Making a connection with history

I have realized that my proposed project of assembling resources to make the case for ceramics has been weighing me down. It has stalled with my hope that more people would involve themselves in the discussion and offer their own insights and links that they feel are important. I’ve had three nice responses to date, and I want to talk about each of their good ideas, but I recognize that I am also probably taking my own role in this far too seriously.

So let me just throw out a video that came across my inbox this morning, shared by the fabulous Bridget Fairbank of BPracticalpottery. When Travis (below) talks about tradition and respect, and making a connection with history you can sense that these too are under threat. You get the sense that this way of working with clay and looking out at the world is fraught with the struggle to fit in with modern times, as if history and culture were moving on and some things simply had to be left behind. Too often we dismiss the past in our easy fixation with the future and present. Personally I am far more excited by the contemporary iterations of the craft than too many of its historical permutations, but that is not an argument. We dismiss our roots far too casually, and when you look at places like Jugtown (in the video) you have a rare glimpse into the way things once were. Mostly.

The idea of tradition itself is such a dirty word almost that we often fail to see value in these things. Not that we can’t question their approach and the specific things they place value in. We can always explore alternatives and make innovations. That’s what humans do. But rather when we belittle the details of tradition we sometimes also pretend that tradition itself is what holds us back. We confuse the discrete details that no longer fit our world view with the idea that anything that isn’t forward looking is a disability of mere quaintness.

So how this tradition based perspective makes the case for ceramics is that industries like Jugtown, places like Seagrove, folks like the Hewells and Meaders, these all offer something that has mostly disappeared from our way of life. Ceramics industry is historical in nature, and that is not a slight. Fired ceramic wares are not too much younger in human cultural evolution than the first paintings in caves, technology-wise. And yet we have no such retrograde stigma for the Picassos and Jasper Johns. We disparage Ceramics when it suits us by pretending that out lack of fondness for ‘things traditional’ lumps all ceramics artists in one pile.

The issue folks have with tradition is too simpleminded. Promoting the new does not signal the necessary death of the old. Its not one survivor at the expense of everything else. But also, our focus on the heritage of the technology itself as a disqualification is blindly hypocritical. People have been fermenting beverages for as long as they understood the process, and yet the alcohol industry is beyond huge. And appreciated. Put that in your contemporary pipe and smoke it.

I was once told that the covered jars I was then making were anachronistic, as if I should have been making sculpture rather than some traditional merely functional vessel. The disrespect of function within Ceramics departments is itself symptomatic of the trouble we are facing. But worse, we are diminishing one thing to better make the case for the other. We are seeking acceptance in claiming to be ‘more modern’ by disassociating clay from its use in making functional type vessels. Many departments have this attitude towards pots. We laid down and took the beating when the whole craft vs art debate raged through campuses, because we felt we somehow had to kill tradition in order to make nice with contemporary practices. To this I call “Bullshit”.

Here is the video that sparked these thoughts:

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.
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4 Responses to Making a connection with history

  1. Glenn Dair says:

    I’ve always found the “Art vs. Craft” debate rather shallow. Even in academic settings, the “Fine Arts” have taught craft in the form of Figure Drawing/ Still Life studies. This is the way artists learn to train their eyes and hands to create an approximation of what is intended, and those who choose to continue their investigation of these genres are still considered to be “Artists”. In the world of Ceramic studies, we teach the core techniques of building hollow forms (wheel, hand building) for the same reasons. These techniques are based on humanity’s need for utilitarian objects, and indeed those objects that survive from cultures long past are held up as the Fine Art of those people, at least until less durable forms of expression were available for scrutiny.

    To my mind, Art is a form of communication, regardless of the medium. Art without craft implies that the creator lacked the skills necessary to fully realize his or her vision, and we’ve all seen way too much of that type of work coming out of academic studios. Craft without art is just stuff.

    • Amen!

      Yeah, the idea that art schools shouldn’t dirty their hands with craft has always been pointed at the clay dept, but you are right, craftworthiness is still an ideal in almost all branches if the art dept. And serving the basic utilitarian needs of a community is a basic human requirement, so its little wonder that creative people throughout history have turned their aesthetic eye on the manufacture if these vessels. I’ve always thought it perversely hypocritical that art history dept and museums will display ancient art that is vessel oriented, but gives short shrift to most contemporary expressions…..

      Thanks for contributing Glenn πŸ™‚

  2. One of my most memorable moments in clay was when I made a practice pot for our kids workshop making pots using a method that was used 2500 year ago in North America. This was inspired by the “Indian Point Pot” that was excavated in an archaeological dig in the mid 1950’s across the Ottawa River from our town, Deep River. The pot is now in the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. It was an important find as it is one of the few pots dating back that far and that had enough pieces to be able to reconstruct it -, plus it was quite large – 12 inches or so. Anyway the pots were made upside down, coiling and ending up with putting a plug in the top to finish the pot. They were then turned right side up and the inside smoothed and scraped and the rim thinned.. When I tired it and then thinned out the rim instinctively by pinching it, it ended up with the same vase shape with the same slight flaring rim as the original. It totally sent tingles up my spine – the hands working the clay after 2500 years worked the same – ending up with an identical look.
    It still continues to amaze me and has made me more aware and interested in the past, Every time I look across the river – images of early times invade my imagination. It made me attend a talk at our local museum on the aboriginal archaeology and the Ottawa River and inspired a while new series – my Ottawa River plates.This connection to past has really enriched by creative life.

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