Share your thoughts on why clay matters

So last post I ended by inviting folks to share why they thought clay specifically was important to the experience of arts education and why clay art offered something unique and worth encouraging. Scott chimed in with:

In a word, “plasticity”.

And I have to agree that plasticity is a huge contribution of clay to the arts experience. What else is? What more can we say to flesh that idea out?

Not very many folks read this blog, I suppose, and of those few not many comment on posts, but I am sincerely interested in your opinions and insight. I want you to feel like you can share if you have something to share, especially if you are a person engaged with the medium in a serious way. But really everyone who has an opinion on why clay matters is welcome.

So let me ask again, if you are aware of resources that support the idea of clay in the arts lets hear what they are. Articles, essays, videos, whatever. If its just you rambling on about how clay reflects some greater truth about your own life and experiences, share that.

This blog has become too much of an echo chamber, and it takes so much of my time to write, let alone think these things through. If I’m the only one who cares about this issue, so be it. If you are fed up with academia and would rather see clay painfully extruded through the doors on its way out, so be it. If you think that education in clay has no value for the arts, so be it. If you think that the world will be just fine with future clay artists figuring it out all on their own, in casual night classes and community centers, so be it. If you think that justifying clay is beside the point and that the only thing that matters is one’s own appreciation, so be it…..

But if you DO care, if you think that clay matters more than just your own fancy, why not share that story?

I look forward to anything you have to say 🙂

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 advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Share your thoughts on why clay matters

  1. RachelleChinnery says:

    Hi Carter, I’m a studio potter currently finishing a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. Your question is at the center of my thesis. Clay is a creative substance that can double as a creative metaphor: we make with the substance we’re made of. Working with clay can help develop an ecological identity as well as an aesthetic identity, which, at this particular juncture in the state of the planet, I think is an important consideration. When I finish my thesis I’ll have much more to say on the topic! Thanks for posting the question. I appreciate your writings. Rachelle Chinnery

  2. Jane Sarre says:

    For me i love the tactile qualities and directness of forming a piece with bare hands or simple tools, but also the flexibility of being able to do an infinite number of different things that can make my pots distinct from yours – underscored with the rigours of what the material will do when, hi temp chemistry of glaze science and all the other stuff that happens in the kiln. On a peronal level making pots is a step away from the abstract and disembodied world of academia and towards re-shaping the world more directly. But its a tough discipline so there’s definately a need for in depth teaching both practically and intellectually that you dont get in evening classes. I look forward to reading the results of your enquiry and am grateful that someone is doing it!

  3. Holly Gnaedinger says:

    I am a collector, not a maker. I appreciate your blog but sympathize with you perhaps feeling that you are a voice in he wilderness; few potters are as erudite or thoughtful. Clay is super important, mankind has made clay vessels for a very long time and artists have explored clay with a fascinating range of experience. I enjoy watching the current development of artists working with clay, such an elemental material.

    • Thanks for your generous response, Holly! I agree that there are at lest two sides of this issue: Why clay is important for makers, and why its important for the human community in which clay things take up residence and live out their lives. Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Nathan T says:

    Plasticity is a good word. Or movement. Or fluidity. Forming something in a very soft state and then turning it into something very hard is just a very fun experience for me.

  5. Ashley says:

    I am just riffing off the top of my head here, so these thoughts might be a bit scattered.
    Instead of thinking that we need to defend or justify the existence of clay, could it be that the field of ceramics is too hard to teach well in such a short period as a traditional 4 year degree program? By that I mean that not only does the student have to learn the basic skills to become proficient at making work, but then there is the chemistry, math and possibly even the physics involved. I know many a BA student that never even considered the sciences because they were under the impression that math, chemistry and physics were not something they would be good at and in many cases were afraid of failing at. The material sciences aspect might just be too daunting. Does this perceived difficulty deter students from taking ceramics up which in turn creates the false notion that there is no interest in ceramics so the programs should be eliminated?
    Or, maybe the time it takes to become really good at making functional pots is not what captures the imagination of students. The thought of having to spend countless hours at the wheel to learn how to center a lump of clay might not have the same glamour as some of the other fine arts where the results are perhaps more immediate. Plus, functional pottery is probably harder to persuade a gallery owner to display than a dramatic painting or a marble sculpture.
    Maybe there are not enough good teachers in the ceramics field, or maybe there are lots of ceramic artists that are not even considered to be a good teacher because they spent the last 30 years making and did not get an MFA that would allow them to be post secondary instructor.
    As for tradition being something to scorn, how do we explain art history classes? If we don’t learn what came before, how can we ever move forward? We would be forever doomed to reinvent the wheel if we did not learn from our past.
    What I do know is that hand made, functional ceramics is what I prefer. it is unique, it connects the user to the maker, and I care more about the pots I use that are hand made. Do I care if I break a few slip cast coffee mugs from some large nameless corporation? Nope, but I would care if I broke the mug that I either made myself or that I made the conscious effort to purchase from an artist.

