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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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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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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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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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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Ruminating on the intimate connection between making wares, and who will use them, I thought of ceramist John Christie from Scotland, and his process.

This is made for you by another person…it’s not made by a machine.

John Christie

His work is modest, and fully intended to be functional and practical, especially in the context of food preparation and presentation. He speaks plainly about not making works that distinguish him from others, but reveal his similarities to those who’ve come before him. He strikes me as a “show up to work and work” kind of person, rather than reinvent the wheel and run. 

As time goes on, you benefit from the disasters that you experience.

John Christie

Again, further validation for the notion that all of us, myself included, learn by doing: in particular, we learn through mistake making. Push the clay and form past the point of no return in your learning process. Eventually you will metabolize it and your ever-changing limits, and meet somewhere in the middle with a piece or two. 

Another reason I wanted to share this video is that we gain a privileged glimpse into watching Christie fire his wood kiln. “We’re not really masters of the kiln…the kiln is the master.” He fires for 28-hours straight, and makes a variety of ash glazes sourced from materials nearby his studio. 
A most gratifying moment is towards the end as we see him pull one of his finished baking dishes (the clay of which came from a mile away) out of the oven with a delicious crumble baked by a local chef using local ingredients. What a challenge that would be to do here in NYC, but no less a point to ponder: where do our materials and ingredients come from?
“The best of my pots have a message for the person using them.” 
And my message to you is to keep your hands happily immersed in clay.

Happy hands make for happy hearts. 

Auguste Elder
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It’s not difficult to imagine how important the harnessing of fire and clay has been to the development of clans, societies, and cultures.

Today we examine a potter who uses local clay gathered, processed, formed, and fired in-situ:

Look around you at this very moment, and if you’re near a window, you’ll likely have within view the countless bricks that constitute a majority of our urban structures. Let us not forget that bricks are essentially low-fired clay: clay dug up, processed, formed, and fired from other states, imported to our archipelago.

Manhattan and Brooklyn, in fact, have abundant clay supplies…buried beneath our concrete streets. Construction sites yield some of these original, geological and glacial deposits: deposits that 17th century Dutch potters used in the making of New Amsterdam’s house wares, storage containers, clay water pipes, and roof tiles. Chelsea was once a pond and an active clay site. Beneath the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, it too was one of the first European settler/potter’s source of clay. Beneath the Jefferson Market Library in the West Village, vestiges of the Minetta Creek (for which nearby Minetta Lane is named) still pools underground; where there’s a creek, there’s usually clay.

Next time you’re out camping and have access to clay and a camp fire, give it a shot: make a few pinch pots and fire them up. Just don’t attempt that in a national park: collecting or manipulating natural resources on park grounds is very illegal. Take it from me: a former Badlands National Park park ranger. 

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