Why I am a potter

An essential part of being human is expressing ourselves. As kids we often do this with abandon. There are no rules. We invent games and recreate the world around us in our imagination. As we get older our creativity gets yoked to more serious endeavors. We learn to express ourselves according to the rules, politely, and socially acceptably, but we also lose something along the way. The more we ‘grow up’ the more we fit ourselves into tight little boxes, the more we identify with cliches and the more we ourselves become stereotypes. Habit takes over and we go through our routines in a blur of rote acceptance.

As our imagination gets abused by these social pressures we find we have let slip that precious capacity for creative inspiration. The unselfconscious liberty we knew as children has been replaced with chains. Our ability to invent new worlds with just a flicker of imagination has been replaced with a cult of followers, where we sit idly by as others make our decisions for us, feed us with the issues and things to care about. Our world has suddenly transformed into the creation of someone else’s imagination (scary!) and we are now playing only by their rules. The more we know about the world the less we imagine it to be different.

For adults one way of recapturing that native talent for creativity is to make art. And by “art” I don’t mean only that which gets taught in art schools or is exhibited in galleries and museums. For me “art” is any creative expression, not necessarily ‘great’, but always new, and always imaginative. Art sees the world as something different, and we remake the world with every new creation we add to it. And if we are adding beauty to the world we are also active in making it a better place: The world is now more beautiful than it was just moments before. And so, making art also has a moral dimension. Artists are simply driven to make art because they are not satisfied with the world as it is. We feel it needs to be different. It needs to be better. We don’t sit on our hands and merely accept what is given to us. We make, and in making we make it different. If we actually were satisfied with the way things are, why on earth would we add more stuff? How could we justify it if the world was already good enough as is?

So, making art is a way of fulfilling our obligation to impact the world positively. And I would argue that this helps to sustain our moral center. We aren’t just going through the motions and we aren’t just doing as we are told. But perhaps there are artists that don’t actually care about what they make. What if we admitted that we only made crap and that therefor we were filling the world only with more crap, not adding something of value? What would that be like? Would our audience in the world be deceived? Maybe, but what kind of people would we then have to be? Could we look at ourselves in the mirror of responsibility? Would we advertise it? Would we proudly proclaim that our mission was to make the world something less? Something worse than it already is?

But we artists do tend to believe in our visions of beauty. We make what we like and we like it for our own good reasons. We believe we are doing the right thing by giving birth to these new objects, and others confirm this for us when they buy our work. They agree that, yes, the world is now a better place with this pot in it, and they want to include it in their lives. So, whether we consciously acknowledge our moral influence or not, what we are doing is essentially something positive in the world, and I believe this nurtures us, even unconsciously. And you don’t have to be a ‘great’ artist to have this impact. If this humble thing you have made brings joy to another person then you have made a difference.

So, I would say that making pottery helps sustain us as moral beings. Making pottery sustains us as vital creators in the world. And the world needs us. The more complex the world gets the more we depend on others doing the creative work for us. The busier we are the less opportunity we have to express ourselves creatively. But humans were not meant to only be trained monkeys. When our imagination dies something vitally important goes with it. And society suffers along with us. We find we have lost our ability for self determination.

But making art helps plug the holes through which our creative souls have been leaking. Simply put, we are more whole the more familiar we are with expressing our imagination. So many adults crave this experience and society lets us down again and again. Nurturing creativity with our hands is just a different expression of us nurturing our capacity for independent thought. Thinking for ourselves, the use of creative imagination, and making objects of art are all sides of the same coin.

I answered this mostly in the abstract, but I feel all this personally, and I see it in my students everyday. Part of us needs this opportunity to do something creative. Part of us needs to feel good about the things we do with our hands, to enjoy the new beauty we have brought into the world. That is why I think making pots helps sustain us. And every time someone tells me how they love the handmade mug they drink their coffee from I know I am not wrong.

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.
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9 Responses to Why I am a potter

    • Hah! I knew I could trust you to cut through my uber-serious cogitation! And it only took you a single word…. Perhaps there is a lesson for me there? So yeah, I may have gone a bit overboard with my long winded rationalizations, but I am hoping there are at least a few kernels of decent thought to be teased from it. Maybe? Unfortunately I was just told that a friend tried reading this post and was very nearly put to sleep! Oops! I must really have overdone it…..

  1. Tom Johnson says:

    You’re not wrong.

    Nice essay.

    • Thanks Tom!

      I guess I just worry that we are so thoroughly trained to not see this in ourselves. Most of us simply don’t believe in our ability to make a difference, so trying to make the world a better place almost doesn’t even make sense anymore. Except in extreme circumstances, where we can no longer deny it, the world and our actions are seen as almost entirely morally neutral. If we don’t see our actions as making a difference then nothing we do really matters. Its not necessarily that we don’t care but that we can’t see it as our role.

