Talking about pottery

So, it probably looks as if I’ve finally gone off the deep end with these last several posts…..

It may not have been wholly clear even in my own mind, but what I was attempting was a bit of “talking about how we talk about pots”. Which may not be such an easy thing. We know how to make what we make, but its quite another thing to articulate why we make these things or to communicate that to other people.

I remember when I was well into my second year of pot making I shared a house with a Painting graduate student. At one point in a conversation I expressed the opinion that I couldn’t say anything informative about my pots, that “words simply didn’t capture what I was doing”. In my own experience up to that point pottery was something ineffable. She looked at me like I was a stark raving lunatic. Or a drooling apple-knocker. Or a gibbering nimrod…..

But how was I supposed to know? I wasn’t in a position where experience had led me to talk about pots. I didn’t have any formal (academic) instruction yet. These weren’t courses that forced me to verbalize what I was doing. No one had told me that I needed to talk about my pots. So how was I supposed to know how to do it? I lacked experience, but I also simply didn’t have the vocabulary to put it together. The values and emotions behind what I was doing didn’t seem to fit into words or even clear thoughts. Making pots involved me sitting down at a wheel and doing the thing I had come to love doing. End of story. What else was there for me?

I think it has to be true that anything one does as as a beginner simply doesn’t have the clarity of sophistication or even much practical awareness of what is being done. To learn anything means to gain certain experiences. Beginners are by definition at a deficit. To learn how to talk about pots we need to learn to see what we are looking at. That comes first. And only then through trial and error do we start to put the words together that seem to best express what we are doing.

And interestingly, without the words, sometimes we don’t really see things so well. Its as if we learn new things about the world in the company of language. Words tend to help us focus and differentiate. Words give us nuance and value. Its amazing what we can do in the absence of words. But its also amazing what we can do once we do have the words. Learning how to talk about things also teaches us how to look at them. Sometimes we discuss things to help bring clarity to our own thinking. The feedback of testing ideas against the world is simply how we grow. It is exploration rather than conservation. And an open mind is a vessel that can still be filled…..

And no one is born into this world knowing how to talk about pots (or really anything else). Why would it be hard to understand that we also need to learn how to discuss them? And why would we think that we are good at discussing them if we haven’t had much practice? Just how much practice do we need before we can clearly articulate all we are seeing? And how much putting into words do we need before we see all there is to see? Do we sometimes fool ourselves with the simplicity of our inexperience? Our conviction that we already know all there is to know? I’m sure that’s what my roommate thought about me. I probably did seem like a nincompoop at the time….

Well, eventually I started taking classes that were academic, and I did find myself in positions where there were conversations about pots. How others talked about pots helped me see what I was looking at. Some of what got said was nonsense. Some of it was ill informed hogwash. But occasionally it helped to have an opinion from someone with greater experience or a contrasting viewpoint. You even get to see your own handiwork in a new light once you find the tools to discuss it. And so a light bulb suddenly went on. It turned out there were words that could help me talk about what I was doing.


Fellow potter blogger Bridget Fairbank has embarked on the ambitious internet project of critiquing pots. She, like me, wants to talk about pots. There really are no guidelines on how we discuss other’s work on the internet. You just try not to offend anyone (unless you are a self absorbed ape who doesn’t care). In Bridget’s words, “You can think anything you want. You can believe anything you want. You can say anything you want. But for Bernard’s Sake say what has prompted these thoughts. Most often for me it is a feeling that stems from an interaction with a piece of work and can often take a swack of discerning (and blabbing) to figure out just where the visceral reaction stems from and why it was felt.”

What do we see in other people’s pottery that can be talked about? Is it the same stuff the artist herself would talk about? Do we notice only the stuff we see in our own work? Have we learned how others view things? Can we see the difference? And can the act of talking about these things be enlightening for both parties? Can artists learn new ideas by hearing what others have to say about their work?

Isn’t it true that there is no definitive version of what can be said about a pot? That someone somewhere will always have a different impression and other things to say? If we don’t always agree, does that tell us something? Is everyone else simply blind to the value we ourselves bring to the table, or are there many differences that simply have their own legitimate value? And that all these perspectives simply add to the wonderful complexity of how pots (and the world) can be appreciated?

Not everything made by other potters is my cup of tea, but surely they are someone else’s cups of tea. Isn’t it this strange diversity of opinions that helps make a human life so fascinating? That we all see the world just a bit differently? That we each have our unique contributions to make? Shouldn’t we be thankful that we are not all clones, and that we do not all see the world the same exact way?

