Tool bias

Imagine back when you were crawling around on your knees, occasionally mustering the strength and balance to push yourself up onto your feet, teeter a bit, and then return to the seat of your pants as gravity overcomes ability. Eventually we wobble back up and spend more time defying the implacable seeming forces of nature. Now imagine that someone hands you a wee set of crutches. You grasp them in your tiny clutching hands, and behold: You are now standing with relative ease! You gasp in wonder and admire your new freedom. The world looks different from up here. You see new possibilities. And so you take your first tentative step out into this new reality, supported by your crutches. Some folks will immediately fall back down to earth, and be forced to start all over again. Others will be naturals. They were meant for this gravity defying excursion. But eventually we all get to the point where we can take one step, reposition our crutches, take another step, and so forth….

Now, because we have learned to walk with the aid of crutches, this is how we understand ‘walking’, and eventually ‘running’ too. We get quite good at dexterously whipping our legs in the pendulous fulcrum of our wooden supports. And because we have learned to engage the world through the intermediary of these prosthetic strut-like instruments there is this barrier built up between our own bodies and the natural world. We have this tool to deliver results in the world. But we never learned to trust our own feet and legs to be that tool. We put on the crutches and we took off into the world…..

Ben Franklin once famously said “Man is a tool making animal”, and our evolution as an intelligent species has played out with the evidence of the tools we have created (Maybe not so ‘intelligent’ in all cases…). We are not just instinctively or genetically predisposed to tool use, like birds building nests or monkeys poking sticks down anthills. Rather we purposely invent new tools with which to intervene in the world. We create new meaning, and culture, by adding to the tool resources of our communities. We expand the horizons of possibility by finding just the right implement to effect the exact desired change in our circumstance. We need tools. Its not just modern convenience. Without them the human race would come to an end. We have evolved out of our primal relationship to the environment, and ‘The right tool for the job’ is our mantra moving forward.

(Stanley Kubrick telling the story as he sees it)

And yet, our reliance on tools often puts us at a remove from the world. We sit in cars, sniffing air freshener, listening to pop music on the radio. And we miss out on so many of the signals from the world that goes rushing by our windows. We may glimpse the trees and grass and buildings we pass through, but only briefly, and not ever intimately. We don’t smell the flowers blooming, the rich earthy loam, or the stink of decay. We are insulated from all that. We fail to hear the bird call, the breeze whistle through the leaves, the creak of tree limbs, or the squeaks of small animals. We miss all that. And we miss the chance to touch any of it, or investigate any of it very deeply, with our hands firmly on the steering wheel and our cell phone….

Still, though, our own natural bodies are incredible instruments which we too often all but take for granted. Our dexterous fingers are both strong and sensitive. We feel so much about the world at the tips of our fingers. We have the sensitivity to read tiny bumps into language (Braille). And the nimble ways our fingers can put pressure on the world has the potential for great changes. We press buttons and elevators appear. We pluck guitar strings and make ethereal music. We run them across a piano and produce marvelous sounds. We tap them on keyboards or touch screens to send messages and navigate the world wide web. All with our fingers. And into these hands we often place our greatest tools. We pick up tools with our hands. We don’t use our feet. We don’t use our teeth. We don’t use our arm pits. Our hands are, in fact, the perfect tool for tool use.

So what does this have to do with pottery? Well, potters have tools to use, and many of them are perfect for necessary jobs. We have cut off wires to get pots off the wheel. We have sponges to apply and remove moisture. We have loop tools to trim off excess clay. We have so many tools that are good for specific and even multiple purposes.

But we can also grow overfond of our tools. We can imagine that the purpose of what we are doing is to use the tool rather than have the tool serve our needs. Tools are often only one of several options for how to do things. Sometimes there are advantages to using this tool or that, and sometimes disadvantages. Occasionally it will be perfectly acceptable to use this one tool in a circumstance, but that doesn’t also mean there are not better or preferable ways of doing it.

For instance, I always argue that our hands are often our greatest potential instrument in manipulating the clay. They are directly sensitive to what is going on, and they are incredibly responsive and adaptable. Educating our hands is a long term advantage that is not easily replaced with reliance on this or that tool. Its what I was getting at in the scenario of learning how to walk with crutches: No matter how well we do with the crutches, as long as we are tied to using them we fail to give ourselves the freedom of running loose in our bare feet. Crutches are useful for a purpose, one really good purpose, but there are drawbacks to making it a ubiquitous way of life.

