Chris Staley
Artist Educator

The Challenge of Making Pots at a University

by Chris Staley

Where does one go to learn how to make good pottery? This is a question without an easy answer. Bernard Leach wrote the following in the seminal chapter "Towards a Standard" of A Potter's Book: "So far as pottery is concerned, school training is a doubtful method in any case." I read this many years ago as a student and I have thought about it off and on ever since.

With the 21st century just around the corner, today's potter lives in the most perplexing time in the history of pottery. Potters now can dig their clay from the earth, and then have their pots digitally scanned and put on a CC-ROM for exhibitions. They can sell a cup for $8 out of their studio or for $4000 out of a New York City gallery. They can fire a small computerized electric kiln or a huge traditional wood-burning agama. Potters today also have the opportunity to read ceramics periodicals, and attend conferences and slide lectures. Despite the breadth of these possibilities, when I am asked, "Where are some good places to learn how to make quality pots" the answers don't come as readily as one would hope.

Before I proceed, I would like to clarify some distinctions about pottery concepts. One has to choose one's words carefully. For example, functional pots can be interpreted as existing for the sole function of being an aesthetic object to be viewed.

When I use the term "functional potter" or simply "pottery," I am making reference to the pos that are used in the daily rituals of cooking and eating. Pots that are made solely for visual experience are commonly referred to as "vessels" or what I sometimes call "pedestal pots."

One of the most significant questions a potter must address when making pots is: Where do I want my pots to end up? Do I want them to be used every day in the kitchen, or in the living room to be viewed solely as aesthetic objects, or do I want to make both types of pots? Clarifying this issue is important because it enables potters to more consciously capture their thoughts and feelings in their work.

Such issues need to be addressed in the contemporary ceramics classroom as well. Students who want to make functional pottery need to be supported and intellectually nurtured in order to sustain their desire to create pots. Yet university students who make functional pots are often under siege. Recently, a student of mine was asked by a friend, a painting major, "Why do you want to make bowls? That's not art. Don't you have anything personal to say?"

Perhaps this prejudice toward functional pottery is perpetuated by the ceramics faculty as well. All too often, ceramics students who want to make utilitarian pots receive no genuine encouragement from their instructors.

There are a number of complex reasons for this apparent lack of commitment to functional pottery. One is the university tenure system of "publish or perish." For artists-teachers, this conditional system often means exhibiting work in galleries that promote one-of-a-kind pieces, not affordable functional pots. Consequently, a large portion of university ceramics teachers make pedestal pots or ceramic sculptures to accommodate this system. Emulating their teachers, students often produce the same type of work.

Another reason for the lack of commitment to functional pottery is that ceramics teachers often come from a modernist educational pedagogy where the mystery of the avant-garde prevails. In other words, the work is primarily judged by its novelty. Often the claywork being made according to this criterion is furthest removed from the "taproot" of ceramic art, which at its essence is functional pottery and the clay figure. Frankly, the work being done in ceramics departments is often third-rate sculpture.

Too frequently, ceramic sculpture is marginalized within the narrow context of its own microcosm and excluded fro the sculpture world at large. The question should be asked, "How does ceramic sculpture relate to contemporary sculpture in general and to the work of such artists as Louise Bourgeois, Andy Goldsworthy.

The fact is that it takes an incredible amount of creativity and commitment to make functional pots that add something to the remarkable history of pottery making. and Bruce Nauman?" Sculpture is sculpture in this case, and by definition, an artist's ideas can transcend the medium.

When artists/craftsperson's decide to make functional pottery, heir pots are enhanced if their decisions are based on thoughtful and philosophical reflections. Thus, when the potter has such convictions these, in essence, are "fired" into the pots. On occasion, the pots will possess what Garcia Lorca refers to as duende, which means the "soul of the maker." The fact is that it takes an incredible amount of creativity and commitment to make functional pots that add something o the remarkable history of pottery making.

Functional pots are amazingly complex in regard of what makes some special and others either mundane or insipid. The idea "God is in the details" seems most appropriate when viewing pots. It suggests that there is "always more there than meets the eye." There are many aspects of a pot that the potter must become aware of to understand the vernacular of pottery. For example, all aspects of the form's anatomy--the lip, handle, spout, foot and shoulder-are crucial to the end result. Then, there is the skin of the pot-its texture, color, opaqueness/transparency and imagery.

