SUPERMUD MEMBER PROFILES
Winnette Glasgow - Instructor
Friends and family told Winnette Glasgow that someday she’d find her niche in life. But in a conversation with Scottie Twine over lunch, Winnette described a life of unflagging curiosity. What she really wanted in life, she said, “is to learn a little bit of everything.”
Winnette is a New Yorker, born and raised. Her life-long interests showed up early: she developed her photographs in the family bathroom after everyone was in bed; she loved to teach other kids whatever she already knew; she made her own clothes. And, of course, soon there was pottery. “I always loved the idea of making something functional out of nothing. I really wanted to learn how to do everything that started from scratch.”
Only 16 when she started college, Winnette left after a year and enlisted in the Navy two years later. This was something of a logical step; she’d joined the Civil Air Patrol at 13 and had loved it. There she’d gotten to fly a small airplane and had a chance to learn about meteorology and electricity. Entering the Navy, she’d hoped to be a journalist and photographer, but the Navy sent her to Washington, DC, instead, where she worked at the Pentagon and later back in New York at the Office of Public Information.
It was after completing her term in the Navy that Winnette began taking pottery classes at the YWCA on Eighth Avenue. There she made her first two pots, a long-necked bottle and a small vase, both hand-built. She said, “I look at them now and they’re not too bad!” But the business jobs she took felt dull. Wanting something more challenging, Winnette returned to college (Columbia first, and then City College), focusing on general studies and the arts, then psychology. Throughout she did her photography and, for a time, worked as a photographer for the Columbia University Business School.
Then there was serendipity! One day she passed a bulletin board that announced exams for early childhood education. Winnette thought her course work up to that time aligned with teaching, and she was also provoked by “expert” opinions referenced in her psychology courses that black children couldn’t learn. Winnette said “I had to find out for myself and teach.” While getting her Masters in Education at City College she also took some pottery classes “for some easy credits,” and then joined the 78th Street Pottery.
Her first teaching assignment was to PS 120 in Manhattan, just two blocks from where she was born. She planned to teach for three years and see what impact she could have. She taught 1st grade. “It was inconceivable to me,” she said, “that anybody could not learn to read. So all my kids learned to read. Sometimes I’d have four different reading groups because some kids needed more than others. I loved it! When the kids show an ‘aha’ moment, there’s nothing like it.” Winnette recognized that even kids placed in the bottom class could be clever and smart: “Just keep them engaged and interested in what they’re doing, and they were terrific!” Her three-year commitment turned into six.
Despite her successes, Winnette found herself on the verge of giving up teaching after a stint in a particularly ill-run school. But this is where Winnette’s love of pottery and teaching converged. A fellow potter at the 78th Street Pottery mentioned that Central Park East School – a teacher-run public alternative school with hands-on learning – was expanding. Going to one of their meetings, Winnette noticed people were really listening to each other, and felt it was just right for her. She subsequently taught 3rd through 6th grades at Central Park East for 16 years. Winnette considers herself lucky. Her former students likely feel the same way.
When her teaching day was done, Winnette would go directly to the pottery and would sometimes be there until 1:00 in the morning! “The first six months I didn’t keep anything I made,” she said. “It was sort of the Japanese philosophy.” She wanted to learn everything she could. This included taking summer courses at Alfred University near Buffalo, NY, just to learn about glazes, which included a variety of workshops and working with some very skilled potters. She was hooked! “I couldn’t get enough knowledge, I loved it. It was sort of like the quest I had to learn a little bit about everything, but this was like learning a little bit about everything about pottery!” Pottery was, of course, making something functional out of nothing, always of interest to her. But also “there’s something so relaxing, so all-encompassing about sitting at the wheel or hand building. As you’re doing it your mind is not occupied by a million little thoughts; you have this one thing that just takes you. New questions are firing, like "how can I change this?" "what’s different about that?”
When the 78th Street Pottery closed, Winnette found Supermud Pottery, took some classes and was soon teaching. After more than ten years she says, “I love the teaching. It’s so elevating to be working with the students. I love watching their progress, when they get excited, helping them when they need it.” She actually sees herself more as a facilitator than a teacher: “I take what they’re doing and try to help them do it better, point out the problems, encourage them, show them different directions.”
For many years Winnette has done much of her own pottery in her house in Vermont, splitting her time between there (in the warm months) and her apartment in the City. There she has designed and built two kilns (kiln design is something else she likes), a brick gas kiln and a small electric testing kiln. She particularly enjoys alternative firing (naked raku) where the results are “the whim of the gods – fire and smoke.”
“Pottery speaks for itself, including the lean times when I’m waiting for inspiration or for something that’s different, and I know that if you just keep potting and potting and potting you get better and things change. Inspiration comes from looking at things, at my own pots – suddenly I see something different or get a new idea – or at other people’s pots. Inspiration comes from every potter I’ve ever watched, even beginners.” Japanese and Chinese pots are particularly inspiring; the pieces are “so earthy you can almost see them forming the clay into something, throwing it into the fire and taking it out.” Describing some Chinese pots at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winnette was taken by the “simplicity and sparseness of line, the gracefulness of the form. And there’s almost nothing there but what was there was so beautiful.”
Now “I’m really stretching to get more grace in the form, more simplicity in the line and always paying attention to the function.” Her creative process varies. Sometimes she sees a particular form and decides to make it. Sometimes she simply sits at the wheel, centers the clay, and “makes what that piece of clay allows me to make.”
“When it goes well, it is so satisfying. When you mess up, go do something else!”