I took up pottery at a moment of my life of great despair. I had thought I had found the One with whom I would live out my days, and die, but it had all come to a fiery and gruesome end. Having served as my own therapist for most of my life, I told myself that I needed something to pull me away from the yawning jaw of self-destructive acts and habits constantly calling me. So I signed up for a beginning wheel throwing class in Chicago.
Initially, I was probably interested in working on the wheel because it looked cool to do; I wasn’t really thinking about the possible final products. On first and many subsequent attempts, I found working on the wheel to be incredibly challenging, and, at times, frustrating. But there was also the pulsing rhythm of the wheel, the electric sensation of the fluid clay racing through the fingers and hands, the delightful movement of the earth into one’s receptivity, along with the thrilling action of one’s spontaneity shaping the earth. Each project was, moreover, thought and planning made manifest in dirt and revolution. It was at once visceral and intellectual, hypnotic and cleansing.
Not long after my first pottery class I found a new job in a new town – Flint, Michigan – where one of the first things I did was find a studio where I could work on the wheel: the Flint Institute of Arts. Over the years my skills gradually developed, and I began to become interested in all the facets of pottery, from the digging up and production of clay to the chemistry of glazes; from the ancient masterworks to the ceramics used in spaceships. As I write this piece, the Institute is in the process of constructing not only facilities for glassblowing and metal casting, but also exhibition space dedicated to Contemporary Craft.
As much as I might (and in fact do) believe that the recent projects of the Institute can be a fantastic contribution to the community and world, I nevertheless confess to being somewhat bothered by the tired and shop-worn division between art and craft evident in their appellation of the new wing. One assumption often at work in this kind of division is a distinction between functional and non-functional items, combined with the thought that, since functional items must essentially serve some other purpose than simply being objects of aesthetic appreciation, they are generally in some manner inferior to non-functional works. Such an attitude can be glimpsed in the remarks made by William S. White, head of the Mott Foundation (one of the major donors to the project): “With its long history and culture of … manufacturing useful – and sometimes very beautiful – objects, Flint is an ideal place for providing a contemporary craft experience for artists and visitors.” Against this background, I will offer an invitation to and defence of some of the unique aesthetic features of functional pottery, that in specific ways lift it above pretty, but useless, art.
Because the ways in which functional ceramics can integrate themselves into our lives are so numerous and varied, I will focus hereafter on one proper subset: those used for consuming food and drink. Paradigm examples include mugs, cups, bowls, pitchers, and plates. There are at least two features of such items that stand out in contrast with non-functional ware. The first is that functional ware is irreducibly tactile, by which I mean general sensations of touch, haptic perception, proprioception, kinaesthesia, and the like. It is impossible to properly aesthetically engage with these items without touching them, and even more, touching them in certain characteristic ways. The second is that functional ware must be designed to fit in somewhere in a living space of an everyday lifeworld: for instance, it must be able to regularly be cleaned and dried, and, often, stacked. Let me start with the first feature.
One of the early things the beginning potter comes to notice is that, when it comes to making objects to be lifted with some frequency, weight matters a lot. A mug that is too heavy might not be useable at all for some, and will be uncomfortable and impractical for many others. It is important in this regard to recall that to the weight of the vessel will be added the weight of the liquid it contains when full. Moreover, any heavy piece of ware must also have thick walls, which have a greater probability of being destroyed in the kiln (indeed, the thicker the walls, the more likely is destruction). Thus, perceived weight (grounded in scale weight), and also therefore wall thickness are essential components of the tactile dimension of the aesthetic appreciation and evaluation of functional pottery. In addition, when it comes to throwing on the wheel, throwing thin is significantly more difficult than throwing thick. In forming a typical cylinder shape (the base shape for many kinds of vessels, including mugs), one pulls upward with both hands, effectively stretching the circular wall of clay upward. The further one stretches the clay, the thinner it becomes, and also the more unstable it becomes. As the pulling continues, the clay body also absorbs water, adding to the instability of the work. In contrast, leaving the wall thick means not only is there added structural stability, but also less time required, and thus less water absorbed. This is part of why wall thickness is regularly and vividly discussed by nearly all functional potters that stick with the wheel for a significant amount of time.
Indeed, a number of other tactile features quickly make themselves known to the novice potter. For instance, people using a mug to drink from might cut themselves on the hand, mouth, or elsewhere if there are sharp burrs that are difficult to see or avoid. This means that such sharp components must generally be eliminated in the completed work (the contrast with non-functional works here is very clear, where such cutting elements are often exactly what gives a piece its aesthetic appeal and engagement). As eliminating sharp and cutting elements adds another step to the process of making a vessel, we can also see from the maker side of things why it often takes the beginner potter some time to acquire the habit of checking by hand all their pieces for burrs or sharp protrusions, and addressing them accordingly. Or, relatedly, consider the size of the handle on a mug. Too small and the user will not be able to comfortably fit their fingers, too large and the piece will be difficult to manage whilst drinking.
