Making sets is an intriguing challenge that can lead to a wealth of artistic reward. Sets often involve multiple pieces relating specifically to each other and functioning together as a whole. There’s much to consider with regard to customizing function, finding an intriguing uniqueness, creating a unified aesthetic, and reconciling technical issues. Resolving these aspects is, for many potters, what keeps us connected at our core to working with clay. We are creative problem solvers. Whether our artistic endeavors lead to victory or defeat when we crack the kiln open, we are driven by the process itself and the reward of seeing our artistic expressions realized and functioning in the hands of the user.
Custom and Functioning
The first thing I decide on when making a set is the specific need it will meet. When making gifts for friends, I like to talk with them about moments in their day that might be centered around food or drink and see what ideas come to mind. I seek opportunities to place something handmade into that moment that might make it better—a special union between the user and the object, whether it’s friends sharing a flight of sippers over a nice meal or a weary worker using a beverage set to put together a drink that winds them down at day’s end. Most everyone has a coveted moment that can be influenced and enriched through a handmade object.
Handmade pottery is unique unto itself. That being said, social media has circulated an immense quantity of images of handmade pots, making it important to create forms that will stand out. This can come through in the aesthetic or by making something that addresses form and function in a different way. I had this thought in mind when making a beverage set for a friend that consisted of five ceramic ice cubes, a cup, a garnish bowl, and an ice bucket. The idea was to fill the ice bucket with water and ice, and then place the cubes into the bucket to chill. The cubes could then be added to the beverage as needed, cooling it without watering it down. Not only did the cubes address a specific function, but they also added a unique element to the set.
When making a set with multiple pieces I’m always mindful of creating a unified aesthetic through commonalities beyond texture and color. To make an analogy: I could paint a banana orange, duplicate an orange’s texture, and place it next to three oranges but it still wouldn’t match because its form is different.
Along those lines, I wouldn’t place a straight-edged, cylindrical cup on a tray where the garnish bowl and ice bucket had curved profiles. Each piece needs to share a commonality in form for the set to be fully cohesive.
My sets are unified by hand rolling coils and pinching slabs, which are the handbuilding techniques I use in all of my work. I take into consideration the balance of disparate textures (like tool marks and incised circles), carefully choosing where they’re applied so they aren’t overwhelming or overused. Texture also influences the color of glazes I use as well as how the black wash stays in seams and crevices. The balance of color and the balance of texture work in tandem to achieve the desired aesthetic result.
The more difficult aspect of unifying a set is contemplating the way it will function and how that function will affect the way the set is displayed when not in use. Pottery at rest is essentially free-standing sculpture. I want the set to function with a degree of convenience while not forsaking the aesthetic aspects of the work. It’s important to consider how it’s viewed and how the scale and proportion of each individual piece affects the others. I think about how the set will be viewed at different angles and where I can place circles in order to bring focus to a particular area or balance out color. All these considerations make for an exercise that forces creative thinking and changes the way I work—a good thing when my studio practice gets overly methodical.
Anytime you have multiple pieces working together in a unified function, you’re going to deal with technical issues. I always take extra precautions when making sets to dry the pieces slowly and check them often. Drying work directly on the kiln shelf minimizes any mishaps that might occur when moving pieces after they are bone dry and dangerously fragile. Knowing the specific shrinkage rate of my clay from wet to glaze fired and having a set of calipers that can measure the compensation needed in the measurements is helpful, too.
When making sets, the risks are many, but the rewards are fruitful. Like working a puzzle, it takes patience, but seeing the set put to use as a whole is a uniquely satisfying feeling. Not much compares to the feeling I get as a potter when the connection is made in that moment between the maker, the object, and the user.
Eric Beavers makes his home in Nesbit, Mississippi, but was born and raised in northwest New Mexico. Upon moving to the mid South, Eric attended the University of Mississippi and Memphis College of Art for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in art, and now works as a full-time studio potter. Find more information on Instagram @ericbeavers_ceramics or www.ericbeavers.com.