sculptural pots in the garden, with stephen procter


IT’S THAT TIME of year when we gardeners are shopping, shopping, shopping, often in hot pursuit of just the right plant that will make the design of a bed or the larger landscape hang together—that elusive missing ingredient. But what if the answer isn’t a plant sometimes, but a pot or a sculpture or some other non-living elements strategically placed?

Stephen Procter, a ceramist specializing in art for the garden, has walked through many a landscape with prospective clients, helping to figure out the roles such pieces could play.

Stephen, who is Vermont-based, has for about 20 years has created monumental stoneware vessels that live in the landscape all four seasons. His work has been displayed at public gardens such as Blithewold in Rhode Island and The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. He helped me think about what else besides plants can help the garden hang together, and how.

Read along as you listen to the April 22, 2024 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

sculptural pots in the garden, with stephen procter

 

 

Margaret Roach: Hi, Stephen. I first got to know of your work thanks to the Instagram algorithm [view his account].

Stephen Procter: Thank goodness for Instagram.

Margaret: I know, whatever. Because many of my virtual colleagues or whatever, friends and garden designer friends and other keen gardener friends, follow you there. And so I kept getting shown your posts of your vessels, your pots, and then so I contacted you and we worked together on a “New York Times” garden column together recently. And since those conversations we had for that story, I keep looking around my garden with a different eye, I have to say, thanks to you. So: thanks to you.

Stephen: [Laughter.] I’m so happy to hear that.

Margaret: Yeah. So your pots are not just flower pots, neither in scale nor in purpose. Tell us how big they range and what the intention, what their intention initially … [Laughter.] How did this happen? You started making these big pots for gardens, didn’t you? About 20 years ago.

Stephen: I sometimes wonder that myself. So, so many questions you asked all at once there. I’ll try to take them up one at a time. My zone is sort of 3 to 5-1/2 feet tall for finished pieces, the upward limitation being my tolerance for risk and the height of my custom-built kiln. And it’s funny, I’ve been to several pottery events recently, and I don’t really feel like a potter, even though I work in clay.

People say potter or pottery, and their mind conjures something quite different from what I do. So I think of myself more as a sculptor who works in clay. My approach is essentially sculptural. When I sit down at the wheel, I am thinking about a rough sense of scale and form and it unfolds over several days as I’m throwing. Once in a while, I’m working with a jig if I want to replicate a form that I’ve loved before. And I wound up putting them in gardens because they’re too big for most homes.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah, they are. They are. So again, I said they’re not flower pots. We don’t put soil and plants in them, although they do have a hole, a drainage hole in the bottom. But neither in scale nor purpose is that what they’re for. But they’re functional. And I know that when we did the “Times” story, you were explaining to me that in the world of ceramics there is this sort of, we’ll say discussion, but it might be a little tenser than that at times [laughter], about functional ceramics, functional pottery versus I don’t know what the other end of it is, whether it’s art or not.

Stephen: Versus nonfunctional or decorative.

Margaret: Yeah, decorative. So yours are decorative, but it’s not that they’re not functional. Correct?

Stephen: I think of them as functional in that they inspire people, they define spaces, they announce significance. I think of them as functional on a quasi-spiritual level, if you will. It that’s not too big a claim.

Margaret: Well, but I think the garden is, I mean to me, what else are we doing out there? It’s not just outdoor decorating, is it? I mean, hopefully it elevates us and the space.

Stephen: Absolutely. And I feel like a piece like this can really focus and amplify that effect in a certain way. The way, especially it, in a certain sense, reorganizes the energy around it in an interesting way, and certainly reorganizes the visual field when something like this enters the garden.

Margaret: Yeah. Well, when we did the “Times” story, you cited a poem which by Wallace Stevens, whose work I’d read, but I didn’t know the poem “Anecdote of the Jar.” I don’t know if you want to tell us about it, but it was beautiful.

Stephen: Sadly, I can’t recite the poem. I haven’t read it that recently. But he talks about placing a jar on a hill and what that does to the surrounding landscape. The line I particularly love is “It made the slovenly wilderness surround that hill.” And he talks about how it reorganizes all the relationships of the things surrounding it.

