It used to be so simple. I used to ask myself, “How can I make this handle softer?” and then I would go about working to make it fatter, rounder, fuller, more oblique and, thus, “softer.” My goals and approach were direct and I knew what I needed to do achieve them. I love language. Looking for that perfect word, or words, to capture a nuance pleases me. I have always fancied myself able to turn phrases as well as pots, so the analogy of clay as language has been very useful to me. I chose words I wanted my pottery to embody and then sought variations on those themes within the elements of a pot, seeking those elusive nuances.
It’s not so easy anymore. What has changed is not the analogy, but rather my facility with clay as a language. There is a point in learning a new language when you don’t have to do direct translation anymore; the words you hear fire the right synapses without having to stop and ask for directions. Eventually you produce words in the new language without referring to your native tongue and, with immersion, you begin to think or dream in the acquired language. I am enjoying this earned fluency in clay when I am in the studio making work and the work is stronger for my attentiveness to the language of the material. Yet I find my familiarity with the phrasing of clay results in dissatisfaction with using words to discuss those same issues.
It’s a rookie excuse to say that art should speak for itself and therefore I don’t need to learn to talk about my own work. Sure art should speak for itself but that doesn’t support the conclusion that we as artists don’t have to. Writing and talking about one’s work widens the available audience and offers opportunities to reflect on and clarify ideas for the maker. Writing can be a chance for growth. Clay and words are parts of different languages with the goal of communication in common. I wrote this article to explore the connection and differences between the two and to muse on the potential benefits of their relationship.
The act of communication has several steps: deciding what to say (idea), forming the statement (voice), making the statement (studio work), and being heard (utility). Developing our ideas comes from feedback (critique) and reflection. The choice to make hand made utilitarian objects is a statement in and of itself. It says much about the values of the maker, and the faith they place in the synergy between item and user. Once I decided to become a potter I thought I needed to decide how my pots should look. What style was my personal style? In our culture of accelerated information, of innovation valued over substance, of hungry and competitive journals looking to profile something new, it is easy to confuse style with content. Starting with style was a confusion of priorities, my work really developed when I decided what I wanted to talk about in clay.
Within each piece of pottery the elements – form, surface, clay treatment, line, weight, size, texture, volume and tactility – are the voice of the maker. The parts of the pot – the rim, the foot, the body, the attachments, et cetera. – are phrases. Together they create the sentences that embody the central theme. Following this progression the object itself is the structure in which the idea is communicated: the essay, poem or story. When all the voices harmonize, the parts of a pot support and develop an idea, the finished object contains the thesis and supporting iteration of a well written work. For the functional potter utility completes the communication and we are privy to an audience in a hugely intimate space, the home. A mug placed against the lips is a special and delicious opportunity for connection between maker and user.
I have long believed that a good pot explores an idea eloquently, adding to our understanding of that idea. For example Mark Ferris’ pots push our understanding of form by unfolding three dimensional form into two dimensional patterns, much like world maps helps make sense of our planet’s surface. I don’t believe the idea explored needs to be social commentary or even verbal for a pot to be successful. I have strong feelings about our president but I would be loath to make a mug that explored those emotions. That is not to say that clay cannot be used for such political statements, but clay as a language does not have words that easily broach issues of foreign policy. Thank goodness for the eloquence of artists like Richard Notkin, who combine clay with symbolism to express heartfelt political convictions.
So how then do we find our own voice in clay? How do we decide what our heartfelt convictions are and how do we express them in clay? Early in my pottery career I tried on ceramic styles like hats, looking in the mirror trying to decide which fit me best. It was when I began to respond to the things I liked or loved in clay and started to explore those ideas my own voice started to emerge. Working this way style is a byproduct of interest, the visible skin of substance.
Years ago I was introduced by Linda Christianson to the concept of clay treatment as a crucial consideration in the making of a pot. I understood that the elements to consider in the creation of a mug are foot, handle, lip, form, surface, texture, glaze, weight, feel, interior, exterior, volume, size, wall thickness, attachments, etc. But I was at a loss as to what was meant by clay treatment. Simply put, it is how you choose to treat the clay, your approach to the material. This can be as straightforward as treating the clay as one would another material. Slabs can be mitered and joined as a carpenter works with wood. Linda’s work incorporates solutions and sensibilities traditionally associated with fabric. Yet the treatment of clay can be as subtle as the choice of tools we use; throw four cylinders and rib the walls with metal, wood, rubber and plastic ribs, each tool leaves a distinct quality. Clay is so responsive that it records information we are often unaware of. If you are timid with the trimming of a foot it shows, as does it when you trim aggressively. Because of clay’s sensitivity emotive treatments of the material are effective ways to communicate human issues, and to add nuance to our phrasing.
For most of my work I have used clay treatment as a way to reiterate the larger idea. In trying to make a mug feel visually soft, I would use soft clay and move the clay with little or no throwing lines while avoiding the compressed surfaces and the linear qualities of strong rib marks. It recently occurred to me that the treatment of the clay itself could be the inspiration for the pot rather than the supporting statement.
When it comes to turning the harsh light of honest appraisal on my own work I am forced to ask myself why is that pot made of clay? I am a reductionist and a purist at heart but I am too liberal to canonize my method as the only approach. Clay is such a chameleon. It can imitate metal, glass, wood or a myriad of other materials. This protean quality makes clay a hard language to learn and begs the question, “What are the inherent qualities to clay that are not imitative?” How can I explore clay treatments that are clay-like? My only answer to this is to respond to and investigate the behaviors of the clay as I work.
Clay is a physical language. It is action not adjective. We describe our pots with adjectives but it is our actions on clay that create the phrases of the language. These phrases are nuanced by the vast subtleties each workable state of clay offers. The quality of trimming lines are effected by the tool’s material, the sharpness of the edge, but also the particle size of the clay, the amount of aggregate and the moisture content of the clay, not to mention the skill level, attitude and caffeine intake of the potter. This interaction of maker and material, each responsive in their own way and time, allows for endless combinations of phrase and tone. These infinite subtleties allow each of us to find our individual voice in the understatement of utilitarian pottery.
I generally prefer to make the pots, then to try and talk about them. I am starting to feel comfortable using clayish phrasings but I feel the gap growing between what I make and what I can write. Occasionally I am asked to talk about my work, or I sit down to rewrite my artist statement, or I return to words to jumpstart new ideas in the studio. All my efforts and attention to learn clay has defined and distanced the two languages. It has become hard to talk about some of my pots because they are about non-English, non-verbal, clayish things; still the effort to translate is critical. If clay is the language of action, words offer the balance of reflection. Together they center and motivate the quest to make better work.
I am the child of academics, even my sister is a professor, and all have PhDs whereas I burn dirt for a living. As an ex-patriot of the academy, I value articulate expression but I am also wary of those who speak well but say nothing. At its core art is communication. For clay to speak effectively, for us to avoid cryptic ideas in clay we must continue to bridge the gap between languages. One of the great beauties of being a potter is the accessibility and pedestrian quality of our material, we are underfoot, we are in the home, the cupboard, the hand. The connection of clay and words honors that accessibility.