Making our pots understood

My good buddy Tony Clennell just had a good moan about customers looking blankly at his pots and not knowing what they were for. Every potter faces that. Every artist faces the blank stares of incomprehension and befuddlement.

Tony suggests, rightly, that we have mostly lost our creativity from the third grade on. Being creative gives a person a leg up in figuring out what things can be done with, say, a tray, or even a simple cup. It is embarrassing sometimes how a customer can look at a cup and have no idea what you can do with it. Are they crazy? Are they somehow irretrievably simple minded? Well, to most potters making the damned things its as obvious as the clay smeared on our trousers.

Let me give you Tony’s take and then I will reply with mine:

I think most of the population is not very creative. They lost all their creativity somewhere around Grade 3. That’s why you get questions like what can I use this for and can I put cookies in this jar? Or if this is a coffee cup can I use if for water too?
If I were smart I probably should include a card telling people what they could use the tray for. Not sure I can find a piece of paper long enough. I think they work perfectly for bacon with a little side of hot sauce. I bet y’all were thinking sushi. They never cook sushi well enough for me.
I figure ya gotta make it simple for the simple. I put the little bowl on the tray with a piece of double sided tape so it doesn’t slide around and tie with a piece of raffia. It’s good to go as a hostess gift,
This is my first attempt at a title.

tony making it easy

My response is:

I don’t think its always the case that we are talking to the simple. Its not always about them or some deficiency they have. What its really like is we are speaking a language they do not understand. We have to teach them that language. Our pots are an expression in a language, and unless we are talking to folks who can either read it or speak it themselves we won’t be communicating. Its not necessarily about how simple they are but how unfamiliar they are with the meaning of our utterances.

So how do you bridge that gap? Well, educating them to use the language or by giving them practical demonstrations of the meaning, as you are doing. If you don’t understand the language you have to be shown how it is used.

If you were going to teach the word “hammer” to someone who didn’t speak English or someone who was unfamiliar with hammers, say a child, what would you do to demonstrate its meaning? You would show them what hammers look like and you would demonstrate what all you can do with hammers, right? So lets just pretend we are talking to people who don’t yet speak the language of pottery (mostly they don’t). Lets give them credit for being intelligent people in their own right who simply do not speak our language. Lets have the humility to recognize that there are many languages that we ourselves do not speak.

With tax time coming up I know of at least one language that I do not speak, and I hope not speaking it isn’t a sign that I’m simple. There are some languages I should probably learn, but speaking them always leaves me sick to my stomach. I want to learn Elvish and what I get is the language of Mordor…..

No one will understand pots until they know what to do with them. Knowing what to do with them is the *beginning* of our understanding. So when you look at people who don’t yet know what to do with our pots you are looking at people who don’t yet understand the language in which we are framing our words. Its that simple.

They can look at a cup and not SEE IT as a cup. They will know exactly what to do with mass manufactured plastic cups, but what we have offered them is obviously not the same thing. We don’t want them to think handmade is the same as mass manufactured, and at least they often get that part right. What they typically don’t yet understand is that you can do all of the same things with handmade you can with store bought.

They look at a cup and they don’t see a cup. Maybe they see art, and maybe they’ve been told that you are not supposed to handle the art, much less use it in daily life. Maybe they’ve been told that handmade work is one of a kind, and that once it gets broken it is forever lost. So maybe they think our pots are irreplaceable and should not be used even if they could be used. I know I feel that way about some of the Michael Simon pots in my home (after chipping all but two of his teapot spouts I have stopped brewing tea in them 😦 ).

So its not just a lack of imagination or being too simple to understand what to do with our pots. Its much more complicated than that. Potters are like missionaries in an untamed wilderness. The tribes of people we meet often have very little in common with us. They don’t speak our language and to an important extent they don’t share our values. We are engaged in efforts of conversion. We say, “Let me show you how to make this tray a part of your life. Isn’t that great? Doesn’t that make your life much more enjoyable?” We are trying to get our customers to see the world through our eyes, but first we have to help them understand our language.

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, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Making our pots understood

  1. togeika says:

    We all live in communities with varying levels of pottery culture. Here in Minnesota, we are lucky to have a high level of pottery culture, because, as Warren Mackenzie says, “I’ve had thousands of students & only a handful have become Potters, but all of them have a higher appreciation of pottery”. Actually, tens of thousands of MacKenzie educated students exist, and because of the support of the arts here, most have never met MacKenzie.

    I think ” feeling” the pot is more important than seeing it. I tell my students, “The first evaluation of functional pottery should be done blindfolded. If tge work doesn’t past the blindfold test, I don’t need to see it.”

    Our generation was inspired by great books like Leach’s The Potter’s Book and his book on Hamada and translation of Yanagi’s Unknown Craftsman. We’ve dropped the ball. Hopefully, as boomer Potters reach retirement age, some if us will write down what we have learned from our Masters. Not mercenary books to sell our pots, get more workshop invitations or say how great we are, but devotional minded works that help people live a better life making and using beautiful things. To help people have more meaningful lives & turn their backs on consumption and the Rat Race.

    Me, personally, I don’t sell “stuff.” I share meaning. My pots are mercenaries and missionaries of the purposeful life. If you do your work in a devotional way, people will notice. They might not “see it”, but they can “feel it.”

    • John Payne says:

      Hi my name is john .I’ve been making pots with passion before my teenage years. I was 12 when i took up the hobby. Now 59 .i still love making pots and i love selling them to people. I am the one to sell my pots .there’s the art of making and art of selling. People not only buy the pots because they like them .they also need a connection to who makes them .my website is my little markets i do every Saturday morning and my workshop and display at home. My customers are my Google. In old fashion of word of mouth. If you have the passion to make you need the passion to sell

      • I’m not sure about the need to sell, but I get your drift. For many folks selling pots would be like selling their kisses. In other words, its not something everyone is comfortable doing. But I’m glad you find meaning in sharing your pots with others, and I’m glad you get to pay some bills with it at the very least 🙂 Good luck!

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