Wrestling with Garth, Post # 1: Introduction

"Spirited debate at its best is like wrestling partners who are fiercely competitive...  without the rough and tumble its just not fun nor is there any rigor in the argument"  --Garth Clark


I am beginning this new blog in an attempt to address the nature of "workshop" pottery and its context in my home state of North Carolina, explaining why I feel that traditional, functional or classical pottery is still relevant in the twenty-first century.  


My interest in articulating my thoughts and feelings on this segment of the Craft Movement has grown out of my other blog, "Critique of a Critic," which seems to be finished for the time being.  


As of this writing, I am putting together a tour of some North Carolina potteries along with speaking engagements for Garth and his partner Mark del Vecchio in October of 2012.  Garth will speak at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, the Gregg at NCSU in Raleigh, and Garth and Mark will be hosting a program for potters and ceramic artists in the Asheville area that explores the opportunities and limitations in the market, sharing their accumulated wisdom after running galleries for the last 30+ years.  All of these events will be free and open to the public and will provide stimulating opportunities for dialogue between makers and patrons and one of the great critics and historians in our field.


I am aware that the first blog was meant to be a dialogue, and then it essentially became a monologue as I struggled with my complicated feelings and thoughts concerning Garth's Envy argument.  I would like to open this current blog up to any potter or collector or scholar or critic who would like to add their own perspectives in support of or in contrast to my writing.  I like to be challenged and have my ideas tested and retested so that I can get to some deeper understanding of my own beliefs.  I also recognize that I will not be making my arguments in a vacuum and that many of you who might be reading have in some way contributed to the NC Pottery community and helped to build the context that I will be describing.  With that in mind, there may be some of you who would like to deepen the discussion or give better contextual information than what I am capable of presenting alone.  I welcome all who would like to participate.  Please leave signed comments or anonymous comments if you would prefer.  I also plan to host at least one essay from a good friend who has written extensively of his own life in functional pottery, and would be willing to consider posting links or other essays here if there are contributors interested in sharing their musings.  Also feel free to spread the word about the discussion to other people who might be interested in following or participating in the conversation.


I am reprinting half of Garth's G-spot challenge letter below.  I have cut the introductory paragraphs which refer specifically to the last blog and a few sentences at the end which indicated his original intent to visit NC in January.  This blog will deal primarily with addressing some of the questions and observations Garth makes here.  I will also refer to some of Garth's writing in his excellent book Shards to provide some context for some of his opinions.



"Where is the Workshop Potter’s “G” Spot”?


"I am sorry you are upset at being lumped in with other voices in functional pottery. Perhaps the nuances of your position slipped by me but the evident chip on your shoulder, the dénouement of “ceramics” and worse the demon “ceramic art” all are familiar. I am waiting for a 21st century raison d’être for studio pottery and have still not yet heard it from anyone. 


And as for my response not being entirely friendly, your friend is correct. Nor was your first broadside to me. But I was not offended. Spirited debate at its best is like wrestling partners who are fiercely competitive. Firstly, one must wrestle to win but graciously concede defeat if one does not. Secondly, one might get a little hurt in the process. That’s how one learns. But without the rough and tumble it’s just not fun nor is there any rigor in the argument if one is too timid to offend. 


To conclude: I have never understood why functional /workshop/traditional potters are always so angry, always seem so cheated by their culture. They have deliberately chosen to live and work in an arena that is marginal. There is no longer a need for handmade pots and there has not been one for the greater part of a century. Industrial potteries often have a smaller carbon footprint than studio potters and so studio pottery is not even green. 


Did you not know when you committed yourself to this calling that it would be tough and misunderstood road? Did you not realize that that there is a touch of anachronism in your calling and that would have consequences in how you are valued and defined? An overly defensive stance does not work, it makes one sound more like a crank, a muttering luddite. One needs a plausible contemporary explanation for why you make pots today if you want to enjoy a reasoned debate. 


I am going to leave you with a challenge. I have never discovered the workshop potters “g” spot. What makes them happy? Can you write a description of an idealized, perfect world for pottery? What do you want from the market, criticism, history, museums, galleries, and culture? How do you define respect? From where do you want it to come? From critics, museums, the general public? What is missing? What defines satisfaction with your place in society? 


And finally, I am honored that a working potter would feel strongly enough to take on my ideas and give his time to this debate. I am actively thinking about things we have discussed, both on and off the record, and will not walk away unmoved or unchanged. I  respect what you do and the overall genre to which you belong but my “job” is not to be a palliative but a goad."


--Garth Clark


p.s.  If you would like to read the entire letter, you can do so by going to post #20  in my first blog, "Critique of a Critic: Rising to Garth Clark's Bait"  


Thanks for reading,

Matt Jones


Wrestling with Garth, Post #2: Logic and Love in Twenty-first Century Pottery


 “I am waiting for a twenty-first century raison d’être for studio pottery and still have not heard it from anyone.”


“There is no longer a need for handmade pots and there has not been one for the greater part of a century.”


“One needs a plausible contemporary explanation for why you make pots today if you want to enjoy a reasoned debate.”



I have cherry-picked the above statements from three separate paragraphs of Garth’s “G-spot” letter printed in the first post, because they are essentially the same point made with slightly different contexts.  I will address the contexts in a forthcoming posts but for now, isolating them demonstrates that for Garth, this issue of the present time and a craftsman’s decision to make functional pottery are naturally at odds with one another.  The subtext of this assumption seems to be that industry has eliminated the need for handmade pottery, and it is therefore irrational to continue making it in the twenty-first century.  Obviously by repeating this point three times in a rather brief letter, it follows that this matter is close to the heart of Garth’s misunderstanding of contemporary functional pottery.



