This Treasure, Earthen Vessels

OUR FAVORITE ROB GRIMES COFFEE MUGS LIVE ON AT THE NEWLY RENOVATED LAITY LODGE

Recently, when we placed the order to restock our iconic Laity Lodge coffee mugs, we marked the occasion by paying a visit to Rob Grimes’ pottery studio and showroom just north of San Antonio. We started the morning appropriately with cups of coffee at a nearby café before heading out Scenic Loop Road to learn a bit about our own history.

For more than three decades, Grimes’ modest coffee mugs have been a warming, earthy touchstone symbolizing all that’s experienced at Laity Lodge. Rows and rows of the glazed, ceramic pottery have stood sentinel—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—as women and men have made their way into the Dining Hall. Coffee is poured. Conversation ensues. Communion-ware with the same blue-brown-cream glaze serves guests on Sundays in the Great Hall.

Rob’s first connection with the Lodge goes back to the early 1960s.

“Actually, I remember driving by Laity Lodge. We were coming back from the San Angelo area, where we lived for about four years, driving into San Antonio. For some reason, we came down that road and stopped and looked over the overlook, down into the Canyon. I remember my parents saying that they were building this camp out there.”

As a young adult, Rob began making pottery full time in the early 1970s, studying at San Antonio College and San Antonio Art Institute. Then, sometime in the 1980s, Grimes had his second encounter with the Lodge.

“Bill Cody called me up and said, ‘We’re having this Creativity Week, and I wanted to know if you’d come out and teach pottery.’ I had never been out there,” Rob said, laughing. “I knew there was water and Baptists and you never can tell what might happen, so I would only agree to go for three days. I about fell in love. I baptized myself and then kept coming back for more.

“I went to Creativity Weeks for a while. I would teach pottery—a couple classes a day. There were people carrying on, doing stuff all the time—there was a liveliness to the Creativity Weeks that you didn’t always find in the other retreats.” Rob also taught some pottery during the first iteration of Family Camp and has even thrown pots while giving talks at Laity Lodge Youth Camp.

As we pull into the long driveway leading to Rob’s home and studio, we’re greeted by Rob and Morgan, his tri-color border collie. Soon, Gilbert Tovar, Rob’s studio manager for the last 27 years, arrives and makes quiet preparations for the day’s work. “Gilbert makes it all run,” Rob says. “If it wasn’t for him, it wouldn’t happen.”

They blend bags of dry kaolin clay, Kentucky ball clay, silica, feldspar, and water to form a slurry that’s kneaded into soft clay and then extruded into manageable logs. Gilbert slices a fist-sized portion with a wire, slapping it into a ball before throwing it onto a revolving wheel with an attached jig and mold, a tool that ensures each mug shares a uniform shape. He wets his hands and works the jig down into the clay.

Rob tells us about his 42-year career and double vocation as a potter and pastor. He begins most days in solitude, reading scripture and preparing for his next sermon at Epworth United Methodist Church in southeast San Antonio. “I love people. But I need my quiet time. I can’t decide whether I’m an introverted extrovert or an extroverted introvert,” he explains with a smile.

Back in the studio he reflects on his own work while holding a finished mug. “The personality of the potter ends up on the pot: how I move my hands, you know, how I move through a piece. It happens pretty quickly. I like that movement. It is controlled, in a certain way. If it’s not, then it ends up on the floor.”

Rob takes a few greenware mugs and scores them with a dinner fork before forming and pulling their handles from a ribbon of extruded clay, curving each onto the side of the mugs. A few feet away Gilbert stands with a propeller mixer, prepping glaze in a large bucket, mixing it to the consistency of cream.

“Contributing beauty, contributing some elegance,” Rob explains as he works, “some variation, some individuality to every setting, I think is an important part to what a potter does, what art in general does.”

Before the mugs are dipped into the various glazes, each piece’s underside is marked with “Praise God, Rob,” a signature he’s used for years. Then the mugs are waxed to prevent glaze from sticking to the bottoms. After firing and slowly cooling, the mugs are ready for delivery to Laity Lodge.

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