Friday, September 22, 2017

A Fit of Teapots

After several years, I am making teapots again, with pleasure. It's a very rewarding form, complicated enough to be challenging, variable enough to suggest always more possibilities. Oh, dear, there's a limited market for them. What shall I do with them all, if I keep following the options as long as they are interesting?

My taste is clearly for smooth, simple graceful form. Sometimes I succeed, more or less. For other people, teapots, more than other shapes, seem to invite us to go wildly creative.

We see references to other things in their shape or parts. They encourage art.


The above pictures from a book are in The Ceramic Surface by Matthias Ostermann.

Commercial pots, too, express hints or forms of other things.

That's so friendly and homey, though few of us have ducks on our counters. It's the resting shape of a duck that is also a teapot, and makes the feeling. Thanks Becca.

Look at this spectacular teapot by Ellen Fager.

It's the real fish, and, if you dare, a functional pot for tea. Thanks, Ellen.

Of course people make art in other standard pottery forms  --  cups, bowls, plates. But there is something special about teapots. Perhaps because they have so many parts, they ask for manipulation and variation, for changes of proportion, and so refer so effectively to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Art and/or/versus Craft, Take Who-Knows-How-Many

This is one of my on-going issues. Where does functional, handmade pottery fit into the world these days? Do potters have to be artists? Do I?

Octavio Paz offers the clearest, most sensible distinction that I've seen yet, and adds industry as a third relevant category. He wrote an introductory article for the First World Crafts Exhibition in 1974, which I've read in In Praise of Hands, a 1974 book about the exhibition. So, not news, but new to me.

The rest of this post quotes his article, "Use and Contemplation".

"A vessel of baked clay: do not put it in a glass case alongside rare precious objects. It would look quite out of place. Its beauty is related to the liquid that it contains and to the thirst that it quenches. Its beauty is corporal: I see it, I touch it, I smell it, I hear it. If it is empty, it must be filled; if it is full , it must be emptied. I take it by the shaped handle as I would take a woman by the arm, I lift it up, I tip it over a pitcher into which I pour milk or pulque  --  lunar liquids that open and close the doors of dawn and dark, waking and sleeping. Not an object to contemplate: an object to use. ...Handcrafts belong to a world antedating the separation of the useful and the beautiful." (In Praise of Hands, page 17)

"It is not simply its usefulness that makes the handcrafted object so captivating. It lives in intimate connivance with our senses and that is why it is so difficult to part company with it. It is like throwing an old friend out into the street." (page 19)

So art is to contemplate, and has no other use these days (well, a commercial one). Craft is to use and enjoy as sensory experience. Not quite; our contemplation of art is a sensory experience, and art pieces we are attracted to may become old friends, too. Not so separate.  Perhaps the problem is just in our categorizing.

But there is a distancing in our relation to artworks; "Being made by human hands, the craft object is made for human hands...We look at the work of art but we do not touch it. The religious taboo that forbids us to touch the statues of saints on an altar  -- "you'll burn your hands if you touch the Holy Tabernacle," we were told as children  --  also applies to paintings and sculptures. Our relation to the industrial object is functional; to the work of art, semi-religious; to the handcrafted object, corporal....The handmade object is a sign that expresses human society in a way all its own: not as work (technology), not as symbol (art, religion), but as a mutually shared physical life." (page 20)

Is that true? I hope people who own artworks touch them; I do. It is only the museum protecting them from too many hands that keeps us separate. That is most of our experience of art, though, and may affect our relation to it in the way Paz says it.

And art is usually handmade; by "the handmade object" I think he means a handmade and used object, his definition of craft.

OK, industry. "Industrial design tends to be impersonal. It is subservient to the tyranny of function and its beauty lies in this subservience. ...Technology is international. Its achievements, its methods and its products are the same in every corner of the globe...(page 22).  Craftwork, by contrast, is not even national, it is local. Indifferent to boundaries and systems of government, it has survived...Craftsmen have no fatherland: their real roots are in their native village...craftsmen defend us from the artificial uniformity of technology...: by preserving difference, they preserve the fecundity of history." (page 23)

I think he is talking about traditional craftsmen, not us. We influence each other all around the world, borrow freely from traditions, are interested in and rewarded for innovation. But we are locally based. I even find it odd to sell pots online, where people choose pots only by look, and cannot feel what they might be choosing. And a product of industry, however uniform, changes with different contexts of use. I once saw a set of photographs of those basic resin chairs, in settings all around the world. Wonderful variety, emphasized by the one object that links them. But, yes.

"Between the timeless time of the museum and the speeded-up time of  technology, craftsmanship is the heartbeat of human time. A thing that is handmade is a useful object but also one that is beautiful; an object that lasts a long time but also one that slowly ages away and is resigned to doing so; an object that is not unique like the work of art and can be replaced by another object that is similar but not identical. The craftsman's handiwork teaches us to die and hence teaches us to live." (page 24).

I think he overdoes the differences among objects we place in these categories. But it is a clarifying and convincing perspective, to me, and lovely, and encouraging. Back to the potting wheel!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Cooing over Chun Glazes

I love that look.

In the latest Harvard Magazine, there's an article exulting over their recent collection of pots in the original Jun glazes. The collection is a gift from Ernest and Helen Dane, the collectors, to the Harvard Art Museums.

These are the original pots, from the Song dynasty in China or a bit later. Fancy as they look, they are flower pots, for the emperor's palace, of course. The article says, in scholarly tones, that "Jun techniques in fact persisted much longer, at least into the Ming era (1368-1644)".