Margaret: Right. And so from that, I wrote down one line I remember, “The wilderness rose up to it and sprawled around it, no longer wild.”

Stephen: Oh, I love that line.

Margaret: And so there’s that sort of, there’s the thing that’s man-made in the wild space, and the two of them are changed a little bit from the relationship, yeah?

Stephen: I feel like they enter a conversation of sorts, between the man-made and the natural. And one instance of that that’s maybe even a little more intense than the garden, which is already cultivated, is when clients choose to site a piece of mine in relation to a large stone or a large rock, where there’s this huge sort of primal presence of the stone conversing with the tamed stone of the stoneware vessel. It becomes a very interesting conversation, to my mind.

Margaret: Right. Now, I said in the introduction that yours, because they’re this very high-fired stoneware, they can stay outside all four seasons. And clearly a lot of… We’re sort of trying to inspire people in this conversation we’re having today on the podcast, just to consider sculptural elements in the garden that can do the jobs we’re going to talk about. But some of them aren’t going to be four-season because they’re not going to be weatherproof, so to speak. And so that has to be taken into consideration, not just the placement and the scale and so forth, but also the durability. And yours can do that.

Stephen: Yes. I use what potters call high-fire stoneware for exactly that reason. It’s completely impervious to moisture. To help people understand the difference, I sometimes use the comparison of think of the material your dinnerware is made of, as opposed to the material a terracotta pot is made of. This is more like the dinnerware. And I often like to go on and joke that added advantage, it’s also microwavable and dishwasher-safe.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah, if you can haul the 250 pounds of clay into the house and shove it in the microwave. But in other words, what I’m trying to say is that this could be a sculptural element, a non-plant element of another substance, but you’d have to consider its durability and its being weatherproof (or lack of being weatherproof). So that’s just to be kept in mind. So besides the wilderness rising up to it and being changed, and it changing the wilderness, people kind of rise up to it, too, when they see one of these, don’t they [laughter]?

Stephen: I love watching people interact with these pots. I think of the pots as creatures of sorts, and apparently other people do, too. They approach them and they stroke them or they pet them or they hug them. There’s a lot of physical interaction that’s very unselfconscious, and I see that happening and I always feel like, oh, the pots work; whatever its mysterious work is is happening in this interaction.

Margaret: So let’s talk about some of the work and some of the roles that a sculptural element like one of your large vessels can play, and how do we figure it out, where to place such a statement.

So if someone contacts you and says, so I’m thinking I want something, but I don’t know what or where, you sometimes go and go on a walk with them, I guess, or do it photographically or whatever. But I mean, what’s the beginning of that process, of that exploration process?

I mean, I always say one of the most important things about garden design, and I’m no garden designer I just only know some basic principles, is don’t forget, besides walking around outside, don’t forget to go inside and look out the window. Because I also want to have the sense of the outdoors from indoors, because I’m indoors a lot, right? So I don’t know if you take that into consideration, like the placement, not just from the outdoor experience, but from key views within the living space.

Stephen: Absolutely, I do. And it can make a big impact, oddly to an indoor room almost as much as to an outdoor space, the way it’s framed by a window or beckons someone to go outdoors and be in its presence. It’s a wonderful thing. And particularly for people, I just heard recently from a garden designer who lives up in Central Vermont, Judith Irven, who was talking about she and her husband, in the winter sit in their sunroom that faces the hillside where they placed a pot of mine. So they enjoy it all year round from indoors in the winter, and it’s a long winter in the mountains where they are, and watch how it plays with the snow as it comes and goes, and the wind.

Margaret: And I think some of this people may think, oh, right, I’ve used sometimes a pair of, well-placed chairs, is that type of thing. Even in the winter I leave out certain things and I have one pair that’s way up on the hill at the edge of a meadow, and especially in the snow, there’s just something so, it’s like, “Ooh, someday I’ll be going back up there and sitting there in the fairer days.” Do you know what I mean? There’s just that.

Stephen: Yes, exactly.

