Potters' Favorite Pots

Potters' Favorite Pots

by A. Blair Clemo

In September myself and my fellow potters here at Objective Clay had the great fortune to participate in the Utilitarian Clay Conference VI at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. As presenters, we were asked to co-curate an exhibition titled “Potters’ Favorite Pots”. I understood that this was an opportunity to go beyond sharing what was aesthetically our favorite work and tell the stories of these pots and how they came into our lives, and in some way, had changed the way we think about and use pottery. I don’t typically think of my pots in this way, usually sighting their formal, surface or utilitarian qualities as their most admirable traits. How can I not? Everyday I scroll through dozens of images online and observe only the visual tactics that potters are using in their work. But this power that pots have to slowly evolve the way we think about and live our daily lives can only be perceived through their use. The difference between these two methods of engaging with pots seemed to be the undercurrent of conversation at this year’s conference.

            A recurring topic at this symposium seemed to question the benefits and pitfalls of online marketing/sales of utilitarian clay. My primary means of marketing and selling my work is through the online gallery system and I will jump at any opportunity to increase my online presence. I also access the world of ceramics this way, scanning through thousands of years of pottery with a simple scroll bar. It’s easy for me to think of pots as virtual, visual eye-candy rather than tangible objects with hidden qualities revealed only through their use. An online venue leaves us to our imaginations and previous experience to fill in what it must be like to use such objects. Weight, texture, and the consideration pots make for the way our hands work are all equally important qualities to the visual, if not more important, yet there can never be enough room for that information within a thumbnail image. As a semi-nomadic potter, having moved from opportunity to opportunity every two years or so, I can not help but think of my community as existing online and our exchanges happening primarily through emails and wall-posts. That is one of the unique things about the Utilitarian Clay Conference, the opportunity to deal with pots on their terms and to discuss those important parts of pots that are so meaningful, yet so intangible.

            I use this online marketing reference as a way to set the stage for why the “Potters’ Favorite Pots” forum was such an awakening moment for me as a young potter. These are stories about pots that can only happen through using, by looking well beyond a pots’ online profile picture. Here are a few of the stories we told about our pots in closing at the Utilitarian Clay Conference. The catalysts for these stories were the pots in our hands, but the stories are about us: how we have used these objects, how they have played a roll in our lives and far transcended their guise as humble pieces of pottery.

Studio Cup

by A. Blair Clemo

Cup by Bill West

I purchased this cup at an art-in-the-park style craft fair just a few days before leaving Twin Falls Idaho for the last time, over ten years ago. I had begun making pots there at a two-year community college, an activity that quickly grew from elective course to life pursuit. The cup I bought was made by my first Professor of Ceramics, Bill West, who at the time I idolized and emulated with every pot I made. This is why, when I moved on to a four-year school to finish my BFA and begin my life with clay, this cup quickly became my “studio mug”. I wanted to show it off, to show that I had come from somewhere else and I had the good fortune of learning from a true master. I wanted this cup around me in the studio, to find all the hidden lessons it still had to teach. In short, I wished I had made this cup.

My Studio Mug, by Bill West.

My Studio Mug, by Bill West.

As my experimentation with clay continued and my eye became more critical, I began to critique my poor studio mug. I would bring it up to eye level, analyzing the foot ring and the handle, subjecting this cup to the overly critical lens of an overconfident art student. I questioned how the glaze overlapped, the hasty application of wax resist, the slightly crooked handle. I questioned these things and weighed them against my developing values as a potter. I began to think this cup was different from what I made, or aspired to make, relegating it into a realm that seemed somehow second-class. I identified this cup, along with my early education in making pots as being “craft fair”, far less sophisticated than I thought I had become.

It wasn’t until recently, just a few thousand cups of coffee ago (at 2 cups of coffee a day, I have drank from this cup a meager 7,300 times, although that is a gross underestimate when considering my severe and hopeless coffee addiction) that I began to see this cup for what it truly is. This cup represents my maturity as a maker; it marks the journey I have taken with clay. I now stand by this favorite cup of mine, my criticism breaking way for complete and total admiration. I still wish I had made this cup and can now see, as a professional maker, all the qualities that make this cup a truly admirable object. Within it are hidden decades of making pots that manifest themselves in a seemingly effortless confidence. It is my highest hope that someday I can make an object as great as this cup, an object that can truly change someone’s life, as this cup has done for me.

When I returned from the symposium, I emailed Bill a paraphrased version of the talk I gave about his cup, similar to the previous few paragraphs; here is his response:

“There is a sad harmonic note to your studio mug, and that is my studio mug.  For years, I have been drinking out of one that you left here. Salt-fired porcelain with stenciled slip, no handle.  My students understood my relationship to it.  Sadly, a student dragged it off a workbench in the wood shop a week or so ago.  I placed the shards in our shard pile, and came into the office a couple days later to find a shard of your cup pinned to my wall below my clock.  One of the kids thought I should always have the memory of my favorite cup, and they have begun a competition to replace it with a new "immortal". You teach us all, you see?”

