George the coffee mug

And everything they do, they do beautifully. I mean, the buildings just shine. I mean, for instance, the icebox, the stove, the car, you know, they all have names. And since you wouldn’t treat Helen, the icebox, with any less respect than you would Margaret, your wife, you know, you make sure that Helen is as clean as Margaret, or treated with equal respect.”   -Andre Gregory discussing the people of Findhorn Scotland, from the film “My Dinner With Andre

George the coffee mug

George the coffee mug

Perhaps the hallmark of human culture is our ability to name things, to pick out difference. The world does not come to us already named, all its parts enumerated and signified in importance. We give the world shape in our minds by giving it names. And each culture does it differently. And each person has the power to name things their own way. The world is not born with names. The naming of things is a human birthright….

So what does this have to do with anything? Emily Murphy Bicking posted a question on Facebook that got my thoughts a swirlin’. Here’s what she asked:

A question about bowls: What would you “title” or call your bowls that are a standard cereal size? (for shows, your website, an etsy listing.) I always feel like I need to say something that indicates the size of the bowl (as opposed to just saying “bowl, 5.5″ x 4″”). But I also don’t love labeling it as a noodle/ice cream/ cereal bowl because I don’t want to automatically put a limitation of what it can be used for. Some customers react strongly to these types of labels. I don’t mind adding it to the description. (Perfect for curling up with a bowl of ice cream….) But I am always hesitant to add it to the title. Of course I am over thinking this- but I think it’s just part of the job ;). How do you label your bowls, etc…?

And here is how I responded (a bit modified and expanded after the FB posting):

“On etsy you might need to stick with the descriptively oriented names for convenience and practical internet marketing sake, but for galleries I say get creative! In certain settings a name should convey information. But in others a name is simply a name. Let it be what it is. A name doesn’t have to be a user’s manual. It doesn’t have to be practical or matter of fact. It can be a story in itself, or entirely made up and irrelevant to its use.

Artists in other media have titles that are off beat and silly, or sometimes overly serious and pretentious. Why not title a bowl on a pedestal in a gallery something interesting? Why not have fun with the names for individual pots? Rather than just looking at the boring statistics of size and function you could embellish it by also riffing on the decoration or glazing. A yellow cereal bowl could be “The Breakfast Banana”. A large salad bowl could be “The Greens’ Cadillac”. A pasta bowl could be “The Primavera”. Once you cut loose from the boring descriptions you actually get to employ your imagination. Is that a bad thing? Is that something we are unfamiliar with? Is that something we should be opposed to?

Names can come in all sorts of sizes and delineations. You can have personal names for individual pots but also family names for types. Think of how car manufacturers name the models of their production: “Escalade”, “Mustang”, “Jetta”, “Accord”…. In fact, think of any mass market product out there and you will see names that likely have come as the result of intense market research. “Cherios”, “Captain Crunch”, “Count Chocula”, “Frankenberry” are all particularly creative. Why would handcrafted objects be any less natural for naming? If we potters are talking about marketing strategy for our pots, why not copy the proven methods? Why not get creative? (Perhaps I should consider calling my line of dinner plates “Harvest” or “Symphony”, my full figured bowls “Marilyn” or “Fabio”, and my over sized beer steins “Bluto” or “Blotto”….)

The deeper truth seems to be that names have power. In ancient times it was thought that having a thing’s true name gave one control over it. The reality may be a bit more colloquial: Having a name for something simply allows us to relate to it easier, to deal with it as a thing. As the movie quote above suggests, we are less likely to take things for granted if they have names. Its a matter of appreciation and attention paid. We are more liable to respect that which has a name, dismiss that which does not. A name simply helps give things a place in our lives, marks them out as important. Things without names are often excluded from meaningful parts of our world or simply ignored. Things that are important to us deserve names. Giving something a name is a right of passage. Names give status and placement. They orient us. It is simply easier to include something in human consciousness and know what to do with it if it has a name.

The question is, if we deny our pots names are we saying (implying) that they are unworthy of a name? That they are not important enough to have names? Is that silly? Is it making a mountain out of a molehill? Is it pretentious? Does the fact of utilitarian use simply outweigh the individual pottery personality? Are our humble offerings saddled with abject unnameable humility? Is the most we can hope for our pots something generic? Are our pots just not that special or involved in peoples’ lives? Is creative personality wasted and ultimately not worth the effort? Are handmade pots simply not the intimate nuanced fruit of our imagination that I assumed they were?