Aside: Major Digression Pondering Garth’s Sincerity on this Question 


Curiously, I think Garth already understands contemporary functional pottery rather well.  As evidence, let me cite several essays from his book Shards.  In “The Fire’s Path” he clearly respects Michael Cardew’s body of work and allows Michael through judiciously chosen quotations to elucidate his own devotion to and philosophy of making pottery for which Garth seems to have great sympathy and earnest understanding.  In another essay, “Betty Woodman: Storm in a Teacup, Anecdotal Discussion of Function,” Garth chronicles his own journey from skepticism to appreciation of a set of teacups the potter gave him as a gift, even going so far as to praise them for their “generosity of spirit” (this phrase is one I associate with “the anti-Garth,” Bernard Leach).  


A third essay, “Murray and Leach: A Study in Contrasts” is perhaps his most revealing as it shows the career trajectories of these two early 20th century British potters defining the ever widening gulf between “Art” pottery or ceramic art and “craft” pottery or functional/traditional/classical (pick one!) pottery.  I won’t thoroughly deconstruct this essay here, but I will say that although it is obvious that Garth’s sympathy is with Murray, I was slightly surprised and encouraged to read Garth doling out praise and understanding for many of Leach’s observations about the craft of pottery in its post-industrial context.  Many of these sentiments are then echoed in a later essay called “The Future of Functional Pottery Part Two: Bernard’s Orphans, Searching for Neo in Classical.”  His beef with the Leach phenomenon is not so much with the man, his work or his basic ideas but that together with his writings and relentless lecturing, his vision became something of a cult among functional potters.  In Garth’s estimation many potters have allowed Leach’s teachings to go untested.  His rhetoric or doctrine presented a tidy formula, which has discouraged independent thinking among the faithful.  I can certainly admit to seeing a kernel of truth here, but I think when looking at individual potters and their work, it becomes obvious that this viewpoint is an oversimplification.


Particularly galling to Garth is Leach’s hypocritical stance on keeping pottery prices low and the way this stance has been stubbornly embraced by those it hurts most: potters.  This is an interesting point that certainly has some merit, but I will hold off to write a full-length blog post on this rather tricky and deeply personal aspect of making and selling pottery.  I think the cult of Leach and particularly Leach’s socialist/idealist notion of pricing has put Garth off to the point that he pretends not to understand functional pottery at all in the age of machines. 



But what if Garth Sincerely Doesn’t get it?


For the remainder of this post let us assume that Garth’s question is sincere:  Why should potters make pots by hand in a post-industrial era?  The question seems so tainted with bias it is difficult to know how to provide an answer.  I guess the idea is that industry has “solved” the problem of providing cheap or disposable wares for the market and therefore, making pots by hand is obsolete.  But has industry or can industry ever “solve” the problem of humanity’s psychological need to appreciate natural materials and channel creativity into the making of useful or useless objects?  Isn’t the very impulse for making craft or art being critiqued?


I wonder if Garth reserves this question for people who work in clay or whether he applies similar logic to craftsmen who work with wood to create furniture by hand?  For instance the economies of scale that favor production of cheap “green” tableware must also favor the production of particleboard and plastic laminate tables.  Does Garth question the man or woman who prefers to use real wood and build quality heirloom furniture or those who buy it?  I doubt it.  Garth may prefer a sleek modern steel table designed by an architect and assembled in a factory in a limited run which costs five times as much, but this doesn’t negate the choice of some consumers who choose a hand-made wooden table or the craftsman who derives satisfaction from building it.  As the old saying goes:  “there is simply no accounting for taste!”


For that matter why should anyone cook food or go to restaurants where chefs creatively explore the relationships of different flavors using the highest quality freshest ingredients in exciting new ways or those humbler establishments that serve up “comfort” or “soul” food that remind us of eating with our grandparents?  We could simply open a can of Warhol’s favorite Campbell’s tomato or beef noodle soup and heat it in the microwave.  Industry has met our needs cheaply and efficiently (and we’re the communists?).



My dog Mia


My family had a dog in 2011 that didn’t last a full year.  She was hit by a truck in the road in front of our house a week before Christmas.  We had adopted her last January, paid for her spaying and shots, bought food for her and treats and toys and trained her.  We scolded her for eating food off our plates when our backs were turned or chewing up good shoes or getting into the trash or rolling in dead animals, but when she was killed we were devastated.  This was an animal that gave us no eggs, milk, or meat, consumed our resources and damaged or destroyed our property.  She was neither a hunting dog nor a flock tender, and she licked visitors whether they were menacing or kind.  From a rational point of view, I should have drowned her in shallow water.  Most of our pet animals don’t serve the same function they did 150 years ago, but we cling to them because their role as non-judgmental companions is still intact.  They love us unconditionally and provide us with a completely unreasonable amount of joy.  Love and perhaps some other abstract virtues (which are closely related to love) are in fact the only attributes of pets that make any sense, but as we all know, love is beyond rational thinking.  I propose that the same may be true of making craft or art.





A “plausible contemporary explanation” is what Garth requires of pottery if we who make it or buy it want to enjoy a “reasoned debate.”  This seems fair enough on the surface, but can ceramic art provide the same?  What explanation of its virtues doesn’t depend on a subjective appreciation of it?  If there are people who like ceramic art and other people who like to make it, the system works.  There is a supply and a demand.  The same holds true for pottery.  I enjoy making pots, and my customers are willing to buy them to put in their homes.  I like to make useful pots, but I am at least as comfortable making useless jugs, jars and crocks that do nothing more than refer to their own history.  It doesn’t bother me that the traditional shapes are no longer used in traditional ways.  They are simply objects that speak of their materials, the firing, some cultural trace memory (which seems to offer some of my customers a source of sentimental psychological comfort which I take a measure of pride in) and frequently some stylized imagery which attempts to convey the beauty of the natural world which has offered me so much consolation throughout my life.  They are my dogs, my “mud babies:” physical embodiments of my affection for the imperfect world we inhabit.



