Artist Q&A: Pots as Textbooks

Ceramics Monthly: Why do Introduction to Wheel-Throwing students at the University of Arkansas buy a handmade pot in lieu of a textbook?

Mathew McConnell: I had been bringing to my classes portions of my personal collection that were relevant to each assignment. After some time, I realized I was articulating something far beyond the technical aspects of a successful pot when talking about these distinct and well-known characters that inhabit my daily life. I was speaking in a very personal, even emotional way about them. I show my students the first real cup I bought and talk about all the phases of my life it has followed me through. I talk about the pots that I know are bad technically, but that always sit at the front of my cupboard. I also gently unwrap the shards of a piece that has been broken for years, but I can’t bear to throw away. These pots don’t simply serve as anecdotes for me. I truly feel connected to them, enriched by them; they have sensitized me to the world in ways I can’t fully express. I desperately want my students to know those feelings, too. And, I’m not sure you can make good pots if you haven’t been affected on a deeply personal level by them. So, what to do? The answer seemed pretty obvious: force them to buy great pots and live with them!

Adam Posnak: I instituted this practice after observing Mathew’s teaching. I thought it was such a sensible thing to do, and pure genius.

CM: How do students react when you tell them?

AP: I have found students to be fairly enthusiastic. Though a minority of students have some prior pottery-making experience, they have not typically engaged in an in-depth discussion related to the experiential and visceral facets of interacting with pots. I often tell them that for most people without specialized training, knowledge of pottery would be comparable in the realm of painting to only being familiar with paintings of dogs playing cards; the lowest common denominator (not that I have anything against paintings of dogs playing cards).

MM: I must assume that every student thinks we are trying to lure them into a cult of some sort! And, to be fair, I guess we are. Most are happy to join—it’s an unexpected and welcome departure from the well-worn pedagogical paths they are accustomed to traveling. Some have prior experience with handmade pottery, but almost no one has been asked to concentrate so fully on absorbing the intricacies of its making, handling, and aesthetics—and, in turn, how to translate those observations into language and form.

CM: How do experiences using the pots inform students’ learning?

AP: Again, I think it comes down to the interactive aspect of pottery. Students are often surprised by the profundity of their feelings toward pots, which begins to develop almost immediately upon acquiring and using their cups. They often remarked upon the manner in which a pot continually reveals itself over the course of time. Opinions and assumptions about a particular pot evolve over time and through use as well, and sometimes a student may actually come to dislike a pot in use that she/he was attracted to visually, and vice versa.

MM: Agreed. I also like that it gives them a standard to strive for that exists beyond what any student could accomplish in a semester. We ask them to purchase pots from vendors that only have works by highly esteemed potters, so the students have the best shot at experiencing what excellence truly means. Being able to own, hold, and live with this kind of excellence ultimately propels more sophisticated work from the students. Even when they don’t achieve what they are after, they have a far better chance of understanding where they came up short. Suddenly, they’re not looking to their instructor to explain why; they know why.

CM: What is the most unexpected outcome of this approach?

AP: As a teacher I am always taken aback by the intuitive way students take to pots. Sometimes I think of an appreciation for pottery as a relatively rarified, acquired taste, but in practice students naturally possess a sophisticated, instinctual bond with pots. I love the enthusiasm that ensues when they begin to use pots, and realize the potential of working with a form of expression that engages literally all of the senses. I point out in a class introduction that no matter how much you love a sculpture or a painting, the chances are relatively low they will ever touch your lips; a simple statement that seems to resound.

MM: What I find most rewarding is the way a student’s purchased pot unfolds to them as they progress through the skills covered in the course. When they receive the work they may feel an immediate connection, and they may even be able to articulate some pretty sophisticated analyses right off the bat, but there’s nothing like watching a student connect the dots between an action they have just performed and a similar action taken on the pot they have been studying. There’s a real kinship developing in these moments, and an understanding between maker and maker that is wholly unique.

Photo: Mathew McConnell and Intro to Wheel Throwing students at the University of Arkansas.

