March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

This has to be my favourite book at the moment. It is utterly compelling – a haven of wonderful essays, poems, aphorisms (shards) around the subject of clay. Essays by Michael Cardew, Harry Davis, David Pye, Warren Mackenzie, John Updike…and on and on. It is thought-provoking and inspirational covering theory, practice, anecdote and rumination. An example of a shard:

‘The challenge is to produce simple forms whose economy of expression extends beyond function into gesture and visual empathy. This empathy transfers everyday ware into objects of ritual esteem.’ Byron Temple (p.127)

One of the essays, Making Music Versus Merely Playing The Piano’ by Everette Busbee, challenges the notion of craftsmanship. Shoji Hamada said, “Skill is cheap”. Rosanjin called souless craftsmanship “a reckless tool”. Baudelaire wrote in a review of the 1900 Paris Salon, “The painting is getting better and better, and I find it a lamentable thing”. There is a fantastic story of a man who when asked what he is doing under a street light says that he is looking for something he lost over there. When asked why he isn’t looking over there said that the light is far better over here. You will always find something sooner or later in the light but it undoubedly won’t be what you were looking for.

It has been interesting reflecting on this after reading Peter Dormer’s The Art of the Maker where he talks about skill, craftsmanship, being something you only get to when you no longer think about it, when you can’t remember what the rules are anymore. David Pye, in The Nature and Art of Workmanship, talks about handmade being the workmanship of risk, as opposed to that of certainty (objects made by machine). Making things by hand we are constantly on the edge of disaster, failure, and this tension is as it should be, this is the home of life and vitality.

I am nowhere near the point where I could take skill for granted but as someone who makes repeat tableware I have been thinking about how to give life to each pot that I make. If I make 5, 20 or 100 bowls how can each of them live? I hanker after curves that flow true and uninterupted (and the skill to achieve it) but Busbee writes, “The mind and emotions, more interesting than skill, can produce a pitcher smooth and elegant or rough and stalwart, that adds to the total of human knowledge. That is what we are about, not pitchers so ingratiating of curve and surface, so devoid of visual interest, uncertainty, and anything that could possibly cause even a hint of angst, that it is perfect for serving a wine of similar character – say a white zinfandel – while listening to Barry Manilow.” (p.54)

Busbee says that technique is a necessity, and that ceramics is one of the most technical subjects there is, which is right. It is the bringing together of the heart and the hand that is the key, feeling and skill, to make a pot that appeals to all the senses and speaks of a wider humanity.

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