Returning to the Fountain


This may not be the “plausible contemporary explanation” Garth is seeking.  I have tried to be honest, but ultimately there is nothing rational about what I am doing.  I make no apology for that.  Let us return to Garth’s idea (discussed briefly in the first blog “Critique of a Critic”) that Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” is one of the most important pieces of ceramic art of the twentieth century.  The actual urinal was not art at all.  It was an industrial prop used by an artist to express the concept that art is not rational.  We can explore the object with our minds in an artistic mode, but if it were in a men’s room, most of us would just piss on it.  In my opinion, there are logical and rational thoughts involved in the production (or in Duchamp’s case selection) of the art or craft, but the inspiration that guides a creative person is frequently sub-rational.   Is it ego or love or god or spirit or grief or some combination of these and/or many others?  I really couldn’t say.   


--Matt Jones 


Wrestling with Garth Post #3: Angry and Cheated?

“I have never understood why functional/workshop/traditional potters are always so angry, always so cheated by their culture.”  --Garth Clark


This accusation seems a little unfair to me.  I have gotten to know hundreds of functional potters over the years, and they don’t really seem any angrier than other groups of people.  And as to being cheated, most of us knew it would be a difficult ride when we decided to follow the potting muse.  Some of us have had to find other ways to make ends meet, but I think this is true for any group of people working in a creative vein (think of all the musicians and actors and dancers who wait tables and tend bar to continue pursuing the dream of an artistic life).


Is Anger Bad?


Lets ask a few fundamental questions before we get any further.  Have you ever enjoyed the company of a Dr. Jeckyl who didn’t occasionally strip down to his Hyde?  I think anger is a fundamental emotional quality that lurks in the personalities of all people.  It is a gauge of a person’s passion and conviction.  What is anger but an ability to feel outrage when boundaries are crossed and injustices are served.   To become angry is to acknowledge that there are principles worth fighting for.  Yes we have all met individuals who seem to have cut themselves off completely from their anger, who deny that they are even capable of such a base emotion, but these people tend to bore me, deluding themselves with lofty intellectual superiority complexes or half-baked spiritual depth which masks a denial of life’s pain (this is not the same as a mature person who has wrestled with pain and come to a spiritual epiphany which has resulted in an inner strength and calm).  Let me be clear that I am not advocating for living a life devoted to anger.  Rather I think anger can be used judiciously in arguments, and should be kept in check by the intellect.  When harnessed correctly, anger can translate into a motivating force in a person’s life or cleverly redirected into an intellectually delightful sense of humor.


It may seem presumptuous, but I hesitate very little in speculating that Garth is no stranger to wrath.  He has a wonderful sense of irony, and I can almost see his eyes twinkle as he probes for inflammatory reactions in his writing.  As he points out in his letter (see post #1) his job is “not to be a palliative but a goad.”  It seems to me that if a man is aware that his role is to goad people, it is unfair then to dismiss those people for getting angry.  But of course, if two opposing viewpoints entrench themselves in anger and hurt, it becomes impossible to have a meaningful conversation.  A goad must stir the pot until it begins to simmer, and the simmering pot must find a suitable expression for their thoughts without boiling over and making a mess.


Have we been Cheated?


I can say that even in the warm pottery climate of North Carolina, making and selling functional pottery for a living is a challenging existence.  The physical labor is difficult and the competition is strong and thick.   In order to make a living wage (this amount varies depending on how many expenses a given potter has), I work long hours.  And in order to make work that lives up to a standard I can be proud of, I am constantly thinking, experimenting and refining decorative techniques.  My lifestyle is not extravagant, but I do find myself getting into debt and then trying to pay that down after the next sale, particularly in this constricted economy.  And I admit that this is a source of stress and anxiety when raising two pre-teen children.  What do I get for my labor and stress if not financial security, and is there any defense that could withstand Garth’s scrutiny?


“Did you not know when you committed yourself to this calling that it would be a tough and misunderstood road?  Did you not realize that there is a touch of anachronism in your calling that would have consequences in how you are valued and defined?”  --Garth Clark


No potter (living or dead) ever told me that the potting life would be a cake walk, but in many ways I have felt fortunate to have enjoyed working in a fat economy up to this point.  But the economic tide that has floated us all during good times has receded under every boat in the harbor.  Potters have not been singled out for persecution by financial difficulties.  People in every trade are having a difficult time selling the fruits of their labor.  How then should we justify feeling cheated?


As to being misunderstood by my society, I think we in North Carolina are fortunate to enjoy a degree of understanding and level of interest which goes far beyond what our friends in other areas of the country do.  The “touch of anachronism” Garth refers to can actually be a boon in a state where the scholarship and collecting public has primarily focused on the history of the medium.  Many of my customers enjoy collecting pottery precisely because it tethers them to the cultural history of our region, and though some collectors are only pursuing prime examples of the older wares, many collect both antique (or vintage) and contemporary pottery.  It is my opinion that the dialogue between historical and contemporary ceramics has always been a fertile ground for creating engaging work (surely Garth will concede this point), and this conversation is certainly one of the interesting components of working in this region.  But potters here are free to bring any number of aesthetic agendas and be heard because customers and collectors have an appreciation of the material, techniques and hard work involved in the production of pottery.  Indeed, if you are a successful and respected potter in this state, the public smiles on you!  We are viewed as skilled artisans: both hardworking craftspeople and to the extent that we explore the principles of art and design, “artists.”  



