The Persistence of Form

“Sometimes the long way round is the best way home” Scott Cooper

A few days ago a fellow potter and I were looking at pots in a local sale and inevitably we started picking up mugs to see how they felt in our hands. Some were surprisingly comfortable despite looking awkward, and others that looked great were impossible to use comfortably. But also, handles that fit my hand did not necessarily fit my friend’s hand. And there should be no shock there! Comfort is not a ‘one size fits all’ proposition. And so my retort was “That’s why I make them all different. Because different people will find different ones better to use.”

My friend stared at me in confusion and doubt. “But” she said, “you make them all the same. You make the same handles for all your mugs!” Yikes! Is that true? And just what does that mean? After all, it is true that I have been fascinated by making thicker handles that are attached from the bottom and then pulled upside down. Isn’t it true that at least the last 4-500 handles I’ve made have all been done that way?

I was reminded of an anecdote that Ron Philbeck shared about Ron Meyers in a comment on this blog a few years back:

“I’ve seen him make pots in workshop settings about 6 times now. I heard him tell of some potter peer he knew that came up to him at a show one time. They had not seen each other in years. The guy said, ‘So Ron you’re still making these same pots.’ Ron said, ‘Yep, still trying to get them right.'”

Ponder that.

It seems that from one side the view is of consistency or persistence, coherence, and from the other it is evolution and change, departure. How can that be? Isn’t it one or the other?

Well, what happens when a beginner starts throwing a cylinder? Often the clay wall will spread out and suddenly its a bowl. A bit later on it collapses completely and now its a plate. When did it stop being a cup and start being a bowl? When did it stop being a bowl and start being a plate? Its the same lump of clay. How could it be all these things? Serially and even contemporaneously at times. It could be both a cup and a bowl at some stage, for instance. Where is the transition point? Where is the intersection?

I just saw this image of Tony Clennell’s obsession with handles.

I count at least four strap handles making up this one knob. According to Tony, every jar should have at least three handles if not more (I just made that up!)

I count at least four strap handles making up this one knob. According to Tony, every jar should have at least three handles if not more (I just made that up!)

There are at least 4 straps making that knob. If he added 4 more would it still be a knob? A hundred more? At what point does a quantitative change make a qualitative difference?

When does something stop being one thing and start being another?

Basketball hoops?

Stick that in the NBA and let LeBron go to work.

Courtesy of The Glue Society. Stick that in the NBA and let LeBron go to work.

The point I’m trying to make is that as artists we often work on the difference between small things. It can be subtle. A mere change of context. You can miss it if you are not paying attention. An outsider can think you’ve just made the same basic thing, when in fact you’ve just finally beaten the odds and made that minor adjustment that makes this one variation a success unlike any other thing you’ve done before (!). True story! And this is something every serious artist either aspires to or can already relate to.

And outsiders can’t always see that. They see the threads that tie things together more than they see the nuances that separate one form from another. The easy hack is to see patterns. The shortcut we take that stops us from thinking too deeply or seeing too clearly is the sidestepping of the sheer chaotic difference that surrounds us at all times. The chaos can be unnerving. And yet, artists take advantage of that very dissonance. Discrepancy and novelty is their bread and butter. Artists are trained to notice the minute difference of small things and to invest value in its inconsistency. Artists are the ones who chase after the elusive. They do not take the easy road of settling for the status quo or of only regurgitating sameness. Any artist worth the name is an inveterate explorer of the open seas of possibility.

Artists interrogate the world for its mysterious and often irrational qualities. They find meaning where others are not prepared to look on their own. They need to invent things to show us these ways of looking. They make art to show what unusual aspects of the world actually DO matter.

What makes one thing better than another? Why do we aim at this particular difference? Is ‘better’ a law that can be laid down once and for all? Written in stone and passed down to our children’s children’s children? Is ‘better’ something that only has one answer? Or, is it something that is usually provisional and contingent? Is it something that every discerning individual is entitled to make claims about? And that we disagree simply because we see things differently? We see different things?

Isn’t the point of being an artist to disclose the possibilities of the world? “Hey! Look at this!”? So, isn’t it also important to listen to what these artists have to say? Not simply what we think they are saying, but listen to the song that animates them? Their urgency to explore this one nuance that wakes them up in the middle of the night and has them working obsessively without sleep, without food…? What are the questions that are being asked? How does this person measure the persistence of form?

