Let’s Talk Function: Two Potters Discuss Making Handmade Pottery for Use

Toasting Cups by potter Nicholas Bivins.As the name implies, something that is functional is meant to be used. But I think we can all agree that the meaning of function in relation to handmade pottery goes well beyond mere utilitarianism. I think those of us who make handmade functional pottery do so not simply to produce objects that enable people to perform various tasks. We put the thought, time and care into making these useful objects with the hopes that the users will somehow connect with them beyond their intended purpose. At least that’s what I am striving for. Perhaps your reasons are different. At any rate, I find it interesting to talk with other potters about what motivates them to make functional pottery and what it is that makes their pottery successful. And I think it is also a good exercise to sit down and really think about why you make what you make, and to evaluate your work – both the successes and the shortcomings.

So today, to get you thinking, I am presenting an excerpt from the December 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly in which several potters included in the 2009 Strictly Functional Pottery National (an annual juried exhibition of fantabulous pottery) discuss what functional pottery means to them and the qualities necessary to make their utilitarian work successful. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



Egg Tray by potter Susan Kennedy.Susan Kennedy
Waco, Texas

The egg tray idea actually began as a mancala board. Mancala is a game using seeds or stones, dropped into round divots, five or six on each player’s side, with a larger, collection divot on each end. I had some finished boards around the studio at potluck time, and immediately recognized how well deviled eggs would nestle into the depressions. I enjoy specifity of function, and the celebratory feel of an elaborate serving piece. And I enjoy eggs.

Since eggs can be quite slippery, and prone to rolling, an egg tray needs depressions, somewhere for the eggs to sink in just a bit. Without this, the function of the egg tray becomes entertainment rather than food containment as the decked-out eggs slide into someone’s dressed up lap.

I see the pieces I make as characters in an epic narrative, existing on many levels.  I want to give the user a vivid backstory, to bring the user up to date with the life of a piece thus far. After the piece leaves my world, it has a life of its own, continuing forward in the narrative, perhaps even finding a new career later in life.



For fantastic functional pottery project ideas, be sure to download your free copy of Three Great Pottery Wheel Throwing Techniques: Tips on Throwing Complex Pottery Forms Using Basic Throwing Skills!

 


As a child, I loved decorating the Christmas tree with my mom. As
she unwrapped various globes of glass and silver, and aged yellow lace,
she told me stories about my great grandfathers who worked in glass
factories, or the student whose mother knitted the snowflake as a gift
for my mom in her first year teaching. I am drawn to the power of the
object, humble or valuable alike, to hold strong memory and deep
feeling. Objects have a tactile way of connecting us through time. I
believe our ceremonious interactions with nostalgic objects perform the
function of ritual in a contemporary life.I do feel sad if I
catch my pots in the back of cabinets, but I accept the fact that once
a pot is sold, it is beyond my control. Sometimes I have seen a pot put
to better use than was intended, and welcome seeing a piece through
someone else’s eyes.I have more questions to ask than to
answer, particularly about the various meanings of function. Is there a
distinction between function and utility? Do we use the word functional
when we mean to say tableware? Is function inextricably linked to food?
Is containment an essential parameter for function? There aren’t
necessarily answers; I am more interested in the conversation.

To see more images of Susan Kennedy’s work, visit www.skennedyart.com.

Bottom view of one of Nicholas Bivins' Toasting Cup (full set shown above).Nicholas Bivins
Red Lodge, Montana

I make “Toasting Cups” as a way to fit functional pots into peoples’
collective celebration of their lives. This piece gains significance
the more times it is used. A toast cannot occur with only one, and many
times, the more the merrier. My goal for Toasting Cups is the act of
toasting – so by experiencing the piece with friends through
celebration, it is fulfilling its purpose. Using formal language to
describe necessary qualities of a functional pot is a beginning, but for
a piece to become truly successful it requires a much more dynamic
investment and agreement between maker and user.Toasting Cups was made with the understanding that when people gather,
they like to celebrate the occasion with a toast. The type of beverage
consumed can be quite arbitrary, but it’s the tradition of toasting
each other that I am keyed in on. This situation is a wonderful arena
to play in, because of the importance of the role of the objects. It
bothers me somewhat if a buyer does not use my work, because there is a
huge amount of information contained in the use experience. I put a lot
of time, effort, and research into making my pots feel good, not only
to eyes, but also to hands and lips.To see more images of Nicholas Bivins’ work, visit www.nicholasbivins.com.

