Almost cut my hair……

I had a revelation the other day. I was thinking about two of the pots I had just purchased from the recent Crafted and Designed exhibition and I realized that neither Liz Lurie nor Simon Levin had signed/stamped their pots.

Liz Lurie wood fired bowl with 'elbow' nub handles from kiln firing #2

Liz Lurie wood fired bowl with ‘elbow’ nub handles from kiln firing #2

Simon Levin 'chunky' bowl lusciously trimmed in a soft state

Simon Levin ‘chunky’ bowl lusciously trimmed in a soft state

(The brilliant flash of light slowly dims, and the bewildered author stagers blindly for a few moments more until finally things return to focus and he can see the world anew.)

So many artists sign their work, I assume for a variety of reasons. I was told back in my school days that I “needed to sign my work”, and so I compromised by coming up with a meaningless stamp, half decoration half faux signature. And I’ve been putting one form or another of that blasted impression on virtually all my pots since. I at one point figured out that a good way to keep track of my various clay bodies would be to use different stamps to pick them out. Most of my work these days is in ungrogged white clay, and its nigh impossible to tell the porcelains from the other white stonewares when I’m about to do my glazing (Mostly Highwater Clay’s P10 porcelain and Loafers Glory). Another series of mugs I stamped upside down to remember the day one of my studio cats showed up injured. I was heart broken, and in my distress and still needing to finish the work I had started the day before I decided that my regular stamp was simply not right for the situation…..

Originally I think I was using the stamp to indicate where I wanted folks to look. The pots all have sides, and the front needed to be distinguished from the back. (This was a lesson I learned from Linda Christianson during the semester she taught at UGA. She pointed out that a handle on a mug will look better in one spot than another if the pot is not uniformly symmetrical. You have to look for the best option, and that decides the front from the back. I tend to avoid symmetry, so this insight made perfect sense to me.) Sometimes I put the stamp right in the solar plexus. Other times I put the stamp somewhere under the chin. On mugs I usually put it on the shoe laces just above the feet. At some other point I decided that some pots can have two ‘fronts’, and I robbed them of a ‘backside’. At other points I decided mugs could be stamped just next to the arm pit, or even on the tush where the lower extremity of the handle rested. At one point I was so disappointed in the clay body I was using that I hid my smallest stamp underneath the pot, where you could only find it if you properly undressed it in use.

What also became clear over time was that my stamp had indeed become my signature. And discovering this I had the uneasy impression that my stamp had transformed to yet another stereotype.

Back in the day when I was a late twenty-something, just starting Philosophy grad school, I somehow got the idea that some personal image control was necessary. I grew my hair out into a stringy snarled mess that eventually reached below my shoulder blades. I also kept up my fascination with tie dye T-shirts that I had fallen in love with living out in Seattle in the late 80’s. This was my uniform, grungy Chuck Taylors included. This was how I presented myself to the world in the early 90’s. Its amazing I ever got a date!

Tune in a few years later and its still the same image, just older and now in Pottery grad school rather than Philosophy. While working the day job that helped pay my bills a coworker (who incidentally had also been one of my undergrad Philosophy students) declared that “You can become a stereotype of yourself”. He was talking about changes in his own life, but the message hit home in my world as well. It took some time to work up the courage, but eventually I cut my hair completely off (I still have it almost 20 years later as part of an impromptu sculptural installation), ditched the now threadbare tie dyes, and opted for foot wear with more arch support.

Its simply amazing what we do to ourselves with the momentum of our history. You can settle into the most uncomfortable situations by making one questionable decision and sticking with it, come hell or high water….. Its just incredible what we do to ourselves because we have defaulted into this one image we are trying to project….. Not even actively trying, at times. Its just there. Like acne, halitosis, and dirty fingernails….