Actually we still make and fire these glazes, very happily, and usually spell the name "chun". Take a look at Pinterest or Etsy.

Aren't they wonderful?

I love the glaze. I'm not sure I love the pots. (Are we allowed to say that, about grand, historical marvels?) These 3 from the Harvard collection are published in the article. I find the long, rectangular piece wonderful, balanced, calm, beautiful. The others look chunky to me, which makes them seem heavy. And I have a hard time appreciating anything ornate, like the pot with saucer. My limitation, perhaps, not a less than wonderful pot.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Art in the Village

Come visit if you please. I'll be at Art in the Village, Carlsbad, on Sunday August 13, all day, 9-5. It's a nice show, big and variable, comfortably on the coast, in downtown Carlsbad.

And, yes, of course, new pots. The latest kiln load came out well! And rather blue.

Friday, July 21, 2017

How much Do You Plan?

There are people who plan a pot in detail before starting to make. They sketch the pot and its parts and decoration, and decide what glazes will go where. They do design. But what do they do when the plan doesn't work?

There are people who follow what comes, who make "what the clay wants". They work through intuition.

In Potters on Pottery, a lovely very British book from 1976, sculptors Alan and Ruth Barrett-Danes describe the ways they work:

Ruth: "I... probably draw a lot around the subject before I begin, but my work is not something which is thought out beforehand. I feel that ideas come through working  -- what might not necessarily have been a very good idea to start with has to go through the process of working, and from that other things follow."

Alan: "The making has got to be directed at an idea. A lot has to be thought around the subject, and then you move into the making slowly, going farther and farther from the original thought, until finally you make something which has nothing to do with it and throw the work away."

Most of us, I suppose are in the middle, in the amount of preplanning we do and the value we place (or see) in pots which come out very different from our intentions. The Barrett-Danes are competent; when their pots diverge from the original idea, it is probably not from mistakes in the making.

Mine, yes. I make mistakes and benefit often from them. With the intent to make teapots, I've made a couple of jars I like. Just too big to be practical as teapots, but skip the spout and handle and they will be fine jars.

Most of the interesting detail in my pots start as mistakes.

I very much like the bent footring. Sometimes I make it on purpose, often not.

The braided edge is the most interesting part of this bowl, added because the rim was thin and irregular without it.

All this says I am inclined more to the intuitive, a way of keeping the process loose, in hopes of results with a light looseness. Fun, too. It requires constant close looking, to see how the pot may develop.

Friday, June 30, 2017

"Without Wonder, One Can't Create Anything."

I've been reading In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri. It's fascinating. She is an Indian -American writer, who took on Italian as a preferred language. She lived (still does?) in Italy and writes in Italian; this book is about the process of learning and identifying, more or less successfully, as Italian. So, a creative person, stretching mightily. She says that, in Italian, she has a different voice as writer, is a different person.

The relevant part to making pots: She quotes Carlos Fuentes: "It's extremely useful to know there are certain heights one will never be able to reach". And says "I think that these heights have a dual, and substantial, role for writers. They make us aim at perfection and remind us of our mediocrity... I think that an awareness of impossibility is central to the creative impulse. In the face of everything that seems to me unattainable, I marvel.Without a sense of marvel at things, without wonder, one can't create anything."

I'm thinking yes, and no. It's not so just for writers, but potters too, actually anyone aiming for any action of quality. To marvel at wonderful work and be alert to the distance between that and my work inspires me and impels to improve.

But impossibility? mediocrity? It never occurred to me to aim at perfection. Maybe she does. All these extremes seem overdone to me. Her perspective is wonderfully unsentimental, though. No silly "shoot for the stars" nor "everyone is fabulous".

Back to work,  nose to the potting wheel.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Do Less Better

I've heard that often. I've said it often. But doing it!

In the past week, I've had my nose rubbed in this idea. I've played concerts, not well enough, by not preparing thoroughly enough. I've gotten pots back from 3 different firings, and most are seconds at best.

What are seconds? In the fruit market where I worked in high school, they were the misshapen fruit, sold for less. In some ways good, but not good enough to be fine. In my pottery, they are the pieces that are too good to be trash, but not fine. It's a judgement call, and one I find hard to make. It's about having and using standards for quality. Making less better means raising standards.

For example, this one is good, to my eye.

But  all these cups have serious problems. Trash?

 I love this glaze and I like the shape, and those things came out partly well. But each cup has spots where the glaze was thin enough to come out boring, and thick spots where the glaze crawled, leaving colorless areas.

And one has glaze where it shouldn't be at all  --  the glaze is white when liquid and I didn't notice it there. So hard to toss in the  trash.

That's another thing to learn, not to treasure each piece, or past effort. In Grossmont College's ceramics studio, I've heard, there used to be a bullseye target set up over a trash can. Students could express disappointment by hurling a bad pot at the target. That seems overkill to me; you learn by looking closely at failures too. But a good lesson in letting go. This is not only about pottery, of course. How hard is it to toss material relating to work I haven't done in years and won't do again?

I've recently seen very high standards at work. Helping unload Ellen Fager's kiln, I followed her judgements of the quality of her new work. Some beautiful things are seconds to her.

And I've been in a number of galleries in Portland, Oregon, that also reminded me what spectacular pottery looks like. Check out the Eutectic Gallery, And the Skutt factory hallway gallery

That's maybe 14 inches across,by Meira Mathison.

Yes, a nice set of Stephen Hill piece.

With all that help, I'm intending to raise my standards for my own work.  Not easy, but a step ahead.. Make less better.