“Pots are improvisations upon given themes and should be celebrated as such.”—Clary Illian, A Potter’s Workbook
In A Potter’s Workbook, Clary Illian talks about how handmade pottery fits the description of what the author David Pye calls the “workmanship of risk” in his book The Nature and Art of Workmanship. In contrast to the uniform process for making machine-manufactured objects, Illian describes that, with pots made by hand, “the outcome is dependent upon the judgement and skill of the thrower from moment to moment.” Choices are being made during the act of throwing; in that sense, a pot can record a potter’s thoughts, questions, and improvisations on a specific day.
As I use the handmade tableware in my own collection, I think about the processes the artists used to construct and finish the pieces in a way that creates a personalized variation on a theme.
One recent acquisition to my collection, purchased last year from potter Caleb Zouhary at the Winterfair holiday market in Columbus, Ohio, is a cereal bowl that has a band of thick slip right below the rim on the inside of the bowl. As I was looking at the bowl, he explained that the raised ridge of slip is perfect for coaxing that last bit of cereal onto the spoon. And he’s right! When I use Zouhary’s bowl in the morning, I think about his design process, and his small, but important variation on the form (1).
My graduate school colleague and long-time friend Katie Queen designed her juicer (2) so that the evenly spaced, raised bumps created by her fingers around the walls of the bowl create an easy grip during use. This allowed her to select a glaze that’s invitingly smooth to touch without sacrificing function. The carved lines on the cone are reminiscent of mark making on her sculptures, bringing her two bodies of work together.
Function and Process
In this issue, we focus on artists’ approaches to functional pottery. Maria Dondero shares her process for making a ceramic coffee pour over. She explains the form’s development, and how testing fired prototypes helped her to refine the function while also maintaining the spontaneity and feel of her mugs. Her final design is also versatile, since she enjoys pairing the pour over with mugs made by other artists, allowing her to create mini collaborations with them while making coffee each morning.
An article on Noel Bailey discusses the conceptual underpinnings of his work, including landscape, considerations of how the pieces will be used, and the ways different aspects concealed and revealed (like the shimmering blue circles on the interior of his bowls) through the course of a meal. Bailey also shares the detailed processes he uses to make his mugs and elongated trays so that they simultaneously evoke his surroundings (for example the undulating split foot rims calling up images of rolling hills, or the glaze work on his trays referencing the meeting of sky or water and land) and serve as engaging, useful pots.
Studying and living with handmade pots not only provides a connection to the maker, and insight into their thinking, innovations, and decision making, but it also helps students learning to make pots to understand shape, form, and structure, or what Illian calls the potter’s grammar and vocabulary. In this month’s Spotlight article, Mathew McConnell and Adam Posnak discuss asking students taking their first wheel-throwing class to buy a handmade cup or mug, then use and study that pot throughout the semester. As students learn new techniques, or investigate various forms, they have new insights and realizations about the pot they purchased, and strengthen bonds with it as well as the maker.