So, just the other day I had the second shoe drop, and the further lesson of that original revelation hit me that my stamp had become like my hair back in the early 90’s. I didn’t have to wear it if I didn’t want to. Despite my instructor once telling me I had to have something to represent ‘me’, there really was no other compelling reason why that simply had to be the case. The decision was staring me right in the face: I could ‘cut my hair’ a second time, and dump the gimmick out the door. Rather than simply stamping my pots as default, or somehow compulsory, I recently let whole swaths of pots dry without stamping them. I realized I always hated how my flared bowls looked when I stamped them, and it was a genuine relief not to punch out the sides of the ones I just made with the heavy handed use of my branding iron…. Other forms were equally unimpressed with the difference the absence of a stamp made: They looked just fine without them. Maybe I can do this after all….. Maybe its also up to the audience to decide which part of the pot is its ‘front’?

That said, I stamped all the mugs I made next. Maybe I will only pull it out on special occasions. Maybe only the pots I consider my own best expressions will be touched by the heated iron. Hypocrisy? Maybe. But I have to respect that sometimes it feels right and others it does not. That feels honest to me.

So, my lovely art making friends out there, are you ‘wearing you hair long’ because you feel you don’t have another choice? Or simply ‘cutting it short’ from habit? Will you change it up as the mood strikes you? Or have you simply done the same style over and over for so long now that you can’t really acknowledge there are other ways of doing it? What’s to stop you from cutting your hair? That some collector won’t buy it unless its been ‘authenticated’? I’ve had customers ask me where it is signed. Should we provide them with notarized certificates of authenticity as well? Maybe standing there with a magic marker and putting our ‘X’ across the face of it would appease them? They seem to suggest that they are occasionally paying for the signature more than the pot itself….. Is that what we are hoping for? Do we owe it to them?

Starting to ramble! (Pulls self back from the brink of temptation)

What do you all think?


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 advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Almost cut my hair……

  1. “I’ve changed my hairstyle SO many times now I don’t know what I look like.”– David Byrne

    I cut my hair short because I just don’t want to be bothered with hair products or the daily styling decisions. But I wonder if I would feel differently if I had more hair options?

    This post made me think about a lot of issues that we deal with concerning acceptance and validation, not to mention the provenance and legacy of our work. (Oh, and maybe pride?)

    But what I enjoyed most was getting a peek into carter gillies as a long haired tie-dye wearin’ philosophy student!
    I’m infinitely curious about the paths we take to get to where we become who we are.

    • Love the Byrne quote!

      I’m with you on the advantages of short hair. That practicality would probably convince me even if I had more upstairs to play with 🙂

      Yeah, pride definitely factors in at some level. It just seems all these connections are worth considering more than I usually do. And maybe I’m no different from most other potters out there in that regard….

      Hah! Those photos have all been destroyed.

      I totally agree about being curious how folks get to where they get. That’s why these blog thingies have been so interesting, like little windows into people’s lives and art practices. I think that depth of history is a great contextualizing of what each of us is up to now. Looking back at our own history can even seem like we are looking at someone else’s life. It can be hard to recognize that it was in fact we who did and said all those things. I think that’s just fascinating! And it makes the future much more mysterious than I think we often take it to be. It makes it easier to cut one’s hair, perhaps…..

      Thanks for chiming in! All good stuff to think about!


  2. Stephen says:

    I thought you were pushing for functional pottery in galleries and such. Would those that decide display or even ack unsigned work? Not saying they never have but Isn’t the hope of broader acceptance of functional pottery as art worthy of the same treatment as other artistic mediums going to have to be signed to reach this mainstream acceptance in the art community in general?

    Are you going to stop putting any mark on all of your work or just some of it?

    • The art establishment is a diseased animal. It gets so much wrong in so many ways, not least of which is the discrimination against things like functional pots. One of the other illnesses that you see in that world is the Reputation Game. I’d like that to change as well. Or if it never changes, at least make the strongest possible argument that selling and building reputations has to serve the art itself rather than the commerce. Righ now the cart is before the horse. As it stands, most artists probably DO sign their work looking over their shoulder at institutions like galleries for approval. To not sign your work is an admission that the demands of galleries, as currently promoted, are not always in the best interest of the work itself. Or artists’ own integrity.

