Throwing with intention and the Aikido of pottery

The boss has signed me up to teach an advanced beginner/intermediate level class titled “Throwing with intention”, so I’ve got a bit of thinking to do to make sense of just what I’m exposing the students to. The course is described as follows:

Do you sometimes set out to make a tumbler and end up with a bowl because the clay ‘decided’ it wanted to be short and squat?  This class will help you take charge of the clay and bend it to your will.  We’ll touch up your techniques and make sure they’re up to the task of serving your artistic vision.  We’ll also break down the making process into steps that keep you on the path toward your goal.  This class will also cover making sets and pots with well-fitting lids.

That sounds fairly straightforward and is definitely a thing that students can benefit from. Getting what you want from the clay is both a skill (showing a certain amount of mastery and comfort with the materials), but it is also an intention. We want the clay to do certain things and we are entitled to feel this way. Our agenda. Our plan. Who signed up for the class anyway, you or the clay? Who is the servant and who the master? Who is using whom? To get what you want, what you deserve, requires the intention to dominate the clay, to “bend it to your will”, to have the clay “serve your artistic vision”….. Right?

There seems to be a neat dividing line between the clay behaving itself and doing its own thing. Clay is sometimes like a pet dog. Unless you tell it what to do, enforce obedience, it will be climbing on your tables and eating the food from your plates. And the clay seems no different, really: A mind of its own or putty in our hands. Two extremes. That difference seems to be up to us, to our intentions for the clay. If we don’t have serious intentions who knows what will happen?

Setting aside the issue of teaching students the basics of controlling the clay, the question for me is whether not bending the clay to your will is evidence of a lack of intention. Is serendipity (and all other forms of creative surprise) an instance of impersonal artistic entropy? Of bending to the will of the clay? An utter lack of control? Can we, for instance, also say that we intend certain expressions that are not absolutely in our control? Does intention stand out as a rigid inflexible goal that only breaks before it bends? That anything less than absolutely meeting a stated destination is unintended? Pure calibration versus chaotic disharmony?

When I was in school one of my instructors described the way to make pots that are ‘fresh’, or lively and uncontrived, as that you can’t make too many of the same thing in a row. The more you repeat a form the less fresh they will seem. Its the academic response to the mechanical craftsmanship of production. The idea was that throwing the same thing over and over requires a specific ‘unfresh’ intention, a plodding metronome of consistency, and that you can unconsciously make things the same even if you are not specifically intending to. The mind and hands follow out patterns with the precision of a well worn path.

So why advocate for only making at most a few of the same types of pot at the same time? The difference is that for practical purposes even the intention for ‘sameness’ will be negated or diminished by having to start over on each form at different times. In other words, its the practice of repetition that enables intention to manifest more directly. If you are starting from scratch each time its more like you are making it up as you go. Its a monkey wrench in the procedure. If you have to reinvent the wheel each and every time you sit down to throw the odds of consistency are greatly lessened. You don’t get the chance to fully repeat yourself because the game changes just before you get the hang of it. Things stay fresh despite your intentions and the patterns of your process. Its only when you are fully ‘in the groove’ that the aim of consistency flows naturally. The idea is that making fresh pots isn’t about intention as much as it is about limiting the damage of repetition. Even the most precise intentions will be handicapped by time off. If it takes a few tries to ‘warm up’, then that is the time where freshness abides. The well oiled production line is where it dies…..

But this advice is more strategy than necessary description. Its a procedural solution to the habits of our hands. Keeping pots fresh isn’t necessarily hamstrung by intention, and its not always an outcome of mechanical liability.

At a later date a visiting instructor suggested the advice that you should want to make them all different, that you could actually intend that your pots should be fresh and not rote assembly line reproductions. What this suggested was that fresh pots are more an attitude about making than procedure or the application of technique. You could fully intend that no two pots would be alike. You could intend that one lump of clay would have its own destiny unrelated to what came before it or what will come after. You can try to make them all different. You can scheme difference. Intention, it seems, is not simply a failsafe for consistency. Intention is not simply a road to manufacturing conformity to a design pattern. We can purposely make things all different if we want to. That too is an intention.

