Friday, 20 June 2008

Of the Allure of Clay

A comment on my blog from Gary made me think...
I don't really know Gary at all, I left a comment at his blog, and he visited mine. But in a way, I do know Gary, because I've read his words, and seen his pictures. But more so because we have something in common.

Gary is a Potter. In Ithaca, new York.
And I was a potter once. Or maybe I still am? I don't really know. Some of the things he says in his blog made me laugh, for they were so similar to my experiences.
Like the undeniable fact that forming clay on the potters wheel is a tactile performance.... and can be very erotic.
Back a million years, and I recall how I would sneak into the college pottery studio in the middle of the night and struggle with mud. the mud usually won. It wasn't the course I was on, but, I figured, so long as I hid my efforts away, nobody would notice.
The guy in charge of the pottery department was a VERY fierce person, even the head of the Art Dept was very careful and deferential around him. He was George Owen-Jones, and one day, as I was walking past, he grabbed me. "I want a word with you."
Oh dear. Well, there was nowhere to run to.
So he confronted me, told me he knew I'd been using the pottery studio. He said. "You need to change courses, tell Mr Pugh you're in my department now." So that was it. No more vacillating about my path, I'd been heading toward making jewellery, perhaps... or sculpture, jewellery is just small sculpture, with shiny things, after all.
Then I discovered, that in George's world I was still expected to master sculpture, photography, woodwork, metalwork, floor sweeping, window cleaning, and especially drawing. and looking. To him all these things were self-evidently requirements in place for every potter. And painting, and chemistry, and physics. And understanding electricity. Measuring microvolts, combustion, stoichiometric ratios, eutectics.
The drawing was relentless. I used to disguise my poor draughtsmanship with shading, light and dark, shadows, highlights. George saw through it instantly. "Meaningless scribble!" he would bark. Every week I would have to submit my sketchbook for his perusal, and no shortcuts were allowed, during the week I would be drawing, gnarled branches, twisted metal, pots in galleries, intersecting roots, the swell of a breast, the drape of a curtain, the leaves on a rosebush, draw draw draw. Because it all provides inspiration, grist to the mind's mill.
And though the college had an army of cleaners, I'd mop the floor, wipe the windows, learn about how hydrofluoric acid from kiln emissions etches the surface of glass... He would tell us, me and the three girls on the course in our year, that no artist should ever get too precious to do the dirty work, that clay recycling did not occur by magic, that floors did not naturally sparkle each morning.
I did, after a lot of perseverance, wrestle some mud to a draw.
I left college thinking I was a potter. So I saw an advert that said a pottery needed a thrower. I went for interview, and was instantly humbled. The petite young woman whose, business it was, showed me the row upon row of casserole dishes she had made that day, maybe sixty or so, and asked how many I thought I could make in eight hours of work?
The truth was, that every one of those pieces was better in itself than my best work to date. I lied, and said. "Maybe three" (if you're not too bothered about them being the same size or shape). I'd learned from an artist, not an artisan. Being able to do the same thing twice was not really part of my repertoire.
She took pity on me, and told me she liked my glazes, on the samples of my work she'd brought, and glaze chemistry, she said, was her weak point. Would I be interested in a job glazing and kiln firing? And she'd coach me in throwing after work.
Evening upon evening, I would weigh out bucketfuls of equal sized balls of clay.
Barbara would throw an item, say, a simple cylinder.
My task was to make many, exact copies.
I rather balked at this, I did not see myself as some sort of industrial machine! I was an ARTIST! dammit!
So this was my introduction to zen. I would do a full day's work, then, after everyone else had gone home, I would start my practice. and after a couple of hours she would come back into the pottery, and chuck all my work into the clay bin. Day after day, week after week. until, one night, she only threw about fifty cylinders out, and left three on the table. She sliced them in two, so we could see the thickness of the walls and base. "Those aren't too bad... make another twenty, and I'll come back."
The day she pronounced a few as being borderline acceptable, that was a grand day.
Then the day fifty were acceptable. And then I was told to put handles on them... and she would decorate them.
And they would go into the general production. And go out to customers!
So that was cylinders, next came bowls.....
I felt this all to be stifling my creativity, so i kept trying to slip in a couple of my 'improved' shapes.
And she kept squishing them into the clay bin.
oh yes. Months, even. So there I was. The college had told me I was pretty good. An artist, nearly. And here I am. repeat repeat repeat, hardly a word of praise.
Ever see the film, The Karate Kid?
Wax on.... wax off!
Paint the fence, polish the car.
I stayed there for three years, By the time I left, I was a thrower.
You could give me a drawing and I could make it.
The breakthrough came on a day when I stopped thinking about what I was doing, and my conscious brain let go of the motor skills. When I came back to consciousness, there they were, lively shapes, not lumpen, but turning still.
Okay. Enough for this episode. Maybe I'll post more some day.
Here's the video Gary posted, which set this train of thought in motion.

