The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
Our artistic voice isn’t found, but rather continually developed as we hone our craft, while simultaneously absorbing influences. We all want our pottery or sculpture to be distinctive, so that others might recognize it as ours. Despite this goal, many of us make objects that feel more like a collection of techniques we saw demonstrated at workshops. I’d like to highlight a few examples from my personal journey and offer some guidelines for those in search of their voice.
Finding and Developing Influences
In 1972, I was struck by a German salt-glazed mug in the collection of my mentor, Peter Sohngen. I related to the simplicity of the form and the way the lip turned in, giving focus to the act of drinking. That year I made a series of mugs influenced by the original, and I still use several of them to this day! As I became a more accomplished thrower, however, these simple, cylindrical pots began to elude me. They became stiff, and eventually, I lost interest. Recently, my techniques of altering thrown forms to make them feel more organic had progressed to the point where it was natural for me to add undulating lines and fluted lobes to soften this form. They are now one of my favorites, but without persistence, even through failure, and the ability to integrate historical pottery influences with my love of weathered surfaces, I might never have figured out this form.
As a young potter in the 1970s, one of my first aspirations was to salt fire, inspired by an infatuation with the work of Don Reitz. During college, I built a salt kiln that was shut down by the local police/fire department. So, when I set up my first professional studio in 1976, I decided it was best to wait until I moved to the country to build another salt kiln. My temporary (or so I thought) solution to achieving the atmospheric surfaces I had come to love was to spray glazes. Thus began a lifelong fascination with spraying and layering. If I had built that salt kiln, I might have never discovered the potential magic in the layering of microcrystalline and ash-like glazes that have become my signature surfaces.
Throughout my career, many of my shapes have been profoundly impacted by a fascination with the trunks of bald cypress trees and the southern swamps they thrive in. Their bulbous, deeply fluted, swelling bases have influenced countless pots of mine in an effort to capture the elusive sensuousness of this form.
As I was struggling to find my voice, I never followed a plan. I merely made lots of pots, while immersing myself in pottery. It was only after potting for years that I recognized I had come into my own aesthetic. In looking back on my journey, I see that certain factors were essential to developing my body of work. The following guidelines make it sound as though finding your voice is concise and regimented. The process, however, is always organic, and developing personal creativity is never predictable.
Guidelines for Finding Your Voice
The following guidelines show a progression of artistic development, from the beginning stages of working with clay through to developing an individual voice.
- Familiarity to Facility: Work with clay until intimately familiar with your materials and skill sets. In other words, make more pots! Whether a sculptor or potter, learning to successfully work in clay has a way of dominating one’s consciousness, crowding out creativity for some time. Give yourself permission to master basic skills before you expect too much in the way of individuality. This is especially true with wheel throwing. For me, this step was my foundation. My ideas tend to flow through the processes I work with and usually come to me incrementally. If I didn’t have adequate facility with throwing, my creativity would be stunted. I realize this is not the only way to work, however. For some, ideas drive technical skills. You might find yourself with a vision for something you have no concept of how to make. In this case, remain open and don’t be afraid to fail. You might even need to invent an entirely new technique to succeed. No matter how you work, having a deep technical understanding of your materials will facilitate your process.
- Facility to Amenity: Think about the techniques that come naturally to you, whether it’s throwing, handbuilding, or slip casting. Are you more comfortable working precisely or gesturally? Are you more interested in designing or making? Do you feel more at home with form, or do you make objects for the opportunity to paint on the surface? Do you prefer working large or small? If you pay attention, the answers to these questions and more will be gradually revealed. When they are, honor the answers. Don’t try to fight them, at least not in the beginning.
- Amenity to Immersion: Immerse yourself in ceramics, absorbing both historical and contemporary examples. This can be through museums, galleries, books, magazines, and an abundance of online inspiration. Familiarize yourself with ceramic history and use it as a basis for form and surface design. Historical examples are a natural springboard for experimentation, but don’t be afraid to also be influenced by contemporary work. Be careful not to take too much from any single contemporaneous source, however, as that can lead to plagiarism. Also, don’t be so focused on ceramics that you isolate yourself from the broader art world.
- Immersion to Exploration: If you are motivated by wood, salt, soda, or reduction firing, then get firsthand experience. Although many ceramic artists love atmospheric surfaces, accessing the kilns required can sometimes be an obstacle. Don’t let yourself get into a mindset where you think you can only meet your goals by firing the kilns that most inspire you! Strive to bring the character you love into the firing methods available.
- Exploration to Design: My college design class helped facilitate an intuitive understanding of form and surface that has been an invaluable guide throughout my career. Whether through books or a college-level course, studying design is time well spent.
- Design to Technology: Learn as much about ceramic technology as possible. Whether or not you choose to formulate your own clays and glazes, you will be better prepared for problem solving along your ceramic journey.
- Technology to Inspiration: Think about what excites and/or inspires you outside of the art world. The possibilities are endless. For me, it has always been nature and music. I love trees, moss, lichens, rock layering, and the effects of weathering. I also enliven my thrown forms with rhythmical alterations. Remain open to all possibilities—it doesn’t matter if anyone understands or relates to your influences. Remember, this is your journey.
- Inspiration to Concept: Since you no longer must focus all your energy on developing technical skills, your mind will be free to wander and think more conceptually. Certainly, my creative juices are more likely to flow when I feel slightly detached. It’s now time to begin letting your various influences in as you are working. Admittedly, this is difficult, but the rewards can be extraordinary.
- Concept to Continuity: My friend Jon Townley, formerly an animation set designer, introduced me to the concept of shape language. In animation, this allows many individuals to work on one film, making it appear as if it were drawn by a single artist. In ceramics, once you can make individual pieces that express your voice, the next step is to begin incorporating common elements into a range of forms. Integrating shape language across your body of work can make it more cohesive.
- Continuity to Voice: Once again, make more pots! Oh… while making pots, don’t forget the importance of self-critique. Always work in series and compare each piece to the last. If your goal is a full belly, how can you make the form look as though there is pressure from within? If you are dividing a form, how can you make the relationship between lobes more dynamic? If you are applying surface design, how can it better relate to the form? Compare each piece to the last and be critically honest with yourself, but also be forgiving. Remember, this journey is full of ups and downs.
These ten steps are my attempt to make the process of finding your voice seem straightforward, as opposed to hopelessly mysterious. If you apply yourself sincerely and diligently over time, you will inevitably make progress toward a more meaningful, unique vision in clay—work that is authentically yours.
Also, finding your voice is a lifelong journey of awareness and growth. Chances are you are already on this path, whether you realize it or not. By the same token, you will never completely arrive. No matter how long you have been working, there is always an opportunity for more profound personal expression.
If you have ever doubted your creativity, stop! I firmly believe that we all can make objects that authentically express our unique vision, creativity, and personality. Filter your widespread influences through your own sensibilities and give the process plenty of gestation time. If you lay the groundwork and take the necessary time to follow through, your voice will eventually find you.
the author Steven Hill is a lifelong studio potter, instructor, and author of 10 articles in Ceramics Monthly and Pottery Making Illustrated. Most recently he has been teaching workshops on finding your voice and year-long Journey Workshops, which involve multiple meetings and ongoing student/teacher relationships. To learn more, visit stevenhillpottery.com.