Welcome the Wonk

With the turn of the equinox, which literally translates to “equal night,” meaning equal length of night and day hours, there is a sense of balance, and with it an inherent potential for a tilt. New potters are keen to pick up on the asymmetry of their beginning efforts, noting the wonk in their wares’ rims, shoulders, and bellies. They may hope to straighten their verticals, and shore up their horizon lines some day with practice, practice, practice. More experienced potters will side-glance those outcomes, and possibly think, “Oh, they’ll get there…I remember when my pots were asymmetrical, too…now everything is perpendicular and level due to practice, practice, practice.”Seasoned potters, however, may see the lilts and rises in forms as honesty in the materials, having worked hard to master symmetry AND move past it into more natural states of production with practice, practice, practice. Generalizations, of course, but there is truth to be found in the three levels of pottery making above.


Today’s sherd looks at a ceramist from northern Japan’s Hokkaido: Kazuhiko Kudo. In this dialog-free short film, you’ll see the potter harvesting his own wild clay from the field, processing it back at the studio, throwing on a kick-wheel, preparing homemade glazes from the ash of a birch, and wood-firing the yield for 3-4 days. There are culinary moments, too, where wares and good intersect with matter-of-factness beauty. And for those of you interested in production work, and have wondered how a potter makes their pieces all the same size/shape, there’s a brief glimpse at 1:15 minutes of a shelf full of “dragonflies” for measuring depth and height. One could improvise such a tool from two pencils or paintbrushes fastened together with your desired measurements marked in tape. 


I hope that the balance and tilt towards lengthening daylight hours finds everyone partaking in the adjustments with grace and anticipation. Welcome the wonk, as the earth, too, defies symmetry…there are seasons to be discovered in your bowls and vessels if you lean in to hear it. 

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Music In Pottery

Today, as I was hand-building a ceramic piece for a work in progress, the studio was unusually quiet: no frenzy of students, no classes rolling in. Only the timpani of rain on the window, and the repetitive tapping of my hake brush’s flat handle on the damp clay kept me company. The latter caught my attention, for it was the combination of wood percussing on leather-hard stoneware that resonated in a most somber and comforting manner. In this music, I could hear the dry wood impressing the grog deeper into the surface, the cavity of the form reverberating, the thick and thin walls of the cylinder vibrating at different frequencies as I sought to shape the form. I contemplated all the ways that the sound of clay and instrument inform me of my progress as well as my course of action, consciously or not. Conversely, the usual cacophony of my environment–whether it be music on the stereo or social activity–likely obscures a number of important signs and signifiers that could otherwise have lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of this medium. What if all this time I have been ignoring the quakes that might lead to a vessel collapsing unexpectedly, or have been unaware of the shift in my carving tool’s pitch as it abrades and punctures through the wall of an incised jar?

Juhani Pallasmaa’s book The Eyes of the Skin, an examination of the relationship between our senses and architectural spaces, makes frequent mention of how we use our hearing to acclimate to/calibrate our experience to space and place. This cultural shift from aural to optical understanding of the world has led to a spectatorial rather than participatory engagement with the environment. I venture to suggest that this shift can just as easily be applied to the plastic arts, in which over time the eye has dominated over the tactile, lingual, auditory, and olfactory sensations of pottery and ceramics. (Take time to smell your clay before you take it out of the bag!)

Sure, I’ve tapped my finger on the foot of a bowl or bottle to guess how thick or thin the piece is before trimming. And sure, I’ve recoiled as my trimming tool screeched like nails on a chalkboard as it chattered on a bone-dry ware. But how many among us have consciously listened for that subtle shift in music in our clay as we wedge, that “wet car tires on a rainy street sound” transitioning to “ wind hissing through dry oak leaves” as the plaster soaks up the excess moisture? Can you hear, just as much as you can feel, when you need more or less water during your pulling of cylinders? Have you noticed your vessel humming away as its hollow body amplifies the wheel’s electric vibration? It’s a pretty thrilling experience, and not unlike sensing the inaudible notes of the pipe organ that are felt in the cavities of the body rather than heard in the ears.

This week’s video segment is a meditation on the musicality and choreography of pottery. Filmed in 2016 in Tao Yao, eastern China, this brief documentary beautifully examines the ephemeral experience of sound in our dance with clay. I encourage you to keep tabs on just how many kinds of sounds you can gather from the film, all the while asking yourself, “What did I learn about the nature of the material that I didn’t know before?”

The next time you’re in the studio making a brand new piece, listen. In fact, close your eyes and just listen as you wedge or pull. Chances are you’ll hear your form awakening into being before your very ears.

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Shifts and Breakthroughs

The temperature is incrementally rising and dropping. Spring is figuring itself out. I observe this seasonal shift in my own practice as a potter, too; a change in seasons is typically a time of stripping processes down and meeting forms where they are, and meeting limits and breakthroughs where they are.  

In this spirit, I present to you the work of ceramist MacDonald Potter: 


“Utility was the thing that excited me the most about working in pottery, the fact that I could make things that people could use,” he says. Potter goes on to say, “….to share with [people] the idea this object has never existed in the history of mankind…” charges his thinking and doing. 

The fact that there are relatively few African-American potters in contemporary American life is a source of contemplation for Potter. For him, the opportunity to delve deeply into his cultural inheritances for inspiration has both rooted his work and given it traction in the private and public spheres of his artistic career.Embellishing familiar forms, especially plates, with African patterns and geometries urges his work in bilateral directions: back through the past, and into the present/future. Utility, familiarity, historicity: reference points that constellate Potter’s praxis, and offer us a glimpse of the sublime in the repetition of practiced forms and narratives. 