Thanks, Gary. It's time for me to figure out how to get back to making things out of mud.


Here are a few of my pots.

These were made from clay out of the field behind the pottery, lovely throwing clay!

Chrome-tin pink.. Note that it 'kissed' another pot, but hey, all's well that ends well, I like the little bald patch on the side!

Teapots.. once-fired, glazed inside, oxide-banded outside.

These were little one-cup teapots. My sister commissioned some as gifts for friends in the U.S., and interest in those was so good I started making tiny teapots as a regular item. Alongside giant ones. Thirty-cup teapots were popular too.

Casserole, and salt-pig. the lip on the casserole acts as handles for carrying. I've been using this one on the oven for over thirty years now!

Big dish, plate, bowl, whatever
 It rings nicely.

Red clay pots drying.

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  1. When I first graduated from college I had a chance to make a very good wage working on a production line in a tourist town, exactly like where you worked. I didn't take it because I figured I would start to hate pottery. I had apprenticed before that to a man who makes, and still makes, after 20 plus years, 8-10,000 pots a year, easily 200 a day. I didn't want that. I am not a one of a kind art potter or a production potter either, I am a do whatever you feel like potter, and it is very successful. The problem these days is that manufacturers overseas make very nice work for stores, with cheap labor in factory conditions, and there is no point making ordinary dishes. (in America, anyway)Therefore, the market encourages an innovative product and mind, and I dislike repetition. I am very lucky that it all works out.
    I was interested in your story though. You traveled a long road from making cylanders! And the work you show is beautiful. As I am new here, I wonder what you do now with your time? I shall have to read around and find out.

  2. Very nice post. makes me want to squish some mud between my toes. i also like your pots. The pottery in the last picture I think is esp. nice

  3. S.: Abney park is an excellent performance band, but you always want to see a little more of the keyboardist in the back, don't you think? Well, I do.
    Just grabbed one of your pics so I can do a post on you, hope you don't mind too much, but your work here is gorgeous.

  4. Oooooooh!

    So nice to have people saying kind things, my cup runneth over!

    But let it be said, Fatboysblog posts excellent pictures, I paricularly liked the Snowdonia set.
    and the black Labrador in caught in flight, on a plunge into the river.

    Gary, yes, I too never wanted to be a throwing machine, but I did it for a while, with enlightened employers on various places, all of whom encouraged me to do my own thing as well.
    I see by your pots that you have fun in making them, and the way you talk about what you do is full of enthusiasm.
    I've sort of lost my way for a while, but I'll find it again soon, i hope.
    It's a long story, and I'm not going to blog it all, just the simpler bits, but thanks, it's people such as yourself who remind me that there's a path back.
    A post?
    But go ahead, grab pics.

    Handmaiden, thank you.
    Those pots in the last pic were made a longish time ago in Iceland, The speckled glaze was very popular.
    As for clay squishing, oh yes.. barefoot squishing, a primal pleasure!

  5. Learning to use a pastry Bag is much the same.
    Great task...I'll go see Garys stuff this week.

    Hey, I did some Pottery a long time ago!
    I'm an Artist.
    I wrote a post about it!

  6. You are very lucky to be an artist... how beautiful to take something like mud and create such gorgeous things...tis a gift..I loved your story as I could visualise the process, that to is a gift...


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