The future of pottery

There was a time when I first started this blog that I used to spend moaning about the disappearance of pottery classes from Universities. Not all, of course, just as a perceptible trend. Departments downsizing, hiring sculptors to replace potters, not admitting potters to grad programs, having non potters teach wheel classes to beginners……. It is a depressing picture if you think about it.

Not that pottery won’t survive, just that fewer folks will have access to a decent education about it. Fewer folks may even be exposed to it in a serious context. It doesn’t seem like a consequence-free trend……

I teach in a community arts setting, and folks there are often quite engaged with what they are doing. The students who really want to make it a part of their lives go to heroic lengths to make that happen. I can’t applaud them enough, and I’m willing to go above and beyond what I am getting paid for to make it possible for them.

But the interesting thing is that very many of the folks who walk through the doors where I teach already have some exposure to pot making from some previous part of their lives. Many folks took classes in high school or in college. Some had decent art programs in grade school. There have been generations who were generously exposed to the arts in their classrooms. If you think about the majority of really good potters, all but a few will have taken classes as potters for at least some of their formal education. But opportunity for that seems to be more rare these days…….

The thing I was fearing most was that these sorts of opportunities are steadily diminishing. I could only see the doom and gloom of my worst imaginings. And I knew that if you just look at the success stories you will only ever get a rosy tinted picture. Sure, some Universities still do a marvelous job teaching it. Can we draw any necessary conclusions from that? Do we mistake the forest for the trees? There are increasing opportunities for apprentices. That’s a great thing! But is this a sample size with any chance of replacing the extent and breadth in education potters had from dwindling academic settings? Does a casual community class always challenge students in the same way as having strict homework assignments and the accountability of grades? For me its almost impossible to make that case, except in rare circumstances. Most folks who attend classes at community centers are not trying to figure out the path of their lives as much as they are finding the diversion of a possible hobby. And there is nothing wrong with that….

Its simply obvious the shape of the field is changing. Nothing wrong with that unless we are bogged down in some rigid conservatism of the ‘Golden Age’. But where are we headed? Have we adequately considered the issue of its sustainability?

Well, you can’t say these alternatives are hopeless, but they don’t really solve the entire issue of pottery moving forward. They are obviously part of the puzzle, though. No denying that. The key, however, is that in all these instances of possibility the idea of pottery was already something that people took seriously. You don’t commit to three years of apprenticeship without believing in the value of making pots. You don’t even take a noncredit night class without having a good idea that making pots will be fun. Or that having something made by hand to bring home is a great thing. The issue I am pointing out is that each of these alternatives rests on a foundation where the value of pottery is already accepted. Its a question of how we think of ourselves and how we understand the world. But how did we get there? How do we make the healthy survival of art not moot?

They don’t offer classes in shopping at Walmart, after all…. They don’t need to. We are brought up as consumers, and passively accepting the creativity of other people is second nature to us by the time we are young adults. Doesn’t that tell us a bit about the training of people growing up in today’s world? Doesn’t it say something profound about the odds that are stacked against the active participatory arts? Which is so fundamentally strange, because we all grew up as natural artists……

Is it weird that I get real tears in my eyes every time I see this scene? (I am a sap, if you didn’t already know that, but this just rips my heart open every time….)

So what am I advocating here? Surely not that we all grow up fighting to remain Peter Pan? No, but art has to stay somewhere safe for it to thrive. It needs to be encouraged, nurtured, and it needs a foundation. Whither that?

Well, what I see as the Starting Point of the Future of Pottery, the future of art, is that folks grow up respecting and appreciating these things. That’s as good a starting place as I can imagine. You can’t guarantee it will last, but the more you make a space in peoples’ hearts for an activity or thing the likelier they will have the chance to remember it and pursue it as they move forward. Unless society crushes their creativity from them, which too often can seem inevitable…. Where exactly do we take a stand against that?

On as many fronts as possible is how I’d answer.

As we grow up we find that more and more the further we go we have reasons to make up our minds about the world. We get ‘evidence’ that some things matter and others don’t. We decide. We commit. Its not just the outside pressures and expectations but our own habits in confronting the world. There are accretions of our actions, and our feet so often find the well worn trails. We build in some directions but not others. We are complicit in how things shake out for us. The things we have done and thought become a part of who we are. We are encased in a mantle of what we have experienced and how we have felt about it…..

Of course we can change, but so much of our mental and physical lives are spent reinforcing the things we are already familiar with. We inhabit a loose affiliation of things that matter to us. And it often takes extraordinary effort to break the patterns of our lives. So much seems to point us in the direction of repeating ourselves. Laziness, familiarity, accrued psychological disposition, the confirmation bias and all other motivated reasoning…. (And if you think about it, these are all the reasons brand advertising seems to work so powerfully on us. Does that suggest something notable about the course of our lives and the influence lines of manipulation?) The odds are simply stacked against radical and rapid ephemeral changes. Our lives turn away from unpredictability with an assurance that fairly reeks of engineering. Stability and conformity DO matter to us. We build it into our lives at almost every turn.

