An anatomy of artistic theft

“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.


Chapter #18

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!

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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22 Responses to An anatomy of artistic theft

  1. Lee Love says:

    Side-handled teapots are one of my best sellers. (I make a “Lipton” type too.) Traditional Japanese ones are meant to pour toward you when you use it (it is a similar difference to our saws: In the West, they cut on the push. In Japan, they cut on the draw.) Placement is critical for good balance, especially when they are full. If you put them too low, you have a greater arch of pouring and a better chance of spilling. Also, they become top heavy and easier to spill. A trick I was taught to find the correct balance, is to balance the teapot on the handle. If it is place right, it will stand up by itself on its handle.
    ‘At the age of fifteen Hamada happened upon a quote by the French post-Impressionist painter Renoir, which inspired him to dedicate his artistic ambitions to the study and creation of useful objects: “If half the would-be painters in France were transformed into craftsmen, it would benefit both painting and the crafts; the number of painters would be decreased, and the decorative arts would get able people.”’

    • Good stuff Lee. Those are interesting concerns. I would never have imagined someone balancing a teapot on the end of its side handle. Sounds fascinating.

      I just gave it a shot, and it turns out all seven of the pots I side handled pass the ‘Lee test’. No idea if this means I just got lucky, or that I’m intuitively sensitive to what Lee is talking about, or that I DO analyze balance with these criteria in mind (maybe I’m not such a doofus after all 😉 ). Interesting results either way….

      the lee test

    • Yes the quote is great but in ceramics we seem to have a plethora of “second rate painter/sculpture = first rate ceramic artist.”

      • So true…. So true….

      • Call me a party-pooper, but I think it’s fruitless to grouse about trends in your field. The only way to see more of the work you value is to foster it: make the strongest work you can, affiliate with others in your vein, encourage those who learning (including but not only students and apprentices – we keep learning as pros), work on opening up venues to show and sell the work.

        For myself, when I fall into broad-brush putdowns, I’m letting myself off the hook. I don’t have to look as closely at work I don’t immediately gravitate to out of habit, I don’t have to allow for the idea that the person’s work I’m putting down is one spot on their continuum of aesthetic development, and I fall into an ‘us vs. them’ mindset that makes me think smaller and meaner. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and it hasn’t helped my work at all.

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Hey, you stole my idea for a blog post! (obligatory emoticon here)

    Seriously, though, this is my favorite post here yet. Good analysis in support of a very important point, explanation of your process, great photos, and a dash of potentially-embarrassing personal revelation. Talk about a fine original recipe! Keep up the good work.

    P.s. Does Destiny have an Etsy store? Handmade wire tools sounds great.

    • Thanks Scott!

      Was a bit worried about embarrassment but I thought a dose of candor was called for. Still almost didn’t post it, but you know me: Reckless to the core!

      I will see if I can track Destiny down. I believe she had class yesterday, so it may take a few days. As far as etsy, I doubt it. I think she is only 14 or 15, and I think that rules her out. If she isn’t making them any longer I have two spare ones. If you are serious I will make sure you get one.

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. Nick says:

    What’s with the ads on your comment page? Doesn’t seem like you…Do you really want us to see Chloe Sevigny’s apartment? And what’s a “poppressed radar?”

    • Hey Nick,
      I have no idea what you are talking about. I can’t seem to find what you are describing when I look at the blog, and its certainly not something I have done.

      Is anyone else out there having this issue?

      I don’t want my blog to have stuff like that just randomly showing up, and if wordpress is doing it behind my back I need to have a talk with them. Please let me hear from other people if this is something that is not just an isolated incident.

      Thanks for bringing it to my attention Nick.

    • Hey Nick (and others), I did a little scouting around asked some folks if they are seeing what you are seeing. So far the only foreign matter on the blog page is the

      “Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)” and the three links that appear below the post.

      Is this what you are referring to? I may not have a choice on the free wordpress platform. But after a year or so of looking at wordpress blogs I have learned to ignore them. An actual ad for something would really piss me off, but these in-house wordpress plugs I figure I just have to live with.

