How customers look at pots, and what potters can do about it

And so, the upshot of all the previous discussion is just that decoration and bright colors add something important to how a potter can navigate the expectations of an audience. Pots with drawings, patterns or eye catching colors are just that much more accessible on a much more fundamental level. Decoration draws attention, plain and simple. The bolder the better (within reason!). Not that people will always like what you’ve done, but they can’t like it if they don’t notice it.

So, when Ron Meyers says that he started putting animals on pots because he had a hard time selling undecorated ware, I should have been paying more attention. And when I asked Michael Simon why he decorated his pots and he told me he thought the forms needed the decoration, that should have been a clue. Didn’t I believe these pottery heavyweights? Didn’t I trust what they had to say? If this was true for their pots wouldn’t it be doubly true for mine? But just so I remember that I’m not a total ignoramus (and that this stuff is not all that straight forward), just how many years and thousands of pots did it take Ron and Michael to figure this out? The fact that both these potting geniuses had to slowly come to this realization means that in all likelihood I’m not the only one out there still operating in the shadows.

Here’s what Michael says in that sublime interview with Mark Shapiro: “Yeah, so that was the development of the technique of putting a pigment on. And I always claim that the form and the proportion were the crucial elements to me, and I still do. I still will claim that. But there was also an undeniable-that the audience would look at-would see the surface. The culture didn’t seem to want to look at the shape or proportion. I mean, try to talk to someone about the proportion of a bowl. It’s very difficult to engage someone with the proportion of a bowl. It’s just very difficult. And then I wanted to engage-I wanted engagement. I really did. So patterning, particularly, gave me access to an audience in a way that I didn’t feel like I could develop with shape. So that was part of the motivation to develop that kind of pattern surface…. It was dangerous territory, but it was still the kind of image that I needed, in that it was recognized by everyone in the whole world who would see that image, and, you know, they knew what it was and they knew the range of feeling that a bird could give-well, anything from a raven, a crow, to a buzzard to the most beautiful songbird, painted bunting or something like that.” (Oral history interview with Michael Simon, 2005 Sept. 27-28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

He also says quite clearly on page 80 of Michael Simon: Evolution, “Those few well-shaped pots whose surface reveals the nature of the clay seem complete and are not painted. I paint the remaining ware with different motifs and patterns.” Which of course means that he thought only a select few of his pots were good enough on their own to stand up without any decoration. As if only the rarest few stood any chance of being seen without decoration. And if they failed in this, if they fell short, if the were lacking something, incomplete, or somehow flawed (?), only then would he paint them. Its as if the decoration is put there only to make up for some deficiency, not necessarily in the pot as a pot but in how the pot will be perceived. This seems discouraging to hear since almost all his pots are much better shapes than anything I will ever do…. And if he and Ron had trouble engaging their audience without decoration, what does that say for the rest of us?

So it seems that in a very real sense there must be more to this thing of being a potter than simply ‘doing what you want to’ and naively hoping that someday there will be enough customers who appreciate what you’re doing. Didn’t both Ron and Michael realize they had to change what they were doing? What they originally wanted just wasn’t good enough? Don’t get me wrong. I like optimism. But just how smart is it in every circumstance? A poor economy? A region attuned to different aesthetics (like what I was saying in the education tangent of these ‘seeing’ posts and what Barbara said in the comments to the previous one). How do potters get customers to want to ‘read’ what they’ve done, much less have galleries put the pots on pedestals? How do we potters present our work so that audiences will even want to look? Do we ignore them completely and trust to our self-confidence? Do we acknowledge them from the corner of our eye? Do we engage them and cater to some of their preferences? Do we pander to them out right? How do we maintain our integrity with all that pressure?

This just doesn’t seem very clear. What is the dividing line between being smart about the market and selling out? Intention? Both Ron and Michael decided they needed to paint on pots, and I would never accuse them of ‘selling out’. I guess in the end we need to recognize that our pots are in a conversation when they are in the marketplace. We are no longer daydreaming creators working in isolation. Its not as simple as only making what we want. Unless we already want what the public wants we won’t really be in a conversation with them. If our pots already speak the language of our public then making what you want actually already coincides with the public’s expectations. But not every potter’s imagination is so fortunate, and those artists don’t speak for everyone.

So what happens when our intention is no longer to make the best pot we can but to simply sell some stuff? Again Michael puts it clearly (page 81), “In our culture the graphic image has largely supplanted perception of shape and texture….I feel a contradiction in drawing images on the pot forms I make. The marks can distract from the more profound aspects of the pots. Pattern can render the shape a secondary concern…. Some pots are lost in the painting, but some are improved.” In other words, if the pot is merely a vehicle for some brush strokes it might as well be done on a piece of paper. This is probably just the extreme end of what can happen. And you can look around and see plenty of pretend potters using their clay as the excuse to do some decorating. They are sometimes not even aware that they are doing their decorative thing on forms that have a history of use as functional pots, and that things like craftsmanship and form actually matter. But this is different from decoration that is part of what that pot is. I’m not talking about decoration that is integrated with the underlying pot, and I don’t think Michael is either. A pot can be a good canvas for decoration, can’t it?

So it becomes a question of trying to improve the pots and not merely pander to an audience that can’t see shapes on their own. If the decoration makes it a better pot, then fine. But in some sense no amount of decoration will turn a lump of poorly crafted clay into a better pot. On some level there is a minimum of craftsmanship that dictates just how improved a lump of clay can be from decoration. As a pot. On some level it needs to start out a decent pot to become a better pot.

It would be like doing home repairs by putting on another coat of paint. Termite damage? Slap some paint on it. Foundation has shifted? A little dab of paint will do. Its amazing what things can be ‘saved’ with a swath of duct tape, but there is a reason they don’t build houses with duct tape instead of nails and screws. What you build with duct tape is not a house. You don’t build a pot just with decoration. You have to set a good foundation and build well functioning walls, not to mention giving them some kind of pleasing shape. Decoration is the window dressing. It is decorative, not usually structural.

So this means that although many people’s introduction to pottery is through decoration there is still the issue of quality that underlies it. It is a question of craftsmanship in the pot itself. It is the issue that quality is not always encompassed by how well a pot is decorated. Are we making paintings that you can incidentally also drink from or eat off of, or are we making functional ware that also happens to be decorated? If “form follows function” and pots are at their core functional items, then it seems that form is essential to what we are doing. Something is not a good cup just because it has a good decoration. It doesn’t function better as a cup because it was decorated well.

And this means that helping the public to understand pots better than they do is incredibly important. We need to help them look beneath the decoration or to see the pot as a whole. Isn’t this in every potter’s interest? Pottery is such a small niche that it can only be enhanced by educating more people about what we are doing. We can ask our audience to also believe that if something is important it should be worth fighting for. And handmade pottery, both good and bad, can add something valuable to a person’s life. The effort it takes to understand good pottery doesn’t have to be easy. People in our culture are mostly unsophisticated visual observers. We see the surface, as Michael said, but not form or proportion. Other cultures do a much better job of educating their audience. Can’t we also aim at a greater level of sophistication?

So our work can swing back and forth between giving the audience what it wants and asking them to keep an open mind. There needs to be a balance between meeting an audience’s expectations and challenging it. Do we give them a steady diet of easy to digest eye-candy, or do we feed them some stringy chewy roughage? Do we aim for their taste buds or their stomachs? Or do we ignore all this and just let the chips fall where they may? Survival of the fittest and all that… (never mind the watered down mediocre aftermath that future potters will need to deal with). This seems like an important question.

