It was spring of 2004 when I first saw her. Seated amongst the audience, I was entranced, hanging on her every word as she chronicled her journey as a clay artist. As I think back to that day, can I recall the details of her story? Not in the least but what comes to mind is the powerful impression it had on me. It was not just the honesty and humility of her words but the fact that she was not afraid to share her vulnerability that really spoke to me. It was the first and last time an artist talk made me tear up. Up until the talk I had not known her name or her work but by the end of those ten minutes, unbeknownst to her, she had become my hero. In 2004, I had barely begun my ceramic journey while she was an established artist in the prime of her career. If I was told that day that we were destined to become good friends in the next decade, I may not have believed it. But as it happened. Rebecca Roberts and I developed a bond that transcended our age and experience gap.
Why do I feel compelled to tell this story now? It has something to do with this year, 2020, but not the reasons for which 2020 is set to go down in history. It is about a volcanic eruption, some ash, friendship and a bit of destiny.
For me, May 18th, 1980 must have been just another day of learning letters and numbers in my kindergarten class in New Delhi, India. For Rebecca, it probably would have been a day of working in the studio at College Station, Texas, but for the people living in the northwestern part of US, that date was going to be infamous for recording the deadliest and the most economically destructive volcanic blast in the country’s history. Forty years ago, on May 18th, Mt. St. Helen’s in Washington experienced a volcanic eruption of epic proportions, and while the details of this explosion make for a fascinating read, my story ‘s focus is the ashes that blanketed large swaths of land in the aftermath of the blast, particularly a small town in Oregon that was Rebecca’s home town and which she invariably visited after the event. Being a ceramic artist she couldn’t resist the pull of collecting some ash for future glaze experiments. She filled up a plastic box with the volcanic ash and brought it back to Texas and there it sat in her studio, untouched, waiting…
Earlier this year, before the pandemic had become our new reality, in a time when we could still visit friends, unaware of terms like social distancing, Rebecca gave me a very precious gift: that very same box of ashes that she had collected forty years ago. She told me that seeing the experiments I was doing, incorporating ash, rock and other natural material to create crunchy surfaces, she wanted me to have her stash of the Mt.St. Helen’s Ash to play with. I couldn’t believe it! And the words she said as she handed me her box made me think of destiny in our story. She told me that “these ashes have traveled with me from Oregon to College Station then through three more moves. Little did I know they were actually intended for you these many years later. At least I knew enough to hang onto them until I could pass them on to the correct person.”
Rebecca had handed me not only her treasure but also her faith that I would do justice to the ashes and that, coupled with the fact that it was the fortieth anniversary of the explosion, propelled me into immediate action. I read up about the explosion, consulted experts in the ceramic field to better understand the material at hand and experimented endlessly till I started getting desirable results, the best of which was mailed promptly to Rebecca.
Seeing the cup in Rebecca’s hands, glazed with the ash she had collected forty years ago felt so right, like the cycle was finally complete and a destiny fulfilled. And the words she said upon examining the cup is the perfect conclusion to our story: “A natural event that had some devastating impact evolves – through fire again and becomes something new and that’s real MAGIC!”