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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Be in conversation with your self, your materials, your process, one and all. And welcome the off-centered moments in your life, of which there are and will be many, into your work: in that axis is your praxis. 

Auguste Elder

As we begin a new equinox, I think about circularities and rotation. I was in conversation just yesterday with a ClayHouse potter who noticed, during my demonstration on how to throw a vase from a cylinder, that my clay was not perfectly centered on the wheel. He was correct, perhaps more correct than he may have realized. While the top two-thirds of the clay was centered the bottom, near the bat, was a little off.

Every potter allows for a certain “tolerance” of imbalance in their work flow. Some, like myself, though I am not alone in this, invite the imbalance to varying degrees. I think of what musician Jack White spoke about in the documentary film, “It Might Get Loud.” His preference for playing cheaper model guitars with bent necks and wonky construction gives him the opportunity to wrestle with the instrument on stage, and lend additional energy and character, or what I like to call “signature”, into his musicianship. 

Some days I walk like a giant (at 5’5″), and some days a dry leaf on the sidewalk throws me off my path. Paying attention and welcoming these variances in our stride offers a tremolo note to an otherwise straight-lined, flat intention. Some days I am more centered than others; some days I am vibrant, others dim. 

In what is often called “honesty” in pottery, the ceramist’s ability to record their vitals in the piece(s) of the day is something to give serious thought to in one’s work. The day I gave my demo, I knew a few things: 
-the clay I was using was stiffer than usual,
-my body was more tired and achy than usual for a number of earthly, human reasons,
-with my particular experience and skill level, I knew I could work with a degree of wobble in clay and still urge into being a satisfying piece.

The latter point extends well beyond the potter’s wheel, and into every corner of our lives.

Working with, rather than against, the conditions of the day and body is an opportunity to know oneself and our fluctuating limits, and to make something from that place, that time: to meet the materiality of the clay and body somewhere in the middle is to record your life in your work.

Auguste Elder

Today’s video-clip is short and poignant: Hiromi Wake’s rotating vase with intentional asymmetry, conjuring the illusion of two faces in conversation: look more at the negative/empty space to see the “conversation.” 

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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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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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The collaborative work of Pueblo potters Maria Martinez and her husband Julian Martinez.

Their story is an interesting one, as it was an archeological dig near their home of San Ildefonso, New Mexico that sparked the resuscitation and expansion of a traditional form. Maria would hand-build/coil her wares, their grandchildren would then burnish them with smooth stones, and Julian would paint the designs. Their works are world renowned for the shiny black pots native to the region: a surface quality resulting from firing the wares in a densely smokey reduction that trapped the carbon into the clay.   

One of these days, what I did, what you are doing, what we are doing, will be important.

Maria Martinez to her grandchildren

Carry that thought into your practice, for you know my stance well: that pottery is evidence of our endeavors. And it’s interesting that most of the clay we use in studios has been recycled, likely more than once. The next piece you toss into the recycling canister will become someone else’s revelation. The piece you carry out of the studio is the product of many other’s learning process. Each piece contains in it the effort, joy, frustration, learning, hopes, and do-overs of those who’ve come before you to the wheel. What they did, what you are doing is important, a circle with no beginning or end: as your wheel spins, so do we.

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Today, I want to introduce the art of KINTSUGI.

Translated from Japanese to English, we get 金継ぎ, meaning “golden joinery/repair.

Kintsugi is a process of repairing broken ceramics using urushi and 24 kt gold dust. The repairs are evident rather than hidden, drawing attention to the fractures. Like pottery itself, it is an art form that takes much practice and trial and error.

On a philosophical level, kintsugi embraces the broken, acknowledging that nothing in this world is perfect, that fractures are intrinsic marks of existence and impermanence. But why use gold to fill in fractures? Watch this video, and enjoy.

And why did I chose this particular concept to share? More or less, I ask each of us to examine what it is that brings us to shape and collaborate with clay. Whether you come to the wheel or hand-building table to add a little beauty to your home, to work relaxation into your day or week, to learn something new, to participate in an ancient art form, or for something more personal, the form that emerges before you is but one part of a larger continuum.

For every crooked handle you pull, or wonky pot you try to center, or tumbler that decides to take a tumble off the bat, there is beauty to be found in the evidence of these endeavors, however unexpected or frustrating they may be in the moment.

Auguste Elder

These mishaps or scars are narrative potentialities. At the very least they reveal where and what your hands were doing in relationship to gravity. On the other end of the spectrum, these bumps and chips, warps and cracks, they reveal a more essential quality of being predicated on the all unifying notion that change is inevitable. A little gold dust to soften the blow of a fall; now isn’t that a most gentle appreciation for that which we try so hard to hide or negate.  

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One also has to keep in mind that progress sometimes looks like mishaps, mistakes, faults, and disappointments. 

Auguste Elder

Mentioning this as I toss a new piece of mine into the recycling bin due to S-cracking: a hand-built pinch pot made at my home studio. How we respond to outcomes that differ from our expectations is at the heart of the pottery process, for as much as we shape the clay, it exponentially shapes us more so.

The first video I’d like to send you is a 16-minute glimpse into master ceramist Ken Matsuzaki’s process, from Japan:

You’ll notice a few things while watching him work:

-He spiral-wedges his initial ball of clay…this is helpful for working with larger amounts, and is a traditional way of wedging in parts of Asia and the west.

 -He’s “throwing off the hump,” meaning, he’s making a number of pieces from one large hump (mound) of clay…a method used by many studio/production potters to save time and effort.

-Asymmetry is treasured for its naturalness and surprises…just watch how he removes and places the first cup at 3:45 on the board.

 -Note the speed of his kick-wheel (non-electric).

-Note how little water he uses in the throwing of his pieces…and he’s not even wearing an apron! Very little mess indicates an economy of interaction with the material (plus years of experience).

 -For our lefties (hand orientation, that is), note which direction his wheel spins: traditional direction in Japan. His hand gestures reflect the direction of the wheel’s turn. 

Enjoy, and keep up the good work of making mistakes meaningful. 

Auguste Elder

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