My pots for a song


“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I have pondered how I can help art and creativity become more the norm than the exception in our culture, and I have to agree with de Saint-Exupéry: We need to teach folks to long for the endless immensity of creativity and art. And the best path in that direction that I can see is for us to get kids involved. And the only way kids will take it seriously is if we prepare the way by showing them that what they do creatively does matter, and does have a respected place in our world, and especially in their world.

To this end I have come up with an idea for engaging kids in this conversation. For years now I have been offering smaller sized pots to kids for half off the adult price, and this at least puts real art in their hands and in their lives. That’s part of the discussion, at least, and they get the chance to grow up loving handmade beauty and using functional pots in their daily lives. But nothing makes the case like their own creativity. Here’s what I’ve come up with to put that into the conversation too:

I make ornaments for the holidays and they are always a hit with the kids. This year I have a special offer. This is my message to the kids at my sale:

Kids can get them for a song!

This season I want to make an ornament available in
trade with kids who are willing to share a few verses
of a song, tell me a story, either made up on the spot
or from among your favorites, or draw me a picture of
something your imagination comes up with. I want to
help you feel that your creativity has real value in the
world and that the world has a place for doing creative
things. I want to make this a trade because I want to
honor your creativity but also your generosity. The
world needs more creative acts freely given, because
these things matter. I hope you continue to express
yourselves creatively throughout your lives.

Thank you for sharing!


When I shared this on facebook last week the post went as nearly viral as anything I’ve ever written. Parents seemed to love the idea. And yesterday I had my first visitors to take advantage of the trade offer! Sage, who is 10, drew me this picture, and Azalea, her 5 year old sister, sang me a verse from ‘Jingle bells’ three times :) It was beyond precious! If this is how its going to work out I will count it every bit a success :)


Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 1 Comment

I could have been a farmer

3am artist

As I’m gearing up for the holiday sales (starting the weekend after Thanksgiving, Yikes!) I have discovered a rhythm that seems to have more to do with waking up before sunrise and milking cows than my normal studio practice. I found out that if I can get my kiln fired by mid afternoon it can cool enough to unload late next afternoon, I have a chance to digest new information, sleep on it, and then wake back up and repeat the process…. Which means I have to be up between 3 and 5am to get the ball rolling.

I have also discovered that I really LIKE being up that early and getting all sorts of work done before I’ve even had my coffee or breakfast. I really think I could have been a farmer. With just the outdoor cats to keep me company and the stillness of the world at that hour its some of the most pleasant and relaxing time I have spent recently. Of course I am exhausted by the end of the day, and am lucky if I can stay awake past 9pm, but it seems to be working otherwise. :)

Here are some pots from two of the recent firings. I’ve got another load heating up and possibly two or three more kilns to fire before I’m in the clear, but so far so good!

DSCN4920 DSCN4927

Peace all!


Posted in Art, Ceramics, Pottery | 2 Comments

Responding to Tom Sutcliffe on The Great Pottery Throw Down

A friend and stellar student of mine shared an article on fb from the Guardian and asked me what I thought of this quote:

“Pottery, rather literally, brings the philosophy of beauty down to earth and lets you turn it in your hands.”

Definitely stuff I have been thinking about, and I let out a rambling response to the whole Tom Sutcliffe article:

I thought this ending quote was also interesting: “Pottery’s idea of what is precious is the least precious of all the art forms. This is sculpture you can, and should, use. It’s at its most alive in the hands of makers who prefer the sturdy, slip-splashed title of potter to that of artist, and at its most cherished on an ordinary sideboard in Leeds.” And while this humility is certainly a part of what draws many folks both to making pots and appreciating them, it focuses too much on a questionable distinction between that humble quality and what makes other things art. People hang paintings in humble private homes just as much as they stash pottery on shelves and sideboards. Humility is not a razor that separates art from non-art, and neither is what we can or cannot do with these things in our hands. But the great thing about pots is that they DO (sometimes) belong in people’s hands. They DO (often) belong on the table at mealtime. This, at least, is their potential. Its a unique advantage that pots and meals go together which opens up a possibility of aesthetic experience that for much other art experience gets cordoned off behind glass cases and velvet ropes in museums and galleries. That physical separation is not what it means to be art. Using pots doesn’t make pottery not-art. Rather, it extends the things that art is responsible for doing in the world. Its not just passive contemplation but interaction AND participation.

