March 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

A lot of reading, and listening (Maggi Hambling), at the moment seems to be relating to the ‘life’ of a pot (or an object/artwork, generally); how to imbue that object with humanity; how to let it speak of something wider than just itself.

Marguerite Wildenhain at the wheel

I love the writing of Marguerite Wildenhain. She wrote a beautiful book, Pottery, Form and Expression, that I return to, and she has an essay, called ‘A Potter’s Philosophy’, in the book I am currently reading, A Potter’s Companion, edited by Ronald Larsen. Maggi Hambling, in her interview, Wildenhain, Bernard Leach (also in A Potter’s Companion) talk about skill not being the be-all and end-all. Wildenhain writes that technique ‘…is not enough to produce a really good pot’. Leach writes that ‘Because of the smoothness of perfection we yearn for imperfection. Imperfection – irregularity – is a necessity’. According to Leach, there is an important Korean word for this, thusness. Thusness is a place of intuition, feeling, acceptance; the Buddhist sense of being in the moment; of letting each pot flow according to the conditions at the time. That condition may be one of being hurried because we need to get home to the children, or some such thing. Acceptance – not of sloppiness but ‘an unconcern for natural flaws and irregularities’. This allows for great freedom, if the work is done in the right spirit and ‘with love’.

There is humanity here. Wildenhain discusses it, too, in her essay. She writes that the best potters ‘were not only competent potters, they were also dedicated and inspired and there was no dichotomy between their life and their work. They made pots for daily need, but also, for beauty and in their dedication to their religious beliefs, to nature, to the gods, to Woman and Man. It was all one, and it was LIFE [Wildenhains’ capitals and italics]’. This, for me, stirs my heart. This is why one should make pots, not simply to demonstrate one’s skill.

Warren Mackenzie, in an essay preceding Wildenhain’s, discusses a Hagi bowl that he was given. He writes that any competent potter could have made it and thousands of them were made by unknown potters all over Japan. He set it aside and it was many years before he got round to using it. But the more he used the bowl the more he began to relate to it as a utilitarian piece and to understand its qualities. Over the years, he has come to regard it as one the best pieces of pottery he owns.

A Hagi ware Korean tea bowl

The more I read, and the more experience I get of making pots, the more I am getting a strong sense of the life of a potter, the life of the pots a potter makes; what it means to be a potter. While reading one of Wildenhain’s paragraphs about working being ‘All those painful experiments’, I thought “How brutal!” – ‘Trials and errors soon make you find out who you are, what abilities may be yours, which ones you do not have, how or whether you can respond to the world around you, or to your dreams. Sometimes, and more often than not, this is a painful voyage of discovery, but only through efforts and pain does one grow anyway. Is it not just that which develops the individual? To face oneself is the beginning of all wisdom and to evade the issue is cowardly.’ But this is true of making pots; this is true of life.

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