Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘pottery’
Monday, October 22nd, 2012
The complex feelings involved in attaining a transcendent experience could well be a combination of many emotions and not just a single one. But the emotion being discussed here has to do with the elevation of the human soul and consciousness beyond the grounded reality of our ordinary lives. Most people might associate this special state with a spiritual experience and that would be quite appropriate to use in this way. I am going to employ this idea in this blog as the intellectual and emotional canopy for the aesthetic engagement and celebration of art. I intend to assert that we all need to be replenished and enriched by an infusion of those ennobling experiences that transcend anchored reality and liberates us to soar above and beyond our everyday existence. In a materialistic culture that seeks to emphasize our roles as consumers of perishable commodities, there seems to be few opportunities to experience those intense and memorable moments whose sublime and thrilling beauty enrich our lives. This theme reminds us of the injunction that we humans cannot live by bread alone.
There is no competition evident in seeking revelation and exhilaration from either the spiritual or the aesthetic. In fact they have been partners throughout human history. We know that religion has historically utilized aesthetic principles in constructing crafted temples of worship, in the soaring and inspiring music that accompanies religious rituals, in the sponsorship of artists in such periods as the Italian Renaissance where they painted vast murals in churches and other religious sites. In some regions of the world, this collaboration of the spiritual and the aesthetic resulted in the three dimensional and often monumental portrayals of such religious figures as Buddha and other spiritual deities. In more secular and modern societies, where art often is without religious sponsorship or content, the revelatory joys of aesthetic engagement depend on the qualities of the artifact itself.
Who is Worthy?
Can only special people enjoy this very special kind of experience? Do you have to be an expert on ceramic art, an authority on the stocking of the kiln, inside knowledge of ingredients of the clay and the chemistry of the glaze, to be truly enthralled by the engagement of the created pot? Can only an artist appreciate the work of other artists? I can only answer these questions for myself but I would emphatically deny the exclusivity of the transcendent experience to those with expert authority or specialized knowledge. That would be analogous to claiming that a higher spiritual state is available only to the priesthood or clergy of that faith and not devoted believers in that faith. I must maintain that the ability to activate the wisdom and glory of the aesthetic experience to uplift and enrich your life is open to all people. That is not to say such transcendent experiences are easy or accessible without self-discipline and concentrated focus. As with all the finer things of life, there must be a prior investment of devoted attention to achieve those rarefied moments of epiphany that mark the enraptured exaltation of experiencing great art and craft.
There are those who would not limit this ability to various types of people but would limit it by insisting that those qualities that could sponsor such emotions are embedded in only very special varieties of ‘fine art’ and cannot be found in craft or specifically pottery. This is an elitist view that exiles the handcrafted artifact to the lesser level of utilitarian ware. There is an implicit inference here that not only is the ceramic artifacts of a lower status but the maker of that object operates on a lower level of spiritual and aesthetic behavior. In his book, “The Spirit of Ceramic Design: Cultivating Creativity with Clay”, Robert Piepenburg has a chapter titled “Spiritual Principles – Intimate Guidance” in which he talks about those spiritual attributes of the ceramic artist that transcend material expertise and craft technique. Although his remarks in this book are addressed to ceramicists, his comments do not limit the attainment of these qualities to just artists. Nor does his definition of spiritual principles require a special religious membership but are rather universal in nature and can become the rightful property of all that seek it. This is what Piepenburg has to say,
“Where a lot of artists are at right now is a place of personal discovery where they realize that having a spiritual component to their art-making is every bit as important as having it in their lives. This is especially true with ceramists. While this emergence may be due in part to the primal nature of the clay itself, I think it is mostly a reality shift of consciousness. Any alternation of consciousness, like any process of internal transformation that leads to a new state or quality of being, can be likened to an awakening. If such discoveries lead to a deeper dimension of self they are in essence spiritual and add new purpose to being alive. As for what exactly constitutes spirituality it is never easy to say, but we do know that it endows everything from art to politics with humanness. We also know that it is a precondition to our becoming – to the finding of our own authentic path in life – because spirituality gives intimate meaning and guidance to life. It is the sum total of energy that exists within our heart, mind, and body. Without it we are unable to recognize a deeper sacredness in life, let alone understand the creative process. If we acknowledge the importance of our spirit and its reverence for that which is universally true, positive, and wise then the next question becomes: ‘How do we take it into the studio?’”
Feeding Our Souls
In the sense that Piepenburg offers here, the making and engagement of art provides the spiritual stuff that can nourish that internal state or condition that gives purpose and reason to being alive. These spiritual and aesthetic resources are obtained by the life we lead. I often read about the importance of diet, the avoidance of too much processed food or the chronic ingestion of food with excessive amounts of sugar and salt as leading to obesity or even ill health. Here Piepenburg is talking about food for the soul and he is talking about ceramics. First we take it into our hearts, minds and bodies, then some of us who are makers can take it into the studio. I like the use of that word ‘cultivating’ in the title of his book. That is the life long chore or task for all of us – to cultivate those inner qualities and assemble around us those aesthetic resources that lead us to a more refined and sublime level of existence.
Transcendental experiences cannot be obtained by some short cuts or immediate acquisition. Like all good things that really count, they have to be earned. People today are spoiled by cheap and easy access to forms of entertainment that can be manipulated in some hand-held electronic appliance. Transformation and transcendence requires a longer attention span and greater effort than that. The difference – if you will forgive my frank honesty – is the difference between a superficial existence or a profound and meaningful existence based on the very best that human culture could provide us. They might be some among us that do not have sufficient self-esteem to believe that they are capable of such experiences. I spent much of my time as an educator trying to convince students otherwise. There had even been times in our history where discriminating practices and laws forbid women and African-Americans and others full access to the riches of our culture in higher education and elsewhere, because they were judged unworthy and not capable of absorbing it. Some groups have had to struggle and fight for the eventual right to attain access to these cultural opportunities. Far too many of us who had and have the inherent privilege of such access have not sought to obtain it. It is that ‘awakening’ that shakes the very core of the inner self, which arouses all the inner energy and drive of your person, to transcend all the surrounding handicaps and limitations, and finally overpower them by transporting the gifts of human culture into the raw fuel of self-construction.
I do not think it is necessary to be unhappy with your everyday life to want to occasionally transcend it. I have written often about the infusion of art and beauty into our everyday lives and do not believe this represents a contradiction. On the contrary, it is in the familiar grounds of our own neighborhood and home that we can import those aesthetic experiences that can elevate our joy and consciousness. We can temporarily transcend in spirit our domestic premises without having to charge our credit cards for the cost of travel. How do we open up ourselves to be carried away – not by motorized vehicles – not by a cramped seat within the sealed tube of air flight – but by a memorable and remarkable musical composition, by a great novel, by a stunning pot whose glazes run like molten rivers of vivid color down its sides. I am satisfied to be of this world and reside in it, but creative human culture provides me a passport to other worlds anytime I seek that kind of journey.
Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
I have great trouble with the attitudes of contemporary artists who feel their chief function as an artist is to shock the lay public. This same public can bite you back when it comes to public art paid for by citizen taxpayer. This desire to shock actually paid off in a big way for those artists who discovered that people who could afford it would pay big bucks for the most outrageous stuff they could come up with. This attitude comprises more than a need to shock strangers, it is inspired by the contempt these artists feel toward the remainder of humanity. On top of that, this contempt shapes the character of the created piece. Great art can initially shock but that is not the central ingredient of its enduring value. I am still listening to Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” and had the pleasure of traveling to Madrid where I observed Picasso’s “Guernica”, both now hailed as lasting masterworks of the last century. I do not think either Stravinsky or Picasso would claim that their chief motivation in doing what they did was to do something as silly and superficial as to reduce their art to a stunt devised to shock strangers. They are also very good examples of those innovative artists who created daring new approaches to their art, yet also possessed great talent and discipline, with a vision of creativity that went beyond making their art into an insult.
Let me provide you a few concrete examples. Michael Kammen, in his book, “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture”, describes the issue of the proper role of art in a political democracy placed next to the ambiguity and diversity of much of modern art. He makes the point that most lay people are not used to figuring out and selecting the possibilities of multiple meanings in artwork. That task is difficult enough for the innocent and naive public, but then to have artists insist that their role is to regard the potential observer as adversary – and the purpose of their art to shock and offend that observer/adversary. Once the function of culture was that the arts and humanities were to ennoble and enrich humanity. When was that central legacy of Western civilization abandoned? What has been the cost and consequences of that abandonment? Doesn’t art that contains as content contempt for intended observers dis-empower those observers?
Kammen provides anecdotes about a few artists who became quite successful in doing what I just described,
“One might even argue that the common denominator – a constant – during the swift shift from one ‘ism’ to the next has been the desire to shock. Looking back to his brazenly tongue-in-cheek painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), Larry Rivers explained that ‘I was energetic and egomaniacal and what is more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something no one in the New York art world would doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd.’ Roy Lichtenstein remarked in an interview that ‘the problem for a hopeful scene-making artists in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable. What he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.’ So he opted for the commonplace: comic book images. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg insisted that ‘if the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.’ Abstract sculptor George Sugarman, whose Baltimore Federal raised a ruckus in that city during the later 1970s, asked rhetorically: ‘Isn’t controversy part of what modern art is all about?’ Performance artist Karen Finley asserted in 1990, as the case of the NEA Four unfolded, ‘That’s what art is about – its shock value.”
