Ultimate Pottery Death Match

Potter/blogger exraordinaire Joel Blum and I have recently traded a few thoughts on the idea of perfection in art. I have enjoyed the conversation. In my mind the idea of perfection stands above the mundane as an ideal, something to shoot for, but I’m not so sure it actually exists. I’m not sure its actually even a good idea. I think of it as a motivating tool at best, a potentially stifling wrong turn at worst. But all that aside, what if we were forced to choose a winner? What if we had to pick one or two works of art to represent the best of the best? What if we orchestrated an art rumble where only a few survivors came out on top? Winners take all. What would an Ultimate Pottery Death Match look like? Who would be your winners?

Joel asked: Question, what 2 masterworks in ceramics over the past 50 years would you point to if asked?” This is how I responded (a bit expanded in my rambling sort of way):

I’m not sure I could. At best it would depend on what sort of mood I was in. And I have to admit that the things I like are not the exclusive last word on quality. There are plenty of great works that I simply have no taste for. I admit this freely. I have favorite artists, but it would be hard to even choose which single work was their very best. And it would be near impossible to say that the best of one artist is better than the best of another.

And why would we need to make such a choice? It seems a sort of cultural prescription that is founded on the possibility of an idealized version of things. We are misled by being able to say that one thing actually IS better than another to the belief that this means that one has to be better than all the rest. If its a continuum of better, better, better, better…. surely at the end of that chain there will be one that stands above the rest as the ultimate best. ‘Better than all the rest’ seems a natural consequence of the potential for difference in quality. Our words seem to peer behind the curtain of daily life to some underlying necessary reality.

But we are not diagnosing objective truth here. The fact of being able to choose is not a testament to metaphysics. What we are doing is the very human compulsion to decide between two or more things. An exercise in cultural and verbal flexibility, not science with words. The idea of an ‘ultimate choice’ is pure fantasy and linguistic fable, or else some contextual cultural necessity. Language may point us in that direction, but it also points us in the direction of unicorns and zombies. We simply have this habit of taking a good idea and bending it out of all practical proportion. Which is why the idea of perfection is so pernicious. The allegory of Plato’s cave is itself a shadow cast on the wall, not by the sun of ideal truth but by the power of our words and customs.

If the question is which two pieces of pottery I would want to be stuck on an island with for the rest of my days, that would keep me intrigued and fascinated, I would definitely have to choose a cup/mug and a shallow bowl/pasta plate. It would need to be things I could use on a daily basis. I’d probably want them wood fired or soda/salt fired because those surfaces entertain me the most. I could look at them for a lifetime and still discover new things through the humble daily rituals of use.

Like I said, narrowing it down is not a natural part of my disposition, but I would not lose any sleep if I ended up with these two pots: Justin Lambert (plate), Kristen Drummond (mug)

Justin Lambert plate Kristen Drummond mug

If the Challenge was which pots I would put on a pedestal as curator of the Ultimate Pottery Challenge I might choose something with more visual weight to it, if that’s the mood I was in. I might choose something like: Don Reitz

Don Reitz

Or Stephen De Staebler


What two works of art or pieces of pottery would you choose? Why? Would it make a difference what you were choosing them for, or would two works simply stand out regardless of context?

Happy choosing!


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, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Ultimate Pottery Death Match

  1. Lee Love says:

    On a deserted island? (I’m pretty much an existentialist.) Probably my graduation Matacha Jawan by Tatsuzo Shimaoka.
    When Shimaoka was shipped to war in Burma, he wanted to take a Shoji Hamada tea bowl, but couldn’t afford one. (He spoke to Hamada before graduation and would apprentice with him, if he came back from the war safely.) Young Shimaoka dug a broken Hagi bowl out of the dump, repaired that, and took it with him to war. It survived the war, prison camp and a long march to the port to catch a ship home to Japan. He once said that many of his friends did not survive the war and that is why he felt a duty to make something of his spared life.

    Young Shimaoka and His Hagi Bowl:

    My graduation bowl:

    • Thanks for sharing, Lee! This is a perfect illustration of how we value things and why, how personal and contingent these things can be, and how a sense of beauty and purpose are united for us in the stories we tell. I absolutely love the graduation bowl that you have. πŸ™‚ I think I’d be more than happy with that on a deserted island!