So, as I’m fumbling about, trying to get my own head wrapped around some of this stuff, I’m hoping that other people will join in the discussion. Potters especially, but really anyone who is interested.

Sorry this was so long (again!)….

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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50 Responses to How customers look at pots, and what potters can do about it

  1. Judy Shreve says:

    OK – here I am again with an opinion – and first to comment. I’m enjoying this tangent you are on. But first off I want to add that both Ron & Michael don’t build a form and then decorate it. They both add decoration that enhances their forms. Ron’s wacky animals exactly express his loose throwing style and Michael paints ’round’ or 3-d images that follow his forms perfectly. I’ll even add someone else I think does a beautiful job decorating and that’s Jeff Oestreich – and he decorates graphically with his art deco lines that enhance his forms.
    So the real learning curve to master – in my opinion – is you need the skill set to be making forms from your (authentic) voice, because only then can you decorate from your voice – to me that’s what makes these potters’ work amazing.
    So I’m not sure it took them a long time to figure it out — and I don’t believe they ‘sold out’ – it just takes that time to master the skills. And of course you have to have the drive to want to find that voice. Some artists are happy singing in the choir!

    • The quote from Michael on page 80 seems to express something different, though. I took it to mean that he makes the pots and then decides whether they will be painted or not. Why else say that some pots come out “complete” and don’t get decoration? But I think you are right that once you start to look at your pots expecting them to be decorated you design them with that idea in mind. It becomes part of the whole effort. Like designing a pot to receive a trimmed foot. You don’t cut a foot ring if you haven’t designed it with sufficient clay on the bottom. So I hear what you are saying, I just think Michael is looking at it a bit differently.

      As far as Ron goes, my collection of his pots includes a bunch that don’t have animals on them. Some early ones have no decoration besides finger swipes through the glaze, and others have little splashes and drips of glaze. Pretty amazing stuff, but he still decided that he couldn’t sell these pots (except to me!), and that was why he started putting animals on just about everything. And according to him, the lowfire painted stuff sells waaay better than the salt fired or wood fired stuff. He almost makes this other stuff as a personal indulgence, not a marketing strategy. But that said, I don’t think I’ve seen a lowfired pot that was not decorated. So he designs those pots with decoration in mind. But what that particular image will be is open to change. Its like a canvass that is ready for whatever the artist decides.

      Still, Ron only decided to do lowfire work once he figured out that his pots needed decoration to sell. He didn’t start out making lowfire work. You should see his really old pots from when he just got hired at UGA and from when he was fresh out of school. It looks so unlike his loose organic ‘wet sock’ pots and more like traditional stoneware crockery being done in the 60’s and 70’s. Pretty mind blowing that he took the gamble to reinvent himself so seriously. I bet he made well over ten thousand pots before it dawned on him to start putting animals on them. But there’s only one person who has that answer, so lets see if we can pin him down on this.

      • Judy Shreve says:

        It would be interesting to have Ron in on this discussion – was it the desire to tell a story that motivated him to use lowfire & a painterly decoration? I see his decorated pots as the perfect extension of his grin & twinkling eyes. (I also have a woodfired piece of his that I love) – but I think his lowfire work allows him to tell his story.

        And when I think of reading Michael’s interviews and seeing him work, I’m more inclined to think that he also just wanted more out his work — a better platform for telling his story?, a deeper challenge? —

        I think more sales was the by-product. How both these guys found success, I think, was going deeper as artists – not the other way around.

        • I agree it may be a bit of the question of the chicken and the egg, but it may also involve putting the cart and the horse in their proper places, and deciding which one was which.

          Yeah, those guys are both the kind of artist who are always looking out for more interesting things to do. You won’t catch either of them resting on their laurels! And decoration was definitely an avenue worth exploring. But I would say that they were both at least aware of a need for decoration as a means of accessing a bigger audience. That’s what it sounds like when Michael complains that people in our culture just can’t look beyond the surface to see the form and proportion of pots, right?

          And there is nothing wrong with coming to that conclusion. After all, there is no reason that exploring decorated pots can’t be its own version of artistic depth. I just think that neither one of them feels that decorated pots are necessarily better pots, or more ‘deep’, than undecorated ones. Just different. Is an apple better (more deep) than an orange? Some of Ron’s undecorated pots are truly magnificent. And Michael of course said in that quote that he only decorates the ones that are not complete in themselves. Why else would he say that “I feel a contradiction in drawing images on the pot forms I make”?

          So deciding to decorate pots probably had all sorts of motivations going on at the same time. Sometimes it was improving the pots and sometimes it was making sure that they could be seen by the audience. And I think that can be healthy. What isn’t healthy is giving up the search for making better pots, and no one would accuse those guys of doing that.

          Thanks as always for the stimulating conversation Judy! You are someone I count on to help get my head straight on most of this!

      • Well yes sure it might have been quite the romantic notion if Ron had said, “I grew up on a farm surrounded by nature, caring for old goats, shifty bunnies, and hogs so decorating my pots was inevitable……etc.”, but I don’t really feel this explanation would necessarily be more valid than his given ‘realizing decorated work might sell better’ and giving it a go. He has such an affinity for it, that it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have gotten there at some point along the way anyway. Maybe it doesn’t always matter what pushes an artist in a particular direction if it ends up to be a fullfilling direction.

        • Ooh, that’s a tricky one about ends and means! Although there will always be value in certain ends, like making high quality pots, I do think the means are sometimes worth considering. Thankfully Ron didn’t have to harvest the bodies of all those animals to put them on his pots! Or torture small children to get the edgy quality of some of those images! Of course just wanting to make a living isn’t such a bad thing, all other possibilities considered. And because the ‘Art game’ is being run the way it is these days, and postmodern dismantling of every traditional standard and quality has undermined any system of values in art, its still obvious when someone is still trying to make the best work that they can.

          I agree that “it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have gotten there at some point along the way anyway”, but we are so lucky that he had a teaching job to support him all those years. Otherwise if there had been too much pressure on him selling pots to make a living they could have come out totally different. Or worse, he could have given up. Now that’s a nightmare I don’t want to consider! Just how many might have beens are out there that have fallen by the wayside? The pressure to make a living can put all sorts of unhealthy demands on an artist’s work, but it can also be defeating.

          How many onetime potters do we personally know who had to get outside jobs and are now lucky if they can get their hands in some clay. Sometimes its not even about what you yourself want but about the sacrifices you need to make to support a spouse and a family. Scary thought, right? And this is why it is so important that we try to educate the public to what potters are doing. So folks will always be able to do this for a living without it being such a marginal source of income.

      • Scott Cooper says:

        We’re well overdue for someone to do the Smithsonian Archives interview with him, the way Mark Shapiro did with Simon. Hmm… Who might be a good candidate for the job, I wonder?

        • I think you are right that this one is overdue. I’m going to nominate Michael Kline, since those guys go way back as well. That would be incredible symmetry to the interviews – shapiro and Kline interviewing Simon and Meyers. Or maybe Ron Philbeck. Another acolyte of the loose pot spectrum might be a good place to start.