I do not contend that this is damning testimony about the aesthetic value of these artists. All those mentioned here are serious artists and most have done important and enduring work and contributed much to our culture. I have varying enthusiasm as reactions to their results but that has only to do with my own temperament and tastes. But still I think their comments are revealing of an attitude and approach to art that I maintain cannot be healthy or ultimately good for the culture. I declare my affinity and solidarity for the affirmative benefits of human culture and civilization. To delight in disfiguring the artifacts in such a way that it provides only the “disgusting, dead, and absurd” is to conclude that all human civilization is decadent, diseased and doomed. I can look at the wars, genocides, and mass starvation of my time on earth and agree that we have amassed considerable evidence to support that position. But to surrender to that hopeless perspective is to make human culture a fatal causality of all those calamities. Culture becomes a collection of pathologies and all our behaviors, including our creative ones, becomes symptoms of a terminal sickness endemic to the human species.
I totally disagree with all the statements of the various artists above. Despite my own reservations about the motivation and intent of some of these artists, I do not have patience or sympathy for those offended who seek to suppress the offensive art. I would never be so silly as to seek to ban that which offends me. I do not wish to define what art is really art and seek to force my conclusions on others. I do not support censorship of the arts, either in the visual image, the dramatic performance, or the content of the text in literature. I further support government sponsorship of public art, all of which will offend somebody, maybe even me on occasion.
I have about completed a book, “The Measure of Our Days: New Beginnings at Life’s End” by Jerome Groopman, M.D. Groopman is a physician, involved as both medical clinician and researcher, who specializes in the worst cases brought about by diseases like cancer and aids. He spends much of his time treating terminally ill patients, trying to find some combination of medicine and personal regime that might give them a few more years to live. Each chapter deals with a real patient that he had once treated. In one chapter Dan, a medical colleague, becomes seriously ill. Dan wanted to do everything possible to live. He talked to Groopman about his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and related that his father had told him that when a person in that concentration camp surrendered to despair, he would die. And that if he survived by becoming an angry animal who stole crusts of bread and bowls of soup from others, then he died inside as a human being. His father explained that just as there were these two types of death, there are also two types of life. One was trying to live a moral life as a moral person and the other was to help others do the same. These thoughts lead Groopman to the following ruminations.
“I searched my memory for the connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary, how there was an alchemy that transmuted the mundane into the sacred. It came to mind. Again, it was a story from the Holocaust, the story told by Prima Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist, who used the transmutability of the elements as a metaphor to explain the radical change in the substance of his life when enslaved by the Nazis. He wrote that it was the performing of the ordinary things that had sustained his sanity, his dignity, his humanity in hell’s inferno. The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims, asserting they were subhuman, without freedom or choice, and not deserving of life. Levi recounted how, when he was close to despair and considering giving in to death, he was instructed by a comrade in camp to wash his face every day. This ordinary and simple act restored dignity and structure to his person, because he exercised his will to do it, and it was a conscious choice. Levi also found that sustaining the life of the mind in the senseless world of the concentration camp gave him strength. With another friend, he regularly recited verses from Dante, as he had before his enslavement. He had chosen to introduce beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist. Levi believed the greatest form of resistance was to continue to act in the ordinary, normal ways that had marked one’s life before the deportation. It demonstrated a sense of control, an exercise of will, and signaled the potential to triumph over the forces that sought to destroy you. With restoration of dignity came a renewed capacity to hope.”
There is much to consider here. How can people even try to lead ordinary lives when confronted with extraordinary peril and degradation? The ability to wash one’s own face in such conditions is an act of defiance that also supports one’s dignity and humanity. As long as some modicum of choice exists or is willed to exist, then one is not totally without freedom. Yes, Groopman, I share your agonizing grief, “The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims.” Can art do the same thing? If the purpose of that art is calculated to only offend, to shock, to alienate the engaged observer, to mock everything important to that person, can there not be serious dehumanizing effects on that person? I can fully support critical or contentious art that challenges conventions and the status quo. I cannot support art that deliberately seeks to dehumanize those human beings that unfortunately come in contact with the noxious artifact.
I am sure you must resonate with Groopman’s story about how Levi was able to sustain the life of the mind by reciting the poet Dante, by introducing “beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist.” Should not art play a role in empowering people with the will and potential to triumph over the forces that seeks to destroy them? Does being modern require one not to care about what Groopman and Levi cared about? I fear that too often it is. What have we lost and when did we lose it? I fear that what we have lost in the arts has nothing to do with realism or abstraction, nothing to do with expression or skill, nothing to do with concept or completed artifact. What I fear we have lost in the arts is the determined urge to celebrate our humanity.
Sunday, August 12th, 2012
Hope might seem a strange emotion to attach to the making and engagement of pottery. Yet I believe that this basic emotion is the very foundation of an affirmative grasp of life and all that it offers, including pottery. For me, it is also an essential outcome of memorable aesthetic experiences. Hope contains the remedy for despair. Much contemporary and post-modern art prefers despair and its more sensational aspects to the softer if not sweeter elements of hope. It is not sophisticated nowadays for artists to offer hope. Hope requires a greater investment and risk than despair. Despair is usually defined as a symptom of bad things that have happened to you or could happen at any time. Despair eventually leads you to an ever more dire condition. In the extreme, it can finally drive you to not caring. The doors and windows of your soul can close and the lights go out. Great art can lead you both places at the same time and in both cases the rewards can be great. This is a very delicate balancing act. To engage the sublime darkness of the human sprit in some metaphorical or aesthetic guise as created by an artist or author, yet find some fragment of hope in the very same place and circumstance is to my mind the highest form of aesthetic engagement.
Hope vs. Despair
Hope is something you have to handcraft and make for yourself and then implement it despite all the dire issues of your own existence. Despair arrives with the concrete evidence of hurt that has been inflicted upon you. Hope is projection of a wished for future that has no real guarantee. Hope is the yet unrealized emotion of a personal belief system that can have little basis in fact. Hope is always unproven. It cannot depend on the facts of the matter for its justification. Despair might entail an honest and realistic assessment of the situation. Hope always begins as an exaggeration, an inventory of the potential of undependable possibilities. Another advantage of despair is that it is far more dependable than hope. How we cope with despair is often far more revealing of our character than the unfulfilled dreams or illusions that hope can depend upon.
Despair becomes clinical depression when it appears to lack a basis for its existence but you cannot avoid its intrusion just the same. The circumstances of your present despair might well be the result of your own past errors. Given the common distribution of our fallibilities, how can we prove to ourselves and others that we even deserve to have hope? Another advantage of despair, when one surrenders hope, the pressure is off and any further injury can be received with a benign if not resigned submission. In that sense, hope requires a resistance of the soul, a determination to surmount difficulties that might seem at the time insurmountable. Courage is an ingredient of hope. Despair is often inflicted on the innocent and that innocence can only intensify the despair. Hope has to be earned if it is to triumph.
Human culture must provide us hope. I will go further than that and personalize this statement. Art has been a central source of hope throughout my entire life. Art contains the reservoir of resources that can give us reasons to live and to get up in the morning. For the potter to approach the wheel, there has to be some element of hope that the outcome will be worth the effort. To create art one has to believe that what comes out of that effort will make a difference in the world. I want to further explore why so much contemporary art concentrates on the dismal and dire aspects of human existence. I want to start with a short essay that got my dander up in regard to my present mood. It is in an anthology edited by David Beech, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”. It really set off my current funk about so much of what is happening in the arts today. It is a brief; one page essay by Robert Smithson titled “An Aesthetics of Disappointment”. Apparently Smithson went to an exhibit in 1966 in New York City and really disliked the show. The essay was a result.
Just a bit of background about Smithson. He was a seminal figure in the Land Art movement through the 1960s and 1970s, best known for ‘Spiral Jetty’, his 1979 “earthwork” in the Great Salt Lake, that was once covered by water but with the long drought in the West, is now visible and frequently visited. Apparently Smithson thought galleries and museum were ‘jails and tombs’, incapable of conveying the messy nature of reality. His ire was directed at an exhibit organized by an engineer that included artists involved in ‘experiments in art and technology’ I went to an website titled “Art Agenda” where April Lamm concluded that “For the most part the result of bringing 30 engineers together with 10 artists yielded performance kitsch at its worst.” Here is Smithson’s statement,
“Many are disappointed at the nullity of art. Many try to pump life or space into the confusion that surrounds art. An incurable optimism like a mad dog rushed into vacuum that the art suggests. A dread of voids and blanks brings on a horrible anticipation. Everybody wonders what art is, because there never seems to be any around. Many feel coldly repulsed by concrete unrealities, and demand some kind of proof or at least a few facts. Facts seem to ease the disappointment. But quickly those facts are exhausted and fall to the bottom of the mind. This mental relapse is incessant and tends to make our aesthetic view stale. Nothing is more faded than aesthetics. As a result, painting, sculpture and architecture are finished, but the art habit continues. The more transparent and vain the aesthetic, the less chance there is for reverting back to purity. Purity is a desperate nostalgia that exfoliates like a hideous need. Purity also suggests a need for the absolute with all its perpetual traps. Yet we are overburdened with countless absolutes and driven to inefficient habits. These futile and stupefying habits are thought to have meaning. Futility, one of the more durable things of this world, is nearer to the artistic experience than excitement. Yet the life-forcer is always around trying to incite a fake madness. The mind is important, but only when it is empty. The greater the emptiness the grander the art. Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity. Each kind of stupidity may be broken down into categories such as: bovine formalism, tired painting, eccentric concentrics or numb structures. All these categories and many others all petrify into a vast banality called the art world which is no world. A nice negativism seems to be spawning. A sweet nihilism is everywhere. Immobility and inertia are what many of the most gifted artists prefer. Vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, a few artists are on the true path of stultification.”
