What does my stamp mean?
I don’t know. Tell me if you have an idea!
Actually, this is a question that comes up occasionally and I always trot out the same answer as to how I was moved to stamp my pots in the first place. And since that was a question a number of folks asked this past sale weekend I thought I would put an answer here.
Well, the story is this: Back in school I was getting a lot of pressure to put my signature on pots. My then instructor would lash me with this failing, and eventually I decided I would do something if only to get him off my back.
Now there is nothing wrong with an artist putting their name on one of their creations, but this did not feel right for me. Some artists put so much of themselves into their work that the presence of their ego is undeniable and often overwhelms what ever else the work could be about. Somehow, however, I did NOT feel entitled to this claim on a piece of clay that had merely passed through my hands. I was in love. I was enraptured by the relationship that had me as only one part of a process.
Sure my hands were part of it, but the clay, what of the clay? Not all clay throws the same way, and certain things are only possible given specific qualities of specific clay bodies. How a thing comes out, even THAT a thing comes out, is in no small measure dependent on this lump of earth. And the glaze? This strange alchemy of heat and minerals? Well some artists dominate the surface of their pots with intensely personal motifs. The story that is told is simply the contents of their own imagination. Maybe that deserves or even requires a signature….
But what of serendipity? What of a surface that is accidental in nature and which surprises the artist? Are these accidents and surprises a reason not to plant your flag on this continent? Do we do it in spite of the evidence of our insignificance?
Take a wood firing for example. Woodfirers are intimately familiar with the ‘religious’ nature of their process. Kiln gods adorn their kilns, and the results are always a blessing from the gods or their curse upon you. The results are (importantly) almost entirely out of your hands. Wood firing potters are continually reminded of their own smallness in the face of the incredible force of nature that is their kiln.
And THIS is what fascinates some of us. A feeling of participation rather than ownership. Not all artists are so in love with only themselves that they will lay claim to any and everything that they have put their hands on. Certainly not me. So why would I feel entitled to put my name on something this marvelous process gave birth to?
In the end I decided that there was something profoundly disrespectful (in my case) about putting my name on pots. My own fascination with what the process has to teach me made each creation something new and often unexpected. Any right I had to lay claim to these results was only very small.
So I compromised. To get my whip cracking instructor off my back I decided the only honest solution would be to put some mark that was not so much about me as it was about my relationship with the clay. Not my name, therefor, but a sign that only picks me out because my hands put it there, just like the pots themselves. So I let my hands come up with something, a design that had no meaning but which was inspired only by the act of doing. It “means” nothing. It is not a symbol or a stand in for something else. And as with every mark my hands and tools leave on the clay, it is a testament to the properties of the material and my informative but small role in the process.