The question, then, is whether intention means only bending the clay to our will and everything that falls outside of that is something different. It seems that one response to that instructor would be that it IS all up to the force of our will, and that even freshness can be purposely designed into pots. But there is another possible response. Its true that we can intend that things are made all the same or all different, but the opposite of that is not simply having no intention at all. We can also have the intention not to make them all the same (which is different from the intention to make them different) or not to make them all different (which is different from the intention to make them all the same). Its the sense that not choosing something is still a choice (queue the Sartre joke).

The difference is that rather than something specific and circumscribed by our will we can also have intentions that are open ended. The intention to take a walk in the woods is an open ended starting point. It doesn’t require that we only stay on the path or that we avoid the path all together. We can also surrender to the moment and just see what comes up. Having intention does not simply mean that we are absolutely in control. It can also mean that we are in egalitarian association with something outside ourselves. The intention to be in a relationship doesn’t mean that we make sure things unfold entirely to a script of our own devising. Rather, we enter into a partnership and learn to accommodate the new circumstances and desires of that other. Making pots with this kind of intention means that we are constantly willing to learn from the clay and respond to it at every turn of the wheel.

This does not mean that anything goes or that there is no development of skill or design awareness, merely that the circumstances are not used to strictly further one goal above all others. There are things we like about our pots, things that we are drawn to, but the idea is that these aesthetic charms are there to be explored rather than mapped out, perfectly calibrated, and burned into our brains. We don’t need to be branded. We can learn by moving sideways to our aesthetics. You want to make round pots? Well, does that mean you need to have a specific round form in mind, that your intention will be exactly this shape and no other? You can intend roundness and figure out what that means as you go. Not choosing the exact shape can still be a choice.

The idea is that with exploration and practice we develop mastery. Mastery is not the same thing as expertise. Expertise is the narrow ability to do this one thing well. Its natural expression is technique, and this makes it the perfect path for manifesting specific intentions that conform entirely to one’s will. The technique serves the intention specifically from the point of view of expertise. Like clockwork and machine parts.

Technique in the hands of a master is less an agenda for control and more the opening of possibility. Expertise has specific aims, and mastery has the whole horizon of potential to work with. Mastery picks up where expertise has run out of options. Mastery can do just about anything it turns its hands to. It is ability rather than technique. Expertise knows only what it knows, does only what it knows how to do.

The intentions of experts are focused, a tight beam of light shining on specific things. The intentions of a master are more broadly illuminating. Think of mastery as like the crafting of all the leaves on a tree: No two are absolutely alike. They all share common attributes, perhaps, but no two are exactly alike. The masterful intention is not to reproduce each one exactly but to figure out and explore what variations are possible. Consider this:

Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent future. (Sarah Lewis, The Rise)

In Aikido there is a philosophy of strategic nonresistence.

Aikido embodies the idea that when we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. In aikido, an uke, the person who receives an attack from the thrower, or nage, absorbs and transforms the incoming energy through harmony and blending. There is no word for competitor, only for the one who is giving or receiving the energy. (Sarah Lewis, The Rise)

It seems easy to think of clay as an adversary, especially as a beginner. The clay seems like a thing designed to frustrate our intentions. It often seems like it has a mind of its own. It seems like the only way to fight our way to success is to dominate the clay with our will, to overmaster it by the absolute power of our intentions, our rigorous planning, and the perfect execution of our technique. We appear to need to subjugate the clay to our specific intentions. And if we fail in that the clay has won. Every time a tumbler ends up a bowl we have failed. Every time the clay ends up something other than our specific intentions the clay has beaten us. Which seems to narrow our options to being either in complete control or a total failure. Almost only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades. It seems that you either intended the result or you did not. Matching our intentions is a win, failure to do so is a loss…..

