The year was 1988. We were proud landowners on a property without water and electricity. And the neighbor’s cows roamed through our property. My first priority was to get a pot out of the kiln so that we could start to make a living. So we decided to build the studio first and then our dream home will follow.
I had to get water because a property without water was a useless property. We were committed believers by then and prayed. I wanted water high up on the property because I wanted the centrifugal force to feed the water to the house and studio. So I walked the property with two wires and asked God to show me where to drill. I felt the wires move. It was fairly high up. I contacted Manny Geen who had a water drill and his truck came early in the morning. I stacked a pile of rocks at the place where I wanted the hole. I can still remember how they struggled up the rocky hill and when they finally got close to the pile they were still one meter off. I said no you have to move your rig until we hit the spot. They started drilling and 3 hours later water gushed out of the hole at 35 meters deep. Manny could not believe it. He told me that he personally drilled 12 dry holes in the property next door to us. God was blessing us. Even as He is blessing us now.
I wanted to be a studio potter and make pots that would make me famous. I have never been satisfied with average. My role model was Tim Morris who lived up the road. He made beautiful pots and I wanted to be like him. The studio came first, a long square building with an open space for pot making and then a glaze room and a kiln room. This time I was going to build the perfect kiln. I read up on the Chinese master potters and wanted a huge kiln that I could fire huge pots in. So I designed this large reduction kiln built out of bricks that can withstand 1350 degrees centigrade and I insulated the kiln with vermiculite bricks. It was the best! I was able to control my fire in every corner and the pots that came out of that kiln were worthy of any gallery. I was elated. I made huge platters decorated with flowers. And large casseroles with lids. I started printing on tiles and made huge murals. In my mind’s eye I could see a mural so large that it goes from floor to ceiling over three stories all fired in my kiln. My biggest pots were 1 meter high after firing. To avoid shrinkage I added a generous amount of grog into my clay. The fire was my tool and dirty waste oil my fuel. I would fire right through the night and then sleep for a day. Unpacking the kiln was so exciting. I could not wait to break open the door. and peek inside. This is what I studied and this was me reaching my dreams.
The only problem I faced was the turnover time. It took me two days to pack the kiln and fire it and I had to wait seven days for it to cool. It was so well insulated that the heat just stayed in the kiln. I either had to make more intricate pots and sell them at a higher price or get another kiln that cooled down quicker.
It was during this time that Anja came along and life in the caravan with one toddler and a baby in arms became too cramped. I had no money to build the house and so we decided we will just have to stay in the studio. So half of the studio was converted into a house.
We displayed our pots at all the country fairs and at one of the fairs we met someone who told us of a large kiln that was going for a very good price at a tile factory. We bought the kiln and three weeks later it came to the plot on a crane lorry. It was huge. It had three floors with a 5 meter high gantry and a hoist. It is called a top hat kiln. I could not wait! No more dirty oil. I quickly built up the walls to accommodate this new kiln.
Eskom installed a huge transformer on the property and we were ready to fire up the beast. Now I could go bigger and better! I packed the kiln and started firing it. It was incredible. At 1220 degrees the temperature stopped rising. I could not get it higher. I had to stop the firing and wait for the kiln to cool. I then opened the kiln to a half baked kiln. I looked into the kiln and all the elements had collapsed. I phoned Johnson Tiles who told me that the elements were for a lower temperature and can not be used as a stoneware kiln. This was devastating. I had a replacement set of elements and had to scrap all the pots and then had to redesign my clay to fuse at a lower temperature. This was back to basics. I also had to make a new set of glazes. None of my glazes worked. I was now in a grey zone. I could not use earthenware glazes or stoneware glazes, I had to mix my own.
During this time we ran out of space and I started to pack my pots outside to dry before firing. I remember the one morning when the cows came to graze again and they knocked over half the pots. Annalie became so angry with the neighbor who left his gate open. She gathered my Zulu workers and chased the cows 5 km down the road through the gully up to the tar road and across the tar road all the way to Gerhardsville. Years later a policeman came to our shop and told her about the strange case they had when a lady chased the neighbors’ cows across the road. We had a good laugh about that.
I remember the two cars we had. There was an old Mercedes 250d diesel and the Isuzu Diesel pick up. Many mornings neither one wanted to start and I had to use Quickstart in the air cleaner to get them to start or if that did not work I ran them down the hill to kickstart them. More than once both cars were stuck at the bottom of the property and I had to go and get our American neighbor to come and help us with a towing cable to get the cars started.
My best pots were going to Sandton Art Gallery who used a high markup. Philip at the gallery told us that his best customers were Arabs. So the first opportunity we got I went with SAFTO (South African Foreign Trade Organization) to a show in Dubai and subsequent shows in Italy. The Dubai show was such a success. We opened a showroom in Dubai and sold pots there for 5 years. It enabled us to buy the Silver Hills Mining shop on the road and set up our showroom on the main road going to Hartbeespoort. I expanded the showroom to include a restaurant but soon discovered that I was not good at that. It was such a burden because we had to work seven days a week now. Over weekends we served meals in the restaurant and it was a real commitment.
One evening we were traveling to Hennopsriver and the weather really turned foul. There was an electric storm. That evening lighting burned down the thatch roof of my shop. This was another defining moment in our lives and I had to start all over again with two young children in primary school. That is when we decided to change careers and domicile. So Hartbeespoortdam was our new destination. We became Harties people and I became a rockhound. I started selling crystals and minerals at fairs all over the world. That is for another blog. Please comment below.