What I Really Wanted for My Birthday

Large terra cotta pots by Berkeley ceramicist Nancy Selvin. 2013-2015, Photo by Barbara Newhall

A birthday visit to Nancy Selvin’s studio and her large terra cotta pots. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

“What do you want for your birthday,” Jon wanted to know.

A biggish birthday was coming up, one that ended with a five. I figured Jon was good for an equally biggish birthday present.

“Well, I need a new computer,” I ventured.  “And a new cell phone.”

Ceramicist Nancy Selvin in her Berkeley, CA, studio. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Ceramic artist Nancy Selvin in her Berkeley, California, studio. Photo by Barbara Newhall

My pokey old computer still runs Windows  7, and I’m probably the last person on earth still carrying around an iPhone 3GS, vintage 2009.

“Sure,” Jon said.”We’ll get you a computer and a cell phone.” Jon’s voice had that telltale lilt in it. The one I hear whenever I tell my husband that my computer’s gone buggy. Jon loves all things digital. He loves figuring out why my computer crashes. Even more he loves an excuse go out and buy a new one.

Later that day I did a double take.

Two No-Fun Birthday Gifts

What the heck? A computer and a cell phone for my biggest, fattest birthday yet? No way! Getting a new computer on your 75th is like getting new clothes on your eighth.

What I wanted — really and truly — was one of my friend Nancy Selvin’s pots. A nice one. A big one. I wanted nothing more than to pay a visit to Nancy’s studio, get a guided tour, and talk about clay and glazes and beautiful stuff.

And pick out a pot. Hang the expense.

A Surfeit of Pots

Jon didn’t get it. Our house is full of pots and plates and platters, hand painted and gathered from the ends of the earth. There isn’t enough wall space in our entire house to display all of them at once. They sit in patient stacks under the TV and atop the

Nancy Selvin's large pot in honor of Helen Frankenthaler, terra cotta with pigment. Part of a new 2016 series honoring women painters. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Large pot in honor of artist Helen Frankenthaler and part of a new series inspired by women painters. “Helen” is stenciled across the belly.

Terra cotta jug with pigment by Berkeley ceramicist Nancy Selvin. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Terra cotta jug with pigment and text. Following ancient pottery tradition, Nancy often applies text to her work.

Ceramicist Nancy Selvin's notes for a large pot she has created in honor of painter Helen Frankenthaler. For an upcoming show. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Nancy’s notes for the Helen Frankenthaler pot. Photos by Barbara Newhall

coffee table and squirreled away in my mother’s old china cabinet, awaiting their turn at one of the earthquake-proof picture hooks nailed to our walls.

Did we need another pot? No. Did I want a pot by Nancy Selvin? Yes.

This was a big birthday coming up. Jon had had one just like it a few months earlier. He felt my pain. I had him where I wanted him.

“OK,” he said at last. “I don’t get it. But go ahead. Get what you want.”

And that’s what I did. On the day after my big Seven-Five, Nancy welcomed me into her studio on Page Street in Berkeley. And I got what I wanted.

More about adding yet another year to my already massive collection at “The Shame of Aging: The Big Seven-Five Has Finally Arrived.”  More about Jon at “Would My Husband Like to Add My Name to His?”

"Notebook," by Berkeley ceramicist Nancy Selvin. Photo by Barbara Newhall

One of Nancy’s “Notebooks,” terra cotta. Nancy favors terra cotta because it is an ancient material and it fires at low heat, saving energy. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Teapot by Nancy Selvin, terra cotta purchased by Barbara Falconer Newhall at the Selvin studio to celebrate her 75th birthda. Photo by Barbara Newhall

After scrutinizing every pot, bowl and plate in Nancy’s studio I made off with one of her famous teapots . . .

Terra cotta platter by Berkeley ceramicist Nancy Selvin, with small shards from famous pottery makers, including Selvin, which Barbara Falconer Newhall purchased for her 75th birthday. Feet are Newhall's. Photo by Barbara Newhall

. . . and a platter — a big one — with a row of small shards from well known pottery studios, including “Selvin” and “Fiestaware.” The feet are mine. Photos by Barbara Newhall

Terra cotta platter by Berkeley ceramicist Nancy Selvin, with small shards from famous pottery makers, including Selvin, which Barbara Falconer Newhall purchased. Feet are Newhall's. Photo by Barbara Newhall




  1. Thanks Barbara, love it!

  2. Nancy also passes along these thoughts from T.S. Eliot regarding time, which she shares and expresses through her work:

    Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future
    And time future contained in time past.
    If all time is eternally present
    All time is unredeemable.
    What might have been is an abstraction
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.
    Footfalls echo in the memory
    Down the passage which we did not take
    Towards the door we never opened
    Into the rose-garden . . . .

  3. Nancy tells me that the music on the front of the teapot is “Erratum Musical” by Marcel Duchamp. It’s music (sounds) created by a chance process, much as ceramic results are predicated on chance — the risk of the fire, the vagaries of the clay.

    On the other side of the teapot is text is from a book on how Greek pottery — a “Krater” — was thrown and constructed, which is the same for pots now.

  4. ginger rothe says:

    the true birthday spirit

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