Neither Bill nor myself had any idea that for the past ten years, we had had a serendipitous cup exchange happening. We have both being mutually affected by the efforts of one another. Perhaps I have already made what I aspire to after all, that is, a simple cup that can impact someone’s life.

by Bryan Hopkins

1) Raw: in its natural state; not yet processed

2) Being asked to present at UC6 was the most significant, humbling, and intimidating invitation of my life. I had heard about the past symposiums, read the names of those who were to be my fellow presenters, and wondered what I had to add to the conversation on contemporary utilitarian ceramics. I was in a panic from the day of the invite to the final day of the symposium, almost a year later.

Bryan Hopkins presenting at UC 6

Bryan Hopkins presenting at UC 6

3) Potter’s Favorite Pots. To me this was the most significant event of the symposium. The task was simple enough: bring a pot from my collection that is very important to me and talk about that pot for a few minutes. The selection process was very stressful, as I have close ties to all my pots, most of which are traded with other artists, and most of which are cups- the most intimate object a potter makes. I have only ever bought one pot without first meeting the person who made it. So the pots on my shelves are all about relationships, as well as the love of a shape or glaze. The cup I chose was by Munemitsu Taguchi. It is a small cup I drink bourbon or red wine from. Mune is a good friend so that depends the feelings I have about that cup. I do not remember what I said that night during the Potter’s Favorite Pot presentation- I was nervous and emotionally involved in what was going on, and affected by the stories the other presenters were sharing. I was on the verge of tears most of the week (not in a bad way) and was just trying to hold myself together and get through talking about my small cup. The other presenters had the same feelings I had. Although we chose our pots, and thought we knew what they meant to us, and why we liked them the best of all the pots we own, when we stood in front of an audience to speak about it we were overcome with emotion. The raw emotion of truly authentic people that surrounded me that night will never be forgotten.

Bowl Story

by Brian R. Jones

            I graduated from college in 2001 and was very excited about ceramics, making pots, and moving onto the next part of my education (to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a special student). I had a chance to take a road trip out to the mid-West, Minnesota and Wisconsin specifically, to check out the legendary ceramics scene. I had been made aware of Minnesota potters since my first semester of throwing and looked at them with a certain kind of reverence that’s common in students who are engaged and looking outward to be inspired.

Brian R. Jones presenting at UC 6

Brian R. Jones presenting at UC 6

            My road trip coincided with the St. Croix Valley Potter’s Tour, which happens every spring north of the Twin Cities. I was a tourist and wanted to take something home with me that would remind me of my trip. I made the rounds, stopping at Linda Christenson’s, Jeff Oestrich’s, and Will Swanson’s. I stopped by Randy Johnston’s studio and took a look around the property and the kiln, which had just been unbricked (the shelves were full of lovely orange and brown pots). His gallery space was, from what I can remember, a little bare. There wasn’t much that I looked at that I really liked. I wanted what I had seen in Ceramics Monthly and American Craft Magazine: orange-lashed tea bowls with a rope impression.  I also didn’t have much money. I spent my last $100.00 to build some tables for my BFA show. I did sell a few pots before leaving school, so what I had would have to float me for a couple of weeks.

            I really wanted a pot but not any particular pot.  I just something that I could claim for my own so I decided to buy a one-meal bowl. It was a larger, grey glazed bowl that could fit a decent sized bowl of spaghetti. It had three black brush marks on the inside, and the walls of the bowl had been pushed around a bit, making it kind of triangular. The lip was thick and round, and the foot looked both long and was cut at an angle to make it fall inward.

            I didn’t like the bowl at first. I remember not liking it and being kind of angry with myself for not having more money to buy a better pot and frustrated with the bowl for being sucky. I begrudgingly took it home with me and slowly began to use it, as I only had one other cereal bowl. Over time it became an important part of my life in the kitchen and on the couch in front of the television. I did not have an experience where I was suddenly transfixed by the bowl and saw a new kind of beauty in it. It just became a thing that I went to regularly.

            That bowl has since held hundreds of spaghetti dinners (before I got married I probably ate pasta at least twice a week), curries, and stews. It is my bowl.  It usually never gets shared and is one of the few pots that we own that I worry about breaking when we have houseguests or house sitters. The grey glaze, a thick shino-type called Nuka, has been worn down and has pitted and cracked in a few places. When I noticed this I began to wonder where those little chunks of glaze went and I thought that I must’ve been eating them when they popped off.

            I love that idea, that a pot I didn’t have much affection for is now the one that I am slowly eating because it has become so important and has bridged the gap between necessity and loyalty.