It is true that there are sometimes visual correlates to many of the features I’ve mentioned. However, first, that is not always the case: functionally problematic burrs that are not readily visible can be identified by touch. Second, part of what I am proposing is that the visual correlates to things like light perceived weight, wall thinness, lack of sharp tactile protrusions, and appropriate useable size, are important if not central to the visual aesthetics of functional pottery in virtue of the fact that, along the tactile dimension, they can detract or contribute seriously from the work. And it is also in part because I can reliably predict what will happen when I use a very heavy, sharp, large-handled mug that the visual cues of these features have the aesthetic valence that they have, and ought to have, to me and other experts. All of the preceding considerations also apply to how glaze works when applied to functional ware, amplified by the fact that many of the most beautiful glazes are potentially toxic to humans when consumed, including by means of low level, long term exposure (for instance, lead). And, similarly, we can here note a clear divergence from the use of glaze on non-functional works: chemicals which would be toxic if consumed can be used on non-functional sculptures with comparative abandon. On the other hand, this can give the functional potter inspiration to explore ever new experiments in the creation and discovery of glazes.
My own first dozen or so completed wheel-thrown pieces were generally no taller than a couple of inches, and about half as thick. I was unfazed. Not only was I captivated and mesmerised by the spinning disc of mesomorphic mud, but by that time I had been hired at a new, better job, and was headed toward what I hoped would be a better place for me. I also felt as if I had rediscovered the magical maelstrom of romance, and for at least a moment, was thrilled at life again. Thus I persisted, and my pots grew slowly taller, and lighter.
Let me turn now to some of what is needed in order for a typical functional piece to be integrated into our daily lives beyond the moments in which they are containing consumables. A bowl, for example, will need to be cleaned and stored after use. This typically involves placing the bowl in a sink with other items, washing it, placing it in a drying area with other items, and, finally, stacking it with other bowls. There are some minimal features for a bowl of this sort to be treated in such a way on a regular basis. First and foremost, our bowl will almost inevitably make contact with other dishes, or the side of the sink, and so on. What emerges rather quickly on such treatment is that the rim of a ceramic bowl is particularly vulnerable and susceptible to breakage as a result of contact with rigid surfaces. There is a reliable antidote to this problem: make the bowl with a thick(er) rim. As in the case of weight discussed above, giving a bowl a thicker rim on the wheel is generally unintuitive vis a vis the naive natural throwing process, so the beginning potter on the wheel will almost always throw bowls with thin rims. Habituating one’s self to thickening rims takes time, conscious effort, and skill (especially if one is simultaneously trying to push the limits of thinness on the rest of the piece).
With regard to stacking, there are certain shapes of bowls that are such that very few can be stacked in a small space. Think, for instance, of the stacking inefficiency of bowls whose rims have a diameter considerably smaller than the base. Anyone with space and storage limitations who loves functional ceramics will have a hard time finding room in their lives for sets of such items. Just as in the case with the tactile dimensions of functional works outline above, there are visual cues which are typically conjoined with the components needed for a piece to be integrable into daily life. And similarly, I should judge those pieces to be more successful in so far as their visual cues can reliably predict such success. Analogous features of the glazing process apply to these considerations as well. So, for instance, many spectacular glaze effects can be achieved by multiple firings. However, multiple firings also gradually weaken the structural integrity of a work, such that in some instances, as the glaze becomes more impressive, the work gets weaker and weaker, and more likely to break whilst cleaning, drying, stacking, et cetera. Finally, all of the above considerations are especially important with regard to handmade items, as they are typically more unique and expensive than that produced en masse.
Not long after moving from Chicago to Flint, my latest amorous endeavour had gradually fallen to pieces. At my new pottery studio, I was for the first time firing not only at cone ten (final temperature about 2381F), but also using a new process called reduction. Previously I had only fired to a lower temperature, cone six (up to about 2232F), in oxidation kilns. Roughly speaking, in reduction oxygen is extracted from the clay body and glaze, whereas in oxidation oxygen is added to the glaze and clay body. Most of my results were far from inspiring. I had also begun to become perhaps a bit too fascinated by the diverse and potent effects of a certain heady brew originating in Scotland. In short, I was lost, in my personal and pottery lives. Even professionally, though I was getting the job done, I was not prepared for the global toll those first few years would take out of me. And so it was that one evening I raised my gaze upward, and watched as the stars glided in elegant circles around Polaris, as if affixed to some eternal, elemental surface, perpetually striving to return to the source of all being. I decided there was indeed that within me which was valuable and beautiful absolutely and intrinsically, and around which I could build a life, and pull myself together. Not long afterward, I began to learn to throw anew, with a totally different technique. I started studying the interstices of clays and glazes, eventually exploring everything from their histories to their physical and chemical makeup and production. It is a road on which I travel still.
Needless to say, what I have offered here is certainly merely programmatic: a more fully developed aesthetics of functional ceramics would include a discussion of further details of, for instance, the restrictions imposed by the need for some vessels to be vitrified, the role of stability on a flat surface in the constitution of a work, the similarities and differences between ware used for eating and drinking and that used for other functions such as storage, et alia. And yet I hope I have at least provided some helpful clues for the interested about how one might go about more deeply engaging with the sorts of vessels I’ve been discussing.
Ensconced in the naming and operation of so many contemporary institutions and aesthetic spaces is the notion that that which is functional is craft, for the great unwashed; and high art is art for art’s sake, non-functional, for the elite (or the normies on corporate sponsored free entry days). There are many features of the culture in which I live that help to reinforce such facile attitudes, and I suspect (or hope?) that one of them is that it is not as clear as it could be why functional pottery as such can be aesthetically at least as engaging and indeed potentially superior along certain well-defined axes when compared to non-functional ceramics..