There is still a visual quality that does not operate in this hands on way, and that is every bit as fascinating as the visual aesthetic contribution of other arts (in my opinion), but with pots there is this other possibility as well. That doesn’t make pots non-art or a lesser form of art, just different. So yes, pottery does bring a philosophy of beauty down to earth, but that’s not all it does, and that’s not specifically why it needs to be respected. It can be respected on all sorts of levels. The author does a good job expressing this one characteristic, but paints only that one part of the story….. It is entirely probable that potters and pottery advocates have played up this difference to the point where it only endorses the idea that pots are not art in the sense that other things are art. Its one thing to take pride in our difference, another thing to deny any kinship. Perhaps one thing that is lacking in the art world is precisely the humility that pots naturally bring to the table? That this is a deficiency in their end? That other art is seen as somehow ‘special’ when the only thing making it such is our attitude that it is? ………. 

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 2 Comments

On handles, with Eric Botbyl

Eric Botbyl posted this on facebook:

eric botbyl handles

“The last handle in a very long day of handle making. There is no rushing this part of the process. I resolved long ago that good handles take time and quicky handles are dumb. How’s that for poetry.”

I have an awesome pitcher of Eric’s with one of these handles. He and I had talked about how he arrived at this unique solution to making handles and we both agree that making good handles is hard work, takes long practice, but also that its too easy to settle for less.

Here is how I responded to his post on fb:

Pottery is definitely a language, but too many potters make the equivalent of a grunting noise when it comes to handles. They could express things with more sophistication, more attention and consideration, and with more articulation of nuance and character. Unfortunately it seems this part of the language has gone neglected in many cases and the handles seem treated as a necessary evil worth only the least amount of effort and perfunctorily slapped together. What that communicates is precisely the lack of interest and intelligence brought to bear as was put into making them. If you care, if you put that extra effort into making each and every utterance something worth listening to, then the people who are looking for more than grunts will see your dedication and appreciate it. Your handles fascinate me, personally. Its a conversation I am happy to have. Its not something I could ever set aside without responding to. Its just too interesting not to be considered and tested against my expectations, learned from, and then incorporated into how I look out at the world and all my future conversations. Your handles add to MY sophistication. Thanks for taking the time! Thanks for making us think! Thanks for the conversation! :)

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, Pottery | Leave a comment

Pete Pinnell – Transcending the Naked Truth

Not doing a great job following through with my intentions to post on the things that make ceramics and pottery in particular things worth saving in schools, but I suppose I have a few too many irons in the fire right now….. Here is something I wanted to share, passed on by Pete as we were discussing the neglect for the visceral and tangible in modern appreciation for the arts. This was published in the May/June 2004 edition of Clay Times originally, so credit goes to those folks too :)


“Transcending the Naked Truth”

On occasion, I’ve taught a college drawing class that uses nude models. To the ordinary public, this sounds pretty racy, but no one in the academic art world gives it much thought. Why is that? Why isn’t my wife jealous, and why aren’t parents, administrators, and the general public outraged at this seeming lapse of moral judgment?

One visit to a college drawing class would tell you why- drawing a live model is boring. No one, not even the hormone-laden young people in the class, finds it the least bit exciting. Students skip out on drawing classes just as often as any other course. The sight of the model dropping her robe tends to be treated with yawns and groans, as students now have to stop talking, get out their drawing materials and get to work. (As an aside, I’ve sometimes wondered what it does for the models ego, especially on their first day of work, to have the sight of their body “in all its glory” greeted by yawning indifference).

Now, lets introduce some excitement into that bored, lethargic group. What if I allowed a student to TOUCH the model, or if I did so myself? Nothing intimate, mind you, just ordinary public touching (back, shoulder, knee, etc). What would happen then? Well, no one would be yawning. For one thing, the model would probably walk out. Everyone would know that we had crossed an unspoken boundary. Touching the model is taboo- its just too “personal”, too “private”. Doing so would probably get me called into the department Chair’s office for a little discussion about my professional judgment. Looking is one thing, and quite acceptable, but touching is another thing altogether.

Now, lets take my little scenario a bit further- what if I allowed a student to KISS the model? Well, I won’t go into detail, but it would certainly be the talk of the department. I would likely find myself sitting in the Deans office, and perhaps find the episode discussed in the pages of the student newspaper.

Why is that? Why is there such a big difference between seeing a naked body and touching it? Why is there an equally big difference between touching those “public”, more innocent parts of the body, and a more intimate form of touching, like giving a kiss?

It’s because of the nature of sight, and how we experience it. Sight, among all our senses, is easiest to intellectualize. During a drawing class, there’s a vast, emotional gulf between the students and the model. We look at the model, but she or he is just a complex, difficult-to-draw object. Our interaction is purely rational, logical- and controllable.

