Acquiring Ceramic Knowledge

March 10, 2009
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Regrettably, all ceramic knowledge is not contained in a single text or educational institution. While formal four-year undergraduate or two-year graduate school ceramic programs are certainly useful, there is much to be learned from the “hands on” training in the day-to-day operation of a pottery studio. In the past, the traditional apprenticeship system was the only way to become skilled in pottery making.

The apprentice studied their craft under a master potter and was bound to the employer by a legal agreement. The apprentice started his education performing the most mundane tasks, such as cleaning the studio or gathering and preparing clay. He was then allowed (under careful supervision) to make simple pottery forms, which were inspected by the master potter. During the course of his apprenticeship, he eventually learned all the steps in making and firing pottery. When the terms of service were completed, he then became a journeyman potter and offered his services to employers.

The apprenticeship system was mutually beneficial to the apprentice and the master potter. The apprentice received supervised training, gained occupational proficiency, often with room/board, and earned increased economic mobility in his chosen field. The master potter received a source of inexpensive steady labor in a labor-intensive activity for a pre-determined period of time.

For economic reasons, the apprentice system cannot function in today’s society. The potter is forced to hunt and peck for the appropriate techniques and knowledge to make and fire pots or ceramic sculptures. Often craft centers, formal college degree programs, workshop attendance, or individual instruction cannot supply a complete workable understanding of clay, glazes and kiln firing.

The underlying cause of many ceramic-related myths and technical problems is found in the potter’s incomplete ceramic education. While some potters do not suffer directly from a partial education, they might not realize that it can slow down the rate at which they acquire a fuller understanding of ceramic knowledge. If you’re self-taught, you only know what you know. If you gather information and skills from others, you also know what they know.

While “how-to” books do serve a function, they often promote the idea of assembling good pots or sculpture by just using the right hand-building or throwing technique with the best looking glaze formula listed in the book. With the many variables involved in ceramics, such as raw material inconsistencies, the dynamic nature of clay, and the sometimes unpredictable results of kiln firing, it is not unusual for potters to find a proven and reliable glaze formula or forming technique and stay with it throughout their ceramic career.

Many potters say, “With so many things going wrong, I want to stay with what works.” They reach a safe plateau of learning, which limits their future growth. The economic reasons behind selling pots of consistent glaze and form can also intensify the regimentation in working with clay and glazes. Sometimes a plateau is reached simply because the potter has just run out of ideas, and repeating the past forms and glazes by rote is reassuring. A good teacher will guide the student through this stage of development to new levels of understanding about their craft.

Pottery and ceramic sculpture involve more than their individual parts. A good ceramic piece should be more than its form, glaze or what type of kiln it was fired in. It should speak to the artist’s/craftsman’s aesthetic and personal approach to clay, whether it’s a functional cup or ceramic sculpture.

Two indispensable pieces of advice were given to me in my ceramic education, which I still draw on in my current work. When you walk into a room filled with pots, you will always be drawn to and come back to the best pots. For non-verbal instinctual reasons, those pots have a certain magnetism. They entice the potter into their world and cause the viewer to make a personal connection to the ceramic object. The exceptional pieces seduce and lure you into their world on many conscious and unconscious levels.

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