Digression: [skip this if you find art/craft tedious]


There is no line in the sand which delineates art from craft.  People use the words casually and at times interchangeably, and this is certainly frustrating for those who struggle to maintain clarity on this point.  Art and craft can be viewed as a continuum or an ongoing intellectual debate, but the answer is still a work in progress and will always be up for cross-examination.  Most people acknowledge Andy Warhol was an artist, but in two hundred years will people still think of his work that way?  What about the remaining photographs of Duchamp’s “Fountain”-urinal.   In several essays in his book Shards, Garth struggles with the slow process of canonization of the ceramic art of the twentieth century, but canonization isn’t necessarily a lock that requires future generations to understand or appreciate the art in any more than an academic way.


Resolution:  The Payoff?


How does a potter who is at the mercy of the economy and the financial limitations of his/her field prevent the bitterness that Garth implies is an inherent part of the pottery package?  I am not the same person I was when I started down this road.  I wish I could laugh off Garth’s assertions entirely as I would have when I was twenty-five and bulletproof.  At forty-one my back and joints feel significantly older and I bear a few wrinkles from enduring the anxieties that come from raising children on an undulating cash flow, but I am not an angry crank who feels cheated by my culture or the idealism of my youth. Though I have come to respect Garth Clark as a writer and friendly acquaintance, I feel justified in resisting his dismissal. 


I am part of a craft movement and heritage that is very much alive and continuing to reinterpret and reinvent itself.  I have enjoyed the privilege of creating a body of work that has been sought and bought by a stimulated and discriminating clientele among an excellent group of peers.  Pottery has given me an outlet to channel my energy and explore my aesthetic thoughts and feelings, and that has been a reward in itself that is hard to calculate or quantify.  I can recognize the mental and physical demands of the life without anger and bitterness.  I would certainly grieve if I ever have to walk away from pottery, and I am learning that I must look for ways to work smarter if I want to stay in the game as I age.  I look forward to the opportunity of introducing Garth and his partner Mark del Vecchio to this community in October of this year, but we can only lead the horse to water; whether he wants a drink is entirely up to him.



With Liberty, Justice and/or Crucifiction for All

Let me close this post with some pictures of a pot from the recent firing which I think illustrates how a person might use anger creatively in the pottery medium.  So I've taken my frustration with the notion that this is both a secular and Christian nation, and added my frustration with the fact that justice tends to favor wealth and put it all together on a jug that makes me smile.  The second and third images are of the same side, but I needed two pictures rather than one with a bad glare spot that prevented reading.  I'm so angry at photography!









Wrestling with Garth Post #4: Mark Hewitt's "Functional Pride"

This essay was first published in Ceramics Monthly (June 2007) and I think it fits well in this blog because Mark Hewitt has been "Wrestling with Garth" for many years.  I am a relative newcomer to Garth's writing, but Hewitt has been an avid reader of ceramics periodicals and journals for many years and has been an admirer of Garth's writing even when at odds with some of its content.  In this essay he attempts to reclaim functional pottery from the critics who have dismissed it.


Functional Pride: 

Putting the Fun Back into Functional Pottery


I am a maker of mugs, pitchers and plates, among other things. I do not want to make non-functional pots; I tried it once and I did not like it, neither the process nor the outcome. I am neither a ceramic artist nor a sculptor: I am a potter and I am proud. My pots are expressions of my individuality; they illuminate the world; they rage against it; they fascinate me with their myriad details. My reasons for making pots are complicated and keep changing, but make them I do, and make them I will. My soul is at stake each time I squeeze eloquence out of dirt.


I have a favorite mug I use every day that I value at $6 million, $300,000 more than the highest price ever paid for a piece of contemporary ceramics.  My mug is worth every penny of the asking price, though I would be quite willing to give half of the money to whomever sells it. Until it sells, however, I’ll use it every day. My mugs are valuable beyond their monetary worth, because people tell me so - one customer even said that one of my mugs saved her life. She is sick and takes pills daily to keep her alive, and she sips water from my mug to swallow down her medicine. Maybe it’s a magical mug. 


Other testimonials are equally moving. A woman I know was sitting behind me at my daughter’s homecoming basketball game the other day; she tapped me on the shoulder and said she was still enjoying using the mug I picked out for her ten years ago. It is a direct and simple reward to know my aesthetic has touched her life.  I know I am not the only contemporary functional potter who has experienced this. Here is an illustrative statement from Ayumi Horie’s emblematic web page, “Pots in Action,” that is representative of what I like to call the Neo-Functional Movement,

"In part, I am a potter because I see pots as having the incredible privilege of being part of people’s private, everyday lives. Because of this intimacy, we let our guard down around pots, allowing them to convey ideas about aesthetics, function, and social issues. Through repeated use, pots can become habit-forming and comforting, creating memory for those using the pots. They are objects of service and conduits between people. These pots are independent of me; they are finding their own way and accumulating histories with various people, in various homes, in various places around the world."

Do these stories and images of ordinary people using pots validate the cultural and aesthetic relevance of functional pottery? Yes, I think they do. They illustrate the role functional pots play in our culture. Advocates can help explain and endorse a potter’s work and place it within a wider historical and cultural context; certainly, artists and craftspeople need all the champions, all the encouragement, they can get. It is important that we aspire to the highest standards, but it is not necessary to wait for positive criticism before recognizing the value of what we do. I make pots to please myself; I love making pots. I am responsible for my work, and, with my wife Carol, who is my business partner, we are responsible for our economic wellbeing. My work may not titillate the “poterati,” but that is not why I make pots. I make pots because I want to, and any extra attention I get for doing so is a dividend, not a goal. 