          I only wish I were better equipped to handle it, because I know I would blow it. Barry Palevitz interviewed me for that “potters paradise” article he wrote mostly about Ron’s influence in the area, and I totally blew it. I was so keyed up for the interview that my brain just locked up and allowed me to say only trivial and moronic sounding things. I was so let down, and I know Barry was disappointed because he expected better things from me. So no quotes from me in that article for good reason. I would unfortunately be a disaster actually conducting the interview…..

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Damn, that one appeared in the wrong place… To clarify, I meant for someone to interview Ron Meyers, in reference to what Carter said about pinning down some of this speculation about him.

      • Scott Cooper says:

        On the issue of Meyers’ and Simon’s evolution towards decorating their pots, even better would be a discussion between the two of them. I assume they knew each other during that transition, and perhaps even discussed it at the time? Or, at the very least, that they were aware of what the other was doing. How fascinating would that conversation be, and how relevant to sorting out this issue of the role and reasons for decorating pots?

  2. Gay Judson says:

    I, too, am enjoying these blogs. I find it especially interesting as I’ve been pushing myself to ‘put marks’ on my pots and am still a long way away from that accomplishment. But reading your thoughts (and research, great) on the subject makes me wonder what pushes me in that direcetion. It is not to sell more pots. It just feels to me that I have not yet done what I need to do. I may never have the skills to do what I want to do and it has really messed me up–trying to get there. I’m lost between what I have done (do no more) and what I want to do (never have done and not really sure what it is I want to do!) So here I sit with a very inactive studio…

    • Ahh Gay. Don’t let the indecision bog you down. I agree that putting marks on pots isn’t necessarily about marketing. I think it is more often about communicating, and we just get lucky that if we are communicating well we might sell some pots in the process.

      My problem is that I am such a horrible 2D person. My hands are so talented at pushing clay around on a wheel, but they have all sorts of bad habits and stupidity ingrained in them when it comes to drawing and handwriting. I don’t know how I’m going to resolve this issue in my own case, but a huge part of it is confidence. And I think the best way to learn confidence is to not hold back. What’s the worst that can happen? That you ruin a few pots? What’s worse, messing up a few pots but learning from the experience or not getting in the studio and not having any experience to learn from at all?

      As long as we keep a good attitude and remember that every journey begins with those first steps, and that sometimes those will be awkward, we can maintain forward progress. By not getting in the studio and making work we become paralyzed, and we stop all progress. So my advice is to just get back in there and have fun. Maybe do what Ron Philbeck does and just come up with all sorts of new ideas to test out and see where it will lead you (Ron is such an inspiration to me in this way!). Try not to put so much pressure on yourself, but have fun. That’s my thinking at least. But you know how much easier it is to say it out loud than to actually do it yourself, so I’m hoping desperately that these words translate into action. Maybe Michael Kline’s challenge of 12 before 12 would be a good starting point. No pressure. Just see what happens. Maybe not even with the intention of keeping the pots. Just something to learn from. How’s that sound?

    • Linda Starr says:

      I find I’m a bit like you Gay. I am not sure what I want to do or perhaps where I am going or what to concentrate on, so instead of an inactive studio, I continually try various techniques and styles, some go away and still others enter. I also feel like I am half way between the natural world and the industrialized world, nature and man, and how they interact, and am trying to meld the two. I often feel what I am striving for is just beyond reach. These discussion are good for me though because I was just working on something tonight and now that I am thinking of those pieces I have thought of a way to change it to encorporate both.

      • Right on Linda! Glad something we discussed here actually made a difference in someone’s world!

        I think your practice of following your nose is healthy from the creative side, and I’m always spouting off on how important it is to follow this freedom where it will lead you. The flip side is something I talk less about because it seems less an issue for the serious potters I know. The difficulty I see is that if you are always changing it up do you ever get a chance to truly hone some skill? In other words, jack of all trades and master of none can be an occasional result of a lack of sufficient focus. The other issue I see is that when you are trying to make a living there are only a few types of venue that support an artist without a reasonably consistent message.

        Since these last few posts are all talking about visual impact I think we also need to consider the kind of impression that a lack of consistency makes. When the audience is willing to look at each pot on its own terms it doesn’t matter so much, but on a display together it can be disorienting to an audience that is trained to look for consistency. And this doesn’t begin to touch on how some venue operators expect a certain amount of repeatability in the work they stock. If they trust the quality you put out as consistently high it is less an issue, but if they get the feeling that the artist is all over the place and entirely unpredictable they might be less inclined to take your work on trust. That’s why branding is so important in so much of marketing, right?

        Does any of that make sense?

  3. Linda Starr says:

    One my very favorite potters with decorated pots is Rudio Autio. I remember the first time I saw one of his decorated pots and I was amazed. To me, he was a master at combining the decoration with the form. The form complemented his decoration and the decoration complemented his pots form. Another great post Carter.

    • Thanks Linda! We are so lucky to have so many great working potters to inspire us. Rudy is one of the big ones for sure.

      That king of ‘synergy’ is what we should all be striving for. Kind of like what Judy was saying about the learning curve of figuring out what we want our pots to be like. There can be a ‘rightness’ when it is done well. The surface and the form can complement one another and be seen to belong together.

      But I sometimes think it is a trap to imagine that once we have settled on a way of doing things that we can’t see outside this box anymore. As if there is now only one way of finishing our pots. One of the exercises I sometimes like is giving your bisqueware or greenware to someone else to glaze or decorate. This gives the potter a chance to see how other people look at their work, a chance to see what other people think is possible. Usually it is a very eyeopening and instructive experience. Have you ever tried this?

      • Linda Starr says:

        I can’t see myself settling inside one box or another that’s for sure. I would like to try letting someone else do the deco or glaze for me, it would definitely be a learning experience. I might arrange that with someone one of these days, thanks.

        • That’s cool Linda! I think it is often a healthy thing to step outside of ourselves to get a different perspective. Which is one of the reasons conversations like these are so interesting! We each bring different things to the table, and none of us are so set in our ways that we can’t at least politely listen to things we might disagree with. Or better yet, keep an open mind and try some new ideas on for size, no commitment necessary. Sometimes it can just be fun to listen to what other people have to say. There are part truths and multiple truths out there under most rocks, and occasionally contradictions and paradoxes that still make sense to us.

          I hope you do take me up on that suggestion. It could be a whole lot of fun, and maybe even educational! Collaborations are something I think we should be doing more of, if only for the sake of having some fun and building community with our fellow artists and potters. Good luck!

  4. Ron Philbeck says:

    Hey it’s me. Ron P. Ha! Good discussion going on you all. I’ll just go on here, I know Carter won’t mind, and then maybe I’ll edit.

    I feel like I’m very lucky to have come through some of this in my own pots. My plain brown pots were my love and joy for many years. But for all that time I was longing to make marks on them. Michael Simon and Ruggles and Rankin were basically who I wanted to be! I couldn’t make the marks they made though. And finally I gave up. (Well let me clarify, I could make the marks like they made, but they were THEIR marks and not mine…so no good)

    So I concentrated on form. Form, form, form. I had Warren Mac in my head all the time too. Which was good. B/c he had form and little deco. But the kiln wasn’t helping out my forms too much. I couldn’t find a salt glaze body that really turned me on. I was very frustrated for the last several years of my salt glaze. I did learn to make some good forms. Very important.

