Sustainability: Clay Objects in a Changing World, Part II

Editor's note: Find Part I of this essay in Vol. 43 No. 2, Summer/Fall 2015.

In the study of early human settlements and trade, examining the development of ceramic production toward greater cultural and technological sophistication is highly enlightening. Thousands of years ago, production and use of the first clay pots, likely made in Japan or China during the Neolithic era, spread widely. Pottery became central to traditional societies and their economies. At first, pots made life more sustainable by safely storing seeds and food. Later, pots enabled trade; they made it practical to move foodstuffs over great distances. Their surfaces and forms had the ability to act as cultural signifiers, and still do today, though less well understood than their utilitarian attributes.

Within this historical context, the Studio Potter Movement is quite young. Originally part of the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement, it took on a life of its own in the era of Leach, Hamada, Yanagi, and Cardew. As the Studio Potter Movement grew in Europe and the United States, it became more rooted in the world of higher education. By the 1960s, the Studio Potter Movement had established itself in university ceramics programs. Eventually, this led to a dramatic increase in the diversity and size of the emerging ceramics community.

Although those working in the Leach tradition hoped and intended otherwise, those buying pots from studio potters today tend to be a fairly affluent group. No matter how hard Warren MacKenzie tries to make his work affordable to everyone, his pots often end up mostly in the hands of collectors and people in highly educated households. Most of his clients enjoy many options in life. They choose to collect contemporary pots embracing Leach-Hamada inspired forms, forms that echo a life devoted to the ancient traditions of working in clay.

Not everyone enjoys access to this level of privilege, that is, being able to buy a pot made by hand to protest postmodern consumerism and destructive industrial methods. For years, I’ve visited the annual sales of MacKenzie’s disciples and spent time in the galleries where they sell their work. I’ve engaged their patrons, and it is safe to say the majority of them acknowledge an element of protest in their purchases. They crave association with something made by hand, the possibility of meeting the potter, and the more intimate experience of studio sales. Like most reading this journal, they live in a world of relative privilege. My level of affluence allows me to buy a handmade product and to take some time for reflection, but I’m part of a fortunate minority. Most living in modern society now drink and eat from industrially produced cups, plates, and bowls.

For the most part, modernity eclipses the heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement and its contemporary equivalents. Each day, the number of people using mass-produced cups increases, as global living standards continue to improve. For the most part, this gives rise to little reflection. Some of these cups and vessels are ceramic, but most are disposable paper and plastic containers. Using them results in a very different experience from that derived from using pottery, and they take a different toll on our planet. Heating a potter’s kiln takes energy, but a kiln yields a product made with human hands, and that product can last for generations. I think of this when I travel, when I yield to the temptation to stop in at the Starbucks between my hotel and my destination. Convenience is seductive.Teabowl and corporate cup doodle by Elenor Wilson, 2016.

Our global economy offers convenience for those of us lucky enough to live in privilege: a moment for tea in the morning, hot and cold running water, central heat, flush toilets, and Starbucks. Toss in Holiday Inns and big-box stores with an infinite number of coffee mugs; we’ve got it made – for the moment, at least. But there are trade-offs.

Privilege is rooted in a new, globalized economy. This economy is highly industrialized, digitally connected, and provides much for the few. For the less fortunate, overall standards of life continue to improve, albeit slowly. While it is true that extreme poverty is declining in some parts of the world, India and China for example, many nations seem unable to improve the living standards of their citizens. In the meantime, poverty in advanced Western nations seems more entrenched than ever, and people are concerned about growing inequality. Most people gauge their socioeconomic status according to the degree of access they have to unprecedented material wealth. Our food is produced using methods that can only be described as industrial. Factories are large, and their products are often exceptionally well made. International standards are set to ensure precision, complex replicated methods of production, and quality. These standards certainly make automobiles more reliable, but when is this level of precision necessary and when is it not needed? Should these standards apply to corn and soybean seeds? Apples? Should our foods be engineered? And will our supply of food and consumer goods survive when their production is so closely linked to the need for finite fossil fuels?