It may be enough knowing what we know, liking what we like, and either having or not having the words to capture all that. But doesn’t it help to have all the available tools at play when it comes to discussing pots with others? Without shared values and shared vocabulary will there be enough common ground for people to discuss their work? And see all there is to see? Or will we end up talking past one another, failing to communicate? Will it be like the ceramic Tower of Babel?

Are we not served well as potters by being able to talk about our pots with an open and inquisitive mind? Isn’t it in our interest to learn to see more than the values we ourselves instill in our pots? We don’t need to like Darjeeling to know what it is. Just how broad do we wish our experience and education to be? It seems like something worth thinking about at least….

So, if these are important questions for potters wanting to talk about pots, have my recent blog topics been completely off target? “Beauty”, “mystery”, “open mindedness”, “talent”, “imagination”? Are they moon shots about nothing important? Are they discursions into arcane and nebulous esoterica? Are they wholly irrelevant to anyone interested in making pots? Or talking about them? Maybe….. Maybe not….


“Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity.” Rosamond E. M. Harding

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.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Talking about pottery

  1. Laura Torres says:

    Well dear teacher, your classes push me to develop my pot making skills, but these wonderful thoughts you put into words challenge me to broaden my creativity level. I am just blown away by your many talents. Thank you for the beauty and harmony that you contribute to this world Carter! Have a blessed day!~Laura

    • Aw shucks, Laura….

      I feel so lucky to have you as a student. And I’m glad that our classes together have helped nurture that creativity that I see brimming in you. I think we are doing something good here.

      Keep up the good work! I’m tremendously proud of you.

  2. John Bauman says:

    If you look into the night sky you will notice stars in your peripheral vision that, should you try, disappear as soon as you attempt a more direct gaze.

    • I so totally agree with that John! Thanks as always for putting a poetic touch on my fumbling cogitation.

      That idea of peripheral ideterminancy and ambiguity is probably something I could have gone on at length about in the “mystery” post. Damn thing was already too long by the time I fleshed out the basics…. Glad you brought it up here!

      This is something I wrote for my ‘artist statement’ on the blog here: “beauty is not something that can always be approached from head on. My experience with clay has led me to pursue it only indirectly; never staring at it too hard, as it were, but keeping it in the corner of my eye. It is almost as if you need to move sideways lest you scare these elusive qualities from your work.” Just like looking at stars……

      And maybe more than peripheral indeterminancy and ambiguity, part of the character of the world those stars reveal is an evanescence and ephemerality. Not everything is meant to be captured by human linguistic clarity. Words don’t always do science. Sometimes some things ARE ineffable.

      But that said, it still doesn’t mean we have to remain mute, or that we can’t devise other ways of ‘seeing’ that capture the periphery. Sometimes if you turn your head quick enough you can catch the fairies grinning from behind the trees. And we can find ways of tracking its spoor. We can tempt them with charms and enchantments. We can learn to see the things in our periphery. And thankfully we have poetry and music to shed light on these less definable qualities. We can interpret the world with more than just words (ala the fascinating project called “Dance your PhD”).

      Its not as if our wonder is always in jeopardy the more we know. And knowing isn’t always chained to words. Sometimes words get in the way, but sometimes they help. Sometimes we have words that destroy a mystery, and sometimes we have words that express it. Mystery in spite of what we can say.

      Mystery always stays a step ahead of us. The loss of mystery is not from knowing more but from being less curious. Its only when we STOP LOOKING that we lose our wonder at the world, and fail to see the inarticulated shadows in the corners. As long as we are looking wonder survives. And so, knowing how to talk about pots is not necessarily a bad thing.

      Most pots seem to have something to say. Every intentional detail and many serendipitous results point to a language of pots that is there for us to read. Surely that means we can say something in return. Or be a poet or write a melody. Maybe dance a jig. Despite the mystery that is only slowly revealed through use we can commune with our pots in meaningful ways. Where there is meaning there is always an opportunity for interpretation and expression…..

      Oops! Another dumb ramble….. Hope some of it made a bit of sense…..

