March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a fair amount of scratching around I have found Richard Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’. The section I am refering to is under the chapter ‘The Hand’, subsection ‘Hand and Eye: The Rhythm of Concentration‘. The example he uses is that of a glassblower called Erin O’Connor, who is learning how to blow a Barolo wine goblet.

The crucial moment in glassblowing is when the molten glass gathers at the end of the pipe, as it will sag unless the pipe is in constant motion. O’Connor used, according to Sennett, “the triad of the ‘intelligent hand‘ – coordination of hand, eye and brain”. According to O’Connor, “My awareness of the blowpipe’s weight in my palm receded and in its stead advanced the sensation of the ledge’s edge at the blowpipe’s mid-point followed by the weight of the gathering glass on the blowpipe’s tip, and finally the gather towards a goblet”. The philosopher Michael Polanyi likened it to hammering in a nail and the fact that we don’t feel the handle in our palm but the head striking the nail. The sensation of the handle merges with the “focal awareness” of driving in the nail. Total absorbed concentration.

O’Connor felt that to work better she needed to anticipate the evolution of the material, which she called being engaged in the process of “corporeal anticipation”, always just ahead of the material from liquid to bubble, to bubble with stem and stem with foot. This state of prehension she learned through repetition, blowing the glass again and again. As Sennett says, “This is repetition for its own sake: like a swimmer’s strokes, sheer movement repeated becomes a pleasure in itself”.

Sennett says that we might think that the routine of doing something over and over again to be mindless and boring but that this isn’t the case for people who develop highly sophisticated hand skills. It’s called rhythm. “Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled craftsman has extended rhythm to the hand and the eye.”

The woman using the wheel next to me on the throwing weekend at Swarthmore used porcelain on the Saturday and white stoneware, a slighly grey-white clay, on the Sunday. The white clay was so elegant and to be working with white rather than unappealing brown was captivating. I thought at that point that that is how I would like to work.


March 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

I just wanted to point you in the direction of Euan The Potter‘s blog. He is a potter who has lived in japan for the last 21 years, I think for most of that time in a village called Mashiko. I hadn’t realised the importance of Mashiko as a centre for twentieth century Japanese pottery with its close association with Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada.

Mashiko has suffered considerable damage in the recent Japanese earthquake. Euan writes evocatively and movingly about the earthquake and its impact upon him and the community he lives within. Also the Bernard Leach Trust, which has links to Mashiko that date back over a century, has set up an appeal to support the people of Mashiko. You can find all the information about the appeal on A Devonshire Pottery blog.


March 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Attending Swarthmore over the weekend was an absolute joy and I got a tiny peek at what it might be like to be a potter.

What I learnt most from the two days was a glimpse of what fluidity must feel like, and it was exhilarating. The small adjustments continued a plenty and each time was a revelation. For example: my struggle with centering had not been the result of my positioning over the wheel, as I had imagined, but because to centre the clay I had been trying to force it into the centre of the fast spinning wheel. The more the clay wobbled the more I fought the wheel, which was continually taking my hands with each rotation. It was hopeless, and painful, as the friction was grazing the skin of my little fingers. So, when I went to the teacher with these sore fingers and she told me to hold my hands slightly above the wheel instead, the difference was instant. No more battling, no more straining; my hands still and calm at the centre of the rushing wheel.

And this is the excitement of learning. The realisation, the smile on your face, the quickening of the pulse. 5 600g balls of clay all torn half way up the cylinder in the same place. The teacher told me to work the clay with my hands at 5 o’clock rather than 2 o’clock. As she was talking, I drew the wall of the cylinder up in one motion and I felt everything concentrate in my fingertips. The motion felt fluid. I was elated.

There is a passage in ‘The Craftsman’ by Richard Sennett about the concentration, the focus, of the maker’s energy in one point. He talks about it in reference to a glassblower but it is relevant to any maker. I can’t just locate the book at the moment but when I do I will post about it.

My girlfriend says she would like a bowl on her desk at work, so I kept one bowl from the weekend and tomorrow I hope to turn the foot.


March 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

I come to pottery from a Fine Art background and have always struggled with the notion of the accessibility of art. I often find art to be an alienating experience understood, predominently, through the eye and the brain. I know there is a bodily, sensory appreciation through one’s physical relationship to the object but for me it remains partial and unsatisfactory. I stand back, look and contemplate – yet, there is a frustrating separation. I confess, I never have been led by my intellect.

There are undoubtedly exceptions. Rothko, for example. We went to the exhibition of his work at Tate in late 2008 or early 2009 and both found the experience to be visceral, raw, almost primal. It was totally unexpected.

Mural for End Wall 1959

But I want to touch. I want to be able to experience the object in my hand, to know its weight, be reassured by its physicality. I need to know that it exists. This is why I am learning to make pots. Soetsu Yanagi (in The Unknown Craftsman) says that pottery is ‘at the convergence of all the physical attributes’. He says that it embodies three elements: the hands, a specific patterning of experience; the visual; and surface texture, colour and ornament. And if it is functional ware, which is what I want to make, then you can add to that taste and smell.

I am booked on a 2-day throwing course at Swarthmore this weekend and I can’t wait to get at the wheel.


March 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

I spent the morning sat at the wheel at Kirkgate Studios today. Two weeks ago I spent two afternoons chasing balls of clay around the wheel. The feeling, I imagine, was something similiar to what it would be like if you tried to hold still the paddles on an old food processor while it was creaming butter. And the harder I tried to hold the clay still the more out of control the lopsided wobbling became. The expectation was a centered ball of clay, still, with the wheel turning fast and smoothly around it. Control, ease, almost grace. When the reality is a piece of clay that veers all over the wheel with a mind of its own and you are quite incapable of bending it to your will, it is incredibly frustrating.

Today started in a similar fashion. 3 1lb balls of clay that didn’t even remotely become centered. Swear words were loosened under my breath. Then, without thinking, I bent a little more over the clay, so that my body was well over the wheel, and I centered the clay. And I centered the next and the next and the next. Tiny adjustments can have dramatic effects.

Other tiny adjustments made as I drew the clay up into a cylinder gave me little signs of encouragement.

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