Check out the December 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly to hear from more
Strictly Functional Pottery National artists including:

Shadow May Matthew McGovern Maureen Mills
     

Comments
  • Jennifer,
    Great article. Argument or discussion as old as clay perhaps. As a potter/sculptor for over 40 years I long ago realized that, “The highest function is to satisfy aesthetic sensitivity.” I can recall people asking, “But is it functional?” If the piece and its “use” moves you to another level then we’ve encountered a fairly large function.
    Bill

  • Jennifer,
    Great article. Argument or discussion as old as clay perhaps. As a potter/sculptor for over 40 years I long ago realized that, “The highest function is to satisfy aesthetic sensitivity.” I can recall people asking, “But is it functional?” If the piece and its “use” moves you to another level then we’ve encountered a fairly large function.
    Bill

  • Some of those functional pieces are just wonderful, but on a technical level, teapots and cups sometimes do not tolerate the repeated thermal shock and therefore crack. Cups are especially vulnerable. When hot water is poured into the ware the body expands but the rim does not at first, subjecting the rims of teacups to enormous tensile stress. Eventually they crack. The situation is worse if there is a crackle glaze on or near the rim because the fractures will propagate into the clay body a little on each heating cycle presumably until they fail there. Publishing some good low expansion clay body formulas would be an important service to the community.

    JW

  • Some of those functional pieces are just wonderful, but on a technical level, teapots and cups sometimes do not tolerate the repeated thermal shock and therefore crack. Cups are especially vulnerable. When hot water is poured into the ware the body expands but the rim does not at first, subjecting the rims of teacups to enormous tensile stress. Eventually they crack. The situation is worse if there is a crackle glaze on or near the rim because the fractures will propagate into the clay body a little on each heating cycle presumably until they fail there. Publishing some good low expansion clay body formulas would be an important service to the community.

    JW

  • Our craft has suffered a great deal since the changes in food preparation and storage. We can debate the form, the function, and the decorative till the cows come home and drop their dung. Let’s be real, only what sells is the issue. If you have the skills to make a variety of ware do it. Unlike other professions we have a greater responsibility to culture, art and the history of developement. We must do our best, the results of our work lasts forever. Don’t try to set parameters saying ‘this way is better than that way’. Just make what you can, make it well, with love and integrity.

  • Our craft has suffered a great deal since the changes in food preparation and storage. We can debate the form, the function, and the decorative till the cows come home and drop their dung. Let’s be real, only what sells is the issue. If you have the skills to make a variety of ware do it. Unlike other professions we have a greater responsibility to culture, art and the history of developement. We must do our best, the results of our work lasts forever. Don’t try to set parameters saying ‘this way is better than that way’. Just make what you can, make it well, with love and integrity.

  • Do you really think the buyer of your pottery is putting all the art speak that you pose very seriously? Those of us who make a living in clay also know the $ makes a difference. Of course, people buy what they like regardless of the $ some times. But let’s get real, in this world, not la la land, the dollar speaks about the same decible number as the pot. When an artist submits work to ask for gallery space, I read the artist’s statement and boil it down to the essence the buyer understands. 50 years in studio clay work, 8 galleries and a line in wholsale through 4 states and Canada has taught us that the work’s shape and glaze speaks for itself. Sorry if you feel I am negative, but it serves, a new clay artist, no good purpose to fill their heads with feel good speak when the real discussion needs to be about working harder to do better work.