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Throw Thyself

Whether or not we make work in the image of ourselves has no place in our thinking, but rather if we recognize ourselves in our work. There is no line between. There is no maker and piece, no line between potter and pot. To see a distinction between the two is an investment in delusion. Thus, the work of a potter is not to throw pots, but to throw themselves, and participate in the awakening of forms; to pull the cork out of our mouths and decant.

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Let’s Play!

My students and I went to The Met Museum on a “field trip,” wandering their galleries in search of exquisitely baked vessels and sherds. Profoundly so, different pieces exercised different gravitational forces on each of us: some were drawn to the humblest of teapots from centuries ago, while others were grabbed by torqued abstractions made in more contemporary times. But as one pottery student said last night in the Korean gallery of The Met, “I need to play more [with clay], I just need to play more!”


Today’s sherd is inspired by the celadon ceramic flute from that Korean gallery. While its function was primarily decorative, clay has been put into the service of vibrating air to musical or ritualistic means: as drums, whistles, or otherwise. Here, from Peru, a few whistling water vessels: h

As you can imagine, the engineering and physics involved in these instruments, not to mention aesthetic and craftsmanship values, are outstanding.

If you’ve ever attempted to make a wind-instrument, you know that they can be particularly complex, even the simplest of designs.
I hope you enjoy this video.

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Impermanence

Today’s sherd travels to Kutch, India, to catch a glimpse traditional methods of pottery making, as it was in 1997. Interestingly enough, the author notes that upon her return to Kutch in 2010, many of these century-old traditions had been abandoned in favor of using plastic wares.


A number of times while watching this video, I found myself replaying various segments. You’ll see how the use of the pottery wheel is but only the beginning in the making of a vessel. One thrown, pots are pounded to further thin and expand the walls. Particularly interesting: trapping air inside the vessels to further pop out the belly or shoulder of the form.


“All potters in India make use of their sherds or broken pots…” For those of you who noticed that the brown clay we use is more granular than the buff clay, what you’re experiencing is the addition of grog. In a nutshell, grog is bisque-fired clay that has been ground down to a coarse “sand.” It lends strength to pottery and sculptural forms, making it easier to throw, while reducing shrinkage and “opening” the clay for more even evaporation. I sometimes add extra grog to my clay for those reasons, but also to amplify textural possibilities to the skin of the work. But here, I was excited to see another use for broken bisque/fired works: as insulation and structural support during the firing process.

Tibetan traditions in pottery sometimes make use of sherds as decorative elements in their newly thrown pieces–a physical expression of Buddhist philosophy exemplifying the notion of birth and rebirth, impermanence, and beauty in the imperfect. Here though, in Kutch, the practical and metaphorical dimensions of using that which is broken to create something new, is both lyrical and a model for sustainable living.

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Ontogenesis

This week’s sherd is a video from the Jewish Museum in London, focusing on three ceramists at work: Antonia Salmon, Ray Silverman, and Janet Haig. 


What you’ll see in this 14-minute video are three different approaches to creating ceramic work: press mold with Salmon; wheel throwing with Silverman; and coil/pinch pot making with Haig.

In all three approaches, attention to the vessel’s surface plays a significant role, revealing, concealing, or eschewing the artist’s mode of making. What I hope you’ll take away from watching this gem of a video is an appreciation for the number of methods out there for building not just form, but narrative possibilities.

Every mark, every curve, every undulation on your piece tells a story of its ontogenesis, of your relationship to the process and product, of your dance in time and space in relation to the form.

Auguste Elder

Also, integrating your strategies, from wheel to hand-building and everything between, ought to tease your imagination into a fevered pitch.
Enjoy this quiet film, and as always, throw well and prosper. 

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Relationships

Have I got a treat for you this week from Jingdezhen, China. Today’s sherd looks at what 500 kg can do when people work collaboratively: I watch this anytime 10 pounds of clay pushes me around too much. 

This is very relational work you are engaged in: how you touch, and how you leave the body of clay ought to be in your thinking, and eventually metabolized into choreography. 

Auguste Elder

A few things to look for while watching this:


1. Note how relatively little water these ceramists use in the making of this massive vat. This is a good practice to inculcate, especially as your forms begin to increase in size and complexity. Too little water, and you run the risk of torquing or deforming your works due to friction; too much water, and your vessels’ wall/shoulder strength weaken as the bonds between the microscopic shingles decay. Think on a microscopic level, where water molecules are really serving as miniature ball bearings. Listening to the clay as it transitions from dry to slippy, slippy to sticky; feeling out the temperature of your clay as it moves beneath your hands, from cool to warm/hot; responding to the plasticity of the walls as they thin out: these are all signals transmitted to the alert and practiced. 


2. Note that nearly every gesture and movement performed on the clay is assisted by more than one hand. Stability of the potter(s) allows the forms to emerge, however symmetrical or free-flowing the final piece. Think of your one hand providing emotional or moral support to the other as you center, pull, inflate, or collar. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. But

finding one’s center in relationship to the clay’s center allows the rest of the world to spin as it will. 

Auguste Elder


3. Intentionality of gesture. Introducing the hands/body to the clay, as well as releasing oneself from the clay is as important as shaping words or notes with the breath. This is very relational work you are engaged in: how you touch, and how you leave the body of clay ought to be in your thinking, and eventually metabolized into choreography. 

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