      • Lee Love says:

        Work for the museum would really be difficult, especially from the last 50 years. Maybe I would pick something of Isamu Noguchi’s and maybe one of Arakawa’s shino chawan.

  2. Brandon Phillips says:

    I don’t think I’m qualified to choose the two best pots of the last 50 years. I can only choose for me the two pots that define what is important to me about ceramics in the last 50 years.

    Here is one: http://bp0.blogger.com/_YKqkX5fzu5E/R3m93DYdv3I/AAAAAAAAARs/LGCFbuv845U/s1600-h/macteapot.jpg

    This is a teapot that was given to me Warren Mackenzie, not only does it embody what I love about his work but also the story around the gifting embodies the spirit of what I think being a potter is.

    Here is my second choice: http://www.etsy.com/transaction/67646142

    It’s a plate I picked up from Michael Kline a couple years ago.

    It’s impossible for me to separate out the experience of living with these pots and knowing the people who made them. I could say more but I’ll leave it at that for now.

    • That’s awesome Brandon! You and Lee both are on to something here. The humility and generosity of potters is a world apart from the institutional condescension of picking the objectively greatest works of art of any era. Potters are grounded in a way that much of the art world simply ignores. And I’m so happy to be a potter surrounded by a community of generous and humble fellow travelers πŸ™‚

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I completely agree with this. Assuming that the criteria is choosing two functional/utilitarian pots, it would be weird to pick a pot that I don’t have a direct experience of living with over a period of time. (Otherwise, it would be making some big assumptions about what that pot was really like in the hand or in the cupboard.) And so that probably means choosing a pot that I own personally, or one that’s in the collection of a close friend or relative. And that means most of us would choose pots from among a group that is exclusively available for us to choose — your MacKenzie teapot might be only slightly different than mine, but most likely you’d pick yours and I’d pick mine.

        Which, for me, gets to the whole point of this thing, as Brandon suggested.

        • What this seems to indicate is that it is difficult for potters to feel envy. It seems to say that aesthetic considerations are overwritten by ‘direct experience’ and personal relationships to individual pots. Maybe that makes me the odd ball, but I look out on the internet and I see pots that I’d absolutely kill to bring home. I go to shows and see pots that are too pricey for me to buy but that blow me away. I know envy, and I’m not ashamed of it……

          The interesting thing is that when I look around at all the pots out in the world I am constantly looking for the things I like. I am not concerned whether I own it or not as much as whether it appeals to me. I try to look at the world with an aesthetic eye. That’s the only way I can learn new things and evolve my own sense of taste. If what I prefer stops at what I already own, then I would never feel impoverished or lacking. Damn right I see things I like better about pots not in my own collection! Why would you buy anything new if you already had all that you wanted?

          For instance, there was this pot of Michael Simon’s that was in CM a few years ago. The proportions and decoration were an education. I felt the image of that pot was an example of something truly sublime. A few years later I had the chance to buy one of those pagoda type jars and I jumped at it. But I don’t think it is as nice as the one in the photo. Michael himself would probably agree. Its why he took the picture of that one and not the one I purchased. And just a few months ago I saw a different version of that pagoda style jar in the Tom Coleman collection video. If I could have remotely afforded that I would have been all over it. This one was taller and skinnier than the other two, which was a very different effect. I may even prefer it. And that’s not even to mention the wealth of great pots that were in his retrospective show ‘The pick of the kiln’. Why on earth would I not prefer some of those pots?

          The point being that we CAN make comparisons that are qualitative. And that should teach us that envy is our birthright. Unless we are truly blessed (or blinkered), there are better things out in the world than the things we’ve got. I’m not denying the importance of the story and the value of sentiment, but I just don’t think it always trumps other aesthetic considerations. Its worth being the devil’s advocate here, at least. Maybe the better question would be “If you had the opportunity to own a pot or two what would you choose? If your future self had some other new pot in your collection and you could choose which that would be, what would you choose? If Warren were to give you another pot from his personal collection and you got to choose it, what would you choose?”

