Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why "The Village Potter?"

What is a potter anyway, in the 21st century?

Making pots has been a useful craft for maybe 12000 years, providing utilitarian, ceremonial, elegant and fun products for local use and trade. Ceramics may really be the oldest profession. There's a long, widespread set of traditions behind us, sometimes simple, sometimes extremely sophisticated. Does that matter much to potters now?

The traditions give us many ways to do every part of the process of pot-making. We tend to learn how to do it "right" and then expect that our way is the way  -- just like any other skill, knowledge, cultural practice. I found it a great shock to discover a Japanese tradition in which   --  impossible!  --  people turn the wheel the opposite direction! I bet that sounds silly to non-potters; what difference can it make? It makes several technical differences, but mostly, it's not the way we do it! Not the way our hands have learned so well  and automatically that it feels natural.

Potters often say there are no new ideas; sure, copy what you see. With centuries of work at our backs, there are more ideas out there than we'll ever have time to try.  Do we need new ones? Can't help coming up with new ones? Find the fun in new ones? Do we value the traditional?

We stand in a historic and prehistoric line of traditional hand producers and a world-wide community of interest. Archeology is us! Literally, we can make archelology.  Pottery traditions vary so much  that archeologists use the variations to track cultural changes, ranges, contacts. And there is an increasing linkage of contemporary craft makers to archeologists, to work out the processes that produced what archeologists dig up. Sure we can show you how they made those Moche pots.

Personally I love the traditional anchor of  the craft, though I rarely make very traditional pots. I do copy, more or less, interesting pots I've seen. I meant to be an archeologist, until I found out how much patience it takes.Over the years since, I've made several forays back towards archeology; making pots is definitely one of them.

Still, most potters now are not old-style craft makers whose work is needed by their communities. The continuing traditionalists, the revivers of old traditions (Pueblo potters, for example), and contemporary ceramic makers are now categorized more as artists, ceramists. Many really are sculptors, perhaps using traditional or functional forms as a jumping off place. Beautiful, symbolic or inventive pots have their place in collections and museums as well as kitchens and gardens. I am uncomfortable considering myself an artist, though I do see that I follow up ideas that attract me.  Does it mean we should have art training first? Try for individual expression rather than service to a community? Relate only to the appreciated few people who want handcrafts in their daily lives? Concern ourselves more with beauty and invention and not with function? Is craft necessarily art these days? Low art?

We do distinguish studio pottery from industrial ceramic production and think handcraft has different value than the factory produced wares.And there is still a small niche for production potters, people who hand make on a small mass scale  --  dishes for a restaurant, favors for a wedding, in my area Mexican garden pots.

I am unsettled about all these points. I would like to be the village potter in the 21st century, and am still working on what that means. If you want to talk about any of this, please write. I'd love to talk with you.