      Sure, once you get famous and folks start collecting whatever you toss out it can be flattering to think that as long as your name is on something its worth that much more. Unfortunately that is an ego game that the establishment is all too willing to play. And if you are on the outside looking in, you can see what an elitist load of crap such practices are…… Its gatekeeping for the most nonsensical reasons.

      The acceptance I am trying to reach in the art community is definitely NOT on their terms. On their terms we are not even part of the conversation. Its like Captain Kirk being tested on the Starfleet Kobayashi Maru training exercise as a cadet: sometimes a scenario that has no winning solutions simply requires you to change the rules.

      On a lighter note 🙂 yes, so far I have resisted stamping any of my pots since that last run of mugs. That includes cruets, flasks, pitchers, bowls, and, erm, jewelery holders (my mom said I should make them, and by golly there seems to be a need for them in my community). Next up are candle sticks, butter dishes, triangulated vases, and serving dishes with handles, I can see everything on that list going stamp free, but I sometimes like the stamps on the serving dishes as a decorative nuance. We’ll see how it goes!

  3. Stephen says:

    I think it means, more often than not, getting $150 for what might normally be $100. It does not seem to rise up to enough to bring moral considerations really. Those of you that teach classes and workshops, write good blogs that stay on clay topic, post youtube instructional video’s, write great books etc, are building reputations that trend up your names and the value of your work. That seems OK to me.

    • That is certainly part of it, and that may be small potatoes to the millions of dollars that reputation translates into in the big scene. So I’d probably say that its not a perfect world by any means, and that on the pottery scale its fairly innocuous. Still, every time that Yunomi show comes up at AKAR gallery its always interesting to see whose cups are priced in what range. There are always a few potters whose cups are around $200. Some of those are really nice, but when the prices get that expensive for a cup, just who is it being marketed to? (See that other post from last week that talked about the crazy art prices in galleries these days)

      I think that people get to know you just by you doing your normal thing. If you are doing it as part of a marketing scheme that may be something different. Selling the sizzle and not the steak is a bit crazy to me. Here’s the Harry Davis quote again:

      “The truly simple and adequate reasons for making pots disappear from view when any gimmick is worth a try as an indication of originality and any publicity is worth chasing as a means to fame. To do something in order to appear original, to adopt mannerisms and play the eccentric in order to appear to be an artist; to pursue fame as a conscious objective are all symptoms of a sickness and examples of actions taken for the wrong reasons. In saying that potters should have the courage to be potters, one is merely saying that they should have courage to do things for the right reasons.” – Harry Davis, ‘An historical review of art commerce and craftsmanship’ Studio Potter, vol 6 no 1, p. 11

  4. Stephen says:

    I have a list of a few potters I want to buy a piece or two from and your name is on it. I like the work and enjoy your blog so yes I would be kind of buying into both the piece and the artist and expect to pay a few dollars more.

    • Hah! Guilty as charged!

      I’ve been ogling Kenyon Hansen’s work for some time now, but had never been in the same room with it before. The three pots I bought at that show were Simon Levin’s bowl, and I went to school with him back in the day at UGA, Liz Lurie’s bowl, and she has been a friend since the time she lived in Athens all those years ago, and that Kenyon Hansen side handled bowl I’ve been dreaming about since I first saw images of them.

      So yeah, having a want list is always going to be colored by the person making the work. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. But it may be a problem for artists to depend on friends to bail them out. That can get into the dangerous territory described in that Harry Davis quote. There should be no obligation on friends to buy work. Knowing the potter simply makes it that much more special when you do buy something.

      This is a fascinating topic, and I could go on much longer, but its time for me to teach class. Gotta run!

      Thanks for the conversation, as always, Stephen!