      People in touch with their creativity are simply folks somewhat in tune with their efficacy in the world. The veil has been lifted just that bit more. But too often we are consumers rather than generators of culture and we accept this as the way things are supposed to be. Our lives are so pressured that we couldn’t survive if we didn’t have our culture mostly spoon fed to us. Our own identity as human beings even owes a large part to the things we have cherry picked from our surroundings. If we haven’t been totally brainwashed by our upbringing we have built ourselves mostly the way someone chooses what to watch on TV or the clothes they buy off the rack, consuming options that others have left for us rather than invention and self determination. So many of the roles we inhabit are preformed for us. The creators can see the difference. They manufacture rather than consume, build rather than witness, invent rather than accept, are active rather than passive, and give rather than receive.

      In every humble tangible thing they create the makers of the world strive to add something of value. And value and beauty are perceived differently by each of us. But somewhere in the heart of us all there is a unique key that unlocks one more piece of what that value or beauty consists of. We only lack the belief that we can access this and that expressing it will make a difference.

      I think the point of my post was really that artists are already making this difference whether they understand it or not. And even if we are doing our creating ‘without’ consideration for anyone else we are still doing it for ourselves. And we are part of that world, are we not? If only that small corner has been effected our imagination has made that tiny part of it better. But many of us share our creations, don’t we? Others can react favorably if they ‘get it’ or not if they don’t. And if we sell our work? How disingenuous is it to say that we don’t care what others believe? We can’t share our gift without hoping that someone else will value it.

      We are elated by good sales and crushed by the bad ones. Our confidence in what we do is bolstered and our confidence shaken. Our work is ignored or is appreciated. So how are we not engaged in making the world different? How are we not concerned with whether we ourselves or someone else actually likes what we do? And if someone likes what we made? Then the world is now better for having this in it. Why else are we sad when the things we like are broken, the people we love taken from us? Why else do we appreciate other people’s art and invention as something of value?

      And this has always been the case. The world is filled with things we value, and art and imagination are a huge part of that. From the earliest days of cave paintings human beings have surrounded themselves with the outpourings of their imagination. We even make of ourselves a project for art. We have worn feathers and beads, jewelry and paint, tattoos and hats, cuff links and fancy shoes, wigs and toupees, beards and pomades, and hair cuts and hair styles. We dress ourselves up as if this will make a difference, is important, and has meaning. And that makes it important. It is what we do.

      And we treat our little corner of the world as art too, don’t we? We surround ourselves with paintings and music, sculpture and poetry, theater and dance, gardens and architecture. Why would we do this if art wasn’t a significant part of who we are? Art is obviously an important part of who we are as consumers. How can it not also be an important part of who we are as creators? And if we care enough to surround ourselves with art how can we say that it isn’t also important to bring these new things forth into the world? How can our creative gift be without value?

      The world can be better and it can be worse. We just need to know on which side we stand. To walk on top of that fence with blinders on or our eyes closed is hardly a recipe for staying in the middle. It only means we are as capable of falling on the wrong side as we are of falling on the right one. Are we pretending that one is as good as the other? And if we can’t tell the difference what good were those blinders in the first place? What incentive do we have to keep our eyes closed? In fact, I would say that art is the human response to feelings that our universe can sometimes seem empty of purpose and morally dead. It is a stand against meaninglessness, a cry that the world can be more than it already is. Believe that you can make a difference. Make something new, the best way you know how.

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Holy hell, this is relegated to the comments? For my money, this argues your point even better than the original post, especially the first three paragraphs. Sign me up!

        Since you’ve already established the precedent of bumping things upwards, I vote for making this one into a real, live post of its own.

  2. Becky says:

    I am such a bad blog responder! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to this, but I’m here now. 🙂

    I’m not going to go into a lengthy post because I’m antsy to get downstairs and start working… but I did want to say that I can completely relate to the part about making and creating art plugging the holes. I was a full time truck driver for 6 years, and in that time, I didn’t make much of anything. I drove a truck for 12-14 hours a day and all I had the energy for at the end of the day was a shower and straight to bed. When I quit doing that and started pottery full time, it was a bright reminder of how happy I was when I made art before in high school and college. It’s easy to let life get in the way and forget why making art makes us so happy. I personally enjoy being a potter because I get to run the show. No one is telling me how to do it, which means I have complete creative control over… everything.

    Ok, my boss is a real slave driver, so I have to get going. Great post, Carter. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your story Becky. I am continually amazed at the difference a bit of creativity can make in a person’s life. And for those of us who get to do it full time! What an incredible experience. The fact that we get to share our talents with a receptive audience is all the confirmation I need that what we are doing has an impact and that because it is appreciated the world is now a better place. Keep up the good work! And don’t feel obligated to respond to my posts. I am always grateful when you have something to share, but there is no pressure. Thanks for being so thoughtful!

  3. “People in touch with their creativity are simply folks somewhat in tune with their efficacy in the world. The veil has been lifted just that bit more. ”

    By choosing to engage my senses and my imagination, by choosing to structure my own day, by choosing to take action, by choosing to consider the needs and delights of others as well as myself, by choosing investigation over certainty and wonder over doubt (I stole that last bit from Heschel)…in those choices I find freedom, awareness, life.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtfulness, Carter!

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