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The Eye of the Beholder

June 27, 2016

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so the saying goes.


My dad’s Uncle John was a curious fellow. He lived in a hacienda in the foothills of San Jose, built with his own hands in the late 1920s. Uncle John was a painter, potter and writer, quite the intellectual in his day. Once a year his good friend Zane Grey would arrive from New York for a month-long visit. Uncle John was married to Josephine. The couple were not blessed with children, but the couple took an interest in my fatherless dad, who spent many childhood summers running barefoot around the property, killing rattlesnakes, hunting mountain lions that frequented the area, and helping Uncle John with his pottery business.


Uncle John sold his pottery from a shack beside the road leading to his property. He’d retrieved several old washing machines from the city dump, turned them upside down and converted them into potter’s wheels. The clay was pulled from an arroyo that coursed through the property.


When Dad’s Aunt Josephine died, Uncle John became squirrely and anti-social, seldom leaving the estate. Over the years he became a hermit, making little contact with the outside world. His isolation always bothered my mother, who challenged herself to convince him to engage more with his family. Every year she’d invite him to our house for Thanksgiving and he’d never even acknowledge the invitation. After a while he stopped answering his phone and eventually it was disconnected. When I was twelve, we were sitting down to enjoy our turkey when there was a knock on the door. Uncle John, bent and rumpled in an old suit, was standing on our front porch. In his creased hands was a gift for my mother, a sample of his pottery.


Uncle John passed away soon after accepting my mother’s invitation to join us for Thanksgiving, but the hand-thrown vase he presented to my mother has claimed a prominent spot in every home my parents owned. Shortly after my father died, my mother gave the vase to me.










Back when I was in grade school, I mentioned the vase to my art teacher, Mr. Mestemacher, who expressed an interest in seeing it. Mr. Mestemacher was a talented potter, although he tried and failed to teach me how to throw pots taller than an inch or two. He examined the vase for several minutes before saying, “I have no idea how this was made. It’s unbelievably lightweight. The clay is masterfully thin for pottery this size, and the glazing technique is unusual—applied with fingers and rendering the effect of an Impressionistic oil painting— yet it’s been fired like traditional opaque glazes. It’s remarkable, but I can’t decide if it’s beautiful or just plain ugly.”


Over the years, guests to our home have made similar comments. Some people love it while others think it deserves to be used for target practice. I admit to times when I wish an earthquake would send it crashing to the floor so I wouldn’t have to care for it anymore. So far that hasn’t happened.


Care to render an opinion? Do you think this vase pretty? Or butt ugly? I promise you I have no vested emotion in this curious vase and can handle all opinions. Have I mentioned that Mrs. Chatterbox and I are downsizing? Anyone have a spot for this vase? I’m accepting bids.







Note: Happy Birthday to our son CJ, thirty-six today!




