Long-standing traditions of craft dictate the training and education necessary to become a professional potter in Germany today.
Have you ever wondered if the training for a certain profession might differ from place to place? For example, are the paths to become a potter different in North America than, let’s say, Europe? The short answer is yes. I only realized these differences when I started my educational travels as a German potter in Canada. I met wonderful peers who let me work with and learn from them, and discovered that their training was very different from mine.
Until an amending law in 2004, only those who possessed something that officials call a “qualified proof of performance,” were allowed to operate their own pottery studio as a business and teach others. What does that mean exactly? As opposed to pursuing a degree from a university as is a common path for potters in Canada and the US, the official professional training process in Germany almost always includes a three-year apprenticeship in a qualified operating studio, some years as a journeyman/assistant, and then finally passing the exams to become a certified master craftsperson after roughly two years of further advanced education.
The reasons for such stringent guidelines are deeply rooted in the history of European cities and their craft guilds in medieval times. In 2004, the government made these regulations more suitable for the modern age, allowing declining crafts to find successors. However, they are still in effect in trades that could endanger the customers’ health if performed incorrectly by an improperly trained person, such as plumbing, electrical work, and roofing.
Even with the legal/regulatory obstacles removed, the traditional path of education to become a potter is still highly regarded and ensures a certain reputation with customers and peers.
Steps to Becoming a German Potter
Every college or university, and any other kind of higher education or professional training, is free of charge (except for the very few private institutions, or training in controversial professions such as chiropractor or homeopath). Or in other words: there are no crippling student loans if you attend a German university, since education is considered as a basic human right.
To become a potter, you need to find a qualified studio willing to train you in an apprenticeship. That is a huge commitment for both sides, apprentice and trainer/master, given that they are closely tied together for three years on a full-time basis. The master shares his knowledge and skills, provides tools, work clothes, and an environment in which to train. The apprentice contributes his labor and willingness to learn. All expectations of tasks, rules, duties, etc. for both parties are set down in a contract that is monitored by the Chamber of Crafts and Trades. Apprenticeships are paid positions. The amount varies largely depending on the branch of trade, the location, and the ability of the employer. If the amount isn’t high enough to cover expenses through each month’s end, the government usually chips in funding to ensure that the apprentice can truly concentrate on his or her education.
Naturally, every studio varies in prestige, work ethic, type of work produced, and methods used. To make sure that every apprentice is trained to the same high standards, it is mandatory to visit a specialized vocational school in addition to the studio training—hence the name “dual educational system” in Germany. To put it simply, training for practical aspects takes place in the studio and the theory behind every craft is taught in vocational school. Here the apprentices learn to handle the raw materials, glaze composition, applied mathematics, drafting, the history of ceramics, geology, safety measures, ceramic chemistry, and much more.
After three years, all of this culminates in a final exam, overseen by teachers, state officials, and experienced master potters. A few months before the exams, the apprentices start creating their graduation pieces, a tea service, for example. All the necessary steps like planning, drafting, producing, decorating, glazing, and firing are documented and assessed, along with the finished pieces, by the examiners. This is followed by a comprehensive written exam of several hours that tests knowledge of everything learned in school. Finally, there is a practical trial, in which the apprentices perform certain tasks on a tight schedule, like throwing batches of identical, predefined shapes.
If all goes well, the apprentice is given a certificate and is officially promoted to journeyman. Typically a journeyman will continue to work for other masters or, like I’m doing now in Canada, pursue a journeyman’s waltz. This is a fascinating tradition of embarking on nomadic educational travels far from home, where the journeyman offers skilled labor to a variety of studios. This tradition sadly only survived in the word “journeyman” in English-speaking countries.
The next stage of advanced education to become a master concentrates mainly on the legal aspects of running a business. This includes two years of studies in economics, management, fiscal considerations, and educational science to enable the future master to train further generations of apprentices, followed by another set of exams.
Unfortunately, the number of qualified studios and vocational schools that are willing to take in trainees is seriously declining as regulations changed (you must be a master potter to train apprentices, but not to operate a studio). My class at the vocational school Berufsschulzentrum Dithmarschen in Heide consisted of only 14 apprentices from 6 German federal states, and 2 academic years bundled together.
But, there is an equivalent alternative. In Landshut, a city in Bavaria, there is a public vocational and training college for ceramic artists. Founded in 1873, the Keramikschule Landshut combines the above mentioned processes under one roof. Again after three years of full-time training, the successful graduates earn a certificate of equal value as the traditional journeyman’s. Admittance is free. Currently, there are students from 13 nations attending. The only requirements are to pass a suitability test and the ability to understand German in writing and speech.
the author Jan-Alexander Haas was born in Germany in 1985. After finishing several years of apprenticeship in a very traditional, family-owned pottery studio near Rostock, Germany, he is traveling through Canada as a free journeyman to learn more about the craft.