Ironies of the potting profession

“An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Not everyone is conflicted. Not every artist is. But artists sometimes face the task of reconciling otherwise reasonable parts of their life just from being who they are and also trying to do the ‘right’ thing. Making a living from something we love isn’t just difficult, sometimes it also conflicts with our non-creative ideals and intentions. Not always. Not everyone making pots is faced with ambivalence and contradiction. But some of us are….

I just read the latest blog entry from the folks over at Objective Clay, and at least one person there is having a tough time reconciling their own beliefs with the idea of needing to sell pots. Emily Schroeder Willis writes that her private life has gone from the typical potter’s proliferation of collected pots to what she describes as ‘minimalism’. Its not just that she no longer avidly collects pots but that her kitchen no longer welcomes a diversity of pots. She has chosen to draw a line in the sand, and anything more than two pots won’t make the cut. Its a principled stance that seems odd for a potter.

If she were not a potter there is nothing especially unusual about paring down material objects. Downsizing, austerity, and minimalism are all legitimate ways of life. Many are taking a stand against rampant consumerism and a material way of life that distracts from more spiritual values. Of course some potters would feel this tension. Its just that potters place hundreds if not thousands of pots in people’s lives and this seems anything but minimal.

How do we reconcile selling that many pots with a philosophy that endorses only those things in a person’s life that are strictly necessary? Minimalists have a point, don’t they? Who really needs more than one or two cups, one or two bowls, one or two plates, to get through life? And if the issue is quantity rather than quality, why even handmade pots rather than mass manufactured and inexpensive cups, bowls, and plates?

Part of the confusion is assuming that pots are simple material objects only, and that by surrounding ourselves with pots we are merely accumulating material objects. Minimalism isn’t a qualitative differentiation. But taking this simplistic point of view misses a few things, doesn’t it?

Pots may be functional, but in our culture they do so much more than serve or contain food. Surrounding ourselves with pots isn’t simply accumulating an unnecessary surplus of utilitarian vessels. Rather, we are collecting beauty. We are collecting inspiration. We are collecting ideas. We are collecting memories of friends. Pots are all these things and more, and trying to live minimally asks our pots to just be like ordinary physical objects when they really are nothing that ordinary. You may not need more than two bowls for the daily act of conveying food, but can you say the same thing of beauty? Is beauty a thing we should constrain with minimalism?

A few years ago a friend wrote on her artist’s statement that she wanted her pots to reflect environmental concerns like conservation. Once again, there is a certain irony: We professional potters are engaged in the proliferation of more and more material objects at the cost of non-renewable resources and a not so green footprint. My friend was a salt firing potter, so this inconsistency was even harder to conceal. Is it only our power to keep opposing viewpoints that makes being a potter AND an environmentalist possible? Are potters necessarily bad environmentalists?

Its a question for many of us. Can we be environmentally conscientious and still make and fire pots? It seems like a hard position to justify. Are we sometimes naturally schizophrenic?

Making anything balances the cost of acquiring raw materials, the energy expended in manufacture, and the space taken up by waste products and the items themselves. Pots are no different: We depend on sourcing our ingredients from distant mines, and our fuel from polluting industries. Pottery shards don’t just go away. Could the argument be made that digging our own clay and glaze materials and firing with locally harvested wood is a conservation practice? Would there be a zero sum ecological impact?

Even if we somehow justified everything on the resources end, the truth is that we are still engaged in manufacture, and pots are not natural objects. In making them we are doing the opposite of conservation. So how do we hold to both being environmentalists and potters at the same time? Should we feel bad about making pots? In India they even make disposable clay cups for streetside tea vendors.

"These disposable clay drinking cups deliver thousands of gallons of sticky sweet chai and fruit lassi shakes to the thirsty Indians who queue at street carts. They look like tiny flower pots, and they could be, but here’s how it works: Small shops in every city employ potters to turn, cure and low-fire these little unglazed cups from local clay. They’re then sold to street tea vendors – chai wallahs – who dish out single servings of hot tea for 2 Rupees each (about a nickel). More impressive are the vendors who make their own cups, spun in fired in a makeshift kiln on the small sidewalk space behind their cart. The chai wallah’s customers stand, socialize, gulp and then smash the cup into a nearby can or, more often, the street gutter."

“These disposable clay drinking cups deliver thousands of gallons of sticky sweet chai and fruit lassi shakes to the thirsty Indians who queue at street carts. They look like tiny flower pots, and they could be, but here’s how it works: Small shops in every city employ potters to turn, cure and low-fire these little unglazed cups from local clay. They’re then sold to street tea vendors – chai wallahs – who dish out single servings of hot tea for 2 Rupees each (about a nickel). More impressive are the vendors who make their own cups, spun in fired in a makeshift kiln on the small sidewalk space behind their cart. The chai wallah’s customers stand, socialize, gulp and then smash the cup into a nearby can or, more often, the street gutter.”

Its a question. How can making more human artifacts actually lessen the human cultural impact on the globe? Not physically, obviously. As in my first example above, we need to understand pots as something more than simple physical objects. Rather, pots are a potential vehicle for other human activity and intention. We can use our pots to talk about the environment. We can use our pots to reference issues that face the planet. We can use pots to remind people of the values of a kinder impact on the world. We can help folks see why the environment is worth conserving, even as we contribute to the surplus of man made objects. That’s the advantage of using language to communicate ideas. We can change the world indirectly. And pots can be that language.

The value of pots can’t simply be in their utility for food. More cups and bowls will never be an example of the principles of conservation, and yet we can make them expressions of the values of the environment. We can express conservation through the language of pottery. We talk about nature not with natural objects but by referencing them in human terms. We can counter the values of a mechanized and industrialized soul crushing human presence with elegant naturalistic statements.

There was a time before industrialization when pot making was a respected industry. Contemporary pots can remind us of those values. Not all human impact is negative. Some is better in comparison. I could never make pots if I thought the benefits did not outweigh the costs. Its just that we sometimes need to choose the lesser of two evils. And if using a handmade cup or bowl helps people care more about the world in their hands, perhaps a caring soul that has been nurtured with handmade pots will also care more about the greater world we collectively hold in our hands. Perhaps? It seems an argument worth making…….

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Any other inconsistencies and ironies that potters have to deal with? Just because we can hold these opposing viewpoints does not mean that we shouldn’t think them through as best we can.

Things to think about at least 🙂

Happy Potting!

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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, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ironies of the potting profession

  1. Becky says:

    I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately too. I’ve gone through several places of our house and done some serious decluttering, but I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to get rid of pots. It’s also weighing on my mind because I’ve given up the monster show I do every year – the Iowa State Fair. The reasons for giving it up are many, but the best part is that now my thought process towards making pots is that I can make fewer pots, with more intention, and not clutter up the world with more production pots.

  2. Pingback: Clay Blog Review: January 2016 - Pottery Making Info

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