In his book Ceramics, Philip Rawson uses the phrase "memory-traces" to explain how aspects of pottery can be metaphorical. He writes: "It is in the realm of these submerged memory-traces that creative art moves, bringing them into the orbit of everyday life and making them available to the experience of others by formalizing and projecting them on to elements of the familiar world. From the artist's side the projection is done by his activity in shaping and forming. From the spectator's side it must be done by active 'reading' of the artist's form." However, functional pots ultimately become fully realized through the activity of their use. In essence, a functional pot that is not used cannot fulfill its intended purpose and thus is difficult to appreciate. This presents a paradox for the potter because much of the contemporary pottery is represented through slides and photographs. Ergonomics, the study of how the hand interacts with objects, is an essential element when experiencing pots. Touch is one of the most powerful ways in which we experience the world. Consequently, daily rituals, such as eating and drinking and, for that matter, making and using things with our hands, are essential aspects of living and fulfilling our lives.

The pottery of ancient cultures is staggering in its richness of spirit and ability to convey the soul of the people who made and used them. In looking at the Mimbres pottery, for example, one can grasp the significance of their ability to integrate their way of life into their bowls. When the Membres saw lightning in the sky and were able to convey their reverence for such mysteries of nature in their pottery with the use of a yucca brush and iron-bearing oxides, the power of the resulting image is, and continues to be, humbling. As potters, we owe it to our tradition to educate ourselves and learn from our predecessors. One of the most important things we can do to help ourselves become better potters is to look at historical pots.

At the same time, the more we look and become inspired by the world in which we live, the more vital our work will be. Unfortunately, potters can be creatures of habit -they must be careful to avoid mindless repetition, which can be deadening to the work. To keep the rhythms of pottery making vital, it is important that, as the potter changes, so too should the pots. In essence, potters are as good as their sources.

These sources are divers. They can be anything from seashells to Marxist theory to junk found at the local dump-anything to which we feel connected or drawn. I find that the most compelling pottery continues to raise questions and to elicit new interpretations even after years of living with it. This is one reason why I feel compelled to continue making pots.

I remember feeling apologetic and inadequate in graduate school for not being able to articulate my purpose for making pots. In hindsight, this was positive because I was being challenged by my professors to consider and justify my intent as a potter. As in life, when you find answers, there are new questions to be asked.

Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake claims that human beings are genetically predisposed to making things with their hands as well as participatingin rituals. In the April/May 1995 issue of American Craft, she writes: "Making is not only pleasurable, but meaningful -indeed it is because it is meaningful that it is pleasurable, like other meaningful things: food, friends, rest, sex, babies and children, and useful work are pleasurable because they are necessary to our survival as individuals and as a species."

Touch is one of the most powerful ways in which we experience the world. Consequently, daily rituals, such as eating and drinking and, for that matter, making and using things with our hands, are essential aspects of living and fulfilling our lives.

The craft of pottery making demands a great deal from the individual. Learning to center, for example, is only the beginning. Forming, trimming, glazing and firing are also important. Mastering these steps also influences potters' understanding, sensitivity and patience. Thus, when individuals study pottery making, they also learn about themselves. Accordingly, in An Art of Our Own, author Roger Lipsey states: "Craftspeople tend to understand that excellence requires patient application over many years. They do not expect a great deal until the person and the technique have matured together."

Much of life is about asking questions and searching for meaning. Yet in the end, it is the search itself that is meaningful. Thus, the more insightful the questions being asked, the richer one's life becomes. In a significant way, this journey for many people begins with a lump of clay.

Where can one go to learn how to make quality pottery? There are some notable studio potters, such as John Glick and Clary Illian, who take on apprentices, yet many of America's top potters are unwilling or unable to take on this responsibility. The summer craft schools have done a great service in educating our nation's potters because they attract guest potters like Glick and Illian. However, the vast majority of our nation's neophyte potters still look to colleges and universities for their education.

The colleges and universities with ceramics departments that teach functional pottery, however, are few and far between. For American pottery to remain a force in American culture, we need college and university ceramics programs that embrace the virtues of making functional pottery.

The challenge for teachers of pottery in college and universities is formidable. As teachers, we need to be many things-a craftsperson, artist, philosopher, historian, sociologist, technician and ultimately, a student. The best teachers and artists are those who are enthralled with learning. I have had the good fortune to learn from a circle of exceptional pottery teachers myself. It is my hope that for others this circle-of-spirit will continue to grow. To create quality pottery that continues this 10,000 year-old tradition is a noble and worthy undertaking.

The author Chris Staley is head of ceramics at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Published in Ceramics Monthly, February 1996