Historically, the world of ceramics has been divided into different and often rival camps. There are the divisions between Imperial ceramics and folk ceramics, between industrial and handmade, between brown pots and white pots, between functional pottery and ceramic sculpture, between old and new, between the academy and the marketplace, and, heaven help us, between art and craft. Which category is better, “cooler,” which is more culturally and aesthetically relevant, which is more exciting, which camp has most the most power, which is ascendant, which generates more money? The debate can be educational and quite entertaining if not taken too personally. It can also be maddeningly acrimonious and bitterly divisive, as people jockey for money, power and status, and, wittingly or unwittingly, knife their fellow potters and ceramic artists in the back. Mistrust and incomprehension habitually lie between the tastes of a libertine and an ascetic, and, sadly, these rivalries between ceramic camps frequently prevent excellence from being acknowledged. What connects us all is quality, and that is what potters and ceramic artists work toward, and what good pottery criticism encourages. 


After years of relative power in the ceramic world when Leach, Hamada, Yanagi and Cardew were alive and active (and let’s not forget Rie and Wildenhain), the critical fate of  functional pottery has steadily declined during the last thirty years or so, coinciding with the ascendance of sculptural movements like Abstract Expressionism and Post-Modernism. The debate between functional pottery and the Post-Modern camp took a serious turn for the worse during the unfortunate argument between Garth Clark and Warren Mackenzie several years ago. This sad episode had the effect of intimidating the voice of functional potters for several gloomy years (we tend to be a shy lot, preferring the sanctuary of our workshops to the thrust-and-parry of conferences and criticism.)  But we did not stop making pots - we merely went underground, trying new things, welcoming many new voices into our midst, until an even larger and more colorful rainbow of styles of functional pottery emerged. This, for me, marked the beginning of the Neo-Functional Movement. 


Examples of the broad range and high quality of the Neo-Functional Movement can be found at the annual Santa Fe Clay exhibition, “La Mesa,” held during NCECA conferences, and in the delightful Artstream. The Utilitarian Clay Symposia at Arrowmont highlight the superb talents and differing approaches of many leading contemporary practitioners.  Functional potters in the U.S. and in Britain are enjoying the interest from galleries like AKAR in Iowa City and Goldmark in Britain. The British “Spawn of Leach” are having a well-deserved reappraisal thanks the promotion of gallery owner, Michael Goldmark, in Rutland. His lavish monographs, handsome exhibitions, and attentive patronage have cultivated connoisseurship, generated strong sales, and put these veterans back in the spotlight. Sanjay Akar’s elegant online presentations have also created a vibrant national market for many styles of functional pottery in America. These galleries are not located in the metropolis but they are undeniably cosmopolitan, and their successes point to a healthy and increasingly devolved market. 


 Some Neo-Functional pots made today are traditional, some have emerged from art schools, and some are design-based. Within each of these approaches, potters have developed recognizable personal styles; each craftsman, each artist has a distinct voice. Individual expression, repetition, and refinement create our individual styles, whether we are functional potters or sculptural artists, and once we have found our mature voices, we improvise like jazz musicians on songs we already know - modifying, exploring, and innovating as we go. It could be argued, for instance, that what Voulkos was doing for the last part of his career was improvising on the same stacks, platters and mitsuzashi’s that he’d been making for years, and that he was moving toward his own personal classicism. It matters less what the subject matter is, and more that your voice rings true, your skills are honed, your passions alive. All art has to be made, so, in a sense, all art is performed, whether design- or tradition-based. For instance, I might decide to make 175 mugs in a day, endowing each one with all my knowledge, passion, and talent, allowing my voice to resound in each one. Indeed each mug is an idea, a symphony and a performance; in making them, I am theoretician, composer and virtuoso. 

Pots themselves can be performers in their own right: they hold people’s attention in a way that is specific to pots alone. They “entertain” in your hands, on your tables, in your fridges and in your sinks. Pots are not music, nor poems, nor painting, nor sculpture, but they can be equally engaging. By extension, potters too are entertainers, having a place in communities across the country that is a step or two outside the mainstream, where they are more independent. We hold collective creative dreams in our hands, fighting against the forces of uniformity, providing insight, hope, and reverie. Our pots become part of people’s lives, where they accomplish more than their task at hand.

Some contemporary potters, myself included, choose to make pottery that is in some way connected to regional traditions. What is the continuing appeal of these folk pots? Louis Menand, reviewing Bob Dylan’s music and writing in the New Yorker, comments,


When my children were little, we used to have a cassette around the house of songs for kids by pop stars, on which Dylan did “This Old Man” (“With a knick-knack paddywhack, give the dog a bone”). That performance had the weight of the whole world in it. I listened to it a hundred times and never got tired of it. You can refute Hegel, Yeats said, but not the Song of Sixpence. 

When I go out to the workshop and make a mug, I’m like Dylan singing “This Old Man.” He didn’t write the song, and I didn’t invent the mug form, but my voice identifies the mug as mine; it can be used a thousand times and you’ll never get tired of it. Its simplicity, however, is deceptive. Traditionally-inspired pots are a continuity remembered and myths newly minted. Like landscape paintings, they reflect the character of a region; in evoking history, they guide us to the heart of a culture. 

