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 ( 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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