A Potter's Workbook

A Potter's Workbook

by Clary Illian

ISBN: 9780877456711

Publisher University Of Iowa Press

Published in Arts & Photography/History & Criticism, Reference

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Sample Chapter

Truth to Process

A Potter's Workbook is a utilitarian pottery workshop in a book. It is designed to help students who are learning to throw pots, potters who know how to throw but feel the need for greater understanding, and skilled craftspeople who enjoy thinking about the objects they love. My aim is to provide a way to see, to make, and to think about the forms of wheel-thrown vessels. Workbooks have exercises, and this book is no exception. The assigned exercises that begin each chapter are designed not only to explain the mechanics of throwing and finishing pots but also to introduce a corollary theoretical framework-a sort of textbook for the hand.

Bernard Leach published A Potter's Book in 1940. It has served as a source of information and inspiration for generations of participants in the modern studio pottery movement. The title of this book, A Potter's Workbook, pays tribute to Leach's book and in particular to the notion of truth to process evident in his own work and in the work he revered. Leach, an Englishman, studied ceramics in China and Japan in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1920 he returned to England to set up a pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall. His lifetime mission was to train potters and to introduce to the West the aesthetic standards he perceived in the great pottery of the East.

As an apprentice at the Leach Pottery in 1964 and 1965, I helped produce a line of standard ware shapes. I remember vividly the moment when I realized that I was not learning shapes but processes, and that the way a thing is made and its appearance are one and the same.

Leach said, "The method by which a pot is formed determines its general character, whether hand-modeled or built up out of coils or slices, or freely thrown on the wheel ... each process conditions the interpretation of the original idea, and each has limited range of right usage, from the easy-flowing application of which follows the sense of satisfaction and adequacy of technique.... The beauty of each method lies in using that method honestly, for what it is worth, not in imitating other quite different processes."

Although most of what I have to say is an appendix to the idea of truth to process, it does not mean that I narrow the definition of quality to pots produced only in this way. I can well imagine wheel-thrown utilitarian forms that disguise, deny, or defy truth to process and yet are wonderful. This book is limited to a discussion of pots made simply on the wheel and the principles of form arising from that method. I believe that all beginning throwers need to start by mastering truth to process.

There are many ways to achieve the same ends, and so my descriptions of the making processes will dwell more on the purpose of the motions than on precise hand positions. "Whatever works" is always the most honest instruction. The emphasis is not on how to do but why to do. This book will explore sound, lively, and economically produced pottery forms that combine an invitation to mindful appreciation with ease of use.

Studying form and structure leads inevitably to making generalizations and dividing the infinite variety of pots into classes. It is a bit like the naming of plants and animals-a convenient method of making sense out of endless manifestations. However, like plants and animals, pots don't come with names and value judgments attached. They occupy the physical world in many permutations for many purposes. I offer the descriptions, generalizations, and classifications not as absolute truths but as starting points for learning. Not for a minute do I think that words are the same as physical things or that the particular words I have chosen are the only words that can point the way.

The isolated beginning potter may want to use this book as an instruction manual following the assignments in order and using the discussion as checkpoints. Students and teachers who are in community might prefer to dip into the book at will to stimulate projects and debate. Experienced potters might enjoy revisiting the descriptions of generic shapes as a way to jump-start their creative engines. The chapters on seeing, learning, developing style, and finding a place in society can be taken separately as doses of personal biography, clarifying context, building morale, or infuriating rhetoric.

I read many books and articles to prepare to write this book and realized with chagrin that most of the ideas I had thought unique to me were already beautifully described by others. It seems that our experience leads us to similar conclusions, each of us reinventing the meaning of wheel-thrown forms all over again. And so this book is a compendium of ideas, some my own, some held communally, and some so illuminating that they are gratefully acknowledged by quotes and endnotes.

Chapter Two


It is a wondrous thing that long after it has ceased to be necessary, people still want to make pots on the potter's wheel. And luckily for the people who want to make them, there are still people who want to use them. In fact, the number of makers and users grows and grows. What is the attraction?

Perhaps for the makers it is the clay that ensnares. It has so many associations with childhood memories of messing around in the mud; the lovely squish, the pies and pellets, the "let's pretend" scenarios of use. In adulthood clay still feels just as luscious and still amazes just as much in its response to our every touch. Although it seems alive because it can move, it does so only because we pinch and twist and roll it with the die of our hands.

