There is a spectrum of different approaches to functional pottery, especially in this country. At one end are objects made purely for expression and at the other end are objects made purely for utility. You could say at the far end of utility is machine made industrial objects, with no trace of the maker. I am drawn to this end of the spectrum, but what I have chosen to do is different.
I like industrial objects, especially when they are very well designed and a lot of thought has gone into the execution. There are many very beautiful industrially made objects out there, which we can talk about later. There`s even a real beauty in the ikea plate that costs a dollar and serves its function perfectly, I mean its much better then a paper plate. So I have a lot of admiration for these objects if their intention is clear and they are carefully executed.
We looked at a beautiful pot from Japan in a previous post; a very simple bowl, made purely for utility. Now maybe what I value in this pot was not valued by the person who used it all those years ago, maybe he or she thought of it as I would think of the one dollar Ikea plate, maybe they didn’t think about it at all.
And yet there is something important about this kind of ware today – we value it because of its tactile quality, the material presence of the clay, its warmth, its weight, its reminiscence of the earth, the imperfections of the glaze and because we can feel the hand of the maker; this is what the industrially made pot lacks, and this is why I work as I do.
Wherever I take my pots to my wife`s home in Japan they stand out. They stand out in scale, and they stand out in terms of form, but when my pots are here (in the US) they look very Japanese. Yet in Japan, a pot of mine looks like a foreigner – and I find that really interesting. I think a lot about what works here and what works there, and why. Our sense of scale is so different: not just our pots but our homes too.
The Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington has an amazing collection. I love to go there and I spend a lot of time studying their bowls from Japan, China and Korea.
Here are 3 from their collection that I would like to share with you today.
First of all, here is a Takatori ware bowl from around 1600 – 1630. It is brown stoneware with rice straw ash glaze. It is 16.9cm tall and 24.2cm wide so its pretty big, maybe it was a service bowl.
I love it because of the softness of the glaze and the body; the clay hasn`t become fully vitrified and the glaze is semi-matte because it wasn`t over fired. It has a simplicity and honesty of form. The profile is slightly different from one side to the next, and the foot was casually trimmed: subtle, beautiful irregularities come through when the potter is making hundreds of the same form, that is what we are seeing here.
The second pot I want to share is a much later pot from the 19th century, a stoneware tea bowl from Japan.
What I love so much about this is that it gives you such a strong sense of the two materials on top of the clay body; the rich red coming through from an iron slip underneath the white feldspathic overglaze. I can see how the slip underneath the glaze began to melt first just prior to the feldspar glaze, and caused the feldspar to slide around and crawl as it began to melt. The feldspar on the surface of the pot is as true as it was when it was a vein in rock.
This pot pulls us back to the rawness of nature.
We have become accustomed to adaptations based on approximations of ancient glazes but they are not the same. The shino glazes we have today are something entirely different and so much is lost.
This is a stoneware Hagi ware teabowl from Japan, in the shape of a Korean Ido tea bowl, from the 19th century.
I love this pot because it alligns with my approach to pot making today. There is a focus on material and on utility. The Hagi potters kept things very simple, they worked with a stoneware body covered with a white slip and a transparent feldspar ash glaze. Within these limits were infinite variations due to the complexities of the firing process combined with the raw materials.
In a way it is a mundane pot, there is nothing extra, it is as simple as it could be. Yet using this pot, I can imagine you would discover and come to love the subtle irregularities of form and surface.
I see no trace of the maker here, I only see the pots, and that is what I am interested in; paring away all ego and focusing on the material, the process and the function.
Intuitively, I tend towards simple, monochromatic pots. When a plate is overly embellished it can distract from the food which is on it. It is difficult to get that balance right, to have enough detail to draw the eye but not too much to distract. The scale of the mark is so important to the form. I tend to decorate my pots with a dot and a dash. This seems to work for me for now. Sometimes stripes, but rarely more.
I really admire potters who get this right. Here is a cup made by a Japanese potter. I like it so much I had to retire it from daily use and now only use it on special occasions. The line fits the form in a way which seems so natural. A line has been scratched into the clay and cobalt has been drawn into it, the wood ash glaze flowed towards the bottom of the foot in the firing, and pulled the pigment with it which pooled at the foot ring; all of this is very subtle. While it is such a simple, understated piece, it also manages to be elegant.
I find it difficult to see my pots for what they are when they are in the studio. When I take them home and put them on the kitchen table they start to take on their own life. I get more of a sense of their material when they are next to wood, cloth, food. The studio is too industrial, too messy and the light is fluorescent cold. The pots get lost there. Bringing a pot home helps me to realise if it is successful.
We don`t usually use wooden spoons in America, I don`t know why, I much prefer them. They are light, fit well in my hand and they are never too hot or too cold. I always use wooden spoons with hand made pots, as they make a soft sound when the spoon is drawn across the glaze, whereas metal cutlery can sound terrible. They also look great. We usually get ours when traveling outside the country, but I hope to start making my own soon – watch this space!
As a potter it has always been really important to me to use materials that are as raw and unrefined as possible. I grew up on an Island on Northern Lake Huron, close to the Canadian border. We were surrounded by limestone beaches and cedar forests and I always found the deep, physical difference between them so compelling. I think that is why I have continued to work with wood and stone-like material; I am always trying to get back to that feeling of limestone and cedar.
I was in 1st grade when I made this bird. I remember moving the clay around feeling the density of a plastic material for the first time. I was looking around at what my class mates were doing; my bird didn’t look like theirs and it didn’t look like the pretty dove that the girl next to me was making. I remember that dialogue with myself of oh mine is not as good but at the same time it felt really good making it, and I felt comfortable with letting it be what it was. Now I see the freedom of youth in a bird that looks like a lamb with a flower on its breast; it serves as a reminder to let clay be what it is and let myself be who I am.