The Community Vessel

Recently I have spoken with Courtney M. Leonard and Paul S. Briggs to deepen my understanding of their intentions with clay and who they are as creative people. In our conversations I used the terms pots, containers, and vessels interchangeably, as they are metaphors for ways to see, understand, and ideally connect to something larger than ourselves. Our community is an aspect of the vessel as well – a container we all have made. 

As an educator and an artist my hope is to look at what, how, and why we do what we do with our intentions pertaining to anti-racist work within the ceramic community and our other walks of life. This is a story about abundance, oppression, humans, life, and the desire to hold ourselves to a standard we all deserve.  

During my latest conversation with Courtney, she said something that stayed with me. When the wind blew open their porch door, her great-grandmother, Blanche Eleazer Carle, would say, “Come on in, take your coat off, and stay awhile.” This act of welcoming the wind struck me as a delightful metaphor, bringing me to this question: What does it even mean to be in relationship – with ourselves, one another, and the material of clay? 

Another bright moment came when Paul shared this nugget from his classroom philosophy: “Beauty is in the ideology of the beholder.” A quick search defines ideology as, “A set of doctrines or beliefs that are shared by the members of a social group or that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.” Paul’s observation clarified for me that an individual’s viewpoint connects to a set of standards for beauty, history, and power. With this model we are able to tease out the cultural values, the ideology, of Wedgwood porcelain, Japanese teabowls, the Greek amphora; it can be applied to any aesthetic canon. Standards such as these are ever-present in who we are as makers in the US today, which leads me to wonder, can we examine these canonical structures and alter our ideologies, to behold and hold more?

Can we enter into an unknown space, take off our ideological coat, and stay awhile? 

I was fortunate to spend one-on-one time with Courtney during a pre-conference event hosted by the Socially Engaged Craft Collective before the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in 2019 in Minneapolis. I heard both her and Paul speak that year at NCECA on “Radical Mentorship.” Throughout the conference, whenever I ran into Courtney on the exhibition floor, we would light up with enthusiastic conversations. She’s inspiring to listen to, and I appreciate her questioning sensibility. Her use of epistemology and etymology tickle my cravings for philosophic exploration and fundamental questions about humanness. Basically, we both love learning and language. 

We clicked. 

While chatting together, I was reminded about the fluid nature of being, and how writing can be both frightening and exhilarating. Making with clay is also like this – I make plans, but they are open to change as the material has something else to say. Am I listening? Can I listen more deeply?

What follows are some highlights from two evolving conversations with these artists as they grapple with our roles as makers, educators, and culture shifters in this time of COVID-19, civil uprisings, and an impending election. I'm compelled to reach out and make connections between these major events, and to connect to people who demonstrate, through their work, ways to be open to seeing one another and to question how we live, love, and create in a just society.

COURTNEY M. LEONARD: The Permeable Container

Courtney is a weaver – but not in the traditional sense. One of her methods of making is weaving coils of clay that are held together by engobes. She also uses video, is a painter, she teaches, and she researches. As an educator she considers language, the meaning and use of words, and she exposes herself to ways of sharing vulnerability, learning alongside her students. She is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island, New York, and her legacy of family, connections, history, and the future define her, who she carries in her heart, and what she makes. Her art weaves learning, language, and mystery. Always providing gaps for questions, always seeking answers, staunchly loyal to her truth, while knowing it changes. Courtney is steadfast in her curiosity. Her clay baskets are symbolic of loss, abundance, and stories of a community struggling and adapting. Fragile, glass-like baskets: they hold and cannot hold everything – gaps are present, an inherent part of the weaving process. She reminds me of a cell that, by osmosis, still gets what it needs through the cellular wall. I wonder if we can break down our walls or, at least, make them thinner? Especially the walls of difference and fear we put up in ourselves that inhibit growth and learning. 

Courtney has been asked stereotypical questions like, “Do you hunt buffalo?” and “Do you dig your own clay?” There’s a presumption that, as an indigenous artist, she’ll be connected to the earth. People often expect her to fill a fixed indigenous position. She says, “Tradition is not stagnant, it’s constantly moving...when water no longer has the ability to move and to breathe, things rot and die and leach off, we get mass fish die-offs, and it’s not healthy.” 

When artists create based on their identity, must they be fixed into that identity by the art community? 