But the difference I am attempting to point out is that its not all or nothing. Intention is also a flexible thing and contains open ended possibility. It can be a loose suggestion rather than a narrow pigeon hole. Loose is not the same thing as lose. Not knowing where you are going doesn’t mean you are not getting somewhere. If improving only means getting the right product from our hands then success is entirely qualified by our specific intentions. If improving means being able to meet the challenges and improvise our way through any situation then the process is what we are learning: How to work with clay rather than how to make this specific form.

I don’t want to suggest that for students its necessarily either/or. I think its valuable to test our skills against very specific intentions, and I think its important to relax into the process at other times. Learn both ways of handling the clay. Don’t feel you have to be trapped by your intentions and don’t feel like you are not entitled to have specific dreams. Simply understand that intentions are a way of interacting with the world. Its a way of helping us navigate, and it usually comes down to some combination of our own will making its way in the world and the accommodations we have to come to to accept those things about the world that are either beyond our control or that we simply don’t want to be in control of.

We face the decision whether the only good pot we can make is one that entirely conforms to our expectations or that there is more to good pots than we can plan for. Sometimes its entirely appropriate that the clay is allowed to express itself. Learning to listen to the clay means that we can still learn from it. We recognize that there are things of value that exceed our own intentions and surpass our will. The things we can imagine on our own are a tiny corner of the universe of possibility. Without learning more, our own ideas are often quite shabby. The clay itself, it turns out, can be a great teacher, if we let it. With the right intentions we can turn the ‘energy’ and ‘will’ of the clay into something harmonious.

Things to think about……

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, Arts education, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Throwing with intention and the Aikido of pottery

  1. Stephen says:

    I have been spending a couple of hours before the day job throwing and trying to control my attempts to be able to reproduce the same coffee mug every time. It’s not that I plan to make the exact same coffee mug, far from it. But I am damned determined to be able to and I will do this every single day (M-F 🙂 until I can. To pass the test they need to be lined up in rows and more or less be the same form.

    After two and a half months I have thrown a couple hundred of attempts sans handles. I cut the first few dozen in half to examine how I was doing with the walls, bottom etc. Then I started keeping them to practice trimming with and finally started to bisque the trimmed ones to provide the real potter in the partnership some forms to test glaze combinations with.

    In the first batch of glazed ones, most very bad, there are some that are kind of nice as cups. Some that failed for one reason or another while throwing were even intentionally turned into cups. I added one of these ‘cups’ to my brother in-laws b-day present as a shot-tumbler at his party and everyone was very complimentary and encouraged me to continue making these great little tumblers and all went on about how there would certainly be a great market for them.

    Only the ‘real potter’ knew that this great little cup was simply a product of throwing a lot of darts against the wall. If you throw enough in the same direction at least a few are going to land toward the center.

    • Great story, Stephen!

      I agree that the best way to aim for consistency is to practice practice, practice. Not only that, but you should do as much as you can to fine tune the process, so its not simply guesswork each time out. Developing a routine of handling the clay makes this so much easier. Does it take two pulls, three, or more to get the clay up into the walls? Is it something different every time? The more random your process is the less you can be said to be in a harmonious relationship with the clay. Its as if you have no idea what you are supposed to be communicating to the clay. But if you come to a mutual agreement then it starts to flow more smoothly and consistently. Its not a matter of just having the right techniques, but having the right relationship with the clay. The steps in the process become second nature, and you are not spending so much time on the wheel actually trying to figure it out. The more it becomes second nature the more consistency is built into the process. The more harmonious the relationship the better able you will be to explore what other things are possible. Once you understand the clay you can work with it rather than simply oppose it with your will. I think that is the lesson I was attempting to convey.

      Good luck! It sounds like you are on your way!

  2. Jonathan Carter says:

    I came up with a joke about this idea after reading this post:

    “As far as what the clay is going to become, well, I get my vote. But the clay also gets it’s vote. And then each beer has a vote. So, in the end, I’m often greatly outvoted.”


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