The question, then, is if some sort of stability is inevitable, to what do we conform? Can we do a better job of planting the right seeds and nurturing the right growth? What values do we put forth as a locus to build stability around? We’re not living in a fantasy of completely chaotic and untethered free will. Are we?

My thought is that we make a home for art in the world by helping people grow up with art as a part of their lives. No guarantees, of course, and there is no rule against picking it up much later in life. But it seems that IF you start out in life understanding where respect and appreciation come from, you will have a much less difficult time remembering it later in life. When, for instance, the chips are down and you are being hemmed in by other pressures and the need for external adult commitments.

It becomes a choice for us by already being available to us. We are offered art in our future simply as a point of stability in our personal values. Not as some radical departure, but the continuation of who we are. Our self-identity. We make it a preference. Art survives because we remember that art has a place in our lives. We make a place for art in the world by believing in art.

If art is an acquired taste, from where exactly do we acquire it? Interacting with art is a habit that we can let define us the more we invest in it, the more we explore it. The only way to love art is to become invested in it…..

So I try my best to get real pottery in the hands of young (and potential) art enthusiasts. As young as I can get ’em. If they have the experience of caring that the next meal they eat will be from this handmade piece of pottery, how powerful is that? That’s the question this discussion hinges on. And from where I am sitting I can only see one real answer: Of course it is merely one of the competing values they will grow up with, but if its already there, at least its in contention.

And valuing a piece of pottery isn’t necessarily just about pots. There are more global lessons to be learned by making a place for pottery in one’s life. Its sometimes also about handmade items, about creativity, about imagination, about art in general, museums and public creative works, and its significantly also about their own involvement with these things. Which is why we so often find that our fellow artists are kindred spirits, after all. A person who is sensitive to beauty in paintings may have more capacity (or training) for discovering it in their everyday surroundings and in other creative manifestations.

The more we pay attention to these things the more we are tuned in that way. Its like learning a new language (or anything really): The more we use it the more it becomes part of how we express ourselves. It is the people who have a hard time finding these things who are more truly lost to art. Its not an affinity for them. The don’t ‘speak the language’ yet. Or they have forgotten. Whichever, they don’t have a home for it in their lives. They have very little foundation to build on…. But appreciate one art form and you will have at least potentially opened the gateway to other possible extensions of the human imagination. Doesn’t that just make sense?

Which leaves me. How do I deal with this issue? I seem to care what happens, but what do I DO about it?

Well, each year I devote a large portion of my pot making to smaller sized versions of my pottery that fit small hands and belly sizes. I make pots FOR kids specifically. And I put small adult prices on them to start with, but then I give them to kid customers at half off that already ridiculously low price. Kids can get their mugs for anywhere between $5-$8. There is nothing kids sized I put out that would cost them more than $10. Which makes it cheap enough that parents aren’t discouraged by its higher probability of a short life (the younger they are increasing the incidence of mishap). Why not put inexpensive art in the hands of your children? Things they will truly cherish and which may help them make sense of the creative world as they grow older?

My hope is that these questions still matter to enough parents regardless of whether their own lives have retained the opportunity for serious creative expression. If you believe in art, how do you make it available to your children? I’m trying to give one possible answer to that……

Here’s what I mean:

Some neighbors add to their supply of handmade cups and bowls, and a potter friend and his family get their kids started on some kid sized mugs.

Some neighbors add to their supply of handmade cups and bowls, and a potter friend and his family get their kids started on some kid sized mugs.

Some young ladies who grow up in a home that already appreciates pottery get their first opportunity to have their very own pots to drink and eat from. They were very excited by this prospect!

Some young ladies who grow up in a home that already appreciates pottery get their first opportunity to have their very own pots to drink and eat from. They were very excited by this prospect!

How can I look at these kids and not feel I am doing the right thing? Even if it costs me money to do, in the long run? Isn’t it easy to believe that the future of pottery is in good hands?

Peace all!

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 advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The future of pottery

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    “But appreciate one art form and you will have at least potentially opened the gateway to other possible extensions of the human imagination.”
    I’m completely biased, but I think functional pots are a great candidate for that first art form; the one that can be a gateway to others. Everybody understands what a mug and a bowl are; everybody can use them; most people can appreciate the difference between these things being made by hand versus by machines. And while the prices can never compete with the likes of Target, compared to other forms of art the entry price is about as low as it gets.

  2. Joseph says:

    I find the question of the future of pottery very interesting, but really do separate it into two different topics in my head. One of the future of teaching and the other of the future of the selling pottery.

    Selling pottery enough to make a living seems a dark art to me, but that may be due to my social anxiety which can mean some days talking to people is nigh on impossible. When I think about the future of me making to sell I think about

    The future of teaching is from a very UK-centric perspective. Talking to other teachers during my teacher training last year because they are working at a fast pace to get through x-number of modules they don’t want to teach ceramics due to it being “too slow”, takes to much time for the students to learn the necessary skills and college not being about “learning skills that is for high school”.