I believe in the shifting traditions Courtney mentioned earlier. This shift requires a container for us to hold many concepts at the same time. I wonder at the irony here for me. How do I, as a White woman, writer-artist-educator, locate myself within this story? We live in a time when racial identity, gender politics, economic stratification, and hierarchies of power need to be talked about as we seek a comfortable space, a safe space, a brave space – an adaptable container for these varied issues and identities. I will do my best to try and locate these artists, their thoughts on being and making, in the most fluid and respectful ways. I will make mistakes. This is part of the learning too. We all learn and create differently, yet we share a vocabulary drawn from the material and techniques of ceramics. I see the need to increase my vocabulary and tools.

After attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Courtney received her BFA from Alfred University. She also holds a teaching certificate from Brown University, Providence, and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. As a high school educator, I’m impressed that her graduate work includes an emphasis on learning the fundamentals of teaching. She states, “I am not just responsible for myself, I am an extension of my family and my community.” Interdependence is embedded in her way of life. 

She is an earnest explorer and has traveled extensively, pursuing her research and community. From the Royal Tichelaar Makkum Pottery in the Netherlands, to being invited by Manos Nathan to learn with the Nga Kaihanga Uku, a Maori clay workers’ organization in New Zealand, to connecting with scientists on the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship in Connecticut, to residencies in Alaska, Nova Scotia and Switzerland. Courtney seeks water, and water finds her. She makes family in communities and learns from all her opportunities. 

Consider the container, its holes, and how it is whole. 

Courtney’s Breach series are a captain’s log of inquiries using the term “breach” and its myriad meanings. She’s the artist and captain of her vessel, journaling a chronology for us, the deck hands on the Earth ship. She writes:

“‘Breach’ is an exploration of historical ties to water and whale; imposed law; and a current relationship of material sustainability. Navigation lies within visual translation, acceptance, and pursuit of process. Charting exists as a logging of record; documentation and mapping of each point where the surface breaks.

"The word ‘breach’ can be used in many different ways. Legally, ‘breach of contract’ is the failure to observe an agreement. It can also mean a gap in a wall or barrier. Breach can also be used as a verb – especially when it comes to the act of a whale breaking the surface of water.”

We talked about the words “breach,” “bound,” and “abundance.” 

Breach: in relation to its aforementioned meanings.

Bound: a destination, a migration, but also something that holds you, trapped.

Abundance: considering both joy and loss. 

In feeling losses, she’s experienced an abundance of possibilities. Loss is painful but its source is not always clear. Like when a potter digs and digs their own clay, whether in their yard or near a river, do they consider the extraction of the material and how that affects the Earth? Do we know where our materials are sourced? 

Source. Abundance. Breach. Bound. 

Courtney gives us much to consider: our use of materials and our responsibilities to ourselves, one another, and the landscapes where we live. I shared my ideas about the pot symbolizing inclusion and embodiment. The container can stand for us as individuals and also be expanded to a vessel that contains us all. She was circumspect about my metaphor regarding the pot. 

I love her questioning. 

She says in regards to the pot, “It’s an energy, a relationship, a way of being connected to something that comes from the earth – no one owns it, but they do have a responsibility to it – whether they acknowledge it or not.” Her interpretation positions the vessel as more than an object, it becomes an active member of a relationship.

I posit that we can’t be objective, we influence our world as we walk through it. We flow, we stop, we move, we entangle; weaving, as our contours blend, we breathe together.

 

PAUL S. BRIGGS: A Pot Constrained

From coiling to pinch forming and slab building, Paul brings decades of experience to the medium of clay. I first heard Paul during a panel at NCECA in Pittsburgh in 2018. He spoke of Kandinsky and the spiritual in art, and he asked this big question at the end: “What came first – the chicken of compassion, that we see so much in the arts, or the egg of contemplative practice?” This question left me wondering about firsts – and dualities. I believe that we know very little, but belief is powerful and, like religion, useful to help ground our human experience. Whatever the ground may be, perhaps in this case, literally clay. Paul’s background in theology and Torah studies is important to note. He’s curious about how ceramic artists are apt to be religious and a bit dogmatic with their rituals and materials. 

I was able to Zoom with Paul to ask more questions after his recent appearance on the NCECA Instagram page where he spoke of “Catalysts for Transformation” and “being part of the conversation to change our world.” He’s experienced several transformations moving from Minnesota back to Massachusetts, shifts in his job as an educator, and big changes in his art career. He’s known for his pinch pots that he makes from a single ball of clay, no additions or subtractions. He pinches in a meditative way, creating grids of leaves and other protrusions for his vessels. He calls the process “pure pinching.” 