    I think Warren has also said that thing about some pots being so good that they need nothing. I think that’s true and that those pots are nice to wait for. Some of Michael’s pots with just the Dot have really amazing forms. I also think he didn’t decorate many pitchers b/c they are so damn hard to get an image to work on. I think MS worked on his pitchers to such an extreme that he wanted them to be the pots that were not going to be decorated. (Just my thoughts)

    I did do pretty well at educating my customers and audience about my salt glazed pots. I sold lots of them. They were very, very functional. And priced rather low. They were good pots. Some were more ‘exciting’ due to the firing. Most were okay, but again really functional. I think I sold well because the pots were easy to use/understand and functional. (But I wanted them to be decorated too)

    Have you ever heard Ron M. refer to those painted pots as having the ‘stupid animals’ on them? I wonder why he says that? Maybe it’s a love/hate thing. What I like about Ron’s deco, and this also proves he didn’t ‘sell out’, is that those pot forms and the animals are really pretty far out. My mother in law hates them! Ron has said he has a v. small audience for his work. (It’s grown of course) But they are not Everyman’s pots. Which is totally cool.

    The pots MS was making the last years of his career are just totally complete. To me anyhow. I think the MS pots are more accessible to the common person.

    I’m going to wrap it up and maybe come back later. I do want to say that I certainly don’t think that pots have to be decorated to be successful in the market place. I do think form and glaze play a big part. Let’s face it a booth full of shinos and temmokus are not Everyman’s pots either. Education plays a part here. I did shinos and temmokus for a while too and I was able to sell those pots. There has to be a spark, a spark in the work and in the maker. The work has to interesting and have energy. In my opinion anyhow.

    Okay I’m leaving now. ~Ron

    • Yeah, I don’t want to appear to be making the point that it has to be decorated to sell. And I picked Ron and Michael out of the air because I knew they both had something to say about the topic. But they are only two examples out of how many successful potters? I think there are as many paths to making a living as there are potters. All you have to do to come up with instances of non-decorated pots being successful is to make a list of the top 50 pottery icons of the last few decades. Malcolm Davis? Warren (as you say occasionally)?

      I guess what I was trying to point out over the course of the 5 or so posts was that the issue is incredibly complex. From the culture you grow up in, what you’ve been exposed to, what you’ve been trained to see, whether you are buying for personal use, decoration, or investment, what your personal tastes are, the colors that are in fashion at the moment, how your home is already decorated, the home you grew up in, what venues you have access to, the reputation of the seller, how well the work is being displayed, how well the work is being promoted, all sorts of marketing issue, not to mention the quality of the throwing, the quality of the decoration, and the quality of the work as a whole, all this stuff makes a huge difference in the kinds of pots we come to appreciate.

      So I think there are a bunch of factors that minimize the need for decoration, despite its universal capacity to draw human attention. And as I have been saying again and again, decorating doesn’t mean people will like what you’ve done necessarily, just that it is easier to pick out, say, in a crowded room. Let me share this quote I just came across yesterday. It is from the December 1994 Studio Potter on the topic of the search for a unified theory of craft. The article this came from is by Philip Rawson. Here’s what he had to say:

      “The problem is that most people who might interest themselves in craft-works, and buy them, have lost the habit of understanding reality through their hands. Our general culture is overwhelmingly, even exclusively, dominated by purely visual flat-surface imagery. Photography and graphic design belong naturally on flat sheets…. It is our handless culture that makes flat painters the leading artists and distributes their imagery widely through flat color printing. Even sculpture has come to be made for the eyes alone, to be stared at from a distance in a gallery. The crafts cannot and should not submit to this flat-surface dominance, even though inevitably and progressively they are having to adapt themselves to making an impact through the magazine page.”

      I thought that was an interesting addition to the argument! 2D image friendly work definitely seems to be a part of how potters make a visual impact these days. And without our audience’s hands as actively involved in the process of understanding we come more and more to rely on this type of impression. And again, decoration that does not rely on subtlety is much easier to read, both in person and on the page/screen. So I would say that without decoration being necessary, it is a tool that folks use to make a certain kind of impression, and even has a certain prominence in our culture these days. Tools are just something you have the option to use. They are never compulsory.

      One last point while my brain is still clicking, if people in our culture are trained to look for “visual flat-surface imagery” is it any wonder so many potters put decoration on their pots? We potters are as much a part of that cultural outlook as anyone, so isn’t it natural that we should also want a bit of surface pizazz to go along with that tactile sophistication? The fact that we are so well trained to look deeper than the surface only means that we can do so, not that we always want to. So I am not at all surprised that you (Ron) always had dreams of decoration. There is nothing wrong with that. You have done more than many in honing your forms and maintaining high standards of 3D craftsmanship. The danger is just that too many ‘potters’ take the easy way out and forget about those things in their pursuit of this handless aesthetic. Does that make any sense?

      Thanks for chiming in!

  5. Ron Philbeck says:

    I’m sorry to chime right back in but I think this is an important point.

    I had good success with my plain brown pots and my shinos etc HERE at my studio home sales. Out at craft shows or public events I didn’t do so well. My pots got lost. Here, I had educated my customers and they knew there were not going to be any blue or red pots here.

    Now that I’m doing my decorated work my home sales have been a bit lower. My prices have gone up, and the economy has hurt lots of middle class locals. But, I am getting noticed and invited to things on a regional and national levels. Interesting right. Money wise, I’m not making any more than I ever did. I still love the pots and what I’m doing and that’s the main thing.

    • This is exactly what I’m talking about. The different expectations at different venues is something it makes sense to think about. Would you say that the higher prices are what is effecting your sales at the local level? Would you say that you are getting noticed and invited to those national and regional shows because of the decorative change in your work? Did it make any difference? And I’m not saying that your salt glazed work wouldn’t have eventually gotten noticed, just that these shows and galleries could now see the quality of your work where it had been hidden in subtle brown surfaces before.

      Getting noticed sometimes seems more than half the battle. If you’ve got it flaunt it. Sexy sells, or we wouldn’t see advertising gone off the deep end quite so much. And you don’t advertise by trying to be overly subtle or not get attention.

  6. Lori Buff says:

    In my limited personal experience I’ve noticed that my most decorated pots are the slowest sellers, of course they don’t have animals on them so they aren’t quite as friendly as they might be if they did. I’ve also seen poorly made (visible score marks, scratchy bottoms,…)but highly decorated (with animals) leave the gallery in the hands of happy customers. So maybe it’s that people like buying things with animals on them. I’ll have to test this theory.
    Great article, lots of food for thought, thanks.

    • Thanks Lori! And thanks for chiming in!

      Yeah, I think there is really no telling what exactly influences someone to buy a particular pot, because when you get right down to it we all like different things. The issue of visibility is related but actually different. Getting noticed just puts your pots in a position to be sold. The decoration itself may actually not be what sells the pot only what gets it seen. So its not at all straightforward. I wonder if your combination of some decorated and some not decorated actually draws folks toward your display, and once there they just decide what they like. Interesting to think about….

      Yeah also, the idea of animals has a certain appeal. Like Michael said in that quote, everybody recognizes a bird and has some automatic associations with them. Its interesting that when I was in school we were all told to not put cats or dogs on our work for fear of falling into the ‘cute’ realm. What snobs! There are so many clownish prejudices over in the ivory tower its a wonder it all doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own ignorance….