A week or so before another potter friend had shared something from the page of Mike Helke pottery. I think its a great statement of the flux that is at the heart of every vitally creative being. This is what Mike said:

“Yesterday I walked into my studio, looked at the pots on my shelf and panicked because the ware looked so all over the place/not cohesive. Weekly studio freak-out… check.

My ware has always been in this state of frequent and dramatic change. I used to be scared of it, thinking that it might be a sign of immaturity, superficiality, and an inability to commit as a maker. During my second semester of graduate school though, I came to believe that there is no such thing as a “wrong” solution.

I make each pot with a series of choices. These choices are recorded by marks rendered in the building and embellishing process; a pot is a catalog of an experience. I get to reflect whatever experience I want with each pot, start to finish. No other aspect of my life affords this level of autonomy and ownership. And, when I do come up against standards or rules associated with the objects that I make, I get to question them and wonder if there are other ways they could mean or be-I get to define my own standard.

Developing a standard for myself is scary but invigorating; I find motivation and energy in this wondering. So sure, maybe my work does appear all over the place, but that is because I find virtue in my freedom to question and wonder. Maybe subconsciously my pots are a microcosm me… helping me understand myself, what I desire, and what I believe in. Anyway, I feel especially lucky to have found a means to do this.”

Brilliant, right? Here’s the image Mike attached to that quote:

Mike Helke: Difference maker

And looking at the image Mike had posted of his work several of the commenters praised him for the actual consistency of his output. In a sense, I can see that too. Standing on the outside we tend to see that something has been found. A way of working. Preferred tools. The same clay body. The same way of firing…. We identify a body of work. We interpret it as internally coherent. We see the artist’s intention in terms of stability and consistency. But on the actual inside of that process we have simply missed the exploration that is going on. We too easily ignore the questing dissatisfaction that repeatedly drives the creative individual in different directions. And we miss that they are different directions. To us outsiders they can all seem the same…..

Scott Cooper and I have been having another of our rambling digressions over some emails these past few weeks. One of the themes we are both drawn to is that when we read back over things we put in our blogs a year or two or more ago it sometimes seems like they were written by a different person. Isn’t that fascinating! That we can appear to be strangers to our own selves when separated by time?

But isn’t that also not so surprising? I know I was a total dumb ass for most of my teen years, and adulthood did little to improve on that for the longest time. I hope I am not that same person. I am shocked at how ignorant I must have been. Just plain stupid at times. And obnoxious. But I suppose I mostly meant well….. I can no longer imagine being that person. The person I am now can no longer inhabit the mental states that drove my former self to do so many foolish things. Thankfully I am NOT very much like him anymore. I can hardly remember being that person. If I have to think about it, I hope I have learned a thing or two since then.

So I’m not proposing any definitive answers, I’m just pointing out that this is an interesting way of looking at things. This is not an attempt at an artificially tidy metaphysics nor even a messy one. At the level of art the world admits of astounding possibility and interpretation. Its not a hankering after sameness. Especially for artists, who tend to look at the small details and why things are different. Artists, after all, are obsessed with making changes to the world. Their dreams end up recreating the world from these new perspectives. I think its only important to remember that a creative person who is still evolving is a person who sees the value of difference in the world. And that this difference is what matters.

What do you all think?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

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.
This entry was posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Persistence of Form

  1. A great video conversation with John Glick. The first 10-12 minutes he hammers home the point of experimentation and difference making. I never knew this about him. From the outside I never really understood the things he was going for.

  2. gazooza says:


    I love this: “Artists are trained to notice the minute difference of small things and to invest value in its inconsistency.”

    I bet this is consistent across all sorts of artistic mediums; the way that something like your mug handles can seem 99% different from the inside, and 99% the same from the outside. The more you know, the closer you look, the more there is to know and see.

    As you know, I tend to obsess with these things — probably too much. But to me the details matter, all the way down. Not that it has to all be “in control” — this is somewhat independent of the ‘tight vs. loose” issue — but I often find myself debating about whether to wipe out a fingerprint or leave it; caring about the qualities of a single hairline of throwing slip; re-brushing a line to move it a couple millimeters over.

    A great pot is the sum of a thousand subtle details.

  3. chantay says:

    Your post reminds me of teaching my child to “SEE” things, and what that really means. As always your post inspire reflection, self inspection and inspiration. Thanks

  4. Pingback: What was I thinking… in 2013? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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