What does it mean?

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.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What does it mean?

  1. Part of me looks at this post and thinks that the person who said those things is incredibly naive and a hopeless romantic. And this is undoubtedly true in parts. But I don’t think I’m absolutely alone in this. Humility can be found in all walks of life, but I’m guessing that potters are perhaps less concerned with inflating their own egos than some other denizens of the art world. Perhaps it is an unavoidable consequence of treading the world in clay spattered garments that our feet are kept more closely to the ground. Perhaps it is that potters are the poor underappreciated stepchildren of the gallery and museum worlds that we are rarely allowed to preen or become intoxicated by success. Perhaps it is also that we are engaged in making humble art of everyday objects that have an intimate everyday use and not things that are specifically designed for a pedestal, an elitist audience, and owners who are willing to put down hundreds and thousands of dollars toward their investment.

    Here is a quotation I just ran across today from the great potter Joe Bennion about what his stamp means:

    “The imagery is taken from a person with their hands raised in prayer, which is the way the ancients did, and I started making pots with that, and to me personally, it just reminds me that this isn’t about putting money in the bank account, its about caring for your family, its about doing God’s work.”

    Quoted from a video of Michael Kline’s at:

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    I totally agree that making pots helps keep one’s feet on the ground and ego in check, but I also suspect that the causality goes the other direction, too. Most potters were probably uninterested in ego inflation, money making or floating off the earth on a sea of praise before they discovered pots, and those qualities helped lure them in when they did.

    • Agreed. It would seem a bit out of character, at least for the hard core professionals who have committed to the life of suffering. Although saying that, I did know someone who professed he was just in it for the money. He made an average of 60 pots per year and spent most of his time scamming and hustling for patrons and for young coeds to be his studio apprentices. Pretty disappointing…. But maybe that is just the exception that proves the rule (Whatever that means).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s