I enjoy being part of a regional, performance-based tradition. My work is part of a venerable heritage but is also new and fresh. By grafting North Carolina traditions to what I learned as an apprentice with Michael Cardew in England, I produce wares that have a regional aesthetic as well as a contemporary sensibility. My Iced Tea Ceremony Vessels for instance, are a counterpoint to the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and combine both the North Carolina alkaline glaze and the salt glaze traditions on the same pot. They are also alive with contemporary ceramic references: the alert decorative lines and loose geometric placement of glass scraps relate to the work of Peter Voulkos, Liz Fritsch, and Adrian Saxe. These tall tumblers are good to look at, think about, and use. Sometimes I like my pots to be spare and minimal, sometimes elaborately ornamented. I am not root-bound, but choose to use these healthy Carolinian traditions as the rootstock for my own hybrid growth. I also gladly acknowledge that traditional pots are but one part of the ceramic spectrum. The aesthetic and technical qualifications for excellence within such traditions are too high to be brusquely dismissed. It has been suggested that some members of my school of functional pottery are negative and anachronistic “fundamentalists” and should be contained and quarantined. One can only ask, “Where?” Perhaps in some aesthetic prison? Would a music critic suggest that musical “fundamentalists” like B.B. King, Tony Rice, or Doc Watson be quarantined, or silenced? 


There is, of course, a pejorative sense accompanying the word fundamentalist, now often connected with radical religious fundamentalists who are blinkered by a strictly maintained set of orthodox religious beliefs. Many potters, from all different schools – not just potters from the Leach School - hold strong opinions about the state of the world, especially regarding issues such as social justice, the environment and globalization (Richard Notkin, Matt Nolan, Adelaide Paul come to mind as examples of  ceramic artists with a conscience). I too view my work as a humanistic, even moral, protest against an unjust world, though at times it serves as a buffer against it. Many potters care about natural materials, finely-tuned aspects of functionality, and have a romantic sensibility about the role of functional pots in daily life, but does that mean we should be branded as fundamentalists? 


The word “fundamental” is more acceptable, of course, as it gives a fairer sense of the role that functional potters play in contemporary ceramics. “Fundamental” goes to the root of the matter, serves as the base or foundation, and is essential or indispensable. All parts of the ceramic community could claim to be fundamental, but for the sake of argument, if, as a functional potter, I think of myself as part of the foundation of the house of ceramics, then I have no problem with what I support - a colorfully decorated interior, a flamboyant finial ornamenting a cornice, or an interesting roof line made of new, exquisitely engineered materials. In fact, I love the beautiful complexity of this big house and don’t want to be pitted against my will, or misrepresented as a rival, to all those other potters and ceramic artists who contribute to its glory. We live in the house together and it is big enough for us all. Foundations are not always buried, however, and we functional potters are often decorated and playful, and enjoy our own days in the sun. We are strong and essential, so the suggestion that no one would miss functional potters if they didn’t exist seems to me inaccurate, if not unkind. I know my family would miss me, and my friends, community and customers too! 


Functional pottery is an acknowledged part of American cultural life. We potters address ceramic history and finesse it in individual ways. We are always trying to make better, more intelligent, more inspired pots. We would all like to make a little more money, work a little less; and gain recognition for our work. Each of our voices and spirits is unique; we are independent operators fighting for our livelihoods in a highly competitive market. Since its beginnings in the 1920’s, the functional pottery community has changed from within, it is now more diverse and less strident than in the past, and we can rightly be proud of the quality, range, and maturity of the Neo-Functional Movement. To address these changes, I would like to propose a way of shifting people’s perceptions towards the many different types of functional pottery being made today. 


Fun’ Pottery: Redefining Functional


While preparing to write this essay, I started thinking about how the phrase “functional pottery” is generally interpreted, laden as it is with dreary images of Birkenstocks, beards, granola, and a general sense of overbearing earnestness. The more I thought about the actual reality of contemporary functional pottery, the sadder I became that this vibrant and exciting world is still described by such a dull and out-of-date phrase, and is often portrayed by an inaccurate and demeaning set of stereotypes. Words matter, phrases and descriptions enter our consciousnesses and create, or trigger, prejudices that are difficult to shake. But give a group a new name and its image changes. Re-label and re-identify an activity and, beyond mere spin, it is possible to look at that activity with new eyes. Therefore I’d like to propose that we start looking at functional pottery as “Fun’ Pottery,” clearly distinguished from its cousin Funk Pottery, but no less serious. It’ll be kind of fun.


What do I mean by Fun’ Pottery? Fun’ Pottery includes handmade pots that were created to be useful—items like mugs, bowls, plates, pitchers, jars, teapots, casseroles, baking dishes, planters, and vases. Often these pots are used for their obvious purpose (a mug holds liquid you drink, and so forth), but they are also used decoratively to ornament a home or garden. Usually they serve both purposes.


 I’ve divided and deconstructed Fun’ Pottery into groups, listed below, determined by their history, geography, style, or personality. Although the approach I am taking is deliberately light-hearted, its purpose is far from flippant. The list is a serious attempt to shift people’s perception about each category by encouraging them to consider useful pots from a new perspective. We live in competitive times and repositioning Fun’ Pottery in the marketplace, and championing its many types, will help boost the fortunes of the field at large. These categories are fabrications, and my intent is to enlighten and amuse rather than cause offense. In any case, the list is incomplete and I encourage readers to add their own new categories.


Le Fun’, (said with a French accent), Leach Functional. Mistakenly characterized as a pompous British fuddy-duddy, Bernard Leach was an aesthetic adventurer, a sexual explorer, and the original “rock star” potter, whose “Asian-fusion” style continues to inspire.


Cabau Fun’, (rhymes with Ka-pow!), California Bauhaus Functional. Marguerite Wildenhain’s Pond Farm 1950’s style continues to exert a powerful aesthetic influence on mainstream American Fun’ pottery.


Chunky Fun’, (formerly known as Mingei-sota). A distinctly American synthesis of Japanese and Korean ceramics that is related to Le Fun,’ but is more influenced by Hamada than Leach, and also manifests a distinct design component.


