November 18, 2009
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 ceramics education that 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 and instinctual reasons, they 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.
Also, when looking at pots, I always turn them over and observe the areas not readily seen. I want to know how well they are finished. If the underside of a bowl or inside of a teapot is crafted well, it follows that the readily observable areas of the pot are excellent. If the spout pours, the handle is comfortable or the bowl has a stable foot, the potter has taken professionalism and pride in their work.
Flawless technique is never an end onto itself, as we have all seen technically correct pots that were missing that important element-soul. Learning technique is equivalent to learning the letters of the alphabet and then forming sentences. It is possible to learn every letter perfectly and then go on to write the most appalling or mundane sentences. Learning technique is a very linear progression of definite steps, which offers a certain comfort in achieving a set of clearly defined goals. Either the lid fits on the pot or it doesn’t. The potter then goes on to practice the steps required to get the lid to fit. After achieving a mechanical skill, the potter has to be prepared to say something worthwhile. At this point, some potters have great technical skills but nothing to say.
The ceramic object might not even depend on the technical skills of the potter or ceramic artist. There are many pots that have various technical flaws, but they somehow exceed the requirements of smooth lips or lids that fit perfectly. Certainly many pieces of ceramic sculpture were even enhanced by crazed lines in a glaze or a bloating clay body. The ability or sensibility to employ the rules and then know when to break them requires a certain flexibility of mind that allows the potter to look at a ceramic object on many different levels.
Is this mindset or talent inherent in the individual, or can it be taught? This question has no answer, but through education and exposure with capable mentors along the way, students can be brought to higher levels of understanding their craft.
Jeff’s new book, The Potter’s Clay & Glaze Handbook, is currently available from Quarry Books,100 Cummings Center, Suite 406-L, Beverly, MA 01915-6101; 978 283-2742; www.quarrybooks.com.