Roots, Growth, Rhythm, and Balance: The Working Potter

Jug, America, 19th CenturyRoots are that part of a plant that lie unseen, holding the plant in position, drawing nourishment from the soil, and storing it. Roots also refer to ancestors-those who have gone before. For most potters both meanings have great validity. As artists and craftsmen, we all have grown from somewhere, and the combined experiences that have emotionally moved us become part of the structural network that supports, nourishes, and makes us do the things we do.

One of the first things to realize in the structural network of a potter is that making functional pottery is a rigorous discipline demanding constant and continuous effort to grow and develop. There are few shortcuts. Development goes on through life, sometimes in major strides, sometimes with almost imperceptible movement. It is probably the most frustrating of the art disciplines, being an amalgam of art and science, sculpture and painting, form and surface, and function and use. To survive as a potter, one needs to be an artist, businessperson, carpenter, laborer, chemist, technician, pyromaniac, fireman, artisan and innovator-in all, a thoroughly practical person. Pottery making is a discipline that, once thoroughly hooked on, is like an addiction and almost impossible to separate from. At the same time, it can be seductive, sensuous, and so hedonistically satisfying as to make one occasionally feel pangs of guilt. The joy of making useful objects that please the senses out of seemingly formless and inert clay is hard to describe adequately. Those who pot well are seldom financially successful in the way that success is usually measured in a money-oriented society. But if one looks at the overall quality of life, they are rich beyond measure. However one equates success, there is really nothing that I have found in life that gives me as much satisfaction as the practice of being a potter. Most potters that I know from various countries around the world wouldn't voluntarily change their vocation for any other.

Relatively "new" countries such as Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the United States have little long-term indigenous pottery traditions beyond a small number of aboriginal ones. The societal makeup of these countries is an amalgamation of different cultural and ethnic groups from many parts of the world. During the pioneering period, little time was available for the niceties of life, such as the arts. Life itself was a process of survival, and in this process the arts took a place of little immediate importance. The net result of many generations with a limited experience of the arts tends to be cultural starvation, and a resultant quest for individual identity-a reliance on the self for one's roots. How different this is from many countries of the Orient, Europe, the Middle East and Islam, where there have been ongoing ceramic traditions going back thousands of years. It is like a huge tap root of steady growth and intermittent flowering.

The contemporary potter in "new" countries often feels rootless and at a loss for where to look for meaningful inspiration and personal growth. He is bombarded with visual stimuli through books, magazines, television, etc., to the point that the excessive confusion of the senses tends to obliterate clear vision of the directions he should take. The net result of this bombardment is often the immersion into alien or exotic cultures for sources of stimulation, instead of the natural growth coming from things of the potter's immediate environment, experience, and local needs, which it always did in the past. In some ways this feeling of rootlessness is healthy and forces the potter to evaluate the self and to make decisions based on his or her own individual aesthetic, while developing it at the same time. This is particularly the case with people having a strong individual identity. For others, this feeling of rootlessness may lead to a dependence on eclecticism, picking little bits from various places and sandwiching them together with little knowledge of or consideration for their origins, or their relevance.

GROWTH: The development of a personal statement in any form of pottery making usually comes with a long and thorough immersion in the mechanics of the craft, and a tightly selective view of those stimuli that spiritually move one. Thorough discipline gives the skills needed to enable freedom of expression so that one is not bound up with the "how-to," and can concern oneself with the "why-to." It is like the musician who practices endless scales and arpeggios, without which he cannot make music. If we are to "make music" in our clay works, an understanding of form, details, and variations is our equivalent of the musician's scales and arpeggios. Without them, our compositions are amorphous and limp.

Discipline can be its own form of stimulus, through the gradual control that is gained from experience. It encourages a natural security, much as a child progresses from immobility to walking, through a series of known and expected learning processes. For the potter, it is not until the equivalent of the child's running stage that one begins to feel the confidence that one is not going to fall over and make a fool of oneself. As with a child running, the concern usually tends not to be with the likelihood of taking a fall but with getting somewhere fast. It usually takes a child two and a half to three years of constant daily effort through every waking moment to become confident enough to run. If the child wants to become an athlete or a dancer, it takes many more years of rigorous training and practice to reach a peak. Strangely enough, there are many parallels here, since the time and effort needed to reach any peak as an artist is much the same as the period from baby to athlete-fifteen to twenty years. There are a few precocious developers, but not many. For most it is a hard slog to get to the point of being able to dance.

Part of the path to understanding oneself and to developing a strong personal root structure lies in learning how to discern and use visual stimuli. Visual stimuli can come from any source - natural forms, mathematics, architecture, periods in history, tin cans, and engineering. The important thing is that the stimulus sparks the imagination in such a way as to open new doors to making objects. One can call it inspiration or whatever one wishes, but it boils down to the same equation—stimulus and response. Without stimulus of some kind the work is likely to be either stagnant or plagiaristic.