Funky Fun’. Loosely thrown Functional, which is not necessarily “Japanese” in derivation or appearance.


Psycho Fun’. Psychedelic Functional. Pots that are decorated and glazed in a bright rainbow of colors, whether earthenware, stoneware, or porcelain.


Struck Fun’. Structural Functional. Pots with clean lines and plain surfaces.


Alt Fun’. Thrown and altered functional.


Frilly Fun’. Elaborately formed and/or decorated.


Sofo Fun’. Southern Folk functional. The oldest continuing Anglo-root of Fun’ pottery in the US. Inexpensive (not to be confused with SOFA).


Ho Fun’. (previously known as Hor fun’). Horticultural ware, made throughout the US. 


Pro Fun’. Production Functional. There are many highly-skilled potters throwing in larger shops, working piece rate, who rarely get mentioned in these pages.


Woe Fun’. Wood-fired functional, sub-divided into several groups, by kiln type:


‘borig fun. Naborigama Functional Ware. Pots made in chambered kilns, often in the spirit of the Japanese Mingei movement.


I’m a-gunna (have) fun’. Anagama Functional. Pots made in the spirit of unglazed Momoyama Japanese tea ceremony ware. 


Hawg Fun’. Southern Groundhog kiln Functional. Closely related to Sofo Fun’.


Aka Fun’. Academic Functional. Fun’ pots made by the faculty and students of academic institutions.


Porka Fun’. Porcelain functional. Many Fun’ potters use porcelain in a variety of different styles.


Jolly Fun’. Majolica Functional. There are scores of potters making fine Neo-Majolica functional ware.


Indo Fun’. Industrial Functional. Aside from all the functional pots made by large scale manufacturers in the US, several potters take industrial models, historical or contemporary, as a basis for their own studio scale Indo Fun’ pottery.


Classy Fun’. Classic Functional. Pots made with reference to any of the innumerable classic ceramic traditions.


Con Fun’. Conceptual Functional. Pots based on, or related to, functionality, that look like they might work, but don’t (all those eccentric teapots, etc.). 


Glam Fun’, or more poetically, “Glam-ceram.” Designer-labeled, white-ware. 


No Fun’. Norwegian Functional. More fun than the name suggests. Not to be confused with….


NO FUN. Sometimes confused, incorrectly, with Le Fun’, which in fact can be lots of fun, NO FUN is available in all aesthetic categories, and depends more on individual character and political conviction than particular style. As a counterpoint to the excesses of contemporary Western life, however, it has many lessons to teach us all.


I haven’t begun to exhaust the many styles of Fun’ Pottery, and of course, combinations of these styles also exist. For example, when I make planters I’m working in a Le Prohowoesofo Fun’ style. Linda Sikora, whose work I admire, might be characterized as a Frillypsychoindoakaporka Fun’ potter. Quite a mouthful, to be sure, but so much more fun than being labeled a Functional Potter. Arguments may rage about the merits of each of these styles, but, to summarize, hand-made functional pottery is alive and well! 


Fun’ Pottery is not monolithic but diverse. Fun’ potters are well-established within American culture, making work that is imaginative, playful, stylistically variable and economically viable. Some Fun’ potters make pots in that are quiet, and others make work that is decadent. Fun’ potters work in Manhattan and Peoria, in the backwoods of West Virginia and under the sunny skies of Santa Barbara. We work alone or we work in groups. Some Fun’ potters are rich, some are poor, some are famous, some not. We sell work from our homes, at street fairs, on the Internet, at prestigious art fairs and in major galleries. Our work is bought by regular folk and billionaires, and is seen on tables and in sinks, on museum pedestals, and on TV. There are more Fun’ potters than ever, and, furthermore, I know that many of them are having lots of fun. Fun’ Pottery is not in a funk, nor in a crisis: it flourishes. All of us Fun’ potters strive to make wonderful pots that add depth and beauty to the world we know. What more can we ask of ourselves than that? 



Wrestling With Garth Post #5: Problems with the G-spot Metaphor

**Note:  If frank discussions about sexuality make you squeamish, you may want to skip this essay.  There is no graphic content here, but I have found it helpful to examine our society’s attitudes about sex in order to address the subtext of Garth’s “g-spot” metaphor as it applies to traditional pottery.


In Garth Clark’s letter in the first entry of this blog, his central question and title of the letter is “Where is the workshop potter’s g-spot?”  Some of you have indicated that you are not familiar with this term.  There is plenty of general information available on the topic on Wikipedia, but I think Garth is simply referring to the elusive secret ingredient that generates orgasms.  The “g-spot” has been presented (by some) as a Shangri-la in feminine sexuality.  However it must also be noted that there is quite a lot of disagreement on the role of the g-spot and its importance within human sexuality.  Others have felt that the metaphor is somehow too tawdry for a serious discussion.  To me it seems a classic example of Garth’s willingness to shake people up and get them out of their comfort zones.  It is a provocative and entertaining way of asking the question: what is it that you workshop potters are so excited about in your work?  It also seems to be an admission that he doesn’t quite understand us, and this is good because it allows workshop potters an opportunity to explain our point of view.  The metaphor invites us to reflect on the differences between a goal-orientation and a process-orientation with regard to human sexuality or work in the clay medium.  It would be easy to dismiss the metaphor as an expression of the idea that lust or sexual satisfaction is more important than love, but this refuses to accept that lust and love can overlap in powerful ways that strengthen both.  Sex can lead people into love and love can make sexual satisfaction more profound.  Of course sexual satisfaction can occur without love, but I am old-fashioned enough to claim that it is usually a fuller and richer experience when love is present.


Sleeper: What is the function of sexuality?