  5. Zygote says:

    This has long been a touche subject with me. Signatures have always (underlined “always”) bothered me. They are more often a distraction than not and, at one time, I equated a signature as a way that placed personal pride over the actual work.I’ve somewhat relaxed my own dogma over the years. As a jeweler we hallmaked our work to take responsibility for the quality of the metals used. The idea of taking that responsibility in the quality of the materials has spilled over into the idea of taking responsibility for the work. Even if a work is obviously made a particular makers, buyers will still prefer to pay extra for providence and pedigrees of a maker’s mark. It’s a game for the trained eye to pick up a work, explore it’s characteristics of a particular makers hand.
    For the larger markets, I buy into this game. I lovingly stamp my work that I make for that stage. I don’t even hide it out of the way on the bottom but work it into the design of the surface. I’ve gotten a good solid finger wagging for this transgression from a few notables at points, but I’ve made my own choice.
    For my local markets, more and more often lately, I’ve stayed my hand. The work doesn’t need my mark to extoll its quality, and more importantly, locally I find that I prefer to be an anonymous potter that makes solid functional work. An absence of a hallmark allows the work to quietly speak for itself, not for the potter who made it. The relationship created is between the work and the owner, not between the owner and the artist.

    • Yay!

      That’s a great response, Joel! You sum up so many of the complex points that are at work in this issue. I’m with you almost 100%. The only thing I’m starting to question is whether I owe it to the larger markets to ‘sign’ my work. You are right to point out the positives of taking responsibility for the quality, etc, but I don’t feel that outweighs the downsides of branding. Maybe mostly as a matter of principle. It seems there are too many people that are famous for no other reason than that they are famous (Paris Hilton, etc) And too many artist achieve that status because they can pay their way. (see th video for the context I’m referring to)

  6. Clive Bowen says (somewhere around the 16th minute):

  7. Les Norton says:

    This is an interesting topic that I have danced around with for over 40 years.

    When I first started selling pots as a student, I signed my work. Probably shouldn’t have, it wasn’t so good. Over the years I went from last name to first name to stamp with my initials, then to initials of my business name to no signature back to signing my last name. Each time I did something different I had “very good” reasons for making the change, but then a better reason would come along and I would change again. Reading the book The Unknown Craftsman seemed to make one of the bigger impacts and was the deciding factor for going with no name. “Let your work speak for you”, or whatever.

    But as I get older I guess I think more about Legacy. You are only on this planet for a very short time and if you only want to appear and disappear as an anonymous maker of “fine” pottery that’s OK, but if you want to be remembered as a person who made the world a little more beautiful place to live in, then signing a pot with your name is not such a bad thing. What if Beethoven, Brahms, Rembrandt, Moore, and on and on, didn’t sign any of there works? We would still have the works, but something would be lost in trying to capture the understanding of a persons soul. Just follow the progression of Beethoven’s works from early to late and you can begin to understand who he was at the deepest levels.

    I think of Don Reitz… I look at the whole body of his works, and can do this because they were signed, and see three distinct periods. The first being a regurgitation of the other potters of that period, the second an explosion of creativity, and the last, a reaching for something new in color and form. Through his work I feel like I know him, in reality I did get to speak with him, one to one for about an hour. In the current time he is probably known to everyone who has and interest in clay, and most of his work can be immediately identified as his, although I have seen some work by others that could have been good copies. As far as I know, he signed all his work, even though it was so easily recognizable. History will only tell but as time goes on he will never be an “Unknown Craftsman” and I find that a good thing.

    I don’t want anonymous, I want my Beethoven’s, Rembrandt’s and Reitz’s. It gives me roots from which my work can grow. It gives me pleasure to know that these great works of art were created by individuals, not anonymous gods. And it’s important to me to leave some sort of legacy, some thing that says I have spent my precious time on this earth doing something of purpose.

  8. Pingback: Bonzo was here | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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