50 shades of clay

Someone in Monday night’s class mentioned that in an alternate Universe we would have a class called ’50 Shades of Clay’. The whole rest of the evening was spent cracking up and delivering jokes between getting pots on and off the wheels. I even made the mistake of telling one student to “Push deeper. Push harder.” (referring to the rib marks she was attempting) and her mortification turned her face as red as any I have ever seen. Oops!

Ignoring the Hollywood reference I woke up this morning knowing that this was the title I needed for what I am posting today. Today I’d like to talk about the relation and difference between quantity and quality and how that manifests in our pottery, in all art. My head was pointed in this direction after reading yesterday’s post from Seth Godin’s blog, and I knew it was something worth sharing with you folks. Here’s what Seth had to say:

Shoes that don’t fit (and free salt)

A beautiful pair of shoes, but one size too small, on sale and everything…. Not worth buying, not for you, not at any price. Because shoes that don’t fit aren’t a bargain.

And at a restaurant, you may have noticed that there’s no extra charge for salt. You can have as much salt as you want on your food, for free. (Of course, it’s not really free, it’s part of the cost of the meal, so we paid for it, so we might as well get our money’s worth, might as well use a lot.) Of course, that’s silly, because regardless of how much we were billed for the salt, no matter how unlimited our access to it is, using more is merely going to ruin our meal. Too much salt isn’t a bargain.

Buffets (like life, organizations, projects, art…) aren’t actually, “all you can eat.” They’re, “all you care to eat.” Which is something else entirely. Just because you can have it doesn’t mean you want it. Just because we paid for it doesn’t mean we should use all of it.

I think these are interesting observations, and I know that I for one don’t often pay enough attention to the differences. It seems relatively important to try making sense of why and how the world breaks down in this way. And after Seth I’m going to call these two differences fit and seasoning.

It should be readily apparent what the idea of fit means for the pots we make, if only in the way that Seth mentions with shoes. A mug that is so small (or big) as to be unusable or small (or big) enough as to discourage its use is something we have to consider. The idea that one size fits all for pots like mugs is something I never understood. I know people with big hands and big appetites, and I know people with small hands and small appetites. So I make all my mugs different sizes so that hopefully one or more may fit that customer specifically. As if it were made for them.

But with functional pottery that is meant to be hand held its not just about size but comfort and utility too. Fit can mean the nuances of ergonomics and the shape and design of the pot. A mug of the right size can have a devastatingly poor handle that makes using it not worth the effort. Or a bowl of the right size can be too narrow at the top or too wide for the things we want to do with them. In my art school days I used to put small spikes on cups so the user would have to pay attention when using them. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea….

And then there’s also the pot that’s not really what it pretends to be.

teapot or doorstop? Chuck Hinds will tell you "Its Art".

teapot or doorstop? Chuck Hinds will tell you “Its Art”.

For instance, all the elements you’d expect for a teapot are in this objet d’art made by Chuck Hinds, but is it a teapot? The lid is stuck on, and there is no hole for the spout to pour through even if you could get the lid off. Is it still a teapot? Is there some minimum criteria that we need to have for it to still be a teapot?

Oh, the treachery of images and objects!

Oh, the treachery of images and objects!

Magritte tells us “This is not a pipe”. Is a ‘plate’ with a hole in it a plate?

Voulkos platter. Is it a plate or does it just 'look like one'?

Voulkos platter. Is it a plate or does it just ‘look like one’?

Even though Voulkos would have reeled in horror to see deviled eggs and cucumber sandwiches piled on his platter, you can see that its not out of the realm of possibility. So it seems there are gray areas. Four solid holes and five embedded pebbles plus a divot still potentially qualifies this as a ‘plate’. But what about fifty holes? What if the holes were that much larger, and whole sandwiches would get sucked through the gaps?

Or, just the opposite: Real pots not intended for use but as a ‘still life’. Here’s the inimitable Jack Troy to explain it:

Returning home from a recent trip, I faced anunexpected dilemma when several pieces from ceramic still lifes made by different artists were in the cupboard with my everyday cups and bowls. A vase from one still life was on a table, with flowers in it.  The person who had been house-sitting was staying for two more days, and while it it was reassuring to have had the house cared for in my absence, I wondered about whether to raise the issue of the disrupted still lifes, or to just let it go, and rearrange the pieces where they belonged after my guest left.

When I woke up remembering how isolated the remaining pieces in the still lifes appeared on their shelves, and the related isolation the vase embodied, even with its lovely flowers, I felt the artist’s vision had been violated. But what clinched it was seeing my friend eating yogurt and fruit from one of the bowls removed from a still life. It seemed disrespectful to see this bowl-like element in an uncommonly beautiful ceramic composition being put to such common use.” (read the whole essay here)

Enter the notion of seasoning. Following Seth’s example, seasoning counts along a continuum. Say you start out with no seasoning. What you end up with can be bland, so simple it holds little interest for us. As we start to add seasoning it gets more interesting until we hit the sweet spot and can say without equivocation “That’s just about perfect!”

But if you push the seasoning a bit further than that its not just diminishing returns but a downhill slope that ends in something potentially worse than bland. We can overdo the seasoning. A simple form that has no articulation can seem very dull, but with even a few marks or changes in profile it can take on much greater interest. Tony Clennell just riffed on that in a post on his blog last week, and it seems worth noting. There is a range from dull to exciting to too much that circumscribes this aspect of quality. So its important to know when you haven’t done enough and stop before you’ve done too much. Sometimes more of a good thing is not itself a good thing…..

How many handles does a bowl need?

Every bowl needs at least two handles. maybe four....

“Every bowl needs at least two handles. maybe four….” Dan Finnegan (deeds spoken as words)

I’d say that hits the sweet spot, but you can imagine what more would do. The question is where that point actually happens. And maybe its a bit personal taste and a bit practical necessity.

How many wads are too many? The sweet spot supports the pot during the firing but also allows enough clearance for the vapors and/or ash to travel beneath the foot. Too few and the pot slumps. Too many and no atmospherics make their way through.

How much surface decoration/imagery/patterning splits the difference between nuance and garish? How much difference is too subtle and how much is too obvious? How much do we need to stay interested and how much will we be overwhelmed by? (When you cook you try to aim for a sweet spot with just a few distinct spices and flavors, not every flavor all at once)

How many pots are too many for a display? Do you just cram as many as will fit, or do you get some space between them to see the edges? When is a lot of information too much information? One pot per pedestal, or maybe a small tableau, but one pot per table might not be enough. Where is the sweet spot?

How many mugs do you need in your kitchen? A new one for every day, a clutch of favorites, or more than can reasonably fit on the shelves? Build enough shelves, I say! The number of pots is not the problem but the insufficiency of the storage! If you have pots stacked on the floors and every available horizontal surface, maybe you just need a bigger house. Or an addition, like my teacher Ron Meyers built for his wife Hester, to clear out some of the overflow. You’ve gotta have priorities 🙂

I’m sure I could go on much further, but I’m hoping what I’ve given is still somewhere in the sweet spot. I usually aim for excess, but that doesn’t always do me any favors. Hopefully this will be just enough to stimulate some thought and perhaps bring new light to some issues every potter, every artist, has to deal with. Interesting stuff, without a doubt!

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

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