    • Lots of interesting thoughts here….

      I’m not sure how pervasive the daunting idea would be. Some folks, sure. But in my experience folks signing up for courses don’t always have the end game in sight, the years of labor it would eventually take to succeed as a professional. In my experience none of that seems to even matter to most beginning and even advanced students I have taught or been associated with. You often start out with an interest as vague as simply trying something new or just getting your hands dirty, and some folks are quickly seduced to a passion. And then when things get serious, the people willing/able to devote part of their future are faced with a decision. Some are moved to a real commitment. Its only when you are fully committed that things like glaze chemistry seem to interest most early potters. That’s been my experience, at least. And the reality is also that plenty of potters get by just fine with only remedial clay science backgrounds.

      But I think you are on to something by pointing out the perception of other arts as more appealing. It takes a special insight to look at pots as something worth being interested in. And it is THIS attitude that is at issue in what we are talking about. Pots, and clay in general suffer from a deficit in appreciation. That is exactly what I am hoping we can reverse 🙂

      And yeah, it never made sense that academia could promote art history with one hand and disparage traditional arts with the other. Weird and inconsistent. But academia is not a logical assemblage of thought, it simply grows from the diverse attitude that are in play. No wonder so much of it makes little sense taken together…..

      Thanks for riffing!

  6. Pingback: Clay Blog Review: October 2015 - Pottery Making Info

  7. Sloan says:

    I’m a little late to the game here, but…(and this turned into a bit of a novel, so sorry about that in advance)
    I took my one and only formal ceramics class in college – it was an Art for Non-Art Majors section, and within about a week of sitting down at the wheel, I was hooked. That was for me. I still have the very first mugs I ever made, and they’re two of my favorites. They’ve got a gazillion flaws, of course (and omg the handles!) but it was the texture of them that really set the hook. They look like a sea storm, and the roughness that resulted from that texture makes you feel like you’re in it. That was what I wanted to share with everyone else.
    So, for me at least, it’s the tactile quality of clay and glaze, and the way those traits can enhance a cup of coffee, or a meal, or a bouquet of flowers, or whatever goes on/in/with it – and the idea that, not only can physical textures have an effect on the way a thing LOOKS, but also the visual texture can have an effect on the way we think it should FEEL.
    I’ve found that to be pretty exclusive to pottery.

    ” And it is THIS attitude that is at issue in what we are talking about. Pots, and clay in general suffer from a deficit in appreciation. That is exactly what I am hoping we can reverse”

    I’m hesitant to say it, because I really don’t want to be flogged here, but I genuinely think part of the problem is that, of the available pool of potters, no one is pricing their work in an accessible range for most people. In business-speak, we’d say they’re pricing themselves out of their market. I certainly can’t afford to buy most of the dishes I’d lovelovelove to have in my kitchen. I’m lucky to have enough extra at the end of the month to THINK about buying a mug from someone, but then I usually spend that money on a box of clay instead. And I know potters can’t get by on nothing but coffee mugs. (Even if it were financially feasible, I’m pretty sure everyone would just smash their heads against their wheels, eventually.)

    I’m not there yet – not nearly good enough – but I hope to do something about that in my small town. I’m in the rather unique position of being a business major/potter in a small town where literally the only place you can buy dishes for more than 60 miles in any direction is WM. If people want more variety/higher quality than that, then they drive 60 miles to the nearest department store and 60 miles back. Or they order online, but I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who’s comfortable ordering a large amount of ceramic ANYTHING and leaving it up to USPS/UPS/FEDEX to get it to them in one piece.

    In other words, I have a semi-captive audience, a wheel, a kiln, and an idea that if I can swing it, I’ll be able to produce and sell enough work (high quality, of course) to put wheel-thrown pots in the hands of the common person, and (perhaps!) get that spark of awareness lit.