It seems likely, even obvious to some, that we will not be able to maintain our current levels of material privilege forever. At least, not if the apparent values and expectations of consumer culture remain the same as they are now or grow stronger in developing nations. The cost of consumption is too high for the planet. We are losing not only glaciers, but also entire species; cultures adapted to ecosystems barely above sea level; and the diversity and richness of our oceans. The list of what we’ve lost and what we are on the verge of losing is long. It is crucial that we evaluate what we’ve done in the past and what we are doing now. We must develop other ways of living and reverse the damage already done.

A question central to our age is how to maintain and improve standards of living while achieving an environmentally sustainable economy. Specifically, how do we build an economy that responds to climate change? The fate of human society hangs in the balance.

It might seem a small step, but drinking tea or coffee from a cup made by a local potter may reduce our carbon footprint.  Most pottery was once carefully passed from generation to generation. To make pottery that deserves that level of care and effort is a worthy pursuit and contributes much to rethinking consumerism and how to build vibrant local economies. Many visionary writers and activists help us understand how humane economic growth can be linked to invigorated social worlds; anything written by Jane Jacobs is a good start. For a contemporary version of Jacobs, read Marjorie Kelly’s Owning Our Future.[i]

A single handmade cup has little meaning in the sweep of history. But now, a local cup, local vegetables, locally owned shops and stores, locally brewed beer, and other locally produced goods are central to the cause of sustainability. These things are also central to respecting the billions of people on the planet affected by climate change. As a society, we need to sort out the things that must, in fact, be shipped great distances (some glaze chemicals, for example) and those things that were always foolish to ship great distances – and sometimes foolish to make in the first place. Fortunately, there are more of the latter, and that makes things easier to fix.

As a potter, Michael Cardew raised these questions in the 1940s. He sought answers to them in Ghana and Nigeria, before returning to England to establish a pottery at Wenford Bridge. Cardew studied under Bernard Leach. My morning tea and their accompanying, reflective moods would not be possible without Leach and his writing, collected in A Potter’s Book. Leach and his apprentices – Michael Cardew, Clary Illian, and Jeff Oestreich, among them – helped create the Studio Potter Movement, which is very much alive today. Their interest in ceramics inspired others to explore the medium, to become captivated by the mysterious surfaces of clay and glaze, the magic of fire, and the meaning – intentions and memory traces – woven into their creation and use.

"A Potter's Book" cover design.Cardew headed off to Africa, and, later, Australia, to find Leach’s ideal in some universal aesthetic. Cardew’s book, Pioneer Pottery, grew out of these experiences. Leach’s work was rooted in a tea-ceremony aesthetic, but that is a small part of Japanese culture. Just the same, this narrow view of Japanese culture and tradition is a particularly useful perspective today. Rooted in Buddhist thought, Leach’s version of Asian ceramics embraces simplicity of design and local traditions; displays of wealth are anathema. Interestingly, it was the ostentatious display of wealth in the Victorian era that inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement.

William Morris, as he shaped the British Arts and Crafts movement, saw social patterns in nineteenth-century England that seem startlingly similar to our own century. He too was concerned about concentrations of wealth and inequality. An early form of globalization had reshaped his world in ways that are all too familiar to us. The use of fossil fuels fouled the air; there was growing poverty; and he wondered whether the integrity of human labor could survive. Beyond that, he realized his place of privilege in the world and understood its inevitable link to a global British Empire. Out of this perspective grew his effort to preserve the dignity of craft production and to the international Arts and Crafts Movement.

My problem with the twenty-first century is similar. I am haunted by the creation of an U.S. Empire and the foreign policy initiatives that support it. Empires, it seems, must continuously wage wars to maintain what is, in the end, not sustainable.

The bygone British Empire and the United States today share many unsettling characteristics. Chief among them is the squandering of resources that might otherwise serve pressing human needs. Investments in affordable housing, education, and social infrastructure were and are compromised by the high cost of maintaining these empires. And, needless to say, those who build empires are tight with international bankers. Their mutual success depends upon a close marriage.

