The Soft Earth’s Alchemist – H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

Over this past Labor Day Weekend while visiting with friends in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, I met an alchemist: Joan Lederman.

Like an affable conjurer, Joan creates near the water’s edge in a rustic one-room New England studio that’s an innovative fusion of workshop, laboratory, and classroom. She calls the building a “collaboratory.” Her kilns have been running since the early 1970’s. Joan even provides coordinates for her collaboratory on her website:

Like other alchemists, Joan is a knotty person to sort out. Is she a ceramic artist, a potter, a geoscientist, a wizard, an old soul, or a futurist? Any one label falls away from this discerning woman likes leaves from an autumn tree aflame with color.

Joan’s pottery is stunningly beautiful and original.

The mud for her pots comes from Earth’s hot heart: the deep waters around the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Galápagos Islands. There’s also mud from Namibian rocks when the planet was fully glaciated and from an off-world iridium cloud that killed the dinosaurs. The Black Sea, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, the South China Sea, the Bering Sea – a history of the planet through its thick blood-like slurry.

Through seeming serendipity, experts from the scientific community in Woods Hole originally invited Joan the potter years ago to experiment on discarded muds from their core samples, an inspirited opportunity that transformed her into Joan the alchemist.

Each of her pots or plates is labeled today with the name of the mud’s home along with its latitude and longitude, all written in Joan’s coarse but just legible calligraphy that looks like a physician’s prescription to cure a mountain of woes. She wields these soft ancient muds of the planet into glazes on stoneware to transform matter into frozen elixirs that somehow throb with life. Joan creates pots with words.

“Wholeness is what attracts me to handle deep-sea materials,” Joan offers from her engaging website.

More accurately described, Joan Lederman is a Gaian alchemist. As a devotee of our ancient planet, she views Earth – as do a growing number of scientists, poets, and philosophers – as a living system vulnerable to human influence.

Yet her approach is not a morbid fixation on Earth’s troubles, but an optimistic focus on its near-eternal dynamics. Hers is an artisan’s approach open to surprise as her muds self-organize into mesmerizing, unforeseen patterns. She simply enables and shepherds the unexpected.

At 1260 degrees Celsius, she stokes her kiln with a slurry that she calls Gaia’s blood – muds from Earth’s nadir with nothing but water added, “glazes by nature,” she describes gleefully – and then awaits the outcome of her alchemist’s wielding with childlike wonder.

Joan’s works are now in collections around the world including those of Emperor Akihito of Japan, Drs. Sylvia Earle and Bob Ballard, and several Nobel laureates. Further, her numerous commissions, exhibitions, presentations, publications, and consultancies plainly establish Joan as one of the world’s premiere innovators.

As with many independent, creative doers, however, Joan Lederman is bothered by the cold shoulder of the status quo. This woman could shake the foundations of fine arts schools yet she finds herself ineligible for most grants because she’s unaffiliated with so-called centers of higher learning.

An out-of-the-box thinker, Joan doesn’t have much patience for most in-the-box artists for their seeming lack of wonder about the ineffable links between people and an ancient world of water and muds. Joan stands as an irony for the arts world, forging her own path, speaking her own voice, giving from her own heart and mind in the hard-hitting marketplace of earthenware in the Northeast.

Like the difference between green marketing and green-wash, her creations offer a striking new (or, more accurately, old) approach to pottery collectors worldwide, outpacing the mundane and the status quo by the aeons. A lot of her support through the years has come from individuals willing, even eager, to pay the prices she charges.

While visiting her shop, I carefully picked up a lovely blue vase and inquired about its price. “That’s $2,000.” A rare one-of-a-kind porcelain assembled from refined materials. I returned it adoringly to its lodging on an upper shelf. Beyond my budget, but not beyond my sense of awe about its striking beauty – I have superb taste. I bought instead a nice Galápagos mug for $50.

It’s no accident that Joan’s studio, “The Soft Earth,” is located in the same Massachusetts town as the Marine Biological Laboratory and Woods Hole Laboratory. They are synergistic places where creative people reach into the deepest parts of Earth: the scientific labs into unfathomable underworld crevices, Joan’s studio into the heart and soul of what it means profoundly to be a child of Gaia. “The Soft Earth” refers not only to the textures of her beloved muds, but also to the susceptibility of Earth to the whims of our too-often self-interested species.

Joan Lederman is “The Soft Earth” alchemist who speaks a language nearly 4.5 billion years old through her pleasing pots, plaques, and plates. More than pleasing. Her inspired creations, whether sitting solo on a shelf or joining other earthenware in a collection, will signal to any aficionado that the buyer has an atypical but distinguishing palate as old as Earth itself.

– H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.