      Hope that solves the riddle. If its something else I will dig a little deeper. Thanks for your patience!

  4. juana says:

    great post, carter! i love how you trace the ancestry of your pots, which is likely part of the lineage of what my own hands make, since i can proudly say that most (or maybe ALL) of my pots have some carter in them.

    thanks for being such a good potter, teacher, and blogster too!

    • Thanks Juana! Students like you are what keeps me going. I’m so glad I have been around many of the times you needed advice or a bit of encouragement. Keep up the great work! I’m so proud of you.

  5. Erika says:

    Hey Carter,
    The ads are at the top of each blog post. You may have an ad widget set up in your chosen template. You might need to go into the HTML code and remove the code (easy fix). If you can’t find Destiny, I can give her a call. She lives a few miles from me (GA is a small state).

    The side handle on a straight sided form sounds like a good Monday night project.

  6. Carter, I like the post-mortem on how you arrived at this particular gravy boat, but I think I missed your underlying point re originality. Are you wrestling with the idea that as a potter clearly beholden to the 20th c. British/Japanese studio pottery movement, and in particular to the work of Simon, Christianson, Meyers et al, it’s hard to know what in your work is purely yours? Or that as an artist with ideas flowing around you and sometimes through you it’s hard to delineate what began with you?

    I find originality to be a red herring much of the time. We all seem to be suckers – at least a little bit – for the latest innovative technique. One potter comes up with it, it’s quickly adapted and translated umpteen ways. Is the first potter the only original? What has technique to do with originiality?

    My take is that a lot of originality seems to come in the specifics of touch and in nuances of form that resist being captured, itemized and compared in words. Beyond that, I experience most potters as having deeply different relationships to function and therefore to the lives of their pots once they leave the studio – and usefulness strikes me as far and away the richest conceptual seam we mine as we make our pots. But this is another topic that gets overlooked in favor of talking techniques.

    Care to elucidate your thoughts on originality in handmade pottery?

    • Thanks for the enticing questions, Kelly!

      Actually, this post was sort of a response to my previous post on “close encounters with the collective unconscious”. In that post the point I was trying to make is that we often get pressure to stand out by contributing original work, but in many instances this originality is only very close to the surface or merely disguised by our own lack of focus or our own poor understanding of our actual influences. And the funny thing (to me) is that because we are somewhat obsessed with this need for originality we overlook the fundamental ways in which we are usually not original. We often don’t even recognize that, “Hey, I’ve actually seen that shape somewhere else before” (for instance). The similarity of many particulars is an inescapable limitation on all our creative efforts. We simply are not always aware of how indebted we are in even our most basic artistic expressions. So in a sense, the priority on the question of originality kind of misses what I’m aiming at.

      Because of a variety of factors and influences we may simply be stuck rehashing ideas of others that we have already digested. Or, as I suggested in that other post, there may be deeper limitations on what things are possible either for the human imagination or for the physics and logic of geometries we can express. The idea that there is nothing new under the sun. I’m not claiming any answer to this, but I thought my little case study of my own post-mortem would be a good example of just how original a ‘new’ form can sometimes fail to be. But since I’m not aiming at originality this is an obsession that makes little impression on me.

      So I guess what I was trying to communicate is that the practice of avoiding influences has limitations (avoiding influences as the flip side of a need for originality). And that therefor there can be positive use made of actively pursuing new source material. Not pursuing originality, in other words, but pursuing new things to try out, whether self originated or not. It doesn’t matter. We should feel we have permission to use existing ideas of others and not fret so much about originality. But I have noticed that among some artists there seems to be an actual fear of contamination by other people’s art. Not just that they need to focus on their own projects but that even a hint of sharing an idea is unconscionable. They would rather reinvent some version of the wheel and put their name on it as long as they can ignore that wheels are fairly commonplace.

