“Anatomy of a cheating heart: The story of my thieving ways”. I have just decided that this will be the title of my autobiography, should one ever get written.
OK. So I was in the studio the other day and I decided to go ahead with a project I had been mulling over for about a week. Now, after the fact of having made the pieces, I have a bit of perspective on how I got where I ended up. I can look back and see what my motivations were, what my inspirations were, and what things influenced the final outcome. As I was making the pots most of this stuff was far in the background of my unconsciousness. And what might have looked like sheer coincidence or spur of the moment decision making turns out to mostly be the result of deeper foundations that were being disguised by a lack of active focus. An interesting case study of some of the issues I was talking about in my post last week concerning ‘close encounters’.
My project had its immediate genesis in a small black and white photo from one of the old 1980’s Ceramics Monthly magazines I had been rereading over the last few months. I can’t seem to locate the image now (after having gone back through everything I thought I had looked at twice over), I just remember that it was a small pitcher/creamer/gravy boat that had a thrown side handle. One small glimpse weeks ago. Maybe 5 seconds of partial mental focus as I was passing through the pages. At the time I saw it I thought “kind of neat!” but didn’t give it any special attention. But it was now there in the background of my source material, ready to be called upon if necessary. So, as I said, I didn’t give it much thought at the time and went on with my normal routines and creative endeavors.
Then last week as I was teaching my “thrown and altered” class one of my students suggested something that eventually became a thread of tangent to this otherwise unrelated idea. We were making triangulated bowl-like forms, and my student suggested that she turn hers into a small creamer. Crash of thunder, lightning shattering the heavens. “Well why not?” I agreed. Her inclination was to put the spout on the corner, but I had seen Sequoia Miller’s boxy pitchers with spouts on the flat wall, and I thought this was even more promising.
Fast forward a week, and I’m in the studio on my own time and finally getting to some of those projects that have been percolating for a while. First up was the straightforward gravy boat with side handle. Although I couldn’t remember much in the way of detail, that wasn’t important. I wasn’t interested in copying a shape as much as I was intrigued by an idea. So how would I do this side handled spouted vessel? This is one of the ones I came up with:
But exactly how did I get there? It seems simple enough: You make a decision and then you just do it. The truth is actually a bit more complicated: Rarely do you build entirely from scratch. Mostly you build with the building blocks you have already worked on for some time. The decision may have the appearance of spontaneity, but the way it gets carried out combines a string of antecedents that can stretch way back. So what are some of these ingredients in how I made this pot? Well, I had been looking at splayed ‘feet’ for years. This bowl of George McCauley has been in my kitchen since the 90’s.
I had only made a few stabs at this kind of ‘foot’ treatment over the years, but recently I had become more serious about it. Last year when Jim Gottuso posted pictures of his sherbet bowls I was fascinated by the idea.
I had done my own spin on the idea, first as this:
and then more recently as this:
And of course side handles were nothing new. I have lived with side handled Michael Simon teapots since the early 90’s,
and I’ve made some side handled soup bowls over the past few years.
But I might never have got that project off the ground if I hadn’t unloaded a Brooke Cassady side handled footed sauce bowl from a wood kiln we were firing a few years ago. I acknowledge that as the start of my own interest in making the form. This one is a more straightforward rip-off of the pot I saw, but to put things in even clearer perspective, I believe Brooke’s pot was something she made in a workshop and that the pot itself was already highly derivative (When things are bleeding from one source to the next so easily how can we hope to keep an ultimate accounting of originality?). Here is one of my first takes on the idea:
So that is one tangent that formed a line of evolution towards my new side handled gravy boat. I made five bodies to experiment with, and then threw seven handles to pick from for attachments. As it turns out I had also made five of the triangular creamers with no intention of ‘handling’ them. But then I had two extra handles left over…. Why not find out what those ones look like with the handles? You could say with some credibility that I just stole some one detail off the production line of another pot and glommed it onto a new one (Can’t even trust myself to keep my hands off my own ideas! See what happens when you’ve got a thievin’ heart? You end up stealing from anywhere and everywhere.). So here’s the other direction I took things:
This tangent of the triangular version has its own roots. First off, the technique of altering the bottom was something I picked up from a Ron Philbeck video (“Altered baker”) from his blog last year. He credits the technique to Kari Radasch, so neither of us can exactly claim proprietorship.
The triangularity is nothing new, so I won’t even bother claiming credit for that. The hardish edges are a detail I have long looked at from all the Michael Simon pots in my world, my love of Sequoia Miller’s take on these ideas, and I’m sure others as well. The technique I used was a bit different from their use of paddling and owes more to my dear potter friend Brooks Burgess who just passed away earlier this year.
The flavor of my rib/throwing marks is clearly nothing original to me. My heritage from Ron Meyers to Michael Simon to Linda Christianson seems pretty obvious to me, not so much as line for line replication but genetic indebtedness.
The cut off wire is something a teenage student named Destiny makes at the place I teach at [She was selling them for $5 (I understand the price has gone up), and so I didn't 'steal' this one I actually paid for it]. The saw cut off mark I stole from my friend Jim Peckham. And the spout is an amalgam of what I learned (stole) from studying many pitchers over the years. Credit goes to Michael Simon, Sandy Simon, Andy Nasisse, Carey MacDonald and countless others who have influenced me.
The point of all this is that the only thing I can really lay claim to on all of this is the stamp I put there.
How funny is that! Details that are all ‘stolen’ from somewhere else get to have my stamp on them as my only truly original contribution. On a very self conscious level I find this situation absolutely hilarious! And I guess this is really only because we (myself included, unless I’m thinking specifically about it) ignore it so often. All this influential stuff is out there, surrounding us, infusing our ideas at deep foundational levels, providing the building blocks of our growth and evolution, and we cling to the psychological impulse to believe that all the important things we say and do are being pulled from the maw of creation as purely our own. We imagine that these newly minted things are fundamentally and independently original.
But isn’t it interesting that even these old words have been dragged around the human universe for centuries? And every speaker of the English language can use them in ways that the words are also components of original thought? So the point behind the point is that the details are things we can’t depend on inventing ourselves: Its the way we put them together that counts as ours. Its like cooking a meal with the ingredients we get shopping where everyone else shops. Or using the words we all have to use instead of always creating new words that no one else has used before. And concert pianists actually get paid to render, note for note, the works of other artists, and sometimes we praise their ‘interpretations’ as highly ‘original’. We can’t always invent the ingredients but we can put them together in ways that are better or are worse, unique or common, unexpected and revealing or predictable and unchallenging. That seems to be the outstanding fact of a human life: In the very depths of our beating hearts and pulsing veins we are forever and without question cannibals of ideas and robbers of any ingredient that isn’t nailed down.
Two quick quotations to wind things up:
“If an artist may say nothing except what he has invented by his own sole efforts, it stands to reason he will be poor in ideas. If he could take what he wants wherever he could find it, as Euripides and Dante and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Bach were free, his larder would always be full, and his cookery might be worth tasting.
— R G Collingwood
“It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
— Jean-Luc Godard
Happy potting all!