Margaret: Yeah, that come hither kind of, but not right now, kind of conversation that I’m having looking out the window at it [laughter]. So let’s talk about some of the things. So someone says, I think I want something, but I don’t know what, and I need your advice. And so what are some of the roles, you go wander around or whatever with people? What are some of the things that this type of a statement can do, this kind of a vessel or sculpture can do in a garden?

Stephen: I’ll start with some of the more obvious things it can do. And that is to reinforce the structure of the garden that’s already there. The visual destination at the end of a straight path. Or the sort of, I think, of “greeter function” as you move from one room or area of the garden to another, almost like some people might use a granite fence post or something like that. That is a very interesting way to announce that articulation of the structure.

At the inside bend of a path, along a garden pathway, is another interesting way to create of an arm to swing around [laughter], if you will, as you’re moving down the path. So some of those ways that are, I think of, as classically reinforcing the bones of the garden already.

And then there are more interesting and, I think, more arguably subtle ways of using them. An organic form that’s partially occluded by a large bush or something like that, and reveals only part of itself, creates this sense of mystery and intrigue and what is that? And a different way of drawing somebody to it, sort of by being coy as opposed to by being so fully present.

Margaret: So it’s not like in a formal garden, like in a parterre or a boxwood four-square kind of planting, where there’s a pad with a plinth in the middle and it’s this perfect geometry, and this vessel is fully exposed in the midst of all this other formality and geometry. It’s not like that. You’re saying it could actually kind of be nestled in and not fully exposed, and that’s almost more exciting in some ways.

Stephen: Well, exciting in a different way. And both work beautifully. I just had a conversation yesterday with someone who has exactly that very highly structured, it’s a very geometric herb garden, and she’s looking for a tall vessel to sort of anchor the center of that, and looking for a more organic form to put near an exotic Japanese maple, which I think would be a really interesting … I mean, it’s a very different mood that’s called for in the second place. And she’s talking about a very different kind of pot to enhance that.

Margaret: You were just mentioning two pots, and you didn’t necessarily say that they’d be where they’d both be seen at the same time. But when we talked for the “Times” story, you talked to me about how sometimes if there is more than one such element, it’s almost like they’re having a conversation. That the two vessels almost are speaking to each other and that we connect them, even if they’re not literally next to each other or anything.

Stephen: The mind and eye very strongly draw lines between them. It’s so interesting, and it’s not just my own experience, but people I work with, and when we place pieces in the garden, it creates this other level of structure. And in some cases, this has been a surprising discovery for me, a very relatively small piece, say a globe of 24 inches tall, maybe even a little shorter, if it relates to a larger vessel, it can hold its own in a large space, because it somehow rides the larger energy of the big piece. So a piece that would by itself feel lost, if it has a big brother [laughter], it can tag along.

Margaret: So as we’re looking around our gardens, and I think this is a good time, I don’t know, rather than when it’s in full swing. I feel like right now it’s the bones that I’m looking out at, and I feel like before I get distracted by, oh, those colorful flowers over there that are coming in six weeks or whatever. I feel like it’s a good time to think about things like that. And so it’s not just looking for that one moment always. It could be more than one spot and thinking about the relationship between them. And I love, I guess because of the nature of the place where I live—and it’s not huge; it’s a couple of acres. But where the house is positioned, and the fact that there are woods around it at the perimeter, so it feels bigger than it is. And so I love that sort placing things at a distant view, creating almost axial endpoints like, “Ooh, look up there.”

And I know that’s one of the more obvious things that such a sculpture could do, but I also love that. I love the sense of not just right here in the immediate distance, but let’s look out there, too.

Stephen: Yes. And often one placed in the near and one placed far, in a sense amplifies the sense of distance. It dramatizes the distance to the far view in a very interesting way.

Margaret: Well, and it’s interesting that you say that, because when garden-designer friends have come and tried to teach me [laughter] about garden design over the years, one of the things they’ve told me when I was like, “Oh, well, I think I want to put a gold-leaf shrub way, way in the distance so that it screams to me from across the yard, out the window from across the yard.” And they’re like, “Yes, that’s a great idea. But along the way, maybe on the left and right of that sort of axis, not a literal path but a visual path, maybe you want to have one or a couple of other elements, spots of gold, to help you travel there.”

