Life in Salt: A Talk with Joan Lederman, Deep Sea Sediment Potter

by Owen James Burke

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Joan Lederman lives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and makes pottery from ocean sediment in her beachfront studio. The idea started when a friend of Joan’s working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) ended up with excess sediment on the deck and for whatever reason, decided to bring some back to Joan, thinking she could make a pot out of it.

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Different sediments have different grains, too. Below is a piece made with foraminifera, single-celled organisms that form shells and leave them behind when they die. In the glaze, they leave behind orange spatters. It’s incredible to imagine how many different sediments and colors of sediment go into Joan’s pottery. Now she can’t get enough, but she’s learned not to ask for materials, and rather just be appreciative when they come.

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Scut: What first drew you into the sea? You seem to have a deep interest in undersea geology geothermal activity, but is this how you first got to know the sea?

JL: It was very early in my life when my grandparents had a cottage and our whole family would congregate there at Rockaway Beach in Long Island. You know, it was pretty rough stuff. I was this little kid, and all we did all day was kind of fight for our life in the water. It was amusement, it was terror, it was happiness — it was everything. It had that deep root of familiarity.

Scut: How did the studio come about?

JL: I just happened into this studio by the sea. What happened when I got to Woods Hole, the smells just tapped into my memory. It would be honeysuckle, or the dampness of the wet, salt air, and that’s what kind of kept me here. Then I got this studio — 200 feet maybe, from the ocean. I didn’t really look for it, it just sort of fell into my lap. It wasn’t a really commercially viable space — there’s no plumbing in it, and there can’t be — but it’s in a flood zone. It was a boat house, and it had been an icehouse before it was moved to that location and then it just housed this big sailboat.

Scut: How did you develop your interest in undersea geology and geothermal activity?

I think that had something to do with being plopped into the middle of a scientific community where I was never really very scientific — well, I wasn’t a student of science. There was this sense of not belonging but also wanting to belong, and then realizing that under it all, we’re all connected to the natural world…Then the mud came along.

But, in between, I was living in my studio with no pluming for five years, so I…would commonly take whatever dishes I had down to the ocean in this big clay pot that I had made, and I’d kind of rinse them and then I’d go for a swim. I swam really vigorously for a long time and I got very endorphin-rich, and I came back from swimming one day and I couldn’t find my dishes on the beach. I was like, ‘What? Where are they?’ Then I began to focus in a different way, and I saw that they were there, but they were camouflaged…and then I realized, that is how I want my work to be — so contextually aligned and harmonizing with the landscape that it’s not something that calls out.

When the sea mud came to me, it just began this whole wondering about the place, and it was before we were commonly seeing GPS coordinates — it was 1996. This guy gave me this scrap of paper with the latitude and longitude coordinates on it and said that it was from 4,500 meters deep…that’s like two-and-a-half miles down…That’s really dark down there, what else is it like down there? I started to feel really connected, so that started it and it’s never stopped since then.

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The ‘waste’ mud that’s delivered to Joan

Scut: How did you get the idea, and how was the first piece brought into fruition?

JL: People think that I had the idea and that I went and implemented it, but that’s not what happened. Somebody was on the deck of a ship when they were doing a certain type of coring where there’s waste. This box goes down into the seafloor — there’s no bottom on the box — and it cuts into the mud. Somehow, the scoop goes under it, and then they lift the whole box onto the deck of the ship. Then they put these cores in — maybe 30 inches, these PVC pipes. After the pipes are driven into the mud, the sides flap down and all the mud between the plastic pipes went into buckets, and they were going to throw it overboard. So there was this crane operator on the deck of the ship who knew me…and he said this mud is too good to go to waste. I think I’ll bring it to Joan. My kiln was already running, which only happened twice a year…and so I found out the day after he gave it to me that it melted into a glaze — or into a blob, anyway.

So at that point, I realized that this is answering the question of how I can build a relationship with the science community. Now I was using their material, and I could actually knock on their doors and say “What are you doing with this stuff?” and I started to get answers.

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A pot gifted to the Emperor of Japan, made with sediments collected from 7 seafloor areas by 7 different ships

Going back just one year from when I got the mud, there was another experience that helped me be prepared to do something with the sediment: my husband died. I had his remains…and I went out in a kayak on a fall day when it was really, really calm. I put the paddle down and I let it kind of sift between my hand. As I was watching how they would fall, I was thinking ‘Wow, there are remains of all sorts of creatures everywhere mixed up on the ocean floor. There are no boundaries — no political boundaries, no species boundaries…and I felt the seafloor was my family.’ I was really ready for the connection, and it was just a lot of trial and error after that.

Scut: How long did it take you to produce the first piece you were satisfied with?

JL: Maybe a year and a half. There weren’t a lot of firings.

Scut: Where does this process begin? Now that you’ve got a routine going, how do you get the sediment into your hands?

JL: It’s all just word of mouth. Back then, in 1997, I was trying to get more…I got this official letter from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution saying they couldn’t help me get more mud because they get grants to go out to sea to do research and to archive the sediments to be used by scientists all over the world, but they said that if equipment malfunctions or sometimes there’s extra, they’ll put out the word that people could contact me. That’s what happened. A lot of people ask me how I get the materials…When there were small amounts, I’d use small amounts…now, at this point, there are materials that I haven’t even tested.