Thoughts on Smithson
I am not sure I understand exactly what are the specific elements of that exhibit that so offended Smithson. I am not sure it matters. I would extend his critical application to much of what goes for art today, probably including some of those aspects that he valued and would protect. He starts this essay and his collaboration with me within that very first sentence, “Many are disappointed at the nullity of art.” I frankly don’t know from the tone of his essay if he is agreeing or disagreeing with what he is stating. Is he being clever or satirical? Perhaps just furious and contemptuous? I don’t know and I don’t care. I find his next statement quite puzzling. If an incurable optimism is a mad dog, what kind of monster would represent nullity and futility? I also disagree with the face value of the statement. Where is this optimism he is talking about? I can’t find it in the cynical, aesthetic black holes of much of gallery art today. Yes, Smithson, many of us are very, very disappointed at the nullity of art. What a very good place to begin this discussion. I do wonder why his statement seems in style and content to serve that very same goal. Why would anyone, including the artist or poet, deliberately attempt through their art to disarm human beings of hope?
At some point, Smithson does annoy me. Is he being serious when he says that painting, sculpture, and architecture are finished? Maybe for him but not for me. His tone in this essay is part of the problem for me. Why is it so important to be so provocative? He utters absolutist statements like the one just stated, and then he criticizes the “desperate nostalgia” for the absolute in others. The artist as agent provocateur can be quite wearing on people’s nerves and became quite tedious. This can be true for writers who take the same pose too. Is art really now just a habit? He seems to insist that the only alternative to the present nullity is an unsatisfactory return to facts, the grounded absolutes of previous aesthetic dogma. I don’t agree. He makes two silly statements in a row – about the mind being important only when it is empty and the other about the greater the emptiness the grander the art. Is he just pulling my leg?
I think he must have learned this trick from Andy Warhol, a mentor of his at one time. Here again he is doing what he just earlier criticized in others – trying to “incite a fake madness” into a discussion where I would value his transparent honesty and informed point of view. Is he trying to prove by his own performance in this essay that “Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity?” I agree with his final thoughts about nihilism in the arts but I don’t think it is all that sweet. Yes, vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, but after a careful reading and re-reading, I share his general disappointment with the state of the arts but for very different reasons. I end up suspecting that it really serves his purpose to adopt a jaded, cynical disappointment that offers no hope beyond it. For me, he then becomes a part of the problem.
I have another anxiety in advancing my perspective on these matters. There was a whole range of conforming and conventional know-nothings out there who reject any innovation or experimentation in art beyond their fond memories of the covers of the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ by Norman Rockwell. Now their grandchildren collect the sentimental, mass-produced stuff by Thomas Kincaid. I do not equate great art with an illustrated realism nor limit my ceramic interests to the stark minimalism of the functional ceramic container as domestic appliance. Nor do I require or limit my received aesthetic messages to contain only good news or morale building opportunities. Hope needs rigor and complexity to makes a difference. It also needs the exuberance that comes from the expression of human feeling.
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012
In a previous blog, regarding the emotion of sentimentality in relationship to pottery and the creative process, I offered George Ohr as a model of a male who displayed a variety of emotional elements in his personality and pottery. He was a true eccentric, bawdy and lustful in his ceramic brothel tokens and other aesthetic and personal vulgarities. Now, I would like to counter some of the stereotypes just discussed about women by offering you one of the great American woman potters, every bit as eccentric and notorious in her way as George Ohr. Of course I am talking about Beatrice Woods. I have been to her former home in Ojai, California, several times, now a museum and workshop for visiting potters. It is situated in a lovely landscape, up in the rolling hills just outside Ojai. There is also an exhibit there with plenty of photographs, text and of course her luster pottery, that tells the legendary exploits of this woman who lived to be over 100 years old, took many of the great artists of the 20thcentury as her lovers and friends, and had an independent and passionate spirit that lasted until the very last day of her very long life.
In his book, “Shards: Garth Clark on Ceramic Art”, Clark has a very touching essay on Woods, titled “A True and Romantic Pragmatist”. He featured her several times in his gallery over the years. I want to provide you two segments of that essay here,
“We were friends for twenty years, and I know why her lovers clung to her friendship even after the passion had passed. Wood has a way of bringing light and optimism into one’s life. Witty, positive and a fascinating raconteur, she was able to communicate her enthusiasm for life and for the present. While she may have enjoyed telling stories from her long life, she never lived in the past. She was an extraordinary friend. Almost every momentous event of my life during our friendship is punctuated with a letter from Beatrice, congratulating, encouraging, commiserating. I never knew where she found the time to write these elegant, warm, poetic notes. Many times I did not even know how she had found out about those moments.”
In the last passage in this essay, Clark mourns the recent passing of this vibrant and unique person,
“To say that I will miss her is strangely incorrect. There are some people whose passing cannot lessen their presence in one’s daily life. Certainly, I mourn that I cannot drop in at her studio and home in Ojai and enjoy her laughter, and lively discussions about art, sex and politics. I will miss the aromatic meals off her glittering plates. I will miss walking after her as she shuffled barefoot to her studio to show me the latest ‘horrors,’ as she jokingly referred to her newly fired work in the kiln. But death alone cannot take away a spirit as vital and contagious as that of Beatrice Wood. She lives on in the life of her many friends, and one must compliment God for the wisdom of allowing her to stay somewhat longer than the average mortal. Certainly she used that time wisely and played out a life that shimmered, glittered, sparkled and seduced every bit as much as the luster pots she made for the last sixty-five years.”
Clark has provided us not only a sensitive tribute to a dear friend recently deceased, but something about this woman and the way she choose to live her life. Her life was a work of art as well as her luster pottery. She dared to create herself and insist that others make room for her. She was born to wealth and privilege but shunned the life it offered and went her own way. She gave up the superficial respectability that her privileged origins provided, but she gained a greater and truer respect in developing her unique person-hood and pottery.
Our Way in the World
You might respond to my portrayals of both George Ohr and Beatrice Wood by saying they were rare characters, larger than life, and we can’t all be that spectacular in our behavior and character. I would agree with you. Each of us must find our own way of being in the world. But I hope we would both agree, however we are able to demonstrate it, that passion for life and passion for work are essential components for a rich and meaningful quality of life. I am a quiet, shy man in many respects; a short, bald-headed, bookish man that in retirement spends much of my time in the solitude of my home with my books and pottery. Yet a flame still burns and flickers in my soul and I greet each day and the morning sun with an increased tempo of anticipation, marshaling all the energy still at my command at this late time in my life, engaging the day and all the potential splendors and wonders that each day brings to me. I think what I have just said constitutes a summary and definition of a passionate life. How would you describe your life passions?
Searching for Beauty
I wrote a book about searching for beauty and many of the readers of this blog have devoted their lives to creating beauty with clay. This commitment to beauty, however one might define the qualities that make up beauty, also contains, according to some, the elements of the erotic and the quality that we call love. The study of the beautiful is contained in that field of scholarship called ‘Aesthetics”. However academics might wish to shape this discussion into formal theory and reduce it to analytical thought, this study of beauty is essentially a study of feelings. The following quote reinforces the commentary by Garth Clark in his tribute to Beatrice Woods. Here is the quote, in the book, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”, an anthology edited by Dave Beech, in an essay by Kathleen Marie Higgins titled “Whatever Happened to Beauty?” Higgins talks about the relationship of beauty to our emotions.
“When beauty transforms raw emotion in times of loss, does it necessarily make us more ‘philosophical’, in the colloquial sense of more stoical, more distanced from the wound we have suffered? Loss, besides provoking pangs of anger, regret, and sadness, has a deadening influence on the person engulfed by it. Loss is depressing. The bereaved often doubt that they can continue in a world devoid of a loved one. Enter beauty. Beauty makes the world seem worthwhile again. Plato described our stance towards beauty as erotic. We are drawn to beauty. Beauty incites ardor. It is the bridge to sense that reality is lovable. Plato, as much as Kant, would say that beauty makes us philosophical. But for Plato this means that beauty makes us fall in love with what is perfect. I want to suggest that beauty typically, perhaps especially in times of loss, urges not stillness but renewed love of life. Beautiful elegies reflect our sense that the only fitting remembrance for one who lives is to renew life, and that our own march forward into dying is itself an affirmation that life, in its basic character, is good.”
We are moving from discussion of that utilitarian passion that accompanies physical sexuality to a generic or cosmic sense of passion as the very stuff that allows an affirmation of life, that makes life good, that celebrates beauty; all this can be accomplished by a special intensity and rush of feelings that brings excitement and joy in our ordinary and daily attempts to cope and survive. Ceramic artists provide those concrete objects that can set off these celebrations of the spirit. I think we have now established beyond any shadow of a doubt that pottery are indeed containers of passion. It is the transfer of that passion to someone like me, who tries to bring his entire self to that engagement that sparks my own transformation to a heightened state of aesthetic arousal. I can only conclude, and perhaps you were not aware of this before, but for those of you that are represented in my pottery collection, we do indeed have a very intimate and passionate relationship. We need not alarm others by disclosing it. I will deny all rumors.
The Comforts of Home
I am in my pottery gallery right now, just finishing some iced tea. The air-conditioned interior resists the intrusion of a very warm afternoon. I am surrounded by pottery, surrounded by beauty. I would like to feel that I am not only a docent of the pottery in my home, but also the custodian of the passionate efforts that the makers invested in the creation of that pottery. I try to honor the potter in attempting to provide protection for the pottery. We are both invested, maker and collector, we both care very much. I am not embarrassed by proclaiming my feelings, by caring; by feeling both the joy of my close proximity to those things I love, but also, as indicated in the quotes by Clark and Higgins, the pain of possible loss, the fragile and often dangerous connection between passionate love and the universal status of our tenuous mortality and those uncontrollable disasters that can claim what is precious to us. We should not avoid loving in order to evade the pain and loss later on. If you should sometime in the future read in the newspapers that a violent earthquake hit Glendora, think of my destroyed pottery collection, and remind me of what I have just said.
