Lori Bletsch -- Journeyman Ocarina Maker
Hey, I'm Lori, also known around the internet as Fair. I began my journey with clay in 1999 when I met my late husband, ocarina maker Larry "Sir Lawrence" Bletsch. It was love at first sight. Within a month of our meeting, I had packed up my apartment and joined him on the road.
For more than a decade we traveled from renaissance fair to craft show, making and selling our handcrafted ocarinas--clay, globular flutes that are capable of producing a full musical scale. He made the instruments and I carved the designs.
Figuring Out How to Do Art
Before meeting Lawrence, my only real experience with art was a single class in high school. My first carvings were stick figures! I got better quickly though, mostly motivated by pride. If I was going to ask people to give us money for our art, I wanted it to be good art. So I checked out library books about drawing and ceramics. I talked to every ocarina maker, graphic artist, leatherworker, and metalsmith who was willing to answer questions about their design process. Most of all, I learned by trial and error. After a couple of years and a few thousand ocarinas, I started to be proud of the work I produced.
During this time, as our family grew and we moved from living in the back of an old gray van to an actual travel trailer, I also learned how to make the instrument itself. It took years. I refused to serve a formal apprenticeship, thinking that the traditional master/apprentice dynamic would be an unhealthy thing to add to our marriage--especially considering that the line between work and home life was basically non-existent during our years on the road--but I ended up doing the work of an apprentice anyway.. After all, someone had to make the ocarina bodies during high production times!
It started as a way to let Lawrence concentrate on using his unique skills to make the ocarinas sound good, but I couldn't help wanting to learn about the process. And learn I did! I practiced using my hands as a wheel until I could consistently make ocarina bodies of the correct shape and thickness, pre-tuned so many flutes that the scale echoed through my dreams at night, and finally, I learned to carve my own tools out of bamboo. Lawrence insisted on the latter before he would teach me to make the whistle itself. It was a requirement passed down from the man who taught him, Master Stephen Roush; and I was told it was an unbroken tradition between master and apprentice that goes back centuries. I feel honored to have earned my place in that history. I definitely put in the years doing apprentice work before I made my first solo flute.
I made that first ocarina on my own in 2015, just a few months before Lawrence passed away. By that time we were living in Houston. We had settled down in an apartment there due to Lawrence's health problems, and I was fortunate enough to stumble into a career as a preschool teacher. We still participated in local craft shows and renaissance fairs on the weekends, so ocarinas, art, and music definitely remained a huge part of our lives. However, it took me a full year after Lawrence's death to get into a mindset where I could make ocarinas on my own.
As I made that first batch of ocarinas, I have to say it was bittersweet to conjure up the memories of every time my husband taught me something about making a flute. So many times I wished he was there to answer my questions! I felt like I would never get back the muscle memory I lost from that year of avoidance. As my hands formed wobbly balls and lopsided bowl shapes, I almost gave up on the idea of ever making an ocarina again, However, something kept drawing me back to the clay.
The Need to Create
To tell the truth, I have to be a maker. While I love being a teacher--and firmly believe that teaching is a creative act--the rewards of creating a physical object are subtly different. I think it was that tactile quality drew me back to the clay over and over again. As memories resurfaced and my hands slowly regained their skill, I realized that making a tangible object satisfied some deep-seated need inside of me. Simply put, I had been missing the connection that comes from making something that someone else will use to create something of their own. Ocarina making is collaborative art. Once I remembered this, I could hardly wait to get my creations out into the world.
Spirit Song is Born
I found that though I didn't have Lawrence's speed or ear, I still had enough skill and experience to make some quality ocarinas. I debuted my first batch of solo ocarinas in 2016 at Avalon Faire in Kilgore, Texas. I can't tell you how much fun it was to connect with ocarina enthusiasts again! I took our teenager, Isaac with me, and both of us enjoyed being back on the road.
My ocarinas aren't as good as Lawrence's yet--they're definitely journeyman quality still--but I know the only way to get better is to make more. As of writing this, I'm on ocarina number 103. I'll be starting the next batch soon!
I am so grateful for your support on my journey to become a better ocarina maker. Hopefully, together we can make the world a kinder, more creative and musical place.