    After all, everyone NEEDS to eat, but hardly anyone NEEDS a Rembrandt on their wall. (Which, by the way, should at least partially answer your question about why pottery in particular and all ceramic arts by extension is considered “lesser” by many…it’s about as non-exclusive as you can get. Anti-exclusive, even – one of its charms, IMO. Although that answer could then raise the question, “If something is purchased out of necessity, how much value can it have as art?”)

    OK, I’m going to stop now, before this really does become a book that I’m not qualified to write. Y’all have a Merry Christmas, now!

    • Nicely said!

      I’m with you on everything you state. Where I live in Athens GA there has been a history of lower prices for pots than in most places. Ron Meyers and Michael Simon were selling mugs for $14, so how could any on the rest of us charge more than that? It has slowly crept up since they stopped having their sales, but prices are still much less than elsewhere. Which I absolutely love, actually. I WANT my pots in as many hands as possible, and nit just collectors who can afford them. I even make smaller pots for kids that they can get at half off the adult, so that means a mug or bowl for often no more than $5 or $6. Parents feel that is so affordable that there is little concern that something will break. But maybe also there are so few folks willing to pay gallery prices in my area that I could never make a living with grandiose pieces and inflated prices. It seems hard for me to sell big or expensive pieces as it is….. But I’m mostly okay with that 🙂 And maybe its precisely this potential for humble quality that is so disrespected in the academic and gallery worlds. Its not necessarily the pots themselves but the ‘importance’ they have for ‘important’ people…..

      • Sloan says:

        It seems to me that in all the “big” pottery areas, there’s a trend of work being sold at prices that people can actually afford. (I haven’t actually checked out all of said areas, but from what I’ve seen, the statement holds true.)

        Which makes sense, really, from a business perspective. I know most potters don’t have a background in business – I really wish more aspiring artists in college would take a minor in Business – but it’s really a simple look at economics. Supply and demand win out, and you can’t expect to have a surplus of demand without first having a surplus of supply. That’s true for any unknown product, which handmade anything from a new maker always is.

        On top of that is the fact that in ANY industry, the upper-crust is held up by the Average Joe Producer. Think about it. What would happen if the only available resource for furniture – beds, dining tables and chairs, etc. – was high-end stores selling only the finest hardwood furniture for thousands of dollars?

        We’d all be sleeping on the floor and marveling that rich people eat from an elevated position. And aspiring furniture makers everywhere would be grumbling at the lack of demand for their work.

        It’s the availability – the opportunity to know how good it really can be – that drives demand. I LOVE that you make that extra push to get your work into the hands of kids – even taking a loss from a financial point of view. Get ’em while they’re young, and they’ll grow up thinking that flat, industrial glazes are boring

        I’m not saying that functional potters should never charge high prices for their work. I’m just saying that they’re never going to be as successful as they COULD BE without a stable base of Average Joes.

        Haha, think of it like a cheerleader pyramid – that girl is never going to get up there without the four others holding her up. 😀

        (As far as the “humble” quality, I read something recently, written by a potter working on her MFA, that suggested that there’s a bit of a divide between painters-who-paint-nice-landscapes-and-still-lifes and painters-who-make-STATEMENTS, like the latter looks down on the former. I’m not at all up to date with the art world, by choice, but perhaps it’s not just us?)

        • That was nicely stated 🙂

          The interesting thing about the way ‘art’ is promoted on the big scene is that these are less like necessary furniture than luxury items and investments. Artists like the MFA painter you mention are obviously aiming at a level of self importance that would sway investors. Most people can’t afford ‘statements’. Most people who can afford them wouldn’t want to merely settle for something nice to go in the dinning room. If they wanted something for the dinning room or kitchen it would be ‘the best’ and most expensive (in their minds often the same thing) that money could buy. Lower prices *mean* lower quality in that world, and lofty statements cost more than mere humble furniture…..

          That’s a terrible bias we have to strive against, especially as potters. But in a world that is pretty far away from egalitarian principles and tolerance, there’s not much else we can expect….. Thankfully we are still in the presence of ‘average Joes’ who see humility and are not afraid, who recognize quality independent of worth, who honor hand made as a value, and who see local small scale efforts as intriguingly noble worth supporting. Personally, I will never turn my back on the average Joes 🙂

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