Who's on First?

October 26, 2011
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Who actually "owns" a glaze formula, clay body or ceramic process?

Recently, some controversial discussions on ceramic websites have centered on the concept of who “owns” a glaze formula, clay body or process. These discussions have revealed the seeming fragility of the artistic ego while attempting to determine who can take credit for certain developments in the field of ceramic art. As I remember, there was some back-and-forth debate on the topic of cone 6 reduction or glaze origination. More precisely, who is actually “on first” with a formula or way of working?

Developing a Formula

In ceramics, one can claim ownership for very few areas. Claiming that a formula is of particular personal origin is quite problematic. When does something become yours? If I invent a clay body or glaze formula, I can call it mine. I can use it myself or decide to disseminate that knowledge in any one of many public areas. Once I decide to give the information away for general consumption, then it is no longer mine. I can ask for credit for its use, but that request is often ignored.

Giving the formula rights to a vendor for manufacturing means that, even though my name might be associated with it, the formula is no longer mine. Once in the public domain, ownership no longer applies and should not even be politely asserted.

Changing a Formula

If one takes a formula in the public arena and alters or changes it, does it then become their creation? No, it just becomes one of the many possible alterations of someone else’s original formula. If that artist’s work is published, the original source needs to be acknowledged.

For instance, should I decide to alter one of the published formulae in Cushing’s handbook, I would certainly give credit to him for the origin of that formula (or query him as to its origin and then acknowledge that origin). Altering a particular formula does not make it yours. You have only created a modification of someone else’s work.

If I were to develop a glaze starting from a simple unity formula of my own making, calculate it into batch and then use it on my work, I would call it my glaze formula. If I were to publish it, I would expect acknowledgement, but the formula no longer belongs to me since I have provided it for everyone’s consumption.

Owning Ceramic Processes

The same philosophy applies to the presumable origin of ceramic processes, such as cone 6 reduction firing. To assert that I “originated” such a methodology completely ignores the lengthy and deep history of ceramics. More than likely, cone 6 reduction firing was a practice or a series of tests that was published many years ago in any one of the early ceramic texts or magazines.

How many of us have referred to Norton’s Ceramics for the Artist Potter, W.G. Lawrence’s Ceramic Science for the Potter, or even Taylor and Bull’s Ceramic Glaze Technology? Even Daniel Rhodes’ pivotal texts contain much of the information we use today. How many ceramic artists have never heard of some of these important books?

I would assert that there are very few original developments in contemporary ceramics. For example, do you think that the now-defunct Bluebird Manufacturing invented potter’s taps and dies? No way. Check out Bernard Leach’s early writings.

Genuine Innovation

Only a few recent developments in our field could be considered true originals: Brian Giffin’s Giffin Grip and Axner’s Grabber Pad. The Giffin Grip was modeled after a machinist’s lathe-centering chuck. The Grabber Pad, unfortunately, is no longer available.

What is “new” in ceramics should be what we as individuals bring to our work. In making ceramic objects, we take visual cues from our environments to (hopefully) create work that we can call our own. It is our own in that we make it as individual as we can. Attempting to claim ownership for a particular method, clay, glaze or technique only results in damaging already sensitive egos.

Relish in an idea, its craftsmanship, its design and making, all the way through its process. Endow it with what is in your heart. Making work and loving what you do is at the heart, so to speak, of what we do as potters and ceramic artists. Anything less would just not be acceptable.

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