  3. Pingback: Monty Python help explain pottery, language, and the imagination | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  4. I reckon that when we quit or don’t bother to question an object something great is lost. Words are admittedly just another tool, a means to an end. In our case understanding/discovering the pot in question is the end. The pot is the only true and clear expression of itself and all words in its regards are really just hearsay. When pots are deciphered via language there is never true conveyance, things get lost in translation. A pot is dynamic and does not transcribe well into single dimensions. Just as pot can not be truly represented via photography, we are ultimately exposed to the object through the lens, both physical and metaphorical, of the photographer. The same goes with words. Once we open our mouths we are bias and ultimately skew what is set before us. It is the bias words blatantly bring forth that can present challenges in communication, these challenges promote learning. Without disagreements, fresh interpretations, notions or views we can never truly appreciate all the facets a piece has to offer. Talking about pottery isn’t about finding a “correct” interpretation of a piece or winning an argument it is about possibilities and exploration.

    I think your posts have been very relevant and intriguing. There are the macro and micro approaches to pottery, well to all things. When we focus on one aspect and get closer and closer a great beauty in refinement and specific knowledge can result. When looking at the big picture we can see how so many things pertain to our ceramic practices and find beauty in a matrix where seemingly unconnected things inform each other from a far. The best is when unbenounced to ourselves we travel in either in micro or macro fashion and stumble upon some clarity (mot likely in retrospect for me) under some uniting theme.

    Post Script. When writing this blurb prior to reading the other comments I had written “Perhaps we should interpret pots through dance”, this seeming in all sincerity a more apt form of communication to translate into…something to do with layers and dimensions that the written word just can’t deliver. Then nixed it due to the absurdity of sharing the notion with strangers. Now you’ve reaffirmed it, not so absurd at all!

    • Cool Bridget! Thanks for chiming in!

      Yeah, dance, music and poetry are given so little credibility in how we as humans understand our world. But they do inform us, and we should pay more attention to what those forms of communication bring to the table. Unfortunately we have lately (the last several centuries) become bewitched by the idea that the crystalline clarity of science is the only true way of making sense of the world, and somehow we have implicated our natural language as a candidate for scientific discovery. Which is pretty wrong headed…..

      Still, as long as we remember that our words are almost never doing ‘science’ it also makes sense to see what we CAN talk about profitably. And so I love it when you say “Without disagreements, fresh interpretations, notions or views we can never truly appreciate all the facets a piece has to offer. Talking about pottery isn’t about finding a “correct” interpretation of a piece or winning an argument it is about possibilities and exploration.”

      The one thing I would perhaps disagree with you on is that “The pot is the only true and clear expression of itself”. I think I know what you mean, but I hesitate to even raise the spectre of “the pot itself”. I would instead argue that there is nothing we have access to that would count as the pot itself (i.e. the ‘objective’ pot), and that therefor we don’t really need to be talking about it. Its not something that is revealed by closer inspection, ala science. We are always looking at it from some limited perspective, and by necessity no one else will bring the exact same lens to how it is appreciated. In other words, that its not even a ‘pot’ until someone calls it a pot. And until its a ‘pot’ we aren’t looking at it as a pot. So, in a sense, the ‘objective object’ drops out as essentially meaningless….

      So, the first source of human disagreement AND appreciation is our culture. Truth and clarity of expression are not things underlying what humans already do with pots. Truth and clarity IS what we do. The truth of a cup IS that we raise it to our lips, and the clarity IS that we drink from cups. Of course these practices are tied up with the words we use, but the reality is that we can never untangle them. Not in our daily life. The threads of our cultural associations are something we are stuck with. Until we learn to put them in the context of another culture. (In other words, Americans can learn to appreciate teabowls in a new way by learning the Japanese Tea Ceremony….)

      Maybe if you put the pot under some Mass Spectrometer you would get an ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ answer. But that wouldn’t tell us anything about what the pot MEANS as a pot. In other words, pots already have a place within the culture of our daily lives. And this is how we see them. This is how we make sense of them. We know a cup is for drinking. What ever it is “in itself” almost doesn’t matter. A vessel used for eating or drinking is a part of what humans DO. And as we both know, humans do the craziest and inexplicable things! But all meaning at its root is human meaning….

      So I would suggest that we learn to embrace the humanity of what pots mean. And that in turn also means the personal significance over and above the cultural nuance. Like you said in the quote of yours I used in the post “Most often for me it is a feeling that stems from an interaction with a piece of work and can often take a swack of discerning (and blabbing) to figure out just where the visceral reaction stems from and why it was felt.” Nicely put!

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