Why make THIS pot?

Potters make pots. They sit down at a potter’s wheel, grab a lump of clay, and before you know it: A Pot!

And potters’ pots are all pretty much the same, in a basic sense. They are all made from clay. Many of them start out and finish up mostly on the wheel. There are few real surprises: A cup is a cup, a bowl is a bowl….. And even pots made by different artists all still owe something fundamental to the lineage of pot-making. As far as we stretch the boundaries, as different as one cup is to the next, they are still cups. They are still pots.

So its really simple, isn’t it? Potters make pots. End of story.

But even if you are making basically the same damn pot you’ve been making for the last 15 years, you still can be making them for different reasons. Its like driving a car. Sometimes we drive to get to work. Sometimes we drive to run errands. Sometimes we are on the road to enjoy a beautiful day in the countryside. Other times we have other agendas or different non-agendas at all.

You can’t just look at a pot and tell why it was made. Often the artists themselves have not thought it through clearly. Sometimes its just something we do. Sometimes its just what we feel we are required to do. Like a habit. Or tradition. There may not be sensible or adequate reasons if we dig too far. But other times our reasons can be quite specific. For example:

I need this shape to fill gaps when I’m loading the kiln.
I would like this type of pot to use in my kitchen.
Someone has asked me to make them a pot in this particular style in these dimensions.
I need cups for my inventory.
The gallery called and said they want more of X.
My display won’t look good without a variety of shapes.
I’m working on specific pieces for a show that has a specific theme.
I haven’t made plates in a while.
I just saw a pot online by an artist who inspires me.
Its an assignment for a class I’m taking.
Its a challenge from my studio-mates, who can make the most X, who can make the biggest Y.
I need to figure out a pitcher shape that pours without dripping.
I’ve got to figure out how to get the walls thinner, no matter what I’m making.
I need to perfect this one form, get it right.
I need to try something different.
I’m running out of space in my studio, so I have to work small and stackable.
Its almost the holidays, so I need to make ornaments.
I need to make the pots that will stand the best chance of selling.
My mom suggested I make this thing she saw in a catalog.
Its part of a set.
Its a variation on a theme.
No one else has done anything like it (as far as I can tell).
Everyone seems to be doing it, so why not me?
This form was made by ancient potters.
This shape and design is cutting edge.
This is the kind of pot that will get me into shows and galleries.
This represents my signature style, which I am hoping will become collectible.
This shape appeared in my dreams.
The little green man who lives in the mushroom house told me to make it.
I sketched it out first.
The clay is too stiff to make anything bigger.
The clay is too wet to make anything bigger.
I haven’t learned how to do it any different.
I’m not curious about making things that are different.
There is pressure on me from the marketplace to not make things too different.
……. and on, and on.

Well, that’s already a long list of possibilities. And the one thing all these potential reasons have in common is that they are all externally driven if not motivated. In a sense, these reasons are all extrinsic. So what would an intrinsic motivation look like?

To be intrinsically motivated means we are doing things for their own sake, not the sake of something else. So it really ends up being quite simple: To be intrinsically motivated we make this thing because its what we want to make, or need to make, other concerns aside. Its something we do in spite of the pressures on us to do something else. We may not always enjoy it, in the sense that it makes us laugh or smile, but we often find it fulfilling in deeper and more personally significant ways.

Of course we can also like doing and find satisfaction in the things that are externally or extrinsically motivated, but the question is whether our liking it and our satisfaction are the source of our creative ambitions or merely a side effect. In other words, enjoyment and the feeling of fulfillment can be both a cause and an effect, and the difference is very real. But its not always obvious, and we can’t simply assume that because we like doing it or find it satisfying that this is our only or even our primary motivation. Its the difference between enjoying driving your car and having no other reason for being out on the road, and enjoying driving while you are out running errands or driving to work. The reason for being there couldn’t be more different, despite the fact that we enjoy it both times.

So, what motivates the pots you are making? Have you thought about it much? Are you happy how little of your creative production may be intrinsically motivated and how much is often generated from external demands on you? Would you rather be doing more simply for the pure joy of doing, whatever it is? That it is important to make this one thing despite any other consideration or pressure? Or is the best we can hope for that amidst all the pressures facing us we eek out a modest portion of joy and fulfillment in making our work? That even if we’d rather be making something different at times we still enjoy the devotion to our treadmill? Do we simply need to become like hamsters and get up on the wheel, for no other reason? Is it important simply that we make, regardless of what it is or why we may have been led to make it?

Or is art something different? Is art something that sometimes needs to stand on its own feet rather than be supported by things like marketability and how much space we have in the kiln? Is the importance of our art, in fact, that it sometimes stands in defiance of all the credible reasons for doing it some other way? That our art is a dream of things that shatter preconceptions and have this otherworldly inspiration? That our art is fundamentally not of the world, though it is born into it?

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, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Why make THIS pot?

