Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Letter to the Editor

July 23, 2017

an example of how the mind rambles during long drives home from shows…

Pushing the Envelope. The Cutting Edge. That’s the ultimate goal. Quite a bit of energy is consumed in that quest. In being out there. But a simple math question offers fodder for further examination: if everyone is out on the cutting edge, is it really the edge?

I can’t recall a time when someone who’s into “pushing the envelope” actually defined what the “envelope” is. What does it encompass? How did the boundaries get set? When? What’s the purpose of boundaries? Before venturing to the rim of what people expect, or understand (Or like? Or need? Or want?), maybe it would be good to pause for a moment and ask “Why?”

A lot of assumptions go into the desire to challenge the envelope. It’s equated with boredom – been there, done that. Perhaps. But if you aspire to earn your living making art, you should ponder these assumptions carefully. On a very basic level, art is communication. Communication implies reaching out to others. It requires at least a modicum of common ground. Is common ground “the envelope?”

This is a good question for makers of traditional crafts, although it might not seem so at first. After all, the canon has been established long ago. The style is set. The forms are defined. But just under that stern, utilitarian surface lies a deep vein of quirky, flamboyant, ironic, piercing playfulness. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It’s a trail that’s hard to resist, and it quickly leads to a boundary; When is it no longer “traditional?”

It’s nearly impossible to be a “traditional” purist today. Or at least to expect to make a living as a purist. We have to push it. Market forces, in part, dictate the boundaries of our envelope. But pushing the envelope is just one part of the job description for making pottery (and most especially – showing my bias here – for “traditional” pottery). There’s also consistency, empathy, and skill. What’s the ultimate point; making something different that looks kinda neat, or making something that’s the best you can make?

In the end, I can only say that it really isn’t that hard to push the envelope. The envelope is a pretty fragile thing.

The Hit Parade: The Beat Goes On

May 10, 2015

Central Mosque Djenne 1984 Once again, a big thanks to Rob Hunter and his inspired Ceramics in America 2014 ‘top ten’ issue. 

If my "Hit Parade" were to be about looks alone, I might have included the creative slip applications of English Mocha ware, or the bizarre, twisted explorations of George Orr, or the brilliant cobalt blues of German Westerwald salt-fired stoneware, or the wood-fired stoneware of Richard Bresnahan with whom I did my apprenticeship, etc, etc. etc.

But the genius of this exercise is to explore pottery’s intimate walk with humanity through the ages.  And it invites musing on one’s own relation to this incredible field as well.  Narrowing that down to ten entries is challenge enough!

For example, I could have easily included the Absalom Steadman stoneware jug c. 1823 which received the highest price paid at auction for early American pottery, thus illuminating the status of historic pottery in today’s art economy.  The 1840 William Henry Harrison transfer print pitcher by David Henderson speaks volumes about the part ceramics played in the development of our national politics.  The 11th century Central Mosque in D’jenne, Mali is the world’s largest adobe clay structure.  (But what’s that silly tourist doing there?)  Potters for Peace’s Filtron water purifier project highlights the enormous contributions of pottery to rural community development efforts.  The black pottery of Maria Martinez offers a classic example of pottery and cultural revitalization.  And the curious parallels between Richard Bresnahan’s unique wood firing process and astro-physics is fodder for an entire book in itself.

Every picture tells a story.  So does every pot.  The thing is, when it comes to pottery history’s ‘top 10,’ the story itself is quite often where it’s at.

And the beat goes on

The Hit Parade #1: Lard Pot

April 26, 2015

As mentioned, sequence of appearance here doesn’t imply hierarchy.  But number’s 1 and 10 make nice ‘book-ends.’

Brooks Lard Pot.php Put a group of potters in a room and tell them all to make the same form.  Each will be different.  Each potter puts their own personality into it.  We’ve all been taught to “put yourself into it” – even if we aren’t sure how, or can’t do it very well.