**First published in 2017.
  • I’ve found that living with my own beginner’s cups and bowls has made me acutely aware of how important it is for these things to be well formed and aesthetically pleasing, and how, when they aren’t as my early pieces weren’t, it’s disturbing to use them. That understanding made me better quickly. So you learn not only from satisfying pieces but also from the disappointing pieces as well

  • Glenys M.

    Brilliant way of ‘in touch’ teaching. Mathew McConnell speaks of the individual’s spirit in the forms that we make with such a deep understanding of the validity of making handmade functional works. I was intrigued and wanted to see images of his own work. It has been an interesting research. Mathew McConnell at the University of Arkansas. The sculptural work is phenomenal but I cannot find any functional work. Are there two Mathew McConnells at the University Arkansas Ceramics Department? One born in 1978 but the image shown in the article indicates a slightly older man. Regardless, I enjoyed this article tremendously and am envious of the students in the Ceramics Dept to have either two great instructors or one brilliantly in touch with both sculptural and functional ceramics.

    • Jennifer H.

      @Glenys, I believe there is just one Mathew McConnell at U of Arkansas. I think his work is primarily sculpture. Not sure if he makes pots. Pictured might be Adam Posnak, though I have actually not met either of them, so I am not sure.

  • A mug or anything that has a very personal use is very important to ones stable brain. When teaching I always relate to something that is used everyday to get the point across, like cooking or cleaning. My students always could relate with enthusiasm when seeing there 1st or 50th pot no matter how lop sided or heavy.
    The bottom line – keep the brain working to stay young and creative!

  • Theresa B.

    I remember the first moment my hands touched the clay. I got tears in my eyes. I knew at that moment, I was going to make pots for the rest of my life.

    I love the moment I open the kiln and see that little pot that I thought was just something to test a glaze on, and it turns out to be the most meaningful beautiful piece. I can’t stop looking at it, and I have to pick it up from time to time – just to feel it in my hand. I still make lots of coffee mugs and bowls, because I love the functionality of using them. Giving them as gifts, and seeing that they will be used and loved as much as I love them.

    Working in clay is my meditation. One that I can see, feel and touch.

  • I can relate 100% to this teaching method. Relationship is based on exposure and living with pottery immerses students in all it’s qualities and is inspirational. Great interview!

  • On a recent field trip to the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, CA, our Sierra College Raku class was going through an excellent permanent display of ceramics by many different artists. This field trip happened near the very end of the course and I had made a comment to my professor as to why we didn’t do the field trip earlier in the course. I felt it would have been a great inspiration to the students to have something to strive for. Her reasoning was that doing it later in the course would give us more appreciation of the pots and sculptures we were viewing because we now had a better idea of what the processes were that went into making these works of art, but the students wouldn’t be unduly influenced in our creative process during the course of working on and completing our various assigned projects. I found the explanation to have a little validity but it was overshadowed by the fact that during each assignment we were instructed to use various sources for research on the projects, the internet being the most dominant. My feeling was that looking at a picture of a pot or sculpture with a note of the size of the object was not quite the same as seeing the object itself, which we did while at the museum.
    I can appreciate both sides of the coin since I am in the process of making 20 bowls of similar design and finish for Christmas presents at the request and suggestion by my wife as a way of getting my work out for the exposure and possibility of future sales…the interesting point here is that I have never made 2 of the same thing, much less 20!

  • Barbara S.

    This is an amazing article and an awesome way to work. I taught ceramics in a private high school in Europe (a 4 week wheelwork course, which wasn’t enough time for them to really experience much). There are good to no local potters where we live and the most of them had never held anything handmade of any quality. They each brought their favorite cup to the first class and I brought my own collection. The collection included a small hand burnished form of an animal (bird, turtle) that had no function and the 16 year olds couldn’t even identify as being ceramic. I was amazed that these teenagers could be so interested and moved by what would possess a potter to make this little form and then what would possess me to carry it in a backpack over three continents. They handled my cups and wares as something sacred because that is how I felt about it myself. They said they were so sad the course was so short because after 4 weeks they could really feel the amount of practice one needs to make a good pot.

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