          Isn’t it simply human to look outside our humble homestead and see things that could very easily belong there? In some alternate universe or different version of our lives? Don’t we look at the world as an opportunity for our desires?

          I’ve been at the Michael Simon Ron Meyers sales before where they used police tape to keep the customers in check, that’s how much people felt they needed something new in their lives. And once the sale was officially started the pots were 90% gone in the first ten minutes. Talk about naked greed! That meant there were plenty of pots that escaped my clutches that I know I could have gotten my hands on if I had been quicker, or more aggressive, or made different choices, or walked this way rather than that. This always reminds me of ‘the ones that got away’….. Isn’t life full of that? Isn’t that normal?

          I have enormous regrets that I don’t own specific pots. I am riddled with envy that some pots are in other people’s houses…… Does that really sound so strange? Why do we bother looking out at the world if we already have all we need? My motto is “Upgrade!”. Every time I go to a yardsale or gallery to find pots I know I have no room for in my house I always justify it by thinking I have the opportunity to improve my collection. So here’s a different question:: “If you could improve your collection with one or two pots, what would you choose?” Is there truly nothing better than the things we already own?

          Yours enviously,


  3. Emma Smith says:

    As a novice collector of pots, my shelves aren’t too full. I am always enviously looking at more pots that I would like to see in my home. Specifically, the two I would like to add to my collection (but CAN’T) are:

    I have a plate of Ron Meyers with a cow on it that I got at NCECA last year. I love it to bits, but I actually prefer the wolf (above). I wish I had this one in my collection.

    I studied under Tony Clennell at Sheridan College and have many of his pots. I don’t have this one though, or any from this time in his making career. I wish I could teleport back in time, and get me one of these. Alas, technology isn’t quite that advanced yet.

    I feel like I can relate to both of these arguments. It is in a human’s nature to envy and lust. It is also in a human’s nature to develop connections through nostalgia. I feel heavily connected to the pieces that I use on a daily basis – the pots that keep ending up in my dish rack, or the vases I pick flowers for every week. But I am also pulled by my desires for new pieces, and sometimes spend more time ogling pots in magazines/books/the internet than I do ogling the piece that is currently holding my Earl Grey tea. Maybe that’s a lesson.

    Thank you so much for opening up this discussion! It has been a pleasure to read.

    • Great way to bring these points all together, Emma! That was nicely done πŸ™‚ !

      Those pots of Tony’s from grad school are my secret ambition if I could rewrite history, go back in time, and make those pots first.

      I’m glad you got to study with Tony. I love Tony! I’m so glad I’ve gotten to meet him! Funny how things connect and overlap, but I got to study with Ron at UGA before he retired. We are both so lucky to have these experiences, and its interesting to note how they influence our tastes. If I hadn’t studied with a loose potter I may never have understood loose pots. I might be missing out on the amazing universe opened up by imperfect/off centered things. That’s too scary to contemplate!

      The other interesting thing about our conversation so far is that everyone who has spoken has pointed to pots with a personal reference. No one has claimed that there is some objective worth that stands above what we personally invest in things. That’s interesting because the person who gave Joel this question was definitely interested in pointing out some objective seeming quality that makes personal preferences invalid and irrelevant. And what I think that points to (big reveal!) is that even that presumption of objectivity is conditioned by one sort of education.

      We potters who have spoken here have all pointed to very personal examples that reflect our own experiences, our own education, and our own preferences. The objective quality camp likes to think that it is because of their education that their opinions rise above the subjective squabbling of lesser educated folks. The reality is that this ‘education’ they are referring to is no more privileged than that of the more honestly individualistic exponents, and it too is based on the contingency of their experiences and their own (lofty seeming) preferences. In the end, we cannot help but choose the things we believe in, and that always has to do with the matters of our own hearts and minds. If we believe in an objective best in art, then we will imagine ourselves pointing beyond our own preferences. The truth is that any virtue these things have is virtue we have agreed to, and others may (and usually do) disagree on its exact distribution.

      Glad you joined the discussion!

      Happy potting!

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