We can hone the ability to express our feelings as we can further develop our skills in expressing our thoughts and creating the artifacts that reflect them. In writing this text, I am trying to express my feelings about my feelings. I think that is also an interesting idea. When caught in the moment of intense feeling, we are one with that sensation and situation. We are on intimate terms with that thing or person that stimulated our response. But later, after our removal from that intense moment, how do we make sense and learn from our passions? Can we develop the capacity to meditate on those moments that others might say we temporarily lost critical control of ourselves? Can we gain wisdom from our emotional experiences as well as from our thoughts?
We tend to know when we are trying to think something out and then make a mistake. It might be a mistake of fact or a conclusion unsupported by available evidence. I read and evaluated thousands of student papers through the years in which I would point out such errors. But how do we know when we have made a mistake of passion? We can’t check out the facts or google some information that might rectify and correct our thinking. Affairs of the heart are much more difficult to correct. And they might very well require a time for healing not necessary for more intellectual matters. Our emotions are much more tender than our thoughts. There is a safer distance involved in our opinions about things. We could disagree on what our foreign policy should be right now on what to do about Syria. I would not find that upsetting. But if someone thought my intense feelings about my pottery collection were silly and told me so I would be really upset. You do not display disrespect for another person when you happen to disagree with that person’s opinion about something, but you cannot be said to respect another person if you do not respect that person’s feelings. It is so much easier to ridicule a person’s emotions than a person’s thoughts.
I will continue this discussion in Part three regarding the role of passion in the creative process and pottery as a container of that quality.
Tuesday, June 19th, 2012
I am assuming that all readers of this blog are fully consenting adults. I would require some kind of identification and confirmation of your adult status before allowing you to read further but my meager knowledge of computers and the way they work forbid such regulation. We have the generic question – what is the role of passion in the creative process, in the arts, and in pottery in particular? I will try to restrain myself and maintain my decorum and not embarrass myself or any reader of this blog in leading this particular discussion. Passion in the widest definition of that term would mean any behavior or state of being that demonstrated great intensity of feeling, an exuberant emotional state that can take on physical and emotional dimensions in terms of aroused or celebratory behavior.
The Art of Passion
I am trying very hard to think of any passionate potters I know, but perhaps that emotion was thought best displayed elsewhere and not in my presence. Can the pot show passion if the potter cannot? What form does passion take both in the making of the object and in the final artifact that comes out of it? Can passion be an innocent emotion devoid of sensuality or is passion displayed outside sexuality a very poor substitute or sublimation for the real thing? I do hope you are prepared for this discussion. Please put away anything that might distract you and really concentrate on helping me through this blog. I might be mistaken but I do believe I have some very passionate pots in my pottery gallery. It would be rude of you to inquire if this very old man responds in kind. A lot of people think passion is an unseemly emotion for old people to display in any form or kind.
Is passion an ordinary emotion that all of us display in doing what we love to do? I am a passionate gardener though I doubt that this emotion is visible when I garden. Surely someone can see me every morning in the front garden, look at the spectacular, blooming results of my devotion, and realize my emotional investment. First if all, there is a level of caring in passion, then joy in performing that function or performance, and finally results external to you that you are responsible for and fully justify your efforts. I think all of us can locate in our lives such attitudes and activities. Can such a demanding emotion in terms of energy and focus deteriorate into automatic habit? Can you really spend years of your life with that soggy clay getting your hands dirty on the wheel and yet declare your continuing passion with that experience? Sadly, we know that passion can dissipate and die when associated with other human beings, that has often been the stuff of great poetry. Can it also fade and decline in those things you do that once brought you the greatest joy? How do you protect and preserve passion – with both people and pottery?
Can’t any burst of passion directed toward those objects and subjects of desire become a potential source of great pain and loss if that source of desire is not accessible or obtainable? Isn’t it safer to play it cool, not get too invested, not to take a chance? Doesn’t passion have to be in some sense reciprocal in order to bring personal satisfaction? My garden, in late Spring, is now giving me, in return for my loving attention, the most beautiful and glorious flowers. You have to take a risk when committing to your passions, and the outcome is always in doubt. The bedrock of all passions is the fundamental passion for life itself. I still have it though it has been severely tested at times during my life.
Creativity and Control
When applied to the creative process, does passion lead to innovation and vivid expression or does it distort the artifact by its excess? Don’t most potters believe that they have to control the entire process, plan and design the result, ensure that everything remains predictable and reliable? Doesn’t passion mean at least a partial loss of control; letting go and allowing previously unknown and unruly feelings play a role in the creative process? Isn’t the very idea of mastery in craft defined by the conscious management of a supreme skill, which allows no irrational deviation? How can you combine skill and passion? Aren’t they very unlikely partners at the potter’s wheel?
Passion in the Past
Let us first examine the relationship of passion to sexuality and relate that to pottery. If we go back to classical Greece, we can see vivid portrayals of nude men and boys on some of their pottery. I remember taking a group of high schools students to the Getty Museum in Malibu, CA many years ago and walking them through the galleries that contained nude sculptures and pottery. Sure enough, it didn’t take a few of the adolescent boys very long to locate that pottery that illustrated the aroused affection of those ancient Greeks of long ago. As for Classical sculpture and contemporary pottery in regard to eroticism, this was what I said in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, about this matter, ending with a quote from a book by Paul Mathieu,
“The nose and the penis are always the first to go. Fortunately contemporary ceramics are replenishing the latter. A quick perusal of the classical collection of Greek and Roman sculpture confirms my observation. I have just finished “Sex Pots: Eroticism in Ceramics” by Paul Mathieu. I hide the book from my grandchildren and guests, bringing back warm memories of the surreptitious concealment of certain magazines and illustrations in my adolescence. I have obviously underestimated up to now just how exciting ceramics really can be. I browse the book, with ceramic evidence of projected penis and dented vulva on countless objects across history and cultures. I do continue to be concerned about the future durability of contemporary works with potentially vulnerable appendages. I fully appreciate the importance of pottery and clay objects in human ritual and the analogous references to the human body in the form and function of ceramic vessels that connect ceramics to human sexuality. Mathieu further explains this idea:
‘…ceramic objects and human bodies remain basically interchangeable as the metaphorical level, but also through somatic analogies within forms and parts. Pottery forms are presentations, abstractly, of human bodies. Through touch and direct contact, they are experienced intimately by bodies, and their inherent functions mimic as well as support bodily functions. This emphasis on tactile aspects, on physical touch, differentiates objects from images, which operate solely at the visual level.’”
Admittedly, this is a major departure from the serving of tea in fashionable 18th and 19th century drawing rooms with an elegant porcelain teapot and delicate cups and saucers, all hand painted with bright periwinkles or other such pretty flowers. We have established, both in classical culture and in contemporary ceramics, that pottery has been employed to portray human sexuality as inspired by the primal emotion of passion. We simply cannot label these historical references of thousands of years of human civilization as obscene or vulgar. Many are sublime homage’s to the regenerative capacity of humans to reproduce and others are in themselves ritual objects of that same fertility capacity as symbol and metaphor.
Passion – Gender Specific?
At one time in Western culture it was thought that the very existence, much less the expression, of passion was strictly a man’s prerogative. In the same sense, it was once thought that women were reluctant participants in sexual activity, the price they had to pay for domestic stability and the attainment of motherhood and family. Women who did demonstrate passion were thought limited to those who had become fallen women, devoid of respectability and not the type who married but were kept in another capacity. We have largely forsaken these sexist notions in our society but the residue of these attitudes still haunts us today. It is particularly ironic that women were once thought inherently emotional and thus inherently unstable. Yet the one emotion they supposedly lacked by their very nature was the emotion of passion. In contrast, men were allowed to be emotional in their display of passion as an integral part of their manhood but socialized to suppress all the other emotions as unmanly. When you think about it, this cultural construction of the emotional makeup of humans by gender didn’t make any sense for either men or women.
In the next blog I will continue this discussion.
Thursday, May 10th, 2012
After bringing up these unsavory attitudes toward sentimentality, I going to take the risk and confess that I too have critical reactions to excessively sentimental depictions in various artistic media. It is not for the same reasons as discussed above. A film I saw recently inspired my reveries about sentimentality. Judy and I went out to dinner and a movie with friends on New Year’s Eve. We went to a huge mall not too far from us located in an adjoining suburb, connected by the freeway that runs close to our house and goes through a string of suburbs on its way to Los Angeles. We saw the film, “War Horse”, directed by Steven Spielberg. I had concerns about going to see the film, concerns about Spielberg’s tendency to make conventional Hollywood films even out of the most unconventional themes. We are due to see the play soon in a month or two. It originated in Britain and was adapted from a novel. I anticipate a very different experience with the play. The film served the standard Spielberg formula, with intervals of two rather brutal and realistic World War I battle scenes sandwiched between sentimental slabs of overripe storytelling lit by rose-colored skies. The visual scenes of the English countryside with those charming huts with thatched roofs have been seen before on calendars, jigsaw puzzles and on the covers of boxed candy. It was this combination of the inherent vulgarity of war and the sloppy sentimentality of the remainder of the movie that triggered the contents of this letter.