Many see the magic of throwing a pot and decide then and there they must possess it, they must learn it. Perhaps it has the lure of any activity that looks hard but doable, like skiing or dancing or juggling. At this point the pottery product is secondary to the imagined kinesthetic pleasure of successfully performing the movements.

I was so besotted by learning to throw that I talked about it in my sleep, and to this day it is the reason for my involvement with clay. When I sit down at the wheel, I anticipate pleasure mixed with not a little anxiety. Will I be able to make a good pot? Will I be able to make a pot at all? Success is never certain.

Some people fall in love with the pots rather than the process. They are so eager to make them that they stay plugged in through the frustrating first steps of learning to throw. They have been seduced by fired clay toasted to the colors of autumn, the semiprecious stone of glazes, and the curve of a bowl in the hands. The imaginative projection centers on the fantasy of making their own dishes.

Whatever the point of entry, in time students become aware of the pots around them in the studio, and these pots become models. Immediate influences are often transparent to a student in the midst of the thrill of acquiring new skills, but in order to mature in the craft it is important to think through how we learn about pottery form. It would be nice to believe that pottery shapes just well up from within. Perhaps they would if we lived in cultural isolation. Perhaps then we would take our ideas from nature: spheres from the moon, slender columns from the trunks of trees, shallow bowls from meadow ponds, and animated profiles from the human body. But we do not live in isolation, and once we have seen pots we lose innocence and begin to learn their morphology much as we begin to learn a language. You might say we have a disposition to make shapes, but the manifestations are expressed in the particular visual language we happen to learn.

The language that surrounds us can be an asset or a liability. Think, for example, of learning to make pots in a Japanese pottery village during the Edo period between 1615 and 1868. Generation after generation of farmer/potters explored and refined the same shapes using local materials and coaxing the best firings from their kilns. Bernard Leach used to marvel at the quality of folk pots from the past. It seemed to him that folk potters could hardly make a bad pot.

Learning from the pots of unskilled or unsophisticated students is less advantageous. Students make predictable shapes when they are still struggling with the basics and cannot place the clay where they want it (preferably well up into the walls of the pot rather than hovering somewhere down around its ankles). They have not been exposed to the principles of good form, nor do they have minds stocked with images of sound, handcrafted pots.

Indeed, we all have minds stocked almost exclusively with images of machine-made objects. These objects are not bad in themselves, but machines utilize different processes and produce forms designed to rigid specifications and subject to complete regulation during fabrication. The profiles and surfaces lack the nuance and diversity that are a natural outcome of the risk-taking nature of making pots on the wheel.

In the book The Nature and Art of Workmanship David Pye constructs a continuum of manufactured objects, placing those made by machines in "the workmanship of certainty" and those made by hand in "the workmanship of risk." Although the wheel is described as a self-regulating tool with each revolution of the clay through the fingers acting as a guide for the next, pottery is clearly made by the workmanship of risk. The outcome is dependent upon the judgment and skill of the thrower from moment to moment. The potter should not confuse perfection of skill with mechanical perfection of surface and silhouette.

The following chapters will introduce the principles of good form and good forming. The two are intertwined. Once you are aware of them, you have a better chance of making good pots even from the beginning while you are still learning to move the clay. As you get better you can learn to manipulate the principles and ultimately to stretch them. It is only in understanding the anatomy of good form that you can create afresh.

This workbook focuses on utilitarian pottery form created on the potter's wheel. Different methods of working with clay and different intentions open up other possibilities, but working on the wheel imposes specific limitations. Shapes are circumscribed because of the nature of clay, gravity, centrifugal force, and the potter's hands. Just as the skeleton of an animal must be organized according to certain principles in order to support and contain the body and allow for movement, so too are pots limited to a certain underlying geometry. This has confused modern practitioners mightily as they try to reconcile the demand for innovation of contemporary art with the inevitably familiar results of shapes made on the wheel. Although wheel-thrown pots are endless in their variations, they resolve into types of shapes linked by shape and structure.

Morphological charts of pottery types are not lively and may appear to have nothing to offer a student newly hooked on throwing pots, but they are a distillation of thousands of years of pottery history, and this history is of the utmost importance. Learning the categories of shapes made both in the past and by present-day folk potters is just as important to the potter as the study of human anatomy is to the figurative artist or the study of grammar to the aspiring writer. They teach structure. Studying examples of pots in books, museums, and, best of all, in the homes of collectors teaches options and standards. To refuse to learn ceramic history for fear of inhibiting creativity or personal expression is foolish. Images from the past are the potter's grammar and vocabulary.

