This Pot is here, and I am the Potter who was.

George Orh. The Mad Potter of Biloxi

This line of his, impressed upon the walls of the museum, says it all for me. How true, and how fitting that a clay vessel should stand for where and who we were. I have yet to make the pilgrimage to Bolixi to visit his museum, which is shared with the collection of artist, Georgia O’Keefe…two iconoclasts under one Frank Gehry warped roof:  

The self-professed “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” George Ohr’s work and life are an inseparable amalgam of person, place, time, and endeavor. He is considered by most to be America’s first studio potter, and was responsible for every phase of his works’ ontogenesis: digging and processing of the clay, production of pieces, glazing, firing, and marketing. His forms are most often noted for their torqued, feather-light bodies, flamboyant handles, and experimental glazes. Working primarily during the Victorian era, his work was a virtual temporal displacement, and could have easily been made in the 1950s or 60s…100 years ahead of its time. As such, he was largely an anomaly, and not quite appreciated in his lifetime, though he was by all means a prolific and successful artisan.

There is also something quite mythic about how Ohr metamorphized from the somewhat conventional to the experimental via his studio accidentally burning down: a phoenix of sorts.

The very notion of fire transforming both the pots and the potter is not something that is lost on this author, and is a theme I certainly return to again and again as we work together: how the clay shapes us as much, if not more than we shape it.

If you take anything from Ohr’s praxis, let this be close to the core: play, experimentation, embracing the unplanned, and obsession are powerful agents for deep learning.

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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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Beatrice Wood had infectious laughter. She lived to be 105 years old and attributed her longevity to “young men and chocolates.”

Once, I overheard a colleague of mine talking to his students when sharing Wood’s work with them. He was remarking how recognizable her work is, the characteristic dance in the arms of the handles and necks. His advice to his students, in this light, was that if you can recognize your work in progress on the shelf without having to turn it over to look at the initials underneath, you know you’re doing something right.

Curiosity is involved…and I’m madly curious

Beatrice Wood

Listen for her message at the end of the 8-minute video for further elucidation!

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Unplanned Forms

Today’s video looks at Hawaiian-born ceramist Toshiko Takaezu. Her work is simultaneously intimate and monumental, mostly employing hand-built methods of vessel making:

In the film, she says, “You make a piece that you don’t have planned…and then when you see it, something happens, and it looks as though you have to go into another direction because this thing happened.” 
The perl resides in being awake to see what the form awakens to.

In a lump of clay we believe we are shaping it, when in fact, it is shaping us.

Auguste Elder

Be alert to those emerging narratives swelling from the clay, and your intersection with it.

I was also surprised to see my college poetry professor Stephen Berg in this film. He lends beautiful insights into the relationship between timelessness and forms. 

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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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