      Glad you wandered on over! Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

  7. Ron Philbeck says:

    I’ve heard Warren say the same thing about how society has lost it’s connection with touch. He mentioned formica counter tops, fake wood veneer, stainless steel etc. I always love when people come into my booth and stroke the inside of a large bowl. It’s amazing. Good to see folks handling pots.

    I’m interested in that 2-D theory. I do think it’s true, and yes I have certainly been effected by it. More so times than others.

    I think that I have convinced myself that my prices may be keeping my locals from buying. But I don’t know that for a fact. Honestly I have sort of dropped the ball on my Home Sales over the last year. I think my numbers went down with the over all economic downturn and I may I have taken that personally…thinking that they didn’t like the new work or wouldn’t pay for it.

    I do think the decorated work has gotten me noticed by some galleries and exhibitions. I’m fine with that. I really like the work I’m doing and I am happy to be able to send the work out. I don’t know if my plain pots would have ever gotten as much attention. It got some, but it was easy to over look.

    I think we also should say that the decoration that we are talking about with RM and MS is drawn or painted deco. You mentioned Malcolm Davis. I’d say Malcolm’s pots are decorated with that carbon trap, or the wax he uses sometimes. And Warren’s pots were decorated with pinches, facets, glaze pours etc. I think all of this stuff has the potential to attract the attention of the customer. It depends on what that person is into, or able to see or whatever. I have a hard time seeing the beauty of some pots out there that some of my potter friends just drool over. I just don’t get it. And they don’t get why I want to lick Gail Nichols pots!

    I think if we are talking about all this as business people then that’s fine. (I guess I’m wondering where we are going with this discussion). I think the most important thing is to do what you love and that you’re happy with the pots when they come out of the kiln. Take what you love and share it with others, they may or may not get it. Some will and those will be your customers, or at least the appreciators of what you do. I think that some work will certainly be more successful in the marketplace than other kinds of work. But you shouldn’t chase the market. I can’t ever see some one like Nic Collins making anything but what he does. Woodfired, ashy, anagama pots. He has excelled at it and he is successful (what ever that means to each of us).

    Being an artist is hard. I was telling Clary Illian once about how much I struggled. She said, that’s just the way it is for us, it’s part of it.

    I hope I didn’t get too off topic here.
    Ron

    • I think many of your local customers will still want your pots, and others who might not have in the past will want the new ones even more. The pricing issue is such a hard one when changing things comes up against the expectations of the audience. For instance, RM and MS kind of set the pricing bar so low back in the day that it is hard even now to get folks out of the mindset that mugs are generally no more than $16 or so. How could anyone charge more locally when those guys were practically giving them away (I hope you bagged a whole bunch back when you were attending the sales!). So it seems like the local potters here are somewhat restricted in how we can price certain things. It is changing, but oh so slowly. Even that local show out at OCAF in Watkinsville with 50 Georgia potters still has most of us selling mugs for $20 or less despite the 40% commission. Local prices are such a micro-condition that precedents have such a huge influence. Less so on the national gallery scene, or maybe precedence of a different kind. Exclusive clients and exclusive prices, maybe?

      Okay, so you are wondering where all this discussion is going. Hell if I know! I’m just putting it out there because it seems important to discuss. No one ever told me that decorating was potentially important for getting pots seen, so I had to figure it out on my own. Maybe I would have been more interested in it if I had been aware earlier, instead of sinking my nose into ever deeper layers of nuance and subtlety. I actually tend to prefer quieter pots that let you see the shape without overwhelming you with decoration. For me the line between tasteful and garish starts fairly early.

      And yeah, what counts as decoration can be a pretty loose concept too. Who knows what other people consider decoration and that they consider incidental. I wasn’t thinking of the wax work and carbontrap in that way, but it really is, I guess. I was kind of looking at decoration from the standpoint of the opposite of surprising serendipitous results. As more of a purposeful statement than a wait and see what the kiln gods deliver attitude. Now that I look at it, that sounds highly personal and contingent. And I suppose part of the contrast I was picking at is the bold and obvious decoration as opposed to the more subtle atmoshperics nuances. With training the human eye can learn to interpret many things as decoration, its just that some are more visible without training than others, I guess. (And I’m right there with you in wanting to lick Gail Nichols pots!)

      So yeah, a potter should always do the things that they love doing, and chasing the market can be pretty futile and lame. It seems. I’m not suggesting chasing as much as being in a conversation with. Doesn’t that make at least a bit of sense? Part of that will mean educating people to speak your language, but can we not also learn from our audience? Is there no such thing as meaningful feedback? Is there no such thing as give and take?

      (I’m about to go off the deep end, but I’m just following a train of though where I see things like making what you love and how we interact with the audience are connected. Basically I’m just thinking out loud and seeing where it leads. Don’t take anything I say below here too seriously.)

      And isn’t it also true that we may come to love those new things we’ve learned to do only over time? If you’ve never painted on a pot before you will probably not be so in love with it at first. That love may only deepen with experience. If we should only do what we love does that mean what we already love? Does that mean we can’t practice and get better and eventually learn to love doing something different? Or does it always have to be love from the start? Where’s the romance? The cautious first date? The building tension? The first tentative kiss? Dinners by candle light? Visiting the parents? Moving in together? The marriage proposal? Kids? All that? Don’t potters learn their pottery love in the same way we learn to love once strangers? Chasing the market sounds so bad, but don’t we always have a long way to go to meet our future partners at least partway? Its not all “Come to Papa!” Sometimes we see something across the room and go over to investigate. We are even set up on blind dates occasionally (I might be stretching the metaphor here, but the idea is doing something suggested to you by another).

      Don’t we have to go out of our way to learn who/what this other is? This strange way of approaching the clay? Why would that be such a bad thing with clay? How can we truly love what is totally new to us? Chasing the market sounds like sleeping around and living without commitments, but isn’t it just one more way of doing something different? Can’t these people not also find their true loves this way, eventually settle down and get married to a different way of doing things? Are potters not allowed to date around? Would promiscuity be a crime? If I think people might just like a bird on my pots and I’ve never done it before, am I chasing the market by putting one there? If our audience wants more of a certain kind of pot that we already make and we give it to them are we ‘chasing’ the market? ‘Following’ the market? Doing their bidding and not simply our own? What’s the difference? Are we ever truly isolated from our audience? Is it even desirable to be oblivious and not pay attention? The dividing line between chasing and being in a conversation is sometimes not all that clear….

      So, if loving what we are doing sometimes only comes with delay, is it even necessary to use ‘love’ as a measuring stick? Don’t we always feel ambivalent about some parts of our process and even dislike doing some of them? Its not always an uninterrupted whirlwind love affair from the get go. If I hate glazing does that mean I should never glaze? Aren’t we required to give some sacrifice to what we are trying to build? We create out of love, but we also create out of determination, dedication, sacrifice, and desire. Our commitment to being potters sometimes means that the love is far from our conscious efforts. “In sickness and in health” and all that.

      All I’m saying is that it seems much more complicated than just “doing what you want to do”…. That is part of it, just not the whole story. Of course its nicer to like what you are doing. I’ve had enough bad jobs to truly know the difference. So aim for what you like, but keep an open eye and an open mind, and listen to what other folks have to tell you. Educate and be educated. Be humble in recognizing that you don’t know all there is to know, and that there are many teachers out there. And don’t prejudge who and what you can and cannot learn from.

