What is?

Today’s sherd takes its cue not from a potter/ceramist, but from the iconoclastic Watazumi Doso Roshi: a shakuhachi (Japanese flute) priest. 

To me, music is not a fixed idea, it is not what you think it is… Music cannot be limited to one form…it is all around you if you listen carefully.

Watazumi Doso Roshi


Let us first look at the word “iconoclast.” It can have a somewhat violent or negative connotation, deriving from medical Latin: to break/destroy a likeness, as in to destroy idols, or religious beliefs. Watazumi was for a portion of his life a Zen priest, but eschewed its rigidity, not content, with the limited breath/movement to which it restricted its practitioners. He went on to develop his own methods and way 道, the Watazumi Way, or Watazumi-do, urging the playing of the shakuhachi back to its more raw, primordial states, with his unique breathing innovations.

So why Watazumi in this week’s Sherd? 
In our practice as potters and ceramists, we, myself included, can become restricted by our intentions and perceptions of what it is we’re trying to do. “I am here to make a mug,” or “I want to make a set of dishes” I often hear my students say. Having goals like these are important, and give us something towards which to drive…a concrete destination. In so doing, how often we limit our understanding of what a mug or plate is. And in so doing, how often we negate the process between impulse and end-point to get to where we think we should be. Replace the word “music” in Watazumi’s quote above with “mug,” or “dish,” or whatever it is you’re making, and see what emerges from that in your thinking.

The hippocampus, the little horse-like structure deep in the brain that contains our file cabinet of images/notions of the perceived universe, supplies us with what things look and behave like (or what it thinks things look and behave like). After all, it is getting its information from our senses, which are fallible to all sorts of lost-in-translations and distortions. I encounter the power and influence of the hippocampus all the time with my drawing students. Challenged to draw what they see before them, a live person or an apple, their hands almost always default to some outdated image stored in the hippocampus, rather than taking in a re-freshed view or experience of who or what is actually the same physical room as them. That is why they will draw an arm that optically is impossible to see from where they are sitting in relation to the model; the hippocampus says that an arm exists on the blind side of the body, therefore draw it. Fine. Frustration sets in quickly when the student looks at their drawing, only to realize that it “looks nothing like the person or object.” Rather than supply any number of validations for why the drawing is still valid, we’re focusing on the frustration for now: what is the source of frustration. 

Frustration in ceramics is often the outcome of the dissonance between what we think a thing should be, and what it is. And in so doing, we don’t see what is before us…only an imperfect shadow beneath the overlay image supplied by our hippocampus. Remove the overlay, or set it aside temporarily, and what remains is an opening, an invitation to the unfamiliar. How scary and exciting!

In working towards any form in the ceramic studio, keep a few things in mind:

1. Your mind’s file-cabinet is full of expired material; don’t get stuck in its old ways. 
2. Your mind’s file-cabinet is informed by other people’s expired file-cabinets; don’t get stuck in their old ways. 
3. The mind leans on rigidity for reassurance, but develops strength from flexibility; don’t get stuck on the rigid. 
4. Examine your file-cabinet’s contents, and challenge yourself to question why you see the mug you do in your mind…where did that image come from?
5. Practice conventional forms until they become second nature so that your nature can overtake the convention; don’t get stuck in convention or innovation. 
6. The clay that accumulates on your hands is the vessel you are striving towards; don’t get stuck with what’s on the wheel. 
7. The drainpipe in the studio contains as much of your work as what comes out of the kiln; don’t get stuck with what emerges from the kiln. 
8. Destroy your icons lovingly; from the rubble emerges your material…don’t get stuck in the unbroken. 
9. Notice, rather than react to what’s happening on your wheel; reactions are ready-made responses stored in the file-cabinet…noticing takes openness.
10. Fill in your own tenth point and dump my contents.

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Shiny Traditions

This is a return to the San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez. I was just talking with a ClayHouse ceramist last Thursday about the merits of burnishing one’s wares: Maria Martinez came to mind.

The art of compressing and smoothing the surface of pottery with a smooth stone, back of a spoon, or even with the palm of one’s hand, has aesthetic and practical implications. When low firing burnished wares, they often retain their smooth polished surface; when mid/high firing wares as we do at ClayHouse, the effect can be more subtle, like a satin finish.

Aesthetically, burnishing speaks to the eyes and hands of the beholder: shiny surfaces optically reveal their undulations and planes somewhat dramatically; they also have a satisfying tactile quality that encourages interaction with a piece. On a practical level, burnishing used to help low-fired wares retain their liquids more effectively by “sealing in” the surface of the vessel more tightly. These days, it’s usually for aesthetic reasons we might take a stone to the skin of the vessel. 

The documentary on Maria Martinez is on the longer side, and is an historic recording, prone to all the cultural distortions of its time period. What I hope emerges, though, is a sense of the value in methodical practice as it applies to supporting tradition and developing innovation. Her life’s story is one of persistence, acclaim, tragedy, and transcendence; look her up, seek her work out, enter into a dialog with this incredible artist. 

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