And so, I sometimes see my students selling themselves short, because their default is hauling out the tool to get the results they are after. They are thinking short term goals rather than long term benefits. I notice this especially with trimming tools. Rather than learning how to get the most out of the clay that’s on the wheel, by simply thinning the walls further, sometimes students will just aim for a respectable shape, not even care how thick the walls are, and then come back and cut away the excess. Instead of learning how to assess the thickness of the clay, instead of training themselves to a sensitivity and sophistication, they get the tool out to make quick work of their deficit in skills. Its like using a lawn mower to maintain a yard: It levels the entire swath of foliage without discrimination, grass, flowers, small animals and bugs, snakes and lizards….. The tool is good for this one purpose, but there are nuances it cannot handle. Making pots is an incredibly sophisticated process, and there are details it pays to keep your attention on. Tools don’t often let you see that. The prosthetic way of life has its drawbacks.

So, my generic advice to students is to train your hands at every opportunity. Maximize their intelligence. It will benefit you in the long run. Get rid of the crutches -unless you absolutely need them. Learn to walk on your own two feet. Use your hands. Use your fingers. Make them as smart as they can be. Make them the most intelligent and discriminating instrument you have at your disposal. Touch the world directly.

An easy way to see why this may be important is to try using your ‘off’ hand to do the things you normally do with your dominant hand. If you are not significantly ambidextrous one of your hands will be much more familiar with interacting in the world. The more its been trained to do, the more intelligence it will have, the more sophistication it will have, and the more sensitivity it will have in reading and being able to respond to the world.

Try swinging a hammer with your less intelligent hand. If it feels weird and unsteady that’s simply because it doesn’t really know what its doing yet. It lacks confidence. Try using your cutlery in your ‘off’ hand. Its probably a bit unsettling to guide that fork where it belongs. We have to think about it. We have to concentrate. And that tells us something. It says that we have not reached an understanding of the world that enters the comfort zone. Our dealings with it are not yet second nature. Its like those first unsteady steps where it can all come crashing down if we are not careful. And yet, once we get the hang of things, it really is quite easy to maintain our balance.

And that is what you need to be aiming for: The assurance of dealing with the world through a certain amount of mastery. We have the saying “dancing with two left feet”, indicating a clumsiness, and the only way to overcome that is through training, through familiarity. If our hands are our best opportunity for making sense of the symptoms and pathologies of the clay we are working on, then it only makes sense to train them to their utmost sophistication. While you are still learning, don’t put a tool in your hands when you have the choice not to. It shouldn’t be the default for beginners. Once you have mastered what you need to do you already have the sensitivity, and ‘tool or not tool’ is not an issue. Or, its a question of intelligent preference.

But until then, “Run, Forrest! Run!”

Something to think about, at least!

Peace all!

Happy potting!


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, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tool bias

  1. Ashley says:

    Once upon a time, I thought that if I used a tool it was a more sophisticated method and that using only my hands was more primitive and therefore not as desirable.
    I have since seen the error of my ways and unlearned all that and had to re learn how to throw with my own built in tools.
    This post got me thinking about a situation that I occasionally run into when teaching. Fingernails. Really, really long fake fingernails. They make learning (and teaching) to throw nearly impossible. Students who sport these talons have to find a way to mitigate the damage done to pots by their nails. It never involves cutting them off of course, they cost too much. Instead, they insert a piece of sponge between their fingertips and the clay. But his removes all sense of touch and they don’t know what the clay feels like, how much pressure to apply etc because all sensory input (except visual cues) have been removed. One thing I do know for sure is that if a student has them, they will never really become committed to clay. They love their fingernails more than creating something with their own hands and will, more often than not, give up. I can never give them good advice about how to deal with them, I don’t have long nails, never have and probably never will. There is so much information to be gained by touch.

    • Thanks for the great example, Ashley!

      I’m not sure I had made that connection between fake nails and a lack of commitment to clay, but it makes sense the way you describe it. I’ll have to pay attention to that in my own teaching.

      Thanks for the comment and the insight!

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