In the 1973 film Sleeper, Woody Allen’s character wakes up after being cryogenically frozen (without his permission) for 200 years to discover a society that has been transformed by new technologies but remains eerily familiar.  Much of the plot is absurd, but Allen takes some nice jabs at contemporary society as he imagines a future that might result from the trajectory of 1970s cultural dialogues.  I think the most memorable of these futuristic projections is the idea in the film that sex is simply no longer worth the effort.  All of the women are frigid and the men are impotent (and sterile) therefore sexual release is accomplished alone or with a partner in a small closet machine called the “orgasmatron.”  This machine removes all the frustrations of imperfect sex and achieves the orgasms (which implicitly are understood to be the only reason to have sex in the first place) without the human communication or communication errors which were at the heart of the sexual dissatisfaction of the era.  Diane Keaton plays a futuristic socialite who (of course) falls in love with Woody’s 20th century character.  Here is a snippet of dialogue that is metaphorically relevant to the debate I have been having with Garth about pottery in the 21st century:


Diane Keaton:  Do you want to perform sex with me?


Woody Allen:  Do I want to perform sex?  No, I don’t think I’m up to a performance, but I’ll rehearse with you if you like.


Diane Keaton:  OK, I just thought you might want to know they have a machine here.


Woody Allen:  Machine?!  I’m not getting in that thing.  I’m strictly a hand operator…



The “performance” and the “rehearsal” represent very different ideas about the function of sex.  The first takes for granted that sex is about achieving perfect orgasms (emphasizing the goal), the second acknowledges that perfect orgasms are never guaranteed, but always possible: that sex is an unfolding dialogue between two people who care for one another (emphasizing the process).  I think many of us understand that both of these functions are important components of a healthy sexual relationship.  But what am I going on about?  This is supposed to be a discussion about pottery! 


What is the goal of Pottery?


When Garth Clark asks: “Where is the workshop potter’s g-spot?” he is essentially asking a “rehearsal” or process-oriented group of makers (workshop potters) where is the “performance,” or what is the goal?  The answer may be that we have a machine (the orgasmatron) for people who don’t care about the rehearsal.  Indeed, machines (industrial ceramics) are very good at spitting out predictable results.  The problem with these machine-produced ceramics is that no matter how good their designers are the products themselves lack the human traces, the warmth and communicative gestures of hand-made pottery.  


I have no beef with industrial ceramics: they serve the function they are designed to serve, but I also have no interest in designing industrial products.  I am a “maker” not a designer.  And I believe that making pots is still relevant today even as the function of handmade wares has been largely supplanted by industrially produced ceramics, and that vessels have functions that are not necessarily just physical.  Why do people paint or buy paintings when photographs are available?  They are different niches, and the market accommodates both.  Few people need one to be more relevant than the other; their goals may overlap, but ultimately are not the same goals.


 Good Pots: Striving for Perfection in an Imperfect World

But I am getting off the subject.  My point in this essay is that pottery as I know and practice it is largely about the exploration of the materials in pursuit of a simple goal: good pots.  The goal is just a goal.  I take it for granted that perfection is not possible in the realm of my pottery, just as I will never become a perfect human being or a perfect lover.  It is the millions of ways to aspire towards perfection that interests me.  For me, that is where the love is: in all of the small actions and decisions that add up to the good pots or the good self or the good love.  It doesn’t matter that some of my efforts will miss the mark for me personally, because those pots that miss guide me back toward the pots that satisfy me.


Unfortunately “good pots” is a pretty vague goal and means radically or subtly different things to different potters.  There is no universal G-spot.  Rather there are an infinite number of ways of engaging the materials to achieve a vessel that communicates some meaning or love of pottery’s essence that resonates for both the maker and the consumer.  It is this pleasing resonance that corresponds to the orgasm implied in Garth’s metaphor.  I can answer Garth’s question in detail, but my answer will be a personal one.  I can speak about the things that interest me, and some of these will likely overlap with the interests of other “workshop potters,” but ultimately where I draw the lines with regard to materials, forming techniques, firing, questions of shape, glaze type, decorative style and content (and yes even pricing) are personal decisions.  If we sum this group of decisions for any particular potter, we describe a continually evolving body of work.  But I suppose that this is true of any ceramicist.  I will attempt in the next couple of blog entries to investigate some of the prevailing interests of workshop potters and why they seem important to us.  



Let me make it clear that I am not threatened or hurt or insulted by Garth’s G-spot metaphor.  It may seem to some a tawdry or cynical phrasing of the question, but I think it can be interpreted as a sincere acknowledgement of his inability to grasp what it is that we (workshop potters) find so captivating about the work we are doing.  If this is the case, we should all be very pleased that a critic of the highest order is willing to reinvestigate a portion of the Ceramic field that many of us have perceived him to have written off.  I think potters have collectively felt justifiably frustrated that our work has been ignored or dismissed by critics and academics, and Garth has at times been demonized by potters for his antagonism, but I think it is time to put some of this aside and open the doors of communication.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether he approves of us or not.  We will continue to do what interests us as long as we can cultivate a market for our efforts.  We have long done this without the attention of critics, and we will continue to do it even if we should win any kind of critical praise.  But neither is there anything wrong with trying to inform a critic about our own ceramic consciousness.  This is not a sycophantic exercise but an opportunity to explain who we are and what we are made of.  A chance for dialogue with a ceramic critic is a gift that should not be wasted, and this is why I am excited about Garth’s visit this October.  The pottery community in North Carolina is neither perfect nor invincible, but there is passion here, and there are many stories to tell.  If nothing else we are an interesting chapter in the book of American Ceramics, and that is a work in progress which has many authors.