Some weeks ago, we published the first two articles in our ‘How to Spot a Good Pot’ series. The first looked at the importance of form in pottery; the second, a pot’s decorative surface.
In our third and final part of the series, we take a look at how character and self-expression is at the heart of every good potter’s work.
lidded jar by Phil Rogers
‘in work, what comes out must come out through one’s own fingertips, one’s own hands; otherwise it is no work at all’ – Shoji Hamada
In a recent conversation on what makes a good pot, Phil Rogers, one of our gallery potters, described the importance of personality in ceramics and of clay as a medium for self-expression:
I think it’s about what a potter injects into a piece. A lot of today’s boring, shallow, urban tablewares, usually in porcelain and with pale, uninteresting glazes, lack any sense of adventure.
We potters have little to do these days other than express something in our work. People don’t NEED our pots; metal and plastic are cheaper and readily available. They buy them because they want to see an artistic expression, to feel a connection with the maker. They want to see that a potter has endeavoured to find a new avenue of exploration and succeeded by daring to fail. Safe, banal, boring work is better made in a factory and contributes little to our world of clay.
Shino jar by Nic Collins
Today, an ever-increasing proportion of our actions and interactions are digital. Our daily lives and livelihoods, for the vast majority of people, revolve around tapping in front of computer screens or swiping on a smart phone. We probably use our fingers and thumbs more than we ever have in our history, but rarely do we really hold and feel things. And while this new world has brought with it enormous benefits in its many digital connections, its virtual relationships, it is a world that is increasingly intangible.
Pots offer us an avenue for a more physical connection and interaction in our lives that is quite special. As with any true craft today, we don’t need something handmade by a craftsmen when there are cheaper industrial alternatives; besides their obvious uses and their beauty, we make and buy pots precisely for the connection they offer us with another human being.
Pots are made to be held and handled. They fit between our fingers because they were made with and for hands. In this sense, they put us back in touch, literally, not just with another person – their makers – but with our own humanity, something vitally important when so much of our handling is of things cold, metallic, unforgiving.
small vase by Mike Dodd
A good pot, therefore, needs character. If one of the purposes of studio ceramics is to put us in touch with the maker, then the best pots should remind us immediately of the hand that made them, should offer the very fullest encapsulation of that potter’s making ethos in offering that human touch.
In many cases, what makes a piece ‘characterful’ – those qualities which mean it could only have originated in that one potter’s hands – is not easily definable, though we may know a characterful pot when we see one. Often we talk of pots embodying the ‘essence’ of their maker, but rarely can that essence be pinned down to specific and describable qualities.
(above) wood-fired large jar, jug and another large jar all by Nic Collins
There are more literal and physical characteristics of a potter’s work that lend their work its uniqueness. A potter may use their own vocabulary of decorative marks, perhaps informed by traditional mark-making techniques, but made personal through the use of handmade stamps and marking tools. Their pots may be formed from a particular clay, dipped in homemade glazes carefully tried and tested over time, and fired in a kiln with its own peculiar patterns of behaviour.
Each step of the making process of a pot will reveal something of its creator, and when combined in a pot will distil that maker’s working life in a single vessel. Pots with real character will show each step of that process at its very best.
whimsical rabbit dish by Jean Nicolas Gérard
Potters will also demonstrate character in their work through their repertoire of forms, the subtle differences in shape, weight, handle and tactility that mark their work apart from another’s. Many potters will confront the same traditional forms: water jugs, teapots, and ceremonial chawans. But a good potter will make a form their own, often to the detriment of traditional proportions or the strict demands of function.
Here lies perhaps the most important element of character in good pottery: the breaking free from convention and a loosening of the rules. As Rogers writes, [we] want to see that a potter has endeavoured to find a new avenue of exploration and succeeded by daring to fail.
Perfectly balanced thrown bowls with an accurately applied layer of glaze do little to conjure the magic looseness and fluidity of clay before it is formed into a pot, or the vitrifying alchemy of fire that occurs in a kiln. Pots with character are ultimately the result of self-expression; to succeed, they need a self to express.
Lisa Hammond at her Maze Hill throwing wheel (left) and a plate from her recent 2016 exhibition (right)
In our documentary of wood-firing potter Svend Bayer filmed back in 2010, Bayer discussed how the qualities of a good pot were like those one would seek in another human being:
I think a good pot has to reveal something about the maker. What you find in it is actually not so different from what you would hope to find in a person. You would hope to find a sort of life and response, a brightness. I think it’s important that you would want to touch it, to hold it.
round dish by Nic Collins
Perhaps, then, when we speak of pots that have character we mean those that exhibit life, personality, and a human quality of touch. We choose pottery, after all, over ceramics produced by machines because it is personal: we collect with the knowledge that behind each pot is a person who made it.