  1. June Perry says:

    To me the bottom line is like the Nike ads “just do it”. Your skill level, your taste, your spirit and your needs will determine the nature of the work at any given moment in time. People never speak of the how one’s spirit, or mood affect the work. Why is that that one pot in a row of pots all the exact same size, all fired with the same glazes and in the same kiln, will stand out, apart from the others. What is that unknown. Why is it one day you can sit down and the pots just seem to make themselves and other days you can’t throw for beans. You didn’t suddenly forget your technique. The clay and wheel are the same. So what hidden thing is going on that creates those days, or creates that one treasure to stand out and apart from all the others?
    I had a spiritual teacher who told us that we should chant mantra when preparing food at the ashram I attended. He also said “never eat food prepared by someone who doesn’t know and love you”. So is that the hidden factor – that our thoughts, our emotions and the level of our consciousness are reflected in what comes through our hands? I suspect that that may very well be the answer

    • So true that despite our every intention the pots that come off the wheel are sometimes entirely independent, as if some hidden hand had a role in making them. Or, that our control is only ever partial and incomplete and that so much happens without our understanding or permission. Call it spirit, call it chance. Either way, I DO think it is important to realize our limitations in the creative act. We are consciously only ever part of the process, collaborators rather than the exclusive authors. That was a good point to make!

      Really this post was interested in the reasons we have for doing these things rather than how they specifically come out. It was the issue of why make a cup rather than a teapot, or why make this version rather than another. In other words, things we should be able to have a say in, and things we should be able to change if we don’t like how they are going. Serendipity, for better or worse, is mostly out of our hands. But its kind of nice that way. Too much control would have to be a bad thing, I think…..

      Thanks for the interesting comment, June! So nice to hear from you again!

      • June says:

        HMMM, I thought that I briefly addressed that in my second sentence, or so. Those choices for me and others I suspect, are based on both need and preference. The current state of health of ones finances, may be a large part of what someone chooses to make. The potter with a steady teaching income is going to have a great deal more freedom to make what he or she prefers, as opposed to the functional potter who has no back such back up, nor have a working partner who brings in another non related income. Artists and potters in this day and age and living and working in the west are either not making things that people need, or else not making them at a price point that the average person is willing to pay, when they can find items that serve the same function at one tenth the price on the shelves at the Walmarts and Dollar stores. So what does one do.
        Tony Clennell speaks of making living room pots as being the way to go, since the higher end buyers have no problem opening up their purses for those pots.
        So, for me personally, someone who was lucky enough to have a husband whose income sustained our family after I quit my high paying job after a few very successful years, and later became a potter, my choices were always based on what I was moved to make at any given time. I avoided orders as much as possible, and made what I liked. That’s a luxury most don’t have. Had I been single, I certainly would have been making what I thought would sell in glaze colors the public wanted because I like to eat, be warm and enjoy an occasional glass of wine. We may consider ourselves artists, but we are also retailers and wholesalers depending on the will and taste of the marketplace.
        I remember a New Zealand potter visiting California in the 80’s addressing this issue. He had a large family (4 or 5 kids at the time) and his goal was to make sure that customers could find something they liked when they visited his home gallery. He did wood firing, pit firing, etc. etc. His consideration and motivation was all the mouths he had to feed. Others who have similar financial concerns choose to make pots for sale five days a week, and one day, make work that feeds their soul. That seems like a good and practical decision for some. And others choose the starving artist road, refusing to follow market driven tastes and are willing to live well below the pottery level, even working outside odd jobs to keep them even at that level, so they can make work that feeds their soul even though it’s not feeding their bodies very well.
        For every lucky one who can find their voice and get the recognition and sales, there are thousands more who have to make different choices. Years ago Karen Karnes whose pots were selling around $2500, wrote all of us who had attended one of her long workshops, with offers to sell us some of her casseroles. Garth Clark carried her work and had control of who else carried it; and she found, that when you are breathing that rarefied air, which you do when the price point of you work depends on such a small group of buyers, that you don’t make any more money. Of course, the positive note is that you don’t have to make as many pots, but she wanted to be making more pots.
        So I guess, after my long winded, second reply, the reason for making or not making this pot or that pot is for me personally – I just make whatever shape I want. I’ve never made only one shape of a mug. It would bore me silly. I enjoy playing with various mug shapes, handles, etc. Usually I start a throwing cycle with bowls since I love making them and love using them. Then on to mugs and other fast moving items or to replace others items. I love making teapots, but never sold many before the new tea craze started
        Maybe I should have glazed them blue. 🙂

        • Good stuff June!

          I suppose I was taking the reference in your second or so sentence of the previous comment as referring more to ’causes’ than ‘reasons’. And you are right, a lot of these reasons we might have border on the necessity of causes. But the main difference is that we sometimes have a choice. Often a difficult choice, but still up to us to decide. And agreed: Having an outside source of income or financial support obviously removes or meliorates some of the pressures to make pots specifically for the market. At the extreme end where its make this sellable pot or starve the pressure can be more cause than reason. Its as if we sometimes don’t have a choice…..

