PPP: Finding Your Artistic Voice: One Potter's Brief Journey

Potter Laurie Erdman on inspiration, artistic expression and finding the confidence needed for a life in clay.

Transforming emotions into artistry has been the hardest but most necessary element of becoming a potter. I had spent my career using my left brain to write legal briefs and argue cases; I've found that the road to right-brain artistic expression is bumpy. To find my voice, I had to find inspiration, learn to make vision reality, and develop the confidence to push beyond the safe and norm.

Inspiration is a Funny Thing

I had turned to clay as a stress release from my legal career. After four years of Sunday classes at the Art League of Alexandria, Va., I wanted to move from straightforward bowls and vases to objects that expressed me. I wanted to make forms that provoked a visceral response, the way I responded to the work of Gay Smith, Aysha Peltz, Leah Leitson and others. Learning the techniques of such creative potters is fine, but it doesn't infuse pots with my voice. How could I get that?

Some suggested art school. That was not viable financially, and not every great potter I knew had gone to art school. There had to be a way. Some artists find their voice by replicating the work of others until they assimilate it into their own work. Being a lawyer, I was wary of copying. Yet I was tired of making bowls. I was stumped, stuck and stagnant.

I tripped across my voice as I was getting married. Between my wedding and a two-week honeymoon, I would miss several weeks of pottery classes. I decided to take a season off from the studio and study instead.

During our honeymoon in Greece, I took hundreds of pictures of ancient ceramics. The Greek scenery also moved me: the royal blue of the Aegean and the sunsets and cliffs of Santorini. I photographed the beaches, churches and mountains we found on every island.

Back home, I headed to the library and museums to study art: British metal work, Islamic pottery, early 20th century glass work, Asian ceramics, African art, nature photography and art deco design. The more I absorbed of these dialects, the more ideas came to me and my voice began to take shape.

Three years later, I have come to realize that my inspiration is not any one of the genres I studied, but a sum of my experience, conscious and unconscious. The revelation came to me when one customer observed that my pots look like California. How funny-I was born and raised there. Its colors, lines and textures stayed with me and found their way into my work without my intention. As did the pots in Greece, the bridges in Italy, the whirling dervishes of Turkey-and the dancing brooms of Fantasia and the bulbs I planted last fall. It is all there, like paint on a palette. I just needed to add skill and mix to find my voice.

My Mind is Moving Faster than My Hands

My adult education classes gave me a foundation in the fundamentals of traditional, functional pottery. As I studied, my vision veered to abstract and organic forms. I saw dancing pots-curving, flowing forms with attitude and whimsy. But I flailed in the studio, because I did not yet have the skills to bring my visions to life.

Since art school was not an option, I sought other sources to keep up with my imagination. I attended workshops and switched instructors. I learned I had to break the rules to make the pots I was seeing in my mind's eye. I had to cut away at or tear the rims. I had to hit the bottoms of my pots with tubes or paddles. I had to flute in a curvilinear, non-parallel pattern. I had to throw bottomless cylinders.

But more than any of these techniques, my visions were not realized until I learned when to work with the clay. When trimming, altering and combining pots, I had always worked at leather-hard. Yet I was unhappy because the forms didn't feel alive; they didn't dance. Learning to manipulate the clay before it reached leather-hard was like gaining another octave. My voice grew richer and more complex.

Working with wet clay also taught me to give up control. I learned to take advantage of the fact that just-thrown clay bends to gravity and other forces. With flowerpots, I throw with neither bottom nor bat, so when I remove them from the wheel, they sag around my hands. I use these curves to inform the arches of the foot. This adds a freshness and sense of movement I could not achieve when working at leather-hard.

Each method I introduce seems to create another challenge. Pots might be visually unbalanced, or too off-kilter from the alteration to function. For vases and flowerpots, that meant the slab bottom I paddled on did not match the finished rim. After some experimentation, I found that thinning the top half-inch and rolling it over counterbalanced the fat foot. On the other hand, slab bottoms and rolled rims did not work for bowls and mugs. By learning to trim these forms at suede-hard, I got a softer look that complemented the looseness of the rest of the pot. My experimentation and discoveries are a way for my neglected left brain to add to my artistic voice.

"Just Do It"

In my professional endeavors, I never had a mentor. But last year I was fortunate to work with Matthew Grimes. He brings such enthusiasm and energy to the craft and to our discussions about being a potter that I can ignore my self-doubt about what I have to offer or what I can achieve. Of all he has taught me, the one thing that I carry every day is "just do it."

It is my mantra to grow confidence. Whether mixing glazes or firing a wood kiln, I must master a tremendous amount of information, a lot of it technical. Since pottery is my second career, I am already conscious of my steep learning curve. But every time I question whether I can do something, I hear Matthew saying, "Just do it. You will never learn if you don't try." When I find myself ignoring a call for entries to a prestigious national show because "they would never select one of my pots," I hear him say, "You don't know that, just do it."

Inspiration and technical skill alone cannot make beautiful pottery. Confidence is the thread that binds them. "Just doing it" keeps me experimenting and improving my work. For instance, last fall I was invited to fire at Baltimore Clayworks' wood/salt kiln. Having been disappointed by my previous wood-firing experience and being unsure as to whether it fit my new work, I hesitated. As it turned out, my new pots love the wood and salt. Yet I never would have known that without putting aside the mental and emotional barriers. Wood- and salt-firing is now an integral part of my work.

There are many paths to finding your voice. In moving from student to associate artist at the Art League, I have discovered that my path-while not linear-requires my mind, body and soul. Only when they work in harmony can I create work that represents my spirit and creativity.

For more information, visit www.claytastic.net.

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