My Work as a Potter
The history of pottery stretches like a great river through the millennia. In the course of its travel, it has seeped into the archives of almost every culture. My work as a studio potter has allowed me to dip into this strong current as I developed a working competence with clay bodies, glazes and kilns—the mechanics of pottery making.
When I lived in Seattle, I met a potter who had spent several years working for a generations-old pottery studio in Japan. On free days, he had made pots for himself, at which the Japanese workers pointed and laughed boisterously. Finally, someone took him into the office and unrolled a long scroll that diagrammed the specific range of forms that this pottery studio produced. His forms were not to be seen.
In my case, restrictions on form have not been mandated by tradition; nonetheless, they exist, though self-imposed. Overlapping and integrated into the world’s traditions of form are entire chapters of technique, design, color, status, significance, purpose, politics, culture and varied interpretations of the meaning of beauty. History offers a beautifully illustrated volume.
My referential choices from this extensive list have long been the spirited, populist styles—the Medieval English jugs, for instance, with their casually thumbed bases, and the 15th-century Islamic tin-glazed wares, such as the fat, swollen-bellied Persian jars. I value them for their clunky forms, thick lips and age-worn surfaces. These are forms that I appreciate for their mundane beauty and their immediacy. Much of the vigor and charm of these pots is based in the repetitive circumstances of their production. Made in large quantities with limited regard for each object as an individual statement, they achieve life through what appears to be a demeanor of neglect. Their casual, everyday earthiness, healthy and unpretentious, holds a subtle grounded beauty that reveals its secrets slowly. The hand of the maker has not been overshadowed by skillful mastery or opulent lusters, yet is still clearly present.
My allegiance and affiliation are with this careless, repetitive work. It is not that I wish to mimic or interpret these qualities as much as I wish to adopt the emotive subtleties of presence, stance and gesture that are infused throughout this work.
The textures, edges and various undulating surfaces of any good pot are best appreciated by its feel in the hand, not through the comprehension of the intellect. I judge the success of my own work by its ability to elicit from the viewer a desire to physically experience the object through the sense of touch.
While I am committed to the development and promotion of my career through galleries and exhibitions, my pottery is ultimately meant to be placed in people's homes. An object of small scale allows a work of power and substance to be incorporated into the household environment. It assures the role of tactility and brings beauty to the commonplace.
All of the best pottery throughout history has possessed spirit. Manifested by nuances of gesture, substance, presence and intimacy, this quality is the least cognitive, most fleeting aspect of any ceramic work, an ethereal presence that I cannot adequately calibrate. The presence of spirit is a touchstone, an indicator of the pot’s value or significance. A pot that is infused with spirit offers a particular utility to the viewer or user.
My overriding intent is to create objects of beauty that promote transcendence, that possess the ability to move the viewer or user beyond the limits of empirical experience and knowledge. Transcendence is distinctively ephemeral, but it is based solidly in the common moment, the common object. It is grounded in everyday activity.
A woman who purchased a set of my vases for her home once told me that they greet her from a place of honor on her kitchen table every morning. This repeated experience has become a daily ritual. On a visual level, my vases provide her with an emotionally transcendent level of utility.
Later, when I spoke with this woman again, she reiterated her pleasure, adding that she had just recently noticed specific qualities of the soft, modulated, blue-green glaze that rises up the interior walls of each vase. Much like the historical work that inspired me with its subtlety, they are revealing their secrets to her slowly.
While the pursuit of this kind of power and thoughtful expression in my work takes precedence over strictly profane utilitarian concerns, making and using domestic pottery forms remains vital and challenging for me. At a recent dinner with friends, I found the table had been set with a collection of pottery, including a set of my square plates. The experience of having my work validated and prized by friends was a personal form of visual nourishment, but I was quickly drawn beyond this level of utility into practical physical concerns. Was there a slight warp to any of these plates? Would this surface hold up to knives and forks and dishwashers? The greatest challenges are found not in the utility of transcendence, but rather in the constraints and requirements of domestic use.
As I grow older, I seem to be cultivating a philosophical comprehension for the underlying intuitive sense or purpose of my life. Throughout this growth, I have wondered how and when I might harness this comprehension to the benefit and support of my pottery. It was clear to me that the river must be deep as well as wide.
I had presumed that such an endeavor involved studied, intellectual challenge, that answers would be found in books, thoughtful dialogue and the realm of theorists and critics. Fortunately, I discovered this presumption was not valid. The answers are in the work itself, in the historical references drawn upon, the materials used, the surface treatment, utility and in the spirit that imbues it all.
While my experiences have been plentiful and rewarding, there is nothing conclusive about what I have accomplished. Possibility and struggle, curiosity and process remain as guiding lights.
There is much that lies ahead. The ways in which I have grown will be tested, and hopefully strengthened. Questions will continue to give rise to inspiration, and the work itself will expand and proceed.
Throughout all of this, progress will be measured by my willingness to engage in the deeper, fuller search, wherever this current may lead.