What if the potters in that room were encouraged instead to “put some humanity into it?”  Who can say what that means?

It used to mean pots like the one shown here.  The term “Lard Pot” refers to one use out of many over the course of a millennia.  And along with being a distinct shape during that entire time, within this form lay the seeds of almost all others in the Euro-American potting repertoire; adding a handle makes a ewer; a lid makes a cook pot; holes make a strainer; constricting the opening makes a jug…

When a form spawns so many others, but still distinctly manifests itself over centuries by thousands of potters, across a vast geographic expanse, using different clays, different wheel types, different kilns, in different cultures, even for different final uses, we should take note.

The pot shown here was a truly collaborative effort between makers, materials, markets and time.  It taps into something far deeper than individual taste.  Of course, the old potters were probably too busy just trying to survive to see it that way.

The days when these pots dominated the scene ended fairly recently, just a couple hundred years ago or so.  (That’s something to consider when pondering the trajectory of modern pottery making.)  And it’s fair to say that since then we’ve made quite a few interesting pots by ‘putting ourselves into it.’  The world will always be better off whenever people recognize that everyone has a story that deserves to be told.

But it’s reassuring to know, as we flail about trying to distinguish ourselves from the crowd, that the old ‘lard pots’ existed.  They gave a solid foundation to our own explorations in clay.  More importantly, they were integral to the survival and growth of the world that gave us our existence.

Shot Across the Bow

November 10, 2013

featuring Peter Roe, The Shipibo, Pottery History, and The Here and Now.

Peter Roe:
Peter Roe originally thought he’d be a potter.  He ended up an Anthropologist.  His research focused on the Shipibo Indians of the Upper Amazonian Ucayaki River.  Painted designs permeated Shipibo lives.  They were masters of geometric symmetry.  They could take any surface and, starting at one end, work across with a perfectly symmetrical design freehand with no pre-planning.

Hotel Tariri, in the Shipibo village where Peter worked, was attempting to cash in on the area’s nascent tourist trade.  The hotel was painted in Shipibo-inspired designs to attract guests.

The Shipibo:
Now we must delve into Shipibo cosmology (much abridged for everybody’s sake).  Life is a battle between chaos and order.  ‘Good vs. evil,’ if you wish.  There will always be both.  It’s up to us to keep chaos in check as best we can.  The vivid Shipibo geometric patterns expressed this struggle.  Bold, erratic, asymmetrical lines bounced all over the place.  Neat and tidy symmetrical lines surrounded and corralled the chaos.  A sort of design therapy.

The German guy who owned Hotel Tariri had no idea what Shipibo patterns meant.  He just laid on a bunch of wild lines.  Chaos incarnate.  The Shipibo felt his paint job caused needless psychic damage to the universe.

Pottery History:
Early 19th century Moravian pottery from Salem and Bethabara in North Carolina featured an amazing visual vocabulary.  Moravian slipware decoration included some of the most compelling floral compositions made in North America at the time.  These floral designs illustrated Moravian religious views.  Certain flowers represented specific saints, religious tenets, etc.

The Here and Now:
Modern redware potters adore the Moravian visual vocabulary.  We draw heavily from it in our work.  It’s a fair bet to assume we rarely, if ever, take into consideration specific saints’ days when frantically decorating before deadlines.

To be fair, the Moravians’ neighbors bought oodles of their pottery precisely because of the colorful designs – not the Moravian religious system.  So modern redware potters probably aren’t major players in today’s psychic damage arena.

But how deep does “inspiration” go – for redware potters or for anyone inspired by imagery beyond their own life experience?  Reflecting on the importance of understanding ones sources is always a healthy exercise.

A shot across the bow, in any case.

Readings:
Symmetry Comes of Age, The Role of Pattern in Society.  Dorothy Washburn and Donald Crowe, eds.  University of Washington press/Singapore.  2004.

Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  University of New Hampshire Press/Hanover New Hampshire.  2009.