I know many potters, both here and in Britain, and most of them always press me to use the pottery I obtain from them. They want me to use their pottery in my kitchen and on my dining room table. These potters take earnest pride in the carefully designed capacity of their teapot or cup to pour or hold liquid, vases that can display flowers, plates that receive and offer food, and pitchers that pour from perfectly shaped spouts and expertly placed and shaped handles. Many go as far as to justify the value of pottery by their ability to function. Yet, of over one thousand ceramic artifacts in my home, I would say less than 5% are used for that purpose. By far most of them are on shelves, a lot in my pottery gallery, others in almost all the rooms in my house. I don’t want to upset my potter friends, or the ones that read this blog, but I think the practical rationale of functionality is only one of the many virtues of pottery and not the most important one for me.
I am struggling to place myself in the best of both worlds, not sure if I am going to get my way. I embrace the idea of pottery as craft; and I embrace the idea of craft as a major contributor to world culture. I also embrace the idea of art and those artifacts and performances that emerge from centuries of culture as represented in painting and sculpture, music and literature, dance and drama. I must make the argument that pottery has elements of both craft and art, and that we do not need to demand a functional capacity in order to justify pottery. Some potters might retort to my comments by insisting that I have; by freezing my pottery to one site by affixing them with earthquake putty, by making them completely immobile, unable to be activated and employed; by doing all these things I have violated the fundamental value and integrity of their ceramic creations. How can I defend myself and seek a negotiated agreement with my potter friends?
I will start by saying that there is a difference between pottery and a hand tool, an instrument devised to facilitate the manual labor of people. Pottery is not just an appliance, accessory or utility fixture, it doesn’t belong in my toolbox. I know that some pottery can do things but that is not what I demand of most of my pottery. I frankly think it is an exaggerated humility, or even a chronic defensiveness, when potters seek to excuse the existence of pottery only in terms of their usefulness. I can buy plastic containers at Wal-Mart that can do the same things as pottery and not chip or break when dropped. Ugly plastic stuff does as good a job or better than beautiful ceramic stuff if it is only a job you are seeking from them.
I am sitting at my big desk in my pottery gallery right now. I can view hundreds of ceramic pots of every conceivable size and shape. Some are antique pottery from the 19th century, some from indigenous cultures, and some contemporary studio art pottery from many cultures and countries. I seen a marvelous variety of styles and approaches, some pots maintain a rather austere simplicity, others are vivid and detailed with elaborate decorations both abstract and illustrative, with others glazes run together and spill down the form; some have intricate patterns, some are elegant with graceful lines, others quite modern with irregular shapes and bold, bright flat colors. I have known some of the pieces for over thirty years yet still discover new things, new visual joys in their appearance. I do not know what a painting or sculpture could offer me in its aesthetic complexity that this pottery could not also provide. The three dimensional surface offers a continuing canvas for visual narration or abstract motifs, the possibility of shape and form are varied with sculptural opportunities that sometimes result in shapes that lose their original function as pot with some humor or satirical edge. I am telling you that my pots are both art and craft. I know what I am talking about; I can see them right now from my big desk in my pottery gallery.
I think practical craftspeople are often a bit embarrassed when I seek to shift the discussion from what pottery can do to what pottery means in expressive terms that celebrates the poetics of engagement. I think pottery is food for the soul! Was I right? Just a bit nervous with that kind of talk? Is this guy Jacobs a bit over the moon (a great British way of saying ‘going overbroad’) with his flourish of purple prose? After all, we are talking about a teapot, not the Mona Lisa. I like to offer you one example from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”. This quote starts off with my opening remarks than offers a beautiful statement from another writer. I want to emphasize here that I think this statement integrates the two realms that pottery can offer, the functional capacity to enable us to sustain ourselves and at the same time the aesthetic qualities that can enhance our lives, to give beauty and meaning to our daily rituals of living. I would also like to pay tribute to the compelling beauty and sensitivity of the quoted writer, testimony to the fact that pottery can inspire us to moments of revelation and celebration in words as well as pottery. First my statement, then Kim Stafford’s,
“I have never regarded pottery as a diversion or a pleasurable distraction. Yet this time, I seek in my pottery some healing of the heart, some mending of the mind. Pottery is primal, not trivial to human concerns. It is certainly central to my stability and balance. I pick up a book too long concealed in a stack of books on my desk, with the wonderful title, ‘The Soul of a Bowl’. Kim Stafford, in an introductory essay, ‘Personal Magnitude’, provides me a sensitive and moving essay that uplifts and restores my hope and reinforces my essential beliefs about the power and the glory of those things that move and motivate my life:
“The fact is, the most important things in life are about the size of a tea bowl. The first is the mother’s breast, held between the child’s tiny hands. The breast doesn’t have a handle because it is all handle, offering everything. Your little hands take all of it and it holds all you need – warm, full, private, bounteous. Some time later, growing, you close your own fingers into a bowl, and hold water in your hand. The first cup you make is your hand…The knotted hands, the golden skein of human love. The human heart, faithful. About the size of your fist. The most important things are smaller than a house, a car, or a computer, but larger than a coin, a pen, or a spoonful of soup. The most import things are less symmetrical than a water glass, more intriguing than a perfect circle, older than the paper cup you throw away as you leave the coffee shop. The most important things have the personal magnitude of a handshake, the tang of a handful of huckleberries all your own. These most precious things are a certain size, and they connect a person to another person, or they connect a person to the world as it is. They are what we ask for as we leave home forever. ‘Let me hold your hand one time.’ So your mouth meets the mouth of the tea bowl, your lips meet the rim, and a tread of tea, wine, or whiskey travels from one realm to another.”
The holidays are here and the year is coming to a close. This is the busiest time of the year for many potters. Many of you are presenting your ceramic wares at pottery fairs and exhibits. I wish you great success. For the coming year, I hope that we can continue to live our lives with energy and purpose while at the same time creating and experiencing those things in life that make it all worth while.