          Its tough holding to your own internal values and intrinsic motivations when the odds are stacked against us. But maybe, like you said, we can carve out small spaces where our creativity thrives independent of marketplace concerns. If its just a job, something we have to do, we may find that after a while its no longer as fun as it started out. So my point, I suppose, was that we recognize that there are different reasons for making pots, and that quite often it is up to us to decide what to make and why. If we don’t know we have options life can be dull and/or difficult….

          Great comment June! I’ve got an essay that was an email response to Brian Jones from his blog post on “Carving out a future” that says many of the things you say here. I think there is a danger in promoting the idea that to be a serious potter you need to be doing it full-time. That’s so rare and carries with it such a burden that we need to see the future in a different light. For the sake of existing potters and aspiring ones as well. I’ll post it on the blog here. I was waiting to hear back from Brian, but he may not feel the need or desire to respond. If I don’t hear from him in a few days I’ll put it up here and I might use some of your comment as a lead in. I thought you had great things to say!

          Thanks June!

  2. Jane Sarre says:

    Interesting post and question…

    I make a range of tableware designed entirely on the basis of how i think tableware should be and in the colour paletter I am driven to use. I’ve been told blue sells more or why dont I add brushed motifs – but that isn’t what i’m driven to do so I dont do it. I dont know how this position will work out in the long run but that’s the general position now.

    This week in particular, I’m making plates because a restaurant ordered them. I’m making bowls for another order and extras as stock for a show. I made some toothbrush holders to fill a half hour productively. I made a prototype butter dish because we need one at home and I wanted to test a design idea. This then inspired me to try out a cheese dome as well. I squeezed those two in because it was all beginning to feel a bit production-lineish and I wanted to do something more creative. I’m also working on an idea for a large bowl/platter moulded in a satellite dish that has been lurking in the back of my mind for two long. The last one flopped completely so I’ve altered the technique and proportions a bit and am getting back in there for another go…

  3. I thought this was relevant. From Brainpickings:

    “Individuals can choose to disengage from external tasks, decoupling attention, in order to pursue an internal stream of thought that they expect to pay off in some way. The pay off may be immediate, coming in the form of pleasing reverie, insight, or new synthesis of material, or it may be more distant as in rehearsing upcoming scenarios or projecting oneself forward in time to a desired outcome. Projection backward in time to reinterpret past experiences in light of new information is also a possibility. All of these activities, which take place internally, sheltered from the demands of external tasks and perception, offer the possibility of enormous personal reward. These mental activities are, in fact, central to the task of meaning making, of developing and maintaining an understanding of oneself in the world. … Certainly a large share of mind wandering occurs without permission or awareness. But some mind wandering occurs because we actively choose to decouple from external tasks and perceptions and focus instead on an internal stream of thought with full awareness both of the choice being made and the contents of consciousness.


    It seems likely that the ability to engage in volitional daydreaming, i.e., to switch easily back and forth between different streams of consciousness, might be sensitive to practice effects. Choosing to disengage from external tasks, decouple, turn attention inward, and follow an internal stream of thought with full awareness undoubtedly requires skill. The process can break down in a number of places along the way: at the decision point, decoupling, the switch from outer to inner streams of consciousness, or meta-awareness. But the more a person does it, the easier it is likely to become.” From a recent paper titled “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming” (PDF), published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, by writer Rebecca McMillan and NYU cognitive psychologist Scott Kaufman.

    “Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment.” Psychologist Jerome Singer

  4. More from Brainpickings, this time the author Italo Calvino:

    “Recently I have been frittering away my time a lot. The feeling that I am drowning in a sea of pointless activities is grabbing me by the throat. But these are times when what you don’t write counts for more than what you do write. I have destroyed that book on America, on which I had worked for many months. It hadn’t turned out badly, but for me to go down the road taken by travel writers was opting for an easy way out.”

  5. “‘REAL ADVENTURERS DON’T LOOK LIKE JAMES BOND: THE FRAUD (FRAUDSTER) WANTS TO LET YOU KNOW HE IS A FRAUD.’ Colette told the budding George Simenon: true literature should not sound literary, forcing him to strip his style of fake gold. It is the same with science: true science doesn’t look like job-market science, and true scientists know that. (For instance, the “happiness” economist Bruno Frey has the best publishing record of any of his peer >300 published papers, but even economists don’t think much of him.) And, of course, real business doesn’t look like MBA businesses; real risk takers often look like accountants; real professors don’t look like pipe-smoking tweed-clad portraits; really rich people don’t wear tailored suits and often fly premium economy. Real mercenaries (like Bob Denard) are more likely to look like college administrators.

    Most of us traders knew that Madoff was a fraud, even if it took a while for the system to figure it out. There is something about absence of substance that ends up screaming at our inner BS detector, *as if the fraud wanted to be the first one to tell you that he was a fraud*, by over-imitation and making his gold glitter a bit too much. It may take a while; we may be fooled a bit, but our BS detector ends up eventually working.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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