It's been two years now of "full-time pottery" work (in between taking up part time work at a ceramics gallery, life modelling and general life) and the same thoughts and phrases have come to mind when talking to others or just thinking to myself about pottery and clay.
These things feel universal yet also very intimately mine; my feelings and experiences which have been echoed back to me from others, potters and non-potters, or read in books that are 50 years old.
I find it incredibly humbling and spiritually nourishing thinking about using the earth that has been compressed and aged with layers and layers of carbon and evidence of life. It get's pretty existential. Using my hands to shape and create something new from mud that people could have walked on thousands of years ago, that is material made of living things, whose bacteria and moulds and pockets of air and water are a working micro environment... it's astoundingly complex but, simultaneously so simple, so basic and rustic; echoing a practise performed by humans for hundreds of years - tool making.
"There's something magical about holding an old pot" is repeated to me by so many customers who come into the ceramics gallery. To be able to pick up and place your fingers in the indentations and maker's marks in a pot from 300 years ago is such an acutely symbolic thing. Think 'stepping in someone else's shoes'. To think of the journey of the pot, the things it's held, the stories it's been witness to, the hands that have held it and passed it on and on and on, across borders and currencies and family thresholds. Pots and ceramic objects hold history in them as much as any other artefacts though often discounted as 'artefacts' due to their day-to-day uses.
Japan's crafts movement, resurgent in the early 20th Century, focused on the beauty of everyday things and the magic of the humble craftsperson's work; making something durable and beautiful, functional but with their own style, often born out of individual need and personal taste. That movement quickly spread and it was via the Leach family from St Ives, that the movement settled in Britain. It came at a time when mass production, particularly in ceramics, was booming in England's industrial North. The factories pumped out identical manufactured pieces that were seen in every home across the country. Both day-to-day objects and high-end expensive decorative ware which was still, identical to it's neighbour yet soaring in price, were being distributed globally.
Bernard Leach, imbued with Japan's ideal, directly opposed this manufactured beauty and style with the studio potter's hay day. Celebrating small batch, obviously hand-made, imperfectly perfect designs and details, it's this same principal that bore the maker's market explosion of the 21st century and the birth of sites such as Etsy and studio collectives which oftentimes can charge more than the original Stoke collectible manufactured pieces now.
All this to say, pottery's humanity, it's obvious 'imperfections' and the touch of human hands is intrinsic to it's value. I believe so anyway. When I'm at my markets, I often have people ask if they're allowed to touch the work or say they're nervous to pick bits up. I always say, pottery needs to be touched. It wants it. A pot has it's own little gravity force pulling you in. I'm a product toucher to a problematic degree - during covid times I found it nearly impossible to stop touching everything I saw in shops or at markets. I need to feel texture and hold things and when it's a glass jar or placemat or something very bland and innocuous, it's a bit weird, but with pottery it makes sense. The pots were made with the artist touching and marking and guiding their fingers and palms over every surface constantly, through every stage of the make. It makes sense then that you're drawn to do so too.
So, lesson 1 is that pots hold stories and history the way trees and clothes and walls do. Lesson 2, pick pots up. Hold them the way the artist did because they need it and they want it and it'll make your brain happy.
Lesson 3: clay has a mind of it's own. It's living, it's breathing - air seeps in and is pressed out, the bacteria and moulds living in it give it breath and plasticity. It has memory. It knows where it's been bent or stretched or compressed and will work it's way back to those shapes and behaviours. Clay talks to you, it shows you where it wants to go and will go where you tell it, sometimes. It can be forgiving and incredibly cruel. It'll lend you immense strength, but will teach you fine, delicate and sensitive touch. It'll teach you alchemy and it'll hide secrets from you too. Clay is a conversation that you think you have control of but you'll never really trust it. It can't give you reliability. Never take it's character for granted. Never stop marvelling at it.
I sound very spiritual talking about it, I know. It can be a bit much. But when it comes down to it, I really do think it's magical. Magical in that it's not just science... it's not just chemistry and physics, there's something else to it that people feel more than is 'normal' for an inanimate, cold, hard product. It's art and science and personality in one and I think that's why my brain and my hands are addicted to it above all other crafts I've tried.
This is all before glaze comes into it. Add in the magic of silica and mineral colours and you've got whole new worlds of texture and kaleidoscopic patterns and colours and reactions that just boggle. I'm very much at the beginning steps of understanding glaze - it's proper chemistry and if you didn't know, I dropped my science subjects to go to Uni and do interior design in my last year of schooling, so me and science, particularly chemistry and physics, aren't on good terms.
Fourth and final lesson is that I personally don't believe there's a wrong way to be a potter. There's a lot of art-world critiquing and hyperbole and hierarchy seeping into the world of ceramics, taking away from the initial 'beauty of everyday things'. It's understandable, sure, it's a moneymaking venture in a capitalist world where wealthy people are good at creating more wealth and keeping it in the upper classes. However, I believe ultimately that that's all B.S. and beautiful, moving, significant work is everywhere, being made by thousands and thousands of every day potters, trying things out at home and at their local classes and being inspired by thousands of little things and making small, stunningly beautiful little marks and shapes and moments with their clay. While some heritage pieces are valuable because of their stories and their legacy, maybe they're made better than Jane Doe's first attempt on the wheel, but the principle and the ethos and the beauty is still there - hands making objects from the earth beneath our feet, using heat and time to alchemically transform these things into objects of use and lasting durability? That's pottery.