My hope is that they are that important to us and to their users. And if they are a part of our lives, then they are part of a story. Even the plainest most ordinary pot has a story to tell. Why not find out what that story is and tell it? What were the pot’s inspirations? What were you thinking when you made it? Does it remind you of anything? What are its random associations? Can you ad lib something? And really, what it might come down to is what you want it to be called. Isn’t that up to you? Isn’t that in some sense the maker’s responsibility? Passed on to the eventual owner?

And are we bound to only describe our pots without actual names, using size/color/function? Do we only label pots so blandly because there are ‘rules’ we must obey? Or is it simply habit, convention, and we are too lazy or feel powerless to change the pattern? Are the practices too orthodox and stiff to allow for creative variation? Or do we simply not recognize the possibility of other options? This is the first I have thought about it. Anyone else given it much consideration?

Why not call individual pots by personal names? Is that crazy? Just how crazy is too crazy?

Humans are good at coming up with names. We name our pets and children. Is it wrong to call a mug “George”? Is ” Red Coffee Mug, 3 x 5 inches” any more or less strange than naming a kid “8 pounds and 5 ounces”? How about “Brooklyn Beckham”? “River Phoenix”? “Stone Phillips”? “Dweezil Zappa”? I know people who name their cars and boats, so inanimate objects are obviously not immune to naming. If a pot HAS a personality or a story to tell, why not speak to that? Or, just make something up….

Perhaps the most famous named piece of pottery, the Kizaemon teabowl

Perhaps the most famous named piece of pottery, the Kizaemon teabowl

In Japan there is even a whole culture of named pots. Here are a few examples: Tea Masters with pet names for their tea bowls and utensils, famous named bowls that are part of a cultural heritage, like the Kizaemon tea bowl above, and pots by the original Raku potter Chojiro which “usually have their individual names; some poetic and some witty were given by successive owners.The point being that there is no convention against naming pots in such a culture. Why would there be in ours?

If artists are defined by being engaged in creative work, and names are so important to a human sense of identity, why should the names for what potters do be such a let down?”


Please discuss.


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, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to George the coffee mug

  1. Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwas says:

    Yes! Name your housewares creatively!! Why should IKEA have all the fun?

  2. John Lowes says:

    I was fortunate enough to have a vase of mine place in the money, so to speak, with a second in show at a 3-D art exhibition. I was slightly embarrassed that the descriptive article announcing the winners of the awards and honorable mentions listed the title of my piece as “Untitled Vase”, at least they also mentioned my name too. Like who is going to remember “untitled Vase”. Now, The Breakfast Banana, that’s a name folks will remember.

  3. Grace says:

    Somewhat recently, I came across your blog and have been enjoying reading your thoughtful posts. This post really rang true for me. You see, I have a problem. I have this need to cover every inch of the surface of my work with something. It’s too much. I know this but yet, I have trouble stopping myself. I graduated from grad school a bit over 1.5 years ago. The work that I made right after grad school had potential but I always seem to ruin it with “too much”. Also, I felt aimless when it came to surface decorating so the surface felt aimless. Then I came across your blog and the giving each piece a title was one of the first posts that I read. I thought, why not? I spend so much time on each piece that surely, they deserve a title. So, I got myself a trusty notebook, where each piece is given a full page and a title. Then I write down notes, plans, thoughts about it etc. I have found that the simple, yet not so simple task of naming each piece has helped tremendously with the “too much” syndrome. Now, my decisions are mostly based around the title. It gives me direction and focuses my decisions. What’s more, title giving has prompted me to tell myself a little story about each piece, which I then try to pass on to my customers and collectors. In the end, isn’t story telling a big part of the relationship between the maker, the object and the user? Also, because I know I have to think of lots of titles, I find myself being more aware of my thoughts, little phrases or words that I hear or come across throughout the day. I now have a list of words that could turn into potential titles. I’ve even found myself reading some poetry, which I’ve never done before. Crazy stuff! Thank you for the prompt. It’s been a crucial one for me.

    • That’s so awesome, Grace! I knew there would be adventurous spirits like you to take up the challenge. I’m so glad it makes sense of and for what you are doing. And I just love the directions you have taken it in. Thanks so much for relating that in the comments. It adds wonderfully to the discussion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.