    I don’t know I see doing things merely for the grades as not always a good thing. What I found university good for was a safe (relatively) cheap way of learning on my own, as teaching wasn’t something my tutors did, but with access to all the facilities I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. Talking to various students at the International Ceramics Festival in Aberystwyth a lot of students felt the same, like they weren’t given much to learn from. There is also the feeling amongst students that if they make functional pieces then they can’t score as high grades, so to play the game they make things they don’t like and come up with the blurb to go with it.

    I want to make a change and a difference, just not sure how I can yet.

    • I’m with you Joseph….

      I think schooling has great potential, but it isn’t always a reflection of what the teachers have to teach. Sometimes the best thing that can be said is that its an opportunity, and that if you need a kick in the pants to be motivated this will be one. Teachers have a tough job regardless, and I hate that there is all this outside administrative pressure on you guys……

      Maybe its the case that some art teachers almost feel that its their job to mostly get out of their students’ way, clear the path ahead of them, but then also let the student make their own mistakes, learn the hard way, and then arrive at some personal space that could not have been if they were constantly being hassled and directed and massaged into some conformity with the teacher’s expectation. My own experience of grad school was that there was very little constructive interaction but plenty of questioning for where I was headed and why I was doing what I was doing. As if their purpose was to tease these things from my soul and the only way for me to get a handle on them was to slap me around (metaphorically) a bit. I wasn’t really an official art student in undergad, so I’m not sure how most folks experience that, but the sense I get is that its still mostly getting out of the students’ way….. Like you say, the technical stuff was mostly glossed over after the first few classes. And from then on it was mostly about ‘content’, whatever they took that to mean…….

      No comment from me on “the dark arts” 🙂

      Good luck Joseph!

      • Joseph says:

        Teaching at UK college level really was just about getting students the top grades possible, so generally telling students exactly what to do. The department I worked in got 99% pass rate and 90% A to A* being the top mark possible and was a a bit like a battery egg factory. As a teacher that sort of level of teaching is exhausting as it is constant do this do that. Unfortunately this approach left students lost when they go to Uni and so 75% dropped out of undergrad programs.

        Grades weren’t mentioned the first two years of my undergrad program, everything was done on a pass fail basis, so by the final year you weren’t really sure where you sat if you were playing the grade game.

        There wasn’t in my experience much questioning in my undergrad program, I think in my final year my tutors only made time to speak to me twice, once was the beginning of the year when we had to present what our project was, which I got no comments from the tutor only some from other students telling me my ideas towards making were old fashioned.

        My second round of interaction seemed a waste of time after the first mark, in which one tutor said my work needed to be bigger. I hunted down the head of course and wanted to know how I could improve, not my grade but as a potter wanting to work in a bigger world to which his reply was my work was “good enough” thinking I was referring to grades.

        If I really cared about grades I would have stayed on my chemistry undergrad program where I was coming near top of my class but unfulfilled by the subject. That program always gave me a false impression of what university tutors should be like I guess as you could always go speak to them or a phd student, despite having their own work to do.

        I had a much more positive experience in my teacher training program where classes were pretty much questioning and getting us to do what some considered to be “pointless” exercises but really they were all trying to get us to form our own opinion towards teaching and teaching theory.

        When it comes to evening classes and education I think Jeremy Steward and Patia Davies do a really good job at Wobage, they have fully booked evening classes through the year and then over the summer run an amazing summer school, I had the privilege to go on one of their summer classes last year and they do go above and beyond what I expected. And they also have apprentices that work with them, who also run an evening class one night a week, helping them learn that side of pottery too.

        I am now hoping to get on a Master’s program by Research where my proposal is along the lines of how can digital innovations help teach a traditional craft such as pottery. There are some interesting things going on out there from e-courses to books with embedded videos when used with a “smart device”.

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Making a living selling pots is only a dark art up to the point where you sell your soul to the devil. After that, it’s more like a dark craft.

  3. Tom H. Johnson, Jr. says:


    Yep, I was primed to like things made of clay and had a high school art teacher who noticed that I couldn’t keep my eyes off photos and posters of Ladi Kwali and Michael Cardew. “Miz Smith” (Patsy) had gone to a workshop at Arrowmont where they were the presenters, and came back with stories to tell about that particular experience. She let it be known what was important.

    Thomas III has had an evil eye since age 7 or 8 that can invariably pick out the MOST expensive (and best) piece, “Hey Daddy, that’ the one I want.”

    Tom, “Ah, cough, cough.”

    You and Scott Cooper have helped with that, as he grew looking at well made/designed things.

    So Happy Father’s Day, dude. You always look out for the little ones. And don’t despair, things go in waves and circles. Goodness always comes back.

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