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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Utilitarian

A small sherd to share with you: potter Warren Mackenzie has passed away at the age of 94. He was something of a potter’s potter, who focused on the utilitarian, deriving great pleasure from the fact that his works were meant to be used rather than collected. He studied under Bernard Leach, and was very influenced by Korean and Japanese pottery and potters, eschewing the flashy for the naturalistic and practical. I’ll let this 10-minute PBS documentary on Mackenzie speak for himself…. 

https://www.pbs.org/video/Warren-Mackenzie-577512H-2/

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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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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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Subtraction and Absence

In searching for informative and inspirational sherds to share with you, I’m always astounded by just how much information there is at our fingertips. More so, I am always reminded just how generous potters/ceramists can be in sharing their hard-earned knowledge with the rest of us. Jennifer McCurdy is exemplary of this spirit: not only does she lend insight into her process and product, but she shapes our thinking around what is possible on the potter’s wheel:


In examining McCurdy’s work, I am reminded that the wheel is something of a bridge rather than a dead end. How often have I wired a piece off the bat and thought, “I’m done,” and gone on to make another, and another piece. The wheel, especially when read metaphorically, gets us from one place to another with great efficiency.

In the case of McCurdy, when the wheel stops spinning, her hands continue to search out and influence the form. Hers is largely a subtractive process: one of removing planes and mass to reveal the wild within: capillaries, thorns, roots, spikes, ribs, atoms, circulation, convection, force, and repose. 
You’ll hear McCurdy mention “plasticity” a number of times when referring to the clay’s ability to respond to touch and pressure. At multiple stages of the clay’s evaporation process exist opportunities that she seizes upon to influence and follow the shape in different ways. She even capitalizes on the clay’s tendency to shift and slump during the firing as her final chance to exploit the medium’s malleability. 

If you don’t have time to watch the video, do give her website a visit.

One more thought. Some of you may be familiar with the terms “positive space” and “negative space.” In short, positive space refers to the space that objects occupy; negative space refers to the inverse, namely the holes, indentions, hollows, and pass-throughs of an object.

McCurdy’s work is a celebration of those diametrically interdependent forces.

Where there is absence of form, form is defined.

Auguste Elder

Think about that the next time you work on a vessel or plate/platter, and remember that your work is as much about what you have removed as it is about what remains. Music, text, theater, health, relationships…all follow this principle of presence through absence, absence through presence. 

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Centered

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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