      (Man was that ever off the deep end! I was just riffing here, so I don’t know if any of that actually made a lick of sense. I may have just topped even my most prodigious and far fetched blathering to date!). Tell me what you think.

  8. Ron Philbeck says:

    Carter you are too much. Of course I would ask where this is going and you’d say, hell if I know! I’m often looking for the end of the journey and you are so IN the journey. Good stuff.

    Anyhow, it’s really weird to me that things are so stuck there in Athens. I mean it’s been over a decade since MS and RM have had their last Sale right? ? Something is not right. All you potters who are there now, making good work should have a good customer base and those people should be willing to pay current prices for pots. I totally understand what you mean about how it would be weird to charge more than MS/RM for pots, but it has to be that way. Everything is different now. I think you could compare that situation to what has happened with Warren and all the potters around him. Almost all of them have gone on to sell pots for way more than Warren would ever imagine selling his for. I know that he and Randy Johnston have had rows about it all, but they are all moving forward and doing okay. If we look at Warren and Clary and Ron and Michael then hell we’d all be stuck selling $14 cups. (And I did look at it that way for a long time) I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do wish it was different in Athens for you all.

    So I think you summed it up well in that next to last paragraph. You’re right that we can play the field and see what we fall in love with. And who’s to say it will be a long lasting love? I could tire of this scratchy deco thing and move on in 3-6 months. That’s kinda scary but true. And exciting too. Any little part can change and be good. Being open is a great thing. I was quite close minded for many of my early pottery years. I don’t think my real growth began until I stopped judging so much and let go of some of my ‘rules’ and quieted down the voices in my head.

    Onward!

    • Thanks Ron! That’s a great observation about where we each are in this conversation. I so wish I had a better grip on some of these things, sometimes. But the search IS important, and hearing other people’s points of view just makes it that much more interesting and informative than only listening to the little voices in my own head. Glad you are out there to help prod me in good directions!

      Speaking of voices in our heads, I think the low price Athens phenomenon is partly the precedent in our customer’s minds but maybe also in our own minds. We potters are ourselves so used to the scheme that we perpetuate it by not pushing our customers too far beyond what they are used to. So we are at least partly to blame as well. Once again, the situation is way more complicated than any simple answer. We also have to deal with the fact that our market may be pretty well saturated with good potters and that the local demand is not enough to make it work for all of us at once. Thank god Maria has broken onto the national scene, because I know she wanted better prices for her work and was not always able to get the locals to agree that was what they were worth. And seeing examples like that are more reason to stay the course and not push the public too far beyond the status quo. So yes, Athens is in a rut, and its not right, but I can’t think of anything to do on the local scene besides slow and steady measures. Maybe someday we will be on a par with other areas, but small town Athens will always be a backwater tiny oasis in a sea of Georgian conservative unenlightenment.

      Its always great to hear your story Ron, and I know there are so many of us who are grateful that you don’t hold back in sharing this stuff with us. You are one of the most honest and generous potters blogging on the internet these days. Your story is both inspiring and enlightening. And you set the bar so high with not only your work but your thinking about what you do. I am probably guilty of sitting on my own preconceptions for too many years myself, and am only recently getting all hot and bothered by some of these issues. The brain is way too sluggish these days, but I’m hoping I can eventually breath some life into it. Thanks for sharing the journey with me!

      Happy potting!

  9. Kevin Carter says:

    Well, I’m glad we got that all settled!
    So we’re all agreed then, we’re all going to start adding imagery to our ceramics, and most certainly animals, whether we want to or not? AAAAAAANNNNNDD!!!,we’re going to educate the public by giving them what they want? And in this way ceramics will attain status as a high art form, and it will be all it can ever be? Good!
    Let me paraphrase a question many have heard in their youth:
    If Ron Meyers and Michael Simon jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?

    • Hah! Is that really what this conversation sounded like? I knew my head was pretty muddled going into this but I never imagined I would say any of those things. Maybe I did and just don’t know it…. Just goes to show you that you can think you are saying one thing and the audience gets a whole different idea! And sometimes you just said it wrong, and occasionally you contradict yourself, and other times the audience just hears what it wants to hear, and still other times the audience just can’t handle certain ideas. Kind of like a potter faced with a pottery buying audience…. (Wow!) Isn’t communication amazing!

      So let me put a few more words on this mound of already indecipherable text: No one in this conversation is telling anyone else they have to do anything in particular, least of all me. At least, I don’t think anyone else said anything that sounded like that either….

      But I think sometimes we can believe we are not allowed to do certain things. Somehow we have learned something about the world and we feel there are limits placed on us, boundaries we should not cross, prohibitions on our actions. I know I had deep seated prejudices against decorating my work. Not only did it seem unnatural, but I felt that it would be selling my pieces short, aiming at something less. I kind of felt the pots would be less than what they should be. Is that rational? Not that I didn’t have good ‘reasons’ for thinking this, but was it necessary to believe it? And that was never a comment on the appropriateness of decoration on other people’s pots. Just something about me, and my place in the scheme of things….

      So the whole point of this inquiry was to examine whether I was being served by this prejudice or whether I was serving it. And that depends on what I am trying to do with my pots. If I wasn’t interested in selling pots do you think this would have been an issue for me? No. But because my pots are in the market place and are not doing so well it is a concern. Do you think I am wrong to be concerned? Do you think that trying to make a living is something that shouldn’t interest me? That would be curious, but maybe you don’t have to sell pots to make ends meet. Or maybe you do sell pots quite successfully and it really isn’t an issue for you. But that would put you in very rarefied air indeed, my friend. Congratulations if that is the case! πŸ™‚

      So really what this was all about was investigating the mechanisms that operate in many of our marketplaces. Not all, mind you, but then that was the whole point about the cultural aspect and education. Its just such a complex situation, and getting a handle on it isn’t easy. No wonder the tortured paths of this discussion were hard to follow!

      So in the end I would just point out that there is a difference between being open minded and closed minded, and every human being is afflicted with this latter failing at one point or another. I don’t think I could name a single person who would admit otherwise (Mother Theresa? Not Gandhi, for sure). So, if we all are prone to certain irrational prejudices or even extreme rational convictions, the question still remains: Are we being served by thinking this way or are we the servants? Are our deepest held beliefs doing us favors or are they harming us? Was I wrong to be so opposed to decorating my work in the past? That’s all I’m asking….

      And you know what? If those guys decided to jump off a cliff I might wonder what awaited them at the bottom, I might question how jumping fit in my particular plans, but I would weigh that against the trust that each of them had earned from me and my faith in their decision making. I would try to keep an open mind, at least. So I might very well take that leap. Those guys are a lot smarter than me, have so much more experience than me, and have proved their ability to make good pottery decisions over and above anything I have done in my life to date or likely ever will.

      So while I am inclined to figure just about everything out on my own, I will at least consider the example of people who seem to know what they are doing. What about you? Still tearing down idols and kicking sand in the face of the establishment? (Just kidding of course!) Don’t you at least want to believe that there are people out there who are smarter than you, have more experience than you, and make better decisions than you? If society only had me as their best example to go by we’d be in a sorry state indeed! I need help. So I’m trying to keep an open mind. Something to think about, right?

      Thanks for chiming in as always! Good to have it pointed out where my blathering gets too convoluted to actually say what I want it to say. Glad it only came out that bad, because I’m sure it could have been a lot worse…. Hah! πŸ˜‰

    • Scott Cooper says:

      “If Ron Meyers and Michael Simon jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”

      I would. But only if Carter told me to.