We talked about the duality for him between pinching and slab building, and his background in educational theory, theology, and art. These all play equal parts in Paul’s character – his internal reflection and his external expression. The duality is fading. The gap in the processes is closing, as he digests the world events of COVID-19 and the recent uprisings after George Floyd’s murder. 

Black slabs and coils are the main features of his Cell Persona series, which he began in 2017. They are quick sketches, rougher than his pure pinch pots, held tight by coil bars and slab walls. The institutional nature of prison is underscored by the lack of embellishments. Paul shared his struggles of committing to the Cell Persona work and being a Black man in the US. After reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, seeing Ava DuVerney’s film 13th, and doing more research about the history of incarceration in America, he was compelled to make these sculptures. He’s always made art that speaks to issues, but he hasn’t always shown it. His pinch pots were a way to practice meditation and not struggle internally. Whereas his slab sculptures confront issues in conflict for him. Cell Persona represents a pure expression connected to the judgement we cast as a society onto those who have been incarcerated. With titles like “Recidivism,” “Room with a View,” “Complicated,” and “Knots Inside,” he explores his relationship to that of the prisoner and releases his findings to the viewer. I wonder about the prisoner and incarceration; how do we judge the container?

Paul’s levels of metaphor and meaning are profound.  He pulls apart structure and form to get clarity about belief and action. As we wrapped up our conversation, we went back to the metaphor of the vessel. In exploring the pot, I have felt that it is broken, or perhaps dunted, maybe small air bubbles weaken the walls. But I love it all the same. I’ve wondered if we were ever whole?

Power plays within hierarchies, and the documents of this country were written by a small group of White men of similar ilk, while they struggled to break from British oppression. And yet, we are here today. I love being here, I benefit from some of the systems, I struggle with some as well. Structural racism has walls and bars against those who aren’t at the top of the hierarchy. This pot functions just fine for some. And it works the way our system has set it up to work.

Paul said, "Do we have to do away with everything or can we build on what we have?” I’m not convinced that we can build on what I perceive to be an inadequate foundation. But I appreciate the question and wonder about the pot and the potter. We practice and learn to manipulate the mud. Clay is a teacher. What are we learning? 

Reclaim

We can’t reclaim clay once it’s been fired. Where does this leave us? Can we stay in the fire of difficult learning while still remaining porous in our ability to absorb new information?

So, is our metaphorical pot broken? Or does the vessel need smashing? What do you believe? Whether on a scientific or spiritual level, there’s something spectacular about life, something miraculous about breathing and the heartbeat and our ability to survive. I’m struck by the amount of pain, struggle, and death we witness and cause. After George Floyd’s death, documented and widely viewed on video, can we agree that humanity is paramount and that the laws we proclaim need scrutiny and abolition? 

As happens often when I write, I have more questions than answers. I ask these questions of myself, and now you; I can no longer sit by and act as though I am not complicit.

I’ve heard people say, “This is just a pot, it doesn’t mean anything.” Or “Does it have to be political?” This is a semantic argument. I’m not satisfied by such attempts to dodge responsibility. As potters, we make choices all the time and, I hope, we make conscious decisions. We choose reduction or oxidation. I like the analogy here with oxygen, considering the fiery swirls of our conversations and allowing each other room to breathe. We choose clay bodies and surface treatments. We have debates about the wheel versus. handbuilding. These can be seen through political and ideological lenses. And while we may disagree, I hope we can accept each other’s choices with tolerance, maybe even acceptance and love.

Both artists represented above are exploring the nature of their own stories. We are a network of connectivity, manipulating and affecting the clay, ourselves, the environment, and our communities. 

The clay provides resistance, flow, adaptability, and transformation. We push, pull, roll, attach, and mold. We make the pot and the pot makes us. Perhaps it’s not the pot that changes, or needs smashing, perhaps we change as the clay expands in our hands.

 

“All that you touch you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” ~ Octavia Butler

      

 

 


 

Studio Prep and Maintenance 

Curious to participate in a new way of making? Here are some suggestions and guiding questions I use: 

  • Consider who you amplify and why. 

  • Check out the Cultural New Deal: a resource on art and culture every organization can learn from. 

  • Consider the endowment effect. 

When individuals give an endowment there is often an expectation that the giver will access power and sway. Can you give without expectation? Can you receive without acknowledgement?

  • What ideologies do you premise your decision making on? 

  • Who do you consult with and how often?

What is group inquiry in your community? Does everyone have a voice? What does participation look like and are we hearing from those who don’t speak up as loud or as often? Especially those furthest from the known hierarchies?