It is easy to become cynical in this environment. It is easy to think there is nothing to be done. I would argue there are modest things each of us can accomplish every day. If the realignment of our energy needs moves toward sustainability, as it must, we’ll have to start shifting our focus toward more regional economies and local production. This can be beneficial if it means we consume more experiences (the farmers’ market, cooking, charitable giving and volunteering, local travel, gardening, and a plethora of local services and related goods) and consume fewer products from the globalized marketplace (highly processed foods, poorly designed gadgets, and goods produced by impoverished workers, young children, and other laborers with little or no freedom). To some this may sound naive, but those who don’t understand the difference between finite resources and renewable resources are the most naive among us.

Food and other goods must be reconsidered in light of these constraints and opportunities. This is, of course, where most potters throughout human history lived their lives. They were embedded in regional economies; they were immersed in local cultures. Importantly, they wove the infinite variety of potential ceramic shapes and surfaces into the fabric of their communities. These pots communicated complex traditions and reminded the user of their special place in time and geography. These surfaces animated objects by imbuing them with unique cultural identities. Beyond their obvious functionality, they embodied conviviality.

Along with other socially constructed aspects of life – language, ideas, and the search for meaning and community – ceramic objects and other cultural products affirm human relationships and modes of being. In A Potter’s Workbook, Clary Illian makes this clear: “What is at the heart of the matter in pottery making? To call into being an object and to ask the object to have qualities that evoke in the viewer a sense of rightness, beauty, or vitality is to tinker with the divine. Making pots offers a constant challenge to search for the mysterious underpinnings of the physical world itself.”[ii]

When art is made to satisfy the whims of the wealthy (the one percent or less who gain the most from emerging global markets), it is too often devoid of rightness and vitality. It is most useful as a commodity for wealthy patrons. Sellers and their allies create the illusion of value for the work of an anointed few, horde it, lock it in a vault to protect its future value, and try desperately to build a worldview that treats creativity itself as a rare commodity (best reflected in what they own). The world they imagine is both sad and bleak; it is also extractive and not sustainable.

By contrast, the new maker movement embraces the best of all craft traditions. For the most part, it seeks generative, sharing economies rooted in localized production and sustainable methods. But it also embraces the technologies of contemporary postmodern culture. The maker movement experiences the same tensions potters have experienced in producing and selling their wares for centuries. How technologically innovative should we be? What defines our local community?  Potters, and other craftspeople need to connect and create a new dialogue around the issues of sustainability.

For potters, technological innovations started thousands of years ago with the move from pit firings to the use of a chimney. Then, kiln builders modified the fuel’s path leading to downdraft kilns. These innovations were followed by the introduction of new fuels, new refractories – the list is endless.

Harsh critics will point to the devastation of forests to fuel ceramic kilns, the naïveté of building local economies in the face of globalization, and the supposed failure of earlier craft movements, among other things they object to. They do not understand our argument: The direct engagement of hand and material – in this case, clay – gives birth to deep creativity and connects us to who we are as a species, as human beings. We become less about what we own and more about what we know and feel. A humane future is necessarily about knowing more and having less. A planet can sustain an intelligent life form fascinated by ecological systems and cultural creativity, but our only currently available planet cannot sustain a culture built around McMansions and Hummers."Carbon Credit Chai," illustration by Elenor Wilson, styling by Zoe Pappenheimer, 2016.

Growing inequalities point to the need for creative subversives. One of the most subversive things we can do is to undermine the notion of a creative elite. We are all, in our own ways, creative. The history of ceramics is the largest body of evidence supporting our claim. There were, we must remember, very creative Neolithic potters. The archaeological record, combined with a diverse, contemporary Studio Potter Movement, reminds us of creativity’s persistence and pervasiveness. Our uniqueness as a human species is not only our construction of a physical world of pottery, other crafts, homes, and the tools to make them, it is also how we blend the things we make into our socially constructed worlds of interaction and meaning. It seems obvious that if we spend more time constructing highly interactive social communities rooted in all things local, we’ll more successfully resist the lure of ephemeral, planet-killing consumerism. More livable communities will not come easily. We need sustaining metaphors and inspired creativity to get us there. Achieving true sustainability requires digging, wedging, forming, and trial by fire.


[i] Kelly, Marjorie. Owning Our Future the Emerging Ownership Revolution: Journeys to the Generative Economy. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.

[ii] Illian, Clary, and Charles Metzger. A Potter's Workbook. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.