John William’s lush music lathered the film with sweeping and rolling romantic crescendos that constantly tugged at my heartstrings. Spielberg somehow succeeds in manipulating the audience to care only about the survival of the boy and his horse despite the graphic horrors portrayed of the war, bodies of young men piled in the trenches, rats gnawing corpses, all representing the bloody and savage end of prior European civilization. There is a faint and latent message embedded in the film that perhaps if men only loved each other as much as they loved horses we would have no more wars. It contained almost all the elements I dislike and find all too common in Hollywood movies.
I will offer this review of the film by Andrew Pulver, who, in the Tuesday 20 December 2011 edition of “The Guardian”, had this to say about the “War Horse”,
“Following hard on the heels of the rousing, if charmless, ‘Adventures of Tintin’, Steven Spielberg has opted for a lachrymose, buttery treatment of the Michael Morpurgo book-then-play, which is still packing them out in the West End. The original novel is famous for its horse-viewpoint narration, while the stage version is celebrated for its puppetry; Spielberg has jettisoned both of these (relatively) adventurous devices, and tells it pretty straight. But straight doesn’t mean unvarnished. From the first swooping shots of a chocolate-boxy English countryside, this ‘War Horse’ is rooted in a buffed-up sanded-down version of rural England, where even alcohol-fuelled poverty is given a picturesque, storybook patina.”
I do appreciate that at least Pulver agrees with me on this film. I seem to have two choices in engaging the arts today. Most media in popular culture offers a variation of the sentimental to lure a big box office. The other box office strategy is the vulgarity of violence. The avant-garde in the fine arts regularly offers the vulgar, often under the cover of claiming satire, but most often merely adding to the towering modern and postmodern achievements of the vulgar. A few of the most highly successful artists in the fine arts today have managed to achieve a deadly combination of both. My aesthetic tastes and standards do not appreciate the domination of either possibility. I can tolerate elements of both present in the artifact or performance but only as counterpoints to some greater purpose or meaning. If I reject the sentimental and the vulgar as aesthetic standards, what is left for me? I do not find the vulgar offensive but rather banal when its need to shock becomes a desperate strategy.
I do often find the sentimental offensive, trying to deceive me into believing in the ultimate triumph of a happy ending that ignores the fact that we cannot escape death. Life teaches you that there are thorns even on something as beautiful as a rose bush. Sentimentality requires experiences that successfully turn past reality into today’s fiction. In this case the falsification of past life transforms present life into a romance. Sentimentality becomes the emotional cemetery for our lives, the buried memories that are awakened and sweetened with the help of stimuli created for that effect. Sentimentality wisely avoids the significant and focuses rather on those intimate experiences and relationships of personal lifetimes. To be sentimental one has to demand that your memories of the past promise to faithfully tell you loving falsehoods. Sentimentality lacks the resources to be profound. But it just might make life worth living for those of us who have known great suffering. Sentimentality often becomes a well-intentioned lie justified for the purposes of overall morale. The lie is in what is left out, the harsh and cruel aspects of the human condition. It a lie of omission, necessary for the sweet bits and pieces to triumph in the one sided presentation stacked to make you feel very, very good.
Well, I do seem to have rather definite feelings about the employment of sentimentality in the arts, don’t I? It appears that most people might well disagree with me. The film, “Warhorse” was nominated for best picture for an Oscar, although it did fail to achieve that goal. You might well think it is one of the greatest films you every saw. I need to argue a bit with myself about my critical attitude. To love is to feel sentimental. Not just at that moment of joyful revelation, but hopefully ever afterward. Children would not want parents who were not endearingly sentimental in their feelings toward them and demonstrative in displaying those feelings. Judy and I are going to have our 40th anniversary later this year in the fall. We have been planning a trip, maybe to Europe, to celebrate the occasion. I have a rich memory bank of our lives together, things we have experienced together over the years and now share in our fond recollections. These rich memories form a sentimental web that wraps around and bonds our present lives. Yes, yes, I also feel quite sentimental about my old Golden Retriever, Morris, and to remain completely candid for at least another sentence or two, even though it might weaken my argument, I absolutely adore my 19th century Royal Doulton pottery that has bright and pretty hand-painted flowers against deep blue backgrounds. Do you get the feeling that I am a bit conflicted about the whole subject?
That said, I am going to get back to critiquing sentimentality. I do get so emotional about emotions. I want to compare this sentiment with another quite popular element in our society and in our arts, and that is vulgarity. I have a deep aversion and prejudice of anything sentimental or vulgar that achieves great popular or commercial success solely because of those attributes. In our world today, too often vulgarity and sentimentality have ceased being authentic human emotions. Today the demonstration of the vulgar and the sentimental are commercial activities and these emotions and the behavior they inspire become contrived for profit in the marketplace. When something vulgar becomes successful or acceptable it stops being vulgar. When something sentimental becomes a success, it remains sentimental. Sentimentality can be bonding in forming a community of people. Vulgarity separates people and can be most divisive. The new or unusual cannot be vulgar on those grounds alone and should not alone be the cause of alienation. The greatest curse of sexism for both men and women is to charge that women are naturally sentimental and men are naturally vulgar.
Again I must retreat and reconsider my brash declarations of personal taste. Almost all great art, even including the French Impressionists, were once declared to be vulgar as compared with the traditions and practices at the time. Any innovation or change at first appears to be an insult and challenge to what went before it. Sentimentality has a generosity and kindness that can be therapeutic even though on occasion most unrealistic. Vulgarity can celebrate those essential animal lusts that are authentic sponsors of our passionate and excessive expressions. Sentimentality can be used to overly domesticate the unruly powers that make great art possible.
Some who might be amused or even perplexed that I collect pottery might charge that contemporary pottery is in itself a sentimental attempt to retrain an obsolete way of making things. Plastic is practical, modern and tough. It is only the nostalgia of yesterday – a key ingredient in sentimentality – that keeps us making and collecting something called pottery. Now, don’t get upset. You know I don’t believe that for a minute. But isn’t sentimentality a key element in ceramic traditions? Can we justify maintaining and continuing artistic legacies practiced over centuries based on such a defense of continuity and tradition? Is the only way to make pottery modern to take an abstract expressionistic approach and tear holes and punch dents in them just like you know who? (Initials P.V.) I do have some rather modern pottery in my gallery that I hesitate to pour liquids in because they might leak. Is leaking pottery just more modern and less sentimental than the old fashioned pottery that doesn’t leak? Many modernists would assert that to be sentimental is to be weak and that anything sentimental in a work of art diminishes its artistic value and rigor. But isn’t a love of humanity central to a love of the humanities? Should we be that judgmental of it’s appearance in our art and culture? Maybe I am just a softy after all.
I am not through yet with sentimentality. On to the third part…
Monday, April 2nd, 2012
The supposed difference between what is called fine arts and what is called craft, including pottery, is that the former can contain profound expressions of human thoughts and emotions while the latter, at best, can become efficient in their function as objects made with great skill and mastery of the medium. The corollary to that is that one can engage and experience human emotions while engaging painting or sculpture but cannot extract that while engaging crafted objects, and this would include pottery in particular. Do we want to challenge that idea? I don’t know about you, but I have a house full of pottery and I think one or more human emotions are embedded in some form or another in them. I can certainly locate these emotions in me as I engage and experience them. Is that because I am obviously abnormal in my obsessive love of pottery and should seek immediate therapy? Or is it because the containers themselves house one or more aesthetic elements that represent these basic emotions? Would potters, usually a modest and humble lot, claim one or more of these emotional properties present in their own pottery?
The answer to these questions is of course more obvious in ceramic sculpture, where clay is used in a figurative or even abstract construct. Here ceramic artists can claim to be a part of that long and prestigious history of sculpture as a fine art medium. I collect antique and contemporary tiles and here again a long history of visual portrayals of human activities and natural landscapes places them within a tradition of narrative that can contain visual images and symbols more easily interpreted and translated into metaphorical aspects of essential human emotions. What can a teapot tell you? How can a vase or bowl convey or arouse strong feelings? Should I even try to prove my point with a teacup and saucer of all things? Maybe I should stop this discussion right now and just give up.
The very idea of emotions has never enjoyed a good reputation in the Western World. Emotions were associated with irrational behavior while the triumph of reason in the Age of Enlightenment was considered the true emergence of mature civilization. This idea that emotions are more primitive, less intelligent, less dependent, and more dangerous and had to be controlled and governed by reason is embedded in our history and culture. Art was once considered by some to be an unstable activity that threatened the order by stimulating the emotions. Plato condemned flute music as conducive to licentiousness. I am not sure how he regarded potters back then but surely potters are at least as dangerous as flute players. I can verify that every time I walk into my pottery gallery something really intense happens with my emotions that might fully justify Plato’s concerns.
In an essay by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins about “Emotions: An Overview” in the 2nd volume of the Oxford ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’, they concluded this about the role of emotions in aesthetics,
“In contemporary aesthetics in the English-speaking world, the role of emotion is still a matter of considerable debate. Much of this debate turns on the nature of emotion, which, as this brief history suggests, is no simple matter. How we conceive of emotion depends not only on science but also on ethics, one’s conception of human nature and the good life. And to this short list we can add one’s conception of the arts and their role in the good life. Insofar as emotions are conceived as primitive, unintelligent reactions or forces, straining for release, then aesthetics will reflect the satisfications and dangers of such catharsis. On the other hand, insofar as one’s conceptions of the emotions become more complex and sophisticated, aesthetics will become more complex and sophisticated as well.”
