Clay Culture: More or Less

From less is more, to more with less, to more is more . . . more or less.

On my next birthday, I turn 67. For those of us American clay artists of a certain age, we inherited from the “evangelist pilgrims” a decade or so older than us the mantra that less is more. Those many young American potters who made their pilgrimages to Japan, during and after the seismic influence of the Leach/Hamada/Yanagi visits of the late 1950s to the early 1970s, returned with a concise polemic. In retrospect, we might now see that the American shorthand for their narrow and naive view of Japanese aesthetics was lacking in a deep understanding of context, history, and culture. (And to be sure, they were not drinking from the founts of Imari, Arita, or Kutani.) But it would be wrong to allege that these evangelists didn’t believe in their (mis)understandings of Zen, or Buddhism, or all things Mingei. For them, less was more and they were committed to discovering what it had to teach them.

1 Dick Lehman’s double-faceted cup grouping, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and altered white stoneware, triple glazed, fired to cone 9 in reduction in a gas kiln, 2019.

2 Ashley Bevington’s Poodle Dream Cup (front and back views), 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, porcelain, glaze, lusters, 2019.

A Word of Truth

The returning missionaries were met by my generation of welcoming converts, all hungry for reassurance and a word of truth. If you remember the state of resources for the ceramics community in the US at about this time period, you’ll remember that there were few more than a generous handful of ceramics texts, mostly start-up university ceramics programs, a few budding glaze recipe books, and a lot of misinformation. It’s almost hard to imagine now, with the absolute proliferation of texts, periodicals, and instructional workshops, not to mention all things digital—the web, social media, YouTube.

But this Asian-inspired, less-is-more mentality was nearly biblical for this generation and the one that followed. Exactly why they/we were either blind to or largely unaffected by Native Americans’ clay traditions, or the indigenous practices of the American southeast, or our own ancestral pre-immigrant traditions may never be fully explained.

3 Renee LoPresti’s Rocking Vases, 7½ in. (19 cm) in width, wheel-thrown and altered iron-rich stoneware, underglazes, glazes, fired to cone 5 in oxidation, gold luster fired to cone 019 in oxidation, 2019.

My generation made a lot of understated brown pots—tenmoku, shino, and oatmeal were on our menu. Our teachers may have made simple brown pots because they believed in them. I fear that some of my generation may have made understated pots out of sheer laziness and lack of vision. We may have co-opted less is more as a justification to continue making brown; an appeal to authority to convince uninitiated customers that brown is best. Why take a newly-offered glaze calculation class if less is more? We had our brown recipes. Why change?

From Brown to Bling

What happened next? The ceramics field began to leave my generation behind. Brown lost its crown. Glaze chemistry was taught, learned, and utilized. Color happened in American studio ceramics. Books and ceramics periodicals made the world smaller and wiser, and revealed glazes, stains, and underglazes that were brighter and more colorful. And, in an almost futile effort to hold on to what we had, while moving into the new, my generation adopted an alternate, although only slightly different, mantra: more with less. We tried to compete with the new by doing more with less.

5 Posey Bacopoulos’ Bubble Teapot, 9 in. (23 cm) in width, wheel-thrown and altered earthenware, majolica glaze, fired to cone 04 and to cone 017 in an electric kiln, 2019.

4 Lisa Orr’s teapot, 8 in. (20 cm) in width, earthenware, slips, sprigs, polychrome glazes, 2019.

My mantra shifted toward doing more with less in the mid 1990s. I began side-firing, using an especially precocious and widely varying shino glaze (from Malcolm Davis) enhanced by shaking copper and cobalt metallic salts, borax, frits, collected volcanic ash, and wood ash harvested from others’ anagamas onto the wet, freshly glazed surface. Although reading this rather long list of shaken ingredients now, it appears I was already solidly on a course heading for more is more.

I’m still in the more-with-less camp—using only high-fire clay and glazes fired in a reduction kiln, just trying to do more with them. I don’t fire in oxidation, don’t use decals or image transfers, underglazes, or underglaze pencils, and haven’t used lusters in decades. I rarely use text on pots, and am rarely overtly political. While I do try to imply figure, stance, gesture, and movement, I do so on the wheel. My participation in collaborations is limited to atmospheric high firings.

6 Melanie Sherman’s Sammeltassen (front and back views), wheel-thrown porcelain, glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, china paint, vintage decals, raised decals, gold luster, multiple firings from cone 020–018 in oxidation, 2017.

But, I am heading toward the more-is-more camp. Most of my recent production has three glazes applied to each piece—some applications by dipping, and some by sprinkling dry glaze materials while the piece is still wet with the dipped glaze.

But paradigms change. Mantras must be set aside for new, (temporarily) more useful ones. Today is an exciting time to be working in clay. A wide variety of methods—including but not limited to use of 3D printers, underglazes, decals, overglazes, and multiple firings—are resulting in work that is more narrative, more political, more collaborative, and more willing to tell a story—a story not obscured, erased, or diminished by glazes. (My generation’s prayers to the kiln gods were: “Please work your magic!” This generation prays, “Please don’t obscure the magic I’ve brought into being!”)

Now, to be sure, the entire spectrum from brown to bling has existed for nearly all of ceramic history. And the full spectrum will continue to be beautifully and generously expressed. But there is a recognizable shift happening across the whole world of ceramics. And all of this is being brought into being by adventurous, fearless, and interdependent folks of every gender, age, and persuasion expressing more is more and moving toward the next new paradigm.

7 Mike Cinelli’s pitcher, 12½ in. (32 cm) in height, earthenware, commercial underglaze, terra sigillata, fired in an electric kiln to cone 04, 2019.

8 Stephanie Wilhelm’s yellow floral vase, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, wheel-thrown and altered porcelain, hand painted, wax resist, fired to cone 6, gold luster, 2019.

Personally, I can’t wait. We aren’t waiting. And that’s how I see it, more or less.

the author Dick Lehman has been a full-time studio potter since 1981, and continues to work out of a Goshen, Indiana, home studio. He’s authored 33 articles for Ceramics Monthly over the years and was a CM Editorial Advisory Board member for 13 years. To learn more, visit www.dicklehman.com.

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