Pots are improvisations upon given themes and should be celebrated as such. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Czech writer Milan Kundera explains the richness of this kind of specialized creativity with these words: "Let me try to explain it by means of an analogy. The symphony is a musical epic. We might compare it to a journey through the boundless reaches of the external world, on and on, farther and farther. Variations also constitute a journey, but not through the external world. You recall Pascal's pensee about how man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the infinitely small. The journey of the variation form leads to that second infinity, the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things ... The variation form is the form of maximum concentration. It enables the composer to limit himself to the matter at hand, to go straight to the heart of it ... The journey to the second infinity is no less adventurous than the journey of the epic, and closely parallels the physicist's descent into the wondrous innards of the atom."

What is the heart of the matter in pottery making? To call into being an object and to ask the object to have qualities that evoke in the viewer a sense of rightness, beauty, or vitality is to tinker with the divine. Making pots offers a constant challenge to search for the mysterious underpinnings of the physical world itself. It is no wonder that "structure, most easily understood when presented visually, has much of the character of a universal metaphor."

Chapter Three

The Space Within

The assignment is to make a cylinder, somewhat taller than it is wide, that suggests the greatest possible internal empty space for the given amount of clay. It is the suggestion of space we are concerned with, not the measurable space. The goal is to create an internal space whose lively presence speaks for itself. Slight modulations of the silhouette are permissible, as are variations in treatment of the bottom and top edges of the wall of the pot. Do not think of this as a completed pot, and do avoid bulky rim shapes. If you are doing this assignment in a group, you should all use the same amount of clay.

Each time I've done this exercise with students at the beginning of a workshop the result has been edifying but unpredictable. As you settle down to look at the cylinders, acknowledge your tastes and clear your mind of likes and dislikes. Taste is built upon personal history and emotional associations, and it is important to move on to more objective observation. When the discussion is over, you will not have a simple equation that says a particular shape equals the suggestion of maximum internal space but, instead, a whole list of the visual components of a cylinder and how they interact to speak of the space within.

Putting visual perceptions into words is tricky. I have often criticized a weakness in one of the components of a pot only to realize that it would not be a weakness if another component were changed. The underlying perception is that something is not quite right, but the angle of verbal attack may contain only a partial truth if it does not discuss the reciprocal actions of all the parts. For the purposes of this book I have posited simple causal relationships that break the act of seeing into manageable chunks of instruction. Your understanding depends upon my choice of salient verbal descriptions and appropriate visual examples and your willingness to accept them as tools rather than rules.

The most obvious visual component of a cylinder is the shape. By shape I mean the profile of the object: its silhouette through a complete rotation in space. The directive that the cylinder be taller than it is wide has already partially determined the aspect of its shape called proportion, that is, the relationship of height to width. It would be difficult to compare the internal volumes of shapes with radically different proportions. Figures 1-6 depict a typical set of shapes made for this assignment.

One might anticipate that convex shapes would best succeed at appearing to be filled with air. Outwardly bulging walls would seem to guarantee an impression of maximum internal volume, but equating convexity with capacity turns out to be too simple. A swelling profile can have many different dynamics. If the swelling occurs low in the shape, the sagging volume seems affected by gravity, and some of the energy drops into the surface below the pot rather than suggesting a fullness throughout (figure 7). If the swelling rides high in the shape, the rising energy may also detract from a sense of maximum containment (figure 8). Or, perhaps, the convex curve is flattened, creating a constricting corset (figure 9). If it is a uniform, uninflected curve, its static quality may prevent the impression of lively space. Curiously, it is often a slightly concave form that best fulfills the volumetric goal. Concave or gently flaring shapes can make a vigorous, breathing column of air (figures 1, 4)

The termination at the top edge also plays a part. If the edge tilts inward, trapping a dark shadow inside the cylinder, it may call attention to the captive air (figure 10); if it tilts out, releasing the eye, it may seem to let the contained air breathe into the space above (figure 11). The bottom termination may likewise influence the impression of capacity. An edge curving inward at the base can hint at bottom heaviness in the wall of the pot, filling up the interior space with clay rather than air (figure 12). A flaring bottom edge could present the column of air in a way that either energizes or chokes the contents (figure 13).


Excerpted from "A Potter's Workbook" by Clary Illian. Copyright © 0 by Clary Illian. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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