  • Do you really think the buyer of your pottery is putting all the art speak that you pose very seriously? Those of us who make a living in clay also know the $ makes a difference. Of course, people buy what they like regardless of the $ some times. But let’s get real, in this world, not la la land, the dollar speaks about the same decible number as the pot. When an artist submits work to ask for gallery space, I read the artist’s statement and boil it down to the essence the buyer understands. 50 years in studio clay work, 8 galleries and a line in wholsale through 4 states and Canada has taught us that the work’s shape and glaze speaks for itself. Sorry if you feel I am negative, but it serves, a new clay artist, no good purpose to fill their heads with feel good speak when the real discussion needs to be about working harder to do better work.

  • I don’t agree with all you have said charlotte, and maybe there just are pieces missing, but yes the money does speak as loudly as the pot sometimes because we try to price things at worth to the pots and in hope the viewer will see this worth the same. I haven’t been selling very long, a little over three years now, but as I’ve seen most of the buyers market is more or less lost to our process and time taken to see the whole worth of the piece. They have no idea how much it is to keep a studio up, how much it costs to fire, or how much clay cost has rose. They compare things to Target, Pottery Barn and other places where they can get cheep ceramics because they are manufactured cheaply and quickly. So the shape and glaze of the piece is what the viewer sees when they view the piece, compare it to what they think is precious, beautiful, means something to them, or to what they have been exposed to. As a gallery owner or a festival artist we need to educate our buyers so that when it comes time for them to buy, more will speak our language, not just what they see. The more they know, the more special the piece is to them and the more our ‘craft’ can be seen more as special and wanted.

    Jack, you can find low expansion clay bodies, or make your own on some glaze calc. programs if you understand different clays and what they do. Search online or make sure your clay is vitrified or leave the bottom of your cups or teapots thicker than your used to. The thicker the clay body, the harder it is for a hot liquid to crack the piece. I have recently had trouble with cracking in my porcelain and discovered that with thin walls a hot liquid at boiling will crack the piece. so I now make them thicker to test and see if they hold up. I have yet to have a teapot crack on me, I try to at least preheat it with hot tap water so the shock isn’t as much. a thicker wall also keeps the drink warmer longer.

  • I don’t agree with all you have said charlotte, and maybe there just are pieces missing, but yes the money does speak as loudly as the pot sometimes because we try to price things at worth to the pots and in hope the viewer will see this worth the same. I haven’t been selling very long, a little over three years now, but as I’ve seen most of the buyers market is more or less lost to our process and time taken to see the whole worth of the piece. They have no idea how much it is to keep a studio up, how much it costs to fire, or how much clay cost has rose. They compare things to Target, Pottery Barn and other places where they can get cheep ceramics because they are manufactured cheaply and quickly. So the shape and glaze of the piece is what the viewer sees when they view the piece, compare it to what they think is precious, beautiful, means something to them, or to what they have been exposed to. As a gallery owner or a festival artist we need to educate our buyers so that when it comes time for them to buy, more will speak our language, not just what they see. The more they know, the more special the piece is to them and the more our ‘craft’ can be seen more as special and wanted.

    Jack, you can find low expansion clay bodies, or make your own on some glaze calc. programs if you understand different clays and what they do. Search online or make sure your clay is vitrified or leave the bottom of your cups or teapots thicker than your used to. The thicker the clay body, the harder it is for a hot liquid to crack the piece. I have recently had trouble with cracking in my porcelain and discovered that with thin walls a hot liquid at boiling will crack the piece. so I now make them thicker to test and see if they hold up. I have yet to have a teapot crack on me, I try to at least preheat it with hot tap water so the shock isn’t as much. a thicker wall also keeps the drink warmer longer.

  • I’m a beginner (for the last 40 years). What would be the components of the best clay to use for making soup bowls and coffee mugs?

  • I’m a beginner (for the last 40 years). What would be the components of the best clay to use for making soup bowls and coffee mugs?

  • Hi Pottery, try stoneware clay and glazes, that is your best bet ! Judith

  • Hi Pottery, try stoneware clay and glazes, that is your best bet ! Judith

  • I will like to know what is craftsmanship in pottery
    crack free structure and glaze consistency

  • I will like to know what is craftsmanship in pottery
    crack free structure and glaze consistency

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