As humans, we easily build barriers between the things we see, and our feelings. On the other hand, it’s very hard to rationalize touch- especially intimate touch. Touch makes a much more direct, much more POWERFUL connection with our non-rational selves. It is a connection that is more difficult to control, more difficult to rationalize away.

Our hands are amazing things, capable of “seeing” in ways that our eyes can only imagine. Textures that are only suggested to our eyes are readily discernable to our hands, and we can easily feel minute differences among surfaces that appear to look alike. Our sense of touch is not just sensitive, it is also capable of a much greater degree of acuity than most people realize. You need only witness the speed and accuracy with which a blind person reads brail to have this made apparent. In short, this sense we call “touch” is sensitive, acute, and capable of making direct, powerful connections to both our rational selves, and our deeper, subconscious selves.

Why then, has the art world made the conscience decision to forgo touch? I’m not talking about touching in drawing classes, but with the art itself. Why would we, as artists, willingly give up such a powerful tool for expression and communication? The answer to that is long and complex, beginning with the Greek philosophers, and continuing through Kant to Hegel, and finally to today’s art theorists. Regardless of how we got here, the result is that touch is all but banned from the appreciation of anything deemed “fine art”.

Touch, you see, is connected to use- what we potters tend to call function. And function is intimately bound up with that messy, complex, emotional process we call “life”.

Anyone who frequents art museums knows that when you approach a work of art, you assume “the pose”- you place your hands safely behind your back, or in your pockets. This puts the museum guards as ease, and puts the viewer in the proper, rational frame of mind to assume the “disinterested gaze”, the phrase art theorists use to describe the proper attitude with which one should approach art (the disinterested gaze, or what Hegel terms “desireless seeing” precludes function, or for that matter, any inclusion of the object into any life event or process).

As a result of this theory, during the 20th century, the fine arts world made a concerted effort to distance itself from life, a movement that reached it’s apex during the postwar modernist movement championed by critics like Clement Greenberg. “Art for art’s sake” was the battle cry. Artists like David Smith and Jackson Pollack created large, powerful, works that were purely formal- involved solely with their abstract, visual elements, like color, line, form, space, etc. This work lives in museums and sculpture gardens- it rarely references life, and even more rarely takes part in it. We are welcome to visit that world (usually with only a small admission fee) and I often do. I enjoy the time I spend there, and then I go home.

Postmodernism (which is not really one movement, but a complex, pluralist group of art movements), both evolved out of modernism, and as a reaction against it. It put life back into art, but not art into life. Postmodern artists tend to view life from the vantage point of the outsider- the critic, if you will. The postmodern viewpoint is cool, ironic, and detached, usually offering a sarcastic commentary on modern life. It blurs the distinction between high and low culture, and holds nothing sacred. Postmodern art peeps in our windows and rummages in our closets. It talks about life, but it is not part of it.

As Linda Weintraub wrote in “Art on the Edge”: “Visual beauty, sensual enjoyment, emotional release, self-expression, and accurate representation are rarely the goals that motivate acclaimed artists at the end of the twentieth century.”.

Throughout human history, art has consisted of ordinary, everyday objects that have been elevated- made special- for any number of reasons. Some celebrated

social occasions, such as births, weddings, and deaths. Others aided in our very human search for spiritual meaning and significance. Objects were made to meet the desire to own “luxury” goods that raised the owner’s status. And sometimes, objects were made because the maker simply had the desire to create beauty, and others acquired those objects because they wanted to experience that beauty. Art was part of life and life’s events and processes, and the appreciation of art was not only visual, but tactile and experiential. You didn’t just look at art, you touched it and used it- you experienced it. That experience was much more complete, complex, and holistic than our experience of art today.

The detached, “outsider” approach so common to Post-Modernism has some advantages- it certainly allows the artist independence. On the other hand, it can tend to alienate the very audience it wishes to reach. Besides, in life it is the insider who holds the power, not the outsider. Whether we are talking about politics, religion, finance or just about any important aspect of modern life, you have to be an insider in order to be heard, let alone influence things or make a positive change.

This is where we come in. Pottery doesn’t just reference life, it takes part in it. It doesn’t peep in the windows, it isn’t a guest in the living room- it’s a trusted member of the family. I won’t go into great detail here about the many roles pottery can fill, since I did so in a column just last year, but suffice to say that pottery plays a part in just about every minor event in life, and most of the major ones as well. And, unlike the “acclaimed artists” mentioned above, artists working in clay in the early 21st century are usually very involved with “Visual beauty, sensual enjoyment, emotional release,” and “self-expression”.

