Ceramic Industry

Getting Stuck

September 15, 2009

For a long time, I consistently attempted to make pots functionally better while also trying to develop my own personal aesthetic. It took many years to move away from my teachers’ concepts of pottery and not duplicate their work. As a small planet, I was always captured by their larger and greater talent. My pots were as many students find their pots-copies, and bad imitations of someone else’s original work.

Stuck on Technique
There is a seductive quality in learning new techniques and then mastering each one. In a way, the challenge has a simple directness: it has a beginning (you learn to pull a handle), a middle (you practice pulling many handles) and an end (the handle functions on the pot). I often think of this stage as learning the words to a new language. Once the student has mastered each word (centering the clay, opening the form, pulling up a cylinder, making handles, trimming feet, forming spouts, etc.), they are often left with the real challenge. Now that the potter knows the words, the problem becomes deciding what to say.

We have all seen technically proficient pots with little if any aesthetic statement other than the thinness of the wall or the curve of the handle. While such pots are good in the sense that they work and are well-executed in technique, there is an empty space behind the perfection.

Stuck on Failure
The initial efforts to control the clay on the spinning wheel or the cracking of hand-built slabs under construction happen in varying degrees. Somewhere between a whole kiln load of faultless pots and a whole load of complete failures, there is a balance that will supply positive feedback for the successful pieces along with learning from the negative results.

Stuck on Success
As an economic enterprise, pottery has low barriers of entry, which simply means it doesn’t take much money to buy the tools, equipment and supplies necessary to make pots. Couple that with the fact that the first stages of selling pots are usually lucrative-almost every relative and friend wants or needs a pot. Yard sales and shows yield a surprising amount of money, even if they are sporadic in nature. The payback period for capital expenditures on kilns, wheels, tables and storage shelves is relatively short.

The second stage of selling pots is an entirely different situation, where it is not a hobby but pure business with all the hard decisions that any trade entails. Regardless, it is very encouraging when someone buys a pot. After a while, the potter can develop a following of customers and wholesale accounts.

At this point, it’s possible to get stuck when customers request pots that are similar to those they have bought in the past. Wholesale clients can be much the same, as they are looking for reliability and a sure thing. This often translates into buying more of what sold last year. In any business situation, it’s most difficult to refuse money just because you don’t want to make the exact same pots repeatedly. But the necessity of making salable pots is an economic fact of life for potters in business.

Stuck on Pots
The “masterpiece” concept of producing a superior one-of-a-kind pot is largely an abstraction implanted from the current culture. In the old days, an apprentice potter would mix clay and clean the studio before being allowed to make even a simple shape. After throwing that form to exhaustion, he would move on to another form. Eventually, after he made all the forms being produced by the master potter, he would become a journeyman and hire out his services. The craftsmen’s prospective was not in producing and admiring one pot, but learning the whole process over many pots.

In an introduction to the ceramics class, my first pottery teacher gave a throwing demonstration on the potter’s wheel. He centered and pulled up a beautiful large bowl. All the students thought the process was magic. Even with my limited exposure to pottery, the bowl looked extraordinary. As he was talking, students would come over and admire what had been just a lump of clay seconds before.

Then the teacher simply collapsed the bowl and threw the clay on the wedging table. Everyone let out a yell. Why did he destroy this “perfect” pot? Answer: Because he could make another. That day, I realized the ability to make pots is more important than any individual pot made. Don’t get stuck on an individual object.

Stuck on Praise
One morning in my studio, just as I was throwing some bowls on the wheel, a friend called who consistently praised and bought my pots. She wanted to purchase some work. At that time, I didn’t have any new pots but invited her out anyway. She said, “I’ll stop in and say hello since there is a craft fair in the neighborhood and I would like to buy pots for a wedding gift.”

Later that afternoon, my friend did visit my studio. She had purchased three pots at the craft fair and wanted me to see her presents. As we opened the packages, I was interested to examine what type of pottery she considered good (besides my own). The first pot, a teapot, could not pour without dripping. Next was a coffee cup with a handle too small to hold comfortably; filled with hot liquid, it would only be increasingly unpleasant. Last was a warped dinner plate that rocked when placed on a flat table. Yet my friend was perfectly happy with the three sculptural objects, as I silently regarded them. They couldn't be called functional pottery. Aesthetic value judgments about form or glaze design were not even a consideration, as each of the “functional” pots simply did not function.

After very carefully wrapping the pots in newspaper, my friend left. I then started to think about all the years she had purchased my own work. I had always thought that my pots were good and was most pleased with her past compliments, but her judgment was now in question-if not by her, then certainly by me. In a small way, the solid ground moved a little under my feet that day. My view of things did not feel as steady and secure as in the past. I still think about this event and what it means to me as a potter.

Once the pots are unloaded from the glaze kiln, they represent past ideas and concepts that are locked into the hard, fired clay. Pots can remain unchanged for thousands of years. Just think of the archeological evidence of past civilizations obtained from unearthed pottery.

Glaze and kiln firing reactions occurring with the pots are always exciting and sometimes frustrating, but when the kiln is unloaded, it’s the next series of pots that is being planned. It seems like the real part of creating takes place in the space between making each pot. As soon as a bowl has the right curve, or a handle is in place, the next idea for a better pot is visualized. The finished pots are often just snapshots caught in time of a process that is still hopefully continuing with the work. The transitory quality of the act provokes a sense of things being slightly unsatisfied.