Can craft have a sense of humor? Can there be a tragic element in pottery? Ever met a sensuous vase? Does something made of clay have to be called ‘ceramic art’ in order to possess these qualities? As with all questions I have asked you, I do not have a single or final answer. What do you think? I have always identified myself as a pottery collector. Pottery historically/traditionally has provided dependable service in the kitchen or dining room table. The function of pottery was to hold liquids and food in some essential form. Much of it continues in that noble role. I am very proud of that history and do not need to defend it here. But some people that work with clay, maybe even some who call themselves potters, do try to go beyond function, do try to integrate sentimental, tragic, sensuous or humorous elements in both the form and decoration of their work. Are some of you pottery purists who can’t accept that? I want to explore this with you, might even take a few blogs to try to sort this out. Are you with me?
Let’s approach the sentimental first. Of all these qualities, isn’t sentimentality the most often and common element present through the centuries in ceramics? Lots of pottery, from previous centuries especially, had hand-painted portrayals of sweet children or adorable animals or beautiful landscapes in ripe colors on porcelain pottery, surely enough to melt your heart. Does that give this kind of pottery a bad reputation today? In those industrial potteries in the 19th century women were restricted to painting or decorating pottery and not allowed to throw the pots themselves. Did this imply that not only was sentimentality inherent in the aesthetic taste of that time but also assumed that it was also an integral aspect of women’s nature and far easier for them to replicate on pottery?
It was of course other women in the domestic kitchens of that day that were using the pottery that their sisters in ceramic factories had decorated. Do we still think that sentimentality is thought more natural or normal for women than men? As a man, I resent the implication that a man can’t be as tender and sensitive as a woman. As an amateur gardener, I object to the fact that I have great trouble when I go shopping and find only gardening gloves and hats designed and sized for women. We now recognize that women can be and are great potters. We have made some progress in the last hundred years. Well, it works both ways. Men can be great gardeners too and why is that considered a women thing in our culture?
It is not fashionable for either men or women to be sentimental these days. For women, seeking full scope and definition of their human hood, sentimentality is a part of the old stereotype of them that held them back for so long. Some want to prove that they can be as tough and strong as any man. It is particularly important to display these qualities in the work world where they must compete with men. Many women, particularly if they are executives or elected to office, try very hard to avoid crying in public. Many men are insecure in demonstrating their feelings and emotions in public, assuming that this violation of traditional definitions of masculinity would result in damage to their manly image. Artistic activities of any kind were not always considered appropriate for ‘real men’ in the history of Anglo-Saxon societies. Perhaps men potters are considered more ‘macho’ because they can throw huge piles of clay on the wheel and are in better shape than those ‘sissy’ men artists that dab a canvas with a paintbrush. I felt this gender prejudice as a boy when I loved to paint and later as an art major in high school and as a young art major in college. Please tell me that it is long gone and buried.
I am looking around my pottery gallery right now as I sit at my desk and computer in the front of that big room and I do notice some blue vases, although offhand I can’t seem to find any pink ones. Should I assume that the blue ones were made by men or for them? Should I assume women made them if some vases have soft, pastel glazes? It gets kind of silly, doesn’t it? Yet we are talking about centuries of gender discrimination based on such ridiculous premises. Why should we assume that pottery was not impacted too? Do men and women potters escape from these limiting culture stereotypes today? Do women who purchase and collect pottery generally look for different things those men? I know many husband and wife teams of potters that work side by side in the same studio and display their work together in the same gallery. This was true in Seagrove, North Carolina where I visited late last year and was the subject of my previous three blogs here. What would they have to say about this issue of sentimentality?
I am really going to explore several rather provocative positions here. One is that the potter is no more innocent than any other maker or citizen of the republic. We are all products of a particular time and place and the orientation of the culture at that time and place is embedded in us too. If some influences are toxic or invidious, then they have to be consciously eradicated by a self-conscious purging of that cultural prejudice from our very being. Another is that the general culture impacts all of us and can contaminate, pollute, even corrupt the creative process (as well as inspire and inform it) at the potter’s wheel as well as any other site in the culture. In saying that, I would also balance that charge with full credit to the positive aesthetic and cultural influences that inspire great work and outstanding ceramics effects that are hopefully more dominant in our ceramic legacy and in your own work. As I have alluded to earlier, the chief accusation against sentimentality resides in the historic gender prejudice that it is a women’s trait and lacks the rigor and discipline of a masculine characteristic. I do not accept this idea, it is offensive to me, but it is an essential part of our history.
I am just getting warmed about the role of sentimentality and other emotions in aesthetics, craft and art. I will continue to explore the subject in the next blog.
Wednesday, February 1st, 2012
North Carolina Pottery Center and
Bulldog Pottery – Bruce Gholson & Samantha Henneke
We followed the map provided to us at the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove. This center is a wonderful place to start your Seagrove ceramic adventure. It has ongoing pottery exhibits of the local potters as well as a collection on display of the historical achievements of families of potters in the area over many generations. We made a much sought after discovery while in Seagrove. Bulldog Pottery had been recommended to me as one of the best places during our first trip to Seagrove many years ago. No one seemed at home at Bulldog Pottery during that first visit and again when we visited for the second time a few years later. This time our determined effort really paid off. We met the two outstanding ceramic artists represented here – Bruce Gholson and Samantha Henneke. The work on display in their gallery was astonishing. We met and talked with these two friendly and welcoming people. Judy and I decided on a very large and stunning vase by Bruce. It was the most expensive pot we bought on this visit to Seagrove but well worth it. Today it is situated on a Japanese lacquer box in our living room. The unique flow of vivid glazes running down this tall vase offers continuing pleasure for us. These two devoted craftspeople epitomize the great pride and dedication of the Seagrove community to the highest levels of ceramic mastery. By the way, Bruce expressed surprise when I told him that we have tried two times before to visit their gallery and failed to find anyone home. He assured us that their absence from this site is actually quite rare. Bulldog Pottery was well worth the effort to locate and to finally receive the full benefits of meeting Bruce and Samantha and obtaining one of their very special ceramic artifacts.
Whynot Pottery – Mark & Meredith Heywood
I have been to Whynot Pottery on previous visits. We have two or three pieces of their work in our pottery gallery at home. This time I got a chance to meet and talk with Mark Heywood, who, along with his wife, Meredith, are the potters and owners of this establishment. We choose a lidded vase with a rich impasto of running glazes in golden hues. I try to introduce myself in a way that will convey my long involvement and dedication to pottery as a collector, lecturer, and writer without sounding self-important or pretentious. I also try not to initiate a passionate and lengthy tirade about the pleasures incurred in my experiences in these various capacities. Judy has warned me that my enthusiasm can result in a dense rush of commentary that can be overwhelming to the newly introduced potter. Most potters forgive my excess. Regardless, I found potters in general most responsive to those of us who display genuine investment in our mutual devotion to ceramics.
I want to include a quote about Seagrove pottery from a fine book, “The Remarkable Potters of Seagrove: The Folk Pottery of a Legendary North Carolina Community” by Charlotte Vestal Brown. This is what she had to say,
“Understanding the chemistry that seems to pervade this amazing congregation of potters is not easy. It is tempting to see parallels between the potters’ personalities and their work….These makers are complex, talented, and, above all, private people. The work they show represents but a facet of the world in which they live. The work we see is the result of huge efforts and long years of questioning their personal visions and goals and of struggling to attain a satisfying standard. We never see what is thrown away. All of the Seagrove potters are driven by an individual ideal of perfection, to make nothing less than strong and consistent work. Some have goals that drive them perpetually to make new kinds of work, work that is sometimes vastly changed from what came before, sometimes only a few throws different from yesterday’s jug. Of such progress, Pam Owens said, ‘we take baby steps,’ and I don’t believe she means justly small steps, but explorative, experimental ones, to find the best ways to make their wares. These potters consistently make work that speaks directly, without benefit of their makers’ intervention. I walk into a shop and wait for the work to speak to me in the voice that the potter has chosen. I don’t always know if the clay is local or commercial, if the kiln is gas or wood, if the maker mixed her own glazes or not. Of course I usually am able to identity all these things, but first comes the voice of the work itself. The ability of these people to elicit powerful feeling through their work is part of what makes me go back to the area again and again. Sometimes I need a new mug, sometimes a plate or a vase, and sometimes I just need to escape to a place that I know is not like where I live. Some of the potters’ favorite stories are those that tell of the difference their work makes in the lives of those who use it. What more could one ask for than to know that the work of one’s hands could cheer, comfort, amuse, and enrich a person’s daily life?”
Jugtown Pottery – Owen Family
I want to refer back to Jugtown Pottery. We returned to this historic pottery as we have on every previous visit. Vernon Owens grew up working in his dad’s shop, learning and working along side his father, M.L. Owens and his uncle Walter Owen. He started working at Jugtown in 1960, over fifty years ago. Today he and his wife, Pamela Lorette Owens, a gifted potter in her own right, are partners in this enterprise. They have been joined by their son, Travis, who stared making pots at age 2 and now works full time at the pottery. They have a great museum at this pottery, which has samples of generations of local potter’s who created their pottery while at the Jugtown Pottery. Judy and I took a leisurely stroll through the rooms of the gallery, enjoying the classic designs of Jugtown pottery carried on by Vernon and Pam Owens. We noticed larger vessel forms and more intense glazes on some of the ceramic pottery. These were recent work by Travis, who is offering a new generation of contemporary statements that emanate from past traditions but provides his own unique creative infusion. We purchased one of his vibrant pots and were quite pleased when he came out to meet and talk with us. It is very reassuring to know that he is quite willing and able to continue the work of his family into the coming decades. We also purchased a fine pair of candlesticks by Vernon in that frog skin glaze long celebrated by Jugtown.
