30-11-2004

 

Jan de Rooden
Surrender to clay

 
Spring 1936. A small boy walks down a street in the city of Nijmegen with his grandmother, holding her hand.
His mother has died suddenly. In front of the show-window of a department store, they halt. Behind the glass sits
a tall man in white overalls on a potter's wheel. He folds his hands around a lump of yellow clay and in one fluent
movement a slender vase appears. Days in a row the little boy asks his granny to take him back to that window.
The little boy's name is Jan de Rooden.

Summer 1955. Gone are the wartimes and the years at primary school in the wooded border area with Germany.
Past is the seminary high school stay in the Duth polder land, the brief noviciate in the monastery in Limburg and
the long sojourn in France.
Here I am, in the evening light of the Kerkstraat in the old center of Amsterdam, standing in front of a low window.
Captivated, my eyes follow the movements of a figure in white overalls who by bulb light works on a kick wheel
with supple, yellow clay. Once again that material proves irresistible and I surrender on the spot.

The next morning, instead of enrolling at the Royal Academy's art history course as planned, I am in the pot shop
"de Stenen Kater" (the Stone Tomcat) and inquire if they can teach me. They can, but the fee is too high for my little
student income as evening worker at the PTT post office.
At once I start searching for the right place in the town I have just come to. In the Nieuwe Kerkstraat I find a house,
where in the lofts Delft blue souvenirs are produced by Meilink.
Next to the tables with casting-moulds stands a kickwheel idle. This wheel I may try my hand at
in return for some odd jobs.
Six weeks later I throw a small jug and then know for sure, that I like clay and clay likes me.

But now I should find a pottery where pots are still made by hand and again I am in luck.
In the artist and student restaurant "De Groene Kalebas" that I frequent, two friends urge me to go and see
Lucie Q. Bakker, "the finest potter in town".
It is midwinter by now and with coarse woolen socks for gloves I cycle to Binnenkant.
The lady who opens the door tells me: "Do come back when the thaw sets in, now my place is all frozen."
Eagerly I ring the doorbell again two months later, hardly noticing how welcome I am.
Lucie Bakker, not able to make a living from the pots she can turn out by hand, has ordered a jiggering machine.
It can arrive in her attic studio any day now, and she expects me to operate it. So I hardly get on the kick wheel,
but find myself turning and casting plaster moulds and setting up a small production line. This is not the job I have
been dreaming of, but it proves a good school.
Lucie soon entrusts me, too, with the sensitive job of
glazing the wares and then with the loading and firing of her kilns.

Autumn 1957. For a year and a half, Lucie and I have been working shoulder-to-shoulder. Now the pottery is stable
and I feel I can leave. Actually I should. Not only have I learnt everything I could here, but out there someone is waiting
for me.
A year ago I have met Johnny Rolf and on the beach we promised each other to marry in twelve months and to start
a pottery together. There we would make pots that came from our hearts, beautiful ones, but also other things clay
would inspire us to.
Saying goodbye to Lucie is not easy. I have grown attached to her and her pottery. Also Lucie is concerned about us:
"Why attempt the impossible again? You know how hard I tried, and I did not succeed. To make a living by ceramics
there should be a demand for them, and there is none."
I respond to her worries with the same argument Johnny and I use with our concerned families: "Give us five years.
We believe there is a future for what we want. We must try it our way".

A week afterwards Johnny and I are in the town hall marriage-room and a few hours later we are on our way hitch-hiking
to Denmark, famous for its furniture design and for its ceramics.
In our rucksack we carry a book on glazes. Its focus is limited to earthenware, but it is the one and only book on glazes
on the market in the Netherlands.
On the Danish island of Bornholm we study in our little cabin above the sea. We walk along the rocky coast and
through the woods. We visit ceramic factories and individual potters in their studios.

After two months our first adventure abroad comes to an end. With great expectations and with our energies refreshed
we start to hitch back to Amsterdam. We have decided to each find a job to pay for our livelihood and little studio.
For Johnny this means a return to office work. The director of the earthenware factory "Fris" in Edam finds for me
a part-time job in the plaster-mould section.
From this factory we can also buy a ton of white stoneware clay in powder. From elsewhere, suppliers are scarce,
we obtain glaze materials and pigments. With these aboard, we can make a start. Every spare moment is from now on
devoted to the throwing and building of pots and to mixing the hundreds of tests needed to find glazes with which
we can work.
Four, five months pass this way but then the day arrives, that anxiously we open the kiln to unload for the first time
our own creations.
That day we realize that the world of ceramics lies open before us. We are en route.
 
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