      I suppose that if this is an attitude that works for some folks I have to accept that, but it does seem slightly dishonest: We simply can’t control all the influences that effect us or when they will impinge on our creative processes. Its as if not knowing an influence makes it palatable. And this attitude places not knowing where something may have originated as a higher virtue than consciously using other people’s ideas (stealing). Its like pretending that food that was dropped on the floor is edible as long as we don’t know about it: If contamination isn’t (or is) acceptable why should knowing about it make any difference? And if the contamination of ideas is inescapable isn’t pretending ignorance somewhat dishonest? If we actually care about being original then it would seem to be in our interest to be as open about our source material as possible. In other words, not sticking our heads in the sand so often.

      So I guess to finally get around to answering your question I would say that originality is the wrong issue. And maybe this is what you mean by calling it something of a red herring. We have put originality on a pedestal, and worship it regardless of issues of quality, craftsmanship, or beauty (or usefulness, as you suggest). Originality is at most a stew of ingredients that many other people also use. It lies very close to the surface in most cases. And I would argue that what passes for originality is often less interesting than the works of humble craftsmen just aiming for beauty and for quality and craftsmanship.

      Originality only has this prominence in modern art because high end galleries, academic institutions, and museums have sold us on the idea. In my opinion this attitude has gutted the actual relevance of a lot of contemporary art. It speaks to fewer people and with less clarity. When these institutions traded away beauty and craftsmanship for the project of breaking new ground the wholesome center and solid foundation of art was lost.

      So I would say that originality is a misleading issue. But originality is a mantra for disciples of the elitist institutions. They place it as priority #1. Planting a flag in virgin creative forests is their only real measure of success. Breaking new ground is their only currency of value. But to me it seems that all this exploration of the artistic fringe is like an ever expanding bubble. The stuff out at the limits may or may not be interesting, but inside there is nothing. The bubble is empty. And the skin is being stretched ever so tight.

      It used to be that art started with beauty, worked through craftsmanship, and ended with quality. This was a solid foundation of what it meant to be art (In the sense that all cultures throughout human history have expressed themselves creatively). Beauty connects a human artistic tradition to the society it was meant to serve. Contemporary art serves a small elite crowd who can afford and (maybe) understand its pretensions.

      I would like to think that when things fall out in original ways that something interesting may have happened. But this is a separate issue from whether what was created was worth giving life to, how it adds to human expression. Beauty never has to apologize. Humans have expressed the need for beauty in their lives as long as they have crafted material culture to manifest it. This seems to be a core value for human life. And when cultures became too complex for each individual to be in charge of creating beauty we gave the project to specialists who would preserve the ideas of a culture’s beauty for us.

      But today beauty is old hat for the professional artists, and is usually trumped by the shifting target of novelty. But originality for the sake of being original may or may not add value to human experience. When it is done well originality sometimes strikes a chord with other human beings. Occasionally we are amused, sometimes bemused, and often we are merely confused. Contemporary art often winds up on the fringes of irrelevance and esoteric justification. Even what sometimes passes as original is often merely a new shiny surface. Just don’t pick too deeply beneath. There are visual references, technical tools, and possibly even the limits of function and human imagination that it was built from.

      So I guess for me, wanting to talk about originality is often the excuse to neglect more interesting concerns. I know that I personally think the idea of originality is less fascinating than whether I like what is being done. In my own work I give myself permission to use anything and everything. Originality is almost beside the point (for me).

      But if originality is all that academics want to talk about do we need to be sucked into their myopic little fantasy? Are we right to disown beauty and function and craftsmanship so casually? And yet we do. We often unintentionally treat originality as a siren song. I’m just looking for a few brave souls to tie themselves to the mast, to bind themselves to the rigging, to hear the call but to ignore it.

  7. Ben Carter says:

    Carter, This post got me thinking so much that I wrote a response on my blog. Great post. I like following the response to your reader’s comments too.

  8. Scott Cooper says:

    “Ideas are huge wide junkyards of stuff accumulated through years of things you may not even consciously remember. The difference between a “good” idea and a horrible one isn’t the idea itself, but the execution of it into a final product.” – by Josin on the Terribleminds blog

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