She is the golden bridge, the wonderful fire.
The luminous heart of the Unknown is she, …
Lines from Sri Aurobindo Ghose’s epic poem Savitri describe the female godhead.
After graduating from Stanford with a degree in Japanese studies, Deborah Smith spent two years in Japan learning to make pots, first with ceramic sculptor Araki Takako and then apprenticing under master potter Yamamoto Toshu in the pottery town of Imbe in the Bizen region. It was not that pottery was a passion or a career choice, she explains, “I travelled to Japan because I wanted to immerse myself in a craft and submit to the practice with a master.” Eugen Herrigel’s little book Zen in the Art of Archery provided inspiration and direction to Deborah’s search.
She returned to the US and assisted Susan Peterson in the ceramics department of the University of Southern California. She would later return to Japan with Professor Peterson, to aid her in research for a book on Living National Treasure Hamada Shoji. It was at USC that she met Ray Meeker.
It was during that time, at the East West Cultural Center in Los Angeles, that Deborah discovered The Adventure of Consciousness written by Satprem, a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The book was a turning point.
Attracted to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, Deborah arrived in Pondicherry in December of 1970. Soon she was sitting before Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfasa, known to her devotees as The Mother. One of The Mother’s assistants had learned that Deborah had studied pot-making in Japan and asked her to start a pottery. The Mother sanctioned the project to start a glazed pottery unit as part of the ashram activities. Deborah’s only condition: “if my friend comes and builds me a kiln, then I will try.”
That friend was Ray Meeker, and with his arrival in March 1971, the Golden Bridge Pottery began.
"On my first morning in Pondicherry, I picked up a terracotta shard on the road to the ashram dining hall, and I saw then, by the curve and cross-section of that single shard, that the local Tamil potter was a far greater master of his craft than I would ever be."
'The first kiln, built in 1972, was a thirty-cubic-foot catenary arch with drip-feed oil burners.'
At the outset Deborah and Ray decided on a few principles that would shape the ethos and environment at GBP. They would not depend on electricity in the production process. They would share whatever they knew and whatever they learned. Instead of hiring labor on the model of piecework, they would train and employ young men from the neighboring community with no pottery experience, integrating them into the framework of GBP and eliminating any ambiguity surrounding a high standard of work.
The Mother directed Deborah and Ray to a half-acre of temple land that was under lease to the ashram at the time. She called it “a lucky spot”. The pottery began as a ten-foot by twenty-foot open shed of bamboo and thatch and grew slowly over the next twenty years to its present form—a series of low-rise open sheds with sweeping tile roofs that stand testimony to the vision of beauty, dedication, and hard work in a celebration of the natural world.
The first kiln, built in 1972, was a thirty-cubic-foot catenary arch with drip-feed oil burners. Then in 1979 Ray built a three-chambered climbing kiln, fueled by drip-fed oil augmented by firewood. From the new kiln emerged pots licked by flame and blushed with ash from the firewood, glazed in tenmoku, kaki, chun and egg-shell matts, many painted by Deborah. Soon, Golden Bridge Pottery was found in the few trendy boutiques that existed at the time in Bombay and Delhi.
Guided by their own aesthetic, Deborah and Ray did not allow a market unused to stoneware pottery to dictate what was made at Golden Bridge. Deborah brought to the studio her appreciation of Japanese aesthetics. “We were influenced by the ‘Leach/Hamada tradition,’ of robust reduction-fired functional stoneware that was popular in American universities in the 60s,” she adds.
Ray had studied architecture for four years before eventually getting his BFA in ceramics. In 1985 Ray’s interest in architecture led him into an adventure with ‘fire-stabilized mud building’—raw brick vaults and domes fired in situ and finished as living spaces— by far his largest kiln building project. After twelve years of firing ‘houses,’ he returned to his studio, but the challenge of large-scale clay work remains in his current ceramic sculpture expressing environmental themes.
The stoneware clay body at GBP is made using fireclay, ball clay, china clay, quartz and feldspar, purchased directly from mines in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Two types of red surface clay and river sand are sourced locally.