Learning craft

(He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (6.54)

Michael Simon pitcher

Michael Simon pitcher


I am two weeks into teaching the perennially favorite “Copying the Masters” wheel class this term, and it has already been an important step forward for many of the students. I think the easy confusion would be that students are simply learning to make some other potter’s pot, and that is indeed part of it. But what I like to suggest is that the real project is not simply the lumps of clay getting transformed into an appropriate shape but that the students are working on themselves.

What they are learning is a bit about technique, but mostly about learning to see how someone else approaches their work. Its an insight. They are working on their own understanding. What are the details that matter? What happens when things line up just this bit differently? Why did doing it this one way make the right difference in the outcome? What students are learning is an ability to see, and sometimes you need the example of other folks for what to see. They are learning to read the pots by understanding the significance of the details, and who better than masters to teach them this.

So, yes, it is ostensibly a class about making this one or that one pot, but the reality is that the students are making themselves better potters, better users of the language of pottery. They are not just learning to copy, they are learning what it means to express themselves with intentionality. And they learn how far intention can take them. Its a class about themselves, about their own agency, more than the pots they are studying.

For instance, one of the early lessons has been that trying to get each of these details is a challenge. You have to try for a specific result, a specific detail, proportion, and distribution of the parts. Michael’s pitcher is not so overly complex or technically outrageous that the technique itself is an obstacle. There is a lot of technical mastery involved in ‘getting it right’, but its more about nuance and understanding how to state details ‘just so’. If you don’t have full command of the vocabulary you are using its easy to make certain things a bit exaggerated. If the pot isn’t something flowing through your hands naturally it is often being processed with a different sort of focus. If its ‘unnatural’ it can seem forced. This also shows that Michael Simon wasn’t ‘trying to make this pot’. Rather, he was making this pot.

The difference I am pointing to is that the students are learning something new, and its a struggle for all of them. They are being asked to grow. Think of it as something akin to learning written language. “See spot run” might be something you train yourself to read in those early days. Once you have mastered the details and nuance of reading you can not only read unfamiliar sentences, paragraphs and whole stories, you can express your own ideas for the first time yourself. Reading fosters the capacity for writing. You find that you can see new ideas more clearly, you have more access to different ways of approaching things.

Imagine learning how to write without first learning how to read. Most pottery students are taught those sorts of expressive skills without first having come to grips with the information of pots themselves. They learn to make basic shapes without appreciating what those shapes signify. Learning to understand the language of pottery is a much neglected exercise.

Which is why learning to see pots the way their maker made them is a crucial building block. The training you do to get to that place of mastery and confidence is like a ladder that helped you climb to a new perspective. And once you have arrived there you simply no longer need the ladder. You get to do what you need to do without the encumbrances and limitations of ladders. The crutches and hand holds that helped you take those awkward first few steps are no longer necessary. You get to make rather than simply trying to make. You can kick Michael Simon’s pitcher to the curb.

So, many of the pots that appeared in the first two sessions were an exercise in accounting for the right details and in putting them all in the right places. Even my own demo pots for the class were much too tight to be anything but a poor Michael Simon knock off. I had to try too hard to get things right. The results were manufactured in my case, but they were natural in Michael’s. And that’s why we practice. Its not the specific result we are interested in but our own ability to achieve it. Learning a craft is, in a sense, learning to make sense of the world and to find your own place within it. Its learning to speak with confidence.

I would have just posted these thoughts on their own, but this morning I read a great collection of quotes from an obscure Henry Miller book that spoke directly to the need in artists to see differently. One of the observations that my students had was that they were at first looking at the Michael Simon pitcher but that they didn’t really understand it, they really didn’t see it. They had to learn to look deeper, to look differently. That is the point of this class. And here is Henry Miller to explain why:

What is more intriguing than a spot on the bathroom floor which, as you sit emptying your bowels, assumes a hundred different forms, figures, shapes? Often I found myself on my knees studying a stain on the floor — studying it to detect all that was hidden at first sight. No doubt the painter, studying the face of the sitter whose portrait he is about to do, must be astonished by the things he suddenly recognizes in the familiar visage before him. Looking intently at an eye or a pair of lips, or an ear — particularly an ear, that weird appendage! — one is astounded by the metamorphoses a human countenance undergoes. What is an eye or an ear? The anatomy books will tell you one thing, or many things, but looking at an eye or ear to render it in form, texture, color yields quite another kind of knowledge. Suddenly you see — and it’s not an eye or an ear but a little universe composed of the most extraordinary elements having nothing to do with sight or hearing, with flesh, bone, muscle, cartilage.”


To paint is to love again. It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees. His is a love, moreover, which is free of possessiveness. What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share. Usually he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to. His manner of approaching the world tells us, in effect, that nothing is vile or hideous, nothing is stale, flat and unpalatable unless it be our own power of vision. To see is not merely to look. One must look-see. See into and around.”


The most familiar things, objects which I had gazed at all my life, now became an unending source of wonder, and with the wonder, of course, affection. A tea pot, an old hammer, or chipped cup, whatever came to hand I looked upon as if I had never seen it before. I hadn’t, of course. Do not most of us go through life blind, deaf, insensitive? Now as I studied the object’s physiognomy, its texture, its way of speaking, I entered into its life, its history, its purpose, its association with other objects, all of which only endeared it the more… Have you ever noticed that the stones one gathers at the beach are grateful when we hold them in our hands and caress them? Do they not take on a new expression? An old pot loves to be rubbed with tenderness and appreciation. So with an axe: kept in good condition, it always serves its master lovingly.


The practice of any art demands more than mere savoir faire. One must not only be in love with what one does, one must also know how to make love. In love self is obliterated. Only the beloved counts. Whether the beloved be a bowl of fruit, a pastoral scene, or the interior of a bawdy house makes no difference. One must be in it and of it wholly. Before a subject can be transmuted aesthetically it must be devoured and absorbed. If it is a painting it must perspire with ecstasy.”

Now that is some powerful writing!

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, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Learning craft

  1. Ashley says:

    When the kilns are pumping out the heat and it is a sweltering August afternoon, I can now say that I am perspiring with ecstacy!

  2. Clay Walthall says:

    Maybe this exercise would make a good subject for a book?

    • Definitely a chapter’s worth in that book I will almost certainly never get to compile from these essays. But if I do I’d like to think it makes the cut…. Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂

  3. Ryan VanHoy says:

    Nice post Carter! I like the comparison of reading and writing to seeing and making. It also reminded me of this class I read about at UNL. http://arts.unl.edu/hlfpa/news/making-history-exhibition-opens-dec-1

  4. Scott Cooper says:

    Really good post. Totally agree about the similarities to learning to read and write. I should try to copy that pitcher, too.

  5. Pingback: Favorite things | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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