      • EEK!!! I thought you knew better than to listen to me! But I probably wouldn’t phrase it “Jump off this cliff”. I would ask “What’s so wrong about jumping off this cliff?” and let you come to your own conclusion. I might even throw in some possible reasons for doing it, support both sides of the argument, but it would only be the rare case that I would say “this must be done”. Things like the need to make the world a better place, supporting the right for beauty to exist, supporting a place for potters to practice their craft, supporting an environment that encourages education about pottery and the arts; Those kinds of things yes, but very few besides.

        And mostly I wouldn’t say to jump that cliff because I would be too aware of my own ignorance to even want to advise others, much less feel my own situation was necessarily relevant to someone else’s. I’m just not much of an authority figure (I hope!). A seeker of knowledge, yes. A sage counselor, no. I am not even remotely close enough to the center of the universe to think it revolves around what I think about things and do. And my pitiful brain is woefully inadequate to even my own situation. I’m just too flawed and small to be all that impressed by myself.

        And that’s why looking at the broader situation can cast light on our own. And actually discussing these things can unlock perspectives that are new to us and which defy the smallness of our convictions. The balance between conviction, prejudice and an open mind is sometimes an obscured path, and rushing headlong onto it is a sure way to expose the strengths and the defects of the vehicle that is carrying us. Unfortunately that has as much a tendency to pitch us over the cliff as listening to an outside authority. Why not at least listen to what Michael and Ron have to say when sometimes our own opinions are so obviously misguided? The funny thing about convictions and prejudice is that it turns us all into lemmings and we had just better hope that we are not pointed at that steep drop. Fortunately it usually means we just have low air pressure in our tires. Sometimes, unfortunately, it means we have a screw loose, and we strap ourselves with bombs and guns and wreak havoc on innocent bystanders. Are we so sure of our convictions that we know we aren’t also pointed at that cliff all on our own?

        Last bit of profanity: Sometimes we imagine that simply because we are not subject to outside authority we are actually ‘thinking for our selves’. Occasionally, yes. But when our opinions and inclinations get calcified into convictions and prejudices we have taken on a new master, and instead of active thinking we are engaged in following out the consequences of our delusion. We have swapped keeping an open minded questioning of the world for a fanatical subservience to the new law of our minds. Keeping our minds flexible at least opens us to the possibility of learning new things. A closed mind knows all it ever wants to know.

        Geez, my blathering just rambles in unexpected directions!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        That’s all fine and good, my Socratic Master, but goddammit, just tell me if I’m supposed to jump or not!

  10. Tom Johnson says:

    Yep.

  11. Tom Johnson says:

    Turquoise works great for you.

    • I’m thinking about it Tom. I swear!

      That glaze was such a nice discovery. I was so upset when those know nothing clowns at OCAF started hassling me about using it on pots. I just think the whole incident has left me with a bad taste in my mouth (And no I’m not burping up turquoise!). And I almost guarantee it would stand a better chance on etsy than my drab colors.

      Thanks again for the gentle arm twisting! Keep reminding me if I don’t follow through. I may decide against it in the end, but I’ll let you know if that’s the case. And who knows, I may just decide to revive it!

      Thanks for looking out for me Tom!

  12. gz says:

    It dosn’t have to be using the pot like a canvas. I’ve gone back to using more impressions and sprigs as a kind of punctuation in the pot’s form. These pots seem to be generating more interest that the ones decorated with animals- or perhaps it is that my image making is a little rusty and not flowing again yet!.

    • Great point about texture as decoration! And I think Ron P was suggesting that a bit in one of his comments. The interesting thing is that all this DOES seem to make a difference. Just how and why is not always so clear, but I suppose that is why I started asking these questions.

      Thanks for chiming in! Good luck getting back in the flow again! And happy potting!

  13. john bauman says:

    Sometimes it may be no more complicated than this:

    1. Decorating is hard (or harder). It takes more time, involves another skill set, and opens up the pot to another level of technical (in the kiln) failure

    2. Decorating is more self-revealing. It opens us up to embarrassment. We can almost pass these vague, uncommitted pieces (the undecorated ones) as someone else’s idea when challenged with their inferiority. When challenged with the inferiority of our own ideas, it can be crushing to our ego (not that y’all have an ego….consider this an autobiographical post).

    3. Decorating is more committed, and thus depletes an already hard to manage inventory exponentially faster. You can have 5 undecorated pieces…..or you can have the same 5 pieces, each decorated differently. Sell one of the former, and you’ve still got 4 to sell. Sell one of the latter and you are out of inventory for that item.

    My friend, Tim Sullivan and I have had this conversation many a time. Tim’s got a term for the undecorating among us. He calls them “Decoration averse”

    • And you are saying that isn’t complicated? πŸ™‚ Hah! I love all those points. They sound pretty real to me.

      But I would say that “decoration averse” doesn’t exactly describe me. But then I’m also a serendipity guy, and when it is phrased that way it seems like a put down. As if I SHOULD be decorating and there is something wrong with me for not. Sometimes there is something so special about the skin of a pot, its form, or proportions that drawing the eye to decoration obscures this or is too distracting. So liking or appreciating one thing for its own reasons doesn’t always mean you are averse to everything different. Sometimes life is too short to have such strong opinions about everything that doesn’t coincide with what we are doing. Sometimes we just don’t have the experience of it. And sometimes we could care less. “Averse” just sounds like such a strong a judgement….

      For instance, I often love putting the finishing touch in the hands of the kiln gods. I love the fact that there are surprises out there, even for me the maker. I like not knowing what the piece will come out as. Its not that I’m being lazy about the surface but that there is something so appealing to me about the unexpected gift, the unpredictable organic effects, of certain results.

      This is why I was so in love with the soda kiln and the wood kilns I used to fire in. Its like a force of nature was suddenly unleashed on my ware, and remade it into something out of my immediate control. This gives a real sense to the ware being a collaboration between the human hands and the other parts of the process. The mighty breath of the wood kiln. The cascading snowfall of wood ash. Decorating can sometimes be like the artist physically dominating the surface. It can come off as being a matter of control and imposing the artist’s will on the pots. Its sometimes more about the artist’s own statement than a statement from the kiln gods. A monolog rather than a discussion.

      And that attitude is perfectly fine for so many potters. Nothing wrong with it in the slightest. No aversion to kiln gods implied. But some of us are just more interested in living in harmony with the clay, sharing the journey, and a ‘team’ effort in the process. It is also why figuring out what I wanted to be doing in an electric kiln has been so hard. There just aren’t too many glazes I like at cone 6 that have those characteristics. And while the idea of decorating my pots has me all confused and out to sea, I don’t intend to avoid it. I may be queasy, but I’m not averse! Sea sick, but not afraid. Dumbstruck but not daunted.

      In the end, purposeful decoration seems to be mostly about exerting another level of control over the outcome. But if its a commitment, its commitment to something different, not just the opposite of a lack of commitment. Not every potter will feel as inclined to go down that road, and for a variety of legitimate and committed reasons. undecorated doesn’t always mean uncommitted. They can be committed to all sorts of different things.

      And in some cases decorating might actually be a cop out. Right? As if the artist was simply at a loss for how else to do it and took the easy way out of relying on habit and unquestioned routine. Decorating for the sake of decorating. Doing as the result of momentum rather than desire or reason… But that goes for anyone just going through the motions. All I have to do to know that is just to look in the mirror every morning. Guilty as charged!

