Clay Culture: From Broken Pots…To Broken Hearts

Why does accidentally breaking a ceramic object cause us so much emotional pain?

Everything is relative! I am thinking this as I sit down to write about the loss of a piece of pottery and the heartbreak it brings. And with the political, economic, environmental, and social news each day delivering deeper concerns impacting our lives in so many ways, how is it that the simple breaking of a piece of pottery might affect us so much, especially in ways unimaginable to anyone who has not made, owned, used or cherished a handmade object made of the simplest of earth’s materials? A question worth consideration in a time when our search for meaning and understanding can seem evasive, or better still, confusing. So yes, everything is relative.

The notion that a broken pot can affect us so deeply came to mind on a recent road trip, one lasting four days with the car jammed full of personal objects being transported for a move from our home in Kentucky to our new home in Mexico. The careful selection of items we carried south was deliberate, they were things we loved in our old home and wished to have with us in our new home south of the border. There would be no shipping of these pieces, they were too valuable to entrust to another person transporting our household goods. Needless to say, they were mostly pieces of pottery from over 40 years of trades with other potters, purchases, and even gifts given through love and friendship. Having them with us on the journey south seemed to be the only way to ensure their safe arrival, and careful packing in the car was the best way to care for our clay friends. Or so it seemed.

I keep asking myself, how is it that over two days into the trip, on a simple stop for gas, after opening the back door and realizing the load had shifted slightly, a container holding my precious Harris Deller vessel leaped out of the car onto the concrete faster than I could ever imagine, leaving the pot broken into no less than 20 pieces. The immediate shriek of horror at seeing my Deller piece, one that I had cherished since my graduate days as his student at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, being taken from us with such quickness and, dare I say, brutality, resulted in the remainder of the trip feeling as though we had left a friend behind at a truck stop. Thoughts of how this particular piece would continue to live with us in a new country now vanished, and as I continued south across the border, I could not help but relive the moment, and more so, feel the loss.

1 Seth Payne’s Large wood-fired platter (on wall), Steve Driver’s teapot (left) Harris Deller’s cup (center), and Joe Molinaro’s sculptural teapot (right) on display on Molinaro’s mantel in 2017. Deller’s piece met its untimely end on Molinaro’s move to Mexico.

In the days following I was reminded of how many treasured pieces have been broken in over 40 years of working in clay. Sure, this was not the first we lost through breakage, and most certainly will not be the last. But in retrospect, I found myself thinking deeply about why this hurts so much, and not just this one piece, but all the pieces of clay work that have been broken, pieces that we certainly cherished and still miss to this day.

The idea of the broken pot and how it leads to broken hearts has fueled my introspection. I am confident others who own and cherish valuable objects understand my sentiment and deep feeling of loss. But what is it about these objects that cause such sadness upon their departure? After all, it is merely clay, and not even a particularly valuable material as it is removed from the ground. Until it is formed and fired, it can be argued it holds little value. So why then does the breaking of a pot cause the breaking of a heart?

With reflection, I realize a pot is far more than clay and glaze. And while I have always appreciated the clay objects in my life as a type of visual diary of the people I know and the places I have visited, trying to grasp their importance beyond the physicality of form can be somewhat elusive. The realization that pots hold a type of genetic code that we might connect to as a way to realize and experience a person, an event in time and place, is really quite remarkable. I am sure anyone who uses handmade functional pottery fully understands how a particular cup used daily both serves to deliver the beverage to the body as well as a particular experience to the soul. These experiences are not limited to the functional items we use every day, but also to other objects in our home. The pieces in our surroundings that live on shelves, pedestals, or cabinets, each serve as reminders of who we are, who we know, and of the shared experiences of our individual lives. After all, although clay forms are inanimate objects in themselves, they carry with them the thumbprint of humanity and serve to remind us of our past and present. Anthropologists and archeologists understand this fully, and through their work and the pots unearthed and studied, they have uncovered the mysteries of time and a better understanding of the cultural ethos of people long past. Clay objects are, for me at least, friends, or rather physical extensions of friends, who live serenely within the confines of our daily lives.

2 The replacement cup Deller sent to Molinaro after he heard the story about the first cup’s demise.

So yes, everything is indeed relative, but through further reflection I hope to better understand the relevance of the clay objects in our lives. Sure, it is not to be compared to human suffering from across the globe, nor is the broken pot meant to be compared to the loss of life, but at the risk of sounding too dramatic, the loss of a piece of pottery, one that you cherish and has been with you for an extended period of time, coming from someone you respect and care for, remains a personal loss. And yes, for me anyway, as with the case of the Harris Deller pot that rolled out the door onto the concrete below breaking and leaving behind only fond memories, this particular broken pot has indeed led to a broken heart.

the author Joe Molinaro, professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, lives and maintains a studio practice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. To learn more, visit joemolinaro.com.

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