Making pots with the Master and with the Slave

“Behold my insipid majesty on the subject” (Chuck Wendig voicing the words I should preface every post with. Or maybe it should just be the new name of this blog…. Maybe “My copious load of marvelous malarkey”)

Anyway, I seem to be fixated on teaching issues lately, and Aaron Sober just posted something in his excellent blog that caught my deranged attention. In it he states:

“A potter I worked with at the time referred to one of his hands as his “worker hand,” and the other as his “slave hand.” For the life of me, I can’t remember which one was which. One hand remained on the inside of each flower pot while the other held tools: a stamp, toggle, metal rib, and sponge. One was a worker, the other a slave. It has stayed with me like a riddle. I have tried to put meaning to this memory, but can’t seem to find any wisdom in it. Still, it remains.”


The “master(worker)/slave” description of our hands actually makes a bit of sense to me, especially in teaching throwing to beginners. Most beginners have a dominant hand. In their daily lives they do most of their sensitive and delicate work with one hand but not the other. And this hand is also typically stronger than their other hand. It simply gets used the most. And not just as a default, but because its better at most things. This goes from brushing teeth to holding a cup of coffee. We are just not as comfortable doing those things with our subordinate or ‘off’ hand. We simply don’t always have the manual sophistication, strength, or intelligence to pull some things off ambidextously.

But that’s where training can make a difference. As artists we are always trying to educate our hands. Our best and most intelligent tools will always be our hands. We may not start out with two equally gifted or qualified sets of digits, but with practice we can make this more a reality. So the way I phrase it to beginners is that they start out having a smart hand and a not so smart hand.  Their ‘smart’ hand should do what being smart is good for: It should be the one responsible for most of the decision making and sensitive work. Its the one that is better able to ‘read’ the clay and better able to respond and adapt to what’s going on. It should also be given the tasks that require sophistication.

And because a right handed thrower usually has his or her right hand on the outside of the clay wall there is probably a good reason for this. Don’t you think?(And of course I’m ignoring the example of how its taught in Japan and other places. It would be interesting to hear an argument for why those folks approach it the way they do. Removing the advantage of a dominant hand to promote the ideals of “beginner mind”, perhaps, and wabi sabi aesthetics? Interesting question! Lee, where are you?)

For instance, with many pottery forms you can ‘see’ so much more of the pot from its exterior. Your hand has much greater freedom on the outside. The inside of a cylinder can often be cramped. There is simply a much greater access to these shapes from the outside and you can therefor do more things more easily from the outside. It makes sense to use your best tool to its best advantage.

Only with low wide shapes is the form open to you, and your head actually anywhere near to being ‘inside’ the pot. So plates might be an exception. But I think even many bowl shapes still often get set up in the typical Master/Slave way with tools being held primarily in the ‘dominant’ hand. (Or maybe I should just say that the description only works in some cases….)

And of course once we are trained up in how to work the clay some of that intelligence and dexterity finds its way to our off hands. Eventually our off hands are able to do more things intelligently. But at first the beginning student almost always has one hand that is capable and one hand that is deficient and lacking in experience. And mostly this is advice about thinning the walls, drying them, and various decorating techniques. Obviously it doesn’t count for everything or make sense in all situations.

What I suggest to beginners is that they use their less intelligent hand mostly to support what they are doing with their smart hand. Their smart hand is more able and should take the lead. Its the one most often holding the tools. If the tool has a job to do its the off hand’s responsibility to support that.

Think of it as like a dance team with unequal partners. If you let the less able dancer lead you will sometimes get your toes stepped on. It all comes down to ability and which things are suited for what activities. You don’t type a keyboard with your elbows. You don’t let your neighbor perform major elective surgery (Unless…!). You don’t hire a baker to build your house. I’m not saying that all things require a specialist, but training and natural ability will always trump ignorance and incompetence. We don’t purposely choose the least suited. Other things being equal we choose the best. Right?

So if something like intelligence or dexterity makes one hand more fit for certain jobs isn’t that simply what it has been trained for? Its not the only thing that’s going on. Sure. It still requires teamwork. The other hand still has a role to play. Its just not the same role necessarily. Its a division of labor. Each to its own. And with the less intelligent hand of beginners it sometimes makes sense to apply the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. For beginners at least….

And what I say to beginners has very little to do with more advanced throwers. Once you know what you are doing you can break most of the ‘rules’. This advice is really only ever provisional. Its just a strategy to help folks that are often overwhelmed by the newness of what they are doing. And because their off hand may lack a bit of sophistication and sensitivity, giving it too much to do from the start can sometimes get them in trouble. At least until they have gained experience and reasonably know better.

Letting an uneducated off hand dictate proceedings is like letting a third grader teach college classes. Give that hand the necessary experience and it will do just fine. But not from square one. Don’t put your hand in situations where it is likely to get burned. If its not prepared it cannot succeed. In other words, don’t use the ‘wrong’ hand, the wrong tool. Educate it to be the ‘right’ hand. Don’t use a screw driver to pound nails, a hammer to turn screws. Turn that metaphoric hammer into a screwdriver, transform that screwdriver into a hammer. But until you do, keep the Master in the mansion and the slave in the fields.

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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4 Responses to Making pots with the Master and with the Slave

  1. Illustration of the division of labor and how beginners can sometimes get it wrong:

    The other night my class was learning thrown spouts for things like cruets, watering cans, and ultimately for teapots. I was just getting over an infected cat bite in the meat of my right hand, so I was only able to do a bit of demonstrating on the wheel. And somehow in showing the students what to do I did a poor job of also telling them what to do. It seems I left out important parts of the explanation. They saw my hands do this thing and that, but a few of them didn’t notice which hand was doing which thing! They got the division of labor, but they put the keys in the wrong hand!

    In throwing a spout you do need sensitivity and control with the hand that is doing the thinning of the wall. But even more importantly, you also need to keep that inside support rigid. This is a must, and getting it right is a challenge for folks that its new to. Especially if they make the mistake of using the wrong hand to try it. They’ve just gotten used to the division of labor of their hands on the pot, but one hand and a stick is a totally different world.

    What seems like the ‘universal rule’ of smart/strong hand on the outside actually puts you in a bad position. You need to keep that supporting stick, paintbrush, or whatever on the inside stable, and a beginner’s off hand is just not up to the task. When you absolutely need a firm hand you don’t ask your weaker hand to do the job. If the most important thing is to keep the support stable, then you hope that just maybe the off hand can take care of the thinning of the walls. If not, you are in trouble, because this is usually your best shot as a beginner. Heck, even after 20 years it would challenge me to use my off hand to hold that support steady. I am not nearly as ambidextrous as I’d like to be. My left hand is shamefully weak….

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    My left hand demands emancipation prior to participating in typing any more comments.

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