By shifting the focus of learning ceramic techniques from the number of objects made to practicing process and developing a critical eye, your clay studio can become less wasteful.

When discussing sustainability in ceramics, firing methods and glazes are often mentioned as the key polluting culprits, with gas-fired reduction and heavy metals being the focus of our internal conflict between surface decoration and sustainability.

However, seldom do we speak about the pieces loaded into kilns: “I’m just practicing,” “it’s a test,” and “why not?” are all common reasons given for firing work that does not meet even the maker’s standard. Regardless of what we make, any raw clay that is fired will never be malleable again—at least not in any human time frame. And the embodied emissions in our material from mining, refining, and transport of materials could be conserved by editing subpar pieces and recycling them into the reclaim bucket.

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Learning Process

This mentality of “it’s just clay, so why not fire it?” flows into many teaching studios that place their focus on products not process. In part, firing and glazing pots are entirely separate skill sets and doing both is incredibly valuable for the learning process. I also do not want to discount the fact that it is fun to take a class and bring something tangible home from it. 

But, imagine for a moment if every new musician just starting on an instrument was encouraged not only to record each of their practice sessions, but also to play their recordings for their friends every day. As a former musician myself, I can attest that people tend not to want to listen to out-of-tune scales and fumbled melodies. To avoid this predicament, music students often practice out of earshot in practice rooms, knowing their intermediate steps will vanish once they stop playing. Yet, our ceramics students’ practice, each of their attempts and failures, are often fired and thus recorded in perpetuity. 

1–3 When starting a new series, save the photos and recycle the pots and learn from that process rather than firing each less successful piece. Shown here are the first, fourth, and sixth iterations of a teapot.


Many studios I have been a part of encourage students to see finished pieces as the success metric of a class; to have that thing to take home. But, your first thrown pot does not need to be treasured forever (and it likely will not be, speaking from experience). Take a photo or video of it and perhaps do the same for the next 100 times you practice. Learn, build skill, focus on the experience and joy that can come from making things with your hands. You are building a skill set and you don’t need to concern yourself with how many things you are making. Let making art be as it is, a process as opposed to a product. 

Shifting Mentality

To shift to this mentality, we as teachers can reframe students’ expectations not only about the goals of class, but also about what they actually want to use when they are just learning to make pots. But how? How can we help our students develop their own discerning eye that will help them only fire work that meets their own personal standard? 

One approach I have taken is to ask students to bring their favorite manufactured piece to the studio. If they are making mugs, a student may bring in a favorite one with “World’s Greatest Dad” plastered on the front. The goal is not to have the students copy their favorite pieces, but rather to help them analyze what they like about the objects. Is it the fit of the handle? The feel of the lip when sipping? The diameter of the cylinder that fits so well in the hand? We can develop students’ observation and critical thinking skills to why they are drawn to use a certain item over another and then teach them the skills to incorporate those elements into their work. The most crucial but difficult step is to use that favorite manufactured piece as the litmus test: would I choose to use this mug I made instead of my favorite manufactured piece? If their answer isn’t a resounding “Yes!” with a why that can be described, then the pot doesn’t need to be fired.

4 Richard Boehnke’s teapot, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, wood-fired stoneware.

I recently gave a dear friend a mug for her birthday and before allowing her to take one home, I asked her to feel the handle, cradle it while it was filled with liquid, and drink out of it. While she rolled her eyes initially, after the process, she was astonished to find that the mug she picked was not the one she was initially drawn to. But the one she went home with is now her mug. If we take this same approach with our students, we can help them make pots that they will actually use. This approach will not only help conserve our beloved mud and the energy needed to fire kilns, but it will also give students the tools to make better pieces and help them define success beyond a sheer quantity of work they produce.

the author Richard Boehnke is a studio artist and sustainability professional living in Denver, Colorado. He has worked in the US, Vietnam, India, and the Netherlands, focusing on various areas of sustainability and strives to bring those same principles to his ceramic work and teaching philosophy. Having recently decided to become a full-time artist, Boehnke is currently focusing on developing his portfolio to pursue residency and MFA programs. To learn more, visit and follow him on Instagram: @rfbceramics.

Topics: Ceramic Artists