Tuesday, April 10, 2012

More to it

I’ve noticed over the years that there is a dismissive nature by non-ceramists about clay. The idea that clay, as an art form, is not only “easy,” but also that it isn’t an art at all, but it’s a craft.

While I understand the idea that anyone can play in clay, as it is usually first introduced to those in kindergartens in order to make hand prints, paper weights or the dreaded pinch pot, I need to point out a few obvious things. Any art medium anyone can do doesn’t make it easy, it just makes it accessible. There is the fact that one needs to do said art well and bring some sort of artistry to it as well. Also, if the concept of “if a child can do it, then it is a craft” is why people feel that clay is lowly, then painting should be tossed right on in there, as that is also one of those pesky “arts/crafts” that those schools also bring in for children to experiment with (i.e. see water color sets, acrylic painting and finger painting to name a few).

So, let’s say clays bad wrap for “being easy” and “a craft” didn’t come from five year olds… where did it come from then? Maybe because most people use a type of ceramic or have touched clay (in one form or another) throughout their lives, so because it’s so readily available, it must be easy to make? I’m not sure if this is a valid concept either because the making of most items we use in today’s market (like those in plates and ceramic mugs at say Target or even at the 99 cent stores) are not handmade and are far from easy to make. Most companies have industrialized the process of making these items, using machinery in order to make the millions of pieces that have to churn out. Tiles are mixed, rolled out, cut and dried in a way that they don’t warp (do most people even know that standard clays will do that without understanding the nature of clay?) or crack. Smaller potteries may make the molds for a cup (let’s use an example) and hand pour slip into the pieces, then remove the molds, sand them, fire and then decorate… but none of what any of these companies do is “simple,” “easy” or “what a child can do.” These concepts are all things that take education and time to understand how to do it and then, experience in order to do it correctly.

Pinch pot featured above was from Clayton Bailey, GOURD-LIKE PINCH POT- 1963
8" X 8" X 5", salt glazed stoneware. The finger painting above was off the Mamaleche Blog.

Perhaps it’s because the most experienced potters make throwing and working in clay look so effortless? I have seen so many demos at Festivals and Fairs of some fantastic ceramic artists over the years. Seeing a teapot or a vase thrown in less than five minutes is pretty amazing. I’ve demoed as well at the Strawberry Festival, as well as in Downtown Ventura, Main Street Santa Paula, and at numerous SCA events. Maybe people think that because the art is such a messy one, and an ancient, grass roots sort of art form (i.e. folk art), that anyone can just jump right on so it’s easy.

Here is a video of a Chinese potter making "teabowls", throwing off the hump. Not an easy thing. Watch how fast he is.

I don’t want to discourage people because I believe that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it. However, clay work is not for everyone. Throwing on the wheel is especially one of the most frustrating and most joyful things at the same time. Some people take to the wheel right away and others have to work pretty hard to get it going. There have been many who I’ve known that have never gotten the wheel. When you first start on the wheel and you get something that doesn’t collapse… I can’t tell you how awesome that feeling is.

The disappointment in this field when you accidentally overwork your piece or it just doesn’t survive all the various stages of working it (decorating, drying, bisque to glazing) is an experience only another clay worker can really understand. As far as I know, no other art form is as fragile or as unpredictable like this. There is less randomness, as you understand the chemical reactions of the clay and chemicals used. There are so many factors involved in a piece from the medium itself (clay), to the glaze (if you use one) to the firing (how it’s being fired and how hot) to what else is in the kiln (other pieces being fired – i.e. kiln environment). Not only do you have to be a sculptor but also you have to understand surface decoration, composition and chemistry. It has to be beautiful or pleasing. Sometimes it has to be functional. Does this sound “simple” or “easy” to you?

So, I ask you… why is this a craft and not an art form? I don’t understand… to me, it’s an art form. Your opinion?

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Monday, April 02, 2012

Clay Studios verses the Studio Potter

Usually, throughout history, the “potter” was a trade like anything else (i.e. baker, blacksmith, tailor, etc) and one would find a master potter, learn from them and eventually many, MANY years down the line, start their own pottery business (or perhaps take over their Master’s business depending on the relationship or whatnot).

Some potteries were large productions, like the ones that Cipriano Piccolpasso detailed in his book “Three Books of the Potter’s Art” which was in Italy, 1556, Castle Durante. During this time period tin-glazed earthenware was at the top of the wish list of most noble households throughout Europe and Italy produced some of the best available (the Italians called their version of the tin-glazed work Maiolica). All aspects of the vessel production was separated out from grinding the clay and pigments, to making the vessels, to painting the work and then the actual firing. It was production potting to its more effective level. There were separate artists that made the actual pieces, and then, there were painters to decorate them, and finally, there were people in charge of the kilns and firing them.

There are documents from the time of Christ (prints and paintings) in Egypt of full groups of potters taking on different aspects of the clay business. It makes sense if the skill set of an apprentice was painting, then they would target them towards decorating pots. Or if they were good at forming items and making pots, then they would train them in that. For some, chemistry comes natural, so glaze formulation and clay mixing was a specialty. And even though you would think handling a kiln would be easy, it definitely isn’t. Over firing or under firing a kiln can be disastrous, and stacking pieces in a kiln for maximum results (both with getting the most amount of pieces in as well as refractory heat aspects is a consideration) really is a skill all to itself.

While this is a fictionalized account of a 15th Century Chinese potter and his staff making a commission, it gives you a pretty good idea of how many people are involved in making pots (http://pottery.about.com/od/glazesurfaces/ss/mingflask.htm). It missed a few points here and there, but all in all, I think it at least explains that there are definite rolls set out in any of these ceramic businesses (and many still work the same way to this day, barring the water buffalo in most cases).

The idea that one person (i.e. the modern studio potter) would be a master in all aspects when in history each job was separated out is not realistic. It is by modern technology that one potter can do many of the jobs that took entire teams to do in the past (clay and glaze creation, vessel creation, decoration, firing, selling and marketing, etc) though still, usually the potter has a specialty or focus. There are potters that are very hands on that do everything themselves, from glaze-clay formulation to doing manual kiln firing and there are potters that buy commercially made everything and get their firings done through someone else. There is no right or wrong way as it is all up to the potter, the artist, as to how they work and what they make.

And that is where the artistry starts to really come through.

Absolutely anyone can play in clay. Ceramics, as most of you probably already know, is brought into schools at a very early age. I remember in my Kindergarten class doing clay hand prints for Mother’s Day, and my sister did this little finger flower vases when she was in elementary school. It’s pretty easy to find a Color me Mine or Paint it yourselves clay places to just decorate a plate or bowl on some Saturday afternoon with a simple pattern. When you build on that basic knowledge, expanding upon them with using other techniques, items or just experimenting with them with other mediums (i.e. products, techniques, etc) making something unique is when things turn from craft to art.

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