Monday, October 31, 2005

Lily and the People

There’s a pottery studio in my Sunset Hill neighborhood that can boast more sense of community than the sole pub in an English village. Lily and the People is a working clay studio that offers classes for adults, children, teens…and what an asset to the neighborhood. This is Carrie Anderson’s studio and she has enough energy to occupy the whole block. In this storefront setting there are wheels, shelves and shelves of ceramics, boxes marked with the glaze names, big worktables and an upright piano. Kids do clay camp; adults do classes and open studio. And then there’s the Summer Solstice Party.

The sign goes up on the window in early June. Raku clay is here. A sign for those already in the know. On the Saturday closest to solstice there is a raku firing party (and potluck) at Lily and the People. Absolutely anyone can step through the door, pick up a bag of clay and put down their name. Carrie gives out directions on size and deadline. Children and adults hand build pieces and drop them off to be fired. Then on that Saturday night people pour in from all over the neighborhood to glaze their piece and watch it pass through the pyrotechnics of the Japanese firing process known as raku. As one man explained to the fire department, raku can be translated as happiness through luck.

Imagine a wide street in a mostly residential neighborhood on the longest day in Seattle, imagine the sidewalk overflowing with people as they watch artists who just can’t resist flames. Potluck dishes are spread on the big tables and continually replaced. The neighborhood starts to arrive at 6 p.m.; nobody can bring themselves to leave. In a parking space outdoor kilns are stacked full of just-glazed pottery and fired up to 1,850 degrees. A crew of fire-lovers feed more newspaper into flaming trashcans as they prepare to transfer the pottery directly from kiln into reduction chambers.

About ten p.m. it’s finally twilight and the process becomes even more dramatic. When the kilns are opened, the pieces glow orange and translucent. There’s a gasp from the sidewalk crowd. The wine has been flowing. Someone is playing jazz on the upright. Kids have gotten their hands on a microphone that’s attached to speakers. The pieces are lifted out of the trashcans with tongs; the burning paper has depleted the oxygen and given the pieces the raku finish, in which the outcome is never the same. They’re dipped into tubs of water and then deposited to the side to be claimed. It looks like the party could go on all night, but it’s supposed to end by 11 p.m.

Three hundred sixty-four days of the year it’s a working clay studio open to students, but on the 365th day; it’s the best party in town. Even if the fire department feels compelled to make an appearance. It’s another great solstice at Lily and the People on 32nd NW.

Lunch with August Wilson

The news of playwright August Wilson’s death on October 2nd was in the newspaper the following day. He never wrote a play set in Seattle, but since 1990 this is the city where he lived and wrote. His ten-play cycle of the black experience in Seattle were set mostly in Pittsburgh, his hometown. I had read that he favored a few cafés to do his writing, and used to see him occasionally, headed from the bus stop to the Mecca Café on Queen Anne. The Mecca is a still a haven for smokers.

Last July I was having lunch at the Whole Foods Market on Roosevelt, having gotten too hungry at the U-District Farmer’s Market to make it home. Although I love to browse at Whole Foods and admire vegetables as art, I don’t like to shop there because it costs so much. It was Saturday and crowded where there are tables. My friend said, "isn’t that August Wilson just sitting down?" He looked just like every photo that I had ever seen of him, sports coat and distinctive hat.

The mushroom bisque soup was not only pricey; it was bland. I checked for condiments by the utensils. None. Then I noticed salt and pepper shakers on just one table. I approached the playwright and said, "excuse me, are you using your pepper?" He shook his head and gestured to it. I took his pepper.

My friend and I ate our lunch. Some innocent question caused me to start crying, which is a family trait that not everyone finds charming. Even I as I wiped my tears with a Whole Foods napkin, other people hovered by the table hoping that we were done. I looked around and thought about all of the different life stories of the 30 or so people perched on stools by the window and seated around tables, most oblivious to the man who would soon be memorialized as the "most important dramatist of the late 20th century."

I read a month later that August Wilson had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June, and only had few months to live. He was quoted as saying that he was ready; he had finished his life’s work. When I read about his death at Swedish Medical Center I realized that he already knew his diagnosis on that day that he was having lunch at Whole Foods. Far from his usual, smokier haunts. I’m glad that I wept in his presence, no matter what the reasons, and I’m glad that I asked him for his pepper.

August Wilson