The Wandering Potter
January 21, 2007—Being here at Rock Hound State Park reminds me that this is where I met Sandra Bishop face to face for the first time. It was less than a year ago, in early April of 2006. I remember how she climbed all the way to the top of the mountain to collect rocks, while I puffed and panted my way a few hundred feet up the hiking trail. Three years older than me and recovering from cancer treatments, this wiry woman put me to shame.
I first came in contact with Sandra five years ago, when she wrote to me after seeing my site mentioned on an Escapees forum.
I really enjoyed reading your tips and seeing the photos. I got some good ideas. I also always feel compelled to write to any Mac user like myself, since we are so few! I'm still in my house, which is on the market so I can go fulltiming, but I've bought the motorhome and will welcome the time to get it fixed up like I want to. Thanks for some good ideas.
We corresponded for four years, as Sandra sold her small house in Tennessee and took to the road in a used 1994 29' Minnie Winnie motorhome, which she had remodeled into a mobile potter's studio. But let her tell the story in her own words:
My potter's wheel travels on a rack on the back of my thirty-foot motorhome, and is used outside. I took out the queen size bed in the rear bedroom and converted the room into a workspace for my computer, as well as for glazing and storing pottery. I've enjoyed the traveling so much that I've been a little lax as far as producing pottery goes, but I'm finally trying to get in the work mode again. It's a little hard finding potters who are willing to fire things for me, but I have managed. I have also had two kiln-loads ruined because of firing mistakes, one mine and one another potter's. Despite the setbacks, I now intend to produce more pieces for this web site.
I use cone 6 stoneware and porcelain clays. I can't seem to stick with one set of glazes and produce the same pieces over and over again. There is so much to explore and experiment with! I do experience failures trying out glazes, but it is worth it to me. I try hard to work on a series for a while, but the time comes when I want to move on. I always keep careful notes about glazes, so I can repeat whatever I like. I work with various techniques, including sgraffito, which is carving in the clay surface, sometimes through colored slip, painting designs with underglaze, and sometimes altering the form while the clay is still wet. I once had favorite stoneware clay. On this journey, I must buy clay where I can find it, and because of that, I have tried several colors in stoneware, from a buff color to an almost black brown clay.
As for why anyone would quit their job and take off in a motorhome, I did have a reason. In August 2001, I was diagnosed with cancer, stage IIIb. This is just one step short of "sorry, you're dead." However, I went through chemotherapy, and a PET scan at the end pronounced me in total remission. My doctor was thrilled, because he has had "several" patients who stayed in remission with this stage of cancer for as long as two years. (Gee.) I am sure that knowing you have cancer and may die soon affects different people in different ways. I was somewhat burned out on teaching, and I had never traveled or seen much of the country. I just decided on a whole new lifestyle! I decided to sell my house and everything in it, buy a motorhome, and hit the road. I wanted to follow good weather and see all the scenery I've never seen. My three brothers, two grown children, and all my friends thought it was a great idea. My 83 year-old mother's reaction: "You have truly lost your mind!" (Oh well, what's one opinion?)
It took much longer than I expected for my house to sell, but I finally left Tennessee in October 2002. As I write this in June of 2003, I am happy to say that I love this lifestyle! I spent the winter on the beach in south Texas. Since March, I have been through New Mexico and Arizona and back to New Mexico. I plan on going to Colorado next. I stay in state parks because you get much bigger campsites and much better scenery. I really don't like commercial campgrounds at all. I've seen some wonderful scenery (although I am really not fond of the desert) and towns. I won't go back to Tennessee until fall, when there's no tornado threat and it's cooler. I'm a real nature nut, and I've loved hiking, rock climbing and photographing whatever strikes my fancy. Tennessee is a beautiful state, but the summers there are miserable with the high humidity, and the winters are cold. I have been near Santa Fe, New Mexico for almost a month. I have found a good place to fire my clay pieces, and I love the weather here, especially at Hyde Memorial State Park, up in the Sangre De Cristo mountains at 8,600 feet. It is cool and beautiful up there.
Sandra traveled extensively in the southwest, but as her limited finances dwindled—she had no pension and lived on a meager disability payment—she settled in New Mexico, where the annual camping pass made staying at state parks very inexpensive. (You can stay in NM state parks year round for an average of $4.62 a day, including unlimited electricity, water and sewer use.) She posted reports on her website (now defunct.) She hiked and photographed and collected rocks and had a great time.
And she made and sold pottery. Not a lot... by my count she sold about one piece a month in the four years she was on the road. Not enough to let her replace her old blueberry iMac or her old Motorola StarTAC cell phone, which grew increasingly balky over the years. But she worked at it steadily, turning out some lovely pieces. She traded two small pieces to me for tools and equipment she needed. They are blue, apple-sized "knob'n'all" jars (one of them is pictured above) that I keep assorted items in.
Sandra's cancer kept coming back—in her lungs, her spine, her throat, and finally her brain and liver. About every six months there'd be a flare-up, and she'd undergo treatment. She must have had every cancer treatment known to man, from surgery to chemotherapy to radiation. Sometimes the treatments made her pretty sick, but she bounced back each time... until the last time.
One of Sandra's favorite possessions when she lived in Tennessee was a stained glass window. She had to sell it with her house—there was no way to take it on the road with her. Working from a photo that she'd sent me, I recreated it in Adobe Illustrator and printed it out on transparent, self-adhesive plastic so that she could have it in her coach. I'm glad I have that image to remember her by... that and the pots she made for me.
It's easy to call someone who is terminally ill "brave." I think we're all so afraid of death that we automatically assume that someone who is facing it must be made of sterner stuff than we are. The truth is, when you have terminal cancer, you just have to deal with it. But you do have choices. You can curl up in a ball and whimper. You can pretend it isn't happening and go on plodding through your daily routines. Or you can break with the past and set out to make the most of the time you have left. That's what Sandra did. She was brave!
Sandra Bishop died today in Las Cruces, under the crystal-blue skies of New Mexico.