My love affair with mugs (pottery poetry for the lips)

Both as a maker of pots and a user of pots mugs are undoubtedly my favorite pottery form. There are more mugs in my house than any other kind of pot.

I also make more mugs than any other kind of pot. And quite possibly my love affair with clay is best expressed when I am making mugs.

For such an ‘ordinary’ vessel a mug has such huge potential for artistic expression. I always tell my students that “every surface of a pot is an opportunity for making a statement”, and with mugs I feel I have a compact format that can be just brimming with information.

Everything from the bottom of mugs,


the interior of mugs,


and the nuance of the handle’s attachment

can carry significant information.

So, as a maker of pots I tend to spend more time with mugs than most comparable pots. I may be able to throw the basic form pretty quickly, but I take easily four times as long to make, attach, and finesse the handle. And I feel the extra effort makes sense. The last thing I want is for my handles to be perfunctory. I want the nuance of my handles to be a declaration of my love for mugs. I show that I care by showing that I am paying attention. The subtle details are the special gift I can give, and my slowhanded approach is the best I can offer.

All these details add up in how we use pottery, but the importance of mugs is not just a visual issue. Rather, mugs stand out because using them combines all the senses (Well, maybe its not as much about hearing, but I’m sure you can think of instances where even this is a facet of how mugs are appreciated….). Mugs can be enjoyable to look at on a shelf or pedestal, but they are potentially so much more. The mug is simply also the most intimately handled clay object. We bring it right up to our faces. We put it to our lips. We watch it rise to our mouths, and we cradle it in our hands. We feel the heft. We smell the contents. We examine the interior as the liquid volume reveals more and less of the space contained. Our hands caress the form, pick out hints of texture, the swell of volume, the subtle shift of profile contours. We read the details of mugs more intimately than almost anything else we put our hands to.

And we are more broadly engaged with mugs than just about any other tool we use, though often this fact will go unnoticed. We may not always be conscious of it, but using mugs involves us more thoroughly than most other things. How many tools do we actually need both our hands and faces to use? Perhaps spoons and forks, but can you see the theme there? How often do we put our lips, teeth, or tongue to our keyboards, ipads, or cellphones? Steering wheel, doorknob, keys? Remote control, socks, wallet? And while we sometimes chew on the ends of a pencil, how often do we stare down the point as we raise it to our faces?

Perhaps some musicians know this level of connection, but I would argue that their eyes are perhaps less involved, and their sense of smell almost never. With a mug we get to feel the warmth of hot cocoa and smell fresh brewed coffee. And the balance of the weight shifts as we empty the contents, so we are continuously engaged in assessing the new variables. Once you know your musical instrument the surprises are few. A mug is an ever changing experience depending on how much of what liquid it contains. And while few are musicians in that sense, most all of us can at least relate to the heavy diner porcelain and wispy disposable Styrofoam versions of mugs.

So a mug stands out in that it interacts with us on all these levels. We may think that our eyes, ears, and hands are the more basic ways we confront the world, but I would make a case for our mouths as well. Its not just the sense of taste that our mouths give us, but an incredibly sophisticated sense of touch. I would even suggest that babies put almost everything they get their hands on in their mouths, not because they think its food, but because this is our earliest most basic way of getting information about the world. Its how the baby discovers whether something is food or not. A baby tastes the world before it can see it. But also, their mouths handle objects the way their hands do. Babies grasp the world with their mouths.

Our mouths are, in fact, one of our primary tools for accessing information. That they are also clever apparatus for speech tends to obscure this, but makes it no less true. And even our use of language depends on how sensitive an instrument mouths are. If our mouths were big enough and could stand to get calluses we might even learn to throw pots with our tongues (just kidding!). Our mouths are basic animal adaptations (Think of how cats are able to groom themselves and others, for instance). And as creatures once sprung from the seas, isn’t it amazing that fish all seem to be these amazing engines designed specifically to direct a mouth at different things? Interesting…. Of course most adult humans are infinitely clever and many have these wonderfully opposable thumbs, but our ability to interpret the world at a distance doesn’t mean we don’t still keep a close eye (nose and mouth) on things. Our mouths may not get the glory, but where would we be without their tactile abilities?

So, yeah, MUGS! A mug inhabits that space between a table surface and our faces. For a mug to do its job it needs to be in contact with our lips, not just provide a transition to them. Its not just a conveyance, but an artifact of vital sensory significance. What more important job could there be for a piece of pottery?

So I would say that if there is one pottery form that a potter should fall in love with, why not a mug?

Peace all! Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

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

  1. gz says:

    Having an assortment of mugs from your friends means you have a reminder of each person.

    • So true! True of pots in general too!

      And potters seem to care about this, but can we say the same about most other folks purchasing our work? Are most folks buying pots just buying an object for their home, or a gift for mother’s day, or a wedding present for their friends? A gifted pot may leave the new owner with no connection at all to who made it. But non-potters hardly ever ‘get’ all the subtle nuance that a potter tries to bring to their work anyway. So its probably also true that even if they know who made the pot they miss out on the personal details of the potter’s creativity that is being instilled in each pot. The pot may have been made by this potter, but sometimes it is effectively anonymous and could as easily have been made by someone else (for all they know).

      Potters just know more about how pots were made, the decision making process that led to these particular results, and the technical skills that gave the pot its shape, details, and finish. In understanding how it got there potters know something personal about who put it there. When potters are reminded of who the maker was, they almost always have a fleshed out impression of who that maker was. If a pot was wood fired a potter knows just what labor went into the pot, or can imagine it. A wood fired pot speaks of the monumental process of building a kiln, long hours cutting and hauling wood, stacking it, the shifts stoking the kiln over a series of days, the anticipation of the delay in waiting for the kiln to cool even more days later, the unloading, cleaning the shelves, cleaning the pots, etc. Without this background experience it seems that non-potters often only have a name and a face, and perhaps a venue from which it was purchased. Does that mean non-potters almost always miss out on the more personal reasons for our fondness for pots? I wonder…..

      And I guess this is why we so often spend so much time trying to educate our customers. But hearing about our trials will always be a poor substitute for actually experiencing them. Always….

  2. john bauman says:

    nice post.

  3. richardkooyman says:

    Great pots. I was actually a ceramics major before I became a painter.

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