Many potters who have developed particularly strong visions of design or new concepts in work suffer through the rampant slavish plagiarism of others. What usually happens is this. A potter studies and works for years to develop something which is his or her own personal statement. No matter what the original stimulus, the response is to develop a personal idiom based on an individual search. The new vision is most likely an amalgamation of various stimuli which fuse together in the maker's brain and through a period of considerable gestation emerges in its new metamorphosed state. This new state will probably have taken that maker months, if not years, to arrive at. Much of this growth and development occurs unconsciously, but the final statement is a very personal digestion of whatever stimuli has affected him. Through exposure in books, magazines, and often in workshops and demonstrations, the potter's work becomes widely known and the source of stimulus for others. If the original work has a strong personal style, this can unfortunately often lead to many feeble and insipid copies. The copiers understand neither the full growth of the original nor the potter's digestion of the stimulus that is the basis of his work.

Copying the styles of well-known clayworkers brings about a sort of ceramic kleptomania, which inevitably leads to debasement. If one is influenced or inspired by any contemporary artist to the point of wishing to emulate that person's work, it is best to find out what the stimulus was that gave that person his new vision. If one looks back to the source material, whatever it may be, one is less likely to become a clone but to develop in a parallel yet different way. No person is the same as another, yet there is a vast sameness about much of the pottery being produced today. If one is cognizant of the work being done around the world, it becomes obvious that there are few originals but many clones.

Not only is the work of well-known individuals copied, but also well-known styles from other countries and cultures. Throughout the western and southern hemispheres, for about fifty years, there has been a heavy concentration of Orientalia— slavish imitation of various cultures of Asian countries. More often than not, the perpetrators of these imitations are totally aware neither of the qualities of the objects that they imitate nor of the cultural significance which is behind them. Real Oriental pots can be wonderful and valuable, but the copies, most often, are insipid and valueless. How out of place are the quasi- Oriental country pottery objects which are produced by Caucasian urban contemporary clayworkers. The originals relate to their environment, have strength, power, and an inner beauty; the copies are merely a pastiche with little or no meaning. The studio potter who delves into his own inner feelings to find out what it is that excites his visual imagination will likely produce work which has honesty and integrity. True style cannot be forced. It is the result of an intense searching and personal analysis, much of which will probably be intuitive. When fully developed it will have harmony, rhythm, and balance.

RHYTHM: All organisms have rhythm, whether it be the cycle of birth to death, or any movements and heartbeats along the way. Once a potter's root structure is established, he or she goes through a series of growth and flowering cycles, which are themselves influenced or controlled by other rhythms. These are cycles of nature, life itself, personal biological rhythms, and work—from preparing clay, shaping the clay on a wheel or by other methods, firing, glazing, decorating, glaze firing, to the eventual selling. Each has a rhythm and cycle of its own.

Part of being a potter lies in balancing the purely practical with the purely aesthetic. Our concerns on one hand are form, function, technique, and economic survival. These are constants. On the other hand, surface, color, vision, and intent are variables. Many of these aspects flow from the rhythm of various phases of the work, each of which plays an important role. It would be good if we could ignore some of the cycles, such as the economic ebb and flow, but it too has its own effect on what we do and how and why we do it. The degree to which any potter subjugates himself to that particular rhythm is an individual concern. Many concern themselves heavily with the financial aspects of making, usually to the detriment of the work itself. To work to the extent of one's capability and at the same time to grow and flourish, one has to adapt one's own rhythm in order to strike one's own balance.

BALANCE: Balance is the point of equilibrium where stimulus, analysis, and concern are matched by skill, imagination, and understanding. It is the yin and yang principle applied to clay works, and perhaps can best be summed up with a series of antonyms: Freedom or Limitation; Continuity or Change; Design or Happenstance; Subjectivity or Objectivity; Tradition or Innovation; Conservative or Radical; Caution or Abandonment; Harmony or Discord; Compromise or Licentiousness; Necessity or Desire.

With an art form as old as pottery making, nothing much is new, and most of what is done is a variation on a theme from another time and place. The contemporary studio potter has more liberty in pursuing new directions than any potter of the past. He can be as expressive and expansive as he likes. He can make objects of beauty or ugliness, of whimsy or classicism, or coarseness or refinement. The confines in which he has to work are often more economic than artistic. With today's eclectic society almost anything goes in the form of art and craft works. What makes something beautiful or good is continually questioned but rarely answered.

For most studio potters a balance also vacillates between life and work, to the point that they become totally integrated with each other. It is different for each person. The striking of some kind of balance is crucial to the stability and growth of the individual, as it forms the foundation for personal exploration in whichever direction seems valid to that person. Balance, more than anything else, is the springboard which we can use to grow in our own ways. It is the state of being from which we can then become what we choose. We are an amalgamation of whatever we have ever seen, heard, eaten, drunk, felt, or loved. We are individuals searching for meaning and growth in existence. When we can achieve a balance, the world is wide open for further exploration.

Making utilitarian pottery inevitably involves compromise to fulfill the needs required of a given object. The balance comes from the question "What is most important to the maker-selfsatisfaction or satisfying needs?" There is no reason on earth why one can't do both at the same time. From my experience, the nature of the functional potter is usually such that he or she wishes to produce objects that give pleasure to the user through their use, things designed with people in mind, and made with love, conviction, honesty, and integrity. If one can do this, whatever one's personal aesthetic likes may be, one will probably produce objects that not only reflect their maker but, through their honesty, receive notice. 

Copyright by Robin Hopper, Victoria, Canada. Excerpted from Pots of Purpose, to be published by Chilton Books, Radnor, Pennsylvania in 1986.