. I already had a miniature blanket chest my mother had painted with a folk art whale scene years ago, and I made a small sampler to complete my little whale tableau.

My whale jug on the right. I already had a miniature blanket chest my mother had painted with a folk art whale scene years ago, and I made a small sampler to complete my little whale tableau.

I’ve put my name in the hopper each time for “pick of the kiln.” Being an optimist at heart, I always closely surveyed each piece emerging from the kiln to determine MY pick if my name was chosen. One of the pieces I really loved last November, a flask with a sgraffito eagle, I was able to purchase as one of my Christmas gifts. With my limited income, I can’t spend large sums on redware, as much as I’d like to. The open houses include discounts on all pottery, so at all three events I was able to buy small things for Christmas and my birthday.

At the open house in April, I huddled with everyone else in a high wind to watch the kiln opening. As usual, I made choices if I won pick of the kiln. I’d arrived with my heart set on maybe buying a figurine of a dog drinking from a jug for my birthday, but the price was beyond my gift budget. However, Chris Woods pulled just such a figurine out of the kiln, among many other beauties. I loved some of the jugs, but they were similar to my eagle flask; and then I saw the whale jug. My heart leaped. It was brown, decorated in a deep cream with a spouting whale. I added it to my mental list of possible selections.

When the kiln opening was finished and it was time to pick a winner, the first name David T. Smith called out didn’t answer. Apparently she’d left–you have to be present to win. Then the second winner was missing. When they picked the third winner, I stared at the folded slip of paper and thought, “That’s my entry.” And it was. I’d won pick of the kiln!

I moved forward and bent down for a closer look at everything before me. For a few seconds I gazed at a particularly spectacular covered vase with a proud bird on the lid and beautiful diamond piercing all along the sides. I knew I really ought to pick it, but it wasn’t the piece that had touched my heart.

I looked at all the other canisters and banks and jugs, but it still came down to the jug-tippling dog and the whale jug. I realized I didn’t like this dog quite as much as others I’d seen. “I’ll take this,” I said, plucking up the whale jug.

Immediately David T. Smith said, “You can pick something bigger, you know.” I said something ridiculous, like, “I don’t have the room.” Which was true. But even truer was the fact that I loved that whale jug best of all.

Mr. Smith announced to the crowd, “Since Nancy was so frugal with her choice, we’re going to draw another winner.” The woman who won made a beeline for the bird-topped piece with the piercings.

I asked Chris Woods if I could just leave with my prize (I didn’t want anyone in the shop to think I was trying to just walk off with it). He said, “Sure! Although I think David wants to take a picture.”

I felt as if maybe I’d made a faux pas of some kind by not picking a bigger piece. As we were posing for the photo, I whispered to Chris Woods, “I really wanted that big piece, but I just don’t have room.” He muttered back, “I think I would have made room.”

I couldn’t wait for my picture with my “pick of the kiln” treasure to appear on Facebook, as all the others had after the other open houses. I couldn’t wait to announce to everyone I’d won pick of the kiln. But the photo never turned up. I went through a photo album on the Facebook page and saw one really bad photo of me, Chris Woods, and the whale jug; I definitely looked like I’d been at the mercy of the day-long high wind warnings. There was a good photo of the woman who chose the bird piece, but that one appeared only in the album as well.

Recently an e-mail promotion went out for the upcoming open house trumpeting “here are our pick-of-the-kiln winners!” The lady with the bird redware was there, along with winners going back a few open houses, but I wasn’t.

I realized why, besides my looking horrid in the picture, they might not have used my pick-of-the-kiln winning photo. My whale jug looked quite modest. It didn’t have the impact of all those other winners. I imagine David T. Smith wanted potential attendees to think they were in the running for a MAJOR prize. My little jug didn’t seem that great an award.

The back of the whale jug, made by Chris Woods.

The back of the whale jug, made by Chris Woods.

To me, though, it was. I wrestled with the question for days after the open house, but I never did convince myself I should have picked one of the masterworks, such as the bird-topped piece. To be honest, they just aren’t me. If it hadn’t been the whale jug, it would have been the dog drinking from the jug. Or something like the eagle flask I got for Christmas. I’m fairly certain if I’d chosen the masterpiece because I felt I should (after all, it also was worth a lot more), I would have wound up mourning the loss of the whale jug.

Also, it’s not an exaggeration that space is limited. I have to cycle out certain treasures seasonally in my room, and Mom has plenty of her own things decorating the living room. I’m not sure where I could have safely displayed that stunning piece of redware. And I certainly didn’t want to put Mom in the position of worrying about breaking it. (She once broke a Roseville bowl I’d given her upon my moving in. I said not to worry about it, but she looked on eBay until she found an “as is” replacement at a reasonable price. I took the shards of the broken bowl and made a mosaic picture frame with it. I don’t think I could react quite the same way if that museum-quality redware vase got smashed.)

I’m looking forward to the open house next week, and I’m assuming I won’t be so tuckered from our vacation trip that I won’t feel up to going. I will not be entering the pick-of-the-kiln drawing, though. It just doesn’t seem right, and I’d decline if I did get picked, so it’s stupid to put in for it to begin with. I’m hoping there’s some nice affordable little item I can buy, but it’s fun looking and wishing just the same. Someday, though, I AM going to own one of those jug-chugging dog figurines…

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