So that sort of duet again, or it might be a trio [laughter] of pots or plants. So some of the same design ideas, I guess, is what I’m saying, come into play with thinking about these sculptures as opposed just as they do with designing with plants.

Stephen: In a sense, they become visual guideposts that take the eye from one point to another, to another, to another, to a destination. In a certain way it reminds me of the way a skillful painter will choreograph how your eye moves over the painting. And I think you can use elements such as this or as you mentioned, a particular palette of plant you’re using, to accomplish a similar thing.

Margaret: You just said choreograph, and you’re giving yourself away, because you had a career in music before you became a ceramic artist. Yes?

Stephen: Yes, I did. And I was not looking to get involved in clay. It was a sort of surprising midlife seduction. Not one I regret. And strangely, I found the transition from music to clay at the meta level, very seamless. It felt like working with many of the same elements and working with the same impulses. I sometimes say what I had been doing in sound and time, I was now doing with material and space. The common thread being looking to find the line that’s revelatory.

Margaret: Hmmm. So you’re also teaching now. You’re teaching people to make these, to create these large vessels. Yes? That’s another that you’ve sort of branched out into that, and you’re teaching not only, I think, at your place, but elsewhere, including I think, in Europe this year for the first time maybe?

Stephen: I am. I have a lovely invitation from two studios in Amsterdam, and they’ve put together four days of teaching for me in early June, which I’m really looking forward to.

I want to qualify slightly what you said there, Margaret. I’m teaching people that technique that I use to build pieces sectionally, and I’m hoping that people won’t be building my pots [laughter]. I have discovered over the years, against my better judgment, I sometimes allow my students to use tools that I have designed and developed specifically to achieve the curves that I’m after. And not surprisingly, I discover, “Oh my gosh, your pot is just like mine. Give me back those tools.” [Laughter.]

Margaret: Right. But you’re teaching the method.

Stephen: I’m teaching the technique that I’ve developed. It’s a little bit distinctive. It’s drawing on bits and pieces from here and there, and putting them together in a way that suits my personality and my physique, and the way I like to do things. And it’s also very accessible for people. As someone who is in clay, self-taught, and I’ll say that with an asterisk because we all rely on millennia of experimentation by previous potters. But as someone who’s not formally trained in pottery and just figured out how to do this stuff, I feel like what I do and the way I do it is going to be accessible to an intermediate-level potter.

Margaret: I didn’t ask you yet, but I have to ask you: your own home garden. Now, I know that it’s smallish, and I think you told me that your wife maybe had issued a proclamation [laughter] about some changes this spring, summer. She said there are going to be some redos of some areas, or is there so updates ahead?

Stephen: Instead of being a repository for my firing disasters [laughter], she’d like to get a first. We have the shoemaker’s children phenomenon going on here. So yeah, I’ll be bringing home a perfect pot to grace our little postage-stamp garden soon.

Margaret: And is there any new planting going to go on, or what all … Is it ornamental stuff or vegetables or both or what?

Stephen: It’s ornamental. We have this tiny little lot that we share with our duplex neighbors, and it’s ornamental. My sister had a very brief flirtation with trying to start a garden-design business after she retired from a career as an educator. And she has a talent for it and put in a garden for us. And our main specifications were color all season long, and low maintenance. Because the studio consumes me 120 percent, and my wife is also involved in clay and runs her own community clay studio. So sadly, we don’t have a lot of time to spend in the garden ourselves. So those two requirements suit us well.

Margaret: And now a third requirement, which is a pot that isn’t second-handed. No cracks please. No cracks. O.K. [Laughter.]

Well, I’m so glad to talk to you again, and as I said, I hope that this will just, some of these thoughts from your experience, working with your type of vessels with clients and so forth, will be inspirational for people as they think about enhancements to their own garden this year, whatever material or vessels or whatever they plan to use. Because I think it’s an important part of the overall design hanging together. And I was so glad to meet you and talk to you. So thank you, Stephen.

Stephen: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 15th year in March 2024. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 22, 2024 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).




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