Ironically, our position as “trusted member of the family” actually puts the potter in a much better position to take part in social commentary than the titular “fine” artist. One is far more apt to be open to criticism- or, indeed, any message- from a trusted friend than from a screaming stranger one meets on the street.

What prompted this column was a phrase that I have often seen during my career, and notice again while rereading the 1987 book “The Eloquent Object” . The essays (in several places) extol the way these “craft artists” have been able to “transcend function”. In fact, if you read just about any serious writing about

“craft”, you will often see works praised with this very phrase. So, just what do we mean by “transcend”? Here’s what the dictionary says:

1 a : to rise above or go beyond the limits of b : to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of : OVERCOME

The implication is obvious. “Function” is merely an impediment to creative expression- a limitation that we must overcome, or even better, abandon.

Yes, of course function acts as a limitation on our actions as artists, but it is just one of many to which we might agree any time we choose to make art. If I decide to make a painting, get out my oils and brushes, and buy a canvas, I have already chosen a number of very strict limitations on my artistic actions, none of which need prevent me from making great art.

When we choose to “transcend” function, we are deciding how we want our art to be experienced. Do you want people to view your art with their hands behind their backs? Well, as one who loves seeing my work in galleries and museums, my answer is yes, sometimes. Like most of us, I get a kick from seeing my work on a pedestal or in a glass case. Ultimately, however, I want the “viewer” to experience all that my art has to say, and the gallery experience reveals only a small part of what I’m expressing. By making my work functional- that is, involving it intimately in life’s events and processes, I can reveal much more to the viewer than through vision alone.

As I mentioned in my column last year, function involves far more than just the kitchen. But even within those narrow confines, the potential exists for deep, profound expression. The lowly cup involves sight, touch, intimate touch (after all, we actually put the cup to our mouths,) and use. This “use” means we also experience the peripheral effects of warmth, fragrance, and flavor. There is great potential here for communication on many levels, conscious and unconscious, and by extension, there is much potential for expression.

So, does this ability to involve multiple senses mean that all pottery is great art? Of course not. Sound and smell are equally powerful links to our emotions, but

not all smells are pleasant, nor all sounds sonorous. The ability to incorporate touch and use into our art simply means that we have the opportunity to have our art communicate with the “viewer” on multiple, potentially powerful levels. If we use that ability ably and knowingly, then our art can resonate more deeply than it might if we only involved the visual and the rational aspects of human cognition.

As artists, we can freely choose to “transcend” function. However, when we do so, it should be with the knowledge that we lose as much as we gain.

And that’s the naked truth.

Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, metacognition, Pottery | Leave a comment

Passionate teaching

Just read a blog essay that describes a teacher’s experience critiquing students, and it brought to mind some issues I have been thinking about lately. So in a brief departure from my adventures with Saving Ceramics in Schools, here are some thoughts on what we can do for students when we get them in a classroom environment. This is what the author described:

I am currently at the point in my ceramics career where I am trying to develop my own niche of expertise both in technique and in style. This emphasis certainly effects my view of art and creativity. As an instructor I often have people asking my opinion of what they are making and, I must admit, I do find myself giving advice on the student’s project that is in line with the projects that I am currently working on. I suppose that this is, in many ways, impossible to avoid simply because this is the way that my brain is thinking at the time. I wonder if it is truly possible to provide a critique of someone else’s work without allowing one’s own preferences to come into play? I suppose this is something that I will discover as I get farther into the field of teaching, but, perhaps, simply being aware that my own preferences and experiences are coming into my perception of someone else’s work is a good place to start to provide some non-clay snob feedback. I am also aware that one of the things that a student is looking for by asking my opinion of their work is an honest assessment of their work based upon my own experience, so I shouldn’t completely discount that aspect either.

Here is my response:


This is a great issue to talk about. I remember a few years into my teaching at the local community arts center a student asked to have her pots discussed. In my experience this is pretty rare at community centers where folks can be there for a variety of reasons and there is no grade to hold over them. Just making stuff and their own satisfaction can usually be enough.

But this student had ambitions, and she understood that one of the best ways to learn more is to seek perspectives outside one’s own, like you suggest. It had been several years since my last grad school critique, and I had convictions about what things mattered but had lost touch with critiquing method. I remember sitting down trying to get the student to see what I saw and how this actually wasn’t helping her, really. Not the way I was presenting it, at least.

