I received a metaphorical slap-in-the-face, punch-in-the-stomach, recently; and it hurt quite a lot. In fact, it has given me much to think about. It tapped into a wider conversation I was having with myself. This slap came straight out of an essay by Garth Clark, titled ‘Homer, Ceramics, and Market Anxieties’ in the excellent ‘Ceramics Millennium’, which he edited. Clark’s essay, evidentially, is looking at the anxieties surrounding the terribly thorny issue of selling pottery. It starts with the eighteenth century and the industrial potters, then the Arts and Crafts movement, the studio potter, the fifties and on to the end of the century. I recoiled half way through the essay with Clark’s coruscating remarks on Bernard Leach. Try these:
‘Leach, arguably the most influential single figure in twentieth century ceramics, took the insistent position on pricing by contending that pots should be affordable. There was no economic reasoning behind this position; rather, it was a moralistic stance with a dubious and decidedly political motive.’
‘But his ideas about the ethics of pricing took hold. Why anyone would take business advice from Leach is beyond understanding.’
‘It took Leach from 1921 to 1950 to get his pottery to run profitably…not his own doing but the result of careful restructuring…by his son, David.’
He compares Leach (craft: repetitive wares, affordable, functional, accessible) with William Staite Murray (art: expensive, unique, beyond function). Leach promoted his ‘ideals of a humble craft’ against Murray’s ‘elitism’; Leach’s ‘ersatz humility’ challenging Murray’s prices. ‘Leach’s impact on ceramic pricing was both unfortunate and dishonest.’ He sold his best pots in Japan for high prices while keeping them low in Britain.
‘Yet by 1950, his views had spread through the commonwealth and to the United States, and expectation of cheap pots became, whole-cloth, a requisite of the potter’s identity and caused further damage, as low prices were instilled as a birth-right of every collector…a pot should be necessarily cheap.’
There is a video of me, filmed five years ago, with Leach’s hook securely embedded in my cheek. You can even see a drop of blood where it punctured the skin.
Clark says, ‘Why should pots be cheap, particularly when industry was providing every man and every woman with excellently made and affordably designed tableware and decorative wares?’ Indeed. This is the functional potter’s age-old dilemma, isn’t it? Why make tableware in a time of mass-produced tableware? Why compete?
A more pertinent question to ‘why compete?’ might be ‘what makes it different?’. This question ‘what makes it different?’ has been gnawing away in the back of my mind for some time.
This is why reading is so important. So, feeding directly into the above thought process is the essay I’ve just read by Alison Britton on Takeshi Yasuda in her collection of writings, called ‘Seeing Things: Collected Writing on Art, Craft and Design’. I love what she says about Yasuda’s ceramics:
‘More recently, he has made…tall elongated vases that are thrown upwards to the point of collapse because the clay is so far stretched, and then hung upside down to dry, to revive them, let them fall back into a viable container shape through gravity.’
‘The new forms seem to express both fall and flow, with lapping skirts...’
‘Clay has been pushed around…’
‘Fingerprints and spikes on edges reveal the slippery motions of joining, and rapidly leaving, parts of the very plastic form.’
‘A sense of touch is present in the form of every piece…the dimples and distortions that exemplify the grace and speed of the potter’s hand.’
I love this: the revelling in the lusciousness of the material. I have always loved that, the plasticity of the clay, the fact that it can be moved around and that movement, that intimacy, caught and treasured. It has always been the potters that make work like this, so far removed from mine, that draw me in: Jean-Nicolas Gérard, Dylan Bowen and now Takeshi Yasuda. The process is gloriously on show. It's not Yasuda's pots, necessarily, that I'm interested in but the process he undertakes. I wonder, though, whether I have been scared of it, too. I have made objects that just happen to be made out of clay. I make bowls, plates, jugs … How important is it that they are made of clay, as opposed to wood, silver, glass? Currently, I am not sure. What makes them stand out as being made of clay?
This moving around, attaching, scoring, pulling reminds me of the sculptor Richard Serra’s ‘Verb List’ (1967-1968). The first ten (of 84) verbs being: ‘to roll, to crease, to fold, to store, to bend, to shorten, to twist, to dapple, to crumple, to shave…’ According to the Museum of Modern Art, ‘Serra described the list as a series of “actions to relate to oneself, material, place, and process,” and employed it as a kind of guide for his subsequent practice in multiple mediums.’
I have never, really, considered clayness. I have done very little experimenting. Right from the off, I thought only of the business of being a potter: to make bowls and cups that made me a living. The clayness almost got in the way – having to learn the skill of throwing, and turning, and pulling handles… It is so difficult! I tried to make everything as thin and as light as I could, negating the clay, until it virtually wasn’t there anymore. Well, now I am wondering about that clay. I am thinking about verbs: cut, roughen, burnish, distort, attach, impress, stretch.
This direction is flirting with fine art ceramics, something I vowed I would never go near. But how else do you deal with clay’s materiality? The thingness of it. So, I keep asking myself: why am I making functional ware when industry does a pretty fair job? What am I doing that makes it different?