      I’m still not sure how I will take to learning to decorate my pots. But I want to give it a try! I’m keeping an open mind about it. I think…. “Cast out thy demon aversion” said the exorcist. “Commit thyself to the one true faith!”

      And Tim is a great potter and masterful decorator, but the phrase sounds a bit condescending. I’d love to hear how he describes the decorators among us. Maybe its the “Potters who are finishing their pots correctly”? The “practitioners of the true faith”? The “paragons of commitment”? Or maybe the “compulsive controllers”? “Obsessive surface dominators”? Surely not the “serendipity averse”? Its just hard to look at his description as anything other than a sleight. As if there are not perfectly reasonable reasons to be doing something different than decorating. Or maybe he just can’t relate to those reasons? An outsider looking in? “Who are those absurd non-decorators anyway? Can’t they see that they should be decorating? They must be averse to it. Ignorant Philistines….” Or so it seems…..

      Hah! Hope I didn’t go off the deep end again (though I probably did)….. Thanks for bringing your wisdom to bear on the issue. I aspire to some of your decorative sensibilities and sophistication. I love so many of your pots. Its great to have folks out there making such amazing decorated ware. I know its an inspiration to many of us. Oh, and I just saw your post. Heavenly undecorated pots even from a master decorator! Great stuff! And great post!

      Happy potting!

  14. john bauman says:

    I don’t disagree with many of the stated reasons for decorating — pots sell better, we wanna, it makes us rich, famous, and incredibly attractive to the opposite sex, and it’s even been know to clear up unsightly blemishes.

    So, being the unimaginative contrarian that I can be, I thought about it from t’other ways ’round. That is: Given ALL those benefits, why would a potter choose NOT to decorate his pots? And I still think my reasons are pretty accurate.

    That doesn’t mean they were exhaustive. They were merely accurate.

    As you can tell from my blog post, I also see value in not decorating (or in letting simplicity BE the decoration). I just (cynic that I am) don’t think that’s most potter’s reason for not decorating. I think MOST potters don’t decorate for the reasons I listed.

    I’m reminded, however, of an interesting encounter:

    I run into this collector from time to time when I do the Springfield, IL show. He’ll talk to me at length about his pottery collection — pots by all the usual famous potter suspects. He one time summed up his collection as “They all have nothing on them”, as he nodded his head toward my shelves of decorated pieces with a look on his face like Thurston J. Howell III appraising Gilligan’s latest hollowed-out coconut full of spit, and continued, “you know, no leaves, no birds, no patterns….nothing on them”. He seems to like to talk to me about his collection — a collection without one of my pieces adulterating it’s theme of undecorated purity.

    Actually, humor aside, that collector just sees — as do many people — a certain sophistication in undecorated pottery. They see it as some sort of inferior affectation to ruin a pot with decoration.

    So, to sum it up … I don’t know nothing.

    • Hah! You don’t not know nothing except for everything you always know. πŸ˜‰

      Yeah, those reasons may speak for many, indeed even MOST of the potters who fail to decorate their pots. But as you note in the example of the collector, sometimes it comes down to taste, personal preferences, expectations, and how we were educated about visual information. In Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cultures there may be so much more room for pottery to be aimed at undecorated surfaces simply because this is what they want out of their pots. Its not like those potters are avoiding decoration from some weakness, but are simply aiming at something entirely different.

      I just think some of us Westerners have caught the same bug and become fascinated with this aesthetic. Its not as if the pottery world was simply defined by decoration and how all pots stand in relationship to it. Decoration isn’t the center of the pottery universe. Non-decorating potters don’t always do what they do with one eye cast over their shoulders at how it would look decorated. They often don’t even recognize that they are making UNdecorated work. They simply often aim at something entirely different. Something with its own identity. Something unrelated to decoration. Their eyes are simply focused on a different aesthetic. Like I said about myself in that example in the comment above.

      The funny thing about making generalizations is that it can be like those guys examining the elephant. The guy at the back left foot thinks its all solid, massive, firmly grounded, and rough. The guy at the trunk thinks its all rough, but untethered and erratically swaying. The guy at the tusks thinks its all shiny and smooth. Etc…. Being accurate is a great thing, but extrapolating the small truths into something larger is not always a path to greater truth. Not always, at least. The world is filled with little truths that overlap one another and sometimes even contradict each other. Isn’t that amazing?

      Sometimes points of view don’t encompass more than that small window we are looking out of. Sometimes getting the bigger picture requires that we step out of the house and move about, see what other vistas await. Just how many centers of the Universe do you suppose there are? Just how many do we imagine there are? If each of us is our own center, just what does that point of view offer for anyone else? Just how big are our small truths in the end? Just how accurate do they end up being? Like a 3-D movie you need special glasses to watch? How do we know that bowl of soup is excellent? Only if we are in a position to judge it. Just how much are we in a position to judge? Wearing our 3-D glasses? Bi-focals? Hearing aid? Across the room? Across the continent? Buried under the weight of our own center?

      So I don’t not know nothing either, especially when I sometimes maybe don’t not know it. πŸ˜‰ Perhaps?

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I think you’re both right!

        To the point about potters taking control of the surface through decorating or leaving room open for the kiln gods to do their thing, right now I’m most interested in the space roughly between those two poles: a little brushwork, some slip or a few glaze dots, then let the salt and soda do their thing. It’s really exciting to get to make yet another kind of mark in determining what the pot will be, but still with final approval and fixing in permanence by forces largely out of my control.

        • Your pots are the perfect example of the blending of these two truths. That’s a good scenario to bring up! Its not always either/or, but it can sometimes be both, like the guy who has his hands on both the trunk and the tusks. Multiple overlapping truths, both big and small, sometimes make for an inconsistent and contradictory hodge podge, but at other times we can successfully blend a few of these different perspectives together and come up with something much different than the parts on their own. Sometimes it doesn’t fit well together but at other times it is transcendent. Amazing how that works!

          Being ‘accurate’ sometimes just means being so parochial and focused that all the connecting details and context are lost in a narrow truth that doesn’t spread very far (As if it can’t stretch between the trunk and the tusks). Other times being ‘accurate’ is so spread out and generalized as to water down what we are saying to only very thin meaning (“Whatever it is it sure is BIG”). The lived reality is usually a lot more messy than either of those extremes. Not that those perspectives aren’t true in their own way, just that the sway and dance of a lived life drifts between many extremes and inhabits very few stable points for very long. To someone who lives with elephants the creature is both BIG and has tusks and a trunk. And so much more! We don’t just live with our eyes glued to microscopes and elephant tails, and we don’t just daydream with our heads in the clouds about universal truths and the “wonder of it all”.

          SWC pots in the vanguard of transcendent truth! I’ve always thought that. πŸ™‚

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Aw shucks, Carter… you give me too much credit, as usual. If I’m in the vanguard, it’s largely by accident and circumstance. I’m so stuck in the middle of the hypothetical elephant that I can’t reach either the trunk or the tail or any other relevant part… I’ve just heard they exist and am taking other people’s word for it!

  15. Tracey says:

    In the time it took me to read through all of this, I could have decorated some pots, haha!!
    Interesting reading……

  16. Tracey says:

    What can I say, I like to read πŸ™‚

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