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Earth crust from the Kane Fracture Zone along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, from which Joan collects dust to create a glaze

Scut: Do you have a favorite sediment for glaze? Where’s your favorite location from which to collect?

JL: I guess the one that I feel the most befriended by — it’s not just that I like it — is from drillings into the Mid-Atlantic Ridge [along the Kane Fracture Zone], so it’s a rock powder that’s slurry that I use sometimes thick and it breaks up into these brick-like shapes, and sometimes I use it really thinly on porcelain and it’s really sheer and revealing of the clay. I feel like it’s close to the center, kind of like the heart.

Scut: I read on your blog — you had a posting from a scientist — it said that your glazes are almost entirely comprised of silica, iron, calcium and aluminum. Are they all basically that compound, or do they vary a lot? I don’t know a whole lot about sediment.

JL: I don’t either. Some are more silica based ones that have a lot of diatoms and needle-like things, and they tend to be more glassy and clear. Then there are ones that are mostly carbonates that have a lot of shells of crustaceans and foraminifera and they don’t flow quite as much. But then, most sediments probably have some of both. I don’t look under a microscope, so I have this very experiential observation about them, and it’s almost necessary in a way because it would be interesting for me to know what each one was, in a way, but I’d get very distracted if I did that.

Dan Fornari is really good about seeing the art in it, and he was at the beginning when I met him years ago. He was the first to give me hydrothermal vent granules. It was around 1997…and he was the main scientist who was doing the dives with Alvin, and he asked, “If I give you some of this hydrothermal vent stuff, could you make something for all the people who help, but can never go down in the submarine?” I said, “Yeah, what is a hydrothermal vent?” and he was just so good. He said, “It’s what makes the earth’s crust.” Well, that I can understand.

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LEFT: KFZ rock thinly laid on incised porcelain clay, RIGHT: thick on stoneware clay.

The muds are sometimes incredibly mineral-dense. The Red Sea, for instance…I got a bunch of small jars once because they were down there in nineteen sixty-something and they found this very, very briny place where the water temperature was like 130 degrees fahrenheit and the ship slowed down and they started to sample in the area and there were all these small jars that weren’t labeled really well…so they eventually passed them to me because they weren’t useful…so I emptied them all out on a table and some of them were like white-beige, and some of them were bright iron-red, burnt umber, raw umber, and yellow ocher.

Scut: What’s been your most wonderful experience on or with the sea?

JL: A trip on a sailboat from Maine coming back to [Woods Hole]. It was a 32-foot wooden catboat — I don’t sail, but a couple of friends did and it was just going to be a fun trip, but the weather was inhospitable and we’d been caught in fog for days and days. We island-hopped a little bit, and one night we were on Monhegan Island; it was about 10 o’clock at night and the sky cleared and we took off. After a couple of hours, we were like, ‘What’s that on the horizon over there?’ It was probably midnight or something. There was this green, churning light, and it was the phosphorescence being churned by this weather system, and we were in a gale. We were in the gail for 15 or 17 hours and we couldn’t go back to land because it was too rocky. We were in this tiny little boat, and the guys who were sailors were harnessed…but I was pretty certain I was going to die — that we were all going to die. That was pretty wonderful; that was about it.

Scut: My follow-up question was going to be what’s been your most horrific moment at sea, but it sounds like they’re one in the same.

JL: It’s the humility, I think.

Scut: What’s your favorite book about the sea?

JL: I’m more of a poetry person. “New Religion” by Bill Holm, but that’s more recent. It’s a fun twist, it’s like, ‘What if everything we’ve been searching the heavens for is really down there?’ My eyes are tired. I’m a good reader in the morning, but I don’t really give myself that time.

Scut: What’s your favorite tool or gadget to have on the water?

JL: My favorite tool for being in the water is my bathing cap, because otherwise my hair gets in my eyes and over my nose and I can’t breathe.

The silicone ones don’t break too fast, but they compress my head a little bit. I kind of like the cloth ones, but they fall apart faster, so I tend to use the silicone ones.

There is a second tool. Even though, for years, I’ve been great in the water. I have a little trouble with sciatica from kicking too much…they have these flotation diapers. It’s like a velcro, neoprene thing that you wear below your waste, so it’s very soft. You float in the stand-up position, but you’re neutrally buoyant, and you don’t spend energy floating.

Scut: Any big projects on the horizon? Are you going to delve into anything different, or new?

It’s more an attitude that’s going to be a little bit new, to do things that are easier. I went off the deep end doing complicated combinations of things. I think I’m going to go off into a simpler sort of mode, but I’m not sure what it’s going to look like yet.

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A pot Joan made from Kane Fracture Zone sediment, or in general terms, the earth’s crust

You won’t find Joan Lederman’s pots just anywhere, but if you have an interest in her work, contact her through her blog, the Soft Earth.

(All media courtesy of Joan Lederman)

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