I have carried that experience with me for the past dozen or more years, and while I still don’t get much chance to talk with other people about their pots, I think I understand more about how that dialog should proceed.

One thing that seems important is to try to get inside their head first, discover what they were thinking and why they were thinking it. They are an authority for their decisions, but often they may not consciously understand why certain things matter to them. We can help them be more clear about this. Getting them to articulate those things seems an important first point. What are they aiming at and why does it matter to them? Which parts work best and which might they change? The things they prefer could possibly be used in other contexts, broadened or made more succinct. The things they could do without are an opportunity for you to suggest alternative, not just your own preferences but technical solutions and aesthetic variations from the realm of the purely possible: Round vs straight, soft vs hard, larger vs smaller…. None of these need reflect your own preferences, but you can still offer what you might have done instead. Its just not our only option. We can also be agnostic, pretend its a purely formal puzzle, a thing capable of being solved in a variety of unique ways…. A good student becomes an adroit problem solver. A decent teacher knows many tools that are used to solve different problems, not just our own, but problems in general. This is how we can help them.

But the main thing is that we care. Good teachers by definition care. And it sounds like you care enough that you ARE a good teacher. I’ve been around enough teachers who were merely going through the motions or just using students as a source for their own new ideas. Sometimes our own passion stops short of the students we are teaching, and that is unfortunate. We don’t need to be passionate about their decisions or the values they cherish. But we do need to be passionate that the road they are on can be more rewarding for them if we are there to point out the obstacles, smooth the way, and give alternate directions as needed. That’s an honorable job.

Keep up the good work!


Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 1 Comment

Making a connection with history

I have realized that my proposed project of assembling resources to make the case for ceramics has been weighing me down. It has stalled with my hope that more people would involve themselves in the discussion and offer their own insights and links that they feel are important. I’ve had three nice responses to date, and I want to talk about each of their good ideas, but I recognize that I am also probably taking my own role in this far too seriously.

So let me just throw out a video that came across my inbox this morning, shared by the fabulous Bridget Fairbank of BPracticalpottery. When Travis (below) talks about tradition and respect, and making a connection with history you can sense that these too are under threat. You get the sense that this way of working with clay and looking out at the world is fraught with the struggle to fit in with modern times, as if history and culture were moving on and some things simply had to be left behind. Too often we dismiss the past in our easy fixation with the future and present. Personally I am far more excited by the contemporary iterations of the craft than too many of its historical permutations, but that is not an argument. We dismiss our roots far too casually, and when you look at places like Jugtown (in the video) you have a rare glimpse into the way things once were. Mostly.

The idea of tradition itself is such a dirty word almost that we often fail to see value in these things. Not that we can’t question their approach and the specific things they place value in. We can always explore alternatives and make innovations. That’s what humans do. But rather when we belittle the details of tradition we sometimes also pretend that tradition itself is what holds us back. We confuse the discrete details that no longer fit our world view with the idea that anything that isn’t forward looking is a disability of mere quaintness.

So how this tradition based perspective makes the case for ceramics is that industries like Jugtown, places like Seagrove, folks like the Hewells and Meaders, these all offer something that has mostly disappeared from our way of life. Ceramics industry is historical in nature, and that is not a slight. Fired ceramic wares are not too much younger in human cultural evolution than the first paintings in caves, technology-wise. And yet we have no such retrograde stigma for the Picassos and Jasper Johns. We disparage Ceramics when it suits us by pretending that out lack of fondness for ‘things traditional’ lumps all ceramics artists in one pile.

The issue folks have with tradition is too simpleminded. Promoting the new does not signal the necessary death of the old. Its not one survivor at the expense of everything else. But also, our focus on the heritage of the technology itself as a disqualification is blindly hypocritical. People have been fermenting beverages for as long as they understood the process, and yet the alcohol industry is beyond huge. And appreciated. Put that in your contemporary pipe and smoke it.

I was once told that the covered jars I was then making were anachronistic, as if I should have been making sculpture rather than some traditional merely functional vessel. The disrespect of function within Ceramics departments is itself symptomatic of the trouble we are facing. But worse, we are diminishing one thing to better make the case for the other. We are seeking acceptance in claiming to be ‘more modern’ by disassociating clay from its use in making functional type vessels. Many departments have this attitude towards pots. We laid down and took the beating when the whole craft vs art debate raged through campuses, because we felt we somehow had to kill tradition in order to make nice with contemporary practices. To this I call “Bullshit”.

Here is the video that sparked these thoughts:

Posted in Art | 4 Comments