A Potter's Education

August 21, 2008
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Making pottery or working with clay in any capacity requires information, personal experience, training in techniques, endurance, and the ability to turn theory into practical application. Unfortunately, these days, all of the required skills and knowledge are not obtainable at one location.

To a certain extent, the education process was easier and more direct in the past. Pottery, being a craft, required the novice to study under a master potter as an apprentice. If you were a potter, it was likely that your father might have been a potter; you simply learned the family business and eventually were taught everything you needed to know about the various aspects of producing pots.

A system would have been in place to train potters through the ascending levels of their craft. Your first job as a beginning apprentice might have been to clean the shop or go out and dig clay. While such activities were not exciting and often involved very hard, repetitive labor, you learned the tasks in detail. Eventually, you might be promoted to wedging the moist clay and watching the potters in their daily cycle of work. After a while, an apprentice would be allowed to throw one simple shape until they had become proficient in that form. In time, every step of the operation -- from clay preparation, glaze mixing, throwing on the potter’s wheel, and kiln firing -- would be mastered.

Today, many beginning potters start making pots without the benefit of any form of ceramics education. The apprenticeship master potter system has slowly receded, due in part to the industrial revolution that mechanized the production of pottery. Potters currently have to find alternative methods for acquiring skills and techniques in their craft. Fortunately, several sources for such training exist. In fact, many potters encounter one or more in their informal or formal search to make better pots. However, knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each source is a critical decision that should be considered.

The production of ceramics in general -- and pottery in particular -- requires little bits of information that have to be gathered from many different sources. It is only when enough bits of information can be strung together in a coherent series of operations that the potter's objectives and goals begin to be realized. Finding what information is relevant and applying that information is a skill that can be learned to further your education in making pots. An agility of mind is needed to know when a specific source has been exhausted and it’s time to move on to the next aspect of your training. This is often the most difficult situation to recognize, since the joy of making pots or ceramic sculpture often prevents an objective look at technical progress, or a critique of the aesthetic value of the work itself.

The potters who seem to do the best in resolving technical issues with their work are the ones who have obtained a broad base of knowledge from many sources. Many times, potters focus in on their immediate area of work, such as cone 9 reduction firing, not realizing that learning about low-fire electric kiln firing might offer knowledge that can be applied to a greater understanding of heating ceramic raw materials. In this regard, a formula ceramics education seems to offer a greater scope of learning experiences. Not only is the student exposed to their teachers’ expertise, but equally important is the scope of experience gained from fellow students. In this regard, the old saying “See it, do it, teach it” often enhances the potter’s ceramic knowledge.

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