Westmoore Pottery – David & Mary Farrell
We returned to a pottery we knew well in Seagrove, Westmoore Pottery and the work of David and Mary Farrell. They came to Seagrove in the 1970’s, first as apprentices at Jugtown, then stayed on to establish Westmore Pottery. Here they create redware plates and pots faithful in many ways to the German and Pennsylvania work made by Moravians of Central Europe in earlier centuries. They make dinnerware decorated by stylized floral forms, bands of color and other designs, all made by slip trailing on the surface of strong red clay intensified by a clear glaze. We already had a big, stylized chicken and a plate obtained on previous visits. I spotted a large brown pot with a base relief face of a beautiful, old bearded man. I immediately recognized that I saw that same face every morning when I looked in the mirror so I had to have it. The Farrell’s are focused on taking a particular pottery tradition that came to North Carolina with some early settlers and to continue that tradition with variations that can be directly traced to the source of their inspiration. At the same time the work is not only charming but also novel because of their unique distinction of seeking to preserve and continue a cultural tradition of long standing.
A Collector’s Reasoning
How can I justify all these purchases of something as non-essential as pottery? Is it a foolish self-indulgence, particularly at my time of life? Should I have long stopped the acquisition of pottery and rather concern myself with how I am going to dispose of it? Do I dare claim that my acquisition of pottery is somehow a more noble impulse than those who prefer to do their shopping at Wal-Mart or Target? Is not the raw lust of consumerism behind all such activities? Schiller, the German Romantic poet of the 19th century, discussed this issue and I responded to his comments in my 46th letter to Christa Assad,
“One cannot easily shift consumer desires from commercial and manufactured commodities to the more ephemeral objects of aesthetic refinement. It is difficult, as creatures of habit, to accord objects of beauty a different status than those objects bought off the shelf in other consumer transactions. How can we claim a special endowment and more noble intention in seeking to secure a work of art? The desire of acquisition, ‘restless and plagued by imperious want’ as stated by Schiller, might obtain the object, but it cannot give you the resources to appreciate the beauty of the object. How do we attain that ‘higher power and greatness’ inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful? Without beauty, is not consumerism, even possessed by those with the ability to sponsor extravagant purchases, finally a state of ‘exhausted desire’?”
Artists of the Future
I am fully aware that there are many creative centers and communities of pottery making in other regions of America as well as elsewhere in the world. Why do I find so much encouragement and hope when I travel to North Carolina and Seagrove in particular? I am truly inspired when I encounter a new generation of potters, in an area where pottery making goes back well over two hundred years, potters like Travis Owens and Alex Matisse who are determined to further that ceramic legacy into the future. I want to believe that pottery has that kind of future, still attracting young people who see purpose and pleasure in creating that pottery whose existence has brought me such aesthetic joy over my lifetime. I also profoundly respect that older generation of potters who have not only contributed great pottery of their own but have provided leadership and training to those who aspire to reach the same level of mastery and achievement that they have already accomplished.
I cannot predict the future, particularly the future where I will no longer be around to observe and experience. I do see great hope and concrete evidence of the vitality and creative endeavors of the makers of pottery. I do not think that external circumstances or current events in the world can ever totally obstruct or defeat that primal drive to take a wad of earth and shape a memorable container of timeless beauty out of it. I am grateful to be a part of that web of people who either make or celebrate pottery. It is a very good thought to have as I experience the last days of this year. I fully accept my portion of responsibility in this relationship. I will continue to make every effort to further develop that “higher power and greatness inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful.” This endeavor can never be fully completed but gives me ample reason to look forward to the next day and the day after that and the coming new year and even beyond.
Note: If you would like to view an aerial map of Seagrove’s pottery community click here.
Wednesday, January 18th, 2012
Judy and I are partners in our joint venture of collecting pottery. While I was talking to Mark Hewitt in his studio, she went into a large gallery space and picked out one vase among the many there she wanted to take home with her. I eventually left Mark to join her and she told me she had already made her choice without identifying it and told me to do the same. I walked through the large space and finally, after several minutes of intense concentration, pointed to one vase on a shelf in the corner of the gallery. We had picked out the same vase. This is not only an indication of our close aesthetic affinity, but also a very good omen for the harmonious continuation of our already rather extended relationship. Tradition, according to Mark Hewitt, should not be considered a toxic or invidious term in regard to the legacy of the past or present practices in ceramics. I would add to his testimonial regarding ceramic tradition my own record of almost 40 years of martial bliss with Judy as further proof of the benefits and virtues of traditions.
We also visited Tom Turner, the marvelous potter of exquisite porcelain vases at Mars Hill, near Asheville, NC. Tom is a highly respected master craftsman, gives workshops and demonstrations across the country. His vases are highly refined with a level of attention and caring on the part of Tom in every elegant vase. He also experiments with various glazes that are unique in their effect and impact. I have several of his vases in my pottery gallery. One of his vases is on a shelf below one of the skylights in the gallery, which has a very high ceiling. This vase has a deep red glaze. Every afternoon around 2:00 o’clock sunbeams from the skylight turn that vase on fire, with a vivid flame of radiating red that is spectacular to experience. Tom fervently believes in the continuing viability of making pottery and has expressed concerned that schools and university ceramic programs have largely abandoned the pottery wheel and replaced it with instruction and activities in the making of ceramic sculpture. He does not oppose more abstract and three-dimensional uses of clay, but laments that many schools do not balance that with the practice and painstaking efforts to achieve mastery at the potter’s wheel as well. We could not leave his home/gallery/studio without taking two of his pots with us.
Tom wanted us to meet another up and coming young potter who lived nearby. He drove us to the gallery, studio and home of Alex Matisse out in the countryside. Alex comes from a distinguished family of artists, including Henri Matisse, the French painter. He grew up in a small New England town, apprenticed with Mark Hewitt and Matt Jones. He is full of energy and hope for the future, having recently completed the construction of a large kiln and buildings at the site. Some of his pots were on the front porch of his home. Tom thinks that Alex is going to be one of the true giants of ceramic art as he continues to establish himself and create his work at his own facilities. With the sage advice of Tom, we selected a vase with a delicate filigree of white linear patterns on a brown surface. I research Alex when I got home on Google and found a statement he made about his work on the website “Potters of Madison County”. This is what Alex had to say,
“For three years, I apprenticed in the workshops of North Carolina potters Matt Jones and Mark Hewitt. Their work combines traditions, from the Anglo-Oriental school of Leach, Hamada, and Cardew to the folk pottery of the south-eastern United States and many places between. In their workshops I learned to love these simple pots; adorned or bare, quiet and strong, they make their place comfortably at the table or hearth and speak to the thousands of years of pots before them. My work is made in a fusion of pre-industrial country traditions in both process and material. It is fired in a large wood burning kiln and made of as many local materials as the chemistry will allow, while still affording me the physical attributes necessary for my aesthetic decisions. I believe in the beautiful object; that there are inescapable aesthetic truths, physical attributes that remove time and place from the defining characteristics of the made object. These objects can be viewed today or many years from now and understood as beautiful. Though their quotidian value may become antiquated, their aesthetics will save them. I believe in making pots that carry this truth while, as Henry Glassie told me in passing one day, holding one hand to the past with the other outstretched to the future.”
Now to Seagrove itself. I will not attempt to list all the potters and galleries that we visited but we met potters whose work impressed us but who we had not met before as well as potters we encountered on other occasions. Before I introduce you to some of them I would like to refer to my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter” where I described the historical background and context of this center of ceramic culture at the time of our first visit in spring of 2004.
“The ceramic origins of Seagrove and much of this region go back to the early pioneer settlement of the area. The families of potters represent many generations here. They have co-existed within a limited geography, often related by kinship, certainly by common history and experience. The vernacular tradition produced functional stoneware jugs, crocks, and pie plates for immediate use by neighbors and also merchants along the plank road running from Winston-Salem to Fayetteville. These working containers are the bedrock of this local tradition. Seagrove is a fascinating story of both tradition and innovation. This is in fact the name of the book edited by Douglas DeNatale, Jane Przybysz, and Jill Severn, “New Ways for Old Jugs: Tradition and Innovation at the Jugtown Pottery”. DeNatale relates how Jugtown Pottery comprised an attempt in the early 1920’s to revive traditional pottery in Moore Country, North Carolina. Two prominent and sophisticated outsiders, Juliana Busbee and her husband, Jacques Busbee were responsible for this effort. They were not content to simply revive the ‘folk’ tradition but wanted to introduce the other ancient ceramic influences of China and Japan to these potters. This addition of grace and style would make the pottery more marketable to their bohemian friends in Greenwich Village, New York. This attempt to form an unlikely synthesis between remote traditions is essential to understanding the current anomalies of Seagrove.
DeNatale further explains this idea,
‘From the perspective of the potters, they were full collaborators in the creation of Jugtown and its pottery. And rightly so, for the potters’ knowledge and skills acquired through their cultural upbringing contributed at least as much as the Busbees’ artistic sensibility to the synthesis that was Jugtown. Where the Busbees decried the enthusiastic experimentation by area potteries with new glazes and forms, that creative, problem-solving impulse was an essential element of the very tradition they claimed to grasp; and it was this impulse Ben Owen actively brought to the process of creating the oriental translations with Jacques. In retrospect, the fairest and most accurate evaluation of Jugtown’s history in the life of Moore County must view the contribution of local ideas and aesthetics as an active force, not merely a resource that the Busbees mined.’
