A few years back I found myself eyeing mass produced ceramic dishes and thinking that the designs weren’t half bad. Something had changed when I wasn’t looking. The massive chasm that used to exist between the mass-produced and handmade had perceptibly narrowed. I thought of mass produced pottery as a qualitatively different than what I made. I thought of my work as the antithesis of mass-produced. Each piece deeply personal. Each piece completely unique. I didn’t worry about competing because I wasn’t playing the same game. But here were these dishes and the designs weren’t half-bad, and somehow they were encroaching. It was hard not to think of them as the enemy. An enemy who had made a surprising advance.

Ingredients, 2014. Porcelain and decals, 1.75 x 5.25 in. Photograph by Grace Sheese.If mass production is the enemy, then the enemy is mighty and not far from the door. If this was a war, was there any way my pots could win? I imagined a victory in some kind of cultural upheaval where humanity suddenly rejected the easy, unobtrusive relationship it has with commercially made objects and learned to savor the handmade. I imagined each one of my pots as a small envoy advancing this vision in the world. I still hold out hope for this vision, but it is hard not to feel like it is an uphill battle at best.

If my pots are small soldiers in some sort of broad cultural war, then the one thing I can arm them with is my human-ness. While the lackluster sameness of mass-produced pottery has improved (it has a bit more character), it still demands certain qualities: The wares have to look nearly identical, and they have to be efficient and inexpensive to make. Industry has gotten better at mimicking handmade pottery, but remnants of its production still linger. Flawless pots that are exact replicas of each other still don’t feel quite human. My kind of pottery is slow and very, very human.

So how does one go about highlighting human-ness? How do I draw attention to the fact that the pots I create are made with my hands? To find out, I decided I would do the things machines couldn’t do well. I started with form. I altered my thrown pots through faceting. I delighted in cutting into a perfectly round pot – each cut a bit closer to human. I began adding oddities like protrusions for the fingers to rest upon, little bobbles or dangles meant for its user to play with.

To complement my human forms, I needed surfaces that sang of both human-ness and clay-ness. I worked to capture the properties of the clay as it changed from wet and soft to dry and hard, working with the surface differently at each stage because the clay is physically transforming. Techniques like carving and Mishima could only be done when the clay is still malleable. Once the clay had been bisque-fired, its hard surface allowed for materials like underglaze pencils, chalks, and glaze to be applied.

Glazing is about more than color and chemistry. It is about letting go of control and allowing heat, color, and chemistry to interact with each other unpredictably. Painting a colored glaze on a bisque pot next to a patch of color applied during the wet stage produced a subtle layer that recorded the history of the pot’s making. Applying a dab of runny glaze to create a drip celebrated glaze chemistry in a way that industrial ceramics would consider a flaw.

Wait!, 2015. Porcelain, decals, and wire, thrown and altered, fired to Cone 6, 03, and 014 in oxidation. 4.5 x 4 x 3.25 in.  Photograph by Grace Sheese.My path of exploration was too wide and too open-ended. My desire to narrow my personal path led me to storytelling through surface and form and fundamentally changed the way I viewed altering the form and surface. My small sculptures, drawings, and decals became characters while the protrusions, dangles, colors, lines, and drips became settings and props.

Now as I continue to make pots, the stories I tell are small stories about the everyday; sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes wistful. The animals, the objects, and other subject matter I use ground my narratives in the familiar. Evoking the archetypes of the sheep, the fox, the rabbit and the pig allows me to tell stories about universal interactions, situations, and emotions, and expresses my human-ness.

My epiphany of appreciation for a mass-produced pot significantly shaped the way I think about and value my own work. Not only did my reaction to it change my process, but it also altered my philosophy regarding surface decoration and form. As a result, I’ve been pushing my surface beyond flat and graphic decoration. By creating interactions between the materiality of clay and glazes, the form and the surface, I strive to celebrate the human-ness behind each pot I make. My pots are slow, and as a consequence they are deeply and personally mine. They offer what the mass-produced cannot, a small piece of my human story.