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Up close, yes. From a distance, I can see both the unique beauty and the ugly. You'd feel bad if it did break though.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on June 27, 2016
What a great story. It is many a long year since I read a Zane Grey western, a very talented author. I love the vase, just even the sheer tenancity to get his business gowing with what he had makes it priceless.
By: John on June 27, 2016
Oh and happy birthday CJ, did he get a vase for his birthday........... :)
By: John on June 27, 2016
amazing- too bad this is the only one-it would be interesting to compare several -it is beautifully done with the mark of his hands. So unusual.
By: Kathe W. on June 27, 2016
I can see both sides, too. However the way you describe Uncle John it seems to me that the vase contains poignant memories of a piece of family history. To me that makes the beautiful/ugly question almost meaningless.
By: Botanist on June 27, 2016
I think it's beautiful, and an honest-to-goodness treasure. Not just for its appearance, but for the painstaking work put into and for the family story behind it. But then again, I'm an old sentimental fool. :)
By: on June 27, 2016
I like the vase! The memory is enough reason to keep it (but I might put this story in a sheet inside the vase)
By: Sage on June 27, 2016
Is Antiques Roadshow coming to your neighbourhood? I have a feeling this is worth more than you realize just from what your teacher said and the look of it because it has all the ear marks of a great folk art piece. The story is also worth value to the vase from what i know about Antiques Roadshow. I am not kidding either! I wonder if you have a way to contact someone from that show and send a picture of it. remember one man's junk is another man's treasure. I think it is worth something and the story is quite beautiful
By: Birgit on June 27, 2016
I love that pot, Steve, and have a perfect spot for it amongst the other ceramics I've gathered and saved despite our most recent downsizing. Don't give it away; I'll come visit it soon.
By: Jo on June 27, 2016
I think it is a damn fine vase!
By: cranky on June 27, 2016
I'm surprise to find the vase actually quite beautiful. I think the painting is beautifully done, but I somehow want the finish/surface to be different -- like maybe a combination of smooth and textured would have given it a more polished effect. Still from what I can see of the lip, it DOES look much finer than amateur handmade clay pots usually end up. The shape is nicely done and I do like the painting. That would be a keeper for me.
By: Mitchell is Moving on June 27, 2016
It's lovely, and it's got a wonderful story attached. Many happy returns of the day to CJ!
By: messymimi on June 27, 2016
Lovely vase, quite artistic in its finish. The backstory is fascinating and would make it a keepsake alone. Happy Birthday to CJ.
By: Tom Cochrun on June 27, 2016
What an interesting man and put me in the I love it column for the vase. How sad though that his last years were so lonely. He really must have loved and depended on Josephine. I hope your Dad got to meet Zane Grey. I just ordered a book by him. He use to be a real favorite when I was a youngster.
By: Arkansas Patti on June 27, 2016
It is a treasure and speaks volumes to the artistic talents your family enjoys. Happy birthday, CJ!
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 27, 2016
I love the vase. Before you use it for target practice, let me know and I'll send you a shipping container so that you can send it to Jilda and me. R
By: Rick Watson on June 27, 2016
Hmmmm. It means something to you, because of the story behind it. I wouldn't want it because I'm approaching minimalist tendencies when stuff is not "useful." The vase looks great on the stairs outside in the sunlight...maybe it just doesn't belong inside, on a shelf or table (like it seems in the first picture).
By: Pixel Peeper on June 27, 2016
Okay , I can make an idiot of myself and comment. Ugly and beautiful are out of the equation. The vase has a haunted isolated look ...maybe like uncle John who was a loner.
By: red Kline on June 27, 2016
I think it should remain in the family. I hope CJ likes homemade vases. Yes, it would make a good birthday gift for him. Better than a $3.00 change purse and a box of Sno-Caps, which seem to be the gift of choice around my house.
By: Val on June 27, 2016
I think it's beautiful--& so was your Uncle John!!
By: fishducky on June 27, 2016
A vase without context is not worth rendering an opinion upon. It needs to have a setting, and to be filled with flowers. At that point, I could tell you if it was ugly for the room that it was in, or whether or not it is ugly for the flowers that are in it. By itself, without context, it is a vase. I think it could be pretty or ugly depending on how you frame it. And because we went to the Chinese garden together, I'm more or less an expert on "framing" things now.
By: Michael Offutt on June 28, 2016
Well, I come down on the ugly side. But it doesn't matter. What makes it valuable is not the aesthetics but the story and the heritage.
By: Tom Sightings on June 28, 2016
Considering its origin and the story behind it, I'd hold on to it. Since I'm downsizing, too, I have no place for it, but someone would be lucky to claim it. Please wish CJ a happy birthday from me, OK? :)
By: scott park on June 28, 2016
I like it. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on June 28, 2016
I think it is absolutely beautiful!!
By: sissy on June 29, 2016
I think it's beautiful!!
By: The Bug on June 29, 2016
I love it. I love the rich colors, the pleasing roundness of the piece coupled with the round flower petals, and the thick, hand-sculpted glaze. No idea whether it's valuable, but I think it certainly could be, because of the unusual technique. If I weren't already downsizing, I'd consider adding it to my collection of (mostly plain brown) pottery. Here's a thought: if you sell it, keep a framed photo of it for yourself.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on July 3, 2016

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