As mentioned by DeNatale above, the Busbees employed a young local potter, Ben Owen. The history of the Owen family as potters goes back to the mid-19th century. Jacques took young Ben Owen to visit art schools and museums in Boston, Washington, New York, and New Orleans. Outside influences of historical and modern ceramics from diverse cultural sources were melded and synthesized by Ben Owen. Another branch of the extended family, who added an ‘s’ to Owen for reasons not known to me, Melvin Owens and his family did not stray as far from local traditions and traditional pottery. The salesroom looks like it occupies the original home with a front porch on a modest wooden structure of long standing. In sharp contrast to this rustic scene, a short distance away we drove up to a handsome state-of-the-art two-story structure that is the gallery and salesroom of Ben Owen III. Nearby work is being continued on a new residence for the Owen family. Huge outdoor kilns occupy another nearby space. Adjacent to the showroom is a museum of four generations of family pieces. Ben III continued the tradition of his grandfather, learning as a child playing with clay in the old man’s pottery shop. He also continued another tradition from his grandfather; he left the area and acquired an education, graduating from East Carolina University with an art degree in ceramics. He later traveled to Japan to study their ceramics techniques and tradition.
His wife, LoriAnn, welcomed Judy and I to the Gallery. The beautifully designed interior contained a varied representation of his work. We purchased a small vase with his layered Chinese Red glaze. Two different worlds, two very different orientations, all in the same extended family. Ben Owen III, like his grandfather, had bitten the apple, tasted the sweet flavor of forbidden worlds far away. I know it is foolish to simply contrast a sophisticated and eclectic approach with a ‘folk’ tradition. The Busbees had introduced and exposed many potters in the area to Asian pottery many years ago. All traditions, however ancient and insular, are embedded with the historical penetrations and invasions of multiple traditions, none are pure. But I must push the matter for purposes of our investigation. How do you place value on the vernacular experience of ceramic practice that has been handed down in the family or region against the worldly sophistication of the ‘educated’ potter who has no allegiance to a single way of making things? What kind of a potter would you be, Christa, if your grandparents and your mother and father had taught you pottery from the time you learned to walk, and you stayed home in that single place, uncontaminated by formal education and training? Isn’t innovation just the desperate strategy of isolated and culturally deprived strangers who have no cultural legacy or ceramic tradition and thus have no other ceramic choice but innovation? Can you borrow from these ‘folk’ traditions without shame, since it is not your family, not your region or culture, nor your worldview? What is it that bonds all potters, regardless of site, history, or orientation? Are you all brothers and sisters, regardless of tradition or education? How do you achieve membership in a tradition if you are not a citizen of that tradition? There are many outsiders, educated at fancy art schools and universities, now living in Seagrove, implicitly competing with the ‘natives’ for the pottery dollar of tourists and collectors. I wonder how they fit in; how they are accepted by those families whose ceramic legacy goes back hundreds of years? How would you feel toward the indigenous ‘folk’ potters if you lived in Seagrove? Please explain all these things to me, Christa.
How does your own background as a potter stack up with these potters in Seagrove? Did you grow up in a family and community where ceramics were celebrated and making pots was a natural and normal thing? Did you have to struggle and rebel against what your parents expected of you when you decided to be a potter? Was this decision of yours a fall from grace for you in the eyes of your parents and family? Did your decision not to be a banker or lawyer or dentist cause much turmoil in your family? How can you explain to others the unique pleasures and great satisfactions of being a potter? Does it matter if those people around you who might have loved you the most did not comprehend this eccentric impulse that drove you to the potter’s wheel? Any regrets now?
I will conclude this series on North Carolina pottery in the next blog.
Sunday, December 18th, 2011
I have recently returned from a three-week holiday visit with my wife to the east coast. We stayed in Boston the first week and ended in Charleston, South Carolina the last week. During the second week, we stayed in North Carolina, in the Asheville and Seagrove areas. Judy and I have been there 2 or 3 times in the past. We love to travel to the Seagrove where over 100 potteries exist in a small village and environs. Often the making of pottery is a family affair, involving not only spouses but also their offspring in generation after generation of potters. It is a sort of ceramic paradise on earth. We know several potters there from previous visits. Fall is a special time on the east coast. It was warm and mostly blue skies, windy at times. The thick groves of tall trees were in full fall glory with intense outbursts of red, orange and gold leaves along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Falling cascades of whirling, dancing leaves had made some trees bare while others still proudly displayed flashing leaves of brilliant sun soaked color. There was little traffic on the roads and I could drive our rented car as well as view the lovely landscape. I did have to venture off the paved roads onto dirt roads to reach many of the potteries. City born and bred, to actually drive on a dirt road appeared to me a most dangerous and unwelcome adventure. I blissfully ignored the perils and drove down the rutted rustic lanes to the potential treasures awaiting me.
I can hear the hum of the freeway from my own garden in Glendora but here it is quiet and quite peaceful. I need the cultural resources of a nearby big city, having been born and raised in Los Angeles and living in one of its suburbs for over thirty years. I do value my occasional escapes to the countryside of Britain or rural regions of the United States. In the US, a suburb is often just an appendage to a large urban community; a bedroom community that empties out each workday for the commute to work in the big city. In contrast, a village in the rural countryside is an autonomous and unique community that is historically rooted in the local life of that place. Seagrove is that kind of village. When I went to a local restaurant, it was not like going to a franchised fast food place where I live, where you order food to take home or sit among strangers and eat the food in isolation. Here in Seagrove I noticed neighbors greeted each other when entering the locally owned restaurants, people who have lived their lives in close proximity and have known each other’s families and shared their common experiences from church socials to school assemblies. Does it take a village to raise a child? Am I romanticizing rural life, as I perhaps tend to romanticize potters and their glorious pottery? Or did I miss out on something important and precious in never experiencing rural or village life? What would rural folks say was missing with my urban attitudes and suburban lifestyle?
In “Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine”, Lewis Mumford talks about the very beginning of village life during the Neolithic period. He paints a very positive image of this life. Today of course, all over the world, there has been a profound and significant shift in rural populations moving to the bigger and bigger urban areas of millions and millions of people. What is the world losing here? Do villages today still possess some of the virtues as described by Mumford? He thinks so.
“Wherever the seasons are marked by holiday festivals and ceremonies: where the stages of life are punctuated by family and communal rituals: where eating and drinking constitute the central core of life: where work, even hard work, is rarely divorced from rhythm, song, human companionship, and esthetic delight: where vital activity is counted as great a reward of labor as the product: where neither power nor profit takes precedence of life: where the family and the neighbor and the friend are all part of a visible, tangible, face-to-face community: where everyone can perform as a man or woman any task that anyone else is qualified to do – there the Neolithic culture, in its essentials, is still in existence, even though iron tools are used or a stuttering motor truck takes the goods to market.”
I do wonder and speculate about the vast differences between rural and urban worlds today. What are the differences between rural and urban potters? Can you tell the differences in the pots themselves? Are rural potters inherently more sensitive to nature and the natural environment than urban potters? Aren’t all crafts, in their origins and character, essentially rural activities the world over? Maybe, because of modern technology, everyone is now exposed to what is happening everywhere else and the differences between rural and urban life are not all that different anymore. How do potters explain their choices between living in the peace and beauty of rural life and the contrasting tempting cultural riches of an urban life? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds?
Seagrove does not have a total monopoly on potters and potteries in North Carolina. We drove out to Pittsboro to see Mark Hewitt, an absolutely great potter of huge, magnificent jugs as well as a multitude of containers and vessels. I enjoyed his good company and of course left his lovely rural home, studio and gallery with several wondrous ceramic objects. Mark was able to talk to me while at the same time working at the wheel, spinning balls of clay into highly refined bowls one after the other. In his book, co-authored with Nancy Sweezy, “The Potters Eye”, he defines tradition as a dynamic process, not a static and rigid freeze of something from the past.
Does change, in art as well as life, have to bring disorder? By creating disorder in the artifact, does one gain control over unwanted change elsewhere and thus restrict its impact to manageable proportions? Is any kind of stability and order, in life, in art, in theory, just a fairy tale spun by a most insecure species? Does conformity to tradition promise an illusionary order that exists only in the artifact, not in reality? Do those of us who talk about pottery in particular make a choice of craft over art? Doesn’t everything complex, including people and pots, contain inherent contradictions that enrich the complexity and thus demand forgiveness of the contradictions? For anyone who has ever viewed one of Mark’s jugs or vases, there is no possible distinction between the designations of potter and ceramic artist, craft and art. They are one and the same thing in this person and his pots. He provides proof in his work of my more general assertion that one does not have to abandon or destroy the vessel to become a ceramic artist.
As a potter, is it a false pride to insist that what you are doing has never been done before? In confessing those potters and that pottery that has influenced your own work, are you thereby reducing the claims of your own originality? Why is novelty so prized today in the arts? Why does tradition seem like a dirty word? I cannot go on without offering you a brief quotation from this very thoughtful potter and articulate writer from his book about tradition as an active agent. In his introductory essay, “Tradition and the Individual Potter”, Hewitt makes the case for the value of tradition in art.
“Tradition is good, tradition is beautiful, tradition is valuable. To say so is unconventional and a little dangerous, for as T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, ‘Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure.’ Indeed, tradition is often perceived as a hindrance to individualism and artistic originality. But I agree with Eliot that the opposite is true. In his words, ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists’. Thus we must look to the past to the very roots of our art, to guide us toward new forms of self-expression. Potters and ceramic artists use ceramic history and particular traditions to inform their work, and those traditions inspire rather than discourage innovation.”